In the Fifties, Elvis Presley appalled his elders and delighted his fans by singing about sex with evident pleasure. No matter what the lyrics said, Presley seemed to change them as he sang them. His vast success depended equally on the adulation of teenagers and the revulsion of their parents, for it was Elvis’s seeming promise of forbidden things that began all the excitement. This violent national ambivalence was inspired largely by television, because Elvis had to be seen to be believed, or believed in. After gaining a big following, mostly in the South, on the strength of concert tours through 1954 and 1955, he appeared on several television programs in 1956, just after the release of “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first million-seller. (He might have appeared the previous year, on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts,” but failed his audition.) Thousands of young viewers were ecstatic, having discovered someone who could tap and reciprocate their own energy. On the other hand, various clergymen and columnists made outraged statements about the imminent decline of American culture.
Today it is difficult to understand the reactions of the righteous, who hadn’t seen anything yet. A later generation of rock stars would do everything but pull their own heads off onstage; Elvis just got worked up. His act was uncomplicated. He was backed by drums, string bass, and lead guitar, and haphazardly slapped out a sort of rhythm accompaniment on his own guitar, which he used primarily as a prop. Wearing baggy pants and what looked like a very fat person’s sportcoat, he wriggled and jerked as if trying to undress without using his hands. He made teasing faces; his smile had a leer built into it. Ed Sullivan tried to mitigate the erotic impact by televising Presley from the waist up (which naturally made the area from the waist down seem doubly intriguing), but this made little difference: the girls in the studio audience screamed, nearly drowning out Presley’s voice, a collective display of pubescent desire that made a lot of viewers nervous.
As Elvis drew bigger and more demonstrative adolescent audiences over the three-year period of his stardom in the Fifties, the nervousness also increased, finding a good deal of incoherent expression: Elvis was “morally insane,” “a whirling dervish of sex,” his music “a sort of nightmare of rhythm.” What Elvis’s shrill detractors failed to understand, aside from the English language, was the fundamentally symbolic character of those hysterical concerts. Elvis sang and shook all over, the girls wept and squealed, then everybody went home. The libido was getting a lot of bad press (if any) in the Fifties, a situation which Elvis’s fans seemed to intuit. It has become a cliché of rock criticism that Elvis was a liberating figure, a pop Henry Miller, who allowed his fans to express themselves sexually. It would be more accurate to say that Elvis provided a lot of young people with an opportunity for vicarious release. If he had really effected a sexual revolution, those legions of girls might have done something more than scream.
In fact, Elvis never acted like a “sex fiend” (to use that quaint expression of the Fifties), but rather like the girls whose fantasies he inspired. Like Marlon Brando, with whom he was often compared, and like James Dean, another contemporary, Presley projected an aggressive vulnerability, a strength that was not so much forceful as passive. He did not strut and glower like a potential rapist, as, say, Jerry Lee Lewis did; it was only in the late Sixties that Elvis began to toughen his image with broad hints of machismo, in songs like “US Male.” Elvis was an imploring figure in the Fifties, as many of his biggest hits suggest: “Don’t Be Cruel,” “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Love Me Tender,” “Teddy Bear” (“Baby let me be your lovin’ teddy bear, / Put a chain around my neck and lead me anywhere”), and others. Although American pop idols did not become epicene until the Sixties, Elvis, like Dean, Brando, and Montgomery Clift, projected a new masculine type, unlike such frankly virile figures as Clark Gable and John Wayne.
There was also an element of racial novelty in Elvis’s appeal, which surely had something to do with the reaction against him, as racism and the fear of uncontrollable sexual appetites have much in common. Elvis’s first five singles, recorded for the Sun label in Memphis in 1954 and 1955, suggest a great debt to such black blues singers as Arthur Crudup and Wynonie Harris. Elvis loved black music just as he loved country and western music. Although his hagiographers are surely mistaken in suggesting that he meant his career to improve race relations, it is certainly true that he was the first person in America to get a hysterical white mob to approach a black phenomenon without violating the Bill of Rights.
He sang so convincingly like a black man that his earliest promoter, interviewing him for a Memphis radio station, made sure that Elvis announced to the listening audience that he had attended Humes High School, a discreet way of assuring everyone that the kid was nice and white (one characteristic implying the other). Elvis’s appropriation of blackness was not restricted to his music. Again like Brando, he did not look entirely white (a statement that might have annoyed him), but seemed a curious amalgam of the races: with his full lips, broad nose, and jet-black hair (dyed), he was a new kind of idol, looking ahead to such Sixties celebrities as Mick Jagger and Malcolm McDowell. The sleek, aquiline look of Fred Astaire or Leslie Howard was becoming old-fashioned. Is it possible that the heroes of the young are often marked by features that evoke the dispossessed?
All these faintly subversive traits lost their poignancy when Elvis started taking the advice of Colonel Tom Parker, who became his manager in 1955. Parker exploited Elvis’s image of the essentially good-hearted outlaw for a few years: in the films Love Me Tender (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and King Creole (1958), Elvis was variously victimized, killed, or flogged as Brando was often killed or flogged in his definitive films. However, Parker knew that there was far more money to be made than the nation’s children could afford to pay, and set about legitimizing Elvis’s image. He supervised Elvis’s induction, figuring (correctly) that if his charismatic client could serve his country rather than offend it, there would be fun for the whole family as a result.
Having livened things up for three years, then, Elvis joined the army in 1958 (“It’s a duty I’ve got to fill and I’m gonna do it,” he said dutifully), and then, after returning to civilian life in 1960, spent the last seventeen years of his life gaining weight. He tended to corpulence and gorged himself with junk food, but his real weight problem was not physiological. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Elvis took on fleets of Cadillacs, dune buggies, snowmobiles, and jets, giving away as many as he kept. He expanded Graceland, his Memphis mansion, where he surrounded himself with expensive gadgets and hired attendants. He bought other estates, including a ranch in Mississippi. He wore rings and pistols and capes and massive gold buckles. He collected badges and trophies and rifles. He would not leave the house by himself.
The Colonel had promised to make Elvis rich, and kept that promise, but exacted complete trust in return. He was a shrewd entrepreneur, but his guidance of Elvis’s career does not suggest much sensitivity. He worked out an agreement with the producer Hal Wallis, who acquired Elvis for a series of idiotic low-budget films that corroborated the comforting new image which the Colonel had chosen: in most of them, Elvis plays a swell guy who’s a big hit with several large-breasted ladies, leading to romantic entanglements and the occasional fist fight. These films all made huge profits, and bored Elvis, who turned out an average of three a year from 1960 to 1969. He was bitter about having to work with “lousy scripts,” and resented the fact that Wallis used the profits from Blue Hawaii, which, like every other Presley film, was a critical disaster, to make Becket, a critical success. A few years before he died, Elvis was offered the male lead opposite Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born. This might have provided him with an opportunity to do something interesting for a change. He liked the idea, but the Colonel told him that he wouldn’t get enough money.
Perhaps the Colonel had to ignore Elvis’s potential talents in order to keep his original promise. Certainly, he knew how to keep Elvis timely long after the initial blaze of fame had cooled considerably. In 1968 Elvis released “If I Can Dream,” and released “In the Ghetto” the following year: both songs (one hopeful, one somber) are socially conscious, and both sold well after a three-year period of flops. What is more remarkable than Elvis’s sudden use of fashionable material, however, is the fact of his professional longevity, which was the result of a peculiar aspect of his charisma. The Colonel did not create this quality, but knew how to enhance and preserve it.
Although Elvis remained for twenty years the world’s highest-paid performer, his fans, throughout the Sixties and Seventies, were cultists, indulging a fondness which had become eccentric. Those who pledged allegiance to “the King” were, by and large, not likely to enjoy the irreverent poses of the idols of the Sixties. For all the ebullience of their music, the Beatles seemed somewhat too cool and impudent; Bob Dylan, rasping out jeremiads, was too much of a beatnik to please Presley’s more conservative worshipers: for worshipers they were, having come to regard their idol as a god. While Dylan and the Beatles, attuned to the times, treated their stardom with irony, Elvis remained inaccessible.
Celebrities of the Sixties replaced the pose of deity with a pose of casual sincerity. We watched Dylan throw tantrums in Don’t Look Back, and witnessed the dissolution of the Beatles in Let It Be. Elvis’s last two films, Elvis…That’s the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis on Tour (1972) were also documentaries, but conveyed no sense of having found a private person. Dylan’s songs, ostensibly dealing with social injustice, were actually bits of autobiography; the Beatles squabbled and got divorced with much publicity, whereupon John Lennon sang laments about his mother, and George Harrison described the scenery on his spiritual pilgrimage. Elvis never wrote his own songs (although the Colonel often managed to wrangle co-authorship royalties for his client), and never made any obvious personal statement.
He was proclaimed “the King” not because he was the first great rock star, nor because he outsold and outlasted every other contender for the crown; that crown was not available to successors, for Elvis’s magnificent voice is inimitable (as his dozens of professional imitators make very clear), and the peculiar circumstances of his initial stardom unrepeatable. Elvis’s aura of regality evolved from a special quality of his personal style, an air of impenetrable self-possession. He was an iconic figure, ever ready for the adoring public eye, in other words, ever like a king. Until the early Seventies, when he began to go onstage sick, bloated, truculent, and heavy with contempt (he would practice karate kicks between songs, and sometimes read lyrics from a piece of paper), there seemed to be no disjunction between the public and the private man. In thousands of photographs he appears confident, magnetic, essentially reserved, and without any distinct personality whatever.
He projected an inwardness without introspection, at once offering and withholding himself, and was therefore the perfect object of mass worship. Unattainable, he was an entity of inscrutable surface upon which his fans could easily project their desires. To those who aged and fattened along with him, he was still the daring hero of the Fifties; to those who wished to believe in someone quintessentially American, he was a saint. When Elvis lurched tubbily through his concerts during the past few years, forcing out fragments of his old hits over an extra chin, his devotees reacted with the usual enthusiasm, seeing not a bored and ailing man but the King himself rocking down Memory Lane. His opaque, impersonal veneer allowed his fans to believe that he evinced whatever qualities they most admired: he was generous, courteous, wholesome, manly, reverent but good-humored, gentle but, if pushed too far, a tough guy. He was everything the Sixties seemed to discredit. In the eyes of the faithful the King was a regular prince.
Some of the recent books on Elvis provide us with similarly happy impressions. The Private Elvis is an exercise in wishful thinking by a reporter who would like very much for us to believe that she and Elvis were friends. They first met, May Mann claims, in 1957 on the set of King Creole (which began production in 1958), where Elvis was supposedly going through a scene that bored him, until he noticed the author sitting nearby, whereupon: “The music seemed to ripple from his body in the sheath of shimmering sex that no one has ever been able to emulate.”
What was “the private Elvis” like, under the sheath? Mann mentions “his shining, wholesome character, honesty, integrity, and the real human, kind, compassionate side of his nature,” and makes similar statements for nearly 300 pages, at one point asserting that “from the inception of his career, Elvis Presley has been the most bombastic and controversial figure in show business.” The book also contains several pictures of “Elvis with the author,” who stares worshipfully into his right ear while he looks intently elsewhere. These pictures, at least, have the ring of truth.
My Life with Elvis, “The Fond Memories of a Fan Who Became Elvis’s Private Secretary,” is a bit misleading: Becky Yancey was one of two women who worked for Elvis’s father Vernon at Graceland. Yancey did not exactly have a “life with Elvis,” since she went home at five every day, about two hours after Elvis climbed out of bed. Furthermore, Elvis was in Los Angeles and elsewhere as least as often as he was in Memphis during Yancey’s tenure. In fact, she knows so little about Elvis that her publisher has seen fit to make a paragraph out of nearly every sentence, and to separate the chapters with title pages, methods that have added about thirty pages to this slight book. Yancey discusses how much Elvis’s wife Priscilla liked tuna fish, mentions the time that Elvis’s chimpanzee tried to pull off her skirt, and discusses Grandma Presley’s fierce temper. When Yancey first met Elvis in 1961, she threw up on him. No subsequent encounter was as memorable as that.
Nevertheless, Yancey is sure that Elvis “remembered the Golden Rule and treated others as he hoped to be treated. Certainly, there were times when his temper flared, but Elvis always tried to do what was right.” Yancey and her collaborator Cliff Linedecker (a writer whose speciality is “the unknown”) were evidently in a big hurry to let the world know what a good person Elvis was. My Life with Elvis was begun before Presley died, and was not very carefully revised or proofread before it was rushed into publication three months early to cash in on his death. Many of the references to his tastes and habits are still in the present tense, and the reader who does not pass out before page 50 will come across such sentences as “Priscilla like hair pieces” and “In return, Linda turn Elvis on to “Whammies.”
These two books are well padded with chatter and trivia because Elvis never seems to have broken through his aura to provide these observers with material. It was not likely, moreover, that a competent writer would have got close to Elvis, who preferred the company of hired toadies willing to surrender themselves to his will and largesse. The outsider has only the inadequate reports of these insiders to work with. Even Jerry Hopkins’s thorough and dispassionate Elvis: A Biography (which ends in 1971, leaving Elvis still married and supposedly happy), as good, perhaps, as an outsider’s book can be, devotes several pages to the history of Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace), and other ancillary matters.
The most revealing of these books, and surely the most sensationalist, is Elvis: What Happened?, a horrifying collection of the reminiscences of three men who worked for years as part of Elvis’s today collective. Steve Dunleavy (one of Rupert Murdoch’s toadies) has reworked the men’s impressions into a lurid, scattered narrative that owes something to the works of Mickey Spillane and several episodes of Starsky and Hutch. The three men, Red West, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler, were suddenly dumped after twenty, sixteen, and three years of service respectively, and it would therefore be easy to dismiss their stories as the highly colored tattlings of disgruntled employees.
Despite the book’s tawdriness, however, and despite the strong possibility that the motives of the tale-tellers were not noble, Elvis: What Happened? is convincing, and certainly not padded. If we are to believe what we read, Elvis gradually became an explosive megalomaniac as his wealth and boredom increased over the years. His body was ravaged by pills. He loved guns, and regularly shot out television sets and light fixtures, sometimes nearly killing various acquaintances. He was obsessed with law enforcement, tagged along on narcotics investigations in Memphis, and was so intent on getting himself a real nark’s badge (an honorary one wouldn’t do) that he finally went to see another maniac, then this country’s president, and got what he wanted. He was cruel to his “friends” (it is hard to find an accurate word for hired companions), intolerant of other performers, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and contemptuous of women, causing at least three of them serious physical injury. If he believed in the Golden Rule, he must have been a masochist.
The men frequently interrupt these stories to grieve over the transformation of good old Elvis into an unpredictable monster. Time and again they express disgust or embarrassment over Elvis’s deeds, raising an obvious question: Why did they stay? (“He certainly had a power over us,” admits Red West in an understatement.) And what was it about good old Elvis that was so good? The men chuckle over the hours of wacky horseplay Elvis initiated: team fights with Roman candles, chasing a runaway tractor, knocking down a three-bedroom house with bulldozers. As long as Elvis was such a fun-loving, open-handed guy, he was “beautiful,” but when he exploited the master’s prerogative, giving orders, bursting into vituperation, treating his underlings with contempt, he was no fun any more. Whichever way he struck his friends, he never seems to have managed to grow up. The most depressing thing about Elvis: What Happened? is that its authors, who knew Elvis as well as anyone did, seem not to have known him at all. They knew his moods, appreciated his maniacal generosity, but were finally unable to discover him.
It seems that no one could discover him, for he bolstered his reclusiveness, weighing himself down, walling himself in. The King led a monarch’s life of opulent seclusion; circumstances, both within and beyond his control, made impossible his lone entry into the world of commoners. He adored his mother, who walked him to school every day until he was fifteen. She protected him from many of the painful things that attend a life of poverty; according to Red West, she once pelted a boy with groceries for threatening her son. Upon her death in 1958, Elvis was already an international celebrity, just beginning his army stint. After his return to civilian life, he started putting on all that glittering protective weight.
His construction of a microcosm evokes thoughts of a Snopes family in the Space Age. Graceland, the home of the organization that was himself, was tended by a large vague clan of Presleys and deputy Presleys, each squandering the vast gratuities which Elvis used to keep his whole world smiling. Vernon Presley had a swimming pool in his bedroom. Elvis’s stepmother had her breasts lifted. Priscilla had her ears flattened. Elvis had his face lifted. Peacocks ran about the grounds, and one once attacked its reflection in the hood of a Rolls Royce. There was a juke box next to the swimming pool, containing Elvis’s favorite records. What did the “whirling dervish of sex,” once called “the Hillbilly Cat” and “the King of Western Bop,” play on that bright machine? His favorite songs were “Gigi,” “What Now My Love?” and “Autumn Leaves.” Even his music had gotten fat.
Elvis carefully tended his little world with such costly cosmetic touches, living as the retired spectator of his own things. He would spend hours in his bedroom, watching his property on a closed-circuit television. “He lives in a shell but he’s comfortable,” said Nancy Sinatra in the late Sixties, raising questions about the meaning of “comfort.” Elvis seems to have wanted to bedeck himself into oblivion; his career was a long process of accretion, at home and onstage. Shortly before he died, he started carpeting the ceilings.
Elvis’s death has transformed the stuff of scandal sheets into expressions of something like polemical controversy: Who was the “real” Elvis? Was this King no more than a Great Pretender? May Mann’s book, originally called Elvis and the Colonel, was tellingly retitled to cash in on the vanished mystery; Elvis, What Happened? was intended, says Sonny West, “to present Elvis with a challenge,” but Elvis’s death has changed the title’s emphasis. The book is now a challenge to the faithful.
It will probably make no more difference to them than the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls made to the Fundamentalists. Elvis’s fans were never interested in the possibility of a human Elvis, but worshiped him for reflecting their own wishes. The search for the real person will end without success. The King is gone, but the aura remains, making a lot of people very rich. “The Colonel’s plans are the same today as if Elvis were still here,” said Elvis’s road manager just after the funeral. What used to be sold as “souvenirs” at every concert are now advertised as precious relics on late-night television commercials and in the back pages of cheap magazines: wristwatches, medallions, idealized portraits (Elvis as a rock Jesus), t-shirts, hideous macrocephalic dolls, special albums, memorial books. The Colonel gets a piece of the action. Does Elvis symbolize less for his fans merely because he happens to have died? The very quality that made his fans adore him has made his death seem like an afterthought.
December 8, 1977