Where were you when Elvis died? That depends on when you think he died, or whether you believe he's dead at all - a new video claims he's alive and well and working for the CIA.
To all intents and purposes, Elvis the rock'n'roller died in 1958 when he was conscripted. He went into the army as the devil incarnate, a 'nigger-lovin' faggot' in eye make-up and pink clothes, blamed for juvenile delinquency and for hospitalising 25 'vibrating teenagers' in New Jersey with his 'jungle beat'. He came out American as apple pie. Then he died slowly for 17 years until his body finally gave up on 16 August 1977.
I remember the day Elvis died. I felt vaguely surprised - I'd forgotten he was still alive. Growing up in Lewisham, the last Confederate state, you were surrounded by Elvis. Framed like Jesus, tattooed on arms, impersonated in pubs, displayed in juke boxes and shop windows, The King was everywhere. 'Elvis Lives' - even before he died. Even the club all the kids went to was a shrine. Every week it had a bopping contest and the same bloke would win: a skinny ted with metal legs which he would spin like a propeller. 'Elvis prays for all his fans, you know.'
On Saturdays whole families of teds would parade in the shopping centre: Dad in greasy quiff, sideburns, suede creepers with fluorescent socks, a sharpened steel comb and two of a packet of three in the pocket of his drape jacket; Mum in ponytail, cut down blouse, flared skirt, stockings and stilettoes; the kids perfect miniatures in full uniform ('if any of 'em go punk I'll break their fucking necks'). Not too keen on change these Rebels. Their boozers had a 'Cricket test' before Norman Tebbit. That's as in Buddy Holly & The Crickets, and even Chuck Berry would have failed it. 'All white? Haaagh!' No? Well you ain't coming in....
Just after Elvis died I heard Lewisham was in the middle of the biggest riot since the war, during a National Front march. It seemed symbolic somehow. In the fifties the segregationists burned Elvis records. Now most of them probably owned all his albums. Not that every Presley follower is a bigot--50m Elvis fans can't all be wrong. Nor did Elvis himself ever express any views about anything important: as a symbol, he went from rebel to conformist without any real difficulty.
The first Elvis myth - the raw sexual hoodlum who danced like he'd swallowed a jackhammer - changed peoples lives in a way that is hard to imagine today. If he hadn't existed things would have changed anyway; but Elvis personified it all, and that meant he couldn't just fade out of the public gaze when his moment had passed. As a new generation took over, all that was left was a country boy with simple tastes and enormous riches.
Surrounded by yes-men and 'protected' from the outside world by a huckster manager, he was 'King' only within his own castle. He became the Randolph Hearst of white trash, with Graceland his San Simeon, crammed full of gaudy junk instead of priceless art. He indulged his every whim: women were sent up like room service; private jets dispatched in the night to pick up sacks of cheeseburgers. Why should he 'rebel' against anything?
By the sixties, most Elvis fans just wanted fifties nostalgia. His fan club conventions were full of mums and dads, and before long their mums and dads were coming along. Their Elvis was the Southern boy who said 'sir' and 'ma'am' and sang gospel - he was no hippy, hell no. In the summer of free love, Elvis was getting married. He was so cut off from any kind of artistic stimulation that he couldn't have developed his music if he'd wanted to, so he just took care of business, churning out three movies a year. If your adoring fans hail the soundtrack of Clambake, why change a winning formula?
At the end of the sixties he hit the road again, and still had enough charisma to raise pulses. In the Hollywood years he had developed a self-deprecatory approach which helped him carry off his ridiculous novelty numbers and cornball ballads with a certain style. But soon his mannerisms teetered over the edge into self-parody, and his pure hard tenor degenerated into a melodramatic warble. D-I-V-O-R-C-E and the pressure of touring pushed him further into drugs, and he lost respect for himself and his music. The perfectionist who recorded 'Hound Dog' 30 times now just sang perfunctorily over backing tapes on his rare visits to the studio.
Elvis spent most of the seventies in a paranoid stupor, surrounded by guns. He planned his day by the Physician's Desk Reference, balancing out all the stuff he was taking. That other great fraud, Richard Nixon, audaciously appointed Elvis as an honourary narcotics agent to front his anti-drugs crusade. Out of his head on a cocktail of barbiturates, The King accepted his badge and gun at the White House.
Even to his most blindly uncritical fans, Elvis's final performances were a pitiful spectacle. The huge hulk strained at the seams of his grotesque rhinestoned jumpsuit, wing-like collar and flared trousers flapping about as he puffed around the stage. In the karate routine his limbs would flail like an old drunk being shown the door at closing time. Sweat poured down his puffy face as he squinted through his big tinted glasses and tried to remember the words. Sometimes he'd order the lights off and sit in the dark talking gibberish. Even so, there was no shortage of women begging to be squashed by 230 pounds of famous blubber.
For weeks before his death he wore a giant nappy and did nothing but sleep, with brief breaks to eat and take his 'medicine'. He was found on the toilet holding a copy of The Scientific Search For Jesus' Face. There were 14 different drugs in his bloodstream, and if his stomach hadn't been pumped he would have broken the record for the most chemicals in one body. He ended up, in the words of a country song, the world's greatest loser.
When Elvis became an American institution upon his death, it was a parochial, conservative institution, with a mean, paranoid siege mentality. The National Guard provided a guard of honour at his funeral. Country music shook off its embarrassing lynch-mob past, and became the respectable face of patriotic white America; but the nasty edge is still there. Today it sells more than ever, defining itself against 'subversive' black rap and 'satanic' heavy metal. Elvis is its sheriff and its saint. In death he became a saviour for the system ('Elvis loved law and order!' - local mayor) and its spiritual values: worshippers at the Graceland shrine are 'brought together in the [not 'by a'] love of Elvis'.
It takes a King-size man to keep that show on the road, and as the ad for Elvis cologne says, America has had 41 presidents but only one King. America to Bush: 'You're no Elvis Presley.'
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992