My buddy Ben is a newspaperman in Wilmington, North Carolina. Like many in his trade, Ben is a connoisseur of the grotesque and absurd, and occasionally he sends along a bundle of clippings and wire service bulletins, worth of Elvisiana, and I thought some of you might be interested. After all, a column last year about the Elvis cult elicited more mail than anything else I’ve written for Chronicles except a letter about what’s wrong with the Episcopal Church. Obviously some of you care deeply about the King.
I hope, however, that you don’t care as deeply as Jim Tennant, 50, of Wolverhampton, England. The Weekly World News (WWN) seems to have become the newspaper of record for news of Elvis, his doings, and his fans; it says that Mr. Tennant left home with his collection of 1,600 Elvis records when his wife Joan delivered a me or-Elvis ultimatum. Tennant had announced that he was changing his name to Elvis Presley. “I’ve been an Elvis fan for 30 years, and that’s a lot longer than I’ve known Joan,” he said.
Speaking of immoderate middle-aged European fans, one Jutta Jeuthe, 46, of Hamburg, has become one of the few working female Elvis impersonators. The headline accompanying the tabloid story says “She ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog!” and there are photographs to prove it. The robust Miss Jeuthe, who has visited Graceland eight times and actually met the King in 1977, particularly resembles the late Elvis in torso and chins, perhaps because she eats only his favorite foods: peanut butter, hot dogs, and hamburgers.
Meanwhile, down the road in Baden Baden, Patricia Sieler’s painting of Elvis has begun to cry real tears, or at any rate what a chemist says is “a saline solution that’s indistinguishable from the human tear.” The painting weeps only when Miss Sieler plays her Elvis records, according to the WWN story. In fact, it cries during “Heartbreak Hotel” and stops when “Jailhouse Rock” is played.
Back in the US of A we don’t have weeping pictures, but we do have all Elvis radio stations -three of them as of last November, according to The New York Times News Service, one each in Ohio, Washington, and Alabama. And we lead the world in Elvis sightings.
You’ve heard, of course, about the sightings. Now and again since his alleged death and burial in 1977, Elvis has made his continued presence manifest to the faithful. An Atlanta bar maid, for instance, claims to have lived with him from 1 978 to 1981. WWN says that forty-four-year-old Elizabeth Price now wants to write a book about the affair. She passed a polygraph test, which only means that she believed her bearded lover when he said he was Elvis, but there is also the strange tape supposedly recorded by Elvis four years after his death. In it, Elvis ex plains his need for privacy and his desire to get back on stage. Two hundred and seventy thousand people have paid $2.00 each to listen to the tape. That, friends, is upwards of a half million dollars for somebody.
As I say, there have always been signs for those with eyes to see. But last year more people seemed to be seeing Elvis than Dan Quayle. The first of this new wave of sightings came in Vicksburg, Michigan, in late 1987, when a Kalamazoo housewife saw Elvis buying a fuse in Felspausch’ s grocery store. Louise Welling told WWN that she was speechless. “I mean you’re not expecting to run into Elvis Presley in the grocery store.” A couple of weeks later, Mrs. Welling saw Elvis again, this time coming out of a Kalamazoo Burger King.
Well, the scoffers had a field day, as you might suppose. A rival Vicksburg grocery store attempted to match Felspausch’s publicity windfall with a sign proclaiming “Jimmy Hoffa Shops Here.” This kind of Midwestern narrow-mindedness may explain why no body else in Kalamazoo has let on to having seen Elvis. Mrs. Welling told WWN that many others have seen him, but are afraid to say so in public.
Elsewhere, though, Elvis-spotters aren’t as intimidated. Two California sisters told The National Examiner when they saw Elvis outside the Church of Scientology in Hollywood where, unknown to them, Presley’s daughter was being married. Then there’s Verena Deuble of Bad Nauheim, West Germany, who says she knew Elvis when he was an American GI and showed the German press a letter sent from Memphis on October 11 in which Elvis explained that he faked his own death to escape from the rat race. The president of Elvis’s German fan club suggested cautiously that the letter might be a hoax, but “hand writing experts” were said to have told the press that they are “99 percent sure” the signature is authentic.
After WWN broke the Kalamazoo story, readers wrote to say that they’d seen Elvis in a variety of places, some rather unlikely, on the face of it: out side a Las Vegas hotel where a tribute to him was in progress, shopping at a Texas department store, at a car race in Minnesota, fishing in upstate New York, on the beach in Maine, eating lunch in the California wine country, and in a bookstore in Florida.
If the idea of a bookish Elvis sounds farfetched, ponder this story, from Blacksburg, Virginia. At a college party, a fiftyish, balding, bearded man appeared. “At first I thought he was just a professor looking for a good time,” one musician told WWN. But then he grabbed the mike and joined the band in “Blue Suede Shoes.” When the song was over, the crowd stood stunned as the professorial Presley strolled off and vanished into the night.
Could it be that these people are just seeing Elvis imitators or look-a-likes? Well, Gail Brewer-Giorgio, author of the book Is Elvis Alive?, points out that the proliferation of Elvis imitators makes it easier for Elvis to hide out. Many people who think they’re look ing at an imitator may actually be seeing the real thing. Think about that.
And stranger things have happened. Consider the final words of Ms. Brewer-Giorgio’s book:
Around the I 0th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, an Atlanta attorney who had been working in the Gary Hart campaign responded to the rumor that Gary Hart would run again with this statement: “The probability of Gary Hart seeking the nomination for president of the United States is as unlikely as believing Elvis Presley is still alive.” Less than four months after this statement, Gary Hart again announced his candidacy for president of the United States.
Well, there you are. Aren’t you?
I should point out that not everyone is buying the Elvis-lives theory. (Note the anagram, incidentally: ELVIS/LIVES.) Not only in Kalamazoo are skeptics to be found. A California woman is writing a book to argue that it isn’t Elvis but his twin brother Jesse who is alive and being sighted. Laurel King says that Elvis told her that Jesse, who is supposed to have died at birth, was actually hidden with an aunt after he was found to be retarded. Ms. King says she met Jesse at Graceland in 1973, and he looked just like Elvis but “didn’t seem to have the intelligence that Elvis had.” It’s a thought.
Meanwhile, evangelist Rick Stanley, Elvis’s stepbrother (his mother married Elvis’s father after the death of Elvis’s mother), scoffs at the notion that Elvis may still be alive. (As an orthodox Protestant Christian, of course, he also rejects the possibility of apparitions.) But he told WWN last October that he owes his conversion to Elvis. He was just your average drug addict, long haired hippie, and hanger-on in the Presley entourage when Elvis left us, showing him by example how empty worldly success could be. “Elvis wasn’t content,” says Stanley. “He was caught in a trap.” (Wasn’t there a song about that?)
Others claim to have been helped more directly by the deceased. One seventeen-year-old cancer victim from Warrenville, Illinois, told WWN that “I’m alive today by the grace of the Lord and with a lot of help from Elvis,” and drag-racer Marion “Tinker” Glad den of Salisbury, Maryland, told The Sun that Elvis “is up there in heaven right now talking to me and other people like me who care so deeply about him.” “When I have a problem,” Gladden said, “I ask God for guidance and He hands me over to Elvis, who is one of God’s right-hand men. Like all angels (!), Elvis inspires people.” Gladden’s theology may be a little unsound, but he has a theory about why so many people believe Elvis is still alive on earth: they’ve been fooled by his “vibrations.” Elvis is talking to them, “but they don’t know where the vibrations are coming from. The vibes are so powerful that folks figure he must be alive in the flesh.”
I should point out that some of those who don’t believe Elvis is still among us believe much stranger things. Consider, for instance, an Indiana medium named Diana of the Dunes. According to The Star, when Diana last spoke with Elvis, he told her he was happy, but that he had decided to be reincarnated as a baby boy named Vernon (his daddy’s name, of course). This will be a sign unto you, says Diana: the baby’s first words will not be “mama” or “dada,” but “shook up.”
Getting back to the question of who-or what-is buried in Elvis’s tomb, however, another psychic says that question will soon be settled once and for all. Janos Szabo told The Sun that there’s going to be this big earth quake in the Memphis area, see, and hundreds will die, and the tomb at Graceland will open, and . . . its contents will be revealed. Sometime be fore the year 2000.
Maybe that’s OK for those who can wait, but the rest of us want to know now. What’s going on? Is the King still alive? Well, when 50,000 Americans paid fifty cents each to vote on the subject in one of those dumb tele phone polls, they decided that he was, by a two to one margin. I doubt that we could get two thirds of 50,000 Americans to pay fifty cents to attest that, say, George Bush is alive. Make of that what you will. I call it another nail in the coffin of the case for universal suffrage.
I find that I’m reluctant to say how I’d have voted, if only because those who believe that Elvis walks the earth today are zealous in their belief. Ann Landers lived to regret a column in which she supported the official story that Elvis was buried at Graceland in 1977. Last October she printed a sample from the flood of protesting letters that came in, and I don’t want to hear from you people, understand? But I have to say, frankly, that I think it’s more likely that the casket buried at Graceland contained all that was mortal of Elvis Presley than that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that the man from Avon wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
True, the success of grocery-store tabloids like Weekly World News, The Sun, The Star, and The National Examiner should occasion second thoughts not just about universal suffrage but about universal literacy. But I think our fellow-citizens are better served by stories like the one headlined “Statue of Elvis Found on Mars” (I didn’t make that up, honest) than by the columns of Tom Wicker or the opinions of Justice Brennan. And when it comes to Elvis, the tabloids are sort of like USA Today gone mad, just peddling good news, in this case the good news that the King may actually still be among us—middle-aged, balding, bearded, off drugs but still fighting a weight problem—like one of us, you know?