It has become fashionable to think sagely about Elvis, and to deliver such thoughts in mawkish turns of phrase. His biographers, who set the trend, promote it in order to make sense of themselves. Team spirit is otherwise uncharacteristic of them, and they quarrel passionately about everything except the music, which, for the most part, they ignore. Disagreements are harmless, of course, tokens of scholarship, and it would be churlish to complain. But with each new venture into the field Elvis undergoes modification and change. While his supporters, smarting at unsavoury rumours, maintain he stayed smart to the end, the rest speculate about unsocial behaviour and a diet which consisted primarily of pretzels and pills. So business booms, and eight years after his death Presley has been launched on a fresh and exciting career as the avatar of the good and the not-so-good, still travelling in the wake of Little Richard.
The history of rock ’n’ roll focuses on the white triumvirate – Presley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, who have at different times heaped contumely on themselves – neglecting its roots in Jazz and the Blues, and a sibling relationship with Soul. Along the way, that history has appropriated the music on behalf of a white audience by perpetuating the myths of the approachable hero and the rebel-next-door. Elvis’s legendary status – guaranteed by a dozen wonderful records he made before joining the Army – was facilitated by this confusion. For many people the Sun Sessions – Presley tones fed in and out of Sam Phillips’s soundbox – captured the spirit of the new music in the same way that the voice of Mahalia Jackson identified Gospel. John Smith’s discography of Johnny Cash, who was resident in Memphis at the time and also benefited from Phillips’s expertise, contributes to the idea of a movement. Presley’s intelligence, however, has always been in doubt. Joe Esposito, his infamous retainer, considered him an intellectual wizard. According to Stan Brosette, his publicist and, on occasion, his friend, he was fascinated by words. He would inquire after the meaning of difficult ones and repeat them over, sometimes backwards, so it sounded like an incantation. Moreover, his mind was ‘so fine, so sharp, he could have been anything he wanted’. Unfortunately no one has satisfactorily explained what he did want, besides universal fame outstripping Cassius Clay’s, his only serious rival. The picture that emerges – and has emerged at every turn since Jerry Hopkins published the first, fawning biography – is of an awkward man lacking in direction. Elvis has suffered remorseless gossip, and triumphed over it to such an extent that he now seems more remote than ever. His ex-wife, whose timing is impeccable, has produced a memoir to coincide not only with a burst of activity on the Elvis front but also with a revival of interest in her own career now that she is a Dallas femme fatale. Priscilla unburdens herself of Graceland’s secrets with the delicacy and attention to detail that soap opera is famous for. Meanwhile Elaine Dundy’s Elvis and Gladys and Alan Bleasdale’s Are you lonesome tonight? – which has arrived in the West End from Liverpool – concentrate respectively on the early and final chapters of the life. Both are sober and reflective, anxious to celebrate rather than to sneer.
Jerry Hopkins’s Elvis was unpinched by sophistication. The author was a flower-child, a journalist on Rolling Stone, and he cheerfully took on the role of Graceland’s dupe, appealing often to Brosette’s authority. The book was written in 1971 during an interval of optimism in Presley’s decline, when the singer appeared to have recovered from the years wasted in Hollywood in a string of forgettable films. The 1968 NBC Christmas Special, in which he surfaced leather-clad and looking like Brando in The Wild One, had announced his renaissance in a riot of miscegnation and noise. Memories of it were still sharp when Hopkins set about his labours, and affected him profoundly. Ironically, during his last months, Elvis preferred videos of this vintage to those of the glory days, and the NBC show forms the backbone of Alan Bleasdale’s play. ‘Older Presley’ – played by Martin Shaw in purple pyjamas – clutches an attaché case of medications to his side, ceasing abruptly from soliloquy and self-pity to gaze spellbound at his lithesome former self. At one point, Presley, who is attended around the clock by minions, halts the screening and dispatches his most obsequious aide in search of a dictionary. The testimony of Stan Brosette, who might well have been the prototype of Marty, is recalled:
OLDER PRESLEY: What does ‘propensity’ mean?
MARTY: Well, er, why?
OLDER PRESLEY: I just remembered it ... ‘Propensity’, it’s a word. I’ve heard it. Maybe I read it. Could be someone said it about me, now that I recall. Maybe one of them New York writers. Some interview I did last year – man was a smartass – kept on using big words – like ‘Connecticut’. Yeah, went back to the big city an’ wrote all that clever snide stuff. Said I had a propensity for good an’ evil ... Kinda like that.
It is a touching scene, and catches ambiguities surrounding the subject of the play. Experts have divided neatly: some, interested in stamping their mark, have recognised the expediency of disturbing a dream; others have remembered Elvis with cloying sentiments, reminiscent of the singer himself mourning a dead dog in ‘Old Shep’ – which was, significantly, his favourite song, and the one whose chords he first mastered.
Pop gossip would be dull, almost pointless, without a mixture of sycophancy and sneering. So too would the fanzines devoted to it and the books that feed off the pub-talk and fuel the scandal. While any mention of a seamier side upsets enthusiasts, who regard writing about the mike-maulers and guitar heroes as irrelevant to the music, the treats are obvious, involving various kinds of vicarious badness: company, language and drugs. From the beginning rock ’n’ rollers courted outrage and staked their (street) credibility on a propensity for self-immolation. Jerry Lee’s 1958 British tour was interrupted by newspaper revelations of the rockabilly’s marriage to his 14-year-old cousin. In 1961 Chuck Berry was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for statutory rape of another 14-year-old. Presley himself installed Priscilla at Graceland when she was still a schoolgirl, six years before they were married. When Alan Lomax, a researcher into American folk music, was gathering information in the Deep South, he showed up at the door of Muddy Waters. The genius of the Blues, convinced that Lomax was an envoy from the police department, ready to book him for bootlegging, was so taken aback his beard didn’t grow for a year.
The remarkable thing about Elvis and Me is just how inauthentic it seems. Far from setting the record straight, Priscilla chooses to endorse the cardboard stories that have accumulated, and adds a few new ones of her own. The book is a necromancer’s delight. Gladys Presley hovers ominously over this account of her son’s married life, and explains not only the couple’s intermittent visits to the morgue but also Elvis’s sexual problems: these are coyly referred to – in keeping with a book which is prurient in an uninformative way.
Priscilla Beaulieu was an Air Force baby. The places she knew as a child came and went according to Service posting. In 1956, her stepfather bought her the first Elvis Presley album. The popstar’s name was familiar from the talk of schoolfriends and discjockeys, and one of the songs on the record was ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Three years later, Priscilla met Elvis in Bad Neuheim, where Captain Beaulieu was stationed and Elvis was doing his national service. Priscilla elaborates glumly on the difficulties the lovers faced: ‘My parents weren’t so enthralled with his celebrity status that they were willing to compromise their principles.’ Much frantic driving was involved, punctuated by avowals of good faith.
The relationship was unusual because of the personalities it brought together, and because it had to accommodate the conflicting schedules of a superstar and a schoolgirl. Priscilla reports ordinarily enough on her clock-watching and the deceit which was her fiancé’s prerogative. When she was incapable of staying awake through her lessons, Elvis introduced her to dexedrine, and imparted lessons of his own regarding style. He effected a transformation in her with Pygmalion robustness: ‘I was Elvis’s doll, his own living doll, to fashion as he pleased.’ Some of his stipulations tell us more about his insecurity than they do about anything else: for instance, Priscilla was persuaded to dye her hair black – to match his – because ‘black hair will make your eyes stand out more’; at his command she took to wearing the high-collared shirts that were his trademark, ‘not because he especially liked them, but because he felt his neck was too long’.
Priscilla’s brightest moments are reserved for her daughter, who mediated between the couple after their divorce. Otherwise Elvis and Me is reluctant to consider Elvis’s later life, as if that period was unavailable to a sympathetic memoirist. Scenes from it have already been itemised and painfully rehearsed, most colourfully by Albert Goldman. His 1982 Elvis mixed diatribe on the subject of American society with a famously unfriendly portrait of the singer as a pervert and fiend. Although unmentioned, Goldman influences the villain of Bleasdale’s Are you lonesome tonight? The author describes his play in a programme note – and in the preface to the Faber edition – as ‘a fable about a truly fabulous man’, as if to excuse himself from joining either of the warring camps. But the evening unfolds in splendid homage to the singer. At times the play shows signs of buckling under an unwieldy arrangement – Bleasdale telescopes the events of a life into its final afternoon. Surprisingly, of all of the characters the most sharply defined is not Elvis himself, but Duke, an ex-cohort who languishes in a bar-room. His attempts to contact Elvis are juxtaposed with other unsalubrious encounters. An English journalist protests his eagerness to spill Duke’s revelations of the King onto the page. The two men haggle and conspire, and Duke blackmails his old friend. This cameo of the turncoat arises out of Bleasdale’s desire to ‘redress the balance’ in Elvis affairs after Goldman and ‘that book’, although much of his villain has been culled from elsewhere.
Red West abandoned scruples and sold out. His spook-memoir, Elvis: What happened, appeared on the bookstalls ten days before Presley’s death. West’s keenest secret concerns the jealousy Elvis was prone to. On one occasion its object was Priscilla’s karate teacher and boyfriend, Mike Stone. West was summoned to the Presley suite and instructed to hire a hit man to murder Stone, although the contract was soon forgotten. Priscilla doesn’t refer to this episode: Goldman investigates it at length. In Are you lonesome tonight? Duke is substituted for West, and around his retailing of this story (furnished by Presley’s taped confession of guilt) Bleasdale constructs an elaborate set-piece. It is hard to say whether he manages to exculpate Elvis, or to illuminate the shadow he cast, but the professional detractors are made to look small.
Elaine Dundy subtitles her biography ‘The Genesis of the King’ to dissociate herself from macabre stories. In later life, whenever pressed to account for his extravagant success, Elvis invariably alighted on a single, sassy sentence: ‘My Mama raised me right.’ Gladys thought so too, apparently, and her achievement preoccupies the book. As if to distance itself still further from unhygienic matters, Elvis and Gladys recounts the history of Presley’s forebears from the first time they troubled Southern historians. Gladys’s family hark back to Cherokee Indians. Andrew Presley, a Scottish blacksmith, emigrated to North Carolina in the middle of the 18th century. His son fought in the Wars of Independence and finally settled in the district of Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis Aaron was born 150 years later.
Elvis and Gladys promises much it cannot deliver, nestling uncomfortably between common sense and intuition. But Dundy can be dashing at times. Her description of garage bands in Memphis – where the Presleys moved in search of work – is irresistible after the fashion of Charles White’s paean to Little Richard’s hometown of Macon, or the yarns associated with Buddy Holly straining at the leash in Lubbock, Texas. Dundy maps out Elvis’s nocturnal wanderings, away from the family home, down to Beale or Union Street, which were covens of the Blues. Her explanation of Elvis’s attachment to Jesse, the twin who died at birth, is also ingenious; as is her account of how swiftly the studios incorporated it into myth. The first line of the soundtrack on the film Loving you, for instance, has Elvis mysteriously intoning: ‘I wish I were twins. I’d have somebody to blame for this.’ Dundy justifies the eclipse of Vernon, the father, by referring to an adage current around the bull-rings of Spain. Matadors believe, she tells us – I suppose this relates primarily to bulls – that courage and resilience are passed down through female genes. But no one can be sure Elvis possessed either quality: the Presley family invented itself daily, as conscientiously as the hawks who descended on its favourite son. It seems these inventions may have been a reaction against the death of the other son, whom Elvis spoke to throughout his life and whose place his mother regularly set at the table.
The Who provided unlimited material for gossip, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who graduated from the British R&B circuit before them. It was, incidentally, as much the lunatic behaviour of their drummer, the late and lamented Keith Moon, as Pete Townshend’s songs of adolescent rebellion that won them column inches. Moon was juvenile, a jester from Wembley who delighted in pranks. But the group was remarkable for other things. While the Beatles accomplished a smooth crossing-over into show business, being impish and respectably tuneful, and the Stones were egregious vagabonds, the Who appealed directly to the experience of a generation of fans. That generation has since disbanded, like the group itself, notwithstanding the occasional reunion for charity or nostalgia. Nowadays, Pete Townshend frequents headier circles, as a publisher and general source of wisdom. Horse’s Neck is the first fruit of this latest collaboration: a disguised, disjointed autobiography. At the same time his old comrade, Roger Daltrey, advertises credit cards on television, which is another way of confounding the philosophy of a group that had hoped to die before getting old. As if to cock a snook – if cocking snooks is something technology is capable of – the longest interruption to satellite coverage of this summer’s Live Aid concert occurred during The Who’s ‘My Generation’, when for several minutes a refreshment tent in Philadelphia monopolised viewers round the world.
A biography of Townshend would inevitably discuss the pop star’s addiction to heroin and his reform. This book eschews the subject, although there is an oblique reference to recent chaos in ‘Champagne on the Terraces’, when a wife says: ‘Since you’ve been on the wagon all you do is sit and dream.’ Among the various dreams of childhood and psychosis that make up Horse’s Neck one resembles documentary. ‘Winston’ – this was John Lennon’s second name – describes a party the writer attended in New York on the first anniversary of the Beatle’s death, and someone he met there. Van Smith-Huntley drunkenly spills pop star secrets to the world. As Townshend points out, ordinary frustration was responsible for his outburst: ‘He had lost his band only a year or two before.’ But snatches of it resist explanation. Van denounces the inveterate gossips and journalists for their ‘high-flown and pragmatic’ interpretations: ‘It belies the fact that all rock and its so-called stars ever did was stand up and complain.’ The remark, however facile, can be applied to The Who, and to the punk rockers whose anger Townshend in some ways anticipated and who settled happily for danceable complaining. Dave Rimmer’s Like Punk Never Happened charts Culture Club’s career and the supremacy of the new idols, like Wham! and Duran Duran, in such a way as to bear out Van’s disappointment at the demise of the rebel wave.
In Horse’s Neck Townshend is at pains to forget his first career. In ‘Fish Shop’, describing a ‘giant of a man’ recognisable as himself, he achieves astonishing detachment: ‘Performing with his band on the stage was my friend Pete, a narrow man with eyes like the eyes a child sees when it stands on its head and looks in a mirror. He was swinging his guitar like a battle-axe, slicing a microphone in two across the stage, its cable curling.’ Townshend’s past, remote and reproachful, has a habit of intruding into each story. The subject returned to or gestured at is melancholic, turning into inarticulacy or a feeling of apartness from the everyday world. The collection is marred by waywardness and rambling, despite the odd flourish and lightness of touch. Each scene is presented as an epiphany. The first piece, ‘Thirteen’, sets the mood with a description of a summer’s afternoon on the beach at Filey (later recalled as a ‘Northumbrian miracle’). The narrator luxuriates in the guilty isolation of a child whose parents have abandoned him. At last the mother and father appear astride stallions, but remain only for a moment before ‘galloping off again laughing and waving’. Mothers and horses are ubiquitous in this book, as Townshend explains in his preface: ‘My mother features in this book, but her character changes constantly because this “mother” is many mothers, many teachers.’ Horses also transform themselves. In another story a young boy longs to stand as the back half of a pantomime horse, to relish the ‘darkness and humiliation’ it would involve. A dream of a church in a Cotswold village is memorable for the frenzied appearance of a colt among the ruins. The dreamer remembers the beast ‘running in a mindless circle’. This, he confides further on, was ‘a terrible dream and seemed portentous’. The motif recurs provocatively in the same story, subtly altered, in a house ‘devoid of furniture’ and life – ‘except that the tiny room was occupied by another horse’. After much hard work this horse is elevated to the status of ‘an oblique warning that I would repeat the same mistake eternally’. It’s possible that we are staring up the nose of some ghastly conscience which, like Joyce’s, hasn’t materialised yet.
The sequence on Filey beach is not the only instance of humans and animals interacting. ‘The Pact’ explores the effect on a son of a letter bequeathed by his mother. Its intimacies embarrass and disturb. The child is appalled, conscious of a kind of assault. The mother writes: ‘I am never sure what a man wants from me. That is why I prefer horses.’ Later Townshend overhears a telephone conversation between two women during which one of them speaks of riding her lover like a horse. The volume closes with a valediction. Alcohol and bestiality have slipped away, leaving the narrator quiet, disconsolate but satisfactorily human: ‘When my orgasm comes it is without sensation. I am no longer animal. My phallus diminishes and my horse flicks its tail and stands on its back legs, magnificent.’ Townshend’s idea of ‘magnificence’ depends on solitude, engendering dreams of escape, which complement the mythology of rock ’n’ roll and are unfeasible in much the same way. Townshend remarks at the beginning of Horse’s Neck that ‘each story deals with one aspect of my struggle to discover what beauty really is.’ These are grand sentiments but we are not told whether the ‘struggle’ continues at the end or has been concluded successfully. We must look elsewhere for an answer – to the book’s cover, perhaps, from which a gaunt face stares out.
Townshend turns up again introducing the confessional Starlust. The Vermorels’ book catalogues the hysteria and bewitchment for which the cult of celebrity is responsible. It is a treasury of the delusions of fans. Townshend’s prefatory comments offer an opinion of these fantasies from the other side. He suspects that worshippers exaggerate their idol’s worth, and is in typically rumbustious mood: ‘What I think of myself doesn’t really matter, what matters is that I have made myself available as what Jung called a symbol of transformation.’ The Vermorels, contenting themselves with a prosaic view, describe fanmania in terms of consumerism and mutation. The testimonies they have collected make wonderful reading, and represent a diversity of despair: from weenyboppers with a crush on Nick Heyward to the activities of full-time groupies, male and female. Many of the dreams are overtly sexual – not in the least bit sentimental – although a pattern emerges: eyes meet across rooms, the objects of desire behave courteously, there is consummation and then collapse, tinged with disappointment. The Vermorels haven’t skimped on entertainment, which is provided by a coterie of Barry Manilow supporters, corresponding obsessively in something called ‘Manilanguage’. But there is evidence of unhappiness among them; sometimes even guilt.
Adulation quickly becomes anguish, and then resentment. The strangest items in Starlust are those letters threatening violence. As the Vermorels have it, ‘pop is a frustration machine’, and hostility offers comfort to unconsummated passions that have to consume. John Lennon’s death illustrates the dangers. According to Hunter Davies, whose 1968 biography of the Beatles is now updated and revamped (but not enriched by Paul McCartney’s carping account of his friend), it also illustrates Lennon’s ‘enormous contribution to popular music and to the youth of the West’. What Davies omits to mention, and Starlust reminds us of, is that Lennon’s murderer was himself part and product of that youth. Mark Chapman haunts the Vermorels’ book, lending a mordant fascination as well as the moral: that the distance between the star and his audience can’t be crossed without stepping on his blue suede shoes.