If he were still alive, Elvis Presley would have turned 80 on Thursday. What would an 80 year-old Elvis look like?
Would he have continued to put on weight until his face was as wide as a cafeteria tray? Or would his perfect cheekbones serve as overhangs for the hollows below, brows overgrown like brambles guarding suspicious eyes?
Would he have continued down the addicted path he was on when he died at the age of 42 in 1977? Would he have become a tourist attraction in Branson, Missouri, or quietly drifted out of the limelight and become a beloved, mysterious figure like Fats Domino?
Or, would he experience a dramatic final flourish like Johnny Cash?
The 2002 film “Bubba Ho-Tep” starred Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis in a retirement home fighting a mummy, and the King in a home is the least likely scenario of all.
Presley hasn’t captured the public’s imagination the way he did in the ’90s when critic Greil Marcus wrote “Dead Elvis,” which considered Presley’s place in the culture since his passing.
In 1994, “The King Is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-Mortem” featured fictional stories that added apocryphal chapters to Presley’s story, including the Joe R. Lonsdale story that inspired “Bubba Ho-Tep.”
But death hasn’t slowed his release schedule.
Last year, a number of his films were reissued on DVD, and he continues to release music that isn’t new, though new to us: Bonus tracks on the deluxe reissue of “That’s the Way it Is” last year, and 2013’s “Elvis at Stax,” which pulled together 28 previously released songs and almost as many outtakes recorded at the legendary R&B studio in Memphis in 1973.
Recently, Baton Rouge writer and former Sun Studios employee Barbara Barnes Sims wrote “The Next Elvis: Behind the Scenes at Sun Records,” and Peter Guralnick’s landmark, two-volume Presley biographies — “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love” — have been published as enhanced ebooks with additional, exclusive video material to coincide with Presley’s 80th birthday.
Singer D.C. Harbold, of the band Clockwork Elvis, attributes Presley’s endurance to the breadth of his musical achievement. “No matter where you jump in on Elvis, there’s more,” he said.
Harbold started playing nights of Elvis songs in 2002 and has performed with Clockwork Elvis since 2004. They played a Presley birthday show at the Rock ’n’ Bowl Wednesday night and will play another Saturday night at The Kingpin.
The band plays his songs the way a leaner, hungrier Elvis would, with all the great material and none of the show-biz bloat.
Harbold thinks of Elvis as a gateway musician, someone whose recordings usher listeners into the world of the blues, country, rockabilly and beyond.
“If you investigate further, you need to know who Arthur Crudup was, who Les Paul was,” Harbold said. “Or Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash — his contemporaries. Then you go deeper and find your Link Wrays if you’re a music fan. But you don’t have to.”
The Rev. Ray Cannata is King of Propulsion and King of Participation in the Krewe of Rolling Elvi — jumpsuited, pompadoured scooter riders who have become part of New Orleans’ parade corps.
“He’s the ultimate pop culture hero, and he’s infinitely flexible,” Cannata said. Elvis was devastatingly cool at times, schlocky and sentimental at others. “What is he? Is he the raw, bluesy Elvis genius rocker or the sentimental Vegas singer? He’s both.”
The Rolling Elvi will celebrate Presley’s 80th birthday Saturday night at The Howling’ Wolf with a “Totally ’80s” theme, complete with two ’80s cover bands. The public is invited to costume for the occasion.
Elvis has become more than his music, which is only part of his appeal to the Rolling Elvi. Cannata only had three or four Elvis songs in his iTunes when he joined four years ago, and many others are more into riding than Presley.
“Most of the Rolling Elvi are not serious Elvis fans,” Cannata said. “A few are fanatics, but for the majority, it’s primarily a social thing. Why Rolling Elvi? It has something to do with the way Elvis encompasses everything in America, from the sublime to the grotesque. Elvis is this larger-than-life category, and you can fit almost anything into it.”
Harbold similarly likens Elvis to “Star Wars” and all the pop culture phenomena that have outgrown the art that inspired them.
“He’s like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s,” Harbold said. “All you have to do is say ‘Elvis’ and people know what you mean.”
“The people that appreciate him as a singer — the Elvis fans — haven’t grown in size, but the passion has grown,” Harbold said. “The number of people who appreciate Elvis ironically has gone through the roof. There are things that you’re born knowing if you’re an American. Elvis is one of them.”