My wife is an Elvis fan, bred into it by her parents. Walking through our house, you can find at least one Elvis-related item in most rooms. I had a TCB lightning bolt tattooed over my heart for her. We live in Atlanta, and had planned to go New York to get married. The Obergefell decision came down a few weeks into our wedding planning, and once we could marry anywhere, my wife was insistent that we go to Vegas and be quickie married by an Elvis impersonator — excuse me, “tribute artist”.
So we scrapped our original plan and went to the Viva Las Vegas chapel. We busted through its double-doors in a pink Cadillac, driven by our Elvis, to the tune of “That’s All Right (Mama)”, as surely countless others had done before us. It was strangely communal, beyond the usual wedding fare. Imagine my delight in seeing a description of this ceremony described at length of page 142 of Ted Harrison’s The Death and Resurrection of Elvis Presley.
The life and work of Elvis has been thoroughly excavated since his death in 1977 at the young age of 42, but the absence of any new information about his lifetime has not stemmed the tide of new books about Elvis, because there’s a cornucopia of ways to discuss dead Elvis. The “dead Elvis” genre is by turns creepy, super sad, hilarious, and inspirational. Harrison presents all facets in a manner that verges on objective, with enough polite, British distance to give most grotesqueries of the posthumous shenanigans a fair shake. This book begins by following the money and ends by following the followers. Harrison is clearly more interested in Elvis as a cult figure, but it’s difficult to jump into that material without some historical understanding of how his estate has shifted and grown from the ’70s to the present.
Following the money trail gives a clear picture of the known-knowns. “Ever one for a quick buck, [Colonel Parker] calculated, correctly, that Elvis was worth more dead than alive” (229). After the initial shock of Presley’s debts and dwindling bank account, there was a long legal battle for control of the estate in which his manager successfully cheated the family out of millions before he could be made to go away. Many assets were bundled and sold, much more money was still needed to turn his home into a museum to generate future income, and power was consolidated into the hands of a few people.
Elvis Presley Enterprises was formed and various kinds of licensing and rights were shuffled around in order to generate as much cash as possible. In short, we are facing the unavoidable prospect of concerts featuring hologram Elvis, maybe even paying a premium to make out with him in the brave new world of virtual reality, perhaps eventually Elvis clones.
The money keeps flowing because the fans fork it over. This is the great known-unknown: the modern era of Elvis fandom is vast yet unquantifiable. Anecdotally, we can say that people all over the planet recognize his face and voice. “Yet in trying to assess how many fans there are worldwide, how does one define a fan? Are fans those who simply like his music? Does a fan also need to have bought an Elvis item at some time to qualify? Is a true fan only someone who has made the trip to Graceland or been to hear a tribute artist?” (99). There are all kinds of levels of Elvis fandom, from fairly casual to the somewhat more focused version offered by my wife and our wedding, to collectors and conspiracy theorists, and finally to extreme religious fanatics.
Somewhere between my wedding and the Church of Elvis are the tribute artists. Harrison details the disciplined authenticity with which these artists practice their craft and the long hours of study it takes to do so. There’s also some consideration of the small scale capitalism of the endeavor, the way tribute artists profit from Presley’s memory while simultaneous paying it their utmost respects. Beyond the tribute artists is the religious appropriation of Elvis, a wheelhouse that Harrison has been camped out in for more than 20 years.
In 1993, Harrison published Elvis People: The Cult of the King, and then its fictional, satirical counterpart, King Clone in 2012. His interpretation of the motley crew of Elvis-orbiting worshippers is a generous and open-minded one. “[Religion] is about what people do, the rituals they perform, the stories they tell, to try to make sense of their own lives and to discover the underpinning purpose, if there is one, of life. […] It is about the music and images people turn to in order to explore the deeper mysteries of existence” (156).
These are people who view music as a connective tissue and Elvis as a charismatic figure, generally on the model of Jesus. Many of them began in more traditional sects of Christianity and took a turn for pop culture somewhere along the way. Some of them were skeptical of religious institutions to begin with and have established private, personal Elvis-related prayers and practices that fulfill a type of secular humanism. On the whole, Harrison depicts them as harmless but sometimes wacky, earnest but often too self-serious, generous but somewhat overbearing. The individuals are alright but the corporations face some harsh words:
“Today, what fans understand about Elvis in spiritual terms is not a concern of Elvis Presley Enterprises, as long as it does not impede the flow of revenue. It might not have been a deliberate marketing strategy, but in reality the spirituality of Elvis has been successfully disciplined and organized by the commercial arm of the Presley estate, and income streams remain strong. EPE does not need to understand the spiritual side of the Elvis phenomenon. It just needs to go with and monitor the flow. […] Elvis in the modern world is a brand as well as an icon” (191).
The Death and Resurrection of Elvis Presley presents a multilayered, fascinating sense of the means by which the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll continues to supersaturate American culture. Nobody else has ever come close — neither John Lennon nor Michael Jackson, no movie stars, no presidents or priests. “[Greil] Marcus went to the outer edges of fandom in a book in which, over twenty years ago, he identified the dead Elvis as a social metaphor. When Elvis died, Marcus suggested, many people found themselves caught up in the adventure of remaking his history, or rather reinventing their own” (247). Elvis has as big a life as one can possibly get after death. Harrison’s most recent foray into the matter shows how an empty signifier of the King continues to evolve in substance.