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The Lost King

Seeking memories and meaning, Elvis fans flock to Memphis.

Amid all the weird and predictable frivolity of Elvis Week 2002, a curious seminar was held at the Fogelman Executive Center at the University of Memphis on August 15. The panelists of "Is Elvis History? 2002 and Beyond" included famed music critic and keynote speaker Greil Marcus; Presley's most celebrated biographer, Peter Guralnick; Sun Records founder Sam Phillips; and a dozen or so lesser-known luminaries. As the seminar's title implied and the official itinerary for Elvis Week 2002 stated overtly, the panelists were on hand to discuss Presley's "past and future historical meaning." As is turned out, that hardly encompassed the full range of what transpired, but it was the plan going in.

The audience -- most of whom paid $100 for admittance -- consisted of a handful of newspersons and approximately 140 hard-core Elvis fans who didn't seem overly interested in an intellectualized examination of Elvis Presley's place in the annals of American history. To them, as well as to the 40,000 or so additional fans who gathered in Memphis in mid-August to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Presley's death, Elvis's place in history -- American or otherwise -- had long since been settled. The basic terms of that settlement as it presently exists are very simple, really. Here's what the uninitiated need to know:

First of all, Elvis was and always will be the undisputed King of Rock and Roll. What else could possibly explain the thousands of perfectly lucid Elvis junkies hanging around Graceland these past five days, or the other 60,000 paying customers who traipse through Presley's colorfully appointed 23-room mansion each year, making it, after the White House, the second-most visited home in the United States? What else explains Elvis's recent reappearance in mainstream pop culture via the animated Disney flick Lilo & Stitch and the unlikely chart-topping success of Dutch DJ Junkie XL's remix of "A Little Less Conversation," an otherwise forgettable ditty that Presley tossed off in 1967? Sales of Elvis's records (singles, LPs, EPs and CDs) have now surpassed a billion, which amounts to just about one record for every man, woman and child living on mainland China. Even now, 25 years after his untimely death, Elvis is loved, revered and, in isolated cases, worshiped by right-thinking human beings the world over. According to his fans, only one thing explains all that: Again, Elvis was and always will be the King. And that's his place in history.

Undeterred by this sort of unassailable logic, a gray-haired and casually attired Greil Marcus stepped to the podium of the Fogelman Center to deliver the seminar's keynote address. Marcus is no dummy, nor is he a sentimental fool. His chapter on Elvis in his 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music still stands as a wonderfully measured, unsurpassed milestone of Presley-related cultural critique. Nonetheless, among Elvis fans who are acquainted with his work, he is not considered a true celebrant, at least not a celebrant of their stripe. He is, in fact, regarded as something of a party pooper. Certainly, his address at Elvis Week 2002 did nothing to convince fans otherwise.

Marcus's opening remarks included his contention that all of the hoopla in Memphis surrounding the 25th anniversary of Elvis's death was one colossal "media mirage" cynically manufactured by the brain trust of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., the business entity headed by Elvis's daughter, Lisa Marie, that manages the Presley estate and the commercial licensing of all Presley product. He then proceeded to criticize Presley's ex-wife, Priscilla -- who, along with Lisa Marie and EPE CEO Jack Soden, is largely to blame for the aforementioned media mirage -- for her transparently exploitative plans to adapt her lifeless memoir, Elvis and Me, to the Broadway stage. None of this talk endeared Marcus to the fans, of course, but at least he hadn't yet laid into Elvis himself. That soon changed.

The critic began speculating on the disappearance of Elvis from popular culture -- Lilo & Stitch and novelty dance remixes notwithstanding. He discussed Presley's early embrace of black culture and then his apparent dismissal of it not long after fame came calling. Where was Memphis's most famous citizen when Coretta Scott King marched through town four days after her husband was assassinated there, during a bitter sanitation workers' strike, in 1968? He was on the West Coast, Marcus replied, answering his own question, overseeing the installation of a new gate in front of his Belair home. "He had changed the world, but he had become a creature who couldn't be changed by it," Marcus intoned, thereby implying that Presley had been either unconcerned with or simply oblivious to the civil rights movement. Either way, according to Marcus, such negligence amounted to circumstantial evidence. It was proof, in other words, if any further proof was needed by then, that Elvis was no longer a player -- not in any meaningful or relevant sense -- on the American cultural scene. Then he delivered his verdict: "When you've made history and then you leave history, history takes its revenge on you."

Thus constituted Marcus's admirable stab at explaining Elvis's popular legacy today as a fat, wasted, supremely narcissistic hayseed who left behind nothing of consequence to a world that, unknowingly, would remain forever in his debt.

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