Burning down the road

(by Greil Marcus, August 1997)

Elvis Presley remains a singer. Just below the surface of the popular imagination, he remains a traveler. This is not the story as it is currently reported.

Elvis Presley, one will read everywhere on or about August 16, the 20th anniversary of his death at the sad age of 42, is an icon. He is a hero to some and a joke to others. But more than anything he is a symbol of-- And of what it hardly matters.

As critic Simon Frith once wrote so tellingly of Presley's early recordings, "Our joyous response to music is a response not to meanings but to the making of meanings." Presley, he said, "dissolved the symbols that had previously put adolescence together." (Much too narrow--I'd say "Western identity" and leave it at that.) "He celebrated--more sensually, more voluptuously than any other rock 'n' roll singer--the act of symbol creation itself." Yes, one might want to say--one might want to shout--but now it is as if it is the primacy of symbolism itself that is being celebrated.

The discourse of this symbology--the notion that an individual, a nation, or a whole borderless society of pop culture can be represented (or replaced) by a single Elvis-image--is barely interesting, if it is interesting at all. Perhaps more than ever before, the words "Elvis Presley" sell false memories, be they incarnated in dolls, key chains, T-shirts, books, statuettes, television shows, or news reports of thousands of fans from all over the world gathering at Graceland to walk in the footsteps of a man who, all these things exist to make it seem, lived mostly to be recalled as a martyr or a saint.

As interviewed by TV reporters from dozens of nations, women and men still step before the cameras and testify that, yes, it was in 1972, or perhaps in 1975, in Cleveland or Baton Rouge, that they attended the first or last or 17th Elvis concert of their lives, And I just got chills. It was as if he was singing just to me.

But aside from a few obligatory film clips from 1956 or 1957, there will be no hint of what brought Elvis Presley, if not those who are now speaking, to such places. It's in this sense that the memories are false. They contain no sense of the remarkable journey of a young man who took himself from the oblivion of poverty and scorn to the oblivion of unconscionable fame, all by means of the way he sang and looked and moved.

Rather they reduce that journey to a fragment of speech as automatically replicable and transferable as any of the Elvis souvenirs meant to make the memory real, concrete: something one can touch. It's strange; if Elvis Presley sang, looked, and moved like nobody else, which he did, why are all the memories the same? But it is not strange. This phrase is nothing more or less than people caught in a loop of pure capitalism, where, within a certain society, a certain frame of reference--a certain market--everything on sale sells everything else. And this process can only proceed if history and fantasy are excluded.

In the case of Elvis Presley today, history means not the thousandth or even the first telling of Elvis Presley's rise and fall. It means an untold story: the still-emerging fragments of his old music as he made it, abandoned it, or forgot it. History means the barely contained teenage delight and lasciviousness of a 1955 Texas demo of Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll," little noticed when it appeared 37 years after the fact on Elvis Presley: King of Rock 'n' Roll--The Complete 50's Masters; or the 15 amazing 1954-1956 live performances recently collected on Louisiana Hayride Archives, Volume 1; or the 1968 backstage rehearsals on Ray Charles's "I've Got a Woman" or Rufus Thomas's "Tiger Man"--the sound of a jailbreak--only just issued on Elvis Presley Platinum: A Life in Music; or anyone's choice of their like.

Here, with the sound the singer makes unmediated by his own adulation, either because in 1955 he does not yet believe in it or because for a single day in 1968 he cannot trust it, the dissolution and celebration of symbol creation Frith speaks of is completely present. In this music you can hear the making of music as the making of history: In a story that now seems preordained, you can hear incidents in that story that did not have to turn out as they did, incidents in the transformation of one man's personal culture into a world culture.

As for fantasy, that no longer means Elvis Presley as his fans, myself included, have for so long presented him: as dreamer or hero. If not preordained, that story long ago reached the limits of its ability to tell anyone anything; as Isidore Isou, a Left Bank cafe prophet who bore more than a passing resemblance to Presley, put it in about 1950, "Truths no longer interesting become lies." For Elvis Presley today, real fantasy, fantasy that contains the engine of its own imaginings, means Elvis Presley as a bad conscience.

In death, Elvis Presley has become, for some, its angel ("I really thought I'd be seeing Elvis soon," Bob Dylan said upon leaving the hospital after his recent heart trouble)--and also its emissary, a rootless wanderer cut off from place and time, an angel of death not merely for certain individuals, but for the society he left behind.

"Tales abound of close encounters with Cunanan in bars and discos and tony dinner parties," the San Francisco Chronicle reported on July 23, the day before the body of the killer of designer Gianni Versace was found on a Miami houseboat. Andrew Cunanan had traced the map of the country in a few short months, from California to Florida, leaving his dead in Minnesota, Chicago, New Jersey, Miami Beach; the paper was looking for the local angle. San Francisco gay men, the Chronicle said, "expressed shock and distress at just how widely known--and popular--the suspected killer appears to have been. 'Cunanan is the "Patient Zero" of serial killers,' said the San Francisco writer David Israels.

'Patient Zero'" (the French airline steward who the late Randy Shilts, in his book And the Band Played On, claimed first spread AIDS through the American gay community) "was supposedly everywhere and connected to everyone, and this guy was also everywhere and connected to everyone. He's been more places than Elvis." Now, even taking into account daughter Lisa Marie Presley's 1996 ads for Versace Jeans Couture, one can dismiss this as a non sequitur--but I don't think it really is. In the corners of the popular imagination to which the media does not have ready access, Elvis Presley emerges precisely as a brooding, wronged, unsatisfied, malevolent drifter, traveling like Andrew Cunanan under different names and with different faces on a highway that in any case no longer recognizes him.

This is the real-life Presley who George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, now says offered to have Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin who left Wallace crippled for life, killed ("Of course I told him to not to," Wallace says). And it is the spectral Elvis captured most powerfully and most ambiguously in an art project by Ned Rohr of Arizona: an untitled 1997 Elvis calendar.

Here, month to month, in obsessively detailed photo collages and text, is the drifter's account of an American wasteland. In every picture, Elvis in a famous photo--a young Elvis reclining in bed, crawling face-down across a stage, or greeting fans; an older Elvis, emoting or just wearing a lei--is surrounded by members of indigenous tribes from all across the world: Ainu, Arabs, Pygmies, Brazilian Amerindians, Balinese.

They are mostly silent, looking straight at the camera, which is to say at whoever is paging through the calendar. The tableaux can be very complex, as in April, where a young Elvis dances in front of a small, 1950s amplifier. Behind him is his original bassist, Bill Black, but also an old, bearded man dressed in the desert rags of a Bedouin, playing a stringed rectangular box. Behind the three of them is a well-dressed crowd of curious African Americans; only Elvis looks away.

He moves on, through the year, mostly in the Southwest, but also in Missouri, Maine, Las Vegas, and somewhere off Highway 61. Rohr's Elvis speaks in his own queer voice: a voice no Elvis listener has heard before, a voice that, weathered by its years in exile, is instantly credible. "Motel-6," he says in January, "Battle Creek, Michigan... Desperation drives me to another one of these places. The shoddiest I have ever seen. Shod being rare in any quantity, at the 6er's, I am spellbound... This 6 crumbles at the edges.

From the rusted steel and corroded cement of the big outdoor stairwells to the toilet that rocks a bit when mounted, wets the floor slightly with each flushing." This is luxury on his road. Everything is breaking down. The people he meets are consumed by powerlessness and a lust for vengeance on enemies they cannot name. "Slot machines to the horizon, well-oiled and warm," he reports in November. "They sound like a Cadillac when you lose, like a beaten Chevy with the horn stuck when you win."

It is only his tone of resignation and bemusement that keeps the horn being stuck for the whole year; his own anger flares up every time he remembers who he used to be, remembers a show he once gave, a song he once sang, the look in the eyes of a girl he once met. He is in an America where everyone has already lost, where there is almost no one worth killing.

As he could be remembering from a time before anyone knew the name Elvis Presley, he is in "the hostile, often pesky world of the uninsured," and only a fool can page through this 1997 and not feel judged. Closing Ned Rohr's work, I imagined it being dropped from an airplane by the thousands over Memphis on August 16, while some unseen sound system pumped out that 1955 "Shake, Rattle and Roll," that 1968 "I've Got a Woman," and I wondered what would happen--how those now gathered there would respond, what they would say.

I imagined people smiling and dancing to the music, and throwing the calendars away. After all, who starts a new calendar in August?