A Moral Crisis
In late February and early March I went from London to Dublin to Amsterdam to talk about a book on the culture that's grown up around Elvis Presley since he died--you can say promote, or flog, but most of the time that's not what it felt like. Newsbreaks included the National Enquirer's Dee Presley explosion: HIS OWN STEPMOM REVEALS SHOCKING TRUTH AT LAST--ELVIS AND HIS MOM WERE LOVERS. The U.S. Postal Service announced a primary-season vote to decide which of two artist's-rendering Elvis head shots (more or less '56 vs. '73, both looking fine) would be chosen for the long-awaited Elvis stamp. (With George Bush singing Presley's praises on a campaign stop in Memphis and Molly Ivins rating Paul Tsongas "minus-zero on the Elvis scale"--despite, or because of, his win over Bill Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary--the timing of this election was sublime.) Meanwhile, an Irish high court judge refused to allow a fourteen-year-old girl who, her family told police, had been raped and impregnated by her best friend's father, to travel to England for an abortion.
The theme I carried in my head was "That's Someone You Never Forget," a 1961 Elvis number I'd heard for the first time a week before, on the radio--a ghostly, passionate, infinitely more personal version of his 1955 "Blue Moon." The disc jockey announced theperformance as a previously unreleased take from the latest RCA grave robbery, a.k.a. a three-CD box called Collectors Gold (the budget apparently didn't allow for an apostrophe). The number wasn't there, but the set did include something just as far away: a moment of studio dialogue worth more than the rest of the music. It's 1968: "PAPA OO MAU MAU papa oo mau mau," Elvis announces to his assembled musicians. "Be talkin' in unknown tongues here in a minute." Before the band can stop him, he slides into a distant second of "I Got a Woman," and you can imagine he is going to take the song all the way home, all the way back to the glossolalia from which both he and the song came, to the primal swamp of deliverance and revelation. Well, of course not: there's work to do, they've got a typically throwaway ballad called "Going Home" to cut. But there is a reach for that deliverance in "That's Someone You Never Forget."
"It's credited to Elvis and Red West--you know, one of his bodyguards," said Ger Rijff, former head of the Dutch Elvis Society, in Amsterdam. "Elvis came to Red West with the title and asked him to write a song from it. About his mother, it's said"--Gladys Presley, who died in 1958, at forty-six, after, if Dee Presley is right, years of bliss with Elvis in her bed, or she in his.
"It makes sense," said Adrian Sibley of the BBC's The Late Show. "America has brought Elvis up to date: now he needs therapy just like everybody else. Don't they have twelve-step programs for incest survivors?" "It makes sense," said Jip Golsteijn, pop critic for the Amsterdam Telegraaf. "It's what I heard again and again in Tupelo, years ago. Nobody meant it as a condemnation. Given the way Elvis and Gladys were about each other, it was simply the conclusion everyone drew."
In Dublin, Joe Jackson of Hot Press looked over the Elvis stamp choices, noted that Elvis was still being shot from the waist up, and mentioned that among Irish intellectuals, it was only the revelation that Elvis, too, was a drug addict, like Charlie Parker or Chet Baker, that made him cool. The day before, Sinéad O'Connor hadtold a Dublin abortion-rights rally that as a mother she herself had had two abortions--and that if there were to be a new referendum on Ireland's nearly absolute ban on abortions, passed by a two-to-one vote of the populace in 1983, only women of childbearing age should be allowed to take part.
Just as in Amsterdam it was strange to be in a great city without people sleeping in doorways or begging on every corner, in Dublin it was strange, after months of listening to presidential candidates evade the political crisis that is turning the U.S.A. into a nation of scapegoaters, to be in a city in the grip of a moral crisis, where it really made no sense to talk about anything else. People everywhere had their radios on for bulletins on the Irish Supreme Court's hearing on the fourteen-year-old's appeal; as the government spoke of possible exceptions for this "special case," one heard the story of another raped teenager, who had hidden her pregnancy from her family, and who died along with the baby, giving birth in a churchyard, alone.
The papers read tensely. The Irish Times alternated hard news with a series of riveting editorials, superbly reasoned, carefully worded. The tabloid press played up accusations by anti-abortion leaders that the raped girl had almost certainly seduced whoever got her pregnant, while a Catholic priest claimed that abortion-rights groups had conspired with the girl to create a "test case" to overturn the abortion law. There were marches in the street, and biting satire on television. RAPED? read a cut-in on Nighthawks, an interview show filmed in a studio made over into a crowded Dublin pub: PREGNANT? DISTRESSED? IRISH? FORGET IT. With a cut back to the pub, a woman spoke into a pay phone: "Yeah, this is Sinéad O'Connor," she said, in a good imitation of O'Connor's thick snarl. "You tell the prime minister I'm hangin' on this line until he picks it up--I don't care if I stay here all week." O'Connor was taking a lot of heat in Dublin--for pop-star arrogance, for "divisiveness"--but people missed the point. Singing or talking, she stands up to saywhat she thinks, to piss people off. Like Madonna, she means to make everyone uncomfortable in their turn. She's a punk, not a politician.
So was Elvis, in a different way--in the clothes he wore, the way he moved, not what he said. No, you can't imagine him in O'Connor's shoes, even if he helped put her in hers; that's why it remains so easy to write him off. "American history doesn't look the slightest bit different for the presence, or the art, of Elvis Presley," I read in the London Review of Books as I arrived in the U.K. "Presley is a distraction, a placebo," the writer went on--unlike, he said, the "feral" Howlin' Wolf. The pictures of Elvis in almost every London newspaper and magazine, marking a William Eggleston retrospective at the Barbican Art Gallery--"Colour Photographs Ancient and Modern"--were not an answer. Every publication used the same shot from Memphian Eggleston's Graceland portfolio: the only one that included a portrait of Elvis himself. But the reference was to nothing. In the service of publicity, this Elvis was less a recognizable symbol than a symbol of recognizability.
So I tried to talk around such ciphers, and I was lucky to get back more than I gave. Ger Rijff had been at one of Elvis's winter 1976 concerts, and remembered it with horror: "I knew it couldn't go on." Jip Golsteijn had met Presley after being ushered up to his Las Vegas suite with presidents of various international fan clubs. "I got his ear somehow," Golsteijn said. "I said, 'Was this your ambition? Did you ever think you'd get so far?' He just looked at me. 'If I had any ambition,' he said, 'it was to be as good as Arthur Crudup'"--the bluesman who wrote "That's All Right," Elvis's first record. "'I wanted to be as good as Arthur Crudup when I saw him, back in '49. Arthur Crudup--you know that name?'"
Yeah, he knew it.
Interview, May 1992
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