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American Trilogy
Elvis, Death and the South

The King's grave at Graceland, still topping the charts

Strange. The way I remember learning about the death of Elvis, I see snow. We were in Lebanon, where checkpoints slowed even the flow of news: by then Elvis had been dead some 24 hours. My mother was in the Bikfaya post office, I was waiting in the car with Le Reveil, the briefly-lived French-language paper she wrote for, and there was Elvis’ black and white picture on the front page — and snow by the side of the road. It’s not possible. It doesn’t snow in August in Lebanon. I could be confusing the memory with the morning the paper front-paged Muhammad Ali losing his heavyweight title loss to Leon Spinks one drab February day in 1978, which is only just: Elvis could not possibly die on a sunny summer day. It had to be gray, cold, drab as a morning commute through Long Island (an experience that, as it turned out, wasn’t to be far off for me).

More than two decades later I was in Oxford, Mississippi, on another anachronistic summer evening, having dinner by myself at a self-styled European bistro and reading about the death of Southern heroes and about Elvis’ funeral—how eighty thousand people gathered outside Graceland less than twenty-four hours after his death was announced, how Mississippi declared a day of mourning, how dead Elvis lay “under a glass chandelier, near a glass statue of a nude woman, surrounded by plastic palms, black velveteen paintings, and scarlet drapes with golden tassels,” how the president of the American Floral Trade Association came to Memphis to coordinate the most flowered-up funeral in American history, how the Memphis flower shops emptied out so quickly that an airlift, an airlift of flowers was organized and five tons were flown in from California and Colorado alone, how he was put to rest next to his beloved mother, how the tomb was sealed “with a double slab of concrete and an outer slab of marble because of the real danger of grave robbery,” and how a drunk driver drove into the crowd at Graceland and killed two teenage girls from Louisiana. (I’m quoting from Charles Reagan Wilson’s “The Death of Southern heroes,” in the Fall 1994 issue of Southern Cultures).

I left the bistro, which was also dead, when the two girls tending the evening funeral wouldn’t change the radio channel from some distracting call-in show about nothing that I could make out, or cared to, and headed for Square Books, the great bookshop in the town square that once rimmed a few acres of William Faulkner’s imagination. Next thing I knew I was next to a stack of Peter Guralnick’s “Careless Love,” the second volume of his Elvis biography, just released at the time. It’s as scholarly a take on Elvis as any on Joyce or Faulkner or Churchill, the notes in volume two alone totaling 66 blinding pages. I started reading from the end, initially just to verify whether the legend was true about him reading a book on the shroud of Turin while sitting on the toilet when he died (he was: Frank O. Adams’ “Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus”) and what sort of drugs were found in his body (too much to go into).

Then I read, and read, and read, unable to stop, and here I was at the foot of the bookstore’s stairs, impeding traffic and trying to keep from crying with every detail I read, like the incredibly moving bit (to me, anyway) that after playing a little racket-ball with a few guys hours before he died, he sat down at the piano, tinkled with several tunes, and finished with “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain,” one of my favorite songs not only because Willie Nelson sang (and wrote) it, but because its mournful lyrics have that simplicity and perfection of the greatest country songs (“some day when we meet up yonder/ we’ll stroll hand in hand again/ in the land where there’s no dying/ blue eyes crying in the rain”). To think that this was the last song he sang.

His teeth were hurting from a filling he’d just got. He asked for more prescription pills and took them. “Not long afterward, he told Ginger [his girlfriend at the time] that he was going into the bathroom to read.” Several hours later:

“Ginger awoke around 1:30 p.m., rolled over, went back to sleep for a few minutes, then called her mother. How was Elvis?, her mother asked, and Ginger said she didn’t know, he had never come back to bed, maybe she had better go check on him. She washed and put on her makeup in her own bathroom, then knocked on Elvis’ bathroom door. When there was no answer, she pushed on it and discovered him lying on the floor, his gold pajama bottoms down around his ankles, his face buried in a pool of vomit on the thick shag carpet. In a daze she called downstairs and asked to speak to someone on duty, and the maid put Al Strada on the line. She thought there was something wrong, she told him. He had better come quick.”

And then pandemonium breaking out, the efforts to revive him, the pounding, the desperation, the wailing and screaming, “but there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that Elvis was gone—his face was swollen and purplish, the tongue was discolored and sticking out of his mouth, the eyeballs blood red,” and Lisa Marie arriving in the midst of it all,

“ ‘What’s wrong with my daddy?’ she demanded, as Ginger closed the bathroom door. ‘Something’s wrong with my daddy, and I’m going to find out,’ the little girl declared defiantly, and someone quickly locked the other bathroom door as Lisa ran around to try to get in. People were wailing and screaming when the two firemen EMTs arrived with an ambulance from Engine House No. 29 in Whitehaven, just minutes from Graceland. The ambulance attendants witnessed what they later described as something like a scene of carnage, with up to a dozen people surrounding the almost unrecognizable body and begging them to do something—wasn’t there anything they could do?”

But he’d just ingested three so-called “attacks,” as he called the pre-arranged packages of drugs bloating his diet—Seconal, Placidyl, Valmid, Tuinal, Demerol, some depressants and placebos to help him sleep. At 3:30 p.m. at Baptist Memorial Hospital, George Nichopoulos, walked out of Trauma Room No. 2 and said: “It’s all over, he’s gone.” It was wryly appropriate that “Dr. Nick,” Elvis’ personal physician, spoke the words, the same Dr. Nick who’d spent years enabling Elvis’ addiction and who had, not two hours earlier, had approved the third “attack.”

For a few minutes at the foot of those stairs at Square Books I found myself as torn up and silly as those stereotypical women in perpetual mourning for Elvis, who have been torn up and silly over Elvis for twenty years, although it isn’t nearly all silliness. A few days later I found myself standing near Elvis’ grave at Graceland, surrounded by tourists suddenly made mourners, and like them struggling to hold back my tears even as I kept quietly ridiculing and upbraiding myself for being such a sap. I couldn’t accept that something as profoundly tacky as Graceland had conquered me down to my once-Lebanese boots, or that I found Graceland after all a place as humble and moving, for all its fake grandiosity, as it and Elvis’ life are tragic: a used up place, a used up soul, a still-beating heart (one of so many) of Southern culture.

I had to admit it: I’d been so reluctantly immersed in the South for so many years years, so conflicted over it, feeling superior to it one moment then putty in its kudzu the next, that sooner or later the stereotypes and the caricatures they excused had to crack, at least periodically—even when listening to those neo-Confederates of the country roads, Alabama, sing “Down Home” or Hank Williams Junior do one of his Southern screeds. It’s a little offensive, it’s a little sad, the inferiority complex morphing into stubborn and sometimes trashy machismo, but it’s also touching the way an Elvis song could be touching, the way his death and, all told, so much of his life, his struggles up from nothing to everything (that still didn’t diminish the nothingness around him and within him) were touching, the way the white mayor of Atlanta, Ivan Allen Jr., when Martin Luther King died, went to King’s home and drove Coretta Scott King to the airport was touching, the way so many of these conflicts and conflicted people and ridiculous fans and aspirants to something more than a “lost cause” have been touching. It all meets up together, Elvis, King, Huey Long, Jefferson Davis, Bear Bryant, the Snopes, Faulkner himself, Oxford, maybe even, god forbid, Hank Williams Jr. singing “The South Will Rise Again.” Like a black funeral that’s always mourning and celebration, food and tears and music and free-at-last-type eulogies, that’s the South—a perpetual wake and a funeral and a Lost Cause turned on their head, sometimes in inspiring ways, sometimes in the most perverse ways imaginable: Elvis, always dying that pointless death, always singing Dixie.

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