FOR me, aged 13 in 1997, discovering Elvis Presley was like being introduced to a whole new world: a world away from image victimisation and frivolous performers. It was the discovery that music once meant something and there was a time when singers with heart and soul were the most successful in the business. Being a modern day teenager in a society that's intolerant of individualism made it tough to be a fan of a dead singer. While this did distance me from some, Presley's rise educated me about having passion for what one truly believes in and his downfall made me aware of the emotionally strenuous aspects of life.
A chance encounter with the flood of TV tributes on the 20th anniversary of his death engrossed me like nothing had ever done before. His song Always On My Mind was a major hit in Ireland at the time and it was the song's meaning that drew me to Presley. Through it, I was first introduced to the poignant story of Elvis's later years. That song described a man regretting how he had ruined a relationship. It was recorded after Presley's divorce in 1972 and subsequently his life began to spiral downhill until his untimely death in 1977. Singing songs of solitude and despondency to the end, he related his own pathos in the music.
While many are aware of how he contributed to his own decline, it is harder to comprehend why he couldn't help himself. I wanted to understand why a man with such talent and success became so self destructive. Presley was the world's first superstar and he had nobody to take guidance from. Others can now learn from Presley's mistakes but he took the bashing as he made the first moves. Unfortunately, nobody can save their own life once they have lost faith in living. Being a compassionate and sensitive man, suffering from depression and having achieved everything one man can comprehend, Elvis really didn't have too much more to reach for. And some of his goals and ambitions could not be achieved because of the mysterious control his manager had over him. There is the image of the "drug abuser" or, more truthfully, Presley's biological addiction to prescription medicine: in today's world, he would be seen as a victim rather than an abuser.
Presley was a massive phenomenon and it took me time to realise the unique abilities behind his superior singing voice. Emotionally void art snobs bemoaned the fact that he didn't write songs, but I set out to discover something more important than the ability to write lyrics. I discovered that from the time Elvis made his first recording in the summer of 1953, he used natural empathy to bring out the meaning in a song. Elvis embodied the most important human characteristic: feeling. His method of interpreting a song was inspirational. That was the genius of Presley. As our own Irish legend Bono stated, "Elvis had the wisdom that makes wise men look foolish".
Some people have the impertinence to compare this timeless icon to today's fabricated pop stars. No pop stars will ever last over 50 years or equal his charisma, vocal range and the fact he founded a musical style that changed world cultures. Some claim he stole black music but I dare those to challenge the accurate belief of soul god James Brown, who explained, "Elvis wasn't copying. He found his own style".
Later, Elvis did lose touch with his roots but his raw energetic presence is still available to be heard. His is the story of a man who used fortitude to break down the barriers of racist and conservative societies. Once you look past all the unsavoury stereotypes, Elvis Presley was a regular man who was gifted enough to make a teenager from an entirely different generation realise the meaning of music and how it is an essential part of life.
- Ivor Casey
(Ammended from article by Ivor Casey first published in 'The Sunday Independent', 17 August, 2003)