Pop Culture

Elvis the immortal

He reigns supreme 20 years after his death

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 18 1997
Pop Culture

Elvis the immortal

He reigns supreme 20 years after his death

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 18 1997

Elvis the immortal

He reigns supreme 20 years after his death

Pop Culture

The sky has long darkened over the northern Mississippi town of Holly Springs, but there is no rest for the self-proclaimed ‘World’s No. 1 Elvis Fans.” Paul MacLeod and his son, Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod, are still hard at work inside GracelandToo, the handsome antebellum mansion they have turned into a shrine to all things Elvis. Every inch of the walls and ceilings is covered with records, photos, posters, mementoes—thousands of items chronicling the life and times of The King. Five TV sets are on, with five VCRs at the ready to record any news or entertainment shows mentioning Elvis. And all night long, a steady stream of fans, followers and the simply curious passes through the house in Holly Springs. Some come to admire, some no doubt to privately mock.

ON

ASSIGNMENT ANDREW PHILLIPS

IN MEMPHIS

But all in their

way pay tribute to the enduring power of Elvis Culture, the bizarre mix of celebrity worship and just plain worship that shows no sign of flagging 20 years after the man who inspired it was found dead on his toilet at his home in Memphis, Tenn., the original Graceland.

This week, in the days leading up to the anniversary of Elvis’s death at the age of 42 on Aug. 16,1977, some 75,000 people are expected to converge on Memphis.

They are coming for Elvis Week, aka Death Week and Weep Week—a round of concerts, meetings and dances that culminates in an all-night procession through the grounds of Graceland. At sundown on Friday, Aug. 15, the famous gates on Elvis Presley Boulevard, with their musical notes fashioned of wrought iron, will swing open. In what has become an annual ritual, thousands of fans bearing lighted candles will move reverently up the sloping driveway and around to the Meditation Garden, where the bodies of Elvis, his mother, father and grandmother lie under bronze markers. Paul MacLeod, 54, and son Elvis, 24, will join the throng and pause in the garden for a moment of silent contemplation. “Wouldn’t miss it,” says Paul. “No sir. I’d lay down my own life to bring that man back. I surely would.”

But Elvis Culture is no longer the preserve of those whose fascination with the departed star borders on the macabre. It has defied the ridicule of sophisticates, and has grown big enough and lasted long enough to attract the attention of the serious as well as the silly. This week, Memphis will also host the third International Conference on Elvis Presley, with academics from as far away as Australia debating such weighty topics as Elvis’s role in shaping multicultural America, and “2001: Elvis and the Apocalypse.” Sales of his records have passed the one billion mark (more than any other recording

artist), and RCAhas just released a new four-CD, 100-song set called Elvis Presley Platinum: A Life in Music. The number of those making the trek to Graceland each year has reached 700,000. Fan clubs number close to 500 around the world and include people of every age and profession. One club in Washington called Elvis on Capitol Hill counts politicians, lobbyists and journalists as members. Elvis buffs are sick of being stereotyped as get-a-life losers, and don’t mind who they tell. “We have doctors and professors,” says Cynthia Sylvia, president of the 300-member Elvis Memphis Style club. “It’s not like

we all have our elevators stuck in the basement.”

And, of course, Elvis is big business—and growing bigger. When he died, his financial affairs had been so badly run by his manager,

“Colonel” Tom Parker, that his estate amounted to just $6 million, with only a few hundred thousand dollars in cash. Twenty years later, g Elvis Presley Enterprises, § the corporate entity that I guards his legacy, presides | over a global industry that is g worth, by some estimates, 1 as much as $700 million a year. It has rights over the | marketing of Elvis’s name and image, and carefully regulates the supply of Elvisabilia—the ubiquitous and kitschy Graceland licence plates, hound-dog ashtrays and Heartbreak Hotel beer coasters. The company opened an Elvis theme restaurant in Memphis in late July and has ambitious plans for more, in New York City and Las Vegas. An Elvis hotel and convention centre, and a museum, may follow in Memphis. The market shows no sign of being saturated—four decades after he was on the cutting edge of pop music. “Elvis has an endurance that is truly amazing,” marvels Jack Soden, who runs the company on behalf of Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie, and his ex-wife, Priscilla.

The heart of Elvis Presley Enterprises is Graceland itself, the house Elvis bought in 1957 when he was already the biggest sensation ever

in American popular culture. The previous year had seen his breakthrough. Hits like Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel topped the charts; Ed Sullivan famously censored Elvis on his TV show by showing him only above the waist, cutting out the gyrating pelvis that sent female fans into paroxysms. Today, Graceland is just as it was when he died. Better than anything else, it shows the scope of his ambition and the limitations he could never overcome—both of which go some way to explaining the power of his myth. He was born in a tworoom clapboard house in Tupelo, Miss. There was no running water and just one bed; Elvis slept with his parents until they left Tupelo for Memphis when he was 13. Graceland, which from the outside bears a fair resemblance to a grand old southern mansion, represented as much success as he could imagine.

Inside, the decor is equally revealing. Stained-glass peacocks; royal blue brocade curtains; a bright yellow upholstered bar in the basement TV room; green shag carpet on walls and even ceilings; and the famous Jungle Room, full of overstuffed chairs covered with fake animal fur and a mini-water fall illuminated by yellow floodlights. It is the kind of decorating horror that earned Elvis the scorn of the tasteful folk who loved to hate him during his fat, pill-popping, jumpsuit-and-sequins years, when he crooned treacly tunes for the casino crowd—the Vegas Elvis. But it endears him to those who ap-

POP CULTURE

preciate that he never lost touch with his roots. “Elvis knew where he came from,” says Janelle McComb, who knew the Presley family in Tupelo and runs the foundation that has preserved his birthplace (100,000 people visit it each year). “Rich as he was, he never left us.”

He never left us. There are, of course, those who claim he really never did, that he faked his death and works at a 7Eleven in Texas or a gas station in Saskatchewan. More common are those who believe Elvis has a continuing presence beyond the grave, a therapeutic or even spiritual quality that sets him apart from the likes of James Dean or Jim Morrison, other dead celebrities who have achieved cult status. The brick wall outside Graceland is covered with graffiti that is renewed as quickly as it is washed off.

“Elvis Heals.” “Thank you,

Elvis, for prayers answered.” “Elvis, meet me at the K-mart.” Vernon Chadwick, an English professor who wrote the introduction to Dear Elvis: Graffiti from Graceland, a collection of the wall writings, analyzes the feeling behind them this way: “Elvis is a universal ombudsman—comforting, interceding, offering solutions to problems that elude us mere mortals. He is lover, parent, friend, redeemer—a cosmic go-between capable of bringing boy and girl, husband and wife, the living and the dead back together again.”

Chadwick organized the first International Conference on Elvis in 1995 while he was teaching at the University of Mississippi. Scholars spent a week exploring Elvis’s roots and the stigma of the “redneck” label, as well as his fusion of white gospel and country traditions with black music. Chadwick himself dissected the parallels between Herman Melville’s Polynesian novels and Elvis’s Hawaii movies. Both, he argued, crossed the barriers between civilized and native man.

The conference attracted lots of attention—not least because it also featured such performers as a lesbian Elvis impersonator called Elvis Herselvis. The university got cold feet; other professors argued that it was becoming an object of ridicule. A second Elvis conference was held last summer, but the university withdrew its sponsorship for this year’s version, which is being held at an art college in Memphis. Worse, Chadwick came up for tenure last fall and lost his teaching position—because, he says, of the raging fight over Elvis, the poor white boy who made good and who does not sit well with elite southerners trying to put as much distance as possible between themselves and their heritage. To Chadwick, that just proves his point: that Elvis is well worth scholarly study. “Elvis is a lightning rod for the conflicts and controversies of American culture. He’s either a global icon or a miserable joke. I ran into the buzz saw of that controversy.”

This week’s conference will focus on “multicultural Elvis”—the artist as grand unifier, capable of reconciling races, generations and classes. Robert Lopez, a Mexican-American impersonator who performs under the name El Vez, will address his relevance to Lati-

no culture. Larry Geller, Elvis’s onetime hairdresser and occasional spiritual adviser, will talk about him as a “seeker”—bewildered by his own fame, searching for the answer to why a poor teenager from an obscure Mississippi town was touched by such celebrity. (Geller is the one who gave Elvis the book he was reading in the bathroom when he died: The Scientific Search for the Face of ^ Jesus). The argument that Elvis does not belong in aca-ls deme will be addressed by William McCranor Hender-1 son, a professor of English at North Carolina State Uni-1

Elvis is religion—and big business

versity who also has what he calls a “secret life” as an Elvis impersonator. Chadwick believes that interest in The King is growing: he plans to start Caribbean cruises this winter combining entertainment with study of Elvis in partnership with a Toronto company, Callaway Cruises.

The academics may spend days dissecting Elvis’s appeal, but the man who first recognized it says it was obvious. Sam Phillips, legendary pioneer of rhythm and blues, founded Sun Studio in Memphis in the early 1950s and recorded such blues giants as B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. Sun Studio still stands on Union Avenue—a deceptively ramshackle little building that is one of the most significant stops on any pilgrimage through Elvis country. It was there, in July, 1954, that Elvis had his first recording session, and Phillips heard him do a version of an old Arthur Crudup R and B number, That’s All Right (Mama). Phillips had predicted he could make millions “if I could find a white boy who could sing with a black sound.” When he heard Elvis give a rock ’n’ roll twist to that song, he knew he had found the voice that would revolutionize popular music. “Any damn fool could tell he had the innate ability to give a song the honesty and the power of what he was saying,” Phillips says.

Phillips is 74 now, an intense, bearded figure, still proud of his trailblazing role in bringing black music out of the artistic ghetto and introducing it to a mass white audience. He has gone down in rock history as the man who discovered Elvis, but he is also the man who sold Elvis’s contract to RCA at the end of 1955 for $35,000 (U.S.)—just before he soared into mega-stardom. Phillips needed

the money to keep Sun Studio afloat and continue recording singers like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Since then, he has done a lot of thinking about Elvis’s enduring appeal. Phillips is no Elvis worshipper; the skinny young singer he knew was insecure and flawed. And he says Elvis “would get out of that damn box in Graceland if anyone thought he was some kind of messiah.”

But like many people who knew Elvis, or have spent time thinking about him, Phillips slips into language that has overtly religious overtones. “Elvis Presley,” he says with the emphatic cadences of his native Alabama, “had an evangelical quality about him that goes beyond having a beautiful voice. It doesn’t command you to listen. It invites you, and it also says,

in essence, ‘Can’t you feel me?’ ” Elvis, he continues, “had this intangible thing. You can’t explain it. I can’t explain it. The great professors of this world can’t explain it. That’s why it’s so great.” Janelle McComb, who presides over the Presley home in Tupelo, uses similarly evocative language. When Elvis rocketed to fame, she says, “we knew we were in the middle of an earth-shaking miracle.”

Evangelism, miracles—and, at the heart of it all, an unknowable mystery. No wonder so many people have found echoes of something much bigger than celebrity worship at the heart of Elvis Culture. And no wonder, perhaps, that Paul MacLeod at GracelandToo in Holly Springs, halfway between the Elvis meccas of Memphis and Tupelo, became obsessed with Elvis. His collection of Elvis memorabilia goes back 43 years, filling not only the mansion but storage vaults in three other states. Seven years ago, his wife, Serita, gave him an ultimatum. “She told me to decide—her or the Elvis collection.” He did not hesitate: “I just told her goodbye, and that was that.”

Now, the visitors to GracelandToo keep coming—110,000 drawn from all over the world by word of mouth since the house opened as an Elvis museum in 1991. Paul MacLeod has chosen the outfit he will be buried in: a gold lamé suit identical to the one Elvis wore. But for now, the work of celebrating The King goes on all day and through the night, and Paul knows he’s on to something big. With a quiet satisfaction, he says: “This ain’t never gonna end.” □