IN 1977, THE great, now dead, rock critic Lester Bangs, in his Elvis obituary, wrote to a culture just starting to fracture into niche markets, “We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”
Thirty-four years later, nearly two decades into the Internet age, the September 2011 break-up of the rock band R.E.M. reminded me just how right Bangs was. R.E.M. was one of the last traditional rock bands still doing relevant work. They stood firmly in the line that ran from Presley to Lennon to Patti Smith and Joe Strummer. Like all those predecessors, R.E.M. wrung out various guitar-based roots music forms to see what they would give up, not just with the entertainer’s aim to be famous or rich, but with the artist’s ambition to make something true, beautiful, and revelatory, and maybe change the world. But the era in which a rock band could exert world-changing cultural leverage has probably passed.
Elvis changed the world because, like Walt Whitman, he “contained multitudes.” He uttered his barbaric American yawp, standing, like Paul Bunyan, astride the usual polarities of masculine vs. feminine and black vs. white. With the help of his mentor-producer Sam Phillips, Elvis made a new sound that would eventually become as big and inclusive, as wild and free, and, sometimes, as unthinking and greed-addled as America itself.
From its very beginning in Sam Phillips’ fevered brain, the rock-and-roll idea was about bringing America’s cultural outsiders into their rightful place in the cultural mainstream. The other, inextricably related, part of the rock-and-roll idea had to do with the connection between the artist and audience. The artist came from the people; he or she was always one of us. And, in live performance, the artist and the audience became equal partners in creating a communal experience that was greater than the sum of its parts.