Faith and the state of Graceland Enterprises: John Windsor joins the disciples making offerings at the shrine of Elvis Presley

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The Independent Online
ELVIS not only lives, he is a god. No selection of Elvis memorabilia is complete without relics: an Elvis toe-nail clipping, an Elvis wart, a sample of Elvis's sweat.

The 'Last Supper' painting of Elvis by a Belgian comic-strip artist of the Sixties, Guy Peellaert, is gratuitously sensational in its representation of Elvis as Christ. The record sleeve of Little Sister's EP Death Ride, designed by Bill Barminski in 1969, eight years before Presley died - 15 years ago tomorrow - bears a photograph of Elvis's face with superimposed crown of thorns, beard and halo. Other pictures show Elvis in the sky with arms outstretched.

Such explicit manifestations of 'Elvis Christ' did not exactly evolve. They were cunningly contrived for a mass market.

The turnover at Graceland Enterprises Inc, named after and based at Presley's mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, is now dollars 15m ( pounds 8m) a year. It has risen by nearly dollars 1m a year since his death (as none of his fans ever calls it).

In the mid-Eighties, federal courts in Tennessee and California conferred upon Elvis - or at least his 'image' - a legalised form of immortality. They upheld the Presley estate's claim to own his image, overturning the common-law principle that 'the dead have no rights'. Image was defined as a recognisable attribute such as name, face, gesture or manner.

So far only 12 paintings of Elvis have come to auction 10 of them by Andy Warhol, whose Triple Elvis holds the record, at pounds 1,392,405 (Sotheby's, New York, 1989), for an Elvis painting.

A David Oxtoby crayon of Elvis fetched pounds 825 at Sotheby's London in 1977 and an Oxtoby print plus three mirror portraits of Elvis are estimated at pounds 1,500 to pounds 1,600 at Phillips, London, on 25 August.

Such icons make some of the other offerings at this month's London sales of pop memorabilia look positively secular. Elvis's black 1971 Cadillac sedan, also at Phillips, is estimated at pounds 40,000 to pounds 50,000. But his transcription from memory of Theodore F Macmanus's essay The Penalty of Leadership, written on the notepaper of the Las Vegas Hilton during his last stay there in 1976 (estimated at pounds 2,000 to pounds 3,000) is the stuff of myth. Elvis was convinced that the essay, though written before his time, could have referred to him.

Professor Christine King of Staffordshire University, a specialist in religious history and the Third Reich and also a devoted Elvis fan, gives lectures on 'Elvis as religious icon'. In her essay, His Truth Goes Marching On: the Pilgrimage to Graceland (to be published in Pilgrimage in Popular Culture by Macmillan in November), she lists some of the cultural symbols that are aspects of the holy.

Surrounded by his 12 'disciples', the 'Memphis Mafia', he lived an isolated life of permanent adolescence and immortality. He avidly read the Bible and the literature of fringe religions, alternative medicine and science fiction. He appeared on stage in fantastic caped suits, to the theme music from Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. His gospel records and films expressed a crude, popular form of Christianity. He flirted with the idea of becoming a pastor.

His films sometimes sanctify him. In a chapel scene in Change of Habit, in which he plays an Albert Schweitzer-like doctor, the camera switches between Presley's face and that of Christ on the cross.

His stage style was sexually ambiguous - masculine aggression, yet expressing emotional pain, as in Heartbreak Hotel.

His legend, like that of saints and gods, has grown after his death. He is seen as a martyr to commercialism. His cult is that of the dead hero.

His fans attest that a pilgrimage to, and vigil at Graceland lifts their spirits and makes them feel young and whole. It takes four or five hours for every fan to pay tribute at the grave. The atmosphere is quiet and reverential. Elvis's recorded voice sings religious songs such as Amazing Grace. Many join their hands as in prayer. Some are in tears. There is talk of miracles.

The fan clubs act as a communion of believers doing good works. (The Elvis Presley Burning Love Fan Club of Streamwood, Illinois, has in nine years donated dollars 82,000, or pounds 43,000, to charities 'in loving memory of Elvis . . . we are just trying to return some of the love he so freely and always gave to us.') Their lives are different because they are Elvis fans.

Announcements persist from around the world that Elvis has been seen alive and well. There is an industry of paperbacks and tapes on his life and 'resurrection'. Elvisly Yours, Britain's biggest Elvis merchandiser, has opened a 2,000sq ft retail store in St Petersburg, Russia.

Some fans seriously believe there is evidence of his making secret preparations for flight and another life. They cannot allow him to die.

It is a fundamentalist following, says Professor King, 'as the guides at Graceland discover: the pilgrims know all about Elvis that there is to know. They have no questions. They understand how Elvis has been one of us and has been made special by his vocation, how he was chosen and remains holy.'

All religions thrive on devotion. But not all devotional cults are religious. Nevertheless, the chapter My Brother the Mystic, in Life with Elvis, published in 1979, by his stepbrother and bodyguard David Stanley, gives plenty of encouragement to the would-be idolater.

According to Mr Stanley, Elvis always regretted not having become a minister of the church. Even in the Seventies he would hold bible studies at Graceland. Moreover, he could heal by touch and even move clouds in the sky. When threatened with a violent thunderstorm, 'Elvis stuck his right hand out of the sunroof and started talking to the clouds. 'I order you to let us pass through'. . . and the amazing thing was that the clouds did exactly as he asked them to. They split right down the middle.'

Cognoscenti of the Elvis myth point out that he studied other religions besides Christianity. They argue among themselves over whether, at the time of his death from prescribed drugs in the bathroom at Graceland (keeling off the lavatory, according to cynics) he was reading The Face of Jesus, about the Turin shroud, or Sex and Psychic Energy.

Tomorrow, at Elvisly Yours in Shoreditch High Street, east London, 300 Elvis fans will attend a disco and lay flowers before a gilded life-size statue of Elvis made by Jon Douglas, sculptor of Guy the Gorilla at London Zoo. It is not a bit like the statue of Elvis reported to have been found on Mars by a US newspaper in 1988.

Elvisly Yours's manageress, Ann Griffiths, reckons that Elvis is the only performer to be worshipped with such devotion. Michael Jackson is quite different, she says. His entourage tell him what to do. I recalled Michael Jackson's persona and his book, Dancing the Dream, about the universe and God, and wondered whether it was another bid for deification. But then, his home is called 'Neverland'.

Life with Elvis by David Stanley ( pounds 5.95, Marc Europe,) available from Elvisly Yours, Shoreditch High Street, London E1 6JN (071- 739 20010).

Auctions of pop memorabilia in London: Phillips 12 noon 25 August (12 (071-629 6602); Christie's South Kensington 10.30am 26 August (071-321 3275); Sotheby's 10.30am 27 August (071-493 8080).

(Photograph omitted)

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