From the ages of 2 to 4, I thought I was Elvis. And I don’t mean this in a cute, childish, make-believe kind of way. I truly believed that I was the King.
It all began when I was 17 months old. I heard an early recording of Elvis singing “That’s Alright” and made my mom play it over and over. If she tried to turn the song off, I cried. From the moment that I heard his voice, Elvis Presley became an extension of my being. I became more than obsessed; I became another person — or so I thought.
When I was two, I decided to build a microphone with a toilet plunger and duct tape – a true feat in the interdisciplinary field of toilet-based audio engineering. It became the foundational instrument of my transformation. I used it to practice my dance moves during Elvis songs and carried it everywhere with me.
Next came the costumes. Initially, I simply dressed myself in black suits and striped shirts. But as I became more enamored by my infatuation and more meticulous in my outfit constructions, my ensembles grew grander – and more hilarious. By the time I was three my transformation was complete. I wore a white jumpsuit complete with a flowing cape, a golden collar and a crown shaped belt. I may have looked like a miniature magician from Las Vegas, but I felt like the King.
I did not truly understand that Elvis had died in 1977. I decided that the real Elvis existed from the time he was born in 1935 until his leather-clad comeback tour of 1970. After that, he disappeared until I was born in 1994.
I didn’t believe in the Elvis who got fat and wore leather and became a prescription drug addict. I believed in the Elvis who loved his mother and bought her a pink Cadillac. I believed in the Elvis who revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll at Sun Records. This Elvis, this amazingly talented, unbelievably loveable Elvis lived on in my mind.
When I started kindergarten, however, my entire world collapsed. My identity began to slip away from me. But I didn’t understand why. I did everything perfectly – I showed up to school dressed as Elvis; I greased my hair back; I wore my sunglasses; I showed off my knowledge of Elvis’ lyrics.
But my fellow classmates refused to believe that I was the King. They told me that he was dead – that he had died on the toilet. They told me that he was buried at his home in Graceland.
I didn’t believe it. And I was embarrassed. I had to see it for myself. I asked my parents if we could visit, and because we lived in Cincinnati and Graceland wasn’t too far of a drive, they agreed. But they didn’t know my true intentions. They didn’t know that I wanted to investigate the legitimacy of what my classmates had told me.
When we arrived I was completely entranced by Graceland’s grandeur. I ran with excitement from room to room, overcome with joy as I examined the plethora of artifacts from Elvis’ life.
Then I saw it.
It was perfectly situated between the graves of his mother and grandmother. It lay cold, still and lifeless. Flowers lined its edges. An eternal flame encased in a glass container sat at its head.
Tourists staggered past. Loyal fans quietly sung Elvis’ favorite hymns. I stood still.
I remained motionless and silent as I stared at that colossal slab of stone. I took off my sunglasses and cleared my tears, but my eyes remained fixated on his grave.
He was dead.
When we returned home from Graceland, I stopped dressing like Elvis. I stopped talking like him. I stopped being him.
But now I realize my kindergarten classmates were wrong. Elvis isn’t dead. Although his body is buried at Graceland, he continues to live on within me every day. Elvis was my hero. And the influence that a hero has on a child can never die.
He’s alive every time I hear one of his songs and get the sudden urge to grab a toilet plunger and sing my heart out. He’s alive every time I give a presentation or performance and channel my inner King in order to calm my nerves. He’s alive in my writing.
Just as Elvis lives on within me, all of our childhood heroes live on inside us all. And that’s something that no one can ever take away from us.
Jeremy Siegel writes Thursday’s arts column. Contact him at [email protected].