Culture | Music
December 2015, a rare Elvis acetate of the song “Suspicion” sold for half its estimated value at an auction in the West Midlands – part of a trend of declining interest in Presley memorabilia. As big as Elvis was, and as much as he still figured in my mind, perhaps his time was finally passing. I wondered whether the drama I’d vicariously lived through half a century after the fact, listening to an album made 13 years before I was born, really amounted to anything in the end. Feelings, that’s all – dangerous things at the best of times, as able to bring you pain as joy. Old feelings, too, from another age entirely.
Davis met me back at the station wearing a black University of Memphis sweatshirt. A towering figure at 6ft 4in, he had started to talk Elvis before I fastened my seatbelt in his car, and we spent three hours at his “mancave” flat overlooking the Medway, discussing the King. “That man rose from a wooden shack to the greatest star this world has ever seen,” he told me. “There ain’t nobody ever bigger than Elvis Presley was.”
affection, such significance, to more than one star. In that way, it really was like love. As for his belief that this quasireligious status was unattainable for any other star, I wasn’t so sure. Try telling one of Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” – her notoriously obsessive online fan base – that their Mother Monster is not, in fact, for ever.
I liked Davis, though, and I knew I was a little like him, too. But I was more promiscuous, maybe shallower, in my fandom. On my Mount Olympus lived not only Presley but Dylan, Willie Nelson, Elliott Smith, a few others. But Elvis, I knew, was something else: the face, the story, the excess, the voice. Despite the dissimilarity of his life to mine, when he sang a story, I believed it. He ennobled your experiences with the grandeur he brought to them. Listen to From Elvis in Memphis and he still will.
After Presley’s comeback came another fall. Not immediately: the hits kept coming, he conquered Las Vegas, he won Grammy Awards and performed startlingly powerful shows, including one in Hawaii in 1973, the first concert by a solo artist to be aired globally. But bad habits and an increasing reliance on medication inched him away once again from cultural relevance.
We ate prawn sandwiches as we listened to the charttopping 2015 album If I Can Dream, for which the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had overdubbed arrangements on to some of Presley’s most iconic songs. Davis loved Elvis, and it was “love with a capital L”. The singer had given him “a family” – a network of likeminded devotees who met regularly at a pub in Essex, and occasionally made pilgrimages to Graceland, Elvis’s Memphis home. “I’ve got friends in Argentina, friends in Holland, friends in America,” he said. “If I was ever in trouble, I could ring up any of them now and say I’m really desperate . . .”
Presley’s lonely death on the toilet only bolstered the myth
By the end, Elvis’s drug-addled mind was filled with fantasies of sneaking out of recording sessions to assassinate drug dealers. He worked intermittently. Waylon Jennings claimed he saw Elvis elbow his wife in the ribs for fun. Presley, despite the glory of his achievements, became a tragic figure.
Maybe this is how it was meant to be. His sad, lonely death on the seat of his toilet in 1977 only bolstered the myth, after all.
At some point in the mid-1980s, Bob Dylan visited Graceland. Confronted with the immaculately maintained building, gold records lining the walls and the gift shop filled with trinkets bearing the dead King’s image, he thought: “Elvis was going to be a religion in a lot of different ways.” I asked Davis whether he agreed. “He is a religion,” he said. “He’s like Jesus. He came from a poor background, he had disciples around him [his bodyguards and assorted hangers-on], and over 40 years after his death, he’s got a huge following. The story is there.” Davis told me that fans “go to club dos, which are our revival meetings”. When I asked whether he felt any stars today were capable of leaving such a legacy, he replied, “There is a complete uniqueness about Elvis Presley.”
Maybe for Davis, I thought, and I supposed that was fair enough. No fan has the emotional space to devote such
It didn’t have to end this way. A bright morning in 1962: a motorhome pulled into Las Vegas after crossing the desert from Los Angeles, and eased to a halt in the parking lot of the Sahara Casino and Hotel. A group of friends staggered out, exhausted, and a young couple broke off to settle into their room. There, with the TVs at a low volume and the curtains drawn, Elvis smiled at Priscilla – the girl he’d fallen for during his two years of national service in Germany, whom he’d marry five years later, and whom he’d spirited over to America under a veil of secrecy. “Do you believe this, baby?” he said. “You’re here. Who’d ever have thought we’d pull this off?” Their future lay before them – a happy one, they surely believed. Yet how many stars manage to pull that off? What a gamble Elvis’s stardom would become, his weird self-sacrificial service to his fans. Any gambler at the casino’s crap table could have told him the house nearly always wins. l
New Humanist | Spring 2019