The Elvis Mystery

By: Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
June 12, 2003 - 11:20:00 AM
Elvis Articles, By Paul Simpson


Elvis' stepbrother David Stanley admitted the other day that even he found it hard to explain why his big brother was so enduringly popular. Speaking at the launch of what looks like being a half-decent exhibition called Fingerprints Of Elvis (due to open in Liverpool's Albert Docks this summer), he said 'People ask me 'why Elvis?' And I say 'I dunno why and if I knew what it was about Elvis I'd bottle it and put in a jar so we could all become rich'.'

Yet, in his roundabout way, maybe David Stanley (who spent 17 years at Graceland and attended 1100 concerts with the King) had answered the question. The continuing fascination with the life and music of Elvis Aron Presley may largely be explained by the fact that, as music writer and biographer Nick Tosches put it so eloquently, 'Elvis Presley is a mystery that will never be solved'.

Why Elvis? is one of the oldest questions fans have had to grapple with. In some ways, the answer is very obvious - the enduring power (and the incredible versatility) of the music he left behind. To those privileged few who saw him at his best in concert, the answer may be more obvious still. Yet behind the music, the concerts, and the best of the movies, is a personality even more elusive than Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia, 'a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma'.

You can read all the books you want about Elvis -the biographies by Peter Guralnick or Elaine Dundy, or the testimony of friends, family and musicians - but you'll probably find that even if you solve the riddle you're still left with a mystery and an enigma. Auctioneer Ted Owen, who tracked down many Elvis artefacts for the Fingerprints exhibition, admitted that, although he'd been an Elvis fan in the 1950s, only when he started collecting and selling items of memorabilia did he become fascinated by the story'.Elvis' life and death is the ultimate story of fame and its consequences', he told me. The greatest story - if you'll forgive the hint of blasphemy - which has never yet been told to everyone's satisfaction.

By accumulating Elvis artefacts, Owen began to understand the contradictions at the heart of the man. 'Here is a man who might well have been happiest if he had really been a sheriff of Shelby County', says Owen, 'who collected police badges and guns yet pored over Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a book of mysticism me and my far out hippie friends were reading in the late 1960s'.

The contradictions don't end there. Some are more well-known than others - he was a famously god-fearing polite southern boy who loved his mamma yet who, in the 1950s, was demonised as a bigger threat to Western society than the Communist Party.

A man portrayed by his most notorious biographer (Albert Goldman) as an idiot who stumbled into success by ripping off black artists yet who impressed those ultimate hipsters Leiber and Stoller with the breadth and depth of his knowledge of black musicians.

A man who - if he didn't invent rock and roll - was the single most powerful force behind its worldwide domination yet who, in the albums of 'at home' recordings released since his death, sounds happiest when he's sitting around the piano pretending to be Dean Martin and only won Grammy awards in his lifetime for his gospel music.

Even those like David Stanley who were lucky enough to know Elvis remain, for all their access and insight, almost as mystified as us ordinary fans. Memphis mafioso Lamar Fike put it best when he said 'they couldn't put a maze in a castle like what was in Elvis' mind'. Read all the books and it becomes harder to say what kind of person Elvis was, not easier. Here's an exercise you can do at home. Write down every adjective you've read or heard applied to Elvis. You'll soon have a list as long as the list of his achievements and many adjectives will directly contradict others.

Last year the British rock magazine Mojo put Elvis on its cover, referring to him as 'rock's one true star'. And that wasn't hyperbole. If stardom rests, in part, on the suggestion of intimacy and the retention of mystery, no star has shone as brightly, or as enigmatically, as Elvis.

Elvis singing Clambake is, as Nick Tosches once said, more deeply mysterious than Bob Dylan uttering hermetic homilies. Much of Elvis' power is that he had for real what many rock stars since have had to fake: a personality so varied, contradictory and chameleon-like as to be almost unknowable. 

It seems appropriate that Mystery Train has become one of his most legendary performances. Because to try to understand Elvis is to hitch a ride on the longest running mystery train in the entertainment business.

About the author: Paul Simpson is author of the acclaimed book, The Rough Guide To Elvis.

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