PRINT September 1990


THE LAST TEMPTATION of Elvis: Songs from his Movies is a double CD featuring 26 numbers by the likes of Bruce Springsteen (“Viva Las Vegas”), Tanita Tikaram (“Loving You”), the Primitives (“[You’re So Square] Baby I Don’t Care”), Dion DiMucci (“Mean Woman Blues”), the Blow Monkeys (“Follow That Dream”), Vivian Stanshall & the Big Boys (“[There’s] No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car”), the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra (“Crawfish”), Nanci Griffith & the Blue Moon Orchestra (“Wooden Heart”), the Hollow Men (“Thanks to the Rolling Sea”—never heard of it), Sydney Youngblood (an acapella “[Let Me Be Your] Teddy Bear”—never heard of him, but he’s great), Les Negresses Vertes (“Marguerita”), Robert Plant (“Let’s Have a Party”), and Pop Will Eat Itself (“Rock-A-Hula baby”)—performers so disparate they can be called “the likes” only because of a common willingness to sing old Elvis songs.1

This odd artifact—surprising on its own terms, aggressively inventive on anyone’s, passionate, sarcastic, indecipherable and irony free—is only one of countless bits of recent evidence attesting to Elvis Presley’s refusal to go away. In fact, this year, a eat 13 years after his death, a year lacking even an excuse for any major promotion organized around the silver or golden anniversary of something, Elvis appeared all over the map. Even people who insisted they care less felt it necessary to bring him up.

He did not appear, as in earlier years, in a supermarket in Kalamazoo, crossing a parking lot in Las Vegas, in the person of a long-lost unacknowledged child, or as a statue on Mars broadcasting “All Shook Up”—as confirmed by digital photographic simulations, tabloid weeklies (“JESSE GARON ELVIS’ PARASITIC TWIN?”), hardcover bestsellers, and paperbacks packaged with cassettes of him calling from a pay phone. That story had been summed up the year before. “I was flyin’ back from Lubbock / I saw Jesus on the plane,” Don Henley sang in 1989 in “If Dirt Were Dollars.” “Or maybe it was Elvis—you know they kinda look the same.” “There’s a very large spiritual gap in this country,” Henley explained. “People are so hungry for a miracle, there’ve been more sightings of Jesus and Elvis than Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.”2 In 1990, however, Elvis appeared on the trickier terrain of art: every kind of art. Still enough like Jesus to get away with anything, as the titling of The Last Temptation of Elvis indicates, he sneaked out of the crevices of songs, movies, novels, comic strips, poems, scholarly works, and television shows, most often moving like Manny Farber’s “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art”—which, Farber wrote in 1962, “goes always forward eating its own boundaries,” leaving “nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”3

He was not well dressed. In his 13th posthumous year Elvis Presley oozed from the fissures of culture, voracious and blind—blind to the glare cast by Elvis, the TV series that with ex-wife Priscilla as executive producer so vividly recreated his early years, by the Life cover proclaiming the “INESCAPABLE CONCLUSION” that he had killed himself, by the publicity surrounding Mark Childress’ putatively guaranteed bestseller, Tender, a big novel about his-early-years so imaginatively sterile it ought to be called a novelization, by the Forbes cover naming him the highest-paid dead entertainer of the year—blind to the headlines and the money he could still make. This wasn’t where he operated. As Farber says, “the best examples of termite art” occur where “the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence,” where “the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.”4 A corpse doesn’t care—and in the shape of Elvis, engorged and bleeding dope, the corpse is waste itself, but not still. Following the path of this termite, it’s as if what the present-day Elvis wants most is to devour the culture that for so long has fed off him.

I’m in heaven now
I can see you, Richard
Goodbye Hollywood
Goodbye Downey
Hello Janis
Hello Dennis

—Sonic Youth, “Tunic (Song for Karen),” 1990

Some folks up here look kind of surprised when they see I didn’t go to The Other Place, the real warm place.

I say, why? I was good to my mommy and Priscilla, and, heck I did more gospel albums than most anybody else. Then they say, c’mon El, what about the movies?
—liner notes to The Last Temptation of Elvis, 1990

Village Voice Strike Benefit: Galaxie 500, Mofungo, Frank’s Museum, Krave, Tuli Kuplerberg, Elvis Presley, in support of the paper’s workers, whose contract expires June 30. June 17, CBGB, 315 Bowery, 982-4052.
The Village Voice, 19 June 1990

The sound of him chewing is quiet but insistent. It’s the sound of a monstrous 1950s atom-bomb-mutation-film cricket, moving steadily across a field of corn. In the cornfield there is a scarecrow, got up in bulging gold-lame Las Vegas jumpsuit, bejeweled heavyweight championship belt, and jet-black pompadour—or clothed in rockabilly zoot-suit drape, the hair as it was in Memphis in 1954: almost blond. As the big cricket, Elvis climbs a trouser leg and nibbles away at himself, only to reappear in the rags of many costumes, Gregor Samsa in reverse, Cinderella after the clock struck but ready for Saturday night, a saturnalia you’d probably just as soon stay home for.

This is one of the many guises in which Elvis has reemerged. This is the Bad Elvis, not just the schizophrenic prisoner of the American Dream dropping down dead from his Graceland toilet with a book on the Shroud of Turin slipping from his hand, but a killer.

He talks out of the side of his mouth, but so deeply the tongue goes right through the cheek, the bug chewing, then a hand coming out the other side, waving. You can hear him talk in Bad Influence, as psychopath Rob Lowe exits from straight-up James Spader’s apartment after killing Spader’s cute girlfriend Lisa Zane and dumping her body in the bedroom: “Elvis,” Lowe sneers as he strolls out the door, “has left the building.” You can watch him wave as Andrew Dice Clay, sneering Jewish racist, hulking fantasy of date rape in black leather, bidding for mainstream dollars in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, his hair swept up into Elvis’ black pouf, starring with Priscilla Presley herself. You can see him as Nicolas Cage’s singing killer in David Lynch’s new movie Wild at Heart; you can see him as Richard Beymer in Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks, and here he’s really oozing.

“It occurred to me last night around 10:58,” a friend wrote last spring as Twin Peaks was setting up for its first climax, “that with his taste for drugs and kink, not to mention his status as latter-day Bigfoot, it seems obvious that Elvis is the answer to ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’” The comment fed off the fantasy of Elvis as homicidal maniac—not a new fantasy. The first recent Bad Elvis, and the most complex, rose up in Michael Mann’s 1986–87 TV show Crime Story, set in Chicago and Las Vegas in the early 1960s: Anthony Denison’s young mobster prince Ray Luca. Under his enormous, scary lift of hair, his already outdated sideburns the mark of a man who had kept the faith, he was moody, uncertain, self-hating; he solved every doubt with a massacre. But in the corners of the public imagination, Elvis had always kept company with mass murderers, redneck nihilists. In flashes he could seem indistinguishable from Charles Starkweather (who worshiped James Dean) or Richard Speck (who liked Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley—Elvis was never his king, Speck said before he went to the electric chair). Now, though, this once-coded secret was out. “It was such a waste, some stupid person,” George Harrison said early in the year, thinking about John Lennon and Mark David Chapman. “If John had been killed by Elvis, it would have at least had meaning!”5 But my friend’s fantasy of Elvis and Laura was almost redundant; with Twin Peaks it was already part of the show.

It didn’t matter who the killer was, at the close of the series’ first run—the killer as provisionally designated, and subject to change. It was clear weeks before that Richard Beymer’s character was in on the death: that he was there for the torture, the last gang-bang. As Romeo in 1961 in West Side Story he’d been a pseudo-Elvis — or not pseudo, since his Italian Tony perfectly matched the Big E’s huge version of “O Sole Mio,” “It’s Now or Never” (recorded for The Last Temptation of Elvis by Paul McCartney). Forgotten ever since, flogging Tony for decades in summer stock, Beymer was back as Twin Peaks’ Slime King, criminal property-developer, town-eater, termite queen, rising from the bed of his mistress clutching a small, airplane-bar-sized, Elvis whiskey decanter. “Going to give Little Elvis a shower,” he says.

One was meant to recall that, according to Albert Goldman’s 1981 biography Elvis, “Little Elvis” was what Elvis called his penis. One realized that this was merely one of the non sequiturs Twin Peaks routinely piled on its red herrings. But one could also understand that it is as a non sequitur that Elvis Presley now does much of his work—and that long after Twin Peaks has been forgotten, Elvis will still be busy, and fecund. That little Elvis bottle—presumably it was a dildo, but what was in it? Whiskey? Sperm? Homunculi?

I’m sick of hearing about Elvis. I don’t understand why people talk about him as if he’s still here. But I have a friend who has a shrine to Elvis in his bathroom. When you flush the toilet these lights light up. He’s got Quaalude bottles in front of it.
—Caller on phone-in show “Why Elvis?” (“This nightmare,” another caller named the program), KALX-FM, Berkeley, 12 March 1990

Tracy of the Primitives: “Burger King” (Elvis The Autopsy) . . . this is a bootleg video.

—notes to The Last Temptation of Elvis, 1990

Me and Elvis
Never worried about the cops
He flashed that badge he got from Nixon
Every time that we got stopped

—Human Radio, “Me & Elvis,” 1990

Elvis for Everyone was a 1965 album and a top-ten hit, mixing renditions of “Santa Lucia” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” with covers of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” and Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “When It Rains, It Really Pours,” two blues Elvis had recorded in 1955 at Sun Records in Memphis, here touched up with Hollywood overdubs to make them “for everyone.” “Elvis Is Everywhere” was a 1987 single by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. As a comedy record it was made more for the tabloids than for a beat (though there was one fabulously non-sequitous moment, positing Elvis in, or as, the Bermuda Triangle: “Elvis needs boats!” Nixon shouted. “Elvis needs boats!”), but it was right soon enough. Elvis was everywhere, especially where he didn’t seem to belong, where you didn’t necessarily have to notice him, and Bad Elvis was simply the mask the thing wore over all its other masks. What was stranger—Elvis on network TV as pornographic fetish object, or Nanci Griffith making “Wooden Heart,” probably his worst big record, sound wonderful?

MOLLY DODD: You know, I didn’t even know you had a car and—what a car it is!
DAVY (39-year-old Molly’s doorman, poker-faced Irishman in his 50s): My Caddy’s one of my pride and joys.
MOLLY: It doesn’t seem quite you, though, Davy.
DAVY: I bought it from one of the king’s bodyguards in ’72.
MOLLY: The king?
DAVY (bored with her obtuseness): Elvis.

The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, 25 May 1990

[In 1956, in Berlin, American and British servicemen and their German girlfriends listen to Armed Forces Network radio.] They favored Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell On You,” and “Tutti Frutti.” It was the latter, sung by Little Richard at the outer limit of effort and joy, that started them jiving. Then it was “Long Tall Sally”. . . . In April came a song that overwhelmed everybody, and that marked the beginning of the end of Leonard’s Berlin days. It was no use at all for jiving. It spoke only of loneliness and irresolvable despair. Its melody was all stealth, its gloom comically overstated. He loved it all, the forlorn, sidewalk tread of the bass, the harsh guitar, the sparse tinkle of a barroom piano, and most of all the tough, manly advice with which it concluded: “Now if your baby leaves you, and you’ve got a tale to tell, just take a walk down Lonely Street. . .” For a time AFN was playing “Heartbreak Hotel” every hour. The song’s self-pity should have been hilarious. Instead, it made Leonard feel worldly, tragic, bigger somehow.
—Ian McEwan, The Innocent, 1990

“Stop this motherfucking Limo,” says the King,
And the Caddie, halting, raises fins of dust
Into a landscape made of creosote,
Lizards, dismembered tires. The King’s been reading
—Mind Over Matter: Yogic Texts
On Spiritual Renewal by Doctor Krishna
Majunukta, A Guide on How to Tap the
Boundless Mental Powers of the Ancients._

Bodyguards and hangers-on pile out.
His Highness, shades off, scans the east horizon.
“Boys, today I’m gonna show you somethin’
You can tell your grandchildren about.”

He aims a finger at Nevada’s only cloud.“Lo! Behold! Now watch that fucker move!”
—David Wojahn, “Elvis Moving a Small Cloud: The Desert Near Las Vegas, 1976—after the painting by Susan Baker,” Mystery Train, 1990

What made the Molly Dodd scene interesting was the obviousness loaded into its displacement — the unmannered, uncapitalized way the doorman was able to say “the king” as if he were referring to, say, the son of Zog I, pretender to the throne of Albania, who happened to live in Molly’s apartment building, the residents of which naturally called him “the king,” to be nice. The scene plays smoothly, and when Elvis arrives he’s a shock; given Molly’s tony aura, even a reference to him seems more foreign than Zog could ever be. Elvis enters loudly but sideways, as he does also in Ian McEwan’s brittle novel The Innocent, where his soft steps are cut precisely to the beat of the song you couldn’t jive to. He is much less foreign here, in Berlin in 1956, than he is in Molly Dodd’s Manhattan apartment building in 1990; in Berlin he’s a world spirit, in Molly’s lobby just white trash. Unnamed in The Innocent, he is nevertheless completely present, as a threat, a dare: the nervous propriety of the syntax, the hesitant attempt of a virgin listener to rise to the challenge of a song (and not failing), testify to that. In a few lines McEwan shows how an unknown singer shifted a heart, how in that heart the singer created an irreversible event, an event that even if it could be forgotten could never be taken back. That’s what makes “Elvis Moving a Small Cloud” so pathetic—didn’t he know how many lives he’d moved?

Scrutiny of such traces is a way to find out: it means following the trail of the termite as it feels “its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.”6 That’s how Elvis—or the common wish to know who he was and what he did—gets from a TV show to a novel to a poem.

Farber’s theory of termite art versus white elephant art (“an expensive hunk of well-regulated area”) is useful for Elvis because it points away from the stage—the place where in 1976 and ’77, in arenas around the country, Elvis finally appeared precisely as a white elephant, so vividly that the metaphor, had one chosen to apply it, would no longer have been a metaphor. No new answers or for that matter any new questions will be found there. But Farber’s image of the artist as termite also erases, almost, the question of intention, of consciousness. This has always been the inner mystery of Elvis Presley: whether, from beginning to end, he ever had a clue—whether he was, in Duncan Smith’s phrase, always somehow “ex-centric to his own Elvishood.”7 “The only credible explanation is that Elvis was from another planet, like in Superman or the New Testament,” wrote the late Lester Bangs, who gave Elvis as much respect and probably more awe than any other writer: “Elvis never even had to move a muscle, not even in his face—he always, from day one up till almost the very end, had that glow.8 Seeing Elvis in the flesh, on stage, for the first time, Bangs said, gave him “an erection of the heart.”9

There was always something supernatural about him. Elvis was a force of nature. Other than that he was just a turd. A big dumb hillbilly a couple points smarter than his mule who wandered out from behind his plow one day to cut a record for his sainted mother and never came back, which he probably woulda forgot to even if he hadn’t’ve been whisked up. Why shouldn’t one physical corpus be capable of containing these two seeming polarities simultaneously? Especially if it’s from outer space.10

The reason why it has been nearly impossible to credit Elvis Presley with intention beyond undifferentiated desire, which is also the reason why it remains so difficult to credit his music with meaning, is first of all social: white trash don’t think. That, at any rate, is the premise of the Residents’ The King and Eye, a 1990 stage show and soundtrack, part of the Residents’ ongoing revision of all American popular music. With Stars & Hank Forever, an album pairing John Philip Sousa and Hank Williams, they approached the men as lost voices, tried to make them speak, and succeeded. The Residents’ decomposing version of “Lost Highway,” Williams’ signature song, sounded like Williams cutting a posthumous record; it joined itself to the original, and for a moment made the original seem merely mournful. But on The King and Eye there’s no lost voice, no new speech. All there is to hear is absence: a third-rate Elvis imitator talking to a child about “The King,” pretending to be trying to figure out what he was king of, who he was king of, if he ever knew he was king of anything or anyone. Between chats the imitator bores the listener through a deadly account of 17 hits, “All Shook Up,” “Big Hunk O’ Love,” and so on—boring purposefully, to show that there was never anything there; boring like a good conceptual artist, perhaps, but not like a termite. Public Enemy said the same thing more incisively: “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me you see,” Chuck D. chanted in “Fight the Power,” just warming up. “Straight up racist the sucker was / Simple and plain.”

“Plain” had to be the harder insult, but even the “most” buy the “simple.” Comix artists Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death, for example (the latter in fact Jon Langford of the Mekons, the UK’s everlasting punk band), in a panel on U2’s God-sent-us-to-save-the-world-and-reinvent-rock-while-we’re-at-it pretensions. In search of the source, U2 guitarist The Edge digs up the Graceland grave as singer Bono tries to put a call through to the ghost—which, incarnated as the Vegas zombie, stands by befuddled.11 It’s the same in Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train. Young this time—and, presumably by Jarmusch’s intention, emitting far less Elvishood than any of the Elvis paintings nailed up in the rooms of the film’s Memphis Heartbreak Hotel—the ghost appears to an Italian woman who can’t sleep for wondering why no one in town can talk about anything but a dead pop star. Naturally the ghost doesn’t know either. Hey, he was just a kid. It wasn’t his fault. “I’m not a big Elvis fan,” Jarmusch has said. “[He was] somebody who was in the right place at the right time.”12

Elvis as white trash, though, will only take you so far into the mystery of why it has been so easy to deflect Elvis’ music away from the realm where the music of Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Prince, or even Jim Morrison takes on the aura of art, and thus invites thought. The controlling reason why it is so hard to think about Elvis esthetically rather than sociologically is that his achievement, his cultural conquest, was seemingly so out of proportion to his means. Continents of meaning—of behavior, identity, wish, and betrayal, continents of cultural politics—shifted according to certain gestures made on a television show, according to a few vocal hesitations on a handful of 45s. No one knows how to think about such a thing. Thus even such a mild comment as critic Camille Paglia’s “Presley, a myth-maker, understood the essence of his archetypal beauty” has to pass as an author’s conceit. The idea that Elvis “understood,” and thus meant, remains impossible.

Paglia is writing in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, her brutal revision of the Western cultural canon—published this year, though the line quoted was written before Elvis’ death. She is comparing Elvis to Byron—and both to Plato’s Alcibiades and to George Villiers (1592–1628), the first Duke of Buckingham, favorite of Charles I, ambassador and seducer, the fate of England in his hands as he lay in the bed of the queen of France; finally he was assassinated. (“It was such a waste. If Elvis had been killed by John, it would have at least had meaning!”) Elvis is one of Paglia’s “revolutionary men of beauty,” an epicene and a disrupter: “Energy and beauty together are burning, godlike, destructive.” With both Elvis and Byron, “tremendous physical energy was oddly fused with internal disorder, a revolt of the organism,” Paglia says—turning the body into the body politic, making a metaphor, riffing.

Byron created the youth-cult that would sweep Elvis Presley to uncomfortable fame. In our affluent commercial culture, this man of beauty was able to ignore politics and build his empire elsewhere. A ritual function of contemporary popular culture: to parallel and purify government. . . . Mass media act as a barrier protecting politics, which would otherwise be unbalanced by the entrance of men of epochal narcissistic glamour. Today’s Byronic man of beauty is a Presley who dominates the imagination, not a Buckingham who disorders a state.13

Here even Paglia slips away from attributing will to her actor. “Would sweep Presley” makes Elvis a passive cultural object, and “a Presley” is a disembodied cultural force, not a contingent and selfish individual. But that is perhaps all too fitting, if one allows Paglia’s words to silently frame the one man of beauty who did disorder the American state. Like his successor Ronald Reagan, if far more primitively, John F. Kennedy replaced politics—the considered question of what a commonalty can best do with its shared space and time—with culture: with what we want. Today Paglia’s argument seems almost nostalgic, since culture, as an official sound-and-light show of fear and reassurance, has now so completely replaced government that there are no politics, and culture itself has lost its borders and its domain. A new Elvis Presley could not build an empire elsewhere because there is no elsewhere; all territory is occupied by power.

—notice of cancellation of first installment of the TV show Elvis, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1990

—notice of cancellation of second installment of Elvis, San Francisco Chronicle, May 1990

Of course, it seemed as if all territory were occupied by power in 1956, and look what happened. What happened? Is it possible that Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show not as a country boy eager for his big chance but as a man ready to disrupt, disorder, and dismember the culture that from his first moment had tried to dismember him, to fix him as a creature of resentment, rage, and fatalism, and that had failed? It is not possible, not according to those like Goldman who revile Elvis and those like Lester Bangs who were astonished by him—and it’s the impossibility of Elvis Presley as a conscious cultural actor that now buries him beneath his culture, the culture he inherited, the culture he made, and the culture that then to such a great degree remade itself according to his promises, complexities, contradictions, and defeats. Elvis works today as a demon, and as a termite, but he works most of all in this realm of impossibility, here an idiot, there a judge.

Me and Elvis
Watched TV till it got late
And we would never change the channel
We’d use Elvis’ .38

—Human Radio, “Me and Elvis,” 1990

Elvis as judge is not the same character who blew away Robert Goulet on The Carol Burnett Show (“That jerk’s got no heart,” he said or he didn’t). He’s a judge who will not judge: no Solomon but an apparition, the source, the same Elvis John Lennon professed not to believe in in “God’s Song,” the same Elvis whose face was on Neil Young’s T-shirt on September 30, 1989, when he sang “Rockin’ in the Free World” on Saturday Night Live. The song—a bloody rant—is a picture of the U.S.A. so squalid and bitter it takes the country right out of the free world. The face on the T-shirt was distant, detached, crudely sculpted, very dead, and as Young sang, it seemed to take on the cast of the busts of Abraham Lincoln that dot the interiors in The Manchurian Candidate: saddened, betrayed, made to witness every treason.

This Elvis is most obvious in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, looking down in every room of the hotel from his picture frames, impassive as a couple makes love or two women talk or three criminals try to decide what to do next. Each character, in his or her way, makes an appeal to him: the young Japanese Elvis fan asking for her best fuck, the gunman hoping for forgiveness. But this judge looms large only through the small-mindedness of those who conjure him up. As the hapless ghost in the Italian woman’s room makes clear, this Elvis is the judge as idiot, not that the concept works. “I think it’s unfortunate when people just buy a myth,” Jarmusch says, “Elvis was just a guy and he got elevated to the status of almost a saint, like the Pope or something, because people can make money off of that”14—but as D. H. Lawrence said, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.”15 “When the movie opens,” a friend said, “it opens with Elvis’ ‘Mystery Train’”—as written, a Gothic story, Elvis driving forward against invisible doomsters to triumph, victory, a laugh—“and as the film goes on he keeps moving, no one can keep up with him, no one can pin him down. So the only way they can end the movie is to cut it off, to end it with Junior Parker’s version”—the original version, a slow, somber, defeated blues made in 1953, two years before Elvis sang the song—“and on that record, on the soundtrack, you hear the train stop. You can even hear the air brakes.”

In Laurie Anderson’s “Hiawatha,” on her 1989 Strange Angels, Elvis is no idiot, and he almost does judge, but he’s also a specter, his dim presence overshadowing any voice. Because it was seductive, easy to listen to if not to hear, Strange Angels was widely condemned by art-world critics as the conclusive sellout of a once-subversive artist, but the album was the attempt of a distanced, ironic conceptual artist to communicate without winks, to speak her necessary riddles in everyday language, to play with and submit to shared symbols, to sing. Anderson began as Chuck Berry did in 1959, calling “Memphis, Tennessee,” though she speaks not as a divorced father trying to reach his little girl but as a woman with a question. Starting out on the shores of Gitche Gumee, she raises up Captain Midnight, JFK, Geronimo, Marilyn Monroe, as if it were Elvis who by the force of his personality had given all of these symbols their resonance. And as if now they are only reflections of him, she goes back to the source.

And I said: Hello Operator
Get me Memphis Tennessee
And she said: I know who you’re tryin
To call darlin And he’s not home
He’s been away
But you can hear him on the airwaves
He’s howlin at the moon
Yeah this is your country station
And honey this one’s for you"

“The King sings Love Me Tender,” Anderson sings, but she puts a remarkable verse between that line and the verse quoted above, sung from an infinite distance, Elvis Presley speaking from so far away it seems unnatural that any words from Anderson could follow his: “So good night ladies / And good night gentlemen / Keep those cards and letters coming / And please don’t call again.” It’s the plea of a judge judging all those who wait outside the doors of his court: Why do you talk about me as if I’m still here?

Tabloids scream
Elvis seen at a shopping mall
That’s the kind of talk
That makes my stomach crawl

Picture a zombie Elvis
In a tacky white jumpsuit
Just imagine a rotting Elvis
Shopping for fresh fruit

—Living Colour, “Elvis Is Dead,” 1990

On The Last Temptation of Elvis it’s Holly Johnson, once vocalist for Hype-of-’84 Frankie Goes to Hollywood (“Relax” on the soundtrack to Body Double was as close as they got), who sings “Love Me Tender.” Like a lot of the people on the discs, he sings as if he wants Elvis’ approval. A lot of the other people sing as if they want to see what they can get away with: “I have a need / To overfeed,” says Vivian Stanshall as he kicks off “No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car,” and Pop Will Eat Itself even samples Public Enemy’s “Elvis was a hero to most. . .” for their frantic cut-up of “Rock-A-Hula Baby.” But regardless of style, two questions seem to energize every musician: What would Elvis think of this? Do I care?

The whole project is of course a dare: the singers daring Elvis, daring his most degraded material to give something back; Elvis daring the singers to find life in songs where so often he found only humiliation. The result is a fabulous cultural anarchy, shaped song by song by the complex of worship and resentment all fans carry. The set revels in the confusion its premise produces. No performance implies any other. There’s no way to predict what anyone will have to say. Cath Carroll and Steve Albini’s jagged “King Creole” is followed by Aaron Neville’s “Young and Beautiful,” sung with daunting modesty to a crowd that sounds as if it could care less, which is itself followed by Stanshall’s absurdist “No Elvis impersonator Ron Adams and son Room to Rhumba.” Robert Plant’s “Let’s Have a Party” revs up for the rockabilly Hall of Fame and makes it home (Elvis’s version didn’t even try); the Pogues’ “Got a Lot o’ Livin’ to Do,” next up, is equally bent on a hall of shame. The Last Temptation of Elvis stops you right here, anywhere, makes you wonder: what’s going on? What would Elvis think of this?

Aaron Neville sings slowly, delicately—but the way the great soul singer keeps saying Elvis’ name to his audience, to himself, is so ethereal it’s scary. You can’t tell what he means, what he’s trying to say, and you’re not sure he could either, except that the performance is telling you: it’s a prayer directed straight at the song’s first singer. You could have stayed young and beautiful forever, Neville seems to say, and I too, if only you’d never stopped singing as clearly as you sang this song—why didn’t you? Wrapped inside this fan’s devotion is the most gentle damning Elvis will ever receive. Can it be an accident that in “Pharaoh’s Palace (Memphis, 1988),” one of three poems about Graceland in David Wojahn’s Mystery Train, the same song takes another artist to the same depths?

We weave
down the sidewalk

to the grave, the clumsy epitaph his Daddy wrote.
A woman walks off
sobbing to herself. Her husband in cowboy boots,
face a patch
of oily sores, follows her shaking his fist, slaps her twice
and tells her
Godamn you, shut up.

He drags her off by the arm, but still she’s
wailing, sorrowfully
crouched on a bench. On the parking lot loudspeaker
he’s performing
“Young and Beautiful.” On the two-lane headed home, we stop
at a house claimed

by kudzu and grass, barn and house collapsed, wood a uniform
gray, windows shuttered.
Evening comes on: we walk a path to a family plot,
a hornet’s nest patching
a single marker proclaiming no name, only HERE US

In the revel of The Last Temptation, Elvis becomes a magic mirror, then a lost reflection. As the performers turn Elvis into a judge of their music, of themselves, they themselves become judges, and judge him—and this makes them feel free. The story seems brand new. Any song—any Elvis—seems possible.

This is, perhaps, where the termite runs out of barriers: in the sky, or in a house fallen down around itself, the wood already rotten. This is Elvis without music; without history; without a body, neither bopper nor corpse. But all of that is somehow, for an instant, replaced in Neville’s “Young and Beautiful,” in Wojahn’s memory of the song, or for that matter in the way Elvis sings it in the last shots of Jailhouse Rock. For just a second you can feel how far Elvis has really traveled in our culture, and how far he really traveled on his own. You can sense where he came from, why he left, why he came back, where he ended up.

The story shrinks then, down to the size of your favorite song, whatever it is—down to the size of whatever mystery it contains, whatever it was that made you like it then, and like it now.


ELVIS’ UNHEARD MUSIC continues to appear. Slithering out in various semilegal forms since August 16, 1977, the legendary “Million Dollar Quartet” session—the results of a December 4, 1956, country sing at the Sun Studios in L Memphis that brought together Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry r’ Lee Lewis (but not Johnny Cash, who completed the quartet by joining a group photo)—was released by RCA as an 87-minute CD earlier this year. (The media response was nonexistent, as if Elvis as Elvis had become irrelevant.) The music is remastered down to the size of the room in which it was made, putting you in it. Sticking mostly to gospel, and dully, the trio takes a long time to warm up. It’s only when Elvis begins to talk about seeing an act in Las Vegas that wiped out his version of “Don’t Be Cruel”—it was Jackie Wilson, with the Dominoes—that they begin to push each other, as Elvis pushes to supersede Wilson. He gives it three tries before surrendering, happy to lose; then Lewis takes over Wilson’s role, and the fight is on.

If you were watching ABC’s Elvis on February 6, you saw Michael St. Gerard mime “My Happiness” (the voice belonged to longtime Elvis imitator Ronnie McDowell). You saw an 18-year-old Elvis entering Sam Phillips’ Sun “Memphis Recording Service” (pay two bucks, make a record) to, the show said, sing a song for his mother’s birthday. But since Elvis made this very first recording in June 1953, and Gladys Presley’s birthday came in April, writers such as myself long ago concluded that Elvis made the record for himself, hoping someone would take notice. Someone did: the late Marion Keisker, Sun’s co-manager, taped part of the performance for Sam Phillips. “Good ballad singer,” she wrote on the box.

The real thing—the one-copy 78-rpm disc—turned up some years ago in the possession of an Edwin S. Leek. Released now by RCA on Elvis: The Great Performances, it confirms the old story: Elvis’ performance is all devotion. The performance is so intense it’s very hard to imagine him singing the song as a career move. But the piece is also all craft, very careful, fully realized, a work of art. Elvis slides his voice high over the lyric. lets down, reaches again; he constructs a version of a single. unique individual. “Who do you sing like?” Marion Keisker asked him. “I don’t sing like nobody,” he said, and the recording proves it. On this first day, he sings only like himself.

Greil Marcus’ most recent book is Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, 1989, just published in paperback by Harvard University Press. He is a contributing editor of Artforum.



1. The Last Temptation of Elvis, 1990, was produced by New Musical Express, London, to support the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre.

2. Don Henley, quoted in Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music, 1975, third edition New York: Obelisk Dutton, 1990, p. 249.

3. Manny Farber, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” in Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, New York; Praeger, 1971, p. 135.

4. Ibid., p. 136.

5. George Harrison, quoted in Mark Rowland, “The Quiet Wilbury,” Musician no. 137, New York, March 1990, p. 36.

6. Farber, p. 136.

7. Duncan Smith, “Crypt Analysis,” in Diego Cortez, Private Elvis, Stuttgart: Fey, 1978, p. 11.

8. Lester Bangs, “Notes for Review of Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway,”1980, in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, ed. Greil Marcus, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, p. 327.

9. Bangs, “Where Were You When Elvis Died?,” 1977, in ibid., p. 215.

10. Bangs, “Notes for Review,” p. 327.

11. Cohn B. Morton and Chuck Death, Great Pop Things→Expresso Bongo! U2 Part 1, LA Weekly, 21 June 1990.

12. Jim Jarmusch, interviewed in Robert Gordon, “State of the Art,” Asymptote, Memphis, Summer 1990, p. 32.

13. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 362, 364.

14. Jarmusch, p. 32.

15. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, New York: Viking, 1964, p. 2.

16. Laurie Anderson, “Hiawatha,” Strange Angels, a Warner Brothers record, 1989.