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Flashbacks: "Elvis One More Time" (August 13, 2002)
In the years since his death, two Atlantic contributors have looked back at Elvis and his music, offering insight into who he was, and what Americans saw in him.
The Atlantic Monthly | January 1981
op-star memorials—book-length, coated-paper salutes to Marilyn, Gable, or whomever—are, more often than not, toys for dolts. A leer, a tear, a whisper of buried scandal, a hint of frisson—these are the basic materials, and redeeming social value is minimal. Now and then, though, a memorial volume breaks out of mindlessness and invites serious response. When Elvis Died (Communications Press, $13.95) by Neal and Janice Gregory—a study of public reaction to the death of Elvis Presley—is such a work, and I found much of it provocative.
Elvis One More Time
When the bishops' synod on the Christian family convened in Rome last fall, there were hopes that the Church would reform its position on such crucial issues as birth control and divorce. But, despite pleas from liberal prelates around the world, the Vatican-dominated synod reaffirmed the precedence of law over compassion.
by Benjamin DeMott
The book opens with a series of chapters describing the hectic onset of awareness in the media that Presley's death was indeed a sensationally big story. (The authors' research persuaded them that it was the fans who, by jamming switchboards with calls for information, shocked the media into action, ultimately dictating continuous "feature feeds" by the wire services, ragged TV specials, convulsive searches of newspaper back files for reports of the performer's local appearances, and on-the-spot coverage by broadcasters and papers unaccustomed to sending staffers out of town, but perfectly prepared to profit from the popular will.) Next comes an account of the pre-funeral spectacle at Graceland, Presley's Memphis home—thousands of mourners and hundreds of reporters keeping an around-the-clock vigil marked by grotesque outbursts of grief and dementia (at one point in the predawn hours, a desperately drunken man drove his car into the crowd, killing two of the bereaved). The narrative interrupts itself, after a report on the funeral, to survey Presley's life, the emphasis being upon class background and musical influences. Then come separate chapters about the White House response to the event, the international reaction, and subsequent efforts—pious, commercial, or both—to keep Presley's flame alive. The book ends with an epilogue discussing the performer's drug usage and the present state of his reputation; the final sentences affirm that Elvis Presley "symbolized the ultimate rebellion of all common folk against all forms of restraint."
A husband-and-wife writing team, Neal and Janice Gregory have served as advisers to Public Broadcasting System ventures (notably a documentary about William Faulkner), but they don't put themselves forward as intellectuals or pop-cultural theorists. Both earn their living in Washington as congressional committee staff members. Their goal is simply to tell their readers everything that can be told about what happened upon "the Passing of an American King." Toward that end they interviewed scores of reporters and editors who either covered Presley's funeral or made decisions about how to play the story. (The interviews focus on the reporters' motives and self-perceptions while on the job.) And they surveyed U.S. editorial comment on the death and funeral, convinced that this body of writing says something about who we think we are. Sixty-plus editorials struck the Gregorys as worth high marks; they are reprinted in an appendix.
It's a comprehensive chronicle, in a word, and its usefulness is directly traceable to the fullness. So too, as might be guessed, are the book's defects. You can't tell whole stories about media events nowadays without mounding up a quantity of dreck—fast-fact fit only for the Guinness Book of World Records. The Gregorys let fall that Elvis Presley's funeral provided the florists of America with their biggest day in history; that when a Maine hotel where the singer once slept auctioned off for charity the furnishings of his room, the pillowcase brought $225; that more than a million people visited the singer's tomb in the first month after he died. They're also soft on media horror stories—predictable anecdotes about reporters posing as funeral-home and morgue employees, reporters stationing themselves on the front porches of the departed's relatives or girlfriends and interrogating them upon their return from the funeral, reporters bribing insiders for details or photos. We learn that the National Enquirer paid somebody $75,000 for a photo of Elvis Presley in his casket, which was run as a cover picture; the paper's representative declined a chance to buy "the sheets off the ambulance stretcher" that bore the dying man into the hospital.
The anecdotal promiscuity sometimes provides amusement, to be sure. I chuckled at the snippets of unconscious black comedy that kept turning up in the interviews. The southern lady who shamed Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley's birthplace, into building a memorial chapel on a fifteen-acre site declared that "We [felt] that on fifteen acres you couldn't do a memorial without including God." In a chapter called "The Special Case of Britain," there are several charming "this England"-style tales. "Sir," wrote a Hampstead schoolteacher to the London Times, chiding the paper for its indifference to Presley's gifts: "In 1956, the year when Elvis Presley's extraordinary talent burst upon the world, I started to teach in a large mixed comprehensive school in northwest London. I shall never forget the elderly senior mistress coming into the staff room one morning and saying sternly, 'I must speak to a boy called Elvis Presley because he has carved his name on every desk in the school.'" And in the Gregorys' summaries of their conversations with inhabitants of the corridors of communications power, I came upon a number of piquant if incidental details. An attractively frank Roger Mudd explains why he didn't push his masters harder to accede to his desire to open the CBS Evening News with the story of Elvis Presley's death. (". . . we got this very strenuous opposition . . . [and] you don't like to force your way through somebody. . . . As a substitute [for Walter Cronkite] myself, I didn't want to call in a preemptive strike and make it difficult for the rest of the summer.") A presidential speechwriter talks about producing a statement on Presley's death—the finished document leaned heavily on a splendid essay by Greil Marcus, and praised the singer for expressing "the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country"—and provides a glimpse of President Carter carefully line-editing the message, deleting "emotional rhetoric" from the text.
ut these are, of course, marginal, minor pleasures. What's strongest about When Elvis Died as a media inquiry is its examination of reporters' changing emotions while on the assignment—their movement from repugnance at the mourners' vulgarity to a beleaguered, half-mystified conviction of the essential dignity of the carnival. ("It is too easy to dismiss it as tasteless," Molly Ivins found herself saying in a piece for the New York Times; "it is not required that love be in impeccable taste.") And what I like best about the book is its recovery of some human realities—feelings, attitudes, behavior—that our period's increasingly sophisticated discourse on popular culture tends to obscure.
Writers in this field speak regularly about "eclecticism"—i.e. Elvis Presley's ability, shared by several other white performers of the period, to draw together musical idioms formerly segregated (blues, gospel, country). But Presley's musical contemporaries speak a homelier and more vital tongue in When Elvis Died. They remember the black-haired truck driver's excitement as he hung about listening to "alien" performers and tried memorizing their tunes; they also remember their own puzzled, condescending satisfaction in this youngster's eagerness to learn. B. B. King, the blues singer, tells about meeting Presley on Beale Street in Memphis—describes him listening intently on a street corner to a jug band playing for the coins of passersby.
The leader of the Statesmen Gospel Quartet remembers that at the group's monthly concerts Elvis Presley, a high school senior, "'used to come around to the stage door, because he couldn't afford a ticket.... he'd come by so often, he knew every song by memory. He'd stand in the wings and sing along with us while we were singing on stage.'" A high school classmate, now a psychiatrist, remembers Presley racing home from school in order not to miss the afternoon radio broadcast by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A well-known black composer and choir leader, W. Herbert Brewster, minister of a Memphis Baptist church, remembers that on Sunday nights in the fifties white people joined his black congregation—musicians, medical students from the University of Tennessee, others:
...they came to be in the big camp meeting.... And in that crowd was this young fellow Elvis. He enjoyed it to the highest; he liked the rhythm we put into it.... He was driving a truck.... But he would get here as early as he could, get right up in front, and sometimes come back here. A bunch of them would get back here in the office before I could get out, and they were sitting on the floor with whatever they were wearing, and we just downed every kind of mark or line of demarcation and said we'll all just be people.... [Presley] had a good voice.
There's a trace of sentimentality in the minister's remembrance of this hour of solidarity. (I find his nostalgia easy to share.) And it's proper to acknowledge that accounts of white men's excitement at learning to imitate "race" music have been multiplying in recent days. (Among the best I've read is the interview with the clarinetist Bud Jacobson that appears in Ann Banks's recent First Person America.) Still, reading about Elvis Presley, the untrained high school kid delightedly sampling musical styles, teaching himself exotic sounds for the plain joy of the deed, is enlivening. "Eclecticism" becomes a lived experience of discovery and surprise.
The Gregorys are also shrewd about working-class attitudes, lighting up complications that don't surface in, for instance, Studs Terkel on the fading of the American dream of success, or the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb writing on "hidden injuries of class." In theory, it's the rags-to-riches motif incarnated in Presley's career that enchanted his following (truck-driving high school grad makes it big; "Elvis represented the one ray of hope for millions of Americans," as a San Francisco reporter put it). But other dimensions appear. Presley was widely admired for his sturdy unresponsiveness to those imperatives of self-improvement that usually rack the successful. Neither his tastes (Cadillacs, satin finery, down-home folk) nor the style of his generosity (impulsive gifts of Cadillacs and satin finery to down-home folk) ever changed. And his fans seem to have taken much satisfaction in this stability. Voice after voice in the book speaks of the man in a fashion suggesting that he constituted a sanctuary and a defense—justification for refusing to heed the authorities who tell you to work harder, enjoy yourself less, read better books, get higher grades, shed your malaise, and so on. It's hard to credit, perhaps, but one great gift that the wildly gyrating rock star seems to have bestowed upon his people was self-acceptance, surcease, rest.
Or, describing the gift another way: it was the relief and the exhilaration of a culture of one's own, When Elvis Died comments only obliquely on the complex set of moral, political, and economic issues figuring in intellectual debate about "elitism versus populism," but the comment is valuable nevertheless, once again because it moves the pertinent issues closer to facts of feeling. Thanks to academicians and novelists, everybody now knows about the worldwide pervasiveness of pop-cult and its destructive impact on coherent patterns of family, village, or tribal life (see any anthropologist writing on "modernization"; or see John Updike's The Coup). Everybody also knows—thanks to culture critics preoccupied with the problem of standards—about perceived declines of craft, "excellence," and the like. But the Gregorys somehow manage to nudge this discourse onto fresh ground. The people they quote who object to the deification of Presley and to the extravagant public grief powerfully remind us that popular commercial culture is still understood by many as a species of treachery. (I find it hard to understand, says one letter-writer, how "the President of the United States of America can pay tribute to a man who caused many parents distress.") The deifiers, on the other hand, remind one anew of the extent to which the commitment to Presley was felt as a gesture on behalf of one's own fearless honesty, one's willingness to do battle against hypocritical prudishness and to obey the sacred injunction to be oneself. The real-world conflict between elitism and populism emerges as a moral drama, with a confrontation between suspicion and pride at its center; no academic exercise, in short, but a struggle engaging powerful human feelings.
To repeat: When Elvis Died isn't a work of vast intellectual subtlety or analytical depth. Media freaks will value it primarily for the exhaustiveness of its survey of the workings of the industry at a moment of astonishing public pressure. But I'm struck by the book's direct and indirect penetration of the inner life of the mass audience—the inexpressible beliefs and turbulent passions shaping pop-cultural response.
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Copyright © 1981 by Benjamin DeMott. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1981; Elvis One More Time; Volume 247, No. 1; page 85-87.