Various Elvises


No other name, hamfisted editorial metaphor, or political system has influenced our society more than Elvis. Elvis is everywhere. His namesakes abound, his doppelgangers snap and twirl in the streets, his music destroys and recreates us. Elvis is America, but also every nation that yearns for freedom. Elvis is the Holy Spirit. Elvis breathes into us like cool invigorating water, like trembling ecstatic fire, like secret chocolate inside our mouths and souls. There is an Elvis in all of our hearts. There is an Elvis for every town, every city, every nation-state; there is an Elvis for every person on this Earth and there are more Elvises than we can count within us – as Whitman wrote, “I am large; I contain multitudes of Elvises.” (Emphasis added.)

But my purpose here today is to explore those Elvises that have manifested themselves on the material plane. Have you ever wondered how many Elvises there are? More than a lot, I can tell you.

Prepare to be amazed by Elvises!

Ahmad Zahir, the Elvis of Afghanistan

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(A piece about Zahir’s meaning for Afghanis from the Ajam Media Collective.)

Ahmad Zahir was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, when a rainbow and a songbird fell in love and then were bitten by a radioactive spider. Nine months later, his parents had sex. Nine months later, he was born. The year was 1946.

His parents were rich and in government, unlike the Elvis of yore, but he still had that same Elvis spunk. He sang about sexy things like making love on top of the Hindu Kush and praying towards Mecca from various angles. He collected the hijabs of millions, thrown with phone numbers and sexy hopes inside. On many documented occasions, he gave food and medicine to the homeless, to the poor and the ugly and the unappreciated. He had sideburns. Ahmad Zahir was an all-loving, hard-ass Elvis.

Perhaps one reason why he is so beloved is his Afghanistan was less splintered than the Afghanistan of today. When he sang in Dari, or Pashto, or Urdu, all Afghanis loved him, regardless of tribal ties that would later make their children murder each other. The government was merely lethally dysfunctional, not catastrophically dysfunctional, and the only invasion to worry about was that of Western music unimpeded by extremists. This meant that, unlike later Afghani stars, Zahir could set the words of a 7th-century poet to music one week, then perform a Beach Boys cover without being executed in a soccer stadium the next.

And so he is the symbol of a better time, when all were young and happy and allowed to secretly have erections while listening to pop music, a practice banned by the puritanical Taliban. (Fortunately American Dads in minivans, set to fully replace the troops by 2028, are now slowly reintroducing this facet of international culture.) So is it any wonder that stories about Zahir’s kindness to the poor and sick and his love for all peoples of his country still hum in the ears and on the lips of Afghanis everywhere?

No matter where they currently live in the world, his countrymen tell incredible stories about Zahir, each one absolutely true:

Once, Zahir saw a truck full of children by the side of the road while on his way to a big concert. He asked if they were hungry, but, hopeless and afraid of famous strangers, they said nothing. He knew what to do, and played them a song based on an 8th-century Persian poem about lost love. The kids were so moved that they cried tears of milk which nourished them for days.

Once, a maiden was abandoned by her family in the mountains. She prayed and prayed, hoping for a miracle, but none came. At last she accepted her death by exposure to the freezing night, and, liberated, lounged on a cold sandstone shelf like a lioness with nothing left to lose. In these idle moments she hummed a song by Ahmad Zahir, and suddenly she was blinded by a great light. It was him, the Elvis of Afghanistan, driving a Mack truck at the head of a caravan of Toyota Hiluxes. Without turning off the engine or headlights, he opened the cab door. After the best night of her life, Afghanistan’s founding rocker dropped her off with relatives in Kabul, roaring away with a mysterious smile that she would see in the grains of wooden doors for years to come.

But all good Elvises must someday diminish. In 1979, Zahir died in his car on a long dark dirt road outside of Kabul.

Mystery saturates this event. Some say it was the family of a jealous ex-wife. Some say an auto accident. Most, including his family, believe that he was assassinated by Communists whom he had offended with songs that were not slavishly supportive of their new government. It was a tragic end for a beloved singer, one who embodied so many of the few happy things in Afghanistan.

R.I.P. Elvis.

You would be this frustrated, too, if you realized the ‘80s were about to happen. And if your ‘80s involved a communist dictatorship.

You would be this frustrated, too, if you realized the ‘80s were about to happen. And if your ‘80s involved a communist dictatorship.

Johnny Hallyday, l’Elvis Français

VL - Elvis 3(Short video from a documentary on Hallyday.)

The most charismatic man ever to overcome being French, Jean-Phillippe Smet knew at a young age that destiny called him to a life of hearing loss and chlamydia. So convinced, he forged a hairdo from industrial-strength rubber, put on a pair of sunglasses, and forsook the callings of accountancy or internet writing for the thrill of the road and the guitar. He became the Elvis of France.

Today, Smet is known by his stage name, Johnny Hallyday, which the French pronounce strangely and without grace. He is an Elvis among Elvises, famous throughout the francophone world – Quebec and some islands – for his music, but also his style, his motorcycles, his expensive cars, his extravagant wealth and cool vibes.

Hallyday is one of those rockers who’s been alive for so long and singing for so long that he “transcends genre”/“vomits on everything while freebasing.” Like Bob Dylan, he once was young and now is astoundingly old. Like Tom Petty, he is sexier than you although you are in your twenties and work out. Like Steve Jobs, although he is old, and possibly dead, he maintains his grip on the shredding edge of technology by Tweeting.

So great is his sexual charisma that Edith Piaf, a very boring French singer from the ‘40s whose voice still reverberates in geriatric wards everywhere, tried to seduce him in 1960 by squeezing his thigh at a dinner. (He hid in the bathroom.) Later, Piaf would refer to this event in her most enduring calcified lump of vocal resonance, Non, je ne regrette rien, or in English, “No, I Am a Pedophile.”

So wide is his appeal that, despite supporting the minority-deporting President Sarkozy during the man’s campaign, making a song called Black is Black, and naming his adopted Asian daughter “Jade,” he has never been called a racist. So wide is his blackmail network that he has never been photographed grinding up the bones of Robespierre’s jawless skeleton and snorting them.

So enchanting is his charm that the French people have somehow not guillotined him for introducing le twist and le mashed potato to their formerly proud nation, even when their children danced them in droves like cliff-loving lemmings. How could they? Johnny Hallyday is their cultural ambassador.

And like all Elvises, Hallyday is inexplicably beloved by his home country even after he evaded its taxes by moving to Switzerland. Here one may see the magnanimity common to all Elviskind shining forth, for despite his small treacheries he remains the #1 rocker of the Grand Hexagonal Republic, a unifying cultural voice kind of like Nelson Mandela or Gandhi who would call France to arms if they were ever invaded by Germans or, far more frightening to French today, Muslim immigrants. In fact, when he was given the Legion of Honor in 1997 the ghosts of both Louis XIV and Napoleon showed up and shook hands. What does all this say about Johnny Hallyday?

That he’s the King!

Even his twitter photos are in the shape of France.

Even his twitter photos are in the shape of France.

Shin Jung-hyeon, the Elvis of Korea

VL - Elvis 5(An interview with Shin from Pop Goes Korea.)

Before the great Elvis spirit spread to the Far East, music in Korea used to sound like this:

Thank God for Elvis! Specifically, thank God for Shin Jung-hyeon (pronounced how it’s written), Korea’s Elvis and champion of the wild ‘70s.

Like a flower blooming in a gutted building or a pizza that miraculously remains warm and delicious in the cold of deep space, Shin grew up a working stiff under a series of military dictators yet managed to teach himself some serious Rock ‘n’ Elvis Roll. By the early ‘50s he had a job jamming out crazy solos at American bases, where, according to his memoirs, big-nosed foreigners would all crowd into a box and drink before staining the purity of Korean women with their impetuous eyes. By the ‘60s he was smoking pot “to understand music” and, according to his memoirs, gained the ability to hover. By the ‘70s, Shin had finally burst into popular view with his pretty cool song, Miin (pronounced how it’s written), introducing the southern half of the country to rock, psychedelia, and the concept of premarital sex in a single blow.

Tragically, Korea in the 1970s was a nation not nearly as divided as it ought to have been. Despite an ideological split between capitalism and communism, despite the North being a pure land of equality and chaste virgins and magic and the South’s wallowing in the fecal pit of American lackeyism and race-mixing, both halves of the country were ruled by dictators who could really have stood to “mellow out.” The South’s was Park Chung-hee, a man who liked suits, killing commies, and the color gray. (The North’s was Darth Vader.)

Just as Hitler underfunded physics because it was “Jewish science,” Park Chung-hee censored all musicians who didn’t record at least a single “wholesome song” per album. Such a song might have, as a theme, the pleasure of hard work, the virtues of shooting student protesters, saving money, growing flowers, or abstinence, and should generally avoid controversial subjects such as voting. His previous songs having made Shin a popular force to reckoned with, AKA an Elvis, the dictator himself called on the phone and requested a proper song vaunting the virtues of his iron-fisted rule. (He really did this. I am not joking.) So Shin released what he considered to be a “wholesome song” – a 10-minute free-love ballad about running around the mountains with girls, eternal love, and “endless harmony.” He was quickly arrested and his noisy, vulgar songs erased from the airwaves, replaced by more of the imbedded video above. It would be 1980 before the dictator’s spur-of-the-moment assassination by a disgruntled employee allowed Shin to perform again. By then, tastes had changed, and he never had another big hit.

Unlike other Elvises, Shin no longer commands any pop status in the land of his birth. In fact, Korean music has moved as far away from him as possible: most modern artists prefer to excrete sickeningly adorable trash that is tailored to satisfy the bottom line of a heartless pop music industry rather than use their guitars properly – as flat surfaces to roll joints on. Today Shin is just another quality assurance worker at Samsung, where he takes defective Galaxies off the conveyor belt and swears at them until they work. Why, then, is this culturally irrelevant man an Elvis?

The power of an Elvis is a mysterious thing. Sometimes, it surrounds and sustains its creator; other times, it can be permanently spent for the greater good. When the rock-hating dictator Park was suddenly shot by his chief of security, the assassin had in his pocket a note scrawled with meaningless words and symbols. (The authorities thought nothing of it at the time, so they gave it to me.) It is a singularly odd document. Any attempt at decryption under bright light produces dizziness and vomiting, but if soaked in a shot of soju that is vibrating to the rhythm of any of Shin’s songs, the marks shift and meld to spell this:

These may be the last words of Chief of Security Kim. I bummed a cigarette off a guitarist in the street just now Fool that I was! He must have been a Northern spy because it was clearly poisoned. I am thinking new thoughts [illegible] difficult thoughts. I may be dying. I am dying. I am a bird. [doodle of a penis] Kill the president.

Who had the last laugh?

Who had the last laugh?

Of course, had Park not been assassinated, the South would never have shifted to democracy in 1987. So it is no exaggeration to say that Shin Jung-hyeon, Elvis of the Morning Calm, sacrificed his powers to bring democracy to Korea, advancing his country to a braver, more loving democracy that would elect the dictator’s daughter to the presidency.

Slavoj Žižek, the Elvis of Post-Lacanian Cultural Theory

VL - Elvis 7Once, long ago, everything neat belonged to rich people. Music, fashion, travel, education, and a hundred other forms of entertainment were reserved for those possessing family fortunes and large houses, with the minds of the poor subsisting on the table scraps – in this metaphor, God and mediocre sex.

Fortunately, America occurred, and for centuries the sphere of the idle rich has been evaporating like dew on a hot Ford engine. Now the wealthy can only boast opera, secret Mitt Romney meetings, and frowning into wine, having lost their medieval right to claim all learning and amusement as their domain. Surfing the crest of this populist wave is Slavoj Žižek, pop icon and the Elvis of cultural theory.

Žižek, who lived the first 40 years of his life in Communist Yugoslavia, burst on to the philosophical scene around 1990 with a large book that I will never again attempt to read. With the charm of an adorable yet mad genius and a profound irreverence for everything that our society and many serious philosophers hold dear, he has maintained a verbose, multi-year tirade against things like American college students, capitalist consumerism, and “postmodern sex etiquette.” These musings are presented in TV interviews, magazine editorials, youtube videos, and tremendous books where, to quote one reviewer, “sheer rhetorical force substitutes for argument.”

And why shouldn’t it? This is the age of lolcats. The more people you can entertain by stating that the Sound of Music supports fascism and anti-Semitism or by using a Kung-Fu Panda metaphor to argue for a neo-Communist state, the more power to you. (This is, by the way, the founding ethic of the Union Forever.)

Žižek’s philosophy, which really isn’t, mostly focuses on attacking our sacred cows with smart, incisive arguments that, if carefully examined, are seen to be a series of quotable sound-bites with only a vague overarching theme to link them. His books are delicious in the same endless manner that LOST or Game of Thrones is watchable, leading the reader on and on with provocative thoughts that provide some food or thought but ultimately lead nowhere. Except maybe to Stalinism.

Despite the handicap of never presenting a cohesive philosophy, this philosopher has strengthened his rockabilly image in a dozen ways: marrying models and journalists an eighth his age, bringing reporters to his kitchen to show that he keeps socks and shirts in his cupboard, offending Julian Assange with dirty jokes. And so the crowd-pleasing spirit of Elvis rocks on through a 21st-century media juggernaut who is somehow taken seriously by modern intellectuals. Like Antisthenes, he preaches straight to the people; like Socrates, he shreds up all your ideas without offering anything comprehensible in return and calls himself smart for doing so. Like the best Elvises, Žižek manages to make a profound point about our world despite himself: if his buffoonish, neo-Stalinist ramblings are the only popular alternative to consumerist society, we are truly in dire straits.

Barnald Reagabama, the Elvis of America

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Sometimes, there can only be one –one Judeo-Christian father deity, one way to eat a Reeses, one American Elvis – and that one is Reagabama, 42nd President of the United States and the foremost celebrity of the U.S. political system.

Born to parents who technically lived in America, Reagabama was gifted from early age with an Elvisian personality that, upon his election, would transform him into one of the most popular entertainers of his day. In office, the Bald-Eagle Elvis made his voice heard through economic reforms and extensive dealings with the Mujahideen that appalled nobody because nobody cared. This no-nonsense, anti-milktoast leader had the guts to take the fight to America’s enemies and to stretch his Elvis tongue muscles whenever people needed to be convinced that the world was less horrible than they secretly all knew it was. This was a man never afraid to chain his affable personality to the sinking bulk of our nation and try to pull it up by brute charm.

Even his most vocal critics admit that Barnald Reagabama’s presidencies were the most effective and Kafkaesque in recent history. Even the most shell-shocked special services soldiers think that killing people in other countries is enjoyable if Elvis told you to. Even the most deranged suicide bombers say that they would rather explode during Elvis’s presidency than any other.

Years after his presidency, the Red White and Blue Elvis maintains a domestic approval rating of 100%, offset by the other 100% who hate him. Millions of Americans like us see him as a rabble-rouser who fought a corrupt system, who mopped up the cobwebs of flawed ideas from the corners of Washington, as a champion homegrown from our vague opinions of what the U.S. ought to be. Although collusion with big government and existing power structures did, in fact, define his agenda from day one, our messianic faith remains unshaken because he is exactly the object we wish to see leading the country. In electing Elvis we have achieved nothing but a false sense of agency. But oh what a feeling!

Elvis, the Elvis of Elvis

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Why are there so many Elvises everywhere? Is an Elvis made, or is he born? Does a mortal man’s majesty spring from a lucky confluence of events and influences, or do some just sweat greatness as a silkworm spins silk?

Both and neither! Imagine you are a fish. Are you eaten because God wills it, or because you were a shitty fish? Nobody will ever know because before we could ask you, we ate you.

In any case, no list of Elvises would be complete without the Presley. The King of Rock and Roll is a much-maligned figure today, mostly remembered for being fat, racist, and sexy to grannies. His legacy has suffered so greatly that one cannot Google his name without seeing bizarre and stomach-turning drawings of green aliens in white suits.

This is an awful shame, because Elvis was a commendable person. As a human being, he was worth more than a whole room of RCA executives.

Elvis was a shy boy, one who started learning guitar at 11 but never had the courage to play in front of a crowd until he was 18. Elvis loved his mom so much that he would let her call him baby-names into his twenties and wept for days when she died. Elvis was grateful to his musical influences on both sides of the color line; he proclaimed how indebted he was to black musicians on many occasions, listing them as heroes, friends, inspirations. Elvis held astoundingly right-minded thoughts about race for somebody born in 1938 (or today), and he held them because he had the good sense and kindness of spirit to simply appreciate the people he met – not because he attended an ivory tower seminar about X-industrial complexes and felt so so guilty. And Elvis was a popularizer of black music for white people, a bridge to the first cultural integration of our time, a smith who took two disparate worlds and from them forged modern American music. All things considered, Elvis was the Better Man.

And Elvis had his great sorrows. His agents cut him off from the rest of the world and milked him, taking 50% commissions. Like obsessive parents who kill their child slowly by protectively undermining his free will, they forbade overseas performances and shot down requests to star in serious movies like “Midnight Cowboy,” one of Presley’s oft-voiced desires. They kept him exactly where they wanted him and let him gorge himself to death on drugs.

What traits form an Elvis? Fame, luck, and musical talent are surely part of the equation, but there is more. Spectacle makes an Elvis, like Žižek’s Kung-fu Panda metaphors. Boldness makes an Elvis, like Shin’s refusal to kowtow to his dictator. Inclusive kindness makes an Elvis, like Zahir’s empathy for the poor and sick. And tragedy makes an Elvis. Shin’s career was stolen from him. Zahir was shot. Hallyday gave his daughter a terrible name. In this last category, Presley reigns. He had neither the dignity of a quick death, nor the cunning to notice he was being cheated.

R.I.P. Elvis Presley, a meek man who inherited the Earth.

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