by David Thomas
Copyright © 1995 Hearpen Music / Pere Ubu
I've checked in and I can't check out. In the morning I pack. In the afternoon I unpack. It's not sociology that keeps me here. It's not research. Or the quest for understanding. Or even curiosity anymore. It's Deer Time. As in frozen-in-the-lights-of-an-oncoming-car time.
Three days ago my wife wanted to see Graceland and I wanted to see "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and since I-55 bounces along the edges of Memphis, and since Graceland is right there where you pick up Highway 61 into the Mississippi delta, and since the Days Inn at the Brooks Road Exit has tv in the rooms... I positively rejoiced in my mind, "No messy urban experience will be required!" Just hop off Ole Man Interstate, I said to myself, and she has a date with Elvis, me with Jean-Luc Picard, and tomorrow we leave early for the delta.
But now-- this age-ed third morning-- I tell myself, You've gotta go now. Today! Or something weird happens, I think. Make the move NOW, I'm pleading, and I open the curtains of my room, Patrick McGoohan-like, to reveal...
Elvis Week 93. At the Days Inn, Brooks Road. Memphis, Tennessee. United States of America, Earth. Federation of Planets!
Across the parking lot I can see the reception lobby. The elvis people are busy checking in as early as they can. Confused aliens and sneery-lipped touristas are checking out. By mid-afternoon the newcomers will be assimilated into the Village. They'll take what they're given, stock $30-a-night-special-rate motel rooms, and they'll do with them what Big Daddy Don Garlitz used to do with stock model cars from off the Detroit assembly line. They'll customize, chop and channel until the Ordinary Thing is transformed, by handiwork and guile, into a personalized Hot Rod Vision. Except at the Brooks Road Exit the "hot rod" is a Lincoln Continental Town Car and the "vision" is a vanity plate living capsule for the next five to seven days. That's the way it goes at the lost, last outpost of American folk culture. Strange debris is washed up and the natives make of it what they can.
At the Village the pool is like a town square and on three sides of it are the three floors of the Days Inn. Windows and doors are decorated with photographs, artwork, mementoes and handmade tributes. Most of the ground floor rooms are trading dens in the day with doors opened, furniture pushed aside, and beds covered over with Elvis records, books, collectables, and photographs. The older men of the Village, sometimes bodyguards, employees or musicians who knew Elvis, also writers, hold court. They pass the time over cans of Coke. On the second floor, down at the parking lot end, the Mystery Impersonator spends the afternoon sitting outside his room accompanied by his sideburns and dressed in a track suit. Though the area around Graceland is overrun with impersonators-- they shill for business outside yellow and red hamburger drive-thrus-- at the Days Inn the elvis people like to emphasize the spirituality of the man Elvis and consider impersonation to be too much like idolatry. The elvis people don't criticize him for what he does but the Mystery Impersonator has the look of someone shunned.
In the evening the elvis people gather in boombox circles around the pool, in impromptu chair encounters outside rooms, or at tables in the motel's open all night Aloha Cafe. This year's theme is "Blue Hawaii." Early in the am, deep into the night, you see them gesticulating crazy-like over free cups of coffee. All earnestly speak of their passion. Conversations will ebb and flow and in an empty space someone will say, "I sure miss him." The words hang in the air. Some nod in agreement. Others sigh briefly. And outside the two grannies from Maine are parked, elvis-tailgating beside their customized Elvis Van with a paint job that Big Daddy himself might envy. They're up at all hours with doors opened wide and mini-Elvis lampshades glowing cheerily inside. And maybe there's an overlap of shifts deep into the night as the pre-dawn risers make their way past the grannies and past the Aloha Cafe to walk the miles to the Garden of Remembrance at Graceland to hear the birds wake up and to see how the dawn light looks through the leaves of the trees of Graceland. And I stand at the window and I can see how the days will cycle round this way and how the week's events will proceed with a satisfying inevitability, and I say to myself-- No, I say to you-- You be the judge-- Oh, citizens, how CAN I leave the Right Here, the Right Now when clearly it's all happening RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW? And gathering momentum-- in the moment-- moving in procession-- in the moment-- to the climactic candlelit walk on Graceland-- in the moment-- another anniversary of the death of the king of rock n roll?!
(No. It's okay. I feel better now.)
And what does it all mean?
This is folk culture. Maybe this is the only folk culture left in America. Betrayed by the Media-Priests of the Big Lie these people have handcrafted a culture out of commercial detritus and strange debris. Like a cargo culture on a lost Pacific island. And remoteness is no longer simply a question of physical distance. That's the way it used to be, granted, but not anymore.
And why Elvis?
Because he was an innocent who was persecuted and ultimately destroyed by greed and Big Business. He made mistakes, Elvis did. But he had a good heart, the elvis people will say. Elvis is loved, you hear it again and again, because of his spirituality, his generosity, and because he was a man of the people. Watch any Hollywood movie. Read pulp fiction from any pre-postModern era. The life of Elvis adheres to all essential elements of the template for the American iconography. He is loved by ordinary people and therefore despised by the sneery-lipped touristas of high culture.
So Elvis is an icon. And he was the first of the World Stars. But these things are the surface. The answer is below the surface where Elvis takes the moribund folk forms of hillbilly country-western and rural blues and brings to them the power and universality of Abstraction, in the process establishing a language for the hopes and dreams and fears of a culture, and sweeping away the flabby, alien art forms of the Novel, the Image and the Narrative forever. A powerful thing. He was the first Poet of the Inarticulate Voice. And in days such as these wherein all the words of the media and the artists and the wise men are nothing but lies and propaganda why is it so surprising that folk culture coalesces around what seems to be the only incorruptible medium left to it? That which has no need for words! And why shouldn't they look instinctively to the Homer of the form? Elvis.
We live in strange times wherein Order & Meaning are terror-osterized, reduced to grist for the post-modernist vacuumizer. Yet in the cracks and seams of the world ordinary people go about their business, scrabbling Order & Meaning back together using the materials at hand. It's a heroic chore-- oh, ultimately doomed and empty but heroic still in a relative way next to the banality of establishment culture/anticulture which is just as doomed and just as empty but must be more reprehensible because of its cynicism, cruelty and passion for the darkness.
It was chance that we stopped at the Days Inn, Brooks Road. The elvis people last night were saying, "No it was fate." But I know it was an accident. Like driving down a backroad out in the country and going thru a ghost town and you think, "This is the way it used to be", and you never forget the sight because it's a perfectly shaped moment in time and space and like a vision of the distant future that will never be and you know it as you dream it, and you think, "We can renovate one of these old store fronts and move out here", and, of course, you know you never will but the vision has power because it answers a need. Some people find what they need in the darkness. Some people are transfixed by lights. We checked in and we'll check out. All the deer has to do is blink. And what did I learn on my summer vacation? That elvis people are nicer people than the people who laugh at elvis people.