When Lester Bangs died, he left behind many writing fragments, including long lists of book ideas. One of the ideas was a book about people’s fantasies about Elvis. He wanted to talk to writers, musicians, regular people, and ask them what their Elvis fantasies were, no matter how outrageous. (After all, Lester Bangs had written an entire 10-page phantasmagorical dream-nightmare about exhuming Elvis’ body, eating the decaying medication left in Elvis’ stomach, so that he could then BE Elvis and see what it felt like to walk around as that guy for a day.) Lester Bangs understood that Elvis Presley lived in our imaginations, more than anywhere else. He wanted to hear how other people fantasized about Elvis, he wanted to hear the scope and structure of their stories, and these imaginary stories would make up the book. I am so sorrowful that this book never came to be.
Unlike any other star I can think of, except for Marilyn Monroe and, perhaps, James Dean, Elvis does not exist on a real plane in our culture. There are other stars who cast long shadows once they pass from the earth, but very few enter into the realm that Elvis has. Elvis’ realm seems to be relegated mostly to dead kings, prophets, pharaohs, and strange holy men like Rasputin. They live on as spectres on some other plane in the collective consciousness, they act as projector screens for our hopes or disappointments. In the most extreme cases, their impact is divorced from meaning. The very fact that someone fantasizes something about Elvis (whatever it might be) has a lot to do with what he meant to the culture, either artistically, sexually, spiritually. Marilyn Monroe has a different issue. Her beauty and sexuality and sheer power of image is so recognizable that the Image has won the war. She IS the image (and she was so during her lifetime as well, but the situation has intensified following her death). This is why I encourage people who are not familiar with, you know, her acting, to go back and take a look at it again. Watch Clash By Night, Don’t Bother to Knock, Bus Stop. She was gorgeous, yes, but so many people in Hollywood are gorgeous. It can’t be just that. Monroe really means something significant to people, and the vast gap between some of her main defenders (I mean, Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem – really?) speaks to the meteor-like impact she had on our culture. Her death has only magnified that impact.
Elvis is in a similar position, although there is something more mystical going on with him. People still believe he is alive, for example. People flock to his home on his death-day and light candles and moan and walk around in circles. This does not happen on Marilyn Monroe’s death-day, although it is commemorated by film fans who loved her. Elvis helped create our current-day culture, and he also transcended it. He is Everyman. But that is very close to being No Man. He is all things to all people, which can be dismaying if you have a specific love of him, of this or that era in his career, or if you want to talk about him in a serious way. His sexpot-rebel image (not to mention his almost otherworldly beauty) always detracted from the seriousness of what he was doing (and this detraction was part of his slam-dunk success and domination as a performer). Elvis’ attitude towards his work and career mirrors the attitude of the old-school movie stars, Bogart, Cooper, Wayne: they could not have been more serious about what they were doing, but they never wanted to be caught taking themselves seriously.
Elvis’ death cut his life short. The “cult” surrounding Elvis erected itself immediately following his death. It was as though we suddenly understood what he meant, the vast-ness of what he did, the irreplaceable nature of his gift. There will always be a sense of loss surrounding him, in the way there is around River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, a host of others. We wonder what else they would have done. We miss them. They seem to grow in their absence.
Nobody has grown in absence like Elvis. It is why I avoided trying to write about him for so long. It seems as though that ground is too well-trod for anyone to say anything new. (I no longer believe that.) As the years pass, the Elvis Cult has taken up much of the oxygen in the How We Talk About Elvis conversation. That is inevitable. The post-Elvis-death phenomenon is unique, and if you want to find comparisons you must go, as I said, to politics and dead kings or assassinated leaders, whose “legacy lives on”, who become an Image of qualities we yearn for in our society, a symbol of our Best Selves.
Fantasies about Elvis are an important part of understanding his impact. Those who love him, who wish he had lived longer, have stories they still wish to hear, they have a desire to insert Elvis into their own narratives.
Rachel Weisz has said that when she was lonely as a little girl, she would sometimes talk to Elvis. Quentin Tarantino wrote an entire script where the main character is haunted by Elvis, and this ghostly Elvis gives the main character inspirational speeches and tells him how awesome he is, and what he must do next. People have that kind of personalized relationship with the man. There are comic books where Elvis is imagined as a superhero. Elvis erotica. Elvis alternate history stories. A retired journalist from Dublin sent me a wonderful piece of fiction he wrote, imagining that Elvis went on leave to Dublin, Ireland, and played an impromptu show at the Royal Theatre in Dublin, under the pseudonym Seamus Murphy. Wonderful. Elvis’ image can take a lot. It’s flexible. You need a strong backup to protect you? That’s Elvis. You need a sweet shoulder to cry on? There he is. You need a new Cadillac? Elvis will provide. You need a sexy supportive guy to encourage you to let your Freak Flag fly? There’s Elvis. It’s a diverse persona.
His death left a gap that no one else has filled. That gap is filled with fantasies.
When Elvis died, one of his producers said, “It’s like someone just came up and told me there aren’t going to be any more cheeseburgers in the world.”
This is an extraordinary statement and remember, this was from someone who knew him. If you were (are) a fan, your reaction to Elvis’ death would be a baffled: “But … what are we going to do now?”
This is the “sui generis” distinction that I keep mentioning. There are many people who are talented and greatly missed. But the “sui generis” ones are the ones who seem inevitable, who seem to fill a void in the culture just by showing up (remember Keith Richards’ comment on hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time: “I’d never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to happen.”) These people change the world and how we understand it. Even if you want to tear down these people, you still have to admit that the fact that you want to tear them down, means they have a spot on a pedestal, their position is already paramount. James Joyce had that effect on literature. Shakespeare did. Chaucer. There were many other talented innovative writers of their day. But they made all else seem irrelevant, they arrived seemingly full-blown, and once they were there, the world became impossible to imagine without them.
One of the issues with Elvis is that “the sex thing” that he unleashed in his audience, was undeniable, but it was not taken seriously (then or now). Or, to put it another way, it was taken very seriously but merely as a phenomenon to dismiss, make fun of, judge, and shut DOWN. Because when girls decide to like something on their own, the male-driven establishment usually does not like it. But nobody at the time made the connection to the fact that girls screaming and writhing and rioting may have had something to do with, oh, a natural spontaneous reaction to the conformity of their time, and the sexist society in which they lived and breathed. Perhaps Elvis came along and blew back the doors, blew off the walls and the roof, and showed the girls they could maybe want a little bit more, be more, express more. Ever think of that? Ever think that maybe Elvis’ overall message of “Isn’t it fun to jump around, and isn’t sex fun and nothing to be ashamed of?” resonated on such a deep level with these girls because they were trapped in Home Ec. classes and expected to want very little from life, outside a husband/picket fence/nice refrigerator? Nobody made that connection at the time. How could they? They too were immersed in the conformity of the time, and the sexist expectation of What Women Should Be/Want. So of course the “establishment” was shocked, horrified, and NERVOUS that women decided that they “wanted” this grease-monkey from Memphis. What would that mean for THEM? Back when he first exploded, it was seen as threatening. He was a menace to society. We take this for granted, that it happened, that his records were crushed publicly by outraged DJs and pastors, that he was denounced from pulpits and op-ed pages, until finally he was “tamed” by the Army, and assimilated into the giant movement of not only his own generation, but the one that came before, and the one that came after.
Unfortunately, because women’s fantasies are either exploited or made fun of, the sexual aspect of Elvis’ appeal has never been adequately discussed, or even given credence. (I am talking mainly about the accepted critical narrative, in terms of Elvis. The fans always got it, male and female, and Elvis’ colleagues, in music and movies, always got it too. They knew a good thing when they saw it.) Other musicians at the time had no problem naming that sexually appealing aspect of Elvis’ career (“That is the best-looking man I have ever seen,” Carl Perkins reportedly said to Scotty Moore after he first met Elvis), but the critics had a harder time (and, to some degree, still do). Most music critics were male. The sexual mania unleashed by Elvis seemed alien and off-putting to them (if they were straight, that is. John Waters said he first knew he was gay, as a little boy, when he saw Elvis gyrate on television), and they unwittingly (and, in some cases, consciously) participated in the shaming-of and dismissal-of the fact that women were reduced to sobbing wrecks by this performer. The response of women was somehow not serious to these pontificating male critics. “Yes, yes, women would run at him throwing bras at him, and demolish his cars with lipstick phone numbers … yes. But that’s not really a serious response to the Man and his Music, so we accept that it occurred, but we are not really CURIOUS about that element of his success. Because, let’s face it, as men it’s a little embarrassing to see women carry on in this way.” I am putting words in people’s mouths, clearly, and I try not to do that normally, but in this case, the ABSENCE of serious discussion about women’s fantasies about Elvis is quite striking, especially considering the size of his following. Again, I have to give Lester Bangs credit. He was a straight male. He had no compunction, in his obituary for Elvis, saying:
He was the only male performer I have ever seen to whom I responded sexually; it wasn’t real arousal, rather an erection of the heart, when I looked at him I went mad with desire and envy and worship and self-projection.
And women, who were so instrumental in making Elvis famous in the first place, get their due in Bangs’ piece:
That night in Detroit, a night I will never forget, he had but to ever so slightly move one shoulder muscle, not even a shrug, and the girls in the gallery hit by its ray screamed, fainted, howled in heat. Literally, every time this man moved any part of his body the slightest centimeter, tens or tens of thousands of people went berserk. Not Sinatra, not Jagger, not the Beatles, nobody you can come up with ever elicited such hysteria among so many.
I hear no scorn or contempt there. I hear humor (and God help us if we don’t have senses of humor about our fantasies and the fantasies of others), but not contempt.
All of this is to reiterate my original point: that Elvis (in life, and more so in death) occupies a unique place in our culture, and that place is the realm of dreams and fantasies. There is music to listen to, movies to watch, his work to be discussed. All of this could keep us occupied for decades (and it has). But keening through and above those more prosaic discussions is the fact that Elvis – no last name necessary – has transcended The Real. This occurred during his lifetime, because of the scope of his fame, and also the fact that he was so held back from publicity (no interviews, no talk shows, nothing EVER for free). Elvis was one of the most accessible and vulnerable of performers, and yet one of the most withheld and secretive figures. We knew where he lived. We knew the address. We could even get glimpses of him riding horses behind the gates of Graceland, or diving into his own pool. But what did we know about him? Not much. Colonel Parker’s decision to limit Presley’s exposure was a gamble that paid off twenty-fold (although the damage to Presley’s psyche was probably enormous). It worked. Nobody was more omnipresent than Elvis, even in his absence (he left his career for two full years at the very height of his new fame to go into the Army). Colonel Parker was not a romantic, and he didn’t even really care for Elvis’ music all that much. But he watched girls literally tear apart a theatre in Florida to get to Elvis and he knew he wanted “in” on that runaway train. Parker is cast as the Bogeyman of the Elvis Narrative. While many of his decisions did damage Elvis (especially in the last few years of Elvis’ life), my take on Parker’s contribution is a bit different from the common myth. Kent and I go into the complex relationship of Elvis and the Colonel here.
In a way, Colonel Parker, in all his grotesque huckster “charm”, understood that Fantasy was the most important part of Elvis’ career: that if he could somehow keep the audience’s Fantasies about Elvis alive (by limiting exposure, by never ever giving the audience enough of Elvis), then Elvis could have a long and lucrative career. Now. Elvis died at 42. Of course, it would be great if he were still with us, doing swinging duets with Lady GaGa and basking in a long life well lived, but that’s not what happened. However. Very few people remain “at the top” for as long as Elvis did. There are those who scorn the movie years, and I think I’ve made it clear what I think about them. But the money talks. Those movies were successful. Those movies were hits. Elvis was the top-paid box office star for the majority of the 60s, in a decade of the biggest downturn in audience numbers in Hollywood history. Colonel Parker got him crazy good deals, that is true, but still: a crazy good deal cannot make the audiences flock to movies like Harum Scarum (as they did, in droves). A crazy good deal cannot make something like Viva Las Vegas or Blue Hawaii the hits that they were. Colonel Parker, an unsentimental con man in most respects, was also a Huckster of Dreams. He was P.T. Barnum for the post-WWWII set. He recognized that women tearing apart a theatre bathroom with their bare hands to get to Elvis was representative of some giant shift in American youth culture. He may not have understood it or approved of it, but he knew it represented millions of dollars, as it did. Hard to believe, but many people at that time could not see what was coming. They thought the explosion of rock and roll was a fad. They thought it would go away. They hoped it would.
People often wonder: “why Elvis??” There were so many other good performers around him at the same time, coming out of Memphis and other areas of the South. Many of them had excellent runs, and many of them became enormous stars in their own right (like Johnny Cash). Elvis, with his exotic beauty, his freedom with his sexuality, and his voice and performer’s instinct, was the perfect repository for the yearning dreams of a generation. The fact that he himself was a good Christian boy, a Mama’s boy, a Southern gentlemen with impeccable manners, was part of the Fantasy. He was dangerous onstage, and a pussycat off. He embodied sexual freedom, and yet he treated women nice. He was “safe”. That’s the thing that the male critics sometimes miss, because they are not all that interested in the meaning of/purpose of Female Fantasy. Elvis’ fan base was enormous. It was when so-called “good girls” started sneaking out of the house in droves to go see this phenom that the newspapers took notice. As long as these Southern trashy boys stayed in the honky-tonks, nobody cared what they did. Elvis brought the honky-tonk to the mainstream. And his offstage persona was recognizable and safe enough that “good girls” could pour themselves into the Elvis Fantasy-Land without any fear. He would not “ruin” them. He was a nice boy. He was an innocent (at least in those early 1950s years). The fact that he was sexy and sexual as well as innocent and sweet was the true revolution, the true paradigm shift. He continued to insist that what he was doing was not vulgar in any way. I think he was speaking his Truth there. The revolution is: that yes, what he was doing onstage was sexual, but sexuality was not, in and itself, vulgar. Can you feel the old thoughts and forms cracking apart in that one attitude? Ironically, Elvis was not a big women’s libber, and stayed true to his politically conservative country roots. But you don’t have to be a progressive Democrat to understand that sex is fun, natural, and nothing to be ashamed about enjoying.
It is worth it to quote Lester Bangs again, extensively:
Elvis Presley was the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America (and thereby to the nation itself, since putting “popular arts” and “America” in the same sentence seems almost redundant). It has been said that he was the first white to sing like a black person, which is untrue in terms of hard facts but totally true in terms of cultural impact. But what’s more crucial is that when Elvis started wiggling his hips and Ed Sullivan refused to show it, the entire country went into a paroxysm of sexual frustration leading to abiding discontent which culminated in the explosion of psychedelic-militant folklore which was the sixties.
I mean, don’t tell me about Lenny Bruce, man – Lenny Bruce said dirty words in public and obtained a kind of consensual martyrdom. Plus which Lenny Bruce was hip, too goddam hip if you ask me, which was his undoing, whereas Elvis was not hip at all, Elvis was a goddam truck driver who worshipped his mother and would never say shit or fuck around her, and Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled. Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact. Sexual chaos reigns currently, but out of chaos may flow true understanding and harmony, and either way Elvis almost singlehandedly opened the floodgates.
Elvis was public about how he didn’t drink or smoke. He was deferential towards people in authority, older people, and women. This deferential attitude was natural, and part and parcel of his upbringing, something that the Northeast critics could not get a handle on. His image was so rebellious, but it was an interior rebellion (putting aside the pink suits and the sideburns). Elvis’ rebellion did not have to do with tearing down the symbols of the establishment, it had to do with personal freedom, being an individual, and expressing what was in your heart (and your groin). He wasn’t Jack Kerouac. He wasn’t Marlon Brando in The Wild One (“What are you rebelling against?” “Whattya got?”). He accepted the establishment, gave it its due, and played along with its rules.
When he was called up to serve, he went without one public word of complaint. Uncle Sam was bigger than Elvis. Uncle Sam had been so good to Elvis, it was only right that Elvis should give something back. To have THAT image, of humble good-boy sweetness, alongside the burlesque gyrating pelvis and grunts and groans of Sex, is still powerful enough to resonate today. Both sides were true. Nothing was an act.
The thing about Fantasy is that no one can tell you that yours is wrong. Who would say to Rachel Weisz, “No, you shouldn’t have imaginary conversations with Elvis, because that’s dumb. You should be having imaginary conversations with Galileo. Much better.” Fantasy is one of the most important parts of our psyches (most art comes from there), and where fantasies go, the structure they take, are very interesting and revealing (not only about the fantasizer, but about the fantasizEE), and they warrant more discussion. I love to hear how people think about Elvis. (There’s a new exhibit at Graceland right now called Elvis the Icon, and it’s all about his influence on future generations of musicians, with great quotes from people ranging from Justin Timberlake to Beyonce to Bruce Springsteen).
Fantasy also has to do with sex, obviously. Granted, it’s difficult to talk seriously about sex, and, in general, I prefer my sex talk with humor mixed into it. We mustn’t get too ponderous about something so human and so normal. But sex fantasies are important, when seen in a cultural context certainly, but also on a personal level. They can heal, reveal, provide catharsis, make lonely people feel not so alone. I can’t think of anything more important than that. Quentin Tarantino, as a sexually inexperienced nerdy young guy obsessed with comic books, kung fu, and grindhouse movies, imagined (in True Romance) that Elvis followed his main character (and alter ego) around, saying, “Clarence, you’re all right.”
That is a powerful fantasy, potentially healing for the lonely man who fantasizes it, and yes, it may be something one would hesitate to share – but that’s the beauty and bravery of artists. They take the fall for the rest of us. Quentin Tarantino admitted something there, and in so doing expressed the reality for millions of people, who also “turn to Elvis” in their minds or hearts, when things get low, when they feel lost.
I have been thinking a lot about imagining Elvis, mainly because my trip to Memphis was so filled with solitude, silence, and random wandering around. Memphis was grey, cold, eccentric, and steeped in history. It is an evocative place. It is a place of ghosts and memory.
I mourn Lester Bangs’ thwarted book about Elvis Fantasies, because I find how people think and fantasize fascinating and revealing. Healing, as well. Whatever we fantasize, we connect on the level that is above The Real.
My brother recently alerted me to a song written by Scott Walker called “Jesse”. Jesse, is, of course, the name of Elvis’ stillborn twin, a missing brother that haunted Elvis all of his days. What if he had had a brother? What would have changed? And were they identical? How phenomenal would that be: to have one of the most sui generis performers of the 20th century to have an identical twin? One is not confused at all that Elvis had a sense of Destiny, of being Chosen, picked out, highlighted by a divine force.
In Scott Walker’s terrifying song, September 11th is a nightmare that Elvis is having. In Scott Walker’s fantasy, the fantasy of Elvis merges with the story of September 11. Elvis saw the planes coming, saw the devastation, and sits and talks with Jesse about it. Elvis crawls on his hands and knees. He is the last man left on earth. He has survived. This is the thrust of the song, although words do not do the experience of the song justice. It is one of the most intense things I have ever heard, and halfway through listening I yearned to escape the song.
Nose holes caked in black cocaine
No one holds a match to your skin
A way off miles off
No needle through a glove
Famine is a tall tower
A building left in the night
Jesse are you listening?
It casts its ruins in shadows
Under Memphis moonlight
Jesse are you listening?
Six feet of foetus
Flung at sparrows in the sky
Put yourself in my shoes
A kiss, wet, muzzle
A clouded eye
No stars to flush it out
Famine is a tall tower
A building left in the night
Jesse are you listening?
It casts its ruins in shadows
Under Memphis moonlight
Jesse are you listening?
In the dream
I am crawling around in my hands and knees
Smoothing out the prairie
All the dents and the gouges
And the winds dying down
I lower my head
Press my ear to the prairie
Alive, I’m the only one
I’m the only one
I’m the only one
I’m the only one
I’m the only one
I’m the only one
The New York Magazine review of Scott Walker’s album on which this song appears says:
On The Rising, Bruce Springsteen wrote about 9/11 from the point of view of firefighters and horrified bystanders. Toby Keith (“Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue [The Angry American]”), Neil Young (“Let’s Roll”), and the Wu-Tang Clan (“Rules”) gave us the outraged, ass-kicking-patriot perspective. The Beastie Boys (“An Open Letter to NYC”) rallied to celebrate New York. Scott Walker writes about 9/11 as a nightmare Elvis Presley is having.
On “Jesse,” the third track on Walker’s new album, The Drift, Elvis is sitting on the Memphis prairie in the moonlight, talking aloud to his stillborn twin brother, Jesse—as he would often do “in times of loneliness and despair,” according to Walker’s sleeve notes. Elvis is dreaming about the planes smashing into the Towers.
It starts with an ominous drone. A bass guitar throbs darkly (which, says Walker, represents the planes approaching). Then Walker slowly, deliberately whispers, “Pow, pow” (which, he says, represents the planes hitting the Towers). A disembodied guitar riff from “Jailhouse Rock” floats menacingly. Drums never arrive. At last, Walker floats into the song with his deep, rich baritone: “Nose holes caked in black cocaine . . . ”
After six more minutes, and images of Elvis crawling around on his hands and knees, “smoothing out the prairie / All the dents and the gouges,” the music dies, and he’s left wailing: “Alive / I’m the only one / Left alive / I’m the only one / Left alive.”
It is devastating. And, against the odds, convincing: By the end of “Jesse,” Walker has somehow fused his unlikely subjects. You imagine the Towers as a stillborn twin: the ultimate phantom limb, an ever-present void in the skyline, an ache that never goes away.
How we imagine Elvis, as I said, says more about who WE are than who Elvis actually was. Elvis Presley was just a man, a human being who lived on this earth, who was extraordinarily talented and ferociously ambitious, as well as genetically blessed with beauty, who seemed to behave as though he knew he had no time to waste while here on this planet. We can talk about why that was, and what it was in Elvis that gave him that unshakable confidence in himself partnered with a sense of urgency, and we do talk about that.
But sometimes hearing how people Imagine Elvis reveals far more about who he actually was, and who he continues to be in our culture.
To quote my friend Kent: “Elvis Presley is like an aircraft carrier. He can handle pretty much anything you want to land on him.”