The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

February 16, 2016

The Genesis of Elvis: What Origins Tell Us About Where We Go

I taught a student at the University of Mississippi who is a cousin of Elvis Presley.  As Ole Miss is less than an hour’s drive away from Tupelo, where the Presley family has long lived, this was not so surprising, really, but as a Carpet Bagger, I was charmed by the

Elvis birthplace 2

Elvis was born in this shack during the Great Depression

implications of my encounter with Elvis’ DNA, still responsive — not an Elvis sighting but a confirmed Presley sighting, surely.  This Presley was blond, almost exactly the King’s height and body shape, and he had piercing blue Presley eyes. As he took his final exam in my modern American Literature section, I silently tried to will him to burst into a chorus of “Hound Dog,” but to no avail.  If he had for some odd reason fallen prey to rock n’ roll hypnosis, it would have been the second-most rock-fantasy-fulfilling thing that ever happened to me, second only to the time I danced onstage in Paris for a half hour in a go-go cage with another band leader named Elvis, this one with the last name Costello.  But Elvis of Tupelo’s cousin did not once seem all shook up.  His hands might have been twitching and his knees weak, but that wasn’t because of love or music.  He might have been concentrating on the essay question of the exam. So despite wishing fervently for this young man to jump up on his desk and start throwing scarves off his neck into a screaming female crowd, instead I realized that we could not go on together with suspicious minds, and I gave him his semester grade and said adieu.  He wasn’t Elvis, and no amount of hoping could make him so.

elvis birthplace 1

Seventeen dollars gets you what they call the birthplace experience.

As it turns out, I found myself at a car dealership last week in Tupelo, getting my tires rotated, and I realized I really ought to go visit the birthplace of the American icon.The museum isn’t like the Met, where one donates as one chooses, and then one sees masterpieces. They wanted seventeen bucks to tour a diorama room, the two-room shack in which he was born, the relocated and renovated Assemblies of God church building in which Elvis first sang hymns, another chapel built for those who wish to marry in — let’s admit it — a more authentically Elvine Elvis Chapel than the one they have in Las Vegas — and to watch some films.  They had life-sized cardboard cutout Elvis dolls, they had a multimedia presentation of Elvis’ church services which were almost exactly like the church services I regularly attend, only people dress like it’s the twenty-first century and there are microphones, and they had a film  to let me know what any listener knows — that Elvis was influenced by both African-American blues traditions and Country music.

But the epicenter of the museum was the humble house where Mrs. Presley gave birth to a

Elvis birthplace 3

Elvis emerged here.

boy.  There was neither electricity nor plumbing.  Elvis’ father was not a financial success, even by the standards of the Great Depression, and they soon  lost the home and had to move elsewhere.  Looking at the metal bed in which Elvis crowned, I was somehow reminded of my trip years ago to Bethlehem, where I saw the birthplace of Jesus, which monks who had never witnessed an actual birth marked with something that looked like a large gilded dinner plate on the floor. And I realized then that the Elvis  I was seeking in this poorly ventilated shack was no more discernible than the golden Middle Eastern floor platter made Jesus appear in the flesh before worshippers there , alas for the worshippers like me of the King of Kings like Elvis and like me.

After all, what had I come to see? Down the road, there were somewhat updated versions of the same two-room shack’s architectural design, surely home to people of the same class as the Presleys during the 1930s. Today, they have plumbing, electricity, and aluminum siding. Is there rock greatness in those shacks?  At least they contain the living, not the dead. The Elvis I sought in his cousin and in his kitchen is dead — and yet, I say long live the King. The King is gone. And yet he is everywhere. All Americans are heirs to Elvis countrythe kingdom of Elvis — the bad fashion sense, the fatty foods, and yes, the rhythm, if we let our insides shake like a leaf on a tree, as he sang to us. Elvis might have lived in a shack, but he became as prosperous and as lost as any American can. He is the style without the substance, the default position of portions of American life, the gender performance, the hazy-eyed side-burned hunka-hunk of us burning.  We burn like Elvis burns.  There are sightings to this day. Elvis is not a saint but a relic, touch the reliquary, and what a chill I got — we are all shook up.  We are shaken.  We are seeking out a dream of ourselves, of who we have meant to be or who we have accidentally become. The genesis of Elvis, his birthplace, is like the rock at Plymouth, Massachusetts — we visit it to find America but find ourselves instead. The King is dead.  Long live the King.  Don’t look in the platter, look in the mirror for the next Elvis sighting.  If you were born here, right here on this platter, on this gold  record, then you are an American.

January 27, 2011

Entering the Jungle Room — Why a Visit to Graceland is a Requirement for American Citizenship

Americans may not like the decor, but we somehow all meet here

Elvis Presley was the embodiment of the public social experiment which demonstrates what happens when someone without education or what Europeans would call “refinement” gets a lot of money and wins a social position that puts him above the kind of ordinary criticism that most of us endure daily.

Good friends will tell us when our clothes are too gaudy that they don’t flatter us.  That happens because we’re not iconic rock stars.  No one told Elvis that it was absurd to wear jewel-studded suits and enough bling to make Liberace blush.  No one even whispered that in so heavy a regalia he might come off gay — perhaps because Elvis carried himself with an unmistakable heterosexual cruising swagger, procreated with Priscilla, and never, ever lost screaming female fans.  That said, if your average straight man, even if he were handsome in the way Elvis Presley was undeniably handsome, were to show up at a party rattling, jangling with jewelry the way Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie remembers him from her early childhood, he would be met by the howling laughter of his best friends.

Nobody ever laughed at Elvis, at least not to his face.  They also didn’t stop his pill-popping, question his excuses for not attending church but only watching Rex Humbard on television.Perhaps if someone had said to him that loving thing, so common in New York City, so rare in Memphis, apparently — “What are you, stupid?  What’s wrong with you?  Have you lost your mind?”  — He might have survived his uncensored excesses.

People who knew him really did love Elvis.  Over and over again, in documentary after documentary, colleagues remember a soft-spoken, almost-shy man who had the fortune and the misfortune of a great musical range, a handsome face, a smoldering sex appeal, and an uncanny ability to phrase a song so that an audience would never want to hear it any other way again — this gift of his, the thing that made Elvis Elvis and nobody else — without a genius for money, for negotiation, for contextualizing his fame and success in a larger picture of a more complex world.  As a result, he made dumb decisions, and nobody somehow dared tell him that despite the jumpsuits studded with semi-precious stones, the emperor often had no clothes.

He took his money, overspent for a medium-sized house, and with the ministrations of a wife with no decorating sense at all, overspent for some of the tackiest furnishings the world has ever seen, bar none.  The living room with its wall-length mirrors and incongruous peacock stained glass panels screams a dollar amount without even the sense one gets at Versailles — that the rococo gilding has produced a unified effect.  Here, in Graceland, where the shiny things are  disjunctive, the living room announces as one enters the house  that the occupants are nouveau riche, uncultured, and somewhat spiritually adrift.

I was at Graceland a few days before Elvis’ birthday, an anniversary still celebrated by an unyielding group of faithful fans, painting a hagiographic picture of the man buried out by the kidney-shaped swimming pool, complete with miraculous sightings of “The King.”  In his tacky living room, there was one of those all-white tinsel Christmas trees with blue balls on it — something from which I doubt Elvis ever suffered, given these hysterical fans throwing themselves at him non-stop.  To his credit, Elvis would not allow his fans to call him “The King” to his face, even once refusing to sing when a group of them held up a large sign that proclaimed him king.

Despite rumors to the contrary, this is not Jesus.

“Jesus is the King,” He said, to his credit.

The fans, though, never stopped trying to grab off a piece of him in every sense of the expression, as if he were the Cross, a type of shroud, a holy relic of an unnamed mystery.

The worst by far of all the rooms on public display at this shrine to the uncanonized Southern Baptist saint is the Jungle Room.

Both the ceilings and the floors are carpeted in avocado green.  The expensive furniture is artificially wrought to look rustic — think of Marie Antoinette’s hameau, only less quaint, more horribly, unspeakably tacky.

Elvis used to entertain here, and apparently, nobody dared stage an intervention for him in it, neither for the drugs, nor for the style.  He recorded a later song in the room.  His voice might have bounced off the walls of this monstrosity, but it is a shame now, and shame on us, all of us, for not stepping in and dissuading him on any count of his over-reaching.

A man with gifts without genius, a man with money without sense of how best to create a lovely home for himself or to clothe himself in dignity with it — this man is a perfect allegorical figure for the prosperous but often lost United States of America.  We are still too much of a superpower for those close to us to dare tell us to stop with the fries and the pills that affect our serotonin levels.  Our flashy guns and our flashy war planes — no one told us in a way we have listened to or obeyed that we should buy an education for ourselves instead.

Elvis owned three large televisions — one for each major network — but not one book, not one.

We have gifts, we citizens of Graceland, but we are not as good at everything as we think we are or that we wish we were.  We love God, but we don’t act like penitents.  We are inventive, but more often than not, we are just plain tacky.

Because I have visited Graceland, entered the Jungle Room, and because I, too, remained silent in the wake of its evidence of one bad decision after another, I am an American now, like any other.  Like Peter betrayed Christ, I, too, have betrayed Elvis in that I secretly thrill as much at his emptiness as at his whole, rich voice, a voice that made every song into a hymn, a private confession of adoration, even though the lines were out the door at the tacky house on Elvis Presley Boulevard and the merchandising was always in season, even at a time when penitents remember the poor, not the wealthy.

This is not Elvis’ fault.  It is ours.  With our culture, we crucified him, and we are hypocrites, all, who visit to gawk or even just to hear the unending plea to love him tender.  His death is the consequence of our excesses and indifference to those who need the truth from us.  In an era of global warming, of war, of closed American factories and foreclosed American houses decorated in better taste than this one, he is the symbolic but ineffective expiation of our wrong-doing.

Elvis has stopped singing.  Jesus is the King.  May He have mercy on America.

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