[This essay first appeared on the Electic Review website.]
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, Elvis Aaron Presley amazed a significant proportion of the world’s population by being found dead, aged 42, on the floor of a bathroom in Graceland, his house in Memphis, Tennessee. The King of Rock & Roll had died of a heart attack. Even for those who had never followed his music with any particular interest, his death was one of those rare ‘I remember where I was when I heard that …’ moments, because over the course of those short few decades he had imposed himself as a sort of inescapable fact of American cultural life, like Superman or Bugs Bunny or Barbie or Uncle Sam, and like them, he seemed exempt from the mundane facts of life and death. All of this meant that the notion of a world without Elvis was somehow mildly shocking. Of course, in the intervening quarter century, much of the shock has worn off. The King is dead – long live the King’s records, his films, his family, his estate, its various enterprises, the Graceland theme park, other theme parks, the endless stream of biographies and imitators and cover-versions – and of course the many, many fans who continue to demand all these things and more.
Yet there is one point about Elvis’s legacy which rarely receives the sort of attention it merits. Elvis’s life was, at one level, conspicuous for its lack of explicit political activity – so much so that it takes an effort of will to remember how very easily this might have been otherwise. It is a truism that the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who – followed swiftly by that of the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, among many others – is integrally connected in all sorts of ways, intentional and otherwise, with the political and cultural radicalism of the 1960s, the so-called sexual revolution, the various youth movements and anti-war movements, a receptive attitude towards drug use and a general preference for libertarian values over liberal or conservative ones. We now take it for granted both that celebrities will use whatever media stature they have to promote political or ideological ends, and that these will rarely be conservative ends. Indeed, this has become such a clichéd position that when someone from an indie band pours a bucket of ice-water over the Deputy Prime Minister, or endorses a terrorist group, it hardly even registers. Yet it was not so long ago that such actions really did make an impact. Media-savvy John F. Kennedy surrounded himself with film stars and other cultural celebrities, hoping to bask in their reflected glamour, much as Tony Blair would do later and less successfully during his embarrassing ‘Cool Britannia’ phase. But when Elvis’s fellow Southerner Cassius Marcellus Clay converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammed Ali and made a very public decision to dodge the draft, explaining succinctly as he did so that ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong’, all these actions attracted enormous public attention. Elvis was, if anything, more famous than all these people put together, yet his approach to political activity was almost invariably circumspect and rather self-effacing. He was adamant that his music was about entertainment – that, and nothing else.
Elvis’s personal politics were, instead, articulated largely through his actions, rather than his words. His actions, in turn, need to be seen in the context of his background. Some celebrities seek to disguise or alternatively to transcend their cultural roots. Elvis, in contrast, never seemed less than entirely at home with the cultural milieu that had produced him. He was born a poor white Southern boy, and in some sense, no matter how many tours he undertook and how much money he made, he never left off being a poor white Southern boy. His virtues were those of the poor white God-fearing South, and so were his vices. He was, in other words, respectful of authority, quick-tempered, easily moved to tears, sympathetic, courteous, anti-intellectual, reserved, loyal, generous almost to the point of compulsion, devout, impulsive, patriotic, home-loving, traditional, sensual, self-critical, melancholic, decent and far more inclined towards excess than to the bourgeois virtue of self-control. Oddly, yet happily, his Southern background does not seem to have included racial hatred, the historic blight of his age and people.
It will be seen that many of Elvis’s qualities are those traditionally associated with conservatism. In some ways, these conservative qualities may be seen to have been at variance with the nature of his career. The lean, raw, forthright sexuality of his early work shocked many at the time, and remains startlingly potent half a century later. His willingness to appropriate ‘negro’ ways of singing and dancing was transgressive and radical. His ability to meld traditionally distinct musical genres (country, gospel, R&B) required imagination as well as personal charisma and considerable intuitive musical skill. Thus he appeared to challenge proprieties relating both to sexual behaviour and the racial and social distinctions upon which his society was organised, and perhaps in challenging them, he played a part, however indirect and even inadvertent, in their eventual transformation. Yet despite this, throughout his life his attitudes towards sex, marriage, family and gender roles remained classically those of conservative Southern culture. Though receptive to the great wealth of the American black gospel tradition and to the musical legacy of Beale Street, he took no part in the civil rights movement. The uncomplicated patriotism which caused him to accept military conscription (1958-1960) with good humour and without demands for special treatment, his evident respect for those in high office, and his consistent and wholly conventional Christian faith make clear that he was no social radical.
And then there are matters of style, which so often are a better indication of innate conservatism than any conscious pronouncement. Old-fashioned Southern courtesy – by no means limited to the planter aristocracy of the old South – stayed with him. To the end of his life, when he was both rich beyond imagining and one of the most famous men on earth, he still addressed old friends as ‘ma’am’ or prefixed their names with ‘Mrs’, even in conversation; Graceland, the house he bought as much for his family as for himself at the tender age of 22 is as solid an example of retro-plantation style, looking back to early eighteenth century architectural idioms, as one could possibly imagine; he remained in his own home town, surrounded by his rather dowdy group of childhood friends, long after most multi-millionaire international superstars would have abandoned both. Even his music had its conservative moments – ‘Love Me Tender’, for instance, benefited from a melody which had previously sounded across the encampments of the Crimea and the American War Between the States – effectively managing to turn traditional forms to imaginative present-day uses.
And for what it’s worth, Elvis’s most notorious foray into political activity, his encounter with Richard Nixon, confirms this cumulative impression of small-c, instinctive conservatism. In 1970 Elvis sent a six-page handwritten letter to President Nixon, asking for a meeting ‘just to say hello if you’re not too busy’, but more substantially to suggest that he be made a ‘Federal Agent at Large’ in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. His actual language is interesting, as he suggests that although his role as an entertainer places him outside the ‘establishment’, this is in fact where his true loyalties lie:
The drug culture, the hippie element, the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], Black Panthers etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they all it the establishment. I call it American and I love it.
His language also suggests that he sees illicit drug use as connected with broader counter-cultural and anti-American activities, which by implication he deplores. Slightly oddly, perhaps, he writes that
I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.
The meeting itself seems to have passed off successfully – certainly some memorable photographs exist to document it – and Elvis made sure to stress his desire to do his ‘duty’ by his country, his family and friends. Nixon apparently ordered a badge to be made up for him.
What can be said about this meeting? On one level, it represented an attempt by Elvis to add to his collection of badges and to spend time with the President of the United States. Yet it also says something about Elvis’s political predilections. Although on the face of it the idea of making Elvis a ‘Federal Agent at Large’ may sound ridiculous, it is in fact no more so than the oft-professed desire of various contemporary celebrities to attain the rank of UNESCO Special Ambassadors. To others it may also sound hypocritical. Elvis was no stranger to drug use, although certainly by the end of his life his troubles were with prescription medications and legal diet drugs, rather than with illicit substances. But this, to some extent, misses the point. By the 1970s, popular culture was crowded with those who had generalised out from their own personal experience of drug use towards a libertarian position which not only tolerated drug use but which embraced it as a sort of sacrament on the way to a society that was at once more peaceful and more amenable to self-expression. Elvis, on the other hand, might personally have used and even enjoyed illicit drugs, but showed no desire to dismantle the societal norms which discourage drug-taking and which seek to prevent its assumed cultural consequences. This is echoed, perhaps, in the fact that Elvis believed strongly in marriage whilst at the same time conducting extra-marital affairs. And both these stances are, perhaps, less paradoxical than firmly rooted in the decentralised and Bible-centred Calvinism of his early upbringing and its insistence on the fallen nature of mankind. Laws exist – whether made by God or by man – and an inability to live up to them does nothing to invalidate the laws themselves. Elvis once said something very striking about his public persona: ‘the image is one thing and the human being is another … it’s very hard to live up to an image’. Living a virtuous life is no easier. It is hard to imagine that Elvis had much confidence in the earthly perfectibility of man – an immaculately conservative position.
At the same time, Elvis’s attitude towards wealth and charity also had powerfully conservative overtones. His own life comprised the sort of ‘poor boy done good’ narrative which has spawned a million American dreams. Brought up in a two-room shack built by his faintly n’ere-do-well father in the midst of the Great Depression, he was raised largely by his God-fearing mother, was a dutiful if not a remarkable student, and planned to train as an electrician before that first recording contract intervened. At that point he made money, virtually inconceivable amounts of money, almost more quickly than can be imagined. And when he finally had money, his first inclination was to spend it with an endearing aplomb. Legends abound about what he did with his money – paid for his first Cadillac in cash, bought enough televisions that he could afford to shoot out the screen when a programme irritated him, sent his private jet to take his California-based toddler daughter to Nevada so that she could spend half an hour playing in the snow. Yet many of the legends relate to the largesse he showered not just on family and old friends, but on every random sponger and hanger-on. He gave lavishly and sometimes thoughtfully to charities. He had earned his own fortune, but seems to have been genuinely concerned that others should be able to ‘raise themselves up’ in the same way that he had done. There is a degree of mawkish sentimentality, of the sort too evident from ‘In the Ghetto’, involved in all of this; there is also an inescapable note of quasi-feudal clientage tied up in these family-centred, durable, loyalty-based relationships. What cannot be denied, however, is that the paternalism implicit in all of this is entirely conservative in tone. Elvis constructed an hierarchical mini-society with himself at the middle of it but took a real interest in the well-being of its members. This is not invariably true of pop-star entourages.
The profusion of Elvis’s detractors is on one level unsurprising given the vastness of his fame, but at another level, the nature of their criticism raises questions of its own. At home, much of it is naked social snobbery; abroad, Elvis’s eminence seems to attract storms of crudely anti-American caricature. Elvis’s critics are drawn to his later years, in which they conjure up a grotesque image of bloated, drug-addled, fast-food guzzling dissolution – sequinned jump-suits straining across the sweaty bulk beneath – in a scene finished off with a retinue of 14-year old girls and redneck hangers-on. It is not an attractive picture.
But if one strips this grotesque vision down to its constituent parts, what does one find? To a large extent, it is the story of someone who managed to propel himself from rural poverty to international celebrity without finding it necessary to affect the sophisticated cosmopolitan manners and aesthetic predilections of America’s ruling elites. In salons of mid-town Manhattan a white sequinned jumpsuit looks vulgar and pointless; in the rural South, its extravagant uselessness, its refulgent unsuitability for hard work, its complete adherence to the aesthetic over the practical signals a dream-world of luxe, calme et volupté. In the world of Ally McBeal and her glossy professional colleagues, excess weight is evidently tantamount to sheer moral evil; Elvis’s epic midnight feasts, on the other hand, may have satisfied some need in a life which had almost certainly begun amid genuine, health-threatening hunger. Few of us can hope to be as lean and as lithe in our 40s as we were in our early 20s; Elvis continued to tour not because he needed or wanted the money, but rather because he realised, entirely correctly, that his tours made his fans extremely happy, and hence he felt – to use a very typical Elvis word, however quaint it may sound to modern ears – a ‘duty’ to do what he could for them. Doubtless the extra weight and the diet drugs were not particularly good for him, but neither was the considerable physical strain of touring. Elvis may well have died, at least in part, of sheer hard work. And as for the ‘criticism’, if one can call it that, that he died on the toilet, as if this were somehow a reflection on his general worthiness as a human being – well, anyone who knows anything about death knows that it is rarely dignified, rarely attractive, and rarely what those involved would have chosen. Few of us know how or when or in what condition we shall meet our Maker. Those who condemn Elvis for this really should fall silent in shame.
Elvis, would, I suspect, have shrunk from being called a hero of conservatism – and not just because his innate modesty would probably have balked at the word ‘hero’, either. Certainly he did not shout about his politics. There is a sense, however, in which his lack of interest in political activity, his unwillingness to articulate a political position, his desire simply to get on with his very public career and his relatively private life, reflect in aggregate a conservatism all the more profound for being unselfconscious, instinctive and confident – not a position adopted in response to other positions, but one which had become reflexive before any alternatives were encountered or acknowledged. Elvis knew who he was, and where he had come from, and never dissimulated about either. His best work – his better songs, films and live performances – benefited from this certainty. Elvis might initially have worried parents and set schoolgirls screaming, but even at its most nakedly sexual, his performances were a form of entertainment projected against a background of assumed Christian morality and a fairly rigidly ordered society. His aspirations for his music were modest. Unlike Bob Dylan or John Lennon or the Clash or many other musicians, he did not wish or expect his art to change the world. And at a time of unsettling transitions for Americans – Korea, Vietnam, the civil unrest of the 1960s and early 70s, Watergate, the long slide from post-war self-confidence to something much less comfortable – this gave his work a formidable staying-power. With hindsight, his calm moral certainties look all the more reassuring. Of course he also had charisma, good looks, a magically attractive voice and a shrewd sense of what his audience – whom he regarded with respect – wanted to hear from him. Half a century after he began recording, and a quarter of a century after he died, they still want to hear it. The King is dead – long live the King.
Bunny Smedley is ERO’s Arts Editor.