Elvis: Turns out he’s less problematic in one area than the general public believes, and more problematic in another.
I hadn’t thought about Elvis much since visiting Graceland for this column in 1999 — taking Chuck D’s opinion as the adult gold standard to follow (“Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me / …straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain”). Appropriating black music, like stealing cheerleading routines from the Compton Clovers, is wrong. Reparations are due to the artists who wrote the music. Et cetera.
… but this New York Times piece “How Did Elvis Get Turned into a Racist?” says even Chuck D has recanted that line for a more nuanced view, saying he was using Presley as a symbol, not necessarily talking about him personally.
It turns out Elvis’ rumored racism is based on a debunked claim about something he supposedly said (“The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music”) during a taping of a show in Boston — a show on which he never appeared, in a city to which he’d never been.
Many sources say he tried to give attribution where it belonged (sometimes). An NYT article recounts that someone asked Presley once about being the King of Rock’n’Roll and he promptly rejected that title as he usually did, and pointed to his friend in the room, Fats Domino.
As he rocketed to fame, Presley was quickly harvested and farmed to death by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, with the assist of Dr. Nicopolous prescribing Presley various drug cocktails not even a woolly mammoth could handle.
Colonel Tom was a beast of a man who, before he rode Presley to the grave, used to run a booth at the carnival where chickens danced because Parker had secretly put a hot plate underneath their straw. That’s the kind of man Parker, Elvis’ default father figure, was.
If you still liked Elvis, as I sort of did, here’s something heartbreaking: In addition to getting hooked on speed in the military, Elvis was a bit of an ebhebophile when it came to underaged playthings. Apparently he preferred pillow fights to naked time; he had phobias about sex, and exhibited a strange boyishness coupled with voyeurism (and he liked him some feet).
Elvis’ ex-lovers say he was a gentleman, and some say he was even in love with a black woman, but he married a 14-year-old, and his constant use of tween girls as sort of a giggling entourage around him did not go unnoticed.
That’s problematic. All our old heroes are problematic; it’s a new world let’s just face it and move on and dance to the beat I guess.
One more gross thing but it’s important. When he died at age 42 Elvis was already so drug-addled he needed diapers for incontinence. Not to speak ill of the dead, just if we talked about it more, we wouldn’t need hokey “don’t do drugs kids” campaigns. Don’t end up in a diaper in your early 40s, that’s the truth.
Anyway James Brown said “Elvis and I are the only true American originals. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.”
And Little Richard said “I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand?”
So maybe Elvis was an anti-racist heart-thresher to women and predator to tween girls. Maybe not, maybe it’s more nuanced than that.
We can all agree at least that Presley got famous for another reason besides his charisma, talent, looks, and raw sexuality: He appeared at a time when white people really wanted to listen and dance to African-American music freely — and socially they couldn’t, so they listened to Elvis, and that opened the white-people-radio door for everyone else.
This is the 44th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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