Monday, August 16, 2010

“Elvis Presley & America”: Roadtrip Research Into The Myth & Mystery of the Man & His Fans

The King of rock and roll left us for the kingdom of heaven some 33 years ago today. To honor and better understand the myth, mystery, and man, I decided to embark on a research journey to a private Elvis museum followed by a visit to the Elvis Week festivities.

The hundred-degree swelter could have melted us, and a heat index even higher couldn’t stall a later-summer musico-historical mission to Memphis and northern Mississippi. When we arrived in the town of Holly Springs, the rain that misted the late August afternoon refused to cool. And as we stood at the gorgeous and grotesque gates of Graceland, Too, our wanting the weather to cool proved a weak desire compared to the weirdness that awaited us.

As we knocked on the metal door, we resisted the urge to cut-and-run to the campground without even meeting the object of our pilgrimage. After waiting a spell, we paced the perimeter of the grounds. All the covered windows blocked the outside light and life, and the potential eminence of the place presented a wrecked and weary luster, a limping passion that did not peddle its presence or market its meaning, like the overtly commercial Elvis industry we’d discover just to the north in Memphis.

Back at the front gate, the wait continued. I cracked the mail slot to catch a glimpse of the interior’s magnetism and a whiff of what the summer heat could do to the smell of a place like that. When we were finally greeted by our host, we offered our five-dollar donation without being asked and soon learned that he would not mind our documenting the entirety of the experience. Aside from the moldy mood and utterly unarchival nature of the place, aside from the religious refusal of daylight in a fantasyland where it’s always night, and aside from the monk I’ll call Mr. McLeod’s lack of a recent bath, it’s obvious that the King’s cult requires at least one devotee like this, a first father of fandom and funky folk culture.

McLeod’s magical interior insists on itself, in stacks of plastic totes and army lockers packed with his personal library, with the rest of the epic display a swampland Smithsonian of rock memorabilia, a three-dimensional collage and living hallucination of boyhood in old age. The Elvis souvenirs and artwork and clippings and costumes and kitsch that cover every inch of the shrine show us as much about the devout possession of fandom-as-monastic-vow as they do about the particular and universally cataloged object of obsession.

Each room of this decaying pop culture cathedral is a heartbreaking hotel on a lonely street because its only full-time resident is a father and former husband who has renounced his family and all ways of the outside world to build a private Elvis emporium. In the plushest part of the pad, he apparently sleeps on a tiny bed made on top of some portion of his extensive collection, placing himself prone before a shining altar of old-school, widescreen TVs (each connected to a VCR to capture any mention of Elvis on tape). He even had us read, as if it were holy scripture, from a three-ring binder that kept his log of Elvis-mentions on television.

A portal to the world he never sees, the array of video projections provides a living oracle to the outside and an almost demonic testimony to his disconnection and domestication. But the Elvis cult knows its place in an even larger cosmology, and at the sight of the glowing-lawn-Jesus in the Christmas room, McLeod informs us that he and Elvis both worship the real King.

In order to keep this shrine, his Taj Mahal of Elvisology, open 24-7 for 365, McLeod claims that the local police keep him cared for by visits and deliveries, fed as he suggests on a diet of pizza, carryout, and Coca-Cola. His lucid tour-guide rambling resembles speaking-in-tongues, fueled in part I imagine because he subsists on a case each day of the caffeinated-sugar juice, the perfect communion beverage of an all-American pop culture church rooted in the gospel of Elvis.

If Elvis had a gospel, what would it be? Would it be his songs and his movies? What about his cultural message and mythology? I’m admittedly not a card-carrying member of the Elvis cult or even a super-serious fan of his music the way I am a fan of other artists, but as a hardcore American music fan myself, I feel I need to learn a proper respect for his place in the history of rock and roll, for as Greil Marcus mentions in Mystery Train, “It is often said that if Elvis had not come along to set off the changes in American music and American life that followed his triumph, someone very much like him would have done the job as well. But there is no reason to think this true, either in strictly musical terms, or in any broader cultural sense. It is vital to remember that Elvis was the first young Southern white to sing rock n roll, something he copied from no one but made up on the spot.”

Outside Graceland the next morning, the marquee of a Days Inn sported a John Lennon quote expressing a similarly proper honor: “Before Elvis there was nothing.” On Saturday morning, we also saw runners finishing the Elvis week 5K race, a woman with extensive Elvis tattoos covering her otherwise naked shoulders, middle-aged men with Elvis hair and bulging midriffs who would open their mouths to emit Elvisesque mumbles, and a mall full of Elvis stores packed wall-to-wall with every imaginable thing of King bling. For a price, Elvis icons and Elvis images and Elvis clothes are all available to take home.

Often confused by the crude cheesy ubiquity of the Elvis business or his eerie reputation as royalty, I sometimes forget the core essential that: a world without Elvis could have been a world without rock and roll as we know it, a world without so much that I love. Instead, I remember that the measure of the myth comes from the mysterious birth of a musical form that’s given the world so much unmeasurable joy. American music also gives the mixed message of American history a pure shot of much-needed social redemption. Borrowing from gospel, country, and blues, Elvis evoked a new America as his tunes cut a precious and permanent path through the old one.

Rejecting Chuck D’s assertion in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” that Elvisology is inherently racist, I accept U2’s utter fascination with Elvis as Americana itself -- especially as expressed in tracks like “Elvis Presley and America,” “A Room at the Hearbreak Hotel,” “Elvis Ate America” or in the Memphis segments of Rattle and Hum.

Just as I split my Memphis-Mississippi excursion between the Elvis Week /“Elvis Everywhere” research and some political and spiritual soul food from the National Civil Rights Musuem and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, what rock and roll really represents is not white racist appropriation of black music but a truly integrated industry before that was common and an example of racial harmony during a period of racial tension.

That message began one of my last long weekends before a new semester at the Black Keys show in Nashville. Even though the band members from Akron, Ohio are ostensibly Caucasians, their most recent album was called Brothers for a reason. Popular music provides that place within a band or within a genre or even within one person where all the tensions of race and class temporarily transcend. According to Marcus, Elvis was that kind of person, a living symbol of the American democratic spirit who “not only embodies but personalizes so much of what is good about this place” -- especially “a love of roots and respect for the past” but also “the kind of racial harmony that for Elvis, a white man, means a profound affinity with the most subtle nuances of black culture combined with an equally profound understanding of his own whiteness.”

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