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…
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