Elvis Presley: Man or legend?

January 8 2135: as part of the ongoing Winterval festivities, on fourteenth night, millions worldwide celebrate the coming of The King. Dressed in white all-in-ones, and dark glasses, a young male of each family is presented with ceremonial gifts (traditionally gold, frankincense and myrrh – the gold shaped into a lighting bolt or a musical note) and responds deferentially with ‘Thank you v’much’.

Part of the global tribe that identify themselves as rationalists flood Internet communication systems to say that the traditions are based on shaky evidence, that there never was a man called Elvis Presley and that if there was he was certainly not hailed as a King. And if there was man, and he was some kind of prophet, based on the legends, the sounds he’s said to have made and the area of America that he is said to have originated from: wouldn’t he likely have had darker skin tones?

In the year 2135, if man is still alive, will it matter at all if Elvis ever really existed?

Just under 20 years after Elvis’s death, the Manic Street Preachers’ album Everything Must Go started with the words “Twenty foot high on Blackpool Promenade, fake royalty second-hand sequin facade”. The song Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier, takes aim at the bankruptcy of a British culture that is still — according to lyricist Richey Edwards — placating the working class with a stained reflection of a culture that wasn’t theirs.

In 1996 it wasn’t cool for a band to say they liked Elvis, it wasn’t cool for anyone to say that they did. But an industry was building, and an image of Elvis Aaron Presley was continuing to be seared onto our collective memories. For in 2014, Elvis continues to be everywhere.

Craig Hamilton is an academic who researches popular music fandom, and a fan — he had an Elvis play at his wedding and has paid to see a show called Elvis Presley In Concert. That show toured worldwide and featured members of Elvis’s original band and projections of the man himself. It and its successor Elvis: Live on Stage must have set a few hearts beating at the Trade’s Descriptions office, but they are part of machine that seems to be unstoppable.

“The image has been carefully and, some would say, ruthlessly managed since he died, says Craig. “It’s been commodified and exploited in a way that has drawn comparisons with Mickey Mouse, and is at the point now where it seems to be a fairly unstoppable industry all of its own.”

Craig points out that when Elvis passed his estate was far from wealthy, even Elvis Presley Enterprises admits “while [he] was by no means broke, there was a cash flow problem”, which it directly links to the opening of Graceland as a tourist destination in the early ’80s — which one could see as the beginning of the divorcing of Elvis the musician and Elvis the image.

“I think the image can now be considered completely separated from the music. I think it’s a fair assumption that, in Western culture at least, even people who have never heard of note of the music would recognise that someone in a jumpsuit, shades and sideburns was pretending to be Elvis.”

“If you were to attempt to stop it now, to shut it down, you’d have to fight the Memphis tourist board, 1000s of people who make their living as impersonators, the rights holders who still derive revenue from the films, music and images, and so on. Elvis is the factory where half the town works, and on whom the other half rely for their living.”

Elvis’s image isn’t, however, purely the property of his Estate: it has escaped into meme and gene. If the newer evolutionary theories about experiences being able to encode themselves into DNA as true, then Elvis lives: in our race memory.

As well as the official merchandise, you won’t be able to walk through a tourist market or a Poundshop in almost any part of the UK without seeing a crudely sketched picture of The King printed a little larger than A3 size for sale. You might not be able to tell if the artist’s other work is Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley, but you’ll know Elvis. Further than that people use his image as a lens: in the film True Romance Christian Slater’s neophyte drug dealer hallucinates advice from an Elvis in order to help him keep his head. Simon Crump’s My Elvis Blackout is a set of short stories, all featuring first person narratives about the author’s completely fictional adventures with a man that looks like and sounds like, and is like Elvis in all respects — apart from his occasional tendencies to vile acts of murder.

Alongside the A44 in Powys in Wales is a rock known as ‘the Elvis rock’, as it has ‘Elvis’ graffitoed on it. No-one knows quite why, although there are theories, and it has certainly been re-done a number of times. Out of context with both its setting and Elvis himself, it somehow speaks of just how ingrained he is into our lives.

THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING

Chuck D in Public Enemy’s Fight the Power delivers a powerful statement on the reverence and this industry, “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me”. This was in written in 1988 only ten or so years after it would have been possible to see Elvis live in concert. Move on another 15 years, to the 25th anniversary of Elvis’s death, and he had clarified the feeling:

“My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis’ icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ‘The King,’ I couldn’t buy that.”

Already in 1988 the truth about Elvis, even as he related to the young rapper himself, was less important than the icon and what it represented. And the icon needn’t have been alive in the first place to live as truly as anything else.

Nietzsche was wrong when he said ‘God is dead’, or at least he was premature in his belief that his influence on humanity’s morals was over. It doesn’t matter, really, if God exists or not; enough people act as if he does to make that question moot. And that is true in popular culture: if enough thought about Elvis goes on (and in a commercial sense if enough product is shifted) then the idea at least is alive. Crucially, it too is evolving.

There is a industry in books about the truth about the origins of Robin Hood. They pick over scraps of evidence in the original ballads, over contemporaneous tales and events, over tiny pieces of real historical record that mention outlaws called Robin. There is nothing concrete, or even study oak about the evidence. But what is certain is that within a few hundred years of the existence — or not — of the real man the character has become something else. Robin Hood and his tales start to appear across England as part of the May Day celebrations, but also take on different roles. Allen W. Wright, compiles some in The Search for a Real Robin Hood:

In 1441 a disgruntled mob in Norfolk blocked the road threatening to murder someone. They sang “We are Robynhodesmen — war, war, war.”

In 1469, two people led separate uprisings against the Yorkist government. They used the aliases Robin of Holderness and Robin of Redesdale.

In 1498, Roger Marshall had to defend himself in court for leading an uprising of 100 people. He had used the alias Robin Hood, and defended himself by claiming his actions were typical Robin Hood practice.

Robin Hood evolved from a real, or at least imagined, figure into a medieval version of the way some activists and writers use the nom-de-plume Luther Blissett): an uncoordinated but collective identity. It then mutated further into a story each generation tells itself about greed and honour.

WE ARE ALL ELVIS NOW

It’s an oft told tale that when Elvis died in 1977, there were about 170 people impersonating him around the world. In the year 2000 it was estimated there were about 85,000 Elvis impersonators. So, the joke goes, by 2043 everyone on earth will be an Elvis impersonator.

Derek Jones is an Elvis impersonator from Wolverhampton in England. Performing only for charity (notably breast cancer charities such as Breakthrough), he has raised tens of thousands of pounds with his tribute show that features a live band and backing singers and has played to up to 5,000 people a time.

“It’s all about the costume, the look. I get my suits from the original maker of his in America. Elvis was the first performer to wear something that couldn’t be worn off-stage. Even the look of the Teddy Boy, you could wear that in normal life, but Elvis was unique.”

“When I have the suit on, I become Elvis,” he says, “the response from the crowd is amazing. You get a little bit of what Elvis must have got.”

Derek is what you might call a ‘straight impersonator’, but not all Elvis tributes are the same. You can find ‘Black Elvis’, female Elvis: Jimmy the King has a fine line in doing songs that Elvis never recorded — but just how we think he might have.

Elvis Presley is seen now mostly through a media-commercial, or home-grown, prism: it’s not possible to experience him as he was. Given that we can have so much Elvis and so many Elvises, does it matter if Elvis ever really existed? Craig Hamilton again:

“It won’t be too long before there is no-one alive with a living memory of Elvis, and then we’ll see how the story develops. It’s important to think about how he existed to those who experienced him: he never played live outside of the United States, so for the vast majority of fans he existed as a face on a screen, a voice on a record. The seeds for the that disconnect are well and truly sown into the fabric of Elvis-worship.”

“We, as people within reasonable earshot of the real thing, trust the 20th Century artefacts that embody him: the record, the films, the pictures, the books. We understand them as a whole in terms of the social and economic conditions of his time, and of now. In 100 or 200 years, how many of those artefacts will survive? what will be our understanding of the culture? It’s entirely possible that the timelines and details could get mixed up in new and interesting ways, muddying the waters.”

And don’t forget to take your decorations down on the ninth.

Further reading

The King and I, My Elvis Marathon — I listened to all 698 commercially released Elvis songs in order, in one sitting.

Author: Jon Bounds

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed. His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it's out now. Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It's Not Shit.

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