In the spring of 1965 , on the road between Memphis and Hollywood, desert plains all around, his bloodstream torqued by a tinnital static of prescription ups and downs, Elvis Presley finally broke down. He poured out his troubles to Larry Geller, celebrity hair stylist and, lately, something of a spirit guide for Elvis. Geller had given him a mind-expanding reading list of what we would now recognise as New Age self-help books. Elvis had read them all, performed all the meditations, but didn’t feel the light, not in mind, body or soul. The fire refused to descend; his spiritual air remained a vacuum. Now, on the plush customised tour bus, Geller was thrown by how desperate Elvis seemed. Flailing, he fished out a Zen koan: ‘If you want tea, first empty your cup.’ (Tea? Empty cups? This was not the language Elvis spoke. His cup would require several lifetimes’ scouring.)
Later that afternoon, on a road near the Grand Canyon, everything tilted on its axis. Elvis grabbed Geller’s arm and pointed out of the bus at some distant clouds, shouting: ‘Look! There’s Joseph Stalin in the clouds! What is he doing up there?’ He had the bus stop, and ran into the desert. ‘Oh my God, Larry, follow me!’ Elvis was babbling, tears running down his face. He grabbed Geller, hugged him and said: ‘You’re right: you told me the truth. God is love.’ The sky had not turned the colour of cherry yoghurt, he didn’t hear night dogs howling at the sunlight, or the screech of messenger crows. Now that it had finally arrived, his vision was sharp and clear, trailing a flavour more of banishment than revelation – banishment and shame. Stalin, he thought, was a message about the Evil Elvis inside, his goatish ego. Stalin’s face dissolved into a knife-point pain in his heart, became a slow-motion explosion, became the face of Christ. This was clearly a defining moment: today and tomorrow would be as different as land and sky.
That evening, safe in his Bel Air rental (a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house previously owned by the shah of Iran), he said to Geller: ‘I don’t want to perform any more. I want to leave the world. Find me a monastery. I want to become a monk.’ But his ascetic mood soon passed (as every Elvis mood passed, each brief and delicious horripilation), and the marker of this grand spiritual event became an order he put in to his personal jeweller for two hundred wrist watches that flashed both cross of Jesus and star of David. Such personal touches were far more Elvis than any of the books that had been recommended to him. Soon life would again be games with lascivious starlets and golden guns and awesome dune buggies. Soon he would be home again and primed for every day’s hijinks; soon it would be night again and every night’s endless waking sleep.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on 8 January 1935 at around 4.30 in the morning, at home in East Tupelo. His older twin, Jesse Garon, was stillborn. (There was ugly gossip later that the doctor, William Robert Hunt, might have had a drink; that he might have saved Jesse if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with the surprise appearance of a second child. But the Presleys were satisfied with his work and Dr Hunt received his standard $15 payment from the county.) In many communities the arrival of twins was regarded as a queasy, unreadable omen. What to make of this mixed benison of one dead and one surviving lamb? Elvis was born into a puzzle, a world marked by loss from the start. From his first breath, life would always be a matter of missing echoes – conversations that could only be imagined, a partnership annulled before it could even begin – but for his deeply religious mother there was never any doubt: he was chosen, blessed, her own golden king.
All through the pregnancy, Gladys Presley had attended her local Baptist church, the Tabernacle of the Assembly of God. This was a Pentecostal faith in which the happy ordeal of being born again was called the ‘burning love’; speaking in tongues was considered a gift – variously known as ‘the barks’, ‘the jerks’ or ‘the Holy laugh’ – and parishioners were encouraged to rise and speak at any time, allowing God’s voice to pour out from within. Gladys was blessed with this ability, called ‘the comin’ through’. And that starry forcefield Elvis later stumbled into, where his raucous and playful spirit brought the whole world to his blue-shod feet – wasn’t that too a form of ‘comin’ through’? Gladys would live to see her boy-king ascend to heaven (or its equivalent, the Ed Sullivan Show) but her own humbled body gave up the ghost in August 1958. In a family portrait taken two months earlier she looks absent, distracted. Her eyes seem to float out beyond the frame, as if she has already sighted the star-shape of death, felt some sharp feather of pain worse even than losing a child. ‘She’s my best girlfriend,’ Elvis sobbed on the white steps of Graceland when she was gone: ‘She’s all we lived for.’
Before she met Elvis’s father, she was Gladys Love Smith. Her mother was Octavia Luvenia Mansell, her great-grandmother was a Cherokee, Morning White Dove. These were stoical and wilful women; whereas the Presley men were not what you’d call an unmixed blessing. Elvis’s great-grandfather, Dunnan Presley Jr, was a two-time Civil War deserter. When he had to fill out a form for a government pension, he wrote: ‘I depend upon myself and do the best I can, which is bad.’ As Peter Whitmer puts it in The Inner Elvis (1996), ‘there was a history to the emptiness that flawed Vernon’s character and created the subsequent psychological hole in Elvis’s personality. Both the lack of and the need for a father figure seemed to be a Presley family tradition.’ Vernon Presley struck his neighbours as amiable enough, but not all there: a man of hollow promises, fundamentally unreliable. Sometimes he seemed to be little more than a lazy impersonator of his own cherished self-image – airy, cunning, one of life’s happy drifters. He ended up in the penitentiary, following a poor attempt at forgery. If he’d only been a tiny bit smarter, he might have made one hell of a con artist.
This year’s Elvis anniversary is one of the happier ones. It’s sixty years since the summer night in a small Memphis studio when the 19-year-old Elvis set his flag in the pop-cultural soil with two convulsively unselfconscious performances: ‘That’s Alright’ and its flipside, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’. Helped along by the wired know-how of the studio owner Sam Phillips, Elvis and two rockabilly cats he’d only just met made a devilishly catchy new sound out of country dash and bluesy holler and after-hours leer. The name of the studio was Sun: flash, heat, escaping light. Ra worship in this other Memphis. Teenage culture’s own A-bomb, with so much fallout to come.
It’s debatable whether those first recordings can now contain all the weight they’ve been made to carry. What is there is unmistakeable: Elvis’s laughing-gas exuberance and obvious delight at his own just accepted dare; Scotty Moore’s rattlesnake guitar; Bill Black’s rail-jumping bass. You can find the music itself a bit thin, jerky, underwhelming, and still see why it ignited all the brush fires up ahead. (In sonic terms, Moore and Phillips were probably far more influential than Elvis. Phillips’s use of echo on those early sides is startling – in his mid-1950s pomp he got a sound it would take the Rolling Stones until 1972’s Exile on Main Street to secure. And Keith Richards says he still can’t work out some of Moore’s blistering riffs and runs.) Listening to these itchy little songs in your front room, sixty years on, you miss the most vital spark in the detonation: Elvis’s own vivid, mercurial presence. His heat and his motion. His grin and his shimmy. His robes and his finery.
One side of the young Elvis was a faultlessly polite, radiantly ordinary boy next door. But he was also drawn to outrageous clothes, pimpish overload, endless resculpting of his princely hair. His everyday clothes look neither work-appropriate, nor what was then officially classy. The way he looked says ‘underclass and proud of it’, but also frames an utterly personal dream of light and colour: arcs of pink and black, sunrise yellow and winter frost. Hacksaw sharp and baked-peach luscious. Elvis may not have been much of an actor, but he was surely made to be looked at. Boys wanted to move like him, girls wanted to unwrap him like an expensive Easter chocolate. Odd, glancing hints of femininity in his make-up (and, indeed, his make-up) distinguished him from contemporary rockabilly dudes like Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. He found an obvious joy in the staged act of seduction: the body does brazen, while the face remains convincingly bashful.
Pamela Clarke Keogh’s Elvis: The Man. The Life. The Legend (2004) is mostly what you’d expect from an official biography (‘written with the assistance of Elvis Presley Enterprises’): a jaunty soft-pedal, wisps of sad cloud against lovely Hawaiian skies rather than bruises and darkness. But Keogh has a subtly wary eye and slips in some nice bittersweet undertones: ‘Beneath his extraordinary politeness he has the docility of a house servant.’ The traditional view is that the alchemy in Elvis’s crucible was black carnality sieved through white restraint. But what if it was the other way round, or no simple way round at all, and far odder? Every Elvis biography makes it clear that even initial enemies were won over by the boy’s good manners. But it’s hard not to hear in Keogh’s ‘house servant’ the echo of a far less neutral phrase: ‘house nigger’. Maybe what mainstream America embraced and accepted in Elvis was a magic switcheroo of black politeness and white carnality. For some folks back then, ‘cracker’ was as offensive a term as ‘nigger’, and ‘hillbilly’ was as much a musicological label as ‘negro’ or ‘race’. When Southern boy Elvis first went north to do some fancy New York TV, the usually quite hep Steve Allen miscalculated badly and showcased him in a dreary, patronising skit in which Elvis has to deliver his song to an actual slobbery hound dog. You can feel the Northern condescension and snobbery thick like molasses in the studio air. For his second TV appearance on Ed Sullivan, Elvis was treated like some kind of Tennessee-bred Ebola virus in peg-leg pants. The line this time was drawn between the north and south of his own spasmodic body, a prophylactic Mason-Dixon line somewhere around the belt loops.
The old saw about Elvis ‘ripping off’ black music is a bit of a non-starter. If he forged anything new from old stock, it was the hard-bopping country music that was used as a baseline. Presley’s early Sun-side rhythms are all train-whistle country and sickle-moon bluegrass. The black rhythm and blues originals of songs like ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Mystery Train’ are taken far more slowly – they have an undulant, rough-tongued chug. Elvis’s ‘Hound Dog’ is pure kids’ cartoon alongside Big Mama Thornton’s hot-breathed growl. Elvis’s musical lift-off was never a simple black and white equation; it was more like a backroom radio left on between stations to pick up a tingly mix of all the different sounds in the air that month. Back then, a lot of country music was pretty hip and driven and freaky. (It also had a legion of strong front women, just like Gladys Presley.) The echoes Elvis carried into his own jump-up song were mainly of white artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. Even Elvis’s urbane hero Dean Martin made goo-goo eyes at the country market: ‘Night Train to Memphis’ from 1951 lays his languid, soothing croon over a curvy seesaw beat, and seems to predict quite a bit of the Elvis aesthetic to come. Bill Haley – Presley’s immediate rival for rock and roll trailblazer – started out as Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing, before he saw where the real pension dollars were. Hank Williams had already taken a lot of the corn out of country and amped up the backbeat. Williams’s style was unashamedly backwoods, though, his son-of-a-gun accent upfront (when he sings ‘I don’t care if tomorrow never comes’ the ‘care’ comes out as a sharply elongated hiccup: ‘keeeey-air’); he would always have been too feral-seeming and unstable to qualify for real mainstream crossover, even if he hadn’t died young.
Elvis’s real wildcard was his face: he had the kind of protean good looks amenable to wildly differing interpretations and lusts. He was an irresistible blank that different audience members could project their own private fantasies onto. If you look through early photos of Elvis you can’t help but notice a blurry, shapeshifter effect. He’s like certain shamans, who according to legend display complete fluidity of gender: male woman, female man. In one photo Elvis looks sordid and leering; in another, pure choirboy. From snap to snap you pick up all kinds of unlikely lineaments: native American, Mexican, butch 1980s lesbian. The effect is hard to pin down – polymorphous instability? In the end, why deny it, he’s just plain gorgeous. He’s rough trade for everyone, a true American democracy. It’s hardly surprising that one of the first things Presley’s new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, did was to get him a big Hollywood contract. He was made to be photographed.
Although he has been execrated by successive generations of Elvis fans, there is a good case for seeing Parker as just as much of a visionary as Sam Phillips. Whatever his flaws and blind spots, Parker was not a stupid man. He had been taught human psychology on the carnival midway and could read people (and contracts) in a flash. From the very first he seems to have seen through to the essence of the young raw Elvis. He sensed a soul wide open – a kid who was monstrously acquisitive, but also fundamentally passive, looking to be counselled and led. In his own wholly pragmatic way, Parker foresaw several future directions that showbiz would take. He saw how Elvis, the real Elvis, with all his moods and problems, could be left to sit at home and do whatever he did, while the spangly, malleable Elvis image could be sent out into the world to work. Parker never used words like ‘demographic’ or ‘synergy’, but he had an intuitive understanding of markets and how to exploit them. In the early teen-scream era he had I HATE ELVIS badges run up to sell to the anti-Presley brigade. Similarly, Parker’s reported reaction when Presley died – ‘this changes nothing’ – cuts to the heart of a certain unsentimental grasp of things. Wasn’t it the truth? Hasn’t the arc of the subsequent posthumous career only proved it so? Ghost Elvis can take on far more forms than real-life sweaty, disaffected Elvis ever could, and can be in many more places at once: he’s far more haunting dead than alive.
By the end of the 1960s, Presley’s looks were thickening and his Hollywood servitude was finally played out. His idea of a good time now was to be drug-coddled, bed-bound, lecturing a circle of paid friends on some latest fixation. Finding the Third Eye. Realising the Inner God. Psychic sex. (He could, it seems, bore for Buddha.) And then there were the other obsessions. In three days in 1970 he bought $20,000 worth of guns in one store alone. His favourite people to hang out with by this point were cops, especially drug cops. His favourite movie to watch and memorise and watch again was Patton: Lust for Glory. Music didn’t really compete much any more, but when he did find a song he liked he played it to death. At the height of this drugged-up, locked-down, gun-limned period he found one song that took his breath away, and stuck it on auto-repeat for whole frazzled nights at a time. It was the British light entertainer Roger Whittaker’s ‘The Last Farewell’.
Presley may genuinely not have realised how far gone into addiction he was, because unlike most addicts he never had to go without. With his very own circle of tame doctors (the kind Burroughs would call ‘real writing croakers’) he never had any kind of crisis with supply and demand. He demanded, they supplied. Elvis’s biggest drug problem was that he had no problem getting drugs. Foremost among his legal drug suppliers was the infamous Dr Nick, George C. Nichopoulos. For one ten-day tour in 1977, Nichopoulos secured 682 different pills and tablets for Elvis, plus the dauntingly strong narcotic Dilaudid in liquid form. It was later established in court that in the seven months before Presley’s death the good doctor had prescribed 8805 pills, tablets, vials and injectables. Elvis also had regular supplies coming in from other star-struck doctors. One night, Nichopoulos accompanied Elvis to the dentist; when the dentist briefly left the room, even Dr Nick could hardly believe his eyes as Elvis began to scrabble around the surgery in a desperate search for codeine.
Presley’s drug reliance initially took hold during his army posting to Germany in the late 1950s – the period when true-blue fans claim the real bad-boy Elvis was effectively neutered. While off base in Bad Nauheim – it was in some sense appropriate that it should have been an old spa town – he was introduced to prescription amphetamine and became an avid proselytiser. When the 14-year-old Priscilla first fetched up in Elvis’s boudoir and was having trouble adjusting to his night-for-day timetable, out came the little Sunkist-coloured vials. She blanched, Elvis soothed. If it was in the Physicians’ Desk Reference it was not a ‘drug’ drug. If he thought it was a ‘drug’ drug he’d have nothing to do with it! (Maybe this made more sense at a time when avuncular, white-coated surgeons routinely advertised cigarettes.) The trouble with running your metabolism on amphetamine rails is the eventual nerve-jangled crash. And what better way to offset the hyperintense zig of speed than with the zzzzaaaaag of some new soporific? Without even noticing, you’ve already slipped into a way of dealing with life’s quandaries that is entirely chemical in its logic.
A day in the life: pure liquid cocaine soaked into cotton balls and stuffed up his nose for breakfast; a tutti-frutti of eviscerating biphetamines to get the day off to a smart jog; a whole undulant funhouse spin of downs, any downs at all, for tea. And yet, and yet … Presley’s excess never feels particularly Dionysian; it seems far more a matter of exerting control. Sex and drugs were never binged things, but run always according to his pernickety little itineraries. In the 2005 photo history Elvis by the Presleys, there are two books embossed with his special golden name-stamp: a slim black New Testament Prayer Key and his colossal, multi-coloured Physicians’ Desk Reference. (The latter was his bible, next to the Bible.) Life became more and more a closed-off space, Graceland a cathedral dedicated to endless self-reflection. He was his own icon, long before he became ours.
All this livid Late Elvis stuff, all the tales of shot-out TV sets and shot-up tranqs, would eventually return him to a dark kind of semi-hipness. Punk, far from banishing Presley, brought him back to life as a kind of negative totem. He epitomised Bad America. He epitomised Decadent Rock. He epitomised how sick and alienated mainstream society really was behind closed doors. With its veneer of sneer, punk was really the last burst of teenage sincerity, a cry of real confusion, hurt and rage; far from being a denial of venerable rock history, it was the last stop on the line. Punk and Elvis may not have got into bed together, but there was definitely some Oedipal tension in the mucosal late 1970s air.
Early in Elvis Has Left the Building Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, brushes against some of the paradoxes of Elvis in the age of punk. But it never goes much further than that. We get nearly as much of the author’s own biography as Presley’s: small-town rock obsessive, punk convert, London squatter, art college blade. How much light does this shine on Elvis? Not a lot. Plus, it’s pretty much a straight replay of a nearly identical chapter in Jones’s 2005 book iPod, Therefore I Am. The new title reads a lot like some flashy magazine’s Elvis special: a bit of memoir, a bit of fashion, a bit of a superficial round-up of what was going on in 1977 (‘as you drove to the movie theatre you were probably listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours’); and, of course, a big long ‘must-have’ list to end on. (Lists! Where would modern sort-of-journalism be without them?) Strangely, in the iPod memoir, where Jones tallies up every pop song he has ever even half-listened to, Elvis is notable by his absence. Among the more than four thousand vital iPod transfers, how many are by Elvis? Not one. And now Jones gives us yet another list, of … the fifty greatest Elvis tracks.
The iPod book doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: you can skim through it in half an afternoon, argue the toss, make your own alternative lists. Elvis Has Left the Building is more problematically stranded between glib pose-striking and serious reflection. There are all manner of dubious truisms: ‘Everyone over a certain age can remember exactly where they were when they found out that Elvis was dead.’ Can they really? I asked a bunch of friends roughly my own (and Jones’s) age and not one had a clue where they were when Elvis died. I certainly don’t. Maybe we were all having too much teenage fun, or trauma, to notice. By 1977, his final year on earth, Elvis was no longer much of a deal for most people. You occasionally saw one of his rictus-faced Hollywood vehicles on teatime TV and shivered and thought no more about it. ‘The amazing story of Elvis, punk and how the star who changed everything lives on,’ Jones’s cover shouts. But how does this ghostly ‘living on’ work, exactly? Why do we assent so greedily to the current insane overload of ‘iconic’ this-and-that and endless minor anniversaries? What is this pathological collective nostalgia? Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly, given his day job) Jones doesn’t really pry into any of this. How does Elvis live on? How exactly does it work for this guy whose terribly inconsistent music is rarely heard any more; whose completely time-locked films (with the consistency of week-old candyfloss) are never seen; and whose pretty rank – sexist, reactionary, NRA-supporting, Nixon-voting – persona is not what you’d call a hot selling point for any potential new fans. Why isn’t he, as Paddy McAloon so memorably put it, ‘as obsolete as warships in the Baltic’? Jones briefly engages with the workings of the whole ‘icon’ industry in his penultimate chapter on Graceland, but he’s too much a happy gatekeeper of the very same world to ‘wear his game face’ (his own phrase) for this investigation.
I also can’t forgive Jones for leaving my own all-time favourite Elvis track off his ‘best of’ list: the soft, spooky, haunting version of ‘Blue Moon’. I have to admit, I would struggle to put together such a list; I always thought Elvis worked far better in jukebox bursts than extended play. It was only recently that I came across a collection I could listen to from start to finish: Elvis at Stax (2013) assembles tracks from various mid-1970s sessions at the label’s Memphis studios. Elvis sounds relaxed with his material and gives the songs genuine, mood-sensitive readings, rather than just one more hip-roll run through. He sounds like what he is: a man in looming middle age, no longer sure which way is up. He’s lived a bit, done some bad bad things, survived the odd crisis. He’s been up in the righteous sky and down in the mole-claw dirt. Now when he ghosts through a bluesy plaint it sounds thoroughly convincing. Even some brief bursts of between-song banter are revealing. Elvis hums to himself, warming up his voice. He starts out in light gospel mode (‘Further along …’), then breaks off into a different line of song or a different line of thought: ‘Wasted years …’ He repeats the phrase and draws the ‘wasted’ out like a great long fragile fan: ‘Oh, how foolish …’ In a song called ‘Help Me’, he sounds as if he’s finally crawled to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting: ‘With a humble heart, on bended knees, I’m begging you please: help me!’
Singers like Isaac Hayes (a Stax act, as it happens) had already shown that MOR balladry could be a many-splendoured trip, and with the best songs in the Stax selection we finally get to hear both sides of Elvis: good twin, bad twin; the creepy and threatening Elvis as well as the more familiar croony sentimentalist. Billy Goldenberg, the musical director of Presley’s 1968 ‘comeback’ TV special, saw just such buried qualities in Elvis, and later spelled it out for Presley’s biographer Jerry Hopkins: ‘There’s a cruelty involved, there’s a meanness, there’s a basic sadistic quality about what he does. He’s excited by certain kinds of violent things.’
The smiley glad-handing Elvis always exhibited in public when meeting people for the first time had its roots in a richly ambiguous tradition of Southern ‘good manners’, a whole codified arrangement – whatever the colour of user and recipient – in grey. I had high hopes that Joel Williamson’s Elvis Presley: A Southern Life might take Presley’s background seriously – even over-seriously. Academic treatments of pop culture can be hard-going over the course of a whole bulky text, but if they throw out a few unusual perspectives, loopy conceptual reframings, then all to the good. (The real place to look for this right now is – I’m not kidding – the ever expanding area of Elvis impersonator studies: life imitating Don DeLillo.) Sadly, A Southern Life is not really an academic/theoretical study at all, just one more solid biography. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it wasn’t crying out to be written after Peter Guralnick’s definitive two-volume Life.In his preface, Williamson ticks off several interesting areas (sex, race, notions of ‘Southern womanhood’) but then doesn’t go anywhere with them. He throws out a few obligatory references to William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, but without further elucidation this comes across as lazy, almost random. Why not Harry Crews? Why not Flannery O’Connor? Why not (note the initials) Edgar Allan Poe? Why not the Beverley Hillbillies? Elvis, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner: can you think of three less similar people? Even the fact of their Southern birth doesn’t really haunt their work in any consonant manner. Faulkner and Williams both needed isolation to do their work. With Elvis, after he hit it big you wonder if he was ever again, even for one minute, alone. For all the good-time buddies, the pliant showgirls, the downpour of narcotics, you feel his loneliness just got deeper and sharper and more claustrophobic; that it became almost a solid thing, a companion for the early hours when all the day’s games and monologues were finally through. A replacement twin.
Elvis died on 16 August 1977, aged 42. He was overweight, over-medicated and had been poring over a paperback called The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus. When success first hit in 1956 he was 21, and had seen nothing of the world outside Tupelo and Memphis. That kind of outsize success for this kind of backwoods child was a wholly new phenomenon, and anyone might have struggled with the psychological backwash. Presley seems to have gone into a form of spooked retreat almost immediately. He erected a shell of bland politesse and jokey normality, hid in plain sight. Yes sir, he said to all the reporters. No ma’am, to all the society ladies and concerned mothers of America. Yes sir, no ma’am – to Colonel Tom, to RCA, to Hollywood, to Priscilla Beaulieu’s parents, to the United States Army. A yes and a no that measured a whole wild world of material change, but not, perhaps, very much disruption of his own fundamentally passive nature. A huge wash of success, out on all the stages of the world. Inside, though, his world contracted to the size of a luxurious but airless crypt filled with fossilised dreams, live corpses, the chatter of ghosts.
Elvis remains the unbeatable blueprint for rock and roll lift-off: a combination of heroic self-invention and giving the world something it only just realised it had to have. But he also remains the template for how to deal badly with all the accompanying fame and success. Each discrete and blithely choreographed step: the dubious manager; the huge echoing mansion; the slow crumbling turn inward; the scattering of original friends; the self-embalming drug fall; the painful evaporation of work and sociability. Elvis really did do everything first – even the not doing, even the not being.