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.

Greil Marcus does not seem to have met Uncle Vester. Indeed, on page 71 of his new book he admits that he has never even been inside Graceland. (‘There is a good deal in this book I cannot explain,’ he wisely concedes.) But he has come up with a nice idea. Just as Paul Fussell set himself, in The Great War and Modern Memory, to map the mythicisation of the First World War in the popular conscience – the images and icons we remember it by, and how these are themselves symptomatic of the selective desires, prejudices and conditioned thinking we bring to our remembering – so Marcus is shaping up for a shot at an Elvis Presley and Modern Memory: ‘It’s easy enough to understand a dead but evanescent Elvis Presley as a cultural symbol, but what if he – it – is nothing so limited, but a sort of cultural epistemology, a skeleton key to a lock we’ve yet to find?’

Well, I look forward to reading that book. Marcus hasn’t written it. Instead, a lot of uncollected reviews and jottings up to thirteen years old have found a retirement home, on the cart-before-the-horse principle that Elvis’s ubiquitous presence in popular culture means you can include anything you’ve written because it will in some way be about him – which shuffles in on the guest-list a piece, for example, on Lost Highway, Peter Guralnick’s book about country music. Every so often Marcus extends the rubric: ‘Because of Elvis’s arrival, because of who he was and what he became, because of his event and what we made of it, the American past, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, looks different than it would have looked without him.’ It’s a dynamite blurb, but Marcus never gets beyond awe at his own vertiginous relativism. Doubtless, if you pick the right vantage point, the Civil War looks historically different since the advent of McDonald’s.

What Marcus seems really to be asking, or clearing his throat in preparation for never quite asking, is: why does Elvis mean something to everybody – even if only endless fair game for a comedian’s black joke? The banal answer will for ever elude Marcus’s empyrean theorising, as well as Uncle Vester: Elvis never said no to anything. In one Caesar’s Palace show he could be Tom Jones for the moony middle-aged women, Kenny Rogers for their gruff-hiding-maudlin husbands, Sinatra for the oldsters, while still summoning up enough of the ‘Hound Dog’ days for those who thought themselves for ever young. He may have been banned back in the Fifties for a swivelling pelvis: he was never banned for singing anything. His first year of stardom may have been subversive, but thereafter he settled in to become one of the most conservative, least adventurous of all pop singers. Dead Elvis includes a photograph of a record cover for an irreverent compilation album released after Presley’s death, entitled Elvis: Greatest Shit – his 20 worst songs. The track listing almost makes one grateful for Cliff Richard’s benefaction of ‘Mistletoe and Wine’: the bottom of Elvis’s barrel meant ‘Old Macdonald had a Farm’. He could be a rock’n’roll singer, a gospel singer, a Christmas carol singer (frequently), a balladeer, a crooner – but he wasn’t any of them. He was brilliant at turning his hand. Give him a good set of songs, as on the thumping Memphis Record he made in 1969 – but too often no one did, and he never seems to have demurred – and he could sing his socks off. Ponder on Elvis-Presley-and-America, like Marcus, and one might postulate about Presley the man and icon a democratic inclusiveness: from the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ to ‘My Way’, he covered the lot. By the last sentence of Dead Elvis Marcus is giving the game up: ‘The story shrinks, then, down to the size of your favourite song, whatever it is – down to the size of whatever mystery it contains, whatever it was that made you like it then, and like it now.’ So much for a Fussell-style cultural deconstruction: here is Marcus the late-night DJ.

But of course that won’t do. Millions of people go misty-eyed at the romantic memories conjured by a few bars of Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’; it’s still a frightful song. What Marcus has put his finger on, if only his book didn’t end here, is that what looks like democracy is really only meretriciousness. People like Elvis because he gave them nothing to fear (though since his death the awful joke has turned out to be that actually he was out-grossing even professionally dissipated souls like Jimi Hendrix). Like John Kennedy – another marmoreal prince – he was good at being popular. But Presley’s great skill, and great shallowness, was that he could make you forget what he was singing about. Death – as in ‘Long Black Limousine’; poverty – as in ‘In the Ghetto’: he sang them into mawkish sentiment, song by song. He was a great singles artist: he sang, perhaps more than anyone else in the popular imagination, for three minutes at a time. There is no consistent, cumulative, considered body of work bequeathed to us – and therefore probably no unified field theory that will embrace Elvis and America. The King divided, even atomised, to rule.

Turn the question on its head. Who does Elvis Presley the man, symbol or democratic paradigm exclude? Who does he not sing for? Stanley Booth sets Presley in a different perspective. His piece on the King, a portrait of an innocuous, slightly obtuse young man aimless among the redundant ostentation of his home, is only one of 20 collected in Rythm Oil – another agglomeration of journalism, but this time the subtitle, ‘A Journey through the Music of the American South’, is thoroughly justified by a coherent and finished book. Presley is only in the supporting cast because Booth’s main subject is the blues: the one kind of music Presley didn’t sing. Presley was gospel, and in his case a churchy, ornate, often morbidly sickly version of Christianity. You couldn’t be both. Greil Marcus sets the distinction trenchantly in his first book about American popular music, Mystery Train: ‘Blues grew out of the need to live in the brutal world that stood ready to ambush the moment one walked out of the church. Unlike gospel, blues was not a music of transcendence; its equivalent to God’s Grace was sex and love. Blues made the terrors of the world easier to endure, but blues also made those terrors more real.’ Presley’s music, for all the early hip-shaking, was sternly, inoffensively puritanical. Blues is worldly, impious, does not try to please: even heaven on earth it gave up a while back. Call it a secular gospel music, a celebration of faith for those who don’t believe.

As Booth’s book shows, however, the blues and the Presley myth are hardly two alternative philosophical positions you just take your pick from. Go to Graceland, and you are visiting the home of an aristocrat: indeed, that distant feeling you get as you walk round – of no one ever having lived here, of the sheer remoteness of the lifestyle – is the same that you get at Chatsworth or Castle Howard. Booth, on the other hand, writes about downtown Memphis, Beale Street where the rackety blues clubs are, and the streetsweepers who ply it every day. Furry Lewis, one of his most affecting portraits, was one of the Deep South’s most important country blues artists. But blues doesn’t pay you a living, so, even though handicapped by an artificial leg, Lewis had to earn his living by sweeping Memphis’s streets. Booth simply watches him at work in the empty early hours; there is a piercing moment as Lewis manhandles his pile of garbage onto the scoop of the mechanised cart. ‘The scoop is heavy; when he lets it down, it sends a shock from his right arm through his body, raising his left leg, the artificial one, off the ground.’ Here is why Marcus isn’t writing a book called Dead Furry Lewis: the blues is underdog music, patient, humble music – Furry is not the American dream. Booth’s next piece is equally plangent: a sober witness at the funeral of another veteran blues singer, Mississippi John Hurt. Booth takes his leave as Hurt’s son is being comforted by another mourner: ‘through the open window we could hear the other man, whose patience must have been wearing a bit thin, say “Hush, boy. Yo’ daddy’s better off than we are now,” ’ That threadbare patience: blues music, uniquely, sings of loss, of true grieving and grievance – but of loss the experience, not merely the potentially picturesque feeling – for those who can’t afford the luxury of sweet sorrow.

Booth’s method is the antithesis of Marcus’s. Where Dead Elvis is costively intellectual, Booth is the alert, sensitive reporter. Marcus peers for significance, Booth for signs of life. Above all, where Marcus looks for images, cultural icons – a typography of Elvis Presley in modern life – Booth explores the social context for the music of the American South. Rythm Oil, therefore, is centred on Memphis – it’s where all Booth’s musical roads lead from: the blues of B.B. King and Muddy Waters, the gospel of Al Green, the jazz piano of Phineas Newborn, the classic Stax soul artists like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes – and of course Presley. But Memphis isn’t just a common archetype, it’s a real place with a history, and unobtrusively Booth illustrates how the different kinds of music that passed through Memphis symptomised different epochs in modern America’s history. Bluesmen like B.B. and Muddy, for example, came out of the cotton plantations in the Delta, and the pre-war Southern segregation that held blacks in penurious servitude, their music originally rooted in the field hollers and sharecroppers’ Saturday-night fish fries. The Stax studios were a later stage, not only recording an urban black music, classic soul, but also reflecting an incipient musical integration. ‘Country and western is the music of the white masses,’ one contemporary soul musician says to Booth. ‘Rhythm and blues is the music of the Negro masses. Today soul music is becoming the music of all the people.’ But Booth sits in on a 20th-anniversary concert tribute to Stax, and finds that the closure of the studio marked the end of an epoch truncated by the assassination in Memphis of Martin Luther King: ‘the climate for an integrated business in a black neighbourhood changed.’ You can see what Marcus is talking about when he says the civil rights movement looks different in retrospect – but not because of anything to do with Elvis Presley. ‘Those people think so small,’ the brother of soul singer Carla Thomas fulminates to Booth over difficulties with the Memphis Mayor’s office over organising the Stax celebration. ‘They can’t accept that the only value Memphis has in the international community derives from its black music. They want to ignore it.’

Where does that leave Elvis Presley, then? I wonder, in fact, if Greil Marcus isn’t completely wrong in his audacious historical relativism. The American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, men on the Moon – take your pick: American history doesn’t look the slightest bit different for the presence, or the art, of Elvis Presley. He may have lived in Memphis nearly all his life, but perhaps uniquely of all its alumni, his music doesn’t take you back there. Historically speaking, Presley is a distraction, a placebo: takes you only to Presley, to the court of the showbiz King. Stanley Booth has found the truly challenging figures, bearing the hard messages. Sam Phillips of Sun Records, who first discovered Elvis in Memphis, always had a different candidate for his greatest singer: the giant, feral bluesman Howlin’ Wolf ‘This,’ Booth quotes him as pronouncing, ‘is where the soul of man never dies.’ Listening to Elvis won’t ever give you the blues.