The Tao of Elvis

Elvis Presley's life-from innocence to addiction, obscurity to fame-was a quest to balance opposites.

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Following his death, on August 16, 1977, Elvis evolved into a global mythic figure. Along with the faces of Jesus and Muhammad Ali, Elvis's image is one of the most widely recognized on Earth. What does this say about him and us? What does it mean that churches have spring up in Elvis's name? Graceland has become a Mecca that draws nearly a million pilgrims a year. Like disciples, thousands of impersonators spread his word and image around the world. "Sightings" are almost a daily occurrence, while his actual image dominates our cultural landscape. In 1998, twenty-one years after his death, a twenty-four-foot image of Elvis projected on a screen and accompanied by his music sold out Radio City Music Hall. American's king has become such a force that it seems as if history might someday record time as before and after Elvis. Perhaps this is what John Lennon meant when he said, "Before Elvis there was nothing."

America lacks an actual king and queen mythologically linking the people with the divine. The United States also lacks unified spiritual leadership, so we project this deep archetypal need onto our heroes and heroines, particularly rock and movie stars and occasionally presidents such as John F. Kennedy.

In a real way, when we see Elvis we see ourselves. Symbolizing the battle between the true and false selves in us all, Elvis's huge appeal lies in his power as an archetype-his epic rise and fall captures what is in all of us. Through understanding the Tao of Elvis, we can come to better understand ourselves.


Elvis's journey reflects a profound change in our psyches as well as our culture. "Once I go, the world is going to really start changing. That's when it will all start," Elvis once said prophetically. We can celebrate and delight in Elvis's soulful music and giving nature, and we can empathize with the pain surrounding his losses and his dependence on prescription drugs. However, the ultimate challenge is to look into the Elvis mirror and see his pain as our own pain. Even though Elvis ultimately failed, our goal ought to be to transcend the opposites, undergo a creative transformation, and heal our own souls in the process.

Lao Tzu says, "Encouraging others, giving freely to all, awakening and purifying the world with each movement and action, you'll ascend to the divine realm in broad daylight." This is what myths are made of. Rock critic Dave Marsh said, "Elvis Presley was more than anything a spiritual leader of our generation." And Bob Dylan maintained, "When I first heard Elvis's voice I just knew that I wasn't going to work for anybody; and nobody was going to be my boss. He is the deity supreme of rock-and-roll religion as it exists in today's form. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail."

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