[14 August 2002]
“All seems infected that th’infected spy,
As all looks
—he jaundic’d eye.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on
The commercial cliche’ that is Elvis Presley never ceases to create new entertainment opportunities. Now Lisa Marie is going to marry Nicholas Cage. Why should we know that? Why should we care? The irrelevancy of personal information regarding all things Presley is something to consider. Monetary gains for media moguls and family members aside, what is gained from such knowledge? Nothing, it’s just one more item for the brain to store in the folder labled “Trivial Crap”. Right there in the third drawer in the mental filing cabinet, the file folder right behind “Times the Neighbor’s Cat Walked Down Your Windshield.”
Pop idols are recognizable. They ground us with their familiarity. We are centered by the bi-polar existence of our idol worship. Revere the idol or sneer at the masses who visit Graceland. It’s all about what trips your trigger. Elvis trips quite a few. After all these years, this guy floating among the dead still creates a frenzy like he did when he was gyrating with the quick. Then again, so did Mozart in the movie Amadeus and he’d been dead a hell of a lot longer than twenty-five years when they made that flick. Now there was a pop idol, that Wolfie! But I digress.
In keeping with the twenty-five year festival of the dead guy, we can’t help but review one of the many unremarkable tomes about the King. The best in Elvis biography, Peter Gurainick’s excellent two-part biography, Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999) has been reviewed so many times another mention would be irrelevant. With some exceptions, after reading Gurainick’s duo, the Elvis literary experience generally goes downhill. ECW’s latest Elvis book, Schmelvis: In Search of Elvis Presley’s Jewish Roots, is worth a mention. It’s not the worst book about the King. [That honor probably goes to Albert Goldman’s Elvis (1981).] It is, though, pretty strange.
Schmelvis. Seriously. It’s a Canadian book, a filmmakers’ journal, written by two fine Jewish fellows who were determined to prove, that the American South is filled with racist Jew-hating bigots who would kick anyone’s ass upon the suggestion that Elvis was Jewish. The book chronicles their trip southward from Montreal, via Winnebago down Hwy. 61, to the home of the King—the place where his soul resides, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee. But you knew that, without me writing it, that Graceland was in Memphis, Tennessee. See how you’ve stored useless knowledge? See how pervasive Elvis’ influence is upon your life?
Max Wallace [former prizewinner of the Rolling Stone Magazine for Investigative Journalism] and Jonathan Goldstein [producer with This American Life on WBEZ radio in Chicago], are two filmmakers who team up with Evan Beloff [whose Aunt Pearlie provides the initial financing for the venture], Ari Cohen, Schmelvis, a Hasidic Jewish Elvis impersonator, and Rabbi Reuben Poupko. The Rabbi flies to Memphis and rents a Cadillac, the rest of the group drives down in the Winnebago. The footage of the trip is online on their website.
Much to the filmmakers’ disappointment, Southerners don’t really care if Elvis was Jewish. The Elvis Worshippers they meet are polite, nice people who are seeminly immune to the Canadians snide comments and questions about tattoos and racism. This is devastating to Goldstein and Beloff, who really want to get their ass kicked in order to prove their southern bigotry theory. Most of the book is spent detailing the road trip and the inability of six men to live together in a Winnebago. Passages are written by all members of the film crew, some in diary form, poems, dialogue and notes.
When the filmmakers discover there isn’t enough information in Elvis’ Jewish heritage in the Southern Blues Holy Land, Memphis, they travel to Israel, the real Holy Land, in search of more truth.
From the director’s log:
When we set out for Memphis, we thought we would find a city seething with rednecks pissed off to discover Elvis was a Jew. That ws supposed to provide the film with its real drama.
But when we got here, something odd happened. Every southerner and Elvis fan we met, except Jerry Falwell’s goddaughter, was kind, tolerant, and completely the opposite of every stereotype we had ever encountered.
Before we got here we believed all the stories [about Elvis}... Within days, however, we discovered that’s all a load of crap. By all accounts, Elvis was a truly good guy ...
Today it dawned on me ... we are the actual rednecks. It’s a little disconcerting.
The photography in the book is blurry and indistinct. Amateurish and disappointing. Except for one glorious reprint of Elvis’s head superimposed on Christ’s body. I expected to laugh through this book, to be thoroughly entertained by the antics of the Winnebago driving filmmakers and their Hasidic Elvis. I wasn’t. The last few paragraphs illustrate the irrelevancy of the entire experience:
Schmelvis and I [Jonathan] sat at the kitchen table. As the RV pulled out, we pressed the bottoms of our beer cans hard against the table.
“You know,” said Schmelvis, “I don’t even care if Elvis is Jewish or not.”
“What about your spiritual quest?” I asked.
“Elvis was a loser,” he said. “He never knew who he was. He died on a toilet. He’s dead now, God rest his soul.”
Schmelvis put on his Elvis sunglasses and took a pull from his beer.
The RV toilet stand like hell and I wasn’t the type to pee out the window. I crossed my legs real tight.
“Stop the Winnebago,” I yelled up front. “Stop the goddamn Winnebago!”
By the way, Elvis Presley’s great-grandfather, White Mansell, married Martha Tackett in 1870. Her mother, Nancy Burdine, was a full-blooded Jew who probably came from a family that immigrated from Lithuania, probably aroudn the time of the American Revolution. Just so you know, Elvis was Jewish. Elvis’ mother, Gladys, died in 1959 while Elvis was in the US Army and stationed in Germany. His father bought a headstone with bearing a Christian crucifix. Around 1970, Elvis had a Jewish Star of David added to the headstone.
Other than proof of the Jewish lineage in Elvis’ family, there’s little to be learned from reading this book—unless it’s a revelation to find out that not every Caucasian in the South is a white-trash, illiterate, redneck, stupid bigot. Like when I found out New Yorkers aren’t rude. And ... do me a favor ... if you’re one of the 70,000+ pilgrims attending the candlelight vigil at Graceland this week, please ... say hello to the King for me.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/schmelvis/