Elvis: the Man, the Myth, the Ghost
Presley, Elvis Aaron.
Born: Tupelo, Mississippi, January 8, 1935.
Died: Memphis, Tennessee, August 16, 1977.
Are you sure? Really, really sure? Okay, then:
Why did the Memphis medical examiner say his body was found in the bathroom in a state of rigor mortis, but the police homicide report said he was found in the bedroom merely “unconscious”?
Why hasn’t anyone claimed his life insurance policy?
How could he be photographed in the pool house behind Graceland’s Meditation Garden in December 1977?
What about all the Elvis sightings?
Were his last words really, “Honey, I’m going to the bathroom”?
Without rehashing the details of Elvis’s death at the age of 42 from a heart attack brought on by drug intake, it is safe to say that if the King were certifiably alive, he could not be any more popular.
His mansion, Graceland, continues to be visited by 500,000 people a year. His estate, valued at $4 million when he died, is worth 25 times that now. His licensed image can be found on T-shirts, ashtrays, cups, plates, and other items ranging from truly bad taste (a bourbon decanter) to the kind of patriotic approbation he always sought while he was alive (the 1987 29¢ U.S. postage stamp). The famous 1970 picture of the open-shirted Elvis shaking hands with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office remains the National Archives’s most requested photograph.
One Last Elvis Note
When the U.S. Postal Service sought to issue its 29¢ Elvis Presley stamp, there was a minor controversy over which Elvis should be pictured—the sleek, sexy, 1950s Elvis; or the paunchy, troubled, yellowed, 1970s Elvis. The USPS finally went with the former, but still drew criticism from the people who argued that since Elvis is still alive, how can he be on a stamp?
In her exhaustive 1990 exploration of the phenomenon, The Elvis Files, writer Gail Brewer-Giorgio suggests that the myth of Elvis’s non-death has become its own “regenerating” entity. There is much truth to this contention as theorists, in the book and elsewhere, claim to be able to prove that he is alive by the use of numerology, cross-referencing with biblical indices (Jesus’ age versus Elvis’s), and sightings by “credible” sources.
The most cynical reason is the most logical: Elvis would be of retirement age today, and—like Jim Morrison, James Dean, Charlie Parker, and others whose fame depends upon their youthful sex appeal—if Elvis were old, he wouldn’t be worth the price of a Moon Pie and a Coke. Yet Elvis Presley continues to sell records and influence singing styles.
An entire sub-industry of Elvis impersonators exists, which is bifurcated into “young Elvis” and “fat Elvis.” The advantage is that when young Elvis impersonators grow up and put on a couple of pounds, they can still find work as fat Elvises. Elvis impersonation contests have their own self-contained appeal, like Star Trek conventions, with the entertainment value of the competition itself overshadowing whoever wins.
Then there’s the Las Vegas preacher who dresses like Elvis and performs marriages, and an even more obscure fetish culture in which both women and straight men find themselves sexually attracted to the young Elvis with his swiveling hips, tight pants, and sensuous mouth.
The “Elvis lives” myth transcends those surrounding Dean, Monroe, Morrison, and even JFK (who, some insist, remains in a secret hospital connected to tubes). Several explanations exist, each feeding on a different human foible:
The power of Elvis’s persona and the liberating effect he had on the lives of the baby boomers have created the need to keep him alive. If Elvis is dead, so is the defining icon of an entire generation.
The ease with which just about anybody can look like Elvis suggests that his popularity may be due to his representing something in each of us, and now it’s working in the other direction.
A small group of devoted tricksters might very well be behind the Elvis sightings, much like the “crop circles” hoax or the mysterious “lady in black” who, for years, left flowers at Rudolph Valentino’s tomb.
Elvis might, indeed, have faked his own death in an effort to escape the crushing scrutiny of fame.
His mentor/manager Colonel Parker, against whom Elvis was supposedly starting to rebel, might have opportunistically drawn mists around Elvis’s death in order to exploit the value of his estate.
Elvis’s involvement with Richard Nixon raises questions about a government conspiracy (inconceivable as it sounds, Elvis, a drug addict, applied for, and was granted, clearance as an undercover narcotics agent by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency).
But the most believable reason for the “Elvis Lives” myth has nothing to do with “facts,” real or contrived. He simply was the greatest entertainer of his generation, and it’s no wonder that his generation craves the reassurance of his company, even if it has to come from beyond the grave.
Film companies are scrupulous about extracting every dime possible from a film, and one of the most durable sub-markets has been presenting them in airplanes. The only problem is that the airlines shy away from pictures that are too long, too racy, or too depressing. They also won’t show anything that has to do with plane crashes. That’s why, when they presented the 1988 Oscar-winning Rain Man, the airlines trimmed the scene in which Dustin Hoffman refuses to board a plane with his brother, Tom Cruise, unless they fly Qantas, which has the best safety record. Needless to say, the only airline company that left Rain Man intact when they showed it at 35,000 feet was Qantas.