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.

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August 6, 2011

Dixie Death — The Local Mom-and-Pop Cemetery and the Omnipresent Southern Dead

On the day of the primary elections, I met a man who was sitting under an umbrella, holding up a campaign sign.  He told me that Vicksburg, Mississippi‘s population has stayed stagnant since he moved here in the 1960s.

“It’s a dead town,” he said.

Meet the neighbors.

We were in the parking lot of the Elks Lodge, where my polling place was, and across from the parking lot was a warped metal fence with a rusty sign above the gate to enter the plot of land near us.  It said, “Zoellinger’s Cemetery.”  Even though the cemetery was unkempt, with grass growing like a head of hair on a hungover hooker,  with piles of dead branches in the corner, the community was using Zoellinger’s Cemetery, it seemed, to this day, with fresh graves next to ones so old the engraving on the tombstones was worn off.  The names of the dead were varied — not all kin to Zoellinger.

In the North, we think that death is something apart from us — we pay money to give it pomp.  In Manhattan, they cross a bridge to bury the dead in Queens — no new graves nearby.  Death is rendered hygienic.  It is given something a corrupt politician might call plausible deniability.

Not so down South.  Death is the next-door neighbor, an inevitability closer in fact than taxes, which might be evaded, a shadow stretched in gothic proportions over every aspect of the quotidian.

Zoellinger’s Cemetery is a mom-and-pop operation, no connection to any church.  It is century-old business at least, judging by the tombstones, but I suspect that the worn stones I mentioned before are an indication that the place has been used as a graveyard since before the Battle of Vicksburg, which changed everything here.

Of course, the churches around here have cemeteries, too, often enough — but it is not considered strange to bury the dead in the back yard, to use one’s neighbor’s home-overgrown cemetery instead of the church.

Elvis is out back by the pool.

That archetypical Southern man, Elvis Presley, is buried at home — exhumed, in fact, to place him at Graceland.  He’s out back by the kidney-shaped swimming pool.  You can see him if you stand on the diving board.  If you want to wave — go ahead.   Around  here, that wouldn’t be considered more than a minor eccentricity,  the cracking of a knuckle, the humming of a tune.  Death is like daily bread.  Forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us.  We’re all trespassers down here, walking on the land of the historically departed, the familial and the familiar wraiths who haunt both battlefield and supermarket.

There is no surprise at a new sighting of a ghost in Vicksburg and the surrounding area.  In fact, if you go to the old courthouse, now defunct, on at least one night a week, you can take a ghost tour of the old city.  Ghosts are part of the community at least as much as the living are.

Even events associated with the renewal of life — with the ceremonies of youth — have the vestiges of this death pall upon them.  When local couples get married, they often go to a mansion that burned down years ago and stand in the ruins between the columns for wedding pictures.  No one sees the irony or the malediction in this.  There are several memorials to the Confederate dead on the campus of Ole Miss, who were indeed numerous among those who had attended the institution in the 1850s and 1860s.  And yes, at the City College of New York, there is a memorial plaque to those students who went off and fought Franco during the Spanish Civil War (a more noble lost cause, to be sure), but students are not forever tapped on the shoulder by these phantoms in the way that the young are here.  It is not that they are consciously courting the dead.  Rather, it is that the dead are always there, like a quiet elderly relative at a family reunion, parked in front of the television in dementia, neither bothered nor bothersome.  The dead are as present to the young  Mississippians as are any distant relatives over the age of 65 — to be respected but largely ignored, except at moments like graduation and wedding days, when one might send a note in the hopes of receiving a gift.

And what gift does a good grandson receive from the Confederate dead and the relatives buried out in the backyard?  I admit this is unclear to me.  I suppose the one valuable gift is a sense of continuity, that the path of the generations remains intact.

There is a hymn that is popular down here about this.  The lyrics written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon are as follows:

There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?
CHORUS:

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by?
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
In the joyous days of childhood
Oft they told of wondrous love
Pointed to the dying Saviour;
Now they dwell with Him above.
(Chorus)
You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice.
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?
(Chorus)
You can picture happy gath’rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings
When they left you here below.
(Chorus)
One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?
This song asks a question that the practice of keeping the dead close by seems to answer.  If the dead are forever at hand, then those seats are never really empty, the family is never really parted.  The circle is already unbroken here, and even as we go to vote at the Elk’s lodge, we know that imminently the ephemera of this election will evaporate into the greater truth of Vicksburg, that the dead outnumber the living — until the rapture raises them without their guns, their sabres, their cigarettes, their broken bottles of Mad Dog 40/40, and the defeats of this world will never again matter to any of us.  Nothing is extinguished, even now.

April 4, 2011

Rock n’ Roll or Miss n’ Sippi?

The Goo Goo Dolls gave a free concert in the Ole Miss Grove tonight

Question: How does an American in the 21st Century know he or she has hit midlife?

Answer: When responsible parents bring their kids to see a rock band they dig.

Tonight, the Goo Goo Dolls gave a free performance in the Grove at Ole Miss, and the crowd, at least for Mississippi, was packed.

What was surprising was how many families came with small children to hear the band.

I have surely lived long enough to have some rock n’ roll fantasies fulfilled.

I danced one night on stage in a go-go cage in Paris on stage with Elvis Costello and the Attractions.  I had a front row seat, was inches away from Alison Moyet when she sang at the Olympia.

I also have had a few awful rock ‘n roll experiences as well.  One night at La Courneuve in France I went to see David Bowie perform, and there were violent skin heads in the crowd who started swinging spiked knuckles into the crowd, terrifying most of us and starting a near stampede.  The movements of the crowd were so intense, they unbuttoned my blouse, not in a sexy way, and I nearly got trampled to death.  I remember after things calmed down being close to the stage, where Peter Frampton, still with good hair, was playing his guitar in Bowie’s band, and he was fantastic, but I was sobbing so hard I could not fully appreciate his masterful licks.  Later that dawn, my brother and I caught a ride back to Paris in a butcher’s truck making pre-dawn deliveries to restaurants.  I remember we were crowded in with lots of kids wearing the same black bomber jacket (I had one, too), and we were nearly overpowered by the smell of raw beef.

Rock n’ roll is kind of like pizza.  Even when it is bad, it’s still wonderful in its own junky way.

Tonight, though, was a first.  It was a major band playing a college gig, but there wasn’t one bomber jacket in the crowd, neither any black of which to speak.  There were a bunch of women with small children, diaper bags, dogs, hula hoops.

Maybe it’s midlife, or maybe it’s Mississippi.  Maybe this is, despite being the birthplace of Elvis, not really rock ‘n roll territory.

Me at the Grove earlier tonight. Am I losing my edginess?

I barely smelled any marijuana at this concert.  I remember the first rock concert I went to at age 12 — the smell was overpowering to the point I thought I would pass out.

There was not a mosh pit.  I was never much of a mosher, anyway — but I was all about the edgy message.

Maybe I was watching a band that the regents of the University of Mississippi were pretty sure would not trash the stage or knock up any co-eds.  After all, the lead vocalist of the Goo Goo Dolls pointed out that they have nine studio albums.

“That makes us old,” he said before he launched into tracks from the latest release.

I admit I did not dress in black, either.  I remember days when my girlfriends would dress sexy and get as close to the front of the stage as possible in the hope of attracting the attention of the band members.  I remember how gorgeous my friend Liz Coy was the day she went and saw the Rolling Stones when we were high school freshmen — long, naturally curly red hair, a low-cut halter top, and tight, tight jeans on her utterly perfect body.  I remember my friend Silver, who now goes by Sarah, so utterly perfect in her beauty that she was once photographed for Vogue, and she told me how she ended up giving Iggy Pop an onstage dirty handshake while the crowd looked on.

Me in the gogo cage — well, Elvis and I were on the most civil and platonic  terms. Diana Krall has nothing to worry about.

But there I was,  sitting on the grass at the Grove, no makeup, a t-shirt, and I was text-messaging my step-daughters, 16 and 20 years old, wishing they were with me.

Yes, it’s Mississippi, and no rock ‘n roll fantasies have taken place here since Elvis moved to Memphis.

But I seem to have moved on, too.  I’m happy with who I am, but I miss my go-go self, in no way evoked among the Goo Goo Dolls, who delivered their brand of blaring guitar sentimentality, urging us to let it just slide.  And so we did.  And so I must.

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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