A couple months ago I’m watching the tube, a cable news program, and a segment runs that shakes, rattles and rolls me.
A media geek is standing at the gates of Graceland, microphone in hand, eyebrows at half-mast, knit together in a hairy shelf of concern. I am TV literate and I realize this is a somber occasion.
According to the newsman, Elvis is dead. Thirty-two years dead.
You’re kidding, I think. The King? Gone?
How could it be? I thought he was sharing a second-story cold water walk-up in Rio with Adolph Hitler and Jim Morrison, dating Mama Cass.
I guess I haven’t been paying close attention to things. I didn’t miss him.
Even when he was here, I didn’t pay much attention to Elvis.
To me, Elvis alive had precious little value. The closest I got to a meaningful relationship with him was looking over Karen Goodhue’s shoulder in the sixth grade as she perused a frayed copy of Tiger Beat magazine and sobbed whenever she turned a page to find a photo of Elvis in his Army uniform, on his way to Germany. Karen was physiologically precocious and I appreciated anything that made her sob and shake.
Nearly five decades later, since Karen is long gone out of my life, I don’t care much at all about Elvis and, but for a predictable and pathological percentage of the population, most people don’t genuinely care about the actual guy who expired alone, in a state of embarrassing dishabille.
Let me hurry to say it: Elvis was a fair entertainer, expert when it came to appropriating black music, and a darling of money-hungry record promoters and publicity agents. He made some truly awful movies and gave away Cadillacs to vice-squad cops who failed to react to his prodigious habits. He hugged Richard Nixon, which is more than Pat and the kids did, and he played Vegas, paving the way for Wayne Newton.
In truth, he was a bozo from the Deep South, knee-deep in way too much money, torn between an evangelical past and an ever-freakier libertine present. Though confused, he had a knack: He crafted a style at the right time and place, and was propelled by forces beyond his control into the role of cultural icon and fantasy bad-boy love doll for a generation of repressed Eisenhower-weary young women.
Now he’s dead 30-some yearsand we still see the guy on TV. A while back, they re-released one of his recordings in England and it shot to the top of the charts.
Why the fascination with an overweight and infantile guy with an addictive personality who ends his trek on this planet with a fall off a toilet, his blood chemistry a toxic blend of watery hemoglobin and high-end prescription substances?
I submit — again with a respectful nod to his legion of demented fans — it has nothing to do with his recordings, his movies, his hideous sense of décor and clothing, or his concert appearances.
We are still tuned into Elvis because we are Elvis.
A gloss of his existence is a peek at the essence of post World War II America and, to some degree, a reflection of many of our personal histories and our inevitable individual and collective declines.
Hey, look, here comes young Elvis. Gee whiz he’s a looker. He’s sleek, predatory, imbued with a contradictory blend of grace and backwoods insouciance. He’s no nuclear scientist, that’s for sure, but neither is he a fool. He projects pool hall cunning and manic energy, brashness and vigor. He’s full of sap, isn’t he? He’s a veritable testosterone factory, a lean, mean fighting and rocking machine dedicated to the seduction of every female who strikes his fancy and outraging anyone considered decent, upstanding and straight. It is easy to overlook the fact he pilfers most of his style from less fortunate neighbors. He’s just so darned confident and … so new.
Hide your daughters.
Here comes America, surging with chiseled chest and brawny arms out of World War II, rescued from the Great Depression by a magnificent national effort aimed at defeating the Axis. America is lean and mean, strong, surfing the edge of a wave of new ideas, cruising in a massive V-8 with the top down, brimming with pre-corporate just-built-subdivision confidence, arrogant as only a newly-crowned champion can be as he hoists his gaudy championship belt above the motionless form of his foe. We can overlook the fact the champ is not entirely cognizant of the condition of some of his less than fortunate fellows. He is just so darned confident and … so new.
Hide your resources.
Elvic energy and style is magnetic, it attracts one success after another. An empire grows, the spin-offs are everywhere, the entourage bows and scrapes and the waistline expands in harmony with the bank account. Life is good. Too good. Things happen too fast to be understood, too rapidly to be absorbed, analyzed and held up to an ethical lens.
Pretty soon, anything is right, everything is okay. Out of the mouth come words that belie activities behind closed doors; a show of public outrage hides a sordid private routine. The mask grows thicker as the interior weakens, as the moral life dwindles to nothing. The mask becomes everything; the world is a stage, posturing replaces substance. Sometimes at night, when it’s dark and scary, he wants his mommy, but she’s long gone.
Soon, there are pretenders hot on the trail; aggressive, strange foreigners begin to challenge and attack him, to replace him in the eyes of millions of fans. He is seen as inflated and corrupt. He begins to wear odd outfits and becomes a bespangled parody of his old self, flashing a gaudy embroidered American eagle on a fey cowboy cape.
As his act grows more baroque and mannered, his conspicuous consumption increases. Between karate workouts he spends money at a frantic pace; he devours everything he meets, takes advantage of every diversion, every opportunity to turn his consciousness from the ever-more obvious fact of what he has become.
From brash and cocky youngster he transforms into a middle-age goof buying bigger homes, more cars, gobbling huge meals and Seconal. He retreats behind a garish shell, a doubt-riddled, close-minded consumer of physical, emotional and spiritual antidotes, of quick fixes that provide a bright albeit short-lived light at the edge of a gloomy abyss. He watches television all night long and forces his friends to watch with him. He pulls out a .357 and shoots the set when Robert Goulet appears on the screen.
One day, head full of bad thoughts and sedatives, he waddles into the bathroom clutching a copy of Field and Stream and a few minutes later he’s dead, his pants around his ankles, his carcass cooling rapidly on the imported saltillo tile floor.
There’s a lesson here, and it’s all about appetite.
Appetite, the double-edged sword. It is appetite that propels the ascent, just as it is appetite that precipitates the decline. It is appetite and the inability to resist it that defines Elvis, that defines our age.
Appetite is at the core of the Elvis lifestyle — for Elvis and Elvis-as-us. Little taste, but a lot of appetite. One example will suffice: The King’s reported favorite sandwich. Take a whole loaf of Italian bread and cut it in half. Baste all sides of the bread with butter and grill lightly, until toasted. Slather the bread with the contents of a jar of creamy peanut butter — the cheaper the better — add a pound or so of fried bacon and a jar of jelly. Compress the halves together and grill until all the nutty porky goodness is amalgamated, then devour. Eat it all, every last crumb and fleck of grease.
As symbols go, this sandwich is a winner.
Someone should have tempered the man’s appetite before it got the best of him. It is the young, vigorous Elvis we need to recall, as it is the America of less-ambiguous and less self-centered times we yearn to recreate.
If I had been asked to wean The King-who-is-us from bacon and peanut butter extravaganzas, I would have done it slowly. I would not have cut the fat and cholesterol content of his diet quickly — this would be a profound shock to the system, like opening the shuttle hatch on an unprepared astronaut. At the same time, I would have promoted a steady reduction of barbiturates to enhance the appreciation of the new food items I introduced to the menu.
I would have attempted to maintain the peanut and pork fat combo the roly-poly crooner so adored, but in moderation. I would have labored to turn Elvis-as-us into an Epicurean, mindful of the value of pleasure yet aware that, beyond a certain point of indulgence, pleasure begets only suffering and pain.
I would have encouraged an experiment with one of many African cuisines utilizing the peanut and peanut butter. What a delicious irony — to flee to the food of the ancestral homelands of the very people from whom The King stole his music!
How about peanut soup, using chicken broth and vegetables as a base, adding peanut butter and some whole peanuts and topping it with little crumbles of crisp bacon? Accompanied by chicken/peanut/curry crespelles?
A journey farther around the culinary globe could produce skewered pork loin strip, marinated in garlic, onion, lemon grass, shoyu and nam pla, grilled and served with a peanut-based satay sauce.
Of course, it would have been for naught. Even in moderation, when mixing highly saturated fats in huge amounts, there is a health risk involved.
There is probably nothing I could have done to prevent the inevitable: the triumph of appetite.
At project’s end, we would hear the same ominous words.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.
The Big Building.
And all us little Elvi, cute cowboy capes tightly secured, would be close behind.
Well, at least close behind Michael Jackson.