“Elvis forgive us”
The gospel according to Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley believed in God in an childlike, honest way. Young and old are gathering in church and experiencing Gods presence when a service is devoted to his music. Is the pop icon, dead for more than thirty years, becoming a saint? Theologian and Elvis fan Fred Omvlee finds arguments. “When you’re considering the voice of the people Elvis can be called a saint”.
In times in which nothing seems sacred anymore, new saints and sacred places seem to dawn. Ground Zero is such a new sacred place, according to mayor Bloomberg of New York. And researcher Peter Jan Margry of the Dutch Meertens Institute, states that the grave of Jim Morrison and the grave of Elvis Presley are new pilgrimage sites. People who go there on purpose are true pilgrims. What is sacred? And what is sacred about Elvis?
Elvis Presley (1935-1977) was not ‘spiritually perfect and without sin’ as in the first meaning of the dictionary (Van Dale). But he was ‘graced by God with special gifts’, he was ‘pious’ and ‘Godfearing’. His fans adore him and speak of him with reverence. Even the Christian meaning of the word saint – ‘someone who belongs to Christ’- is with some explanation suitable for him. “Jesus Christ is the King, not me”, Elvis repeatedly said. His life may not have been ‘without sin’, but neither it was full of sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll as the caricature wants us to believe. Elvis’ main love and musical influence was gospelmusic, which he sang before and after concerts with his accompanying musicians and singers. His addiction to prescription drugs (amphetamines, painkillers, antidepressants) is widely acknowledged, as is his mental detoriation which preceded his death at the age of 42. And he wasn’t Roman-Catholic. The expectation is thus nil that he will be sanctified officially. By the way: the catholic authors Albert Gerritsen and Dries van den Akker stated that there already is a Saint Elvis. He deceased around 600 AD as Elwyn of Cornwall. But if you consider the adage Vox populi, Vox Dei (‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’), as the base for sanctification, Elvis can be called a saint.
It is in fact the fatal walk of life of the talented Elvis that mirrors the life of his fans: it brings them recognition, compassion and therefore consolation. Elvis may not be credible in the regular meaning of the churches, I feel attracted to his street credibility. Elvis was not salonfähig and is still not looked upon as high culture, but his credibility amongst fans, musicians, artists and military is high. The Dutch singer/songwriter Daniel Lohues for example sings in his song “De Kerke”(The Church) in 2006 that he rarely goes to church anymore, in spite of older days when he was regular visitor. That Jesus existed, he believes, but he is not so sure about God:
“If I was God
I would show myself every now and then.
I think as humanity
We deserve a little clarity.
Or was it Elvis,
John Lennon and Van Gogh,
Mozart, Bach and Beethoven,
Sent from above,
Was it that?”
In this article I’ll leave the “American practices” of Graceland- Elvis’ mansion that turned into a sort of attraction park- for what they are. There’s enough written on that, and it won’t convince the Dutch reader, whether fan or critic. Americans regarding Elvis as saint, soit, but not us, sober Dutchmen? I do cite the Irish singer Bono of U2 – nearly a saint himself. He is an Elvis fan and wrote that Elvis ‘woke up my heart’. He devoted a poem to Elvis. “American David”. He attributes a lot of good and bad things to Elvis, to end with: ‘Elvis forgive us, Elvis pray for us’. John Lennon stated that Elvis was his Messiah: “Before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything”.
I think it’s more exciting to explore the meaning of Elvis in the Netherlands today. In his book “Elvis in Nederland” the author Rob van Scheers interviewed several artists that ‘have something wit Elvis’. Writer Jan Cremer says: “He was and is for me a Deity”. Writer Connie Palmen is Elvis fan as well and states: “Elvis is high and low culture assembled. (…) I always say that the banal things also have their holiness, but not every philosopher of culture agrees with me. The trivial is underestimated terrain.”
For musicians as Daniel Lohues and others Elvis serves as a patron saint: Andy Tielman, Dutch Indo Rock legend: “When I’m on the stage as a singer, I’m not alone. (…) And next to my family stands Elvis Presley. I can see him. Then you dare!” Erwin Nijhoff, singer of The Prodigal Sons (NB!): “I have put the album of The Prodigal Sons on Elvis’grave. “This is it, man, I whispered to him, It’s all your fault. Thank you.” I like to think that Elvis has heard it.” During a festival in Tilburg, 2002, ‘Elvis, 25 years of mourning’, Bart van de Lisdonk, singer of the Tilburg CowBoys, stated after the final show: “Elvis helps”.
In the book of Van Scheers the Elvis Gospel Service which I organised in Paradiso is also described. My experience with this and other services on the gospels and life of Elvis Presley has learned that many people are touched by the combination of sincerity of the music and tragic of Elvis’ life. In November 2010 reverend Arjen van der Spek in the province of Overijsel will go on tour with his Sing to the King-services with the gospels of Elvis. He and his team under direction of Jan Getkate started last year with these services and the churches they visit are filled. From the comments on their website http://www.degospelsvanelvis.nl I quote a certain Gerrit: “Thank God! The message of Elvis and the message of you. You did it wonderfully on Sunday night in Den Ham. This is being church in 2010. Bold and daring, but in the centre of society. We enjoyed it and sense through everything the love of our God and Saviour. A blink from above!”
‘Jeanet’ writes: “..enjoyed the music, singing and lecture immensely. What a great message Elvis passes on to us (…) wish you a lot of joy in spreading the message, that God reaches out to us always, to shelter us.” An anonymous contribution: “Elvis should have experience that his songs were combined with the Word of God. The church was filled to the roof, young and old found their way to the church and enjoyed the warmth and solidarity that was this service, but most of all you felt the presence of God”. Another visitor writes: “I can only say one thing: a true happening and goosebumps. Elvis is generally known as a man with a lot of distress, depressions and drugs. Never knew he had a different side as well. I have deep respect for him now. In the meanwhile I have bought some cd’s with his gospels and they bring so much warmth. His faith in God in a childlike but honest way.”
Further research and interviews will, as I hope, show that a figure as Elvis from the trivial terrain that is called popular culture is theologically interesting and that he has the role of a saint anno 2010. Has the tide already changed? Is Elvis not only accepted in church but also in the establishment? I am asked to give a course to students American Studies this fall at the University of Amsterdam on Elvis as a contemporary saint. And well known Dutch writers and poets as A.F.Th., Michaël Zeeman, Leo Vroman, Ingmar Heytze, Diana Ozon, and Abdelkader Benali published in ‘Wees niet wreed. Gedichten voor Elvis Presley’ (Don’t be cruel. Poems for Elvis Presley) in 2008 a poem on Elvis. Not seldom the tone or the metaphore is religious. I choose a poem by Stefan Nieuwenhuis (1972):
What matters for me
I have a lot of posters on the wall
a flag behind the television with his name
pillows, scarves and pennons
in full length
his statues stand
He always sees me
and I cry sometimes
and it’s better
then I put on a record
and I’m in heaven again
I always say
see you later, Elvis Presley,
strange maybe, but it feels like so.
Copyrights Fred Omvlee, October 2010