Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Elvis and reading

I cannot improve on this caption, from here: "Of all the requests made each year to the National Archives for reproductions of photographs and documents, one item has been requested more than any other. That item, more requested than the Bill of Rights or even the Constitution of the United States, is the photograph of Elvis Presley and Richard M. Nixon shaking hands on the occasion of Presley's visit to the White House."

This being a blog about, in part, reading and its pleasures, it seems appropriate that on this, Elvis Presley's birthday, we pause and reflect on his legacy as a reader.

His last words: "I can't sleep. I'm going to the bathroom and read something."

According to this site, the understanding among those who heard it was that "read something" was a euphemism for taking prescription drugs. Sincere admirer of The King that I am, I'd prefer to think that he really did have a copy of Remembrance of Things Past in the reading basket by the toilet that, like me, he hoped to finish before he died, but the truth is probably closer to that reported above. That truth, of course, also casts a sadly-ironic light on the purpose of his wanting to meet Nixon in the first place: he wanted to serve as a "Federal Agent-at-Large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

But enough of that. Whether or not Elvis was a reader, it's obvious that he was and is read by us as participants in and consumers of American culture; and so thoroughly have we internalized him that American popular music is what it is because of our collective reading of him. Emerging--no, exploding--as he did out of a Jim Crow South that did not know it would be (legally) dead ten years later, two of his early nicknames tell you why, in the words of Peter Guralnick, "The world was not prepared for Elvis Presley": "The Hillbilly Cat" and "The Hillbilly Bopper." He was so musically and culturally miscegenated that there was no choice but for promoters and audiences to acknowledge it. And the cool--and powerful--thing about it was that he didn't preach it. He just embodied it. And according to him, he couldn't help it. He was who he was, Sam Phillips and Col. Parker aside.

And enough of that. Let's party.


R. Sherman said...

I was reminded of his birthday while listening to the radio this morning and remembered a trip to Memphis a few years back which included a stop at Graceland.

Words fail.

I always appreciated Elvis for what he meant to the cultural history of our country, but I never went ga-ga over him. Yet, when the tour of his home wound past his grave and I saw all of the people frozen in time, circa 1957, many of them openly weeping, including a lot of Europeans, it gave me a fresh perspective of the time.

BTW, we spent an hour outside the gift shop just people watching.


John B. said...

Graceland is one of the more fascinating places I've ever visited. There's a sort of innocence to it that one doesn't often find in one's national landmarks, especially to people with outsized legends like his--innocence, and a strange mixture of happiness and sadness. For me, it all--the aggregate of a lower-middle-class white Southerner with considerably more money than taste thinks a mansion should look--actually makes him human.

Winston said...

An employee at one of my customers has that photo set as wallpaper on his computer. Over the years, as he has changed computers, I've had to be very careful to transfer the jpg over to the new one and set it as wallpaper.

I came of age in West TN, have been to Memphis more times that I'm proud of, and now live in Nashville. But I have somehow missed going to Graceland. Shame on me. Need to rectify that one of these days...