Elvis Presley died in the early morning of August 16, 1977, officially of “cardiac arrhythmia.” Traces were found of at least eight, perhaps eleven, drugs in his system, constituting a very jet-age sort of litany: Quaalude, Valium, Valmid, Demerol, Hycodan, Dilaudid, Amytal, Carbital, Seconal, Placidyl, antihistamine. The body was bloated, the face was purple with blood.
Just as would happen after the death of a figure popularly considered holy and assured of canonization, a fierce commerce in relics soon began. Anything betokening survival after death became news, and trade. Dozens of impersonators appeared. Seemingly any white male could pass muster as a “tribute” if some six feet in height, weighing less than the 255 pounds of the King’s final tonnage, and able to wear a black vinyl rug and a gem-encrusted white jumpsuit open to the navel. Some, like transsexuals, went to the length of having their features surgically altered, the better to resemble Him. Of course, some people claimed he had not died at all, or that he had himself “cloned” before the last roundup. In 1978, two young women issued a pamphlet claiming their impregnation by his ghost.
While these posthumous phenomena certainly included an enormous amount of media manufacture, at the root was a genuine outpouring of folk sentiment in all its bathos and grotesquerie. This would be puzzling to anyone who observed only the last fifteen or twenty years of Elvis’s career. The idea of any other crooning vulgarian, Wayne Newton, say, or Englebert Humperdinck, becoming an object of near-religious devotion would seem bizarre even in Las Vegas. But the records and kinescopes from the first few years still speak. In them, Elvis is a charged presence, the manifestation of ticklish ambiguities of sex and race that cannot fail to provoke. The story between those two points is a managerial one: the American dream of scoring once and then spending a lifetime collecting residuals.
Much of Albert Goldman’s informative but misguided book is devoted to debunking myths. No, Elvis never lived in the storybook cottage in Tupelo that is presented as his childhood home. It was a mean shack later gussied up by local boosters. No, his family did not subsequently move to a black slum; it was a white slum. The housing project was really a rather nice federally subsidized apartment complex. The reality is sometimes better, sometimes worse. Elvis was born working-class white in Mississippi. His twin, Jesse, probably fraternal rather than identical, was stillborn, and that marked his childhood. He was the only child of a domineering mother, and a weak father who went to jail for a small-time forgery shortly after Elvis’s birth.
In adolescence, Elvis became an original. He modeled a hairstyle after Tony Curtis and bought clothes from a store mostly patronized by black pimps. Unfortunately, he couldn’t really fight back when the inevitable schoolyard baiting began, and had to be bailed out by bigger boys, who may have been motivated by their respect for his voice. At first Elvis was a shy crooner who imitated Tony Bennett and who would only sing at parties when all the lights were turned out. His first success came at a school talent show. He sang the weeper, “Old Shep.”
Thus was born the dichotomy that was to inform his whole life: rebellion and assimilation. Elvis could be extreme at both, simultaneously, a talent that would seem to be the property of spoiled children. In fact, much of his power, as well as his eventual demise, was due to his failure to acknowledge apparent contradictions. This was most fruitfully put to use in his early music, with its inspired marriage of white country and black rhythm and blues, a previously taboo coupling. Elvis could sing country with a blues feeling and R&B like a country boy, which is precisely what he did on sides B and A, respectively, of his first single, on the Sun label.
That, however, only accounts for half of his magnetism. The other was the result of another juncture of seeming opposites: his sexual presence. The Presley visage, The Face, is an icon in places where the Beatles are merely four stick figures with long hair. It is a plumpish oval with smooth cheeks, a Greek nose, heavy-lidded “bedroom” eyes, and thick lips with a pronounced rise at both points of the bow-shaped upper, all surmounted by the famous quiff. The nose is an unbroken prow from the forehead, unswerving as that of the discus-thrower. The eyes both beckon and veil; they were deepened with eye shadow throughout his career. The mouth is encyclopedic in its implications: it is the classic “sensual,” as well as the forbidden “Negro,” and its upper lip is poised to curl into a snarl. Remove the nose and the face is undeniably feminine, made all the more so by the dyed and piled nest of hair, itself challenged by the “hillbilly” sideburns.
Elvis’s sexuality was fully as complicated as his appearance might suggest. He liked his mother far too much, and his early trystings suffered accordingly. He apparently liked very young girls, with whom he could commune in a sensuous if noncarnal fashion, to the point of earnestly discussing makeup hints with them. He was essentially a narcissist, and gradually became, as Goldman tells us in great detail, a highly specialized voyeur who sought girls who would wrestle with each other while wearing only white panties.
Of course, he was more than just a face and a voice to his audience. In fact, he was widely perceived from the waist down. At his public debut in July 1954, he caused a sensation. Elvis himself was puzzled. As Goldman tells it: “As Elvis huddled with the band, he demanded: ‘What’s makin’ ’em holler so much?’ ‘It was your leg, man!’ Scotty and Bill told him, laughing. ‘It was the way you were shaking your left leg. That’s what got ’em screamin’.”‘
And so on to a phenomenal rise. He was soon on television, shot from the waist up for titillation. His songs, simultaneously coy and provocative, were everywhere: “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” of course, as well as “Baby, Let’s Play House” and “(I Just Wanna Be Your) Teddy Bear.” Along the way, he signed a succession of brutal contracts with a former circus carny named Colonel Tom Parker, who became his manager.
Colonel Parker, as Goldman describes him, was a rapacious profiteer of murky origins and peculiar ideas on how to move his product. He never let Elvis play New York City, and exerted much energy in trying to take the mickey out of his star’s potential or actual provocations to the established order. His most peculiar move came in 1957, when he duped Elvis into joining the army. It makes for an interesting metaphor: joining the army, of all things, became a sort of ritual emasculation. The sideburns were shaved and the locks sheared and the body packed into olive drabs. Thus was Elvis made safe for the nuclear family and the church.
His career was never to be the same again. As John Lennon put it upon learning of Elvis’s death, “Elvis died when he joined the army.” His public had not deserted him when he returned, but its faith was betrayed. He stopped touring, the hair and clothes were toned down, the songs became orchestrated Neapolitan pastries, and the major efforts of the public Elvis seemed to be in the direction of a long series of vapid movies with identical plots and ludicrous stagings of bad tunes.
Meanwhile, the private Elvis became increasingly pathological. His mother had died just after his induction into the army, a deadly blow. Here is Goldman on the wake: “As he stood there, consuming Gladys with his eyes, he demanded to see her feet—’her itty-bitty sooties!’ The undertakers exchanged perplexed looks. Reluctantly, they obliged, raising the satin coverlet and exposing the slipper-clad feet. Instantly, Elvis clasped Gladys’s feet and fondled them, pouring out a stream of unintelligible baby talk.”
He surrounded himself with a coterie of large men, precisely the types who had defended him in school when his appearance proved a liability. They were bodyguards, gofers, jesters, factota, yesmen, and insulation, and they provided the focus for his social expression. In 1967 he married Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he had met in Germany while in the army and then sequestered, from the age of seventeen, until they could be married without causing a scandal. After she bore him a child, exactly nine months later, he effectively abandoned her, on the grounds that he could not have sex with someone who was a mother. He fled back to the safety of his entourage.
Around this time, Elvis began his huge intake of drugs and, paradoxically, became obsessed with law enforcement. Paying an unannounced visit to Richard Nixon to offer his services in the war against drugs, he was promptly given a badge of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Elvis’s rationale, apparently, was that he never took heroin, only synthetic opiates, and never mainlined, but skin-popped. He had already started collecting guns in the wake of death threats in the late Fifties, and used them against inanimate objects, like imperfectly focused TVs. He began giving things away, things like trucks, in large quantities, to friends, relatives, and people who just happened to show up. In all this he was encouraged, if passively, by his management, who preferred an Elvis ignorant of money, time, the world, and wholly dependent on others.
His withdrawal only increased once he resumed live appearances in the late Sixties, and soon he was a ghastly, infantile figure, falling asleep with his head in a bowl of chicken-rice soup. His last years were much like those of Howard Hughes, who also suffered from an anaesthetizing management. Goldman depicts an obese Elvis, lolling on a huge bed, too incapacitated by drugs to watch the various TV sets suspended from the ceiling, and with attendants maintaining a deathwatch that ultimately failed.
It is a mean tale, and mean-spirited too is Albert Goldman’s account of it. The body of literature that has been produced about Elvis since his death is an ugly one. After all, it is an intersection of two especially vampiric literary genres: writing about recent popular music, and exhumations of dead celebrities. The former perhaps has some ultimate potential, but to date has mostly displayed many opportunities for asinine posturing. Goldman, for example, tries to assume a “pop” tone with refrains of “Can you dig it?”, abrupt shifts into the present tense for the frequent docu-drama-like anecdotes, and a general air of someone relating the whole thing from a barstool.
Writing about the recent dead has attracted many unsavory types. There are the friends, relatives, and employees exercising revenge beyond the grave on the one hand, and then the many hacks, pretenders, and necrophiliacs whose flourishing has made the genre’s entire premise seem suspect.
The kind of voyeurism in which Goldman’s book indulges has long been common coin, and the need to lay bare the human failings of one popularly imagined divine can be grudgingly allowed in a case where the distance between poles is so vast. However, the book allows Elvis very little. He is seen as a shuffling automaton, a kind of prize monkey whose every move is dictated by electrodes. His inspiration is perceived as confusion on a lucky streak, and Goldman’s obsession is with the relative savvy of its exploitation by management.
In fact, Goldman’s book shows considerably more empathy toward Colonel Parker, who is portrayed as a villain, but a complex one. When Goldman discusses the various wrong moves the Colonel made, the author’s wistful longing to be faced with such decisions himself is almost tangible. He is constantly berating Parker for not establishing tax shelters and failing to make Elvis “as rich as Bob Hope.”
Elvis himself is assumed to be a naïf who would be expected, if left to his own devices, to have dissipated his life and career even further. Of course, it is true that Elvis’s creative life was a wasteland from circa 1957 to his death. He became a product, significant as a presence quite apart from any specific activity. Like Valentino, an early hero of his, the King could have listed his profession as “idol.” The millions who thronged the streets of Cairo for days to mourn the Egyptian singer Om Khalsoum were paying tribute to her voice. Presley’s, and Valentino’s, legions of mourners were grieving for an image. Goldman’s book shares the potential cannibalism of such mourning. The condescension that taints nearly every page is the obverse of that kind of envious idolatry which needs the death of the subject in order to prosper.
Legendary status cannot be sustained by the living for very long, unless, like Garbo, they succeed in becoming enigmas. After death, time can be compressed and all forgiven. Relics then become potent, distributing shares of the power among those who possess them. The voice coming through the speakers is no longer on lease from a man or woman miles away but actually there, in your living room, for where else could it be? Similarly, to perform an autopsy on the legend’s corpse, discovering the nail parings in the stomach and wax in the ears, is to establish one’s superiority. The crux is a desire to possess, to eat the brains, as it were.
What is forgotten in all this is Elvis’s trailblazing talent. He no more discovered rock-and-roll than Columbus discovered America, but to go back and hear his swoops and hollers on “Mystery Train” or “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” is to hear something for the first time, to witness the freedom of the Hillbilly Cat roping together strains that are country, city, black, white, teen-aged, and very old. Like any novel artist, Elvis contributed a way of perceiving things.
That Elvis was also a person is even more readily forgotten, to some degree because his appearance became as totemic as a Coca-Cola sign. He walks through the majority of his ridiculous movies as if stupefied; in them, he was really no more than a prop. The Elvis imitators of recent times have demonstrated how it can all be easily reduced to a hairstyle and a costume, themselves from the last eight or nine years of his life.
A revealing corrective can be found in Private Elvis. The photographs of Rudolf Paulini catch Elvis on a few occasions in a burlesque club in Munich during his army posting. The King is shorn and modestly garbed, clearly out of his element in a setting that is somewhere between Toulouse-Lautrec and a New Jersey topless bar. The compositions are as flat as Kiwanis press releases, Elvis posing with anyone who happens by, shaking hands, embracing barmaids and lavatory attendants. The rigidity provides its own charms, however. It is a very shy Elvis who is shown kissing a stripper in a sequence that begins as frenching in the air and ends as a chaste buss when contact is made. Some of the compositions are as illuminating as the paintings of Frans Hals: Elvis and his little smile surrounded by a motley collection of dancers who wink and leer. There is an underpinning of pornographic reference throughout, Elvis, like a male Juliette, as the innocent about to be ravished by the libertine elite.
Even the famous curled lip is uncertain of its coming or going and resolves into a timid gesture. One point is clear: Elvis is the least confident person in the room. The others—guests, dancers, barmaids, cooks, band members—are at ease, even gloating a bit at the notion of their stock rising once their contact with the King has been photographically confirmed. The book also contains interviews with some of the other subjects, and over and over they make the same point: Elvis was at the mercy of his management. Not allowed to drink liquor, ordered to comb his hair, even escorted to the loo, he had already begun his career as a pawn.
The book’s publisher states in a prefatory interview (the whole project is cast in a tone of modish “documentation”) that his issuing the book stems from an interest in “material where a ‘perfect’ man is allowed the freedom not to be so perfect.” It is unfortunate that this attitude was not shared by those who controlled Elvis, and who ensured that the gloss of perfection became a premature embalming. Goldman quotes an unnamed Hollywood cynic who, upon learning of Elvis’s death, said, “Good career move.”
December 17, 1981