Thirty-five years ago, two things that fundamental changed my life happened in the same summer.
In May, Star Wars was released.
In August, Elvis Presley died.
The arrival of Star Wars turned the thing that everyone in my small town mocked, that had gotten me teased and beaten up, into the hippest thing in the world. Spaceships, aliens and robots were suddenly cool. Everyone went to see the movie, and multiple times, too. I learned a great deal of the dialogue by heart, something my kids have made me promise not to demonstrate when their friends are over. I collected everything I could find about the movie, desperate to understand what made it so awesome. Even then, I knew I wanted to be a creator, not just a consumer. My friends all wanted to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, but I wanted to be the next George Lucas.
On the other hand, Elvis was something that was practically in the water. We lived an hour north of Memphis, and so I’d heard Elvis all my life. The album I recall listening to the most (and we’re talking vinyl album here) was 1970’s Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. It included live and rather self-mocking versions of his greatest hits, along with covers of the Bee Gees hit, “Words.” Yes, Elvis covered the Bee Gees. He was a fact of life for me, and when he was gone, it created a vacuum that, to this day, occasionally strikes me anew with its poignancy. It’s not that I don’t understand what happened–believe me, I’ve read enough books about him to grasp the tragedy that his life became–it’s that his fall was so immense, and so thorough, and happened so young (he was only 42 when he died) that its full scale takes a long time to be fully appreciated.
As I sit here listening to Elvis (specifically, to the awesome collection Greatest Jukebox Hits, the CD I’d recommend to anyone looking for a one-disc sampler of what made the King so great), I suddenly wondered what George Lucas thought of Elvis’s death back then. Did he glimpse his own future in it? Because except for the drug abuse and dying young, he’s pretty much done the same thing.
Like Elvis, George is financially successful, even now. Elvis packed arenas until the day he died.
Like Elvis, George’s later work is derivative and shallow compared with his earlier breakthrough creations.
Like Elvis, George’s original fans consider themselves betrayed by what he’s become*.
Like Elvis, George refuses to listen to critics. Elvis had manager Tom Parker always preaching the easiest, least challenging path. George was his own Colonel Tom.
Like Elvis, George is willingly insulated from the outside world by his wealth and position of power.
And, the most obvious,
Like Elvis, George has become physically fat and morally complacent.
Both men are legends. Both men changed the world. But if he’s not careful, George will become as big a punchline, as big a joke, as Elvis (consider the recent Gotye parody).
And both men, ultimately, brought their sad status on themselves.
*This didn’t really happen during his life, true. But once he died, and we began to really assess what he’d given us in those last years, the backlash was, and is, enormous. That’s why fat, Vegas-era Elvis is such an easy punchline.