Elvis Healed?!?! A Report from His Memphis Conference
Issue #39, September 1998
The Fourth Annual International Conference on Elvis Presley, held at the Radisson Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee August 9-12, had the theme "Are You Lonesome Tonight? Elvis and the Dysfunctional Family." The conference schedule promised to tackle "a sensitive topic often too painful for Elvis's loyal following to discuss but one that promises to reveal much truth about the present age he exemplifies...to engage a subject heretofore confined to sensational journalism: Elvis's self-destructive cycles of addiction, depression, violence, boredom and obesity, ultimately resulting in premature death."
Elvis Presley's evocative recordings and performances are now too often overshadowed by the gross self-parody he became. In his later years, he was given the adulation of a bespangled healer (women collected the scarves he ritually tossed them from the Las Vegas stage). Yet, nine years after the comeback special that proved he could still kick butt as a rock n' roller, he died drugged, obese and on the toilet. The conference schedule asked "Was Elvis, at the end of his life, just a man out of control, or is he a sign of the times?" It might as well have asked if his life healed or helped anybody, or if Elvis was himself only a hurt and broken thing, desperately in need of healing.
Working within a broad definition of "Dysfunctional Family", the question was approached from numerous directions. Several of the presenters focused on Elvis's psyche, or the psychohistory of his times. Richard Koenigsberg, a psychologist and publisher of the Library of Social Science in New York City, presented "I Move, Therefore I Am: Elvis, Rock n' Roll and the Liberation of the American Body." Koenigsberg recounted how early rock n' roll and the Motown sound signaled a break from the physical rigidity expected of young white people in the previous decade. Koenigsberg's enthusiasm inspired his descriptions of dancing Mickey's Monkey to Smokey Robinson as he cited Sigmund Freud.
Koenigsberg, in his mid-50s, endeavored to convince younger members of the audience that a more liberal attitude towards body movement in the 1960s could be credited to the public, pelvic moves of Elvis Presley and other rock n' rollers of his generation. He argued that this in turn helped bring about a more liberal attitude in America towards race, civil rights and sexuality. I kept expecting him to cite Wilhelm Reich, who in The Mass Psychology of Fascism links internalized sexual suppression to suppression of the proletariat's will to rebel, but Koenigsberg didn't. He also neglected to mention James Brown, another southern entertainer contemporaneous with Elvis, who has always danced onstage in an expressive but extremely disciplined way. Like an athlete, Brown's movements are more than merely loosening the hips and legs but instead the fluid, masterful control of those limbs.
Tuesday morning was filled with a two-part presentation "Elvis and Substance Abuse: Was It Inevitable?" Michael Cole has recently graduated from Rutgers University with a self-designed major in "Elvis Studies," while his wife Ann Milano-Cole is a therapist at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Jersey City, New Jersey. Both drew upon the literature and case histories of bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic-depression. After three-quarters of an hour that included zodiacal examinations of Elvis's birthdate and Kabbalistic interpretations of Elvis's name, Michael's energetic talk frayed into a flurry of evocative non-sequitors: "Apply numerology to Elvis until he shoots out the TV...Like Bob Marley worked to unify all Jamaica, Elvis won awards for ogling women...Lithium is the salt in the well to Graceland's old-money stubbornnaires." Ann Milano-Cole then authoritatively took the stage to explain that Michael's meds for his own bipolar disorder had not yet been entirely stabilized, while hers had. She then provided a list of family-of-origin conditions that often precede bipolar disorder, many of which were present in Elvis Presley's strained, disrupted boyhood home.
In other presentations, culture and the arts were presented as ad-hoc coping, personal or social healing strategies. As in literature, working-class content is momentarily fashionable in the fine arts and their galleries and museums. Take, for example, the assemblages of dirty teddy bears by Mike Kelley orthe honest, wordy paintings by Reverend Howard Finster. Sometimes such content is presented by an elitist artist with a Postmodernist dose of ironic disdain, or sometimes (as in my own Elvis mural) the painter is trying to find imagery for a range of collective content and involvement with it. In the past two decades the subject of Elvis Presley has been treated by artists satirically, with fannish adulation, and with varying degrees of critical distance inbetween.
"Down-Home Double-Wide: Exceeding Function and the Function of Excess in Mobile Home Modifications" was a fairly traditional academic talk by Assistant Professor David Perkes of the Mississippi State University School of Architecture. Perkes presented slides detailing various alterations in form and color to mobile homes around the rural south. Even though he occasionally pointed out which homes belonged to black and which to white southerners, he somehow left the audience with the impression he never set foot inside one or shared a beer with an inhabitant.
I gave a talk, "Guitar Army Brat and Three-Chord Murals," discussing twenty years of collaborative artforms, rock n' roll motifs and simplified community artwork processes. The talk was intended to set the stage for the development of an 8' x 8' mural panel, "Transistor Healing Elvis," at the three-day conference. Elvis's unhappy mother Gladys was depicted as a rotund guitar in which Elvis and his stillborn twin Jesse were fetal parts of a yin-yang in her abdominal soundhole. The schematic microphone Elvis sang into was hooked up to his burning, star-spangled heart. A unifying design of semiconductor circuitry schematics (like the transistor radios which did much to carry forth Elvis' voice) was intended to serve as a metaphor of connectedness, though it was also interpreted by Koenigsberg as confining and imprisoning Presley.
Though early attempts to generate discussion and begin planning the project online only got me flamed ("We don't want a Piss Christ in Memphis"), in person, conference participants cheerfully painted or suggested imagery to include around the border of the mural. The owner of Tupelo Hardware, where Elvis bought his first guitar, showed me t-shirts with pictures of the guitar, while someone else sketched the mobile home on the edge of Elvis's estate in which daughter Lisa Marie was probably conceived. Three portraits of Elvis were added by a Florida art student who confessed he had bipolar syndrome. Imagery of Cadillac hubcaps, the Holy Bible ("He loved it so"), fried banana sandwiches and the Columbus, Mississippi toilet seat on which Elvis died were suggested by women in their sixties (Elvis Presley would have been 63 this year). The grisaille panel was completed by the final day of the conference and will be installed in the Memphis Greyhound Bus Station.
In "Behind the Red Curtain: Elvis as Warhead of the Nuclear Family" Mike Rodger of Berlin, Germany, citing recently declassified documents, discussed how during the Cold War various Elvis Presley Fan Clubs in East Germany were subject to much government surveillance. Parallels were drawn by Rodger and by Vernon Chadwick to J. Edgar Hoover-initiated F.B.I. files on Presley and other rock n' rollers in the United States. In an era where each streetcorner sound, garage band and basement tapedeck beat is so quickly commodified and sold back to us, it only sounds romantic to hear RCA recording artist Elvis hailed as a symbol of rebellion. Yet the security forces's own documents prove that for them and their suspects, he most certainly was. He was hailed as a symbol of rebellion in nations of both the First and Second World. This talk continues an internationalist theme introduced by Ugandan-born Peter Nazareth who spoke at the first Presley conference in 1995 on Elvis' and other American country musicians' importance to students in the Third World.
Vernon Chadwick, Director of the Institute of the Living South that puts on the annual International Conference on Elvis Presley, concluded with a history of the event we had attended. That history is rooted in Chadwick's conviction that a significant way to seriously examine issues of race, class, region (the Southern U.S.) and various other aspects of culture is to begin with the pivotal figure of Elvis. The conferences prove that the life and times of Elvis and the myths that accrued around him — some promulgated by his management — are rich subjects for cultural studies today. Next year's Conference intends to discuss Elvis' communications with U.S. Presidents Nixon and Carter, and his influence upon fellow Southerner Clinton.
As an aside, the flashflood of international media attention for the first conference at the University of Mississippi where Chadwick taught in 1995 cost him his shot at tenure there. (The Unversity's refusal to grant Chadwick tenure, revealed Old Miss to be one more instance of "The Big House", white-columned respectability that methodically hides and squelches the true, roiling diversity of the region.) The event's main papers, oral presentations, and exhibited artworks were collected by Chadwick in In Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Art, Religion (Westview Press, 1997). The Third International Conference was held in 1997 at the Memphis College of Art, which inconveniently withdrew support promised for this year's event at the last minute. That year diehard Elvis fans had threatened to "burn down the school" because of some depictions of Presley they found less than reverential in the accompanying Elvis-themed art exhibit.
America's racial split, that Elvis supposedly hoped to see healed (though with seemingly little effort on his part, little more than his late-1960s sentimental song "In the Ghetto"), remains evident, as no African-Americans attended the conference. Gospel groups had been brought to the second conference in 1996 on "Elvis and the Sacred South." It remains to be seen if Elviscentrism can now help to patch up differences in multicultural America. After all, there is already room for the Latino El Vez and lesbian Elvis Herselvis. But for now, Elvis has left the building.
This past June a wino stumbled on a San Francisco bus, looked at artist Mike Mosher and muttered "Elvis with a moustache? I don't think so."