In his discovery of rock and roll, John Lennon had lifted Elvis Presley to an exalted position, identifying with him, or rather his conception of him, so completely that Lennon in a sense became Presley, integrating the older singer’s performative mode into his own character until it was an indelible part of him. As Lennon’s early best friend, Pete Shotton, describes Lennon’s youthful emulation, “by this time, John thought he was Elvis Presley,” which seems to indicate that Lennon held an image of Presley in his mind and tried to act, think, and be exactly how he imagined his idol, from the way he dressed and moved to the way he spoke and sang. Lennon reenacted Presley’s archetypal narrative, that of the young, liminal outsider who incites a revolutionary upheaval, though on an emergent level of process for, from the beginning, Lennon possessed a certain critical faculty that Presley apparently lacked. However, this lack was probably the precondition for Presley’s exceptional somatic and performative genius constituted in a loose sexuality that Lennon could never hope truly to emulate. Thus, although Lennon idolized Presley, he began to assert his independence at a young age, going as far as to mock Presley’s performance in Love Me Tender in a 1957 scene described by Shotton: “We sat in the cinema in Lime Street and killed ourselves laughing” at Presley, as “John thought he was ridiculous” (Spitz 63). An integral part of Lennon’s initiation into the mysteries of rock and roll was apparently to become critical of his idol, problematizing his exclusive identification of Presley with the genre to which he was devoted. Instinctively, he knew that although Presley had essentially created the genre and thereby brought the intuitive mode that rock and roll embodied into popular consciousness, and he could never be surpassed in this relatively pure domain, Lennon could, on a conceptual level, take the genre farther than Presley could have imagined, largely because Lennon wrote his own songs, but also because he was simply of a more intellectually experimental temperament.
Subsequently, Lennon discovered another embodiment for his aspirations in the form of Little Richard, who allowed Lennon to step outside his exclusive identification with Presley to critique the elements of his idol’s character with which he did not resonate. As in the oedipal relationship between father and son, Lennon symbolically slayed Presley with his ridicule, but only to become him. And if Jonathan Gould is correct that, “in a genre of popular music that was destined to be almost entirely dominated by male stars, it fell to Little Richard to play the Queen to Presley’s King” (Gould 62), then Little Richard’s flamboyant homosexuality offered the potential for a kind of oedipal consummation of Lennon’s love for the genre transcending Presley alone. However, that Little Richard referred to himself as the “King and Queen of Rock and Roll” (Palmer 140) would seem to complicate this oedipal dynamic somewhat. Nevertheless, in order to imagine himself into Presley’s persona, a template through which Lennon could ultimately cultivate his own unique persona, Lennon had finally to empty that persona of mystery through his critique while simultaneously shifting his temporary allegiance to a more “feminine” figure (if we take Richard’s wearing of makeup, his fluttering physical performativity, and his falsetto vocal interjections as a transgressive performance of femininity), thus rendering Presley’s role accessible to himself.
In a similar, though perhaps less oedipal operation, Lennon later claimed that Chuck Berry was “in a different class from the other performers” because “he really wrote his own stuff” (Wenner 168) which, along with Buddy Holly and Little Richard, provided one of the primary models for Lennon’s songwriting persona. Indeed, by the seventies, Berry seems to have replaced Presley and Richard as Lennon’s primary musical allegiance. Thus, through a series of such identifications with idols and the subsequent disenchantment and psychic reconciliation with them, Lennon was able to forge his own identity, appropriating elements of many different figures and combining them within the crucible of his experience into a more encompassing synthesis. And this synthesis was exemplified in the broader aesthetic range of the music created by Lennon who, like most great artists acting as a cultural omnivore, mediated the integration of previously disparate tropes and genres within his persona, from American rock and roll and “girl group” rhythm and blues to skiffle, music hall, and British comedic wit. However, Lennon’s breadth of musical and conceptual scope was purchased at the expense of the narrower depth of nearly pure affective brilliance in which Presley has never been eclipsed. Ultimately, Lennon was able to return to his love for Presley, seeing him in a more balanced way, like the adult child who, after a period of rebellion, builds a more mature relationship with his father.
[This is a (slightly modified) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]
Gould, Jonathan. Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. New York: Harmony Books, 2007.
Palmer, Robert. Rock & Roll: an unruly history. New York: Harmony Books, 1995.
Spitz, Bob. The Beatles: The Biography. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005.
Wenner, Jann. Lennon Remembers. New York: Popular Library, 1971.