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Winter 2003

Elvis Again

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Greil Marcus


It was in late July that a representative from a public radio talk show asked me to take part in a program on “all the insanity about the twenty-fifth anniversary.” He didn’t have to say the twenty-fifth anniversary of what, but I still didn’t know what he was getting at. It seemed to me that in 2002, twenty-five years after Elvis Presley’s death, and more than two years after the last interesting Elvis impersonator, Bill Clinton, had left his stage, the real story was the evaporation of Elvis Presley in American life.

What was striking, given the staggering ubiquity of Elvis Presley after his death, was his disappearance from ordinary talk, paintings, movies, t-shirts, other people’s songs—from the cultural conversation through which a society explains itself to itself. The commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of August 16, 1977 seemed more than anything a media mirage churned up by Graceland smoke machines. A Graceland spokesman had recently discussed the problem facing the operation: if Elvis Presley was indeed immortal, his fans were not. Many of Elvis’s original fans were dying off; if the enormously successful marketing of Elvis Presley over the last twenty-five years were to continue, they would have to be replaced by people who were not even born when Elvis Presley died.

“What insanity?” I said to my caller.

“What about the remix of ‘A Little Less Conversation’ putting Elvis over the Beatles for the most number-one singles in England?” The original of “A Little Less Conversation,” a forgettable track from the 1968 Elvis movie Live a Little, Love a Little, had been featured in the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven, which made sense: in those rare moments when George Clooney couldn’t keep a straight Elvis face, Brad Pitt picked up the slack. This year a Dutch DJ, one Junkie XL, pumped up the beat and the vocal for a World Cup Nike commercial, and then put the new version on the market: instant gold.

“What about the fact that any novelty song can top the British charts at any time?” I said.

“What about all the Elvis songs in Lilo & Stitch?” the caller said.

Priscilla Presley, ex-wife, media widow, and guiding intelligence behind Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., daughter Lisa Marie Presley’s corporate parent, had yet to announce that she had sold the theatrical rights to her 1985 autobiography, Elvis and Me—and that, in partnership with a company called “Immortal Entertainment,” she was planning a “nationwide contest…to cast the parts of Elvis and Priscilla.” Priscilla, a news story said, would judge the contest herself, “with input from audience members. Immoral Entertain-ment”—that’s how it read in the version I saw—president David Codikow said the casting process might be pitched as a reality television series along the lines of Fox’s American Idol: The Search for a Superstar. The idea, Codikow said, was “‘Priscilla finding the next Elvis.’”

But why stop there? Why not have Priscilla give birth to the next Elvis, and pitch that as a reality TV show? Priscilla’s not even sixty: if “A Little Less Conversation” can make number one in the U.K., Priscilla can carry an in vitro Elvis to term. Lisa Marie controls the body; she and Priscilla ought to be able to clone it. Or, what with the recent marriage of Lisa Marie and Nicolas Cage, who from Wild at Heart to Red Rock West to Honeymoon in Vegas to Leaving Las Vegas has been the most passionate and imaginative cinematic Elvis of the last decade, why not just put him in the role, with Lisa Marie as her own mother?

There’s no way to stop once you start down this road—and this road leads nowhere.


Conversations of this sort make it nearly impossible to talk about why Elvis Presley might indeed be interesting to people who were not born when he died. It removes Elvis Presley—an individual, like and not like those with whom he shared his place and time, who developed a personal culture so deep that as he made it public he changed the world—from his own life: his own loves and fears, failures and triumphs. It takes a person who assumed a role in a national play that his fellow citizens knew by heart (poor boy makes good, one person is as good as another, everyone is free to embark upon the pursuit of happiness in his or her own way) and then acted out that role in a manner that shocked the nation, thrilled it and horrified it, split it right in two—and makes it impossible to understand how such an event could have taken place. Conversation of this sort makes it impossible to hear that event and all of its aftershocks: to hear how it sounded. It makes it impossible to hear the leavings of such an event, as collected, say, on the most recent attempts to prove that Elvis product will continue to appear at least as long as the last person to see Elvis in the flesh remains on this earth: such four-CD box sets as Elvis Live in Las Vegas, from last year, and the new Today, Tomorrow & Forever.

On Today, Tomorrow & Forever, a twenty-one-year-old Elvis Presley takes the stage of the Robinson Memorial Auditorium in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s May 16, 1956, and local disc jockey Ray Green is on the air for a live broadcast: “He’s winding up his legs, and here he goes with—‘Heartbreak Motel’!” “Here’s a song that’s real hot around the nation and some parts of Africa,” Presley says to introduce the next number. “A song here recorded by a—friend of mine,” he says, bending the last three words with an odd affection, almost twirling them. The friend is Little Richard (“I never met him”), the song is “Long Tall Sally,” and Elvis is instantly ripping it to shreds, rushing far out ahead of his band. Little Richard told a funny story, watching from the alley as Uncle John chased Sally out of her wig and Aunt Mary caught them; Elvis makes it clear that it’s the man singing and no one else who’s got his hands all over Sally, and who’s not letting go.

“We’ve been doing this song for about twenty-five, thirty years, around the country,” Elvis says to introduce “Blue Suede Shoes”—a riff he would use from the beginning of his career to the end (“One of the first records I recorded, back in 1927, I think it was,” he says in 1969 in Las Vegas, “just before the stock market crashed”), as if it signified that the music he was making was nothing new, that it had always been present—or that he had. “You can burn my wife, steal my car, drink my liquor from an old fruit jar,” he laughs in the middle of Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes”—and with a momentum that stops you cold: did he just say that? For the Drifters’ “Money Honey”—in the original, as explosive a record as early rock ’n’ roll produced—the shouts that Elvis shoots over the dark guitar chords that start the tune clear the ground, and with a looseness, a confidence, that is so strong it hardly makes sense. It’s a moment that comes from the place Bob Dylan found when he read Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: “Elvis as he walks the path between heaven and nature in an America that was wide open, when anything was possible, not the whitewashed golden calf but the incendiary atomic musical firebrand loner who conquered the western world.” “Very good, Elvis,” the disc jockey shouts as Presley leaves the stage.

An aura of unlikeliness comes through the rough performance and the holes in the sound. You hear a young man taking steps that did not have to be taken; you hear him communicating pleasures for which there was no language but his own. You hear the screams from the crowd, and in a certain mood you can hear the person behind each scream, and you wonder: Did she know? Did she understand? Was she changed? Did she change back?


This is one way history is made. This is one thing that the putative insanity surrounding the events staged to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death makes impossible to hear: how much fun changing the world can be, how cool it can be. But those four-CD boxed sets also suggest how history is not made, and what that sounds like.

Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman” was always a cataclysm when Elvis took it up on stage. In 1956, at the Mississippi–Alabama State Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis’s birthplace, the song almost caused a riot—Elvis actually had to tell the crowd to calm down. “This is a song that says you can do anything,” he said to introduce the next song, “Blue Suede Shoes.” “But don’t. Just don’t.” In Little Rock, Elvis hammered “I Got a Woman” to the edge of dissolution, then reeled it in as if the music was a spell he could cast or break at will.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he says on Elvis Live in Las Vegas, speaking on August 24, 1969, three weeks into the engagement that would define the last stage of his career. “Welcome to the big, freaky International Hotel…This is my first appearance in nine years, live—I appeared dead a few times”— dehhhhhhd, he says, all but putting the word in a coffin—“but this is my first live appearance. Before the evening’s over I will have made a complete and total fool of myself. And I hope you get a kick out of watching it.” He is altogether at home with himself, and as the night goes on, ending with an extraordinary six minutes and forty-one seconds in which he recounts the story of his entire career as if it were a tragic joke he played on history, the country, but most of all himself, he will say many strange things.

“They arranged to put me on television,” he says of 1955 and ’56. “At that particular time, there was a lot of controversy—you didn’t see people moving—out in public. They were gettin’ it on in the back rooms, but you didn’t see it out in public too much.” “I went back to making movies,” he says of his years after the Army. “I made G.I. Blues, lemme see, what else did I do, Blue Hawaii, Viva Las Vegas, and, uh, Girls, Girls, Girls, and a little eight-millimeter black-and-white underground film that hasn’t come out yet.” It’s as if he means to give the lie to every song he sings—just as, singing the next song, it’s as if he means to make it give up a truth.

“I feel like Bob Dylan slept in my mouth,” he says after finishing a bloated “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” just before heading into a double-time version of “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s a moment that can throw you out of the story that’s being told. Addressed to a Las Vegas audience in 1969, it could mean Some grubby, unwashed effluvia was in my mouth last night, which now tastes like a four-day drunk. Or, coming from a man who was rediscovering himself and his music, it might mean something very different: that, as the critic Gavin Martin said recently, “in the nine years that Elvis had been away from the American stage, Dylan had been the prime figure to explore the cultural space Elvis had created.” Or even more than that—with Elvis saying, The Muse if not the Oracle itself slept in my mouth last night, and now I am filled with visionary power, the power to sing any song, to do anything, to go anywhere, to walk between heaven and nature—a power that, by the way, I will withhold from you at this time. It could mean anything. But my first reaction to hearing Elvis Presley call out Bob Dylan’s name on stage in Las Vegas was much simpler: My God, Elvis thought about Bob Dylan? Bob Dylan was part of his frame of reference?

Not long after events like the 1956 Little Rock performance, Elvis Presley removed himself into a world that for the public at large was entirely self-referential. He became an employee of his own movie factory, a fugitive imprisoned by his own guards, a figure who bore comparison only to himself. Even his time in the Army did not connect him to any greater, more real world—and for the public, that time communicated less as a contingent experience than as a publicity stunt. So even though from a factual point of view it makes sense that Bob Dylan would be part of Elvis Presley’s frame of reference—in 1966 he recorded Dylan’s then-unreleased composition “Tomor-row Is a Long Time,” which he supposedly heard on the 1965 album Odetta Sings Dylan—from another point of view it makes no sense at all.

Elvis said the name of a man who as much as anyone symbolized the years he had missed. When Elvis invoked Dylan’s name—casually, as in public he always told his deepest secrets, throwing them away as if they meant nothing—in just a few words he dramatized how someone who had made history could step outside of history. He dramatized the way in which a man whose art had brought other people to life could, by allowing the rewards of his art to replace the history other people would make, lose his own place in history.

The Little Rock show included on Today, Tomorrow & Forever—not well-recorded, a messy performance, mostly, one of those documents we can be sure we will be offered, with variations of place and time if not much more, as long as we live—makes one of those inescapable correspondences of which Elvis’s career, his walk between heaven and nature, is made, just like the accident, the accident that was no accident at all, of the release of his first record, a version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” and the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education in the same year. It’s like the story the writer Sarah Vowell tells in her recent book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot—a story about Vowell finding herself at a midwestern university where a group of men had gathered to “debate the finer points of the former Yugoslavia.”

They went on denouncing the various idiotic nationalist causes of various splinter groups, blaming nationalism itself for the genocidal war. And of course a racist nationalism is to blame. But the more they ranted, the more uncomfortable I became. They, many of them immigrants themselves, considered patriotic allegiance to be a sin, a divisive, villainous drive leading to exclusion, hate, and murder.

I, heretofore silent, spoke up. I said that I had recently flown over Memphis, Tennessee…I looked down at Memphis, Tennessee, and thought of all my heroes who had walked its streets. I thought of Sun Records, and of the producer Sam Phillips. Sam Phillips, who once described the sort of person he recorded as “a person who had dreamed, and dreamed, and dreamed.” A person like Elvis Presley, his funny bass player Bill Black, his guitarist Scotty Moore…Jerry Lee Lewis. Carl Perkins. Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. I [said] that when I thought of the records of these Memphis men…what I felt, what I was proud to feel, was patriotism. I noticed one man staring at me. He said he was born in some something-stan I hadn’t heard of. Now that my globe is permanently turned to that part of the world, I realize he was talking about Tajikistan, the country bordering Afghanistan. The man from Tajikistan looked me in the eye and delivered the following warning.

“Those,” he said of my accolades for Elvis and friends, “are the seeds of war.”

“I laughed and told him not to step on my blue suede shoes,” Vowell says, “but I got the feeling he wasn’t joking.”

The seeds of war were present when in 1956 Elvis Presley took the stage of the Robinson Memorial Auditorium. The year after Elvis’s appearance, where the audience would have been segregated, if it was not all white, nine black Little Rock teenagers attempted to enter Central High School. It was September 23, 1957, and Ernest C. Withers, the great Memphis photographer, was there.


Withers was born in North Memphis in 1922; he began working as a commercial photographer in his hometown after the end of the Second World War. In 1955 he covered the trial that followed the lynching of Emmett Till near Money, Mississippi. With a picture of a very young Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy riding in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, he recorded the end of the bus boycott that marked the birth of the modern civil rights movement. He documented the last years of the Negro baseball leagues. He was in Fayette County, Tennessee, when in 1960 black families were evicted from their homes for voting. One of Withers’ most striking pictures is “First Day of Memphis Integration, 1961”: three young black children looking out of the open window of a fine new car, their smiles eager, bright, open, guileless—and, from the front window, in the passenger seat, a woman looking over the shoulder of the man in the driver’s seat, her eyes full of happiness or worry: you can’t fathom their gleam. Withers was in the Lorraine Motel just after Martin Luther King was shot; his picture of James Earl Ray’s fetid bathroom, from which Ray fired, is a picture of the squalor of history.

Withers is best known, though, as the man who was present in the 1950s and ’60s to take the pictures of Memphis musicians that have since gone all over the world: B. B. King performing in jacket, tie, and shorts at the Hippo-drome on Beale Street in about 1950; the bass fiddle player in the Phineas Newborn band on his back in the Flamingo Club; Howlin’ Wolf in a blazing white jacket playing guitar in a supermarket; Little Walter showing off a suit; Aretha Franklin in front of the Lorraine Motel in 1959 with Sam Cooke and L. C. Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, her eyes little more than slits in a puffy face, as if she’s been beaten up, or Franklin with Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King’s widow, at Club Paradise in 1968, Franklin looking as if she’s been crying the entire time since King’s murder, or as if the bruises from two black eyes are just beginning to fade.

Most famously, perhaps, in December 1956 and 1957 Withers was backstage at the WDIA Goodwill Revue—the annual celebration of Memphis’s top black music station. Withers photographed Elvis Presley, by then the biggest star in the country, mingling casually and posing formally and even dancing with the smooth ballad singer Brook Benton (Withers’ strangest picture shows Benton on stage, with a huge image of Elvis, watching as if from backstage, projected behind him); with minstrel show veteran Rufus Thomas, who died just last year, dressed as an Indian chief, and his daughter Carla Thomas, dressed as a squaw; with blues singers B. B. King, Junior Parker, Bobby “Blue” Bland—standing between Parker and Bland, Elvis looks less white than, in a photograph, he ever has before or ever will again. Withers caught the Elvis that Elvis himself looked back to from the stage of the International Hotel on August 24, 1969, Elvis Presley as he was in 1954, nineteen years old, with “That’s All Right” on his hometown radio: “People were saying, ‘Who is he, what is he? Is he, is he?’ I didn’t know, and I’m saying, ‘Am I, am I? Am I?’”

From picture to picture, the smile on Elvis’s face, and the expressions on the faces of the people around him, some stolid, some almost deliriously happy, show people who, against all odds—against segregation, against racism, against propriety, against history itself—are, at least for the instant, speaking exactly the same language, and speaking it with pleasure and satisfaction. As backstage incidents, these are private moments. And yet when a single public moment took place—when in 1957 Elvis stepped out from the wings to acknowledge the crowd, and that part of black Memphis present in the hall went mad with delight—it made a breach in history. If Elvis then went off to his own frame of reference, nevertheless the attempt to keep that breach open, or to close it, would convulse the rest of the country for the next ten years and more.

Elvis Presley was not heard from on the occasion of the entry of the nine black students into Central High in 1957, protected, on the order of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, by the National Guard—but at least to Melba Pattillo, one of the nine, fifteen years old in 1957, he was there. She kept a diary. As Pete Daniel writes in Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s—a book that for its cover uses Withers’ 1957 portrait of Elvis and B.B. King, Elvis with his arm on King’s shoulder—“she recorded the events of her first day tossing in a sea of white faces. Most students ignored her, but others tormented her with a steady barrage of insults, slaps, shoves, and stares …Even with a guard accompanying her, Pattillo was [in her words] ‘confronted by a chorus of chants from sideburners.’ She speculated,” Daniel writes, “that these boys modeled their wardrobe and hairstyle on [Pattillo’s words again] ‘James Dean and Elvis,’ and ‘fancied themselves to be “bad boys.”’ They knocked her books out of her hands and surrounded her and her guard.”

“The James Dean and Elvis Presley look-alikes,” Daniel says, “personified contradictions in style and substance. James Dean invariably played the role of the restless adolescent in rebellion against authority, including adults and especially parents”—and what happened at Central High in Little Rock throws into relief that scene in Rebel without a Cause when Jim Stark, played by Dean, enters his new high school for the first time. Dean made you believe that in 1955 no one could feel more alone, more ostracized, because Jim Stark doesn’t know it’s forbidden to step on the school symbol embedded in the school steps. It took the Central High Nine to show what real ostracism was—and how, in culture, no meaning can be controlled. “The Central High ‘bad boys,’” Daniel writes, were not in rebellion against authority as they knew it. They “enforced their parents’ segregationist ideology…Elvis Presley dressed in Beale Street African-American style clothes, and, as much as any white musician, infused white culture with black style. The sideburners’ tough demeanor was thus modeled on Hollywood-style rebellion filtered through James Dean and black culture as translated by Elvis Presley…Popular culture had created sideburners’ style and even musical preferences, but they rejected its message of cultural fusion.”

Look magazine, Daniel notes, ran a picture of a segregationist Central High student named Virginia Lemon with the caption “Likes Elvis Presley,” and for all we know Lemon was present a year earlier to hear Elvis Presley call Little Richard his friend and proclaim “Long Tall Sally” a hit in both the U.S.A. and Africa. The Look picture shows Lemon smiling in a Confederate cap, waving a Confederate flag—and the Confederate symbols worn at Central High often included a skull at the center of the stars and bars. “These Elvis Presley and James Dean wannabes dressed the dress and walked the walk,” Daniel says, “but they did not talk the talk.”

But in the years after he made his sly, coded jokes from the stage of the Robinson Memorial Auditorium, or thought his secret thoughts as his music played on the Memphis air for the first time, Elvis Presley did not talk the talk either. And if he walked the walk, he did not take the walk.

On April 8, 1968, four days after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Ernest Withers photographed Coretta Scott King leading a procession of mourners down Main Street in Memphis. At her side were civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, and her own children. Thousands followed them. They were passing under the marquee of the State Theater, which was playing Elvis Presley’s latest movie, and the irony of the title of the movie could not have been contrived by a vengeful god: “STAY AWAY JOE.”

The title screamed: Where was Elvis? In fact he was in Hollywood, getting an electric gate installed at his house, having just returned from a weekend in Las Vegas, where he had attended Tom Jones’s midnight performance at the Flamingo Hotel. But Memphis, where only eleven years before he had stood as one who belonged with B. B. King and Rufus Thomas, was still his home—and there is no reason to think it even occurred to Elvis Presley to be present on this day, the most solemn day in the history of his city, or that, even if he sometimes recited the end of Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech before the Lincoln Memorial, it occurred to Elvis that the assassination in Memphis had anything to do with him. He was elsewhere. From this point on, any history he might make would take place within the confines of his own career. He had changed the world, but he had become a creature who could not be changed by it.

That is why, no matter how transcendent the outtake of “Young and Beautiful” that appears on Today, Tomorrow & Forever—and it is as transcendent as transcendent gets—future generations may not hear it, or any other song Elvis Presley sang. That is why his story may cease to travel with the story of his country, expanding and contracting according to rhythms that are simultaneously singular and common. That is why, in times to come, Elvis Presley may signify mostly as a joke (as he does today, appearing in so many stupid editorial cartoons sharing a cave with Osama bin Laden), a joke the content of which no one will be able to really explain.

I don’t care. I listen to “Young and Beautiful” and I swoon. I think of a friend, now dead, watching Jailhouse Rock on TV with me in 1969, and pronouncing, as if it were the last word that needed to be said about Elvis Presley, “Don’t you see what’s happening? Don’t you see what he’s doing? He’s singing his heart out.”

Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces, The Dustbin of History, Mystery Train, and other books of criticism.


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