The King Dead on the Throne
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
The King Dead on the Throne: An Analytical Comparison of Elvis Presley's and Kurt Cobain's Legacies after Death
When remembering Elvis Presley, most people view him not with respectful admiration for his significant contributions to rock and roll; it is with humor and ridicule that the king of rock and roll is remembered. Since his tragically premature death on August 16, 1977, at the age of forty-two years old, Elvis' image has become a shell of what it was only twenty years earlier. When Elvis died, his successful career as a defining musician of the rock and roll movement dissolved, and a new legacy began: that of the overweight has-been who spent the last minutes of his life on the toilet. Unlike Elvis, other musicians who have faced a similar fate are raised to idyllic standards that, in most cases, exceed the accomplishments of their careers. One of these musicians is Kurt Cobain, who tragically died at twenty-seven after a short but extremely successful career with the legendary grunge band Nirvana. Cobain's unfortunate death catapulted him into eternal stardom with other famous musicians like John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Buddy Holly. In contrasting several significant differences between the lives and deaths of the two extraordinary musicians, one understands why in general Elvis' death has caused him to be viewed as comical while Kurt Cobain's death has elevated him to an untouchable status in rock and roll history.
Elvis Presley's and Kurt Cobain's careers were in two drastically different places at the times of their deaths. Until the end of the 1960s, Elvis' career success was relatively stable, whether he was performing new music or making the thirty-one feature films of his career (Szatmary 51). Although he was well past his prime, which peaked around the time he left to serve in Germany, he continued to find success with random hit singles and hokey films that he would make almost until the end of the decade. In 1968, frustrated by his lasting fame and his declining career, Elvis wished "he could to do something else" because he was "tired of being Elvis" (Szatmary 52). Around 1973, a change in Elvis' stage persona and physical appearance became obvious to those who watched his Las Vegas performances. He became a "haggard, bloated performer" (Szatmary 53), nothing like the phenomenon he once was. Elvis was gaining a significant amount of weight, forgetting lyrics, and losing the characteristics that defined and created his legendary persona. Eventually, the prolonged substance abuse started taking its toll on his body with the 1974 diagnoses of hypertension, an impacted colon, and depression. When he died on August 16, 1977, the official cause was cardiac arrhythmia. However a suicidal combination of prescription pills was found to be in his system. Some attribute his death to the depression caused by his dissolving image. When he died, Elvis had long passed his career peak. Everyone was fully aware of what he was musically capable of. He had reached his top and then slowly declined, like any natural progression of life. After his death, no one was left to wonder what could have been if his life had not ended early, because he did all he could do musically prior to his death, and he had become quite pathetic is his later years.
Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, was in the prime of his blossoming career when he died in his Washington home on April 5, 1994. Only six years prior to his death, the band Kurt Cobain fronted, Nirvana, was signed to their first record label, Subpop. After a few years and several changes with the band's members, Nirvana was signed to Geffen Records, their home for the duration of their time together as a band. In the next four years, Cobain and his band released three record-setting albums, including Nevermind, Insecticide, and In Utero. Nirvana became the founders and idols of the rising grunge sect of rock and roll. When Cobain died, his career as a solo artist and with his infamous band was still on the rise; he had not yet reached his full musical potential, and if he had, no indication existed that he or the band was on the downward slope. Because he died at the start of the peak of his rock and roll career, the world had not yet seen all that Cobain had to offer. Fans were left wondering what could have happened if he had not died. When left up to the imaginations of fans and supporters, an exaggeration of reality is always present. Cobain's reputation after his death precedes his life so greatly because no one is able to say exactly how high he could have gone had he not died, and as long as Cobain's fan continue to exist his reputation will continue to rise.
Not only were the careers of Elvis Presley and Kurt Cobain in different places when they died, but the circumstances of their deaths had tremendous effects on the way they would be viewed after they were gone. Elvis died after years of illnesses, including but not limited to hypertension, an enlarged colon, and a weak heart. Not only was he in and out of hospitals during his last years, but also he was suffering from an "isolated," deep depression that forced him to "create his own world" and "retreat into himself" (Szatmary 53). Although his bathroom death was a shock to the public, that later became the punch line for most Elvis jokes. By this time, Elvis had withered away to the point of reclusion and depression, unfortunate circumstances that made Elvis' tragic death somewhat predictable, and although there were some conspiracy theories about Elvis faking his death, these rumors proved to be purely fictitious. The slow decline of one of America's icons followed by the predictability of his death made the events of Elvis' last days less drastic, which in turn gave people the opportunity to find humor, which eventually evolved to the ridicule associated with Elvis today.
Although Cobain's spiraling drug abuse and suicide attempt only five days prior to his actual death made the predictability somewhat similar to Elvis' death, Cobain's death in 1994 was under entirely different circumstances. Despite being at the peak of his career, Cobain was found dead in his home due to a shotgun wound to the head. He had three times the lethal dose of heroin in his system, and a suicide note lay next to him. Not only was Cobain's death much more shocking and dramatic than Elvis', but after closer examination of the evidence at the site of Cobain's death, homicide was not completely ruled out. The controversial debate of how Cobain actually died created a craze of people making movies, writing books, and investigating what really happened in his Seattle home. The shock of his premature death combined with the drama of a possible homicide captivated the public and focused their attention on more serious, tragic aspects of his death. These early perspectives immediately following Elvis' and Cobain's deaths are what shape the views people will share of them in the future. In Elvis' case, the lasting perspective was humorous, pathetic, and ridiculous. With Cobain, as with numerous other musicians who died early, his death was tragically saddening and dramatic.
Although their careers and the events and circumstances surrounding their deaths are significant, the post-mortem production of the musicians' talents can also play a role in affecting how they are remembered. Elvis' death was a long time coming, and his career was not at its best at the end of his life. But possibly even more important than these two factors are the lack of positive publicity and the lack of production of his talents after his death in shaping how he is viewed nowadays. Elvis did not have any new productions of his merchandise available for the public. He did have songs that had previously been released come out in greatest hits compilations, but consumers continued to see the same products that had been released prior to his death, and not any new music, new movies, new books, or much of anything else immediately after his death to keep the public's mind off the unusually humorous circumstances of his passing. However, within the last six years, Elvis has made somewhat of a comeback, even more successful than that of his 1970s attempt. In 1991, when Graceland became a National Park and was open to the public, people came from far and wide to see where Elvis spent his last years. Even today Graceland continues to be a popular tourist location. In addition to this newfound success, Elvis' early hits have been remixed into anthems for today's youth. In 2004, Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation" became the theme song for the World Cup. Since then the public has seen even more Elvis' originals used in today's pop culture. The manipulation of Elvis' early success to fit the mold of the new generation's culture will help in redefining the star, and possibly erase some of the humorous connotation that has followed Elvis' name for the last few decades.
After Cobain's shocking death, on top of the continued production of his music, there was an explosion of fans writing books and making movies defending their beliefs on Cobain's cause of death. Starting in 1994, the same year of his death, the books began to be published. Biographies, like Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana and Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, conspiracy theorizing books, such as Who Killed Kurt Cobain? and Love and Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain, and even a publication of Cobain's personal journals flooded the market. Only a few years after his death, filmmakers created documentaries, like Kurt & Courtney. These films are still being made today with the 2006 release of Kurt Cobain: About a Son. Although no new music has been released under Cobain's name since his death, it has been suggested that Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, has used his compositions and lyrics for her own band, Hole. After Cobain died, Cobain's fans especially were, and still are, captivated by the fascination and intrigue surrounding his death. All the continually released media fuels that fascination. As long as Cobain and his tragic death continue to be a marketable amenity for the music industry, his legacy will continue to rise to unthinkable heights.
Elvis Presley is widely accepted as a pioneer in the creation of the rock and roll movement. Simultaneously, he is remembered by many as the washed-up has-been who died on the toilet. In examining the lives and deaths of Elvis Presley and Kurt Cobain, one can understand why the king of rock and roll is remembered with ridicule and Kurt Cobain has been raised to idyllic standards. The status of the musicians' careers at the times of their deaths, the differing circumstances of their deaths, and the new media and publicity surrounding their deaths are all significant contributing factors in understanding the public's differing reception of these stars and the forming of their legacies. To quote Cobain's famous departing line on his suicide note, words he borrowed from a Neil Young song, "It's better to burn out than fade away." Elvis' slow fade out of the rock and roll industry in comparison to Cobain's cliff-hanger ending is an excellent example of the truth in Cobain's final words.
Szatmary, David. Rockin' In Time: A Social History of Rock 'n' Roll. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Stratford Publishing Services, Inc., 2000.