-
--near the 20th anniversary of his passing (1997)
"You must remember that in this country things are always all-shook-up, so that people are constantly moving around and, culturally, rubbing off on one another...."

---Ralph Ellison, speaking for his Tuskegee music teacher Miss Hazel Harrison, in "The Little Man at Chehaw Station" in Ellison's essay collection Going to the Territory

A LEOPARD-SKIN

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

On 'Catholic' Dead Elvis rites

Elvis Impersonators

Costume Style Names

Elvis as Tom Parker's Sharecropper

Levis|Elvis

More Readings on These Topics

Scuffed boots, guitar, and drum on the movie set in the 1950s,
portraying county fairs the way they were thirty years before....

 


 

Saint Curled Lip

The 'religious' veneration of Elvis, dead. This aspect of Elvis in recent pop culture is often discussed, though usually only to condescend under an air of wonder. Strangely, when Elvis worship is discussed the ways in which these images and performance rituals have appropriated Catholic rites of worship is hardly ever mentioned, except in the vaguest of ways---Elvis as a form of secular/pop consumerist saint, etc. Yet often the forms of Elvis worship follow Catholic forms in much more recognizable and specific ways than Protestant ones. There are saint's relics, for example, and legends of sightings, miracles (including healings and conversions), crying statues, revered relics (many in dispute), images of the saint central to popular performances, processions, etc. And according to those who take Elvis impersonators seriously, even the most inept performance is said to be able to generate the aura of the King's transcendent power, at least in certain moments of it that transcend all the myriad ways in which the performer is clearly just a pretender: they suggest that the miracle of transubstantiation is operating here, though they'd never use such highfalutin' language.

 

Elvis's worshippers appear to be 'crossing' strains of religious worship even as Elvis mixed racial and gender identities. Revered for showing his humanity and demonstrating to us that the American Dream is really about Excess, Elvis has since the opening of Graceland in 1982 been turned into that Dream's martyred Saint of the pursuit of this Dream, its ideals and its costs. His followers seem to think that his life and death can redeem them from their own excesses, or make their own lives be about something other than endless consumption. We can pray and make offerings to him to be relieved of our own pain and losses from following that Dream.

The aura of Catholicism in Elvis worship rites is especially intriguing because the majority of Elvis' most passionate followers are or were Protestant, including evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant. Through Elvis and forms of Catholic veneration they may be creating a set of rites to compensate for the lack they feel both within their own material lives and within their spiritual ones. They do this by borrowing profusely from Catholicism, an imitation and reinvention of Catholicism. What is it that is so lacking in hell-fire and brimstone, damnation/salvation fundamentalism that is assuaged and enlivened by borrowing a Catholic aesthetic of performance and piety? The need for a mediator (a saint to pray to) to protect us from powerful earthly and cosmic forces, with candles to light and prayers (songs) to say and sing in his honor? If so, what corrupt worldly forces are seen by Elvis worshipers to be responsible for his martyrdom? That very Dream of material success that he followed so passionately?

One of the names for costumes used by Elvis impersonators, the Nail King of Spades, obviously refers to the decoration materials and patterns used. But could it also be taken to be a strange kind of reference to martyrdom, crucifixion's nails? Allusions to crucifixion and martyrdom are never much disguised in the rites of Elvis worship.

Can you see what this is made of? Check out the bottle-cap too. Un milagro. Thanks, I-lien Tsay!

*

 Elvis Personators

Elvis was the first Elvis impersonator: Aloha from Hawaii (1972), for example, in which he performs his role with vacant eyes, as if sleepwalking through his boredom. Dying, Elvis freed himself from becoming his own impersonation.

Here's something even more outrageous. Elvis impersonation is not just about getting to wear bad sunglasses and dye your hair black, or even about being able to get a laugh by doing a country-hokum voice ("thankyu-very-much"). Elvis impersonation is also about body language, about moving with 'soul' as well as sexuality---about losing or at least loosening up work-ethic proper body posture and stiffness. It's therefore about acting less 'white' and more 'black' in posture, movement, gestures. This body language may be taken seriously by some fans but it is a joke to everyone else, especially to black folks (not that they spend alot of time thinking about Elvis, except as another form of white folks' sad and comic craziness.) But you can't really think seriously about Elvis impersonators without raising the question of what role 'race' plays in all of this.

Elvis impersonators can be thought of as a form of poetic justice: black culture's revenge on Elvis for doing his own impersonations of black performing styles. Do Elvis impersonators foreground Elvis' borrowing from black culture, or do they try to erase it? Or is it really a very contemporary form of whites-in-blackface: 'playing' a character whose 'soulful' style (at least in the 1950s) is acknowledged to be part rhythm-and-blues (i.e., black) as well as part white 'country' roots-music. Elvis and his early Sun Studios band certainly acknowledged his sources in both black and white musical culture.*

[*Scotty Moore, the guitarist for the 1954 Sun Studios sessions, comments: Elvis "'just jumped up, all full of nervous energy, and started playing this song.' The song was a blues piece by Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup called 'That's All Right (Mama).' 'I had never heard it,' Moore recalled, 'but he knew it. ...Elvis knew abut every song in the world....' 'We all agreed it was different, but what was it?' Moore wondered. 'It was an R&B song, with kind of country, rhythmic music. But what was it?' 'It,' of course, came to be known as rock and roll...." Quoted in Dan DeLuca, "Creative Spark Rekindled for One of King's Men," Philadelphia Inquirer 8-14-97, p. C9.]

 

But like blackface, this performance blending racial and cultural identities can also be undone, so that the security and power of whiteness is reaffirmed. (If the latter is as true as the former, though, when is this moment when whiteness reemerges marked in Elvis impersonator performances? When Elvis impersonator fans rebel against the performances of impersonators who make him too Mexican or Japanese or Filipino or Black?* But instead of getting angry they could also laugh and applaud, taking such performances to be cultural pilgrimages by folks from "other" cultures paying homage to the superior of a white boy's performing style?)

[*El Vez, a Chicano Elvis impersonator who uses mariachis, some Spanish, and references to immigration controversies in his tributes, is not exactly a well-received performer among many Elvis impersonator fans. "He says that one of his proudest accomplishments is that, after performing for hundred of devoted Elvis fans near Graceland, he managed to escape with his life" (quoted in Jeff Gammage, "Swiveling the Pelvis in the Name of Elvis," Philadelphia Inquirer 8-14-97, p. C8.)]

 

If such performances are a form of cultural blackface (or cultural/racial mixture), they are also an attempt to give white performing styles 'soul' while at the same time reasserting the privilege claimed by whiteness to reinvent its own origins. Needless to say, such longing for a past in which white culture was securely dominant and could "borrow" whatever it wanted (such as black musical and performing traditions) with impunity is very much a part of Elvis worship: revering a saint who appears powerful enough to resurrect the past. Elvis' admirers are hardly ever fans of the broad diversity of contemporary music, with the possible exception of some contemporary commercial 'country' [i.e., white] music; they look back with nostalgia and a sense of loss to Elvis' music of the 70s, 60s, and/or '50s. And yet Elvis is simultaneously revered as the martyr to the contradictions and violence of that very Dream of a white-culture-only world.

 

Or is all this being much too cynical? Could Elvis embody for his fans the ideal of cultural diversity, of borrowing and merging multiple sources? Maybe the most exciting and inspiring example of this for his admirers? How often does this issue come up in their descriptions of and homages to him? How many of Elvis' fans have used him as a starting point to exploring the wide range of white country music Elvis drew from, not to mention black gospel, blues, R&B, etc.?

*

King Sharecropper

Without quite realizing it, Elvis became a sharecropper on Colonel Tom Parker's Hollywood plantation. Parker arranged to have all of his records linked to movie productions, and in the 1960s had to work on between 2 and 3 movies a year; 31 films total. Parker received 25% of Elvis' royalties on the films, 50% after 1967. Songs for the many films included "Queenie Washing's Papaya" [Paradise Hawaiian Style] and "Cotton Candy Land" [It Happened at the World's Fair.] In these films Elvis often portrays a good-hearted rebel who gets the girl in the end; in pop culture too he's thought of as the ultimate individualist. Po' boy with talent rises to the top, becomes King---a modern Horatio Alger with more of a sense of danger. Yet the central paradox is that Elvis really became corporate hired man, a hired hand forced to work for corporate mass media enterprises operating out of in Hollywood, Nashville, Las Vegas, New York, and elsewhere---after he performed the scripts they gave him, he got his "share." "Colonel" Tom Parker certainly let his po' white boy play played the role of the Southern gentleman plantation owner---Elvis even got his own mansion with white pillars in a respectable part of town to prove his success---but the real plantation boss was the "Colonel" and the new plantation/slave economy was America's new media empire. In the midst of all this, Elvis was at most an overseer to his own slavery.

 

When the martyred Dead Elvis is worshipped, is there sometimes a sense that Elvis is the martryred Son of an indifferent Corporate Media Father? Or (to give the emphasis to class conflict rather than patriarchal religious sacrifice) the hired hand abused by his boss? And are such suspicions rising in the midst of Elvis worship much too frightening to be even hinted at---a modern American form of apostasy or heresy? (If the King is becoming a religious cult figure, we can have heresies and maybe inquisitions, yes?) An even more dangerous question: did Elvis know what was being done to him? Look in the martyr's eyes in the portraits of the dead Elvis, their look of longing may also become a look of accusation....

Among all the shlocky movies, two interesting ones involve Elvis as a mixed-race character: Flaming Star (1960) and Charro! (1969). In Flaming Star Elvis plays a half-Kiowa, half-white tragic mulatto figure named Pacer; his Indian mother is played by Dolores del Rio. A key line: "I can feel the flaming star of death." How were these movies reviewed? How did these scripts come about? And how were they received, especially in the West and California? There's never as far as I know an Elvis movie that suggests his character has Black blood, but making him either Indian or Mexican mixed-race even in the 1960s challenges these movies' almost exclusively white audiences.

Some of the names of the more than 40 Elvis clothing styles that can be purchased by Elvis impersonators:

Thunderbird,

Aloha Eagle,

American Eagle,

Arabian,

White Phoenix,

Dragon,

Old Indian,

Gypsy,

Sundial,

the '68 Comeback Suit,

the Stone and Nail,

and

the Nail-King of Spades

(See William McCranor Henderson's I, Elvis; Confessions of a Counterfeit King [1997]).

An additional insight of Henderson's: in modern America: "iconography ha[s] replaced topography."

In such a landscape, Elvis looms larger than Paul Bunyan.

*

 Coda: Cosmic Coincidence?

'Levis' is 'Elvis' is just 2 letters transposed. One brand name is older, unless you consider the deep roots of the folk music black and white Elvis drew upon. But both Names became central to the new mass-market youth culture of the 1950s.

In fact, in the beginning (the Sun Studios period) Elvis was associated with jeans, not gold lamé---and jeans in this case meant dangerous 'lower class' kid, hillbilly but also urban street tough with rolled cuffs and metal studs on a few of the seams, enough to get these pants banned for student wear in just about all high schools in the country until the late '60s. (The jeans of Jailhouse Rock look pretty starched and pressed though!).

For youth culture (at least for whites in the '50s) Elvis was central first; then in the '60s Levis became central and Elvis was pretty much left behind. When did he stop wearing jeans in concerts and movies, anyway---after 1956?

 


More reading:

Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1995) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999)

Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of Cultural Obsession (1999)

Erika Lee Doss, Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image (1999)

Eric Brown, Elvis Film Encyclopedia (1998)

Gilbert B. Rodman, Elvis After Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend (1996)


Sightings:

The Place To Be

(when you're not anywhere else)