Vessels of Ecstasy: Elvis and the Rock ‘N’ Roll Pentecost

Learned men, by imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in song, have gained for themselves a return to this region.

Cicero
Elvis leading his congregation

Elvis was asked where he learned his dance moves. The King’s gyrations had the nation in turmoil, especially the young girls. Watching his legendary appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, one can witness the charisma and erotic force wielded by Presley. Elvis answered that he learned these skills at his Pentecostal church.

I did some research into Pentecostal style worship to find if there were similarities between it and Elvis. And sure enough, I found the violent shaking of hands as if worshipers are zapping the air (and each other) Palpatine style. I also found the lowering of the body via wobbling of the knees and hips. The similarities are also hidden in plain sight. Those (mostly) buttoned up Christians are calling their spirit with the same genre of music Elvis called his. The demographic skews older at church but the audience exhibits a fervor for Rock ‘N’ Roll rivaling the teen-aged Elvis fanatics.

The atmosphere in the Church is less bluntly erotic – someday we’ll talk about asceticism as the harnessing of erotic energy – but the celebrants make no bones about attributing their hysterics to the power of spirit. That is to say, to a force outside themselves. This, as we will argue, is Ecstasy. And it is the craft Elvis mastered and ministered to his Rock ‘N’ Roll congregants.

Put ten of these in a room and you have an Elvis concert

Elvis too was not shy of crediting his God for the blessings he’d received. And he wished audiences the same blessings. “May God bless you as he’s blessed me” he tells the shrieking crowd on his October 28 1956 Ed Sullivan Show appearance. 16 years later in Vegas, The King was still singing praises during an extended concert residency.

In the catholic church there are subcultures of devotees pursuing “charisms”. This usually happens under the auspice of a religious character such as Mary or one of the many saints. These “charisms” are “Gifts” of the spirit. Blessings under an other banner. Such devotees – if they were not calling themselves Catholics – might be accused of witchcraft for the “extraordinary” abilities they exhibit. Sorcery becomes piety when performed in the Lord’s name. Elvis with his erotic charism, the old school Pentacostals’ tongues of fire and the catholic witches all exist on a spectrum. They are vessels of ecstasy; sometimes subtle, sometimes hip-rollingly erotic.

The drug MDMA is nicknamed Ecstasy for its effects. It induces a state of openness, a sense of well being, emotional warmth, increased extroversion and increased empathy. It has been successfully used to treat PTSD, even allowing rape victims to heal trauma and be able to experience a sense of safe connection that persists post treatment. It also has shown promise for treating PTSD in war veterans*. My own experiences with the drug were mixed but the good part of it was a sense that all people were connected, worthy of dignity and love and that connection could be achieved.

Before reading Mircea Eliade and Jules Evans, my mind picture of the word ecstasy was essentially that of blissed out people in their twenties wearing crocheted crop tops and glow in the dark bracelets. But there is much more to ecstasy and ecstatic states. And I can now include the beige-clad Pentecostals and Elvis fans in my mind picture. Or, now I can see the dove descend on the ravers.

Jimi Hendrix in San Francisco, February 1968. – photo by Barry Wolman

Synchromystic author, Chris Knowles points out the resemblance between various music genres and ancient religious archetypes. Hendrix becomes an alchemist. The excesses of The Doors, Zeppelin and Van Halen become Dionysian ceremony. And Elvis becomes Apollo, the Sun King, bright and shiny and handsome, showering the masses with the gift of music and dance.

“The original Apollo of 20th-century-rock was also its first superstar**. (…) The savage young Elvis lives on forever, as does the survivor Elvis, dressed up in rhinestone ‘n’ leather finery modeled on Captain Marvel Jr.***, his childhood hero. Elvis lives forever (…) – even his bloated Vegas years can fascinate. That is charisma. The gift of the gods.”

Christopher Knowles in “The Secret History of Rock ‘N’ Roll”
Elvis Presley performing in Honolulu Hawaii on January 14 1973 – Getty Images

Have you listened to music that changed your mood? Where was that mood before you listened to the music? Where did it come from? Music has the ability to summon emotions from we don’t know from where. Ekstasis is the Greek word meaning a displacement of the mind. But not as in mind removal, but as in being transported outside one’s self. I think the Greeks knew where music “comes from” and I think they were right. Music doesn’t come from anywhere. We go where It is. Music is a form of transportation described as ecstasy.

“We’re not in the music business; we’re in the transportation business.”

Mickey Hart, drummer of The Grateful Dead

“Rhythm is the God” – Mickey Hart

*Not medical advice. MDMA is a powerful substance and has a range of effects covering the spectrum of positive to negative. See erowid.org for more information.
** Star, as in the sun being a star. The superest in the heavens from our vantage point.

***Captain Marvel Jr. also was imbued with magical power.

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