Forty years ago Elvis Presley passed ...into a stunningly successful new phase of his career. All this week at SteynOnline, we've been marking the anniversary, starting starting with the man who invented Elvis, and moving on to the guy who wrote more Elvis songs than anybody else. This essay on death as a career move is from my book Mark Steyn From Head to Toe:
August 16th marks exactly four decades since a 911 call from 3765 Elvis Presley Boulevard sent the paramedics scrambling for the ambulance. And we're still no nearer knowing the truth.
Did Elvis Aron Presley, appointed by President Nixon as a special narcotics agent, disappear into the FBI Witness Protection Program? Was he murdered by the Mob? Is he living in a rented room above a bar in Flint, Michigan? Is he, as the motion picture Men In Black suggested, a space alien who simply "went home"?
Whichever theory you incline to, the Establishment has gone to extraordinary lengths to persuade us that Elvis is, in some sense, "dead." Twenty-four years ago, when the US Postal Service issued what was to become its all-time best-seller, the Elvis stamp, customers angrily pointed out that you're not supposed to be on a stamp unless you're deceased. Fifteen years ago, the actor Nicholas Cage married Lisa-Marie Presley and let it be known that beforehand he'd gone to a medium with whom he contacted the spirit world and received his father-in-law's blessing. How can you talk to someone in the spirit world who isn't there yet?
But, whatever Elvis' current status, it's clear that August 16th 1977 marks a dividing line in his career. After the funeral, his manager, Colonel Parker, reassured Elvis' father: "Nothing changes." Instead, everything did.
Before 1977 Elvis was the first pop star of the rock'n'roll age, the white boy who sang black, etc, etc. His significance in purely musical terms has been most incisively analysed by the dean of rock critics, Greil Marcus:
That Elvis did what he did - and we do not know precisely what he did, because 'Milkcow Blues Boogie' and 'Hound Dog' cannot be figured out, exactly - means that the world became something other than what it would have been had he not done what he did, and that half-circle of a sentence has to be understood at the limit of its ability to mean anything at all.
Exactly. But, for all his scholarly dissection, Marcus represents old-school Elvisology. By 1977, at the age of 42, Elvis had wrapped up whatever musical contribution he was going to make. Puffy, bloated and over 250lbs - which, believe it or not, was considered large in 1977 - the King was having difficulty squeezing into the rhinestone-studded jumpsuits; he'd forget the words, and giggle through love songs. Not all celebrities age well - or, in this case, middle-age well - but, even when Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald had an off-night, you could usually rely on the band being competent. In the final decade of his performing career, it's not just that Elvis is covering "My Way", it's that he's covering it with what sounds like a pick-up house band from open-mike night at Cactus Jack's sports bar every Tuesday out on Highway 27, turn right past the abandoned grain elevator.
In the quarter-century since, the albums have continued to sell, but indiscriminately: the early Sun sessions (the stuff Greil Marcus likes), the hymns and gospel songs, "Old Shep", the compilations of Sixties movie numbers like "No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car", it all sells equally well. The Elvis industry has no interest in quality control.
But it's not about the music any more. Elvis is, in every sense, larger than that. He was always a spiritual man: when he died on the toilet at Graceland he was apparently reading The Face Of Jesus, a book about the Turin Shroud. A mere 40 years later, the King himself is generating a brisk trade in sacred relics. Most prized of all is the wart supposedly removed by his doctor when he entered the army in 1958. The Elvis wart is the Presley fan's equivalent of the Turin Shroud, though, unlike the Shroud, there seem to be several competing warts, many of doubtful provenance: I myself have seen and held what most experts regard as the Elvis wart, personally shown to me by Elvis curator Joni Mabe, who suggested the DNA within it could be used to clone a new King. Less valuable are Elvis toenail clippings, mainly because, from the number in circulation, he'd have to have had the fastest-growing toenails in history. Most are alleged to have been discovered deep in the thick crimson broadloom with which, in 1974, Elvis and his then girlfriend plastered Graceland.
There is a reason why Elvis uniquely inspires this devotion. American celebrity has a basic trajectory: you're born poor, you make it big, you move to a penthouse on Central Park West and a beach house at Malibu, and you acquire a taste for fine dining, expensive risible contemporary art and the other habits of the conventionally rich. Elvis never did. He was born in 1935 in a two-room shack in a dirt-poor section of Tupelo, Mississippi – just about as low as white folks can go. But no matter how rich he got, his tastes never changed. Being rich meant doing all the same things he'd done when poor, only more so: he had banana pudding every night; instead of eating one cheeseburger, he'd eat six; instead of cruising Main Street for a late-night diner, he'd hop on the private jet, burn $16,000 worth of fuel and fly to Denver for a peanut-butter sandwich; instead of a 22-inch TV, he had the planet's biggest set; instead of grumbling that there was nothing on, he'd blow the set apart with his M-16 automatic rifle; instead of shooting beer cans off the tailgate of his pick-up, he'd buy up every available flashbulb in Memphis, toss them in the pool and shoot them out of the water. At Graceland, he took an antebellum colonnaded fieldstone mansion and turned it into the world's largest trailer.
This isn't the decadence of Hollywood and Manhattan, just the regular tastes of poor rural whites on an unlimited budget. No wonder they love him for it: "white trash" - an enduring pejorative even in our sensitivity-trained age - are the most despised social group in the United States, but Elvis never broke faith with them. Like regular Americans, he had no use for abroad, venturing no further than Canada and (strictly for his stint in the army) Germany. Even his bulk, much mocked by urban sophisticates, was a sign of solidarity. It was his record producer, Felton Jarvis, who pinpointed precisely his old friend's place in the culture: informed of the King's death, he said sadly: "It's like someone just told me there aren't going to be any more cheeseburgers in the world." In the Fifties, he may have briefly represented rock'n'roll rebellion, and the so-called counter-culture. But he endures as the perfect emblem of lunch-counter culture.
Death clarified all this. It was his widow Priscilla who turned Elvis into a brand name. In life he was a most naive superstar: there were no shrewd investments, no offshore funds - just a million bucks sitting in the same kind of no-interest checking account a minimum-wage waitress would have. His most valuable copyrights had been sold to RCA for a pittance, and the reason he never did any overseas tours turned out to be because Colonel Parker, who claimed to be the son of West Virginia carnie folk, was actually an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands and didn't have a passport.
To secure Lisa-Marie's inheritance, Priscilla set about the belated professionalization of her husband's career. He was posthumously all shook up. She opened Graceland, so that fans could make their pilgrimage to his home and his grave, which now attracts more annual visitors than President Kennedy's. Before Elvis, it was an established legal concept that "the dead have no rights." Priscilla decided to reclaim exclusive rights to her late husband – his image, his identity. The Celebrity Rights Law, passed by Tennessee in 1983 and since taken up by other jurisdictions, effectively extends to Elvis' estate the rights of a living person. Whether you believe he and Osama are working the night shift at the Dubuque Burger King is up to you. But, in the legal sense, Elvis is most definitely alive; it's just that he's changed his name to Graceland Enterprises Inc.
Whether dead or living, whether returned to his sender or at an address unknown, it's hard to know what Elvis himself would make of his transformation. As Greil Marcus would say, he has become something other than he would have been had he not been whatever he was when Greil Marcus was trying to figure it out. His most passionate recording - bitter even - is "Long Black Limousine": the story of a country girl who sets off to make it big in the city, sells her soul and returns home, as promised, in a swanky car - which turns out to be a hearse. After 40 years, Elvis' hearse cruises on unstoppably.
~adapted from Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your special code at checkout for special member pricing.
We'll have more Elvis this weekend. And, if you're one of the many Elvis impersonators among our Club members, do feel free to weigh in in the comments. For more information on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.