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When America Was Ruled by a King

Photo by Presley performing live at the Mississippi-Alabama Fairgrounds in Tupelo, September 26, 1956 | CC BY 2.0

America emerged out of darkness and light – a proto-nation clouded by the genocide of native Americans and the enslavement of transshipped Africans but brilliantly shot through with shafts of luminescence – the liberal ideals of European philosophers such as Locke and Hume.The alternate red and white stripes of its flag have thus come to echo a nation born in the blood of its innocent victims yet ennobled, in parallel, by the spirit of the Enlightenment. Yet even after its ideals were enshrined in The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the country continued to countenance slavery, the trading of domestic, purpose-bred Africans and the brutal killing of native peoples and their vibrant communities. Today, the historic and contemporary horrors of the American nation are ground together with its liberal principles (in some mythic bedrock mortar) to produce a culture that proclaims its goodness to its people and to the world, yet is visibly marbled with the evils of state violence against refugees and minorities, the economic oppression of a population paradoxically made comatose through over-consumption and the global havoc wreaked by its Imperial killing machine. It is this grand chiaroscuro that Eugene Jarecki explores in The King, 2018, his new documentary on the life, death and after-life of Elvis Presley, now in select release following its acclaimed debuts at the film festivals in Sundance and Cannes.

The vehicles for the film maker’s ruminations are the man, born a twin in Tupelo Mississippi, in 1935 (his brother Jessie, still-born) and his one-time car, a Rolls Royce, manufactured in Crewe, Cheshire, in 1963, an era of intense antagonism in Britain between management and labor. Both vehicles are marked by their birth – Elvis shadowed by his dead twin and his mother’s tragic love and the car ruinously assembled by bitterly resentful workers whose fellow union members went on, perhaps justifiably, to destroy the entire British automobile industry.

Elvis died at age 43, of a drug-overdose, in 1978. The car, now of a far greater age, survived its laughable lack of reliability long enough for Jarecki to capture rare footage of it running during the filming of The King. Elvis lays next to his mother in Graceland. Jessie remains buried in a by now decomposed, once beribboned shoe-box, in an unmarked grave in East Tupelo. The car will likely continue to be spared the crusher because of its royal provenance. This June, it was delivered to the new Hard Rock Hotel in Atlantic City where it will become a static part of their rock and roll memorabilia collection and thus can continue to dissemble as the epitome of regal transportation.

As the motor vehicle is trailered from Tupelo (with the occasional on-road cameo) – where a failed effort is made to identify the two room shotgun shack of Elvis’s birth; to Memphis where he grew up as a teenager in public housing and made his first records with Sam Phillips of Sun Records, including the groundbreaking work of inspired cultural appropriation, That’s all Right (Mama), written by the bluesman, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup; to Nashville where he signed with RCA and made his first gold record, Heartbreak Hotel, in 1954 – various luminaries huddle in the back seat and speak portentously about Elvis, America and the World. Jarecki’s approximate thesis is that the rise and fall of Elvis somehow reflects that of the American Empire. Chuck D, former front man of Public Enemy, wryly notes that if we accept that notion then the United States is overdosing right now. At the end of the movie, having established the King’s pill-death, the credits unfurl over an unsteady image of the watery depths of a gold-plated toilet bowl.

Thank heaven for Chuck D and the risible Rolls. As a featured back-seat talking head, he refuses to be impressed by the legend of Elvis. The Rolls refuses to operate as a functioning automobile. Each embodies their histories of oppression – of underpaid automobile line workers or, more consequentially, of his race. Elvis exists as the inauthentic commodification of an authentic culture founded in enslavement and the lash. His reward for this impersonation is riches beyond reckoning (except by his Mr. 50%, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker) but the material manifestations of his wealth are poignantly tawdry – his taste the apotheosis of the aspirational, but impoverished, Southern white.  Elvis comes by this heritage honestly. His paternal grand-father was a share cropper, his father a convicted felon, his mother a sometime two-dollars-a-day seamstress, and his maternal great, great, great-grandmother reputedly the Cherokee Indian Princess, Morning White Dove, 1800 -1835.

Emmylou Harris (who wisely avoids the Rolls’ back seat) asks at one point, why didn’t Presley drive an American car like a Cadillac? A 1963 Coupe de Ville was undoubtedly a better automobile, but it was, of course, entirely lacking in the louche appeal of the Roller. Ironically, it represented a high water-mark in the history of the American automobile at a time when Cadillac could still credibly claim to be the ‘Standard of the World’ before its precipitous decline in the 1970’s – unstaunched to this day. The Rolls represented a misguided automotive choice just at the time when Elvis’s career moves were similarly inauspicious.

Over a decade spent making (mostly forgettable) movies, at the rate of almost three a year, a marriage to a girl he began seeing when she was fourteen years old and his firm alliance with the establishment as a proud sergeant in the U.S. Army consigned Elvis to irrelevance in the foment of the 1960’s. His comeback TV special of 1968 occurred in a tumultuous year that saw escalating protests against the Vietnam War, massive student demonstrations in Paris, the rise of the Black Panther party, black power salutes from the podium at the summer Olympics, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and in the fall, the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency. Elvis found himself firmly on the wrong side of political and musical history, allied to Nixon as a faux DEA agent, mute on the Vietnam war and about to be shipped to that acropolis of has-beens, Las Vegas, where he assumed the mantle of Fat Elvis. In record breaking runs at the International and Hilton Hotels he kept the money rolling in for himself and the Colonel.

Meanwhile, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Janis Joplin had forever changed the ways in which black music might be re-interpreted, or appropriated, by white artists; Jimi Hendrix ensured the continuing relevance of the generative canon of American popular music, and a host of black musicians made music that outsold Elvis. His white face was no longer necessary in the marketing of blues, soul and rockabilly nor in the selling of its anodyne amalgam, American pop music. He had been outflanked by the societal changes initiated by the civil rights movement.

The sub-text of Jarecki’s movie, made at a time when the ascendancy of the Donald was clearly foreshadowed, is articulated by the back-seat pundit Alec Baldwin, who questions how, against all reason, we might become a nation of Trump voters. For this the Rolls has no answers. Neither, it seems, have its other back-seat pundits, Van Jones, David Simon and James Carville. In desperation, perhaps, Jarecki segues to apocalyptic footage of the Iraq Invasion, an Atomic explosion and the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Vegas years, from 1969 to 1977 were lost to Elvis in a haze of pharmaceuticals – his ballooning body encased in ever gaudier, high-collared rhinestone jumpsuits, his music parodied in mumbled renditions of his greatest hits. 1968 was the inflection point. That year was important not for Elvis’s TV special, but because it heralded a global return to some of the values of liberty, equality and freedom of religion that had made a brief appearance during the founding of this country. If Elvis established himself as a king in the America of the 1950’s, it was not only because of his startling charisma and talent in interpreting black ‘soul’ music, but also because he was a white man. More generally, all white men could see themselves as kings in that era, even the most impoverished fully secure in their racial ascendancy. By the 1960’s, that presumption was no longer tenable. In this were born the festering seeds of resentment against minorities, refugees and liberal ideology that characterize the Trump voter.

That resentment has now, ironically, been empowered by the urbanization of America, where liberal ideologies hold sway but younger populations vote less reliably. The influence of white rural voters is further aggrandized by the targeted disenfranchisement of minorities and the gerrymandering of congressional districts – such that vast areas of depopulated America are greatly over-represented in the Senate, House and Electoral College.

There is a final point that entirely eludes Jarecki and his assembled talking heads. In Tupelo, Mississippi (and elsewhere) Trump is the new Fat Elvis, a man suffused with self-loathing but who remains a cultural icon acutely attuned to the tastes and aspirations of a diminishing population across the rural spaces of this great land.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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