Book Review: "The Elvis Reader"

Reviewed by Susan MacDougall

Quain, Kevin, ed. The Elvis reader: texts and sources on the King of Rock 'n' Roll. St Martin's Press, New York, 1992. 344 pp.

Did you know that Elvis fans are necrolaters?

The Elvis Reader is a selection of writings by a variety of authors. It ranges over all facets of the Elvis myth - the Musical, the Mythical, the Southern, the Physical, the Mortal, and the Metaphysical Elvis. With an introduction by Mojo Nixon, articles from the New Republic and Harpers sit alongside essays and book extracts. The writers are journalists, authors and academics, including: James and Annette Baxter, Stanley Booth, Van K. Brock, Jay Cox, the infamous Albert Goldman, John Lardner, Richard Middleton, Maureen Orth, Clark Porteous, Priscilla Presley, Janet Winn, and Charles Wolfe. The writings date from 1956 to 1989.

Kevin Quain's introduction to the book, his introductory paragraphs to each article and his Reference Section add value to and provide a framework for the variety of often conflicting and contradictory viewpoints, which merely serve to emphasise the inherent contractions that make up the ongoing mystery that is Elvis Presley. The table of contents helps to make up for a woeful index of one page (two half-pages, to be precise).

The two pieces on musical scholarship add another dimension to the subject coverage. Middleton's article "All Shook Up" is one of "the few pieces of serious writing that deal with Elvis's stylistic and musical innovations in a practical and technical manner", while Wolfe's article "Presley and the Gospel Tradition" explores the often ignored influence of gospel music on Elvis and the influence of Elvis on gospel music.

It was good to read a factual, unsensational account of Dr Nichopoulos ("Dr Nick")'s trial in Stanley Booth's "The King is Dead! Hang the Doctor", which also reports Dr Nick's views on Elvis's health problems and his death. Dr Nick had 100 people to provide medication for while on tour; no wonder he filled so many prescriptions.

The Colonel and promoters preferred Dr Nick to other doctors, as under the others Elvis would sometimes be over-sedated when he appeared on stage. Dr Nick appears to have been genuinely caring about his various patients and was found guilty of faulty record-keeping, not of over-prescribing. Based on the evidence presented at the trial, the outcome seems fair and reasonable. Thompson and Cole (authors of The Death of Elvis: what really happened, Robert Hale, London 1991) have nothing to be proud of concerning the witch hunt they mounted against Dr Nick, wielding their power in the media to have him charged a second time.

Elvis was a chameleon. He is difficult to pin down. He tried to be what people wanted and to give them what they wanted. Because of his desire to be accepted as "one of them boys", in front of his men he acted macho and appeared to treat women harshly, yet when alone with women he was tender.

Does this make Elvis a hypocrite? Did he say one thing and do something else? How did he reconcile his Pentecostal background with his lifestyle? Was Elvis a drugged-up pleasure seeker or did he take drugs to avoid mental and physical pain and make the world go away? He is purported to have made some anti-Jewish and anti-Roman Catholic remarks, yet he treated individuals with respect, whatever their race, colour or creed.

If he was anti-Catholic, why did he include "The Miracle of The Rosary" in his repertoire of gospel songs? It contains the complete words of the prayer "Hail Mary, Full of Grace". This all goes to prove how impossible it is to second-guess what goes on in the mind of such a multi-faceted and complex individual. Hypocrites mouth moral principles and then behave with prejudice. Elvis allegedly mouthed prejudices and then behaved more morally. That being the case, we should take more notice of his deeds than his words as reported by others.

In the introduction, Quain says: "Few figures in American history have evoked the extreme responses Elvis Presley has, and fewer still have endured after death as a myth, an industry, and a cult figure to the degree Elvis Presley has. Whether Elvis's achievements as an artist or a human being warrant this type of treatment is debatable. ..." (p. xvii). There is no doubt that Elvis was extremely talented as a singer and entertainer; arguably he was a genius musically.

Geniuses are not necessarily good or likeable people. Discussing Kinglsey Amis, D.J. Taylor questions how far we need biographies of famous people - more particularly, if they are unpleasant people, do their personal lives matter provided they leave something positive for posterity?(1) In Kingsley Amis's case, biography "promised all kinds of surface irrelevancies that might distract the critic from really serious business of the text ...".

In Elvis's case, of course, it was popular music which is not necessarily taken as seriously as literature, and his private problems did sometimes affect the quality of his performances. Opinions differ as to how far he was a good person or not.

On stage he radiated love towards his audiences, while in private he sometimes vented his frustrations on his entourage. Yet it is precisely because he is an enigma that there are so many biographical works about him. People are still trying to understand Elvis, to reconcile the perceived good and bad sides of his character.

What this book brings home is the dangers of interpretation. People make assumptions about another person's thoughts and attitudes. As a committed Southerner, Elvis remained an outsider in American culture all his life - and yet he is held up as the quintessential American icon. Journalists wrote about him because he was a hot topic, not because they necessarily understood or liked him.

Their articles, therefore, could be somewhat mocking. Goldman, who obviously disliked Elvis, put his own interpretation on Presley's motives and saw only the worst in everything. Other writers show understanding of the pressures Elvis was under and their effect on him. To some, Elvis learned nothing during his lifetime and failed to make best use of his talent and wealth; to others, he was a great humanitarian who gave away nearly everything he had. To some, he enjoyed his wealth and felt that he could still go to heaven in spite of it; to others, he found his wealth an embarrassment and tried to offload it onto others.

The Elvis Reader certainly fulfils its claim of being a good starting point for the prospective Elvis scholar. Quain claims that Guralnik's line of critical thinking about Elvis's failure to live up to his early promise has since "mutated into a familiar cliché in the hands of lazy critics and listeners". With the wealth and variety of material in this book, we can develop our own discernment and critical thinking - or we could become swamped by the bewildering number of different view points and find it hard to decide where the truth lies. Nevertheless, this book is important reading and very instructional. It is a book you can dip into, starting anywhere without having to read it from cover to cover. I even learned a new word - necrolater:- one who worships the dead.

1. Taylor, D.J. "A Flawed Character." Canberra Times, 30 Dec. 2006, Panorama Section pp.14-15.

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