[Trump] urges us all to shake loose the surly bonds of civilised conduct: to make science irrelevant and rationality optional, to render truth obsolete, to set power free to roam the world, to lift all the core conditions written into the social contract – fealty to reason, scepticism about instincts, aspirations to justice. We then, at last, will be restored to the primordial American state of nature – free to consume, to pillage, to destroy, to wall out our neighbours and to hate people for living in shitholes.
— Gary Greenberg: Analyse this: What Freud can teach us about Trumpism.
I saw The King (aka ‘Promised Land’) at the last Melbourne Film Festival. I thought it was one of the best films I’d ever seen. It had a lot of quirkiness built into its attempt to rope together scores of apparently disparate elements — images, words, music — thoroughly eclectic, ‘an onslaught’ one critic calls it, but so sweetly edited.
Mid-film, the maker, Eugene Jarecki, sitting in a Phantom V Rolls-Royce which once belonged to Elvis turns to his road crew chief Wayne Gerstner who is driving and asks: ‘What do you think I’m doin’ with this movie now?’ Gerstner replies: ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re doin’ with this movie … and I’m not sure you know what you’re doin’ either. That’s what’s scary.’ He mulls a moment. ‘Some sort of comparison of the rise and fall of Elvis with the rise and decline of America.’
Bang. Got it in one.
A foundation conceit is driving Elvis’s car, purchased for US$400,000, the single most expensive element of the production, through key places in Elvis’s life: Tupelo, Memphis, Hollywood, Las Vegas and populating these places with voices from his past and the present. In the rear passenger seat we have contributions from a dozen sets of musicians, ranging from Emi Sunshine, a 10 year-old shouter of high distinction who sings with her family band, to a group from the Stax Academy which is devoted to teaching black kids the magic arts of vocal entertainment. They sing ‘Chain of Fools’ mesmerisingly. John Hiatt begins weeping. ‘Sitting in this car and getting the sense, you know, just of how trapped he was. He was just a poor mama’s boy from Mississippi.’ He then plays and sings, ‘Wind don’t have to hurry’, a most affecting song.
A heap of people offer their commentary, among them Elvis’s best friend when he was young, a girl he went out with as a teenager, his hairdresser, his foremost biographer Pete Guralnick, and Chuck D (from rappers Public Enemy), Mike Myers, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Ashton Kutcher and Alec Baldwin all of whom illustrate their capacity for keen insight and unabashed self awareness. Ethan Hawke, who co-produced the film and seems to be something of an Elvis scholar, makes notable contributions.
James Carville, Bill Clinton’s chief strategist during the successful years, also appears. Early in the film we have a shot of Mike Tyson destroying an opponent with one punch over Carville saying: ‘They say Tyson hit you so hard he changed the way you taste. It’s the same with Elvis. America never tasted the same after he hit it.’ True, absolutely true, and one good reason why you’d make this film.
I loved it, but many of the pundits of the American media didn’t share my view. [I think it has only been released to film festivals. It has not run in Australian cinemas. You can get it with the customary effort from Google Play.]
He is interested in showing how Elvis represents the ‘American Dream’ and exemplifies the ‘American story,’ as part of a larger goal of showing how America went from Elvis to Trump. But the movie does so in painfully simplistic terms, with encyclopaedia-style snippets of history, authentically pained but insubstantial musings on “how we got here,” and an odd reliance on the comments of celebrities who lack any particular Presley connection, and who end up stifling the genuine insights of non-celebrity subjects who do. As a result, ‘The King’ isn’t so much a diagnosis as it is a part of the mediascape that it decries. — Richard Brody New Yorker
Elvis Presley’s instrument, a voice so singular that it was recognized instantly all over the world, provides a haunting counterpoint to the ideas set forth in Eugene Jarecki’s “The King.” But this documentary feature is fascinating and infuriating in unequal parts, the latter far outweighing the former, since Mr. Jarecki’s instrument is a shoehorn. With an insistence that borders almost comically on obsession, he forces the singer’s life into a larger theory of national decline — the American Dream is dead, and Elvis is the emblem of its passing. — Joe Morgenstern Wall Street Journal
The New York Times was kinder but not a great deal more insightful. Pete Travers in Rolling Stone phoned 500 words in from some far away place.
But it’s not the American Dream with which the film is concerned. It’s America itself. As I read it, during the course of the film Jarecki becomes aware that he is using Elvis’s story to talk about the trajectory, and impending end, of the American Empire. As James Carville says: ‘We are so fucked, you have no idea.’
* * * * * * * *
Elvis began his life as struggling white trash. Gladys kept things together. Vernon didn’t. Elvis was three when his father went to gaol for eight months for forging a cheque, part of a pattern. They lived in this two-room house in Tupelo that Vernon built before moving to one of three houses designated for whites in a Negro district of heavily segregated Memphis. America is just emerging from the Great Depression at this point.
Was he Latin? Part Black? Sioux? No. His mother was Scots-Irish with a distant hint of Norman French and his father, from whom he got at least as much of his looks, German-Scottish. That velvet sensuality just emerged from some magical genetic collusion.
You can infer the real colour of his hair from the photos above: auburn, copper, chestnut, even dirty blonde. He was the kid who built his teenage quiff from pomade and jet black shoe polish with a christening of rose water. He dyed his eyelashes till he died. He was the kid who, in his teens, carried his guitar around in its case at school, the one who other kids called a hillbilly, who was shy, who did okay at school except in music which he failed. That last might be too much: apocryphal. I’d rather it wasn’t true really. I can see all the rest: the sloe-eyed outsider with music in his veins, frequenting gospel halls and listening obsessively to Mississippi Slim on Radio WELO and other stations that played ‘race music’. At 12 he was invited by Slim (whose brother knew Elvis at school) to perform on air. The first time he was too shy; the second he quavered his way through a gospel song.
He spent some years failing auditions, often apparently on the basis that he was neither one thing nor the other, a genre shape-shifter. Almost certainly hoping to be noticed, he paid the Sun Studios to cut two songs for his own use: ‘My Happiness’ and ‘That’s when heartaches begin’. One of the studio’s minions made a note, ‘Good ballad singer. Hold.’ And hold they did. For 18 months. This was no overnight sensation. Overnight came later.
When the call finally came he spent the day in the studio singing ballads with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, and it just wasn’t working. Sam Phillips, the boss, was looking for ‘a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel. I find one of those and I’ll make a billion dollars.’ At the end of the day’s recording, round 11 at night, the musicians were sick of it and started mucking round. Elvis began playing Big Boy Crudup’s ‘That’s all right‘. ‘Sam had the door to the control booth open … He stuck his head out and said, “What are you doing?” And we said, “We don’t know.” “Well, back up,” he said, “try to find a place to start, and do it again.”‘
Empires are founded on disruption of the established order. Disruption and, in time, transformation. Think of the American War of Independence, a lightning bolt into the heart of class-based societies everywhere. Or, more proximately, World War II ending with the US as the only cashed-up country in the world. That’s the clear beginning of the American Empire.
But neither is that beginning an overnight sensation. It stands on the shoulders of 150 years of growth, development, influences and contributions, until a point is reached where it is not even a bit speculative to say: This is how it is now. We’re in charge. Not soft diplomacy, but a tidal wave of steely fact crashing down on your head. You don’t even bother telling people you’re the big dog. You just are. It has happened. It’s over. Think of the Romans in Gaul, the Ottomans in the Balkans, Saladin’s forces in Jerusalem. And, don’t let me distract you but, the Chinese today.
Elvis could croon, he liked ballads, he sang gospel, but at this stage of his career he chose to sing and play something else: rockabilly, rhythm and blues, rock n roll — your choice of term. But it wasn’t like anyone else. It was a disruption. ‘Before Elvis there was nothing’, said John Lennon. Bob Dylan agreed. ‘Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.’
This is a force of nature at work. Too hot for Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry for example. They politely declined a second performance. And, if the alternative is Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, this is an earthquake; maybe why Frank, or someone ghosting for him, wrote in a trade magazine: ‘[rock and roll] is brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious. … It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phoney and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. … This rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.’
The FBI was sent a memo from a Catholic Archdiocese saying : ‘Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States. … [His] actions and motions were [while performing] such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth. … After the show, more than 1,000 teenagers tried to gang [sic] into Presley’s room at the auditorium. … Indications of the harm Presley did just in La Crosse were two high school girls … whose abdomen and thigh had Presley’s autograph.’
This is happening over 18 months. The ‘overnight-ness’ figures only after appearances on national television, firstly on the Milton Berle Show which accorded him his first number one hit, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and then, famously, on the Ed Sullivan Show (Ed at left with El) where it was suggested that to accommodate the impressionable sensibilities of American youth the star would only be shot from the waist up. Sullivan had suggested that Elvis had ‘got some kind of device hanging down below the crotch of his pants — so when he moves his legs back and forth you can see the outline of his cock. … I think it’s a Coke bottle. … We just can’t have this on a Sunday night. This is a family show!’ But the evidence makes it obvious that they shot the lot, Coke bottle or not. Strangely, on his third appearance on Ed Sullivan they did only shoot waist up. It is believed that Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, insisted. To help with publicity.
On one occasion early in his career he was forced to sing ‘Hound Dog’ on TV to a stationary and only semi-alarmed but keenly alert dachshund. But this is a young man at the peak of his powers. He could do any damned thing. Like Mehmed II entering Constantinople, he surged past those sorts of impediments without even noticing. He seems to have been most annoyed by being referred to as ‘Elvis the Pelvis’, but even then it was only ‘silly’, a vague irritation.
He didn’t even have to ‘move’, but he did. At 21, one year after his debut on television, he was one of the most famous people on earth. Sticking with our parallel, there are moments when empires simply take fire, indomitable. Resistance suddenly looks so terribly out of date.
In a discussion of cultural appropriation, the film provides clear evidence that the dance moves in ‘Hound Dog’ — parallel knee waggles, up on pointed toes, hip shakes — can be readily found in black performance of rhythm and blues. Identical. It quotes from Public Enemy’s rap ‘Fight the Power’: ‘Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me you see/ Straight up racist that sucker was/ Simple and plain.’ Van Jones, a journalist and shaker in the Obama administration notes that we never found Elvis in the middle of a human rights march. And perhaps crucially that it was Big Momma Thornton who sang ‘Hound Dog’ first and some would say — not me — best. Where’s her credit line? Where’s her payday? But it’s Chuck D., the rapper who performs the Public Enemy lyrics above, who says: ‘Listen. The entire American experience is cultural appropriation.’ Hound Dog? A traditional African American field song? Not as such. Written in 1952 by two young New York Jews, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Empires hoover up everything: money, ideas, art, culture. Frankly, who cares where they come from? If you want to be where the action is, where the patronage is, where the stimulation is — the Medici’s Florence, Louis XIV’s France, Queen Victoria’s England, ’60s America — you will find endless threads of influence. In Elvis’s case you will find the manifold musical forms present in his environment growing up — bluegrass, hillbilly, gospel, the blues, rhythm and blues — in evidence right through his career. But he made something special out of his own version of them. And, frankly, frankly, anything else … go looking if you want to.
Then he was called up.
The song ‘G.I. Blues’ comes from the film G.I. Blues which isn’t made till after he left the service in 1960. I’ve included it here simply as a marker, although it’s not too bad, one of the shuffles that fill up his oeuvre, especially the film music: huggabuh huggabuh huggabuh chuggabuh huggabuh chuggabuh. But let’s be clear, it’s not rock n roll; and the audience is nodding appreciatively and swaying rather than screaming and presenting their abdomen for signing. And just as a side note, you can also look at this, and all of Jailhouse Rock among other things, and wonder if his appeal is not primarily androgynous.
Elvis, who even before going into the Army had signed a deal with Paramount for seven pictures, was being managed. Elvis could have largely continued his career just wearing a uniform, but it appears that he and the Colonel agreed, if for differing reasons, that he should be in so far as it was possible a ‘normal’ soldier. The Colonel didn’t mind. On two weeks leave, Elvis recorded a stache of songs which the Colonel released strategically to keep the legend alive while Elvis was serving , among them ‘Wear a Ring around Your Neck’, Hard Headed Woman’, ‘One Night’, ‘(Now and Then there’s) A Fool such as I’, and ‘A Big Hunk of Love’, all monster hits.
But apart from discovering the value of amphetamines prescribed to mask the tedium of guard duty, Elvis was ‘normalised’ (certainly when compared with Muhammed Ali when he faced the same issue). When he returned to civilian life he seemed to have been rehabilitated for and by the commentariat and the authorities. He’d ‘grown up’ and become ‘one of us’. As one of the contributors to the film notes: ‘He left this city as James Dean and he came back somewhat as John Wayne.’ (That happens to empires too, the civilising influences of maturity rubbing their more rabid edges off.)
As is well known, he spent most of his stint in the army at Bad Neuheim in Germany where he also met the 13 year-old Priscilla later to be his wife. Apart from three concerts in Canada in 1957 this is the only time that Elvis left the United States.
We could talk about insularity, the insularity and self-absorption which tends to mark one strand at least of imperial thinking and behaviour. But it is more likely that Elvis would have been perfectly willing to tour like artists with an international reach commonly do. In 1968 he said: ‘Before too long I’m going to make some personal appearance tours. I’ll probably start out here in this country and after that, play some concerts abroad, probably starting in Europe. I want to see some places I’ve never seen before.’
Why didn’t he? Probably the Colonel (above at left), whose name was not ‘Tom Parker’ but Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, a Dutch citizen and an illegal immigrant to the US, a fact which would probably have been uncovered if he had left the country, and he wasn’t letting Elvis go anywhere on his own. Voila! Elvis’s own Dutch East India company, a parasite (the first manager to do a 50/50 split on all earnings) on the body host.
But like his country, Elvis loved guns. He admired the US military and in his own indirect way supported its growing presence around the world — at this time especially in south-east Asia, the war that Ali had railed against.
And then immediately on discharge there were the films.
The films. Ahhh the films. He had managed to break back into gaol.
31 of them, made between 1956 and 1969, often three a year: not a recipe for cinema of the highest quality. And I don’t know whether you will instantly recall Spinout or Easy come, easy go, or even Stay away Joe, tagline: ‘Elvis goes West, the West goes wild. And that’s no Sitting Bull’. In that film Elvis plays an ‘Indian’, a Native American, for the second time. But unlike in Flaming Star, the other one, a tenable film in which Elvis’s acting plunges more than millimetre deep, his Cherokee character is a combination of all available stereotypes of dodgy Injun shiftlessness.
And this makes it distinctive because his characters are far more commonly outsiders who conquer. The American Dream achieved. He is commonly set up against shysters and smarmy double dealers who represent an out-of-reach and predatory class defined by wealth, institutional authority and/or age.
Most commonly, always, there is a woman (women sometimes) at the center of the film who is/are the prize. Wild in the Country — in which ‘Elvis Presley sings songs of love to [separately, three for the standard price of one] Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld and Millie Perkins’ — is the only film where he is required to display much in the way of brain. A grizzled sage (versions of whom turn up with regularity) tells him, unaccountably, that he’s got a knack for writing.
These films, written by algorithm, are for kids (young teenage girls more precisely) and fans who are willing to abandon their adulthood. I was a kid once. The first time I took a girl out it was to go to ‘Blue Hawaii’. We watched this.
So resoundingly memorable that it was the featured item at the Travellin’ Winklers’ wedding, sung beautifully as it has been so many times since. What a song! An alluring arms-wide-open invitation to join in, and sinnnngg — ‘… some things were meant to be. Taaaaake myyyyyy hand …’ But a great song in a rubbish film. Check out the clumsiness of the cut at 0.40 and the staging which requires everyone (Joan Blackman is The Girl) to become statuary, grinning for 2.40. You might as well turn the picture off and just listen.
These films propose the hero as a bundle of unbuttoned and glamorous id driven by (fairly genial) instinct and emotion — loose, untamed. But the dormant volcano erupts only at unfairness, wrong doing and infringements of the character’s freedom. He might have a motor bike but it won’t be black; he might have a leather jacket but it will not have a skull and crossbones on the back. He will not have tatts and, just as in real life, he will be disarmingly polite and honest.
Paradoxically the real hero is a very organised, highly sophisticated and coldly calculating commercial machine. Not all of Elvis’s films made money but the bulk of them did. The Colonel was making money. Everyone was making money.
When given a choice, well … as Ethan Hawke memorably puts it in the film: ‘Elvis at every turn picked money. “Should I stay at Sun records? Well, there’s more money at RCA, I’ll go to RCA. Should I take this big, giant movie contract, even though I don’t have any creative control? Well, it’s the biggest movie deal ever, let’s take it. Should I go on tour like I want to or should I take the biggest offer a live performer’s ever had in Vegas?”‘
But of course everyone was taking the money. That was what you did. As Mike Myers observes in the film: ‘You used to link the US automatically with democracy, but now it’s capitalism.’ The US had turned into the greatest money-making machine ever. Finance, technology, manufacturing, agriculture, resource development, entertainment all supported by brilliant logistical systems and augmented by a genuine respect for research and development: a package of unfathomable proportions, enough to flood the world with its goods and services. Frederick Taylor’s principles of ‘scientific management’ which had been so influential were being questioned and superseded by Peter Drucker’s more sophisticated insights (especially on the importance of intellectual work), but all the machinery was still in place. Order, direction, focus, discipline, data, careful marketing, strong supply chains, hierarchical management systems, well fed but tame unions — all underpinned by the motivation and confidence that success breeds along with loyalty to the underlying idea.
This is an empire in full stride, wonderfully confident of its own perspectives and direction. Even if it wasn’t always true, you could (and even more so, should) assume that next year would always be better than this, and that your children would grow up to be happier, or wealthier at least, than you were. Tight, orderly, the procedural rituals of cultural control were generally well understood and observed.
Organisation Man might have chafed from time to time at the nature and rewards from his work. (Organisation Woman was at home cooking, hanging out the clothes and looking after the next prodigious generation.) But at root he must have felt that what was good for General Motors was good for the USA. Had anyone ever had it so good? Suck it up and get on with it. In Elvis’s case, 31 times.
However, you might note the bookend years for these films: 1956 and 1969. Between them, an earthquake in popular youth culture was taking place which Elvis may well have had a hand in starting but the Beatles were its most visible form. The story goes that in the early film years the Colonel used to put Elvis under a blanket so the car could get past the massed girls when he wanted to leave the studio. He was still doing it in 1969, but it was to hide the fact that there were no girls. The soundtrack for ‘Speedway’ released in late 1986 reached No.98 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Ignoring any of that, the films were making Elvis sick: in mind, body and soul; and he finally said no, or at least, let me do something else, something I want to do. (What were the children of the empire saying? Much the same thing.)
The 1968 TV concert ‘Elvis’ was the comeback. The Colonel wanted an hour of Christmas songs. Elvis and the show’s director Steve Binder dodged that marshmallow bullet. Jon Landau, who knows about these things, wrote: ‘There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home. He sang with the kind of power people no longer expect of rock ‘n’ roll singers. He moved his body [clad at times in skin tight black leather] with a lack of pretension and effort that must have made Jim Morrison green with envy.’
It had it all. I remember it. I thought I’d turn on the TV to watch this old tart to see what he had and could only agree with John Robertson: ‘He conjured up the vision of a performer who could be all things: a flirtatious teenage idol with a heart of gold; a tempestuous, dangerous lover; a gutbucket blues singer; a sophisticated nightclub entertainer; a raucous rocker.’
And NOTHING was better than the big finish, ‘If I Can Dream’. Play it again. Play it as often you like, and see if it doesn’t affect you each time.
He’s got a catalogue of these anthems — How great thou art, The Impossible Dream, Lord this time you gave me a mountain, My Way, I just can’t help believing, The wonder of you, You’ll never walk alone — huge vocals over towering feats of orchestration. Celine Dion and Whitney Houston, eat your hearts out. But this might be the pinnacle. It’s a better song.
Here’s a story about it.
America was in the midst of an upheaval in 1968. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing and our world and culture were changing. Within a short span of time, two leaders were assassinated. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis – Elvis’ hometown. Robert Kennedy, a US Senator who strongly supported human rights and social justice, was killed two months later, on June 6.
In the spring of ’68, Elvis was working on his upcoming TV special, ‘Elvis’. After seeing the news about Kennedy’s death on TV, Elvis spent a night with the show’s director, Steve Binder, and his friends, talking about the assassinations. The conversation was heartfelt and honest, and Binder went to the show’s Musical Director Billy Goldenberg and songwriter Earl Brown and asked them for a powerful, meaningful song that would close out the show. Because the special was slated to air in December, the producers and Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, had planned to end the show with a Christmas song, but Binder had other ideas.
On June 23, 1968, Elvis recorded ‘If I Can Dream’ in several impassioned takes, even though it is said that the first take Elvis gave was perfect. The King gave such a powerful performance that some band members were taken aback, so blown away by Elvis’ performance that they had to do several retakes to improve their own performances.
But it was after the band and backup singers were sent home that Elvis gave an even more astonishing performance as he re-recorded the vocals. He had the lights turned off and fell to his knees on the concrete floor, giving himself completely to the song. After those takes, Elvis went to the control room and had his chosen take played repeatedly before he gave it his blessing. He told Binder, ‘I’ll never sing another song I don’t believe in’.
That’s a story. An innocent story really. But lurking in the background, regardless of Elvis on his knees singing, we have the highest quality made-to-measure sentiment manufactured more or less overnight. Power, resources, capability all thrown at it, from the lonely trumpet opening to the tinkling glockenspiel and the powerhouse synthesized organ; from the massed backup choir to the final anguished plea, even to the humble ‘Thank you. Good night’ to a silent (stunned? respectful?) audience. These people know how to put on a show. They are the best. The entertainment industry had long overtaken agriculture as America’s international trade staple.
All empires need a sustaining myth. It may be that the American empire was the first to make it secular. We’re trapped in a world/ That’s troubled with pain/ But as long as a man/ Has the strength to dream/ He can redeem his soul and fly. The American Dream: If I want it enough, I can have anything I want, I can be anything I want. Riiiiiight Now! A declarative flag pointing the way on a buoy floating in the sea of optimism that sometimes startles and surprises visitors to the US.
It’s also about individualism. It’s the ‘man’ (sorry women, these days you do too) who has the strength to dream, to redeem his soul and fly. Whereas if we sing (just as emotionally) ‘Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set/ God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet‘, the ‘thee’ is plural — ‘us’, ‘the nation’, ‘the empire’.
And so when The Individual (say the President maybe …?), the one we’re counting on, the one in the spotlight, betrays their weakness …
… the nation shivers.
This clip is one of the reasons I wanted to write this blog. It was recorded in Rapid City, South Dakota, two weeks before he died. (South Dakota! How are the mighty fallen …) In the film we don’t see the bumbling first minute available here. The rest is used to run under the end credits, along with clips, among other things, of Bill Clinton embracing Monica Lewinsky, the initial bombing of Baghdad in the Iraqi War, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster, OJ Simpson gesturing with the too small gloves, a crowd at a pre-Presidential Trump rally chanting ‘Build the wall’.
Wheezing, sniffing, sweating, unfocused, pasty, scarcely intelligible as he mumbles and mixes up words and yes, fat. Still self-aware enough to laugh at this version of himself, to ask the audience, ‘How’re you like it so far?’ And then he starts playing, and glory be, that voice! Some atavistic memory kicks in which allows him to hit the right keys, hammering them, maybe with a bit of incipient madness, enough at least to make you look through Contacts for the doctor’s number. The thick satin voice hits all the notes, or near enough. He can still drive to the top of the crescendo without slipping backwards, although it’s someone else’s voice who finishes it off for him. The vibrato is still there along with the bel canto embroidery. He can still do it. Somehow. Christ knows.
I am transfixed by this performance. Spellbound. It is perhaps, against all possibilities, commanding, but hanging all the way off the question: is he going to make it? Can this very sick man do this? And a second order question — who let him get this way?
He seems to have died straining at stool as they used to say, trying to resolve chronic and extreme constipation brought on by the opioids in his system. Initially it was claimed that the cause of death was cardiac arrythmia, something I’ve enjoyed myself. Further investigation found 14 different types of prescription drugs in his system, ‘ten in significant quantity’. His doctor George Nichopoulos was exonerated of criminal liability for the death. However, ‘in the first eight months of 1977 alone, he had [prescribed] more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines, and narcotics in Elvis’ name.’ His license was suspended for three months.
As it happens, prescription drug overdoses killed more than 79,000 people in the US last year, an increase of about 15% from the year before. A majority of the deaths — just over 49,000 — was caused by opioids. Not gun violence, not car crashes nor AIDS have ever killed as many people in the US in a single year.
Since Elvis died in 1977 the gulf between America’s super-wealthy and its struggling masses has grown dramatically. Graceland is a small suburban cottage compared with modern executive mansions. At the height of his fame, Elvis earned $1.2m in a year; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos makes more than that every hour. In 2017 the 350 wealthiest Americans owned more wealth than half of all Americans combined. More than 70 percent of that wealth wasn’t made ab initio but built on inheritance. That doesn’t have the makings of aristocracy; it is aristocracy, dynastic plutocratic aristocracy. And that has all the makings of dissension and the splitting of the body politic that we seem to be witnessing.
An article in the ‘Washington Post’ (10/6/19) states that one in three American 18 to 34 year-old men are unemployed and at or near the poverty line, the new ‘lost boys’ and perfect fodder for all sorts of nuttiness including the mass of ‘incels’, involuntary celibates, yes those, the ones that spend their lives trying to make women’s lives hell.
I’d like to throw in a personal KPI that I adhere to, and often use, as in: ‘You don’t trust science? Do you ever drive over a bridge?’ There are 612,677 bridges in the US. In 2018 59,387 were, according to the Federal Highway Administration, ‘structurally deficient’ with at least one key structural element in poor condition.
You can only make suggestive generalisations about something as gigantic as an empire, but without even mentioning misadventures on foreign affairs or decline in manufacturing or R&D or technological leadership, those sorts of things are pointers to decline.
Trump’s Presidency fits this state of affairs like a finger inserted into something that a finger fits really well. (When you clicked on the clip above did you see Trump? Whispering incoherently and gesturing oddly? I started doing this and now can’t stop.) He is governing on personal whim and bullshit.
Harry Frankfurt in his 2005 philosophical study On Bullshit: “[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” Viewed thus, Trump — and his mates — are the personification of bullshit. And that’s the danger for all of us. That and his hopeless narcissism and insularity, his short-sightedness and selfishness.
We are watching a formidable attack on Enlightenment values (see the epigraph far above), those strange but important attachments we have tenuously made to civilised human social behaviour. Rush Limbaugh, a radio host/commentator who currently has a weekly audience of around 13.25 million unique listeners, has described journalism, law, the academy and science as ‘The Four Corners of Deceit’. Not every American listens to Rush Limbaugh and not every American listening to Rush Limbaugh believes that, but how is it that that can even find a place in public discourse and influential public discourse at that? These are fragile entities so easily destroyed, and generally by narcissism and insularity, short-sightedness and selfishness.
Can this be the country that gave us the Marshall Plan, the most civilised response to catastrophe there has ever been, the country that gave us the League of Nations, UNESCO, the World Health Organisation, service clubs, the Peace Corps, the country that made it a principle that corruption should be rooted out and never allowed to flourish (not least because of the way in which it stuffs up commerce)? And, on the surface at least, the idea that rational process was something to be pursued assiduously and relentlessly?
Empires don’t collapse over night. It took The Holy Roman Empire 500 years to slide completely off the shelf. The Ottomans were alive as long as Albania was paying tribute (1922), but that was centuries after everyone else had stopped caring. Brexit could be considered to some degree as a shout from the grave from the vestigial remnants of an Imperial British past. You can walk, albeit carefully, around the streets of London or through the home counties and still comfortably imagine a time when the sun did not set on the red bits of the map. It’s still there: it’s just that everything else has changed.
Is the US still a GREAT Country? Of course it is. Obama and Hilary were right, not Trump. The GDP is, if not burgeoning, just fine at present; the Dow Jones Industrial Index is healthy; the military might is still intact and shored up by inconceivable amounts of annual funding. India and China might be catching up, but Silicon Valley is the cutting edge of digital progress. New York and LA are still the ultimate destinations for people who want to develop and show off their talent. There are scores of millions of civilised thoughtful people among its population who are concerned about the daily maintenance of Enlightenment values.
It is a great country, a massively great country. But maybe it might not be the GREATEST country any more: a big dog sure, but not the biggest dog in the yard. Maybe there’s another big, and hungry (and hugely energetic, and disciplined) dog unfettered by ‘freedoms’ and ‘rights’ in the yard which might be pinching the food. (What the …! Bolto, get the gun.)
The US is a great country, a massively great country. But apparently it can be thrown off course by a few thousand illegal migrants entering by foot from the south, those drug-addled gangsters that pick the fruit and tend the houses, pools and gardens of rich Californians. And if so, I’m sorry to say, that’s not a great country.
When they begin failing, empires thrash about, still trying to assert themselves and confirm notions, their own and those of spectators, of their unassailable power. A perceived change in social (domestic, local, national) circumstances, especially a weakening of position, produces uncertainty and insecurity and a desperation to defend what is already no longer the status quo. We might see this realised soon in Iran. I hope not.
Now, especially, in this connected and accessible world, the scale of such changes is tectonic with the capacity to engender that insecurity and uncertainty on a world-wide basis. Everywhere. Like in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Italy and all those other places where the Hard Man has suddenly sprung up for reasons that are hard to pin down. Is it in the hope that such people will provide protection from those inexplicable but troubling tectonic rumblings?
Jarecki says: ‘I found myself saying, “It’s like we all woke up one day and discovered we were Fat Elvis. We had been young and beautiful once, but now we were addicted to all manner of quick fixes – consumption, carbohydrates, drugs, vanity, violence. Elvis did all of that, and look where it got him.”‘
Maybe we have both been wrong to drag Elvis into it. Where did it get him? His output still earns well … money at least. US$40million last year, not to be compared with Michael Jackson’s $400m but that was a special case. El came in Number Two. Appreciation? I read a news story today that said if you were younger than 35 it was very unlikely you would have ever knowingly heard an Elvis track. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! The remnants of the empire turn out to be impersonators, almost always from the Fat years, who are allowed to congregate in Parkes (smaller than Geelong and more rural) once a year.
Even after all that, you have no control of what is left. Destiny rolls on, even in that nation which built its identity first and foremost on being a republic — and where Elvis was The King.
• I have strayed a fair way from the film to follow my own route to thinking about these issues. Jarecki’s take is much more elegant and diffuse, partly because as I have said already I think he was changing his mind about the precise meaning of what he was looking at during the making of the film. That might be what the critics are complaining about.
But he may well have also been being cautious about his audience and their sensibilities. I’ve done far more shoehorning here than Jarecki allowed himself. He gives you a pretty free go to think what you like. But I’m not an American. I suspect that it could well be important for the citizens, including the articulate, smart and liberal citizens, any citizens, of the dominant country in the world to consciously or unconsciously repress ideas about a decline to Number Two or worse. But Trumpsters chanting ‘Lock up Hilary’… what are they shouting but: ‘We’re going down the gurgler and I’m really worried about it. Give me a bigger gun. I want to shoot some Venezuelans. Someone. Anyone. That’ll make me feel better.’
An honest effort to think hard about what’s going on is not something I would usually complain about. Particularly when the material, and the dialogue of the art, could be so rich. I think the critics might have had trouble with the nature of the chosen medium of expression (chasing an interesting parallel and looking out for where the bits knock together, and of course parallel things don’t knock together but you know what I mean). They might have been disappointed in the lack of stiffness in the connections in what is being proposed (and what I am proposing about the nature of empires, most seriously if it matters). But it’s not an allegory. It’s not even an extended metaphor. Not everything Elvis did is reflected in the trajectory of the American Empire (or even the American Dream as they keep misplacing it), or vice versa.
It’s just adventurous (and artistic) play which might pay off or not. You hope there’s an audience for that.
• Big thanks to Russ Maddock for helping me get the clips off YouTube.
• In 2012 the spider Paradonea presleyi was named in Elvis’s honor. That’s surely something.
Three good books on Post-Truth-ism
- Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back by Matthew d’Ancona,
- Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World by James Ball
- Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit by Evan Davis