A week in books: Elvis lives
Saturday 10 August 2002
During the second half of the 20th century, which single event changed most lives around the world? The patenting of the Pill? Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin? The Sharpeville Massacre? The fall of the Berlin Wall? You might make a plausible case for each, but they all have to compete with one epochal moment on 5 July 1954.
A teenage amateur singer, who had paid the boss to cut a track a few months earlier, was fooling around in a small Memphis studio. Suddenly this no-account, white-trash wannabe shocked the musicians by launching into a 1946 song by the Chicago bluesman, Arthur Crudup. "That's all right": and so it proved to be, if not for the older Elvis Aron Presley, then at least for a global public who would find – in the tangled encounter between black American popular music and its white interpreters or entrepreneurs – a compelling soundtrack for their private and public lives.
Elvis is far too important to be left to the Elvis fans: they mimic their idol's world-denying fixations, each locked in a personal Graceland. The 25th anniversary of the King's death (or transfiguration?) on 16 August 1977 has prompted a predictable slew of cash-in titles, aimed at true believers. But sceptics can take an interest too, even if no new works begin to match the classics: Peter Guralnick's two-part biography, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; or Greil Marcus's essays in Mystery Train and Dead Elvis.
Virgin Books, for instance, has revived its anthology of interviews, mostly with bit-part players: Elvis: by those who knew him best (£18.99). The title is misleading and, rather like the trains, it crawls off in many wrong directions at a snail's pace. The 600-page slab of annotated photographs and memorabilia in Elvis: a celebration by Mike Evans (Dorling Kindersley, £25) offers far better value, with its galaxy of evocative images and archival treasures.
The two best original works stand as bookends for, on the one hand, Elvis the real-world phenomenon; and, on the other, Elvis the sanctified focus of fantasy. In the packed chapters of Elvis: the Rough Guide (£6.99), Paul Simpson expertly delivers the goods on the actual life (and after-life), the music, movies and myths. Simpson has, in addition to a keen, sane intelligence, a fine nose for trivia. Did you know that, after he thwarted the 1991 Moscow coup, Boris Yeltsin went home and sang "Are you lonesome tonight?"
Pick of the commemorative crop, however, is the chunky volume of Elvis-inspired verse by Jeremy Reed: British poetry's glam, spangly and shape-shifting answer to David Bowie. His tribute Heartbreak Hotel (Orion, £12.99) comes garlanded with praise from Björk, Edmund White, Will Self and JG Ballard. Is it merited? Well, "calorific" is the word.
Don't attempt to read these 240 (roughly chronological) pages of lyrics, odes and fantasias at once – unless you can boast a King-size appetite for the poetic equivalent of deep-fried, jelly-stuffed cheeseburgers. But if you dip and snack, Reed serves up a tasty platter of insight and inspiration, from young Elvis sexing up Lieber-Stoller ditties by "taking the chocolate wrapper off their songs" to the Fat King eyeing up a jam donut, "suctioning cubist granules/ doing ghost-cunnilingus/ or planetary reconnaissance". It's the Diet, the Drugs (Elvis's "polypharmaceutical/narcotic protocol") and, above all, the androgynous, gender-bending aspects of the Cult, that arouse Reed's muse the most.
"Elvis is on time-hold," Reed concludes, stranded in the perpetual present of the pop culture that he created. Surely, this frozen celebrity represents the reality behind those fan-sightings of the quiff and sneer, pulling pints or pumping gas: "He's always undiminished/ like it's on-stage 1956".
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