Bigger Than Jesus

You don't hear much anymore about Elvis sightings, and I don't think it's so much that people have stopped seeing him (or imagining they've seen him) as that the media—even the tabloid rags—just got fed up with giving this peculiar phenomenon so much ink. After the King expired in a particularly undignified manner atop his commode in 1977, hillbillies across the land were so grief-stricken that, for a good 15 years or so, they simply refused to believe the man was truly gone, and regular reports surfaced that Elvis had been seen bowling in Atlanta or pounding down chicken and biscuits at anonymous roadside eateries. Would that it were true; there is something wonderfully romantic about the idea that Elvis, fed-up with the sorry, drug-addled mess his life had become, decided to chuck it all and start afresh, that someday soon he may elect to step from the shadows and return to us, strapping on his guitar and shaking his arthritic hips one more time to show all these talentless pissants cluttering up the modern media landscape—your Eminems and your Nellys and so on—how this shit is really done.

A few years back, I came across a wall of Elvis kitsch in some store in Santa Ana, and it stopped me cold. This was not ironic Elvis swag—there were no ashtrays or Elvis dolls with bobbling heads. No, this was the expensive Elvis crap—copper busts and that sort of thing. I probably wouldn't have paid it all much mind had it not been for the lenticular portraits, those spooky things in which the image changes as you walk past them. Just a few feet away from an Elvis with sad, gooey eyes that followed you, there was an almost identical lenticular of a Jesus with sad, gooey eyes that followed you. Inspecting the store's Jesus swag, it was remarkable how many products were nearly identical to the Elvis stuff; if you were of a mind to set up side-by-side Jesus and Elvis shrines in your living room—as more than a few Americans have surely done—everything you would have needed was right here.

John Lennon got himself and his band mates into some serious trouble decades ago when he commented that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. The Beatles aren't quite bigger than Jesus, but Elvis is by almost any measure. Unless you live a particularly hermetic lifestyle, the odds are you usually don't go more than a few days without encountering Elvis in some form, whether it's one of his songs on the radio, or his image on TV, or a bobbling Elvis head in the rear windshield of somebody's car. By contrast, when was the last time you saw a representation of Jesus? Unless you're a regular churchgoer, I'd wager you see the King about twice as often as you encounter the King of Kings. Elvis worship is growing every day around the world, and there are already jokey Elvis churches out there. Sometimes it seems only a matter of time before somebody starts one for real. Nowadays our pop cultural image of Elvis is dominated by the campy later days, the era of spangly jumpsuits and chemical excess. But look past that, to his early days, and you'll soon realize why Elvis has influenced nearly every prominent musician since, whether they were aware of it or not.

The show at UC Irvine next Thursday—"Elvis In the Third World: An Afternoon with Peter Nazareth"—offers the chance to get reacquainted with the early Elvis at the same time it explores the bizarre impact the man and his music have had around the globe. Nazareth (the Jesus ties grow!), a critic and University of Iowa professor of English and African-American World Studies who grew up listening to Elvis, presents a screening of Flaming Star. It's a dramatic 1960 western starring Elvis as Pacer, a half-breed forced to side with the Indians against his white brother. It's universally hailed as Elvis' finest performance, and it's certainly a world away from the giddy goofiness of later pictures such as Clambake. Thai Elvis impersonator Kavee Thongprecha will also be on hand to belt out a few songs, and it promises to be an unforgettable evening. Elvis is dead; long live the king.

"Elvis In The Third World: An Afternoon With Peter Nazareth" at UC Irvine Film and Video Center, Humanities Instruction Bldg., Campus & W. Peltason Drs., Irvine, (949) 824-7418; Thurs., Oct. 2. Lecture, 4 p.m. Room 135; Screening/ Performance, 7 p.m. Room 100. $5.

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