Southern Belle

Russell Davies

  • Elvis by Albert Goldman
    Allen Lane, 598 pp, £9.95, December 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1474 2

My newsagent is currently selling a publication called Elvisly Yours. There’s everything here for the Elvis Presley cultist. He is offered a £369 package trip to Memphis (‘Free Trip to Tupelo – Welcoming Elvis Party with Close Elvis Friends’); or the more distant economic possibility of a ‘life-size cold-cast bronze or copper statue of Elvis’ at £25,000. Pure white hand-polished busts of Elvis come in beautiful ‘marbelene’. Item G21 in the list is the Memorial Elvis Pillow, a tasselled affair inscribed in Victorian homily-Gothic lettering,

God knew Elvis
Was tired, so he
Took him to Rest.

The ‘Fantastic Elvis Presley frisbee’ is only £1.25. And you can even order ‘your very own Elvis painting or sketch from our special Elvis artist Tommy Heyburn. Mr Heyburn is easily the best Elvis artist today.’ Farther out in the wilds of ingenuity, Elvisly Yours makes available a ‘complete set of eight imported gold record LP covers and bubble gum, each with bonus Elvis photograph’. This ‘very rare collector’s item in limited quantity’ actually appears to be a set of miniature Elvis record sleeves, each sleeve containing a circular wafer of gum with a pin-prick hole in the middle. Then there’s the ‘cameo life-story pendant’, the Memphis newspapers from the day of Presley’s death, and so on, and on – the list is not endless, but it does fill 14 pages. Elvisly Yours additionally tries to keep its readers abreast of whatever Elvis News there can possibly be, four years after his death. For the British public, attention has become focused on the Elvis statue (the original of the £25,000 cold-cast copy), created by Jon Douglas under conditions which could scarcely be more revealing of the characteristics of an Elvis-fixated temperament.

Jon Douglas created the statue but so many, many people helped to finish it. Jon had been working seven months on the statue and was very ill and getting weaker and weaker. In the last week before the statue unveiling a gigantic team effot [sic] was put in ... Val Quinn and her friends Kathy and Liz did an excellent polishing job especially in the groin area of the statue. Final polishing was done by Diana and Ray who together with Fiona Jardine saved the statue from destruction when an accident occurred transporting the statue to the unveiling site. Diana and Ray are still suffering from their injuries ...

The Elvis bazaar is surely the low parody of Lourdes. To the images of sickness and suffering and self-sacrifice, the proprietors of the Elvis pilgrimage add a frank and frantic sexuality. The ambiguity of ‘passion’, long suspected in icons like Bernini’s Santa Teresa, here finally bursts forth and goes to town (Memphis). The nuns of Elvis spend their devotional hours buffing up his groin.

There is a good deal to ridicule in all this, and much to deplore: only a person poor in his own life’s expectations would consider spending money on such vicarious and necrophiliac stuff, and he is the very person most easily separated from his cash by the pious exploiter with stocks of Limited Editions. Yet at the core of the cult, and of the business, there is at least the real voice of Elvis Presley. One doesn’t have to hallucinate to hear it. A discussable talent remains, and it can still speak to the heart. It is the task of the articulate commentator to indicate how that happens, or happened at the time; or why; or, at the very least, when. Elvis Presley’s biographer has not done this. He has merely recorded, and with every sign of glee, how the talent, once arisen, fell back into what he sees as the traditional illiterate half-coma of popular culture. Elvis Presley is merely the focus for Albert Goldman’s contempt – a contempt for a kind of regional sub-man or mass personality devised by himself. Goldman is palpably scared by the vitality of non-intellectual life among humankind, above all in his own country. He can’t destroy it, but he can beat down its totems. Against the viciousness of his attack, the staff of Elvisly Yours can offer only squeaks of dismay (‘the new Elvis book ... a pack of lies and half-truths’) and an urgent plea (‘DON’T buy any of these sick books’) to keep spending your Elvis allowance in the right quarter.

‘Though democracy is ostensibly the opposite of monarchy,’ says Goldman (questionably), ‘the mass culture that is American democracy has betrayed in every age a deep atavistic yearning for royalty’: a tenable notion, and Goldman appears to mean it, at the time. But it is not what he turns out to mean. One needs to read no further than twenty pages into the book to realise that Goldman’s true feelings involve a rearrangement of his terms. What he really means is that ‘mass culture’s deep atavistic longing for royalty has betrayed American democracy.’ This it has done by creating a false religion (‘Behold His Royal and Imperial American Highness’). As we have seen from the contents of Elvisly Yours, a parodic kingship is undeniable: but Goldman wants us to take the Presley religion seriously not just as a pattern of exploitation but as a social force. Though he will later spend many pages ridiculing Elvis’s pretensions even to the tinniest of tin stars, Goldman is so far concerned only to build up Elvis into the Great Threat: hence the heaping and mingling of political and religious fantasy (Goldman’s rather than Presley’s).

Elvis compared himself frequently with the president of the United States. He declared that if he so desired he could himself be the president ... It did not require the election of Ronald Reagan to demonstrate that at this point in their history, Americans feel most fulfilled by leaders who are, or at least resemble, movie stars ... No less an expert than Richard Nixon assured Elvis that he had the power over people’s imaginations that would enable him to obtain high office ... In truth, Elvis aspired to an office higher than that occupied by any president. He viewed himself as one who ruled the world by virtue of a unique power conferred directly and exclusively upon him by the Most High. Like Baron Corvo, Elvis Presley fancied himself a kind of glamorous pope: a prince, a potentate, a pontiff ...

Fantasies, flatteries, the delusional self-aggrandisement of the very rich – Goldman chucks it all in, building and building so that in the end he may have the biggest target in the whole world to knock down all by himself. The book is already giving signs of being the product of an authorial megalomania poor Elvis could not have hoped to match.

The mass-culture freaks of the world are evidently such lunkheads, in Goldman’s estimation, that they had to have it demonstrated for them right away that Elvis Presley was not, in fact, a person of regal demeanour or discipline. Either that or Goldman couldn’t wait. Anyway, he proceeds to take us on a tour of Elvis’s Palace, Graceland, and his Imperial Suite in Las Vegas, pausing frequently to describe the latterday regal vices, foibles, crimes and incontinences. There were plenty of these: a gift to Goldman. If all he had wanted to do had been to disabuse worshipping ‘Elfans’ of their more neurotically self-deceiving dreams of Presleyan purity, he had only to stick to the facts. His inventory of Graceland probably does so, at least in part, and it is satisfactorily gruesome: ‘What a bed! An immense slab, nine by nine, a double king size, it has a mortuary headboard of black quilted Naugahide, with a built-in plastic back angle and retractable armrests of speckled metal.’ Because Elvis ‘detests everything antique with the heartfelt disgust of a real forward-looking American of his generation’, almost any description of his surroundings turns into the Elvisly Yours catalogue.

But even this exploration of a ghoulish kitsch-grotto turns into an objectionable failure. The reason for this is the strange and excessive tactic of sexual abuse adopted by Goldman, from the start, in describing Elvis Presley. The biographer seems obsessively intent on emasculating his subject. ‘Unmanned by a mysterious wound’ is the phrase that introduces this theme, but Goldman is far more interested in the unmanning than the mystery. Within the first 30 pages, Presley’s ‘middle-aged woman’s passion for knick-nacks’ and the ‘oddly feminine touches’ in the Graceland furnishings are noted; the clubroom cabin in Presley’s private jet is ‘oddly effeminate’ too. We learn that there was ‘always a part of him that was like those famous female models’ who study their faces in mirrors – yes, Presley had mirrors! – so it is no surprise when the bed on his plane turns out to be ‘queen-sized’. Like the bathroom, indeed: ‘with this assemblage of precious metal, semiprecious stone and cheap plastic, combined ostentatiously but unimaginatively into the sort of private fixture dear to the heart of a Palm Springs matron (or a rich old queen), you have the epitome of the King’s taste.’ Even that king-sized Naugahide bed at Graceland, after all, had certain features ‘beloved of suburban matrons’. When actually in bed, the King himself (and this is where you see to what extent the disgust is Goldman’s problem rather than Presley’s) is presented as ‘propped up like a big fat woman recovering from some operation on her reproductive organs’. Goldman’s own biographer is going to have a whale of a time exploring Albert’s horror of middle-aged women. But the vivacity of his genes is not in question. His eye unerringly picks out the ‘spermatozoid scrolls’ incised in a Graceland screen, and an unpromising solid wood cocktail table is carved ‘out of the crotch of a cypress tree’.

These opening chapters leave us accepting that Elvis Presley, towards the end of his life, was a gross drug-abusing sybarite with lousy taste (what did we expect?), but wondering what can be the origin of the strange sexy excitement Goldman derives from telling us about it. Why will he not accord Elvis even the status of a male member of the human tribe? But the next chunk, beginning with the chapter ‘Redneck Roots’, makes things a lot clearer. ‘To the northerner cooped up in his immense cities and prey to strange fancies about the “real America”, people like these hill folk are synonymous with the great modern dream of “roots”.’ This is what Albert Goldman is out to destroy. He is less interested, ultimately, in exposing the truth about Elvis – whose follies describe themselves – than in discrediting the ‘race’ of people from which he sprang. ‘Race’ is the word Goldman employs. As for the hillbillies, he says, ‘a more deracinated and restless race could not be imagined.’ It is sad to see a Jewish writer even momentarily reproducing the tones – the phraseology – of the Nazi pamphleteer. ‘Just as the hillbillies had no real awareness of the present, they had no grasp on the past,’ he asserts in a typical cadence; and as an instance of the Presley (or Pressley) family’s lack of a grip on their own identity, he adduces a genetic theory indicating that Elvis’s uncles on his mother’s side, and in the next generation Elvis himself, were foredoomed by the ‘potentially dangerous mating combination’ of a cousin marriage. But whether you take that point or not doesn’t matter a lot to Goldman, for whom there is an overriding truth: ‘The Presleys were not an ordinary family: they were hillbillies, on familiar terms with the weird.’

On the whole, Elvis Aron Presley seems to have survived the predestinated lunacy pretty well. His twin brother was stillborn (an event to which no hillbilly mystic could attach more sinister importance than Goldman), but Elvis grew up to be ‘a lot better educated than his nearly illiterate father’. This looks like a compliment, but Goldman is only using Elvis to bash his father, Vernon Presley. It all depends which of his targets our author happens to be hitting at the time. Twenty pages later, he gets round to emphasising that Elvis’s school speciality was woodwork. You would not expect Goldman to underplay this point and he does not: ‘Of all the dumb activities in this dumb working-class school about the dumbest was shop: Elvis Presley’s major.’ Nor does Goldman intend that Elvis’s friends should do him credit. Here is a verbal snapshot of ‘lifelong friend and companion, Red West. Red is a senior at the time, a tough, aggressive, football-playing poor boy, whose ribs are visibly deformed from rickets, a disease produced by not having enough money or enough brains to eat right.’ It is difficult to see how an intellect capable of producing a formula as coarse as the one I have italicised could presume to comment on others’ inadequacies of sensibility.

A new intellectual civil war seems to have broken out between North and South in the United States – the battle currently in progress, as I write, is the Evolution Trial in Little Rock, Arkansas – and this volume is another skirmish in its own right. Goldman’s is a standard New York metropolitan horror, hideously inflamed. It is liberalism gone off the clock – or clean round the dial, until it turns into its opposite. Consider Goldman’s view of the Southerners’ religion, a subject on which most Northern intellectuals have strong feelings. At the very outset, it’s clear that this is going to be a Theme. Graceland, we are told at the beginning of Chapter One, looks like a Christmas card: there are Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and a Christmas crib with a real cradle. But stepping inside the place, ‘imagine the shock of finding yourself in a whorehouse!’ The germ thus planted ducks into the bloodstream of the narrative, later to surface in vile boils of near-racism like the one that explodes on page 247. Elvis’s penchant for nocturnal motorbike racing has just been described: ‘He would play with the big boys and beat them at their own games,’ sneers Goldman. ‘He would experience what southerners have always been best at experiencing: the ecstasy of self-destruction. They call it it “going to Jesus”.’ Unlike, say, James Dean (born to the north of Indianapolis), he did not in fact destroy himself on the highway: but you soon learn with this book that the last thing you can hope for is a satisfactory hookup between the particular foible illustrated and the general hatred felt.

Old Vernon Presley is of consistent help to Goldman in his campaign, being from the start ‘a dullard and a donkey’ (as opposed to Elvis’s mother Gladys, who, being ‘given to prophetic dreams and weird intuitions’, at least is formidable enough to be caricatured by Goldman as a hillbilly witch). Much the most advanced thing Vernon ever did, we are given to understand, was to get himself circumcised. He did it, as Albert choicely puts it, ‘in the hopes of reviving his deadened dick’. But Elvis was less adventurous. ‘His shyness focused on his penis, which he called “Little Elvis” and went to great lengths to hide. Instead of pissing in a urinal, for example, he would always go inside a stall, like a woman.’ ‘He was not modest but ashamed. Like most country boys of his time, he was uncircumcised. A sensitive adolescent at heart, he saw his beauty disfigured by an ugly hillbilly pecker.’

Throughout the book, Goldman is mechanically pro-semitic. Just as surely as the hillbilly fraternity is mocked and despised, so Elvis’s Jewish associates are spared. That’s fine with me. I just find it amusing to see how selective is Goldman’s scorn. ‘Elvis was always drawn to Jewish people,’ he says. Well, certainly they seem to have been unfailingly and efficiently good to him, in a world otherwise populated by despicable spongers. Look at Elvis’s Memphis good-time buddies, the Guys. There is not much to be said for them, living as they do off Elvis and in fear of him. But Marty Lacker (‘Fat, balding, Jewish’) ‘under his veneer of good ole boy conformity ... was a rather different type from the rest of the Guys ... Lacker was completely devoted to Elvis.’ This is the only recorded example of Southernness as a veneer: everyone else is deeply ingrained. The only really honourable element in Elvis’s business life is the President of MCA, Abe Lastfogel, with his ‘impeccable reputation for honesty in business dealings’ and his ‘image of rabbinical respectability’. In a nightmare late in life, Elvis dreamed that he was on trial for his life. ‘All the Guys had rejected him. Among the jury, the only two who were sympathetic to his case were his Jewish jewelers in Beverly Hills, Schwartz and Ableser.’ The formation of Elvis’s singing style is seen as a matter of mimicry, and even of pilfering (‘the boy who in real life stole so much from so many singers’): but if Elvis did have anything so respectable as an influence, did it not perhaps come from the gramophone records of Rabbi Alfred Fruchter who lived upstairs from the Presleys? ‘In all the digging around for the roots of the Presley sound, no one has ever considered the possibility that he was influenced by Jewish cantorial singing.’ In other respects, of course, the two cultures are a world apart. Elvis’s music publishers, Julian and Joachim Aberbach, ‘were highly sophisticated Viennese Jews’ and thus ‘the most unlikely men in the world to become hillbilly music magnates’ (which they nonetheless did). No wonder Elvis ‘even, on occasion, expressed the wish that he might himself be one of the “chosen people”.’

Since Albert Goldman is more concerned to enumerate errors of taste than to rescue successes from the Elvis record-stack, the book is short on musical analysis. Elvis himself is quoted as having said, ‘The colored folk been singing it and playing it just the way I’m doing now, man, for more years than I know. Nobody paid it no mind till I goosed it up,’ which sounds a fair summary. But Goldman finds a way of poisoning it. He attributes to Presley’s early recording boss Sam Phillips the words ‘If I could find a white boy who could sing like a nigger, I could make a million dollars’ – the use of the word ‘nigger’ has already been strenuously denied by associates of Phillips – and thereafter the narrator tends to drop into redneck accents whenever the mood takes him. It generally happens when, having no recorded quote from Elvis to hand, he must take it upon himself to slip into the singer’s thought-processes. For example, when Priscilla, Elvis’s wife, runs off with a karate demonstrator, ‘he would think of her seducer, a goddamned nigger bastard’ – the man was a native Hawaiian with a Caucasian father – ‘with an attitude on him that made you want to cut his nuts off.’ So Presley is imagined plotting revenge on his wife. ‘He would see what a white man does to a wife-stealing nigger.’ The imputations of racism against Presley reach a formal climax when, quite out of the blue, he is suddenly dubbed ‘an unregenerate southern redneck who stopped just short of the Klan and the John Birch Society’. The evidence to support these latter insinuations is non-existent.

It must be obvious by now that the staff of Elvisly Yours, for all their sad unscramblable venality and potty devotion, have right on their side. This is a sick book, its sickness is fear of the enemy within (hell, they’re not even communists), and the fact that certain critics have been convinced by it amazes me. Its one commendable act of research is its attempt to lift some of the lids off Colonel Parker, Elvis’s manager, who turns out not to be an old-timey Kentucky roustabout but a self-imported Dutchman who, Goldman says, may possibly not possess, or wish to seek, a passport, for fear of belated exposure as an alien – hence, conceivably, his unwillingness to tour Elvis in Europe. But Goldman’s utter opportunism persists to the last. After five hundred pitiless pages of character assassination, the Colonel stands revealed as a monster of, among other things, incompetence and avarice – but at a moment’s notice he can still be transformed into the victim of ‘his boy’. But that’s OK too: as long as somebody looks bad. Whatever turns you off.

The energy of Albert Goldman’s rage spills forth, naturally, in a number of vivid errors, among which the spelling mistakes contrive a welcome charm. I enjoyed ‘chorybantic’ (twice) and ‘O Solo Mio’ and in particular ‘Hassenpfeffer’, which if it meant anything would mean ‘pepper of hate’. Well, I think we have ingested enough of that for one sitting.