Imagining Elvis: From Lester Bangs to Quentin Tarantino to Scott Walker

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, Bangs wrote a 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.) Bangs understood that Elvis Presley lived in our imaginations, more than anywhere else. I am 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 Elvis inhabits. 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 hopes or disappointments or anger. In the most extreme cases, their impact is divorced from meaning. The very fact someone fantasizes something about Elvis (whatever it might be) has a lot to do with what he meant, either artistically, sexually, spiritually. Posthumous 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. This is why I encourage people who are not familiar with, you know, her acting, to take a look at it again. Watch Clash By Night, Don’t Bother to Knock, Bus Stop. So many people in Hollywood are gorgeous. It can’t be just that with her. Monroe is significant to people, and the vast social/ideological gap between some of her defenders (Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem – really?) speaks to the meteor-like impact she had on the culture. Her death magnified the impact.

Elvis is in a similar position, although something more mystical is 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 the current-day culture, but he also transcended it. He is Everyman. Being Everyman is close to being No Man. He is all things to all people – positive and negative – you can project anything you want onto him – which can be dismaying if you want to talk about him and his work in a serious way. His sexpot-rebel image (and his almost otherworldly beauty) detracted from the seriousness of what he was doing (and this detraction was part of his slam-dunk success and domination as a performer). Teenage girls understood him better than male music critics a decade later. 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.

The “cult” surrounding Elvis erected itself immediately following his death. It was as though people suddenly understood 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, Billie Holiday, a host of others. 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. The ground is too well-trod for anyone to say anything new. (I no longer believe that. Important to note: I do not write about Elvis from a place of nostalgia. I don’t have nostalgia for him. I didn’t experience his career in real time. I’m interested in him purely from the present moment.) As the years pass, the Elvis Cult has taken up much of the oxygen in the How We Talk About Elvis conversation. 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” in statues, names carved into buildings, hieroglyphics, and Image standing in for Meaning.

Fantasies about Elvis are an important part of understanding him. This was true from the start. People were too freaked out by the screaming moaning teenage girls to ask, “Hmmm, maybe we shouldn’t mock these girls as freaks? Maybe they’re onto something?” Those who love him, who wish he lived longer, have stories they still wish to hear, they have a desire to insert Elvis into their own narratives.

Rachel Weisz 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 inspirational speeches, telling him how awesome he is. There are comic books where Elvis is imagined as a superhero. There are libraries of Elvis erotica. Elvis alternate history stories. I myself wrote an Elvis alt-history for Annie West’s book What If? : A retired journalist from Dublin sent me a wonderful piece of fiction he wrote, imagining Elvis went on leave in Dublin, Ireland, and played an impromptu show at the Royal Theatre under the pseudonym Seamus Murphy. Wonderful. Elvis can take a lot. It’s flexible. You need a strong backup to protect you? That’s Elvis. You need a shoulder to cry on? There he is. You need a new Cadillac? Elvis will provide. You need a sexy guy to encourage you to let your Freak Flag fly? There’s Elvis.

His death left a gap. The 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.

This is the “sui generis” distinction that I keep mentioning. There are many people who are talented and greatly missed. But the Elvis-tier people seem inevitable, they fill a void just by showing up (Keith Richards said, on hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time as a teenager: “I’d never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to happen.”) Even if you want to tear these figures down, you still have to admit that the fact you want to tear them down, means their pedestal is stable. James Joyce had that effect on literature, Irish and otherwise.

Elvis’ “sex thing” was undeniable, but it – as a phenomenon – was not taken seriously (then or now). Or, to put it another way, it was taken very seriously but merely as something to dismiss, make fun of, judge, 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 between the girls screaming and writhing and rioting and, oh, the conformity and sexism of their time, the expectations of domesticity put on girls from birth. Perhaps Elvis came along and blew back the doors, blew off the walls and roof, showing the girls they could maybe want a little bit more, be more, express more, at LEAST until they retreated behind the picket fence. Ever think of that? Ever think that maybe Elvis’ overall message of “Isn’t it fun to jump around, 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/babies/refrigerator? Nobody made the connection at the time. Of course the “establishment” was shocked, horrified, and, more than anything, NERVOUS that women decided they “wanted” this grease-monkey from Memphis. If girls were just allowed to choose what they wanted, then what did this mean for the rest of us?? Back when Elvis first exploded, it was seen as a menace to society. We take this for granted: his records were smashed by outraged DJs and pastors, restaurant owners were by racist town leaders to ban Elvis from jukeboes, Elvis was denounced from pulpits and op-ed pages, and then finally he was “tamed” by the Army, and assimilated into the giant mainstream 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.) Other musicians at the time had no problem naming the sexually appealing aspect of Elvis’ career (“He 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 (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 the Ed Sullivan Show), and they unwittingly (and, in some cases, consciously) participated in the shaming-of and dismissal-of the women reduced to puddles. The response of these women was somehow not serious to 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 it occurred, but we are not really CURIOUS about this element of his success. Because, let’s face it, as men it’s a little embarrassing to see women carry on this way.” I am putting words in people’s mouths, 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.

Women, 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: Elvis (in life, and more so in death) occupies a unique place in the realm of dreams and fantasies. There is music to listen to, movies to watch, work to be discussed. All of this could keep us occupied for decades. But keening through and above the more prosaic discussions is the knowledge that Elvis – no last name necessary – has transcended The Real. This occurred during his lifetime, because of the scope of his fame, and how blocked-off he was by the publicity machinery (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. People knew where he lived. They knew the address. They could swing by and get glimpses of him riding horses behind the Graceland gates, or diving into his own pool. But what did people know about him? Not much. Colonel Parker’s decision to limit Presley’s exposure was a gamble and it paid off twenty-fold (although the damage to Presley’s psyche was enormous). Colonel Parker was not a romantic, and he didn’t really care for Elvis’ music all that much. But he watched girls tear apart a theatre in Florida to get to Elvis and he knew he wanted “in” on that runaway train.

In a way, Colonel Parker, in all his grotesque huckster “charm”, understood that Fantasy was the most important part of Elvis’ persona and career: if he could somehow keep the audience’s Fantasies about Elvis alive (by limiting exposure, by never 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, 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 good deals, true, but still: a good deal cannot make audiences flock to movies like Harum Scarum (as they did, in droves). A good deal cannot make something like Viva Las Vegas or Blue Hawaii the hits they were. Colonel Parker, an unsentimental con man, 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 were representative of a giant shift in American youth culture. He may not have understood it or approved of it, but he knew it would make millions of dollars, as it did. Hard to believe, but many people at the 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 (Johnny Cash). Elvis, with his exotic beauty, his sexuality, his voice and performer’s instinct, was the perfect repository for the yearning dreams of a particular demographic (said demographic just happened to be unprecedentedly enormous in the post-WWII boom). The fact that Elvis was a good Christian boy, a Mama’s boy, a Southern gentlemen with impeccable manners, was part of the Fantasy. He was dangerous onstage, polite off. He embodied sexual freedom, and yet he treated women nice. He was “safe”. This is what 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, crossing every line there is. But it was when so-called “good girls” from middle-class families started sneaking out of the house in droves to go see him that the newspapers took notice. (Eminem: “Hip hop was never a problem in Harlem / only in Boston / after it bothered the fathers of daughters starting to blossom”) As long as Southern white trash boys stayed in honky-tonks, nobody cared what they did. Love him or hate him, Elvis brought the honky-tonk to the mainstream. And his offstage persona was safe enough that “good girls” could pour themselves into Elvis Fantasy-Land without any fear. It was the combo: he was sexy and sexual AND polite and sweet, this was the revolution, the paradigm shift. You could be both. He insisted what he was doing was not vulgar. Okay, Elvis, whatever you say. BUT: I think he was speaking the Truth there, and it was a de-stabilizing truth: what he was doing onstage was sexual, but sexuality was not vulgar. Can you feel old thoughts and forms cracking apart? Ironically, Elvis was not a big women’s libber. But you don’t have to be a progressive Democrat to understand sex is fun and natural, enjoying it is nothing to be ashamed of.

It is worth it to quote Lester Bangs again:

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 part of his upbringing, something Northeast critics could not get a handle on. His image was so rebellious, but Elvis’ rebellion did not have to do with tearing down establishment symbols, it had to do with personal freedom, doing what you want to do, expressing what was in your heart (and groin). He wasn’t Jack Kerouac. He wasn’t Marlon Brando in The Wild One. He didn’t propose some social ideological program. It was all much simpler, and therefore more universal.

When he was drafted, he went without one public word of complaint. Uncle Sam was bigger than Elvis. Uncle Sam had been good to Elvis, it was only right Elvis should give back. To put humble good-boy sweetness alongside burlesque gyrating pelvis is still powerful enough to generate comment today. It’s assumed one side must be a lie or an act. Both sides were true. Nothing was an act.

The thing about Fantasy is no one can tell you yours is wrong. Who would say to Rachel Weisz, “No, you shouldn’t have imaginary conversations with Elvis. You should be having imaginary conversations with Galileo. Much better.”

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 in. Sex is human and normal. Let’s all calm down. 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. Quentin Tarantino, as a sexually inexperienced nerdy young guy obsessed with comic books, kung fu, and grindhouse movies, imagined (in True Romance) a ghostly Elvis following the main character around, saying, “Clarence, you’re all right.” Clarence doesn’t want to fuck a man, but if he had to fuck a man, he’d fuck Elvis. I mean, this is a joke, of course, and not a really funny one, but it’s getting to the root of what goes on with fantasy.

I have been thinking a lot about imagining Elvis, mainly because my trip to Memphis was so filled with solitude, silence, letting my thoughts off leash Memphis was grey, cold, eccentric, and steeped in history. 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 terrifying song written by Scott Walker called “Jesse”. Jesse, is, of course, the name of Elvis’ stillborn twin, a missing brother who haunted Elvis all of his days. What if he had had a brother? What would have changed? Were they identical? How wild would that be: to have one of the most sui generis performers of the 20th century have an identical twin walking around out there? Elvis having a sense of Destiny, of being Chosen, picked out, makes perfect sense.

In “Jesse”, September 11, 2001 is taking place in Elvis’ head, it is a nightmare he is having. In Scott Walker’s fantasy, the fantasy of Elvis merges with the “story” of September 11. Elvis sees the planes coming, sees 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. Words do not do the experience of the song justice. Halfway through listening I yearned to escape the song itself.

The lyrics:

Nose holes caked in black cocaine
Pow! Pow!
No one holds a match to your skin
No dupe
No chiming
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?
Pow! Pow!
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
Left alive
I’m the only one
Left alive
I’m the only one
Left alive
I’m the only one
Left alive
I’m the only one
Left alive
I’m the only one
Left alive

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 was. Elvis Presley was just a man, a human being who lived on this earth, who was talented and ambitious, as well as genetically blessed with beauty, and 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 such unshakable confidence in himself partnered with a sense of urgency.

But sometimes hearing how people Imagine Elvis reveals far more about who he actually was, and who he continues to be.

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13 Responses to Imagining Elvis: From Lester Bangs to Quentin Tarantino to Scott Walker

  1. brendan says:

    As usual, Scott Walker leaves everyone speechless.

  2. sheila says:

    What I love is how specific people’s fantasies are. Gillian Welch sings, “I was dreaming that night about Elvis …”

    Scott Walker’s fantasy is one of the most specific I’ve heard. Haunting. Very very intense.

  3. brendan says:

    This song is almost a walk-in-the-park compared to most of what he’s recorded since 1995.

  4. brendan says:

    Don’t get me started. Seriously. A soap-box forms under my feet, I grow a long beard and I start shouting at strangers. (heisthemostimportantamericancomposer/musicianever)

  5. And of course, before the rest of us could have our Elvis fantasies, Elvis had to fantasize himself–against very long odds….another thing most critics have a lot of trouble getting their minds around!

    • sheila says:

      Yes!! Great point. The first act of imagination was Elvis’. “Hm. I think I would like to wear pink suits even though I am only 15.”

  6. …And white…and living in the projects…and hoping to play football (lol)

  7. Clementine Moriarty says:

    Scott Walkers’ song left me………… ‘dumbfounded’.

    Sheila…..’me thinks’…… should take up the banner and do justice to Lester Bangs intentions! TYVM! ……’Baby, you never cease to amaze me! ‘

  8. Kent says:

    Wonderful read, Sheila! Thank you! That Scott Walk is KILLER! One more thought… along with Colonel Parker’s very great skill set as an aircraft carrier driver, he was also one helluva an air traffic controller!

    • sheila says:

      Isn’t that song insane?? I just love how Elvis morphs into all these different fantasies – that one is the darkest I’ve seen.

      and oh yeah, the Colonel knew which way the wind was blowing. The Lisa Marie was always first in line on HIS runway!

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