Monday, August 17, 2009

Dead Elvis

Elvis Presley died 32 years ago yesterday (August 16). Preoccupied as it was with selling Woodstock this past weekend, the mass media failed to commemorate Elvis’s death with similar aplomb. Indeed, so far as I know, there was no mention of the fact that while the Woodstock festival as going on, precisely at the same time, Elvis was at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the midst of doing four weeks of sold out shows, making some of the finest music of his career. (His successful return to the stage is the subject of an excellent new book by Ken Sharp, pictured at the left.) By the end of October 1969, “Suspicious Minds” would reach No. 1 in the charts, the culmination of Elvis’s so-called “comeback” after eight years of making largely mediocre films—25 of them since he was discharged from the Army in 1960. He made 27 films 1960-69, but The Trouble With Girls would not be released until September 1969, and Change of Habit, his final dramatic feature film, would not be released until November.

For those who care, Elvis Presley shall always be a daunting hermeneutic enigma. The Woodstock festival and Elvis are similar in that they have both become collective representations, but the fact is, the Woodstock festival simply doesn’t hold the same daunting, elusive mystery as Elvis does. In his book, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, Greil Marcus calls the invention of dead Elvis, “a great common art project, the work of scores of people operating independently of each other, linked only by their determination to solve the same problem: who was he, and why do I still care?” Because dead Elvis is a collective representation, it both legitimizes and subverts “Elvis” the man. Perhaps the whole issue is irrelevant, except that Marcus can’t get past the vast amount of cultural expenditure invested in constructing dead Elvis. Nor can I. But a great deal of cultural production has gone into the invention of “Woodstock” as well, and the event, too, has been both legitimized, and subverted, the past four decades. The difference between the two cultural emblems, though, is that dead Elvis is largely perceived as an exemplar of tastelessness (inauthenticity), while Woodstock is perceived as a genuine expression of cultural yearning (authenticity), of a generation’s “innocence.” What are the reasons for these distinct cultural perceptions?

The reasons underlying these perceptions are astutely explored in an essay by Linda Ray Pratt, “Elvis, or the Ironies of a Southern Identity,” which can be found in Kevin Quain, Ed., The Elvis Reader (St. Martin's Press, 1992). In one of the best pieces ever written about Elvis, Dr. Pratt, writing as a Southerner herself, discusses Elvis with the kind of understanding and empathy that those outside the culture often lack. She makes so many acute insights that it is impossible to list them all here, but here are a few insights that may help explain why Elvis is held in such contempt by so many. Writing about Elvis in the context of Southern culture, she says:

C. Vann Woodward has said that the South's experience is atypical of the American experience, that where the rest of America has known innocence, success, affluence, and an abstract and disconnected sense of place, the South has know guilt, poverty, failure, and a concrete sense of roots and place.... These myths collide in Elvis. His American success story was always acted out within its Southern limitations. No matter how successful Elvis became in terms of fame and money, he remained fundamentally disreputable in the minds of many Americans. Elvis had rooms full of gold records earned by million-copy sales, but his best rock and roll records were not formally honored by the people who control, if not the public taste, the rewarding of public taste.... His movies made millions but could not be defended on artistic grounds. The New York Times view of his fans was “the men favoring leisure suits and sideburns, the women beehive hairdos, purple eyelids and tight stretch pants”.... (96-97)

Observing that Elvis “remained an outsider in the American culture that adopted his music,” she goes on to say:

Although he was the world's most popular entertainer, to like Elvis a lot was suspect, a lapse of taste.... The inability of Elvis to transcend his lack of reputability despite a history-making success story confirms the Southern sense that the world outside thinks Southerners are freaks, illiterates . . . sexual perverts, lynchers. I cannot call this sense a Southern “paranoia” because ten years outside the South has all too often confirmed the frequency with which non-Southerners express such views. Not even the presidency would free LBJ and Jimmy Carter from the ridicule.... And Elvis was truly different, in all those tacky Southern ways one is supposed to rise above with money and sophistication. (97)

Regarding the deification of the dead Elvis, she observes:

The apotheosis of Elvis demands . . . perfection because his death confirmed the tragic frailty, the violence, the intellectual poverty, the extravagance of emotion, the loneliness, the suffering, the sense of loss. Almost everything about his death, including the enterprising cousin who sold the casket pictures to National Enquirer, dismays, but nothing can detract from Elvis himself.... Greil Marcus wrote in his book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music that Elvis created a beautiful illusion, a fantasy that shut nothing out. The opposite was true. The fascination was the reality always showing through the illusion--the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos.... Elvis had all the freedom the world can offer and could escape nothing. (103)

Her final, acute insight is painfully true: by saying that Elvis could escape nothing, she means escape the Southern mythology, both what he inherited as a Southerner by birth, and what someone from the South is perceived to be by non-Southerners. The contempt for his Southern cracker origins may have been why he was never allowed to be the great actor he could have been. Even Jimmy Carter as president couldn’t escape the stigma of being from the South: the mass media was brutal on him, his brother Billy, and even his daughter Amy.

It is widely accepted as fact that over the years many people have claimed to have been at Woodstock although they actually were not, as if being there is a badge of honor, symbolic cultural capital like having received a wartime medal of valor. One wonders whether Woodstock would still have its aura had it been held in Mississippi or Alabama. I suspect not, for “Woodstock” has had the fortune of being attached to no place (it wasn’t actually in Woodstock, it was on a farm), while in contrast, Elvis has never escaped the widespread stigma of being from the South.

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