Does anyone remember that it was not cool to be Elvis-addicted in the late 1950s? Elvis fans were oddballs, weirdos, rebels following the siren song of a sideburned, hip-swiveling yokel from Tennessee who probably was just a flash-in-the-pan anyway. In New Jersey, where my youth was spent, swing music had yet to give way to anything resembling rock 'n' roll. And requests at the record store for something by Elvis usually brought raised eyebrows and looks of consternation. What was an Elvis anyway?
As for me, the first time I heard "Heartbreak Hotel" I was hooked: I recruited a group of girlfriends to start an Elvis fan club; I published an Elvis newsletter sent to members around the world; I papered my bedroom wall with Elvis posters; and I collected original Sun Record recordings of the man who would become "The King."
And then I grew up. Life moved in other directions. But one thing remained constant: The thrumming of a guitar lead-in to an Elvis song on the radio still moved me in an inexplicable way. What was it about that guy's voice anyway? And why didn't more people understand?
Well, they finally understand. Or they think they do. Since his death (and most agree he really is dead), Elvis' legend has been fueled by a publishing industry bonanza. Books about his legacy have multiplied into a veritable library of Presleyana. First there were the books by the bodyguards and intimates tearing down The King's legend. Then there were the more respectful examinations of his musical evolution. Peter Guralnick's "Last Train to Memphis" (Little, Brown, 1994) became the account by which to measure all Presley musical biographies. And Greil Marcus' "Dead Elvis" (Doubleday, 1992) provided the most unsparing look at Elvis as a posthumous cultural symbol for strange America.
Now, with the 20th anniversary of Elvis' demise approaching, a new avalanche of books is on the way. It seems that every Elvis-fan-come-lately is churning out a learned or not-so-learned treatise on Elvis. Some are insightful while others are downright annoying. Take "The Inner Elvis," a pontification on Elvis' psychological problems. If you listen to psychologist Peter Whitmer, Elvis' fate was sealed when he was born "a twinless twin." The death at birth of his identical sibling, Jesse Garon, haunted him and his mother, Gladys, forging a bond between them that was just not healthy. It wrecked all his future relationships with women and led to his early demise.
Whitmer, who seems to loathe Elvis and his whole family, puts the legend on the couch in an effort to popularize his essentially academic thesis. He has done massive research. But Whitmer ultimately drifts off into psychobabble, as in a section in which he depicts Elvis not only as the twinless twin but also as a "shaman" for his times, carrying magical powers that changed the lives of his followers and fueled the feminist revolution. Oh, really?
The liveliest and most intriguing of the new books is "Graceland: Going Home With Elvis," a sometimes funny, often thoughtful rumination on the place of Elvis and his super-kitsch mansion in the American iconography.
Karal Ann Marling, a professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, has tracked the Elvis mythology with the zeal of a convert. Some may take offense at her metaphor of Elvis, mother Gladys and father Vernon as Jesus, Mary and Joseph headed for the promised land of Memphis. But her imagery is powerful: Elvis as Gatsby in his mansion on the hill haunted by the memory of his dead mother; a displaced Elvis searching for down-home food in an alien Hollywood; a dazed Elvis getting married at 3 a.m. in Las Vegas; and the dead Elvis lying in state among plastic plants in the garish living room of his own personal Tara.
If some of her analogies are weirdly metaphysical, Marling is quick to explain: "Spookiness comes with the territory when you think about Elvis on a semi-professional basis."
In her giddiest moments, she admits to having a vision of Elvis sipping a soda in a picnic area near the mansion, only to realize later that the figure in a white jumpsuit was an Elvis impersonator. Or was it?
It is odd that both Whitmer and Marling wind up comparing Elvis to another American cultural icon, O.J. Simpson. Marling happened to be at Graceland the night of Simpson's infamous Bronco chase and she strains to draw significance from this. Simpson, after all, did appear in movies with Priscilla Presley. Whitmer, reeling off into the extremes of psychological never-never land, has a bizarre vision of what would have happened if Elvis had murdered Priscilla Presley's lover: "As a celebrity murder defendant, Elvis would have given even O.J. Simpson a run for his money."
Excuse me, but this did not happen, so what's the point?
It makes you want to take refuge in something as mindless as "Dear Elvis: Graffiti From Graceland," a collection of scribbles from the wall of Elvis' mansion. Harmless, simple messages from the pilgrims to Graceland, collected by Daniel Wright, range from the touching: "Elvis, please show Jackie O. a good time," to the silly: "Elvis, please call Kevin. He heard you were dead and he's bummed," to the ironic: "Elvis, you can come back now. We know why you left."