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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in