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disruptive social ethos that ushered in the transitional period between the late 60s and early 70s. In an interview with New Musical Express in 1985, Ballard as much cult hero as any subject of the music press, commented, significantly, that, “Music is the carrier wave and on it is modulated all this fascinating stuff – what I call the real news.” Ballard’s The Disaster Area (1969) was a novel of urban poetry, rejecting naturalism as redundant, and streamlining the prose like a silver-bullet Ferrari exploding out of the present into the incalculable moment in which we read the writing now. “Everything is becoming science fiction,” Ballard wrote. “From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.” At the same time, Elvis’s body was turning perversely science fictional, as his dependency on prescription drugs like Demerol increased, and illnesses like hepatitis, pleurisy, pneumonia and a twisted colon took hold of him, and his sight was deteriorating, with the very real threat of glaucoma and possible blindness. Dressed in gladiatorial rhinestone-studded jumpsuits – and because of his weight and balance problems, sometimes transported to the dressing room in a golf-cart – Elvis had become the embodiment of the rock legend living out on stage the excesses that had destroyed him. Injected with amphetamines to go on, and sedated backstage after the show by his private doctor, Elvis was still adulated by the unstoppable loyalty of his fans who refused to separate the youthful image of the moody Beale Street King from the physically degenerating performer who was often forced to abandon shows after the first set because of ill health. Back home at Graceland, his image protected from the public, Elvis was confined to bed for weeks at a time, morbidly reflecting on his youth and consoling himself with sticky hamburger buns, grizzled meat and repeated requests for homemade banana splits. He was so immobile that he had televisions installed in the ceiling of his bedroom. Ballard’s uncompromising prose burnt on as symptomatic of the turbulence of his age, his assimilation of the psychopath as central to his fiction sanctioned in his mind by the fact that 20th-century war crimes were so atrocious that we as a species evolved into an endemic criminal society. “I think,” Ballard commented in 1973, “we’re living at a transfer point, we’re moving from one economy of the imagination and the body to a future economy of the imagination and the body. And during this unhappy transfer period, it’s sadly true that, for all kinds of reasons, people seem to be generating more cruelty than love. I deplore this, but as a writer I’ve got to face it.” The publication of Crash led by extension to a dystopian trilogy, continued with Concrete Island (1973) and High-Rise (1975), novels in which the urban outlaw as hero has no option but to turn pathological as part of a means for survival. The potential for a high rise to become an isolated ecosphere, subject to its own internal politics and anarchic disruption, vandalism, blackouts, with dead dogs eaten or piled up in the elevators, was a novel triggered into imaginative existence by an incident experienced by the author while on holiday in 1974. “Before starting High-Rise, I was staying one summer in a beach high rise at Rosas on the Costa Brava, not far from Dali’s home at Port Lligat, and I noticed that one of the French ground-floor tenants, driven to a fury by cigarette butts thrown down from the upper floors, began to patrol the beach and photograph the offenders with a zoom lens. He then pinned the photos to a notice board in the foyer of the block. A very curious exhibition that I took to be another green light to my imagination.” In the book’s opening lines, Ballard’s green light had the novel’s central character Dr Robert Laing, cast as an extremist psycho, eating his dead Alsatian on the balcony of his marooned apartment on the 30th floor. The extremity of the act made Ballard’s vision of a highrise community imploding into a strictly internalised violence appear natural, like a warring planet governed by its own autonomy. As always in predicting social and ecological upheavals, Ballard had made a typically quantum leap in time, anticipating a future world of inner-city violence, the necessity for gated communities, hoodies armed with obligatory knives, suicide-bombers, and the whole spectrum of random terrorist acts initiated in a media-saturated 21st century.

Presley, too, in 1975, when he wasn’t working the road for an income his record sales no longer provided, had insulated himself at Graceland in a domestic scenario as weird as anything in Ballard’s fiction. Hospitalised in January for liver problems, and treated in June for possible glaucoma, Elvis had, on July 28, blazed a gun at the TV set hitting Dr Nichopolous, his personal physician, in the chest, also narrowly missing shooting his girlfriend, Ginger Alden, in the shower above. Even the “Memphis Mafia” – the male entourage composed of Memphis friends that Elvis so generously payrolled to act as minders – were starting to leave Graceland on account of his disturbing personality changes. Elvis’s natural generosity now alternated with detonating bouts of megalomaniacal rage as he faced the unwelcome realities of declining income, divorce, his father’s death from heart disease, and the exhaustive demands made on his body by live touring. Ballard at this time, was moving rapidly towards the creation of another seminal, loosely connected trilogy of books, apocalyptically fired-up and hot with the radical social tensions of the age. The raw subversion of Thatcher politics by punk, space travel, air crashes, the imagined downfall of America as a world power – all of these themes were worked out in the course of writing Low-Flying Aircraft, The Unlimited Dream Company and Hello America. Ballard’s concern with mapping lost places, deserts, suburban oases waiting to explode into revolution, interzones, airport departure lounges, motorway cafes, car parks and so on, is all part of him imaginatively retrieving wastelands and marginalised cultures and restoring them to the remit of a fiction occupying in his own words, “the visionary present”. Largely disconnected from reality at the time of his death from suspected cardiac arrest on August 16, 1977, in a scarlet-carpeted bathroom, sitting on the fake leopard print seat of a black toilet, faced by a purple sink built into a marble counter, Elvis in bringing about a premature closure to his life, also succeeded in creating a post-human legacy of a legendary star. In doing so, he joined the roster of those icons who like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix have become, due to the reluctance of fans to let them go, the subjects of conspiracy theories calculated to keep them continuously alive in contactable parallel worlds. Elvis lives on like a sun that refuses to set over Graceland – guided tours of his house, merchandise, downloads, DVD and CD reissues all contributing to keeping his estate mega-rich – while Ballard, still living in the domestic chaos of his rundown Shepperton house, drives his indefatigable fiction on through books like Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come, into the 21st century. These days, Ballard enjoys cholesterol-rich lobster at the Maquis in west London, or quails, or his favourite grouse, accompanied by a good flinty red wine from St Emilion. It’s unlikely that he and Elvis would have shared anything in common, except a mutual love of cars, and as a symptom of 1950s cool, black shades; but both are inexorably linked by the maximum impact each brought to his individual art at a time when the modern world accelerated into the socially disruptive changes that we are still, as a species, experiencing so forcibly now. Elvis had his name painted in black on his customised, strawberry-pink Cadillac, and wore a pink sapphire ring to match. In appearance Ballard could easily be mistaken for one of the largely featureless doctors or psychiatrists who are often the protagonists of his novels. Whether or not we recognise it, both men have infiltrated our cultural genes, and affect the way we look, act and think. I would go so far as to argue that the unlikely partnership of Presley/Ballard is still a solvent 21st century one. Both men continue to shape the reality in which we live – the science fiction that America has become, the psychopaths who rule and contend for world leadership, the commonplace event that space travel has become, the planet starting to act as a whole like reality television, and the feeling that anything is possible as a terrorist reprisal, at any given moment, and that is all indirectly a part of their artistic inheritance. Both men, by the nature of their art, overtook themselves, like fast cars burning down the highway. In terms of the future, we’re still inquisitive spectators, waiting for them to arrive.

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