The King & I
ELVIS AFTER ELVIS
LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS
GOOD ROCKIN' TONIGHT
IN SEARCH OF ELVIS
In the Elvis metatext sweepstakes, Rodman's ambitious précis tops even Greil Marcus's Dead Elvis, essays that became a book only because Elvis demanded nothing less. "Metatext" is my term, not Rodman's, but for better or worse--on the merits, better, but life is unfair--this theory maven deserves it. He can't cut the cultural studies posse off at the pass--not with Elvis a signifier so all-embracing that Madonna seems as austere as Mallarmé by comparison. I mean, if life is unfair, cultural studies is a Ponzi scheme. But unless you believe that none of its insights or methods is of any value whatsoever, then Elvis After Elvis is what the cross-discipline is for. Absorbing a vast array of representations, Rodman parses not only its differing meanings but its vastness itself, then lays out his findings in an unusually colloquial academic prose that conveys everyday pleasure in, respect for, and love of his subject. He's so likable you figure he must know what he's doing when he comes down hard on the jargon concept "point of articulation." And he does.
Rodman's thesis is that Elvis articulated the moment when rock and roll, a preexisting musical genre that would have developed without him, precipitated what many now call "the '60s." This is not an original claim. That "we" are all children of Elvis is assumed by Marcus and the immense school of exegetes inspired by Mystery Train's "Presliad." But the presentation is gratifyingly coherent. All the political issues/metaphors/ideas Elvis is understood to bear--race integrated/appropriated/miscegenated/assimilated, sex as pleasure and gender, unmentionable class and its respectable cousin the American dream--are tucked into a long expository chapter called "Elvis Myths." In "Elvis Space," the faithful who use these myths are situated first in the imaginary community of their media-mediated devotion and then at Graceland, which Rodman argues constitutes a geographical locus no other branch of fandom enjoys. Finally, fans meet society in "Elvis Culture," where Rodman first relishes every filthy detail of the uncensored June 5, 1956 Milton Berle Show "Hound Dog," which he declares the point of articulation for all of Elvis's subsequent impact, then undercuts himself with the admission that his students are utterly unimpressed by the same video clip that fills him with awe: "where there was once a message so shocking that it seemed that Western civilization could not possibly survive its utterance, there is now no message at all." But rather than doubting or disavowing his own response, Rodman concludes that this incomprehension only proves how utterly Elvis changed the world: Elvis has normalized his own Elvisness.
Neat, eh? Yet nothing in this lucid schema is original enough to startle acolytes or overpowering enough to persuade snobs, and its very neatness insures the usual measure of benign distortion. Up against the fools, hacks, and academic con men who overrun In Search of Elvis, in which Vernon Chadwick collects presentations from the "six-day festival of learning" that was the University of Mississippi's 1995 International Conference on Elvis Presley, Rodman is a model of scholarly cool. But from his cultural studies hobbyhorse he's too ready to disregard Elvis's individual agency. It's fine to complain that Marcus habitually overstates Elvis's will and ability to produce unaided "a cultural formation," which is collective by definition. But Rodman risks losing sight of Elvis's incomprehensibly complex and protean persona.
Reading Karal Ann Marling's much slighter Graceland, for instance, you soon realize that Rodman's conception of Elvis's shrine, undeniable in outline, is a romanticized abstraction. The texture Marling's book has room for roughs up Rodman's idealization, and her expertise in the decorative arts (plus the phrase-making knack that complements it) makes Elvis's mansion on the hill seem a creation as well as a site. Graceland's "act of faith in serial novelty," she argues, synthesized the "intense concern for personal style" that made B. B. King notice a teenaged Elvis in a pawnshop years before he was famous and the fashion sense informing the "theme clothes" of the '70s--"carapace[s] of sheer, radiant glory." And she's franker than Rodman about the stereotypes that will surely rise again in reports of the 20th-anniversary rites in Memphis this August. You can't miss them, she agrees: "the fat, the old, the unattractive, the hair-sprayed, and the deeply crazy." But when Elvis was alive, she points out, he "remained in spirit a part of the have-not group on the other side of the wall." And now: "Jesus, or Elvis, speaks softly and tenderly to all of them here in the garden of Graceland."
In a contradiction endemic to cultural studies, neither Rodman's left politics nor his wide-ranging references decrease his natural distance from the polyester regulars who actually gather at Elvis Space. Like most pomo types, he's drawn instead to the avant-garde, the abject, the radical, the intellectual, and the patently weird. Not that Rodman need pay any heed to the fans empowered by Vernon Chadwick's Southern-populist inclusivity--to the banalities of Elvis cousin Gene Smith, "World's Greatest Elvis Fan" Paul MacLeod and his son Elvis, two different Danish archivists, or logorrheic Alvis artist Howard Finster (not to mention several professors of no apparent distinction). In Search of Elvis strikes more telling blows for democracy when it steps back a little, as in John Shelton Reed's sociohistorical breakdown of the poor white South or Roger Manley's curatorial survey of the region's vernacular art.
Be thankful for Reed and Manley's garden-variety scholarship, which strides on undeterred by theory's disdain for history as a discipline--its doubts about the efficacy of facts themselves. Those doubts are why Rodman considers Elvis's political meanings myths. It doesn't really matter, he argues, whether Sam Phillips said "Negro" (as Jerry Hopkins originally reported) or "nigger" (Albert Goldman's calumny), or whether Elvis once opined that African Americans were only good to buy his records and shine his shoes. All that matters is what people believe. The fallacy here is that what (seems to have) really happened affects what people believe. When Marcus launched his famous attack on Goldman's lie, he predicted that it would become official history, but instead, due largely to the fuss Marcus started and the research he followed through with, it is now widely discredited. So maybe, after yet more Elvis studies, black people will stop believing the apocryphal shine-my-shoes story--or maybe new evidence will prove them right. In the end, there's no denying the pomo view that each of us has his or her own Elvis, that Elvis as individually perceived is (like every other artist) a conflation of image, theory, personal bias, and oeuvre. But as we create our own Elvises, most of us are aided and comforted by the "real" one.
So for me, the oddest thing about Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis, a compelling and probably definitive biography as well as the richest spread of Elvis facts ever, is that in my own Elvis-making process, it played no larger role than Good Rockin' Tonight, a medium-cheesy as-told-to by Army buddy/factotum Joe Esposito and reggae woman/music scribe Elena Oumano (whom I know slightly, as I do Guralnick and did Goldman, and while we're at it I'm doing a book with Marling's publisher and am close to Marcus). Last Train to Memphis is so masterful that, for all Guralnick's insistence on letting his research speak for itself, he inevitably portrays not the Real Elvis, but Guralnick's Elvis--or rather, since a second volume due in fall 1998 will complete a story that ends when Elvis ships out to Germany six weeks after burying the mother he adored, Guralnick's Young Elvis. Guralnick's Young Elvis is an irrepressibly energetic, heartbreakingly eager genius whose most secret dreams are thrust upon him. He's quick, impish, spiritual, serious, full of fun and full of music, with a gift for guilelessness that cannot possibly survive. He loves attention and he loves money; about sex, which he soon realizes is his meal ticket, he's more ambivalent. As the book ends, there's a sense not just of impending doom but of impending tragedy.
The main things missing from Last Train to Memphis are ideas and dirt. Both deficiencies reflect Guralnick's most irritating mannerism--his reluctance to make judgments, draw conclusions, generalize at all. In theory, this is formal rigor (report observations, not speculations); in practice, it's prim whitewash (if you can't say anything nice about a person, don't say anything at all). It's why he'll never tell us in so many words whether Gladys Presley drank too much (as she seemed to toward her untimely end, which involved a mysterious liver ailment) or what the hell made her handsome husband tick (the two mentions of Vernon's chronic underemployment contradict each other). And since Good Rockin' Tonight asserts credibly that Elvis's mom "died of alcoholism" and glibly that Vernon "didn't treat her very well," I'd like to know, for no better reason than that I'm nosy. So I appreciate what Guralnick does reveal about Young Elvis's sexuality--enough to let the attentive reader imagine a guy who got laid a whole lot but was a little nervous about the act itself, so that he would lie around in bed for hours with his pick of the night's procurements, talking and making out (he was a "great kisser," girls report) before risking closure. The scene in which Elvis doesn't fuck a 1956 steady is breathtaking.
Even to get this far, however, I rely partly on Good Rockin' Tonight, which begins where Guralnick leaves off and depicts a much hornier guy. Esposito is mildly obsessed with Elvis's sex life because it messed up his own--as bad as an unlimited supply of disposable women was for his boss, it was terrible for the boss's cronies, who because they weren't famous had a shot at developing real relationships. Asserting without prejudice that Elvis "was not the super-suave stud everyone thought he was," Esposito reports "voyeuristic tendencies," a "full-blown Madonna complex" (perhaps extending to Priscilla, who bore Lisa Marie exactly nine months after he married her), and drug-induced impotence in his decline. For a superstar, this is within normal range, reminiscent of both Frank Sinatra (probably more of a cocksman) and Chuck Berry (probably more of a perve). And to be blunt, that's a relief, because far more than the dreary details of his uppers and downers, Elvis's sexual history inflects the myth of a feral young Southerner whose twitching hips were the point of articulation for a seismic shift in American mores.
But having pursued Elvis's sexual history in the interest of substantiating Rodman's sexual myth, which codifies Elvis's first nationally televised opportunity "to dance, to twitch, to gyrate, to bump and grind, and to shake, rattle, and roll to his heart's content" as the moment when he and rock and roll (now joined at the hip) are "recognized as a threat to mainstream U.S. culture," I find myself unable to stop. Guralnick and especially Esposito provide raw material for a far more complex sexual persona. Supersuave or not, Elvis knew that with a few classy exceptions (Debra Paget, Hope Lange) he could score at will, but as a matter of form he put out a lot of sweet talk and boyish charm. A cut-up whose wit wasn't sharpened by the yes-men he joked around with, he was also a bullshit artist, because that was the way of courtship in his yes-man world. Maybe his love-making was feral (and maybe not), but his come-on wasn't. It was romantic, with dashes of levity. Isn't it striking that so much of the enormous store of Elvis music that didn't articulate a shift in American mores could be described the same way?
Since music is Guralnick's passion, it's no surprise that his descriptions of Elvis's painstaking fooling around in the studio flesh out Esposito and Oumano's welcome generalization that Elvis "may be the most underrated record producer in the history of rock 'n' roll." He was an artist who knew what he wanted and had a prescient notion of how to get it--by indirection, jamming until he hit upon the right feel and then nailing it, which is how rock and rollers have cultivated spontaneity ever since. This isn't an original claim either, and Rodman, who as an embattled postmodern academic has a stake in proving that Elvis doesn't get enough cultural respect, makes sure to pooh-pooh it: "If he was such a brilliant musician, then why did he make so much bad music?" and anyway, he didn't write his own material. But in his need to demonstrate that Elvis is no "auteur," Rodman falls into a trap that lurks for all who conceive him as the king of rock and roll.
In fact, Elvis's status as rock's only heroic interpreter (not counting, er, Jackie Wilson, the Shirelles, the Temptations, and Aretha Franklin, but bear with me) may just mean he isn't really the first and greatest of the rock and rollers after all. Maybe instead he's a missing link to the pop music he's also known to have loved (Dean Martin, Mario Lanza, the Ink Spots)--the very pop music he was supposed to have destroyed, so that whenever he tried it my generation saw a betrayal imposed by Hollywood, Colonel Parker, his evil twin, or his corrupt nature. As it is still unorthodox to mention, he shares more formally with Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra than with Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen. And if Rodman doesn't think Holiday and Sinatra rank as auteurs, he doesn't know as much about popular music as a metatextualizer should.
This is not an argument for the primacy of music per se. One reason Elvis has become a literary hero is that as art recedes in time, it requires explanation, interpretation, contextualization, perceptual work--an aesthetic effort whose surprises are subtle and whose pleasures don't come naturally. With his Uncle Miltie epiphany 40 years gone, Elvis is no more an exception than Norman Mailer or Jackson Pollock, neither of whom packs much shock value anymore either. Elvis caught more musical magic than philistines weaned on Holiday and Sinatra will ever comprehend, but much of it is almost as inaccessible to aesthetes weaned on Berry and Springsteen. And with all due awe for the yearning urgency of his rock and roll touchstones, it's willful to insist that on strictly musical grounds "That's Alright Mama" and "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up" are epochal while "Great Balls of Fire" and "Be-Bop-a-Lula" and "Lonely Weekends" are not. It's what we know about them that makes the difference.
Elvis made a great many major recordings. And no matter what jaded undergraduates think, few rock and rollers of any era have moved with such salacious insouciance. But it's my best guess, based on raw aural information and patterns of pop history and everything I've read and observed and absorbed about artist and audience (these books most certainly included), that rocking or romantic, young or old, thin or fat, innocent or decadent, inspired or automatic, Elvis touches the millions he touches most deeply with that ineffable chestnut, the grain of his voice. From the pure possibility of both "Mystery Train" and "Love Me Tender" to the schlock passion of both "In the Ghetto" and "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," no singer has ever duplicated his aura of unguarded self-acceptance. The very refusal of sophistication that renders him unlistenable to Sinatraphiles is what his faithful love most about him. Furthermore, listeners with looser standards in cultural articulation than those espoused by Rodman, Marcus, myself, or even Vernon Chadwick--listeners who think Elvis lit stops at supermarket gasps, yes-man as-told-tos, and maps of his mystical legacy--probably have a clearer pipeline to the meanings that voice might hold.
For finally, the decisive thing about Elvis Presley was that--to borrow a phrase so inevitable Esposito and Oumano can't have been the first to use it--he was an "extraordinary ordinary man." What's hardest for intellectual types to internalize about him isn't his momentousness--it's his accessibility. Eventually, common sense tell us, internalizing him will become harder for the faithful as well; already, common sense tells us, their experience of his accessibility reflects what they've been told about him, both orally and in texts of all kinds. But if Elvis is a literary hero, no one, patient reader, needs his literature more than you and me. He is a literary hero who confounds literacy itself.
Village Voice, June 10, 1997