Uncle Vester’s Nephew

Graham Coster

  • Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession by Greil Marcus
    Viking, 256 pp, £17.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 670 83846 2
  • Rythm Oil: A Journey through the Music of the American South by Stanley Booth
    Cape, 254 pp, £16.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 224 02779 4

A few years ago I met Elvis Presley’s Uncle Vester. Cross the road from Graceland, Elvis’s smallish mansion in Memphis, and you enter the large museum-and-souvenirs complex where you can view his private plane, his collection of police badges and all those swirling, sequined efforts he used to garb himself in for a Las Vegas show, and then go and buy yourself an Elvis alarm clock. In a booth in one of the many trinket shops sits the affable Uncle, ready to autograph for you a copy of his Vester Presley Cookbook, a collation of favourite Presley family recipes, and impart to anyone who cares to stop and be buttonholed his memories of his celebrated late nephew.

For us Uncle Vester discoursed proprietorially from beneath his stetson on the reasons why Elvis wasted all those years making all those terrible movies. (It had seemed a good, graceless question to ask at Graceland.) Soon a crowd had gathered round. You have to remember, Uncle was saying, Elvis never did anything he didn’t want to – all this talk of him being a pawn of Colonel Parker’s was only put about by people who didn’t know him. Whereas the Presley family, they knew him – they were all so close to him! Not a day that went by, Uncle confided, but he didn’t miss him, which was why it was so important that the family had pulled together in their loss.

No doubt encouraged by the sympathetic pause that followed Uncle’s testimony, an English woman spoke up from the back of the crowd. ‘Mr Presley, um, it’s nice news, isn’t it, about Elvis’s daughter?’ Uncle Vester looked blank. ‘The little baby. You know? Her first child, arrived yesterday.’

‘No, no.’ Uncle Vester stirred testily to reassert his authority. ‘No, she hasn’t had a baby. I’d be the first to know. We’re a very close family, the Presleys.’

Dread contending with pride in her voice, the woman pressed on. ‘But it was on the radio this morning. A little girl? Six pounds five?’

The crowd had gone silent. Remembering that Elvis pencil-sharpener we each, suddenly, had to buy that very moment, we all slunk away. Uncle Vester sat distracted and abandoned among his cookbooks.

Fifteen years on from his death there are two accepted schools of Presley appreciation: hagiography and ridicule. Half the time, as someone once observed, he sounded like the greatest singer who ever lived, and the rest of the time he sounded like somebody singing in the bath. Either you accord him the ultimate homage, and become an Elvis impersonator, remaking yourself as the King right down to the Queen Bess high collars and the heel-shaped sideburns the size of Italy; or else your favourite Elvis story will be the one in Albert Goldman’s biography, of how he nearly drowned in a bowl of minestrone soup – so bombed out one day on barbiturates that while his girlfriend was preparing their lunch in the kitchen he passed out into the starter. Elvis is not a broad church: if you’re not fundamentalist then you’re indifferent. Uncle Vester, thus, is either another messenger at the shrine or another unfortunate chorus-sweller in the vaudeville farce we might, even without the prompting of Greil Marcus, call Dead Elvis. In any case, it all seems far longer than a decade and a half since he was around – generations earlier than other rock’n’roll deaths like Brian Jones or Janis Joplin.

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

You are not logged in