Helen Chappell - September 2010


Helen Chappell

Several years ago I wrote a mystery in which someone was killing Elvis Presley impersonators. I thought I was being very clever at the time, even though Bill Horne, who was still sitting on the bench, rumbled, “If I had a defendant who killed Elvis impersonators in front of me, I’d direct an acquittal.” So not everyone loves Elvis, which I can understand.
Apparently, however, a lot of people do love the late King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, because since I published that book, people have been gifting me with things relating to Elvis. Is it because it’s an easy buy? You see something related to the King and you buy it for Helen? Or is it because many people secretly crave the sheer tackiness of most of the cheap junk that comes attached to the name and image? They can’t buy it for themselves – what would people say? – but they can buy it for me, because I don’t care what people say. My Elvisania, as it’s called, amuses me, and that’s enough to put a lot of it on display.
Okay, so my bathroom is currently a decorator’s tribute to Graceland, rather than a spa with candles and a Jacuzzi, but I’m entertained and so are my guests. And pop culture historians will recall the King died on his throne, so it does make a certain amount of sense.
So far, I have been gifted with the classic Elvis on Velvet, a must-have for any serious collector of bad taste, an oil portrait of the great man, a snow globe of Graceland, a Lucite paperweight containing some soil from Graceland, several brightly painted Day of the Dead objects d’art featuring you-know-who, a handmade papier-mache empty Vegas era suit, innumerable photos of various places and faces associated with Elvis on paper, tin and unknown mediums, night lights, a bath towel, candy tins, jewelry and I think I have to stop thinking about this right now as it’s giving me a headache. Let’s just say I can predict what I’ll get from at least one person every Christmas and birthday.
The pride of my collection was inherited from a dear friend. We were just joking when I begged and she agreed to leave it to me, but now, she’s dead too early, and it’s mine. It’s so hideous I am not sure I can begin to do it justice in mere words, but I’m going to try.
To begin with, it’s a snapshot of Elvis in a hideous blue polyester suit with matching print poly shirt, clearly shot sometime in the early ’70s, when he was so zonked on pills he couldn’t think straight. His hair is dyed blue-black and his grin is goofy, as if he’d just had two root canals and was full of Demerol, which maybe he was, bless his heart. Someone had this snapshot blown up into a 12” by 18” photo. Okay?
Somewhere in their trailer, they must have had one of those hideous pierced faux/gilt frames. You sometimes see them at yard sales and flea markets and some of the finer shops at South of the Border. Usually, they frame a reproduction of a holographic Last Supper or that Sunday school portrait of a blond, blue-eyed Christ. Nearly always, there’s some kind of light attached to this frame so a small appliance bulb can fully illuminate the scene at hand, just like it was a famous Mona Lisa type painting in one of those big famous museums. And there is Elvis, almost life-sized, framed up in all his glory.
You would have to be utterly humorless not to appreciate this picture, even if you would rather be eviscerated with a rusty spoon than display it anywhere on your property. It’s just that camp, that tacky and that deliciously awful that it transcends genre and becomes spectacularly...well...spectacular!
I’ve spent more time than I absolutely needed to meditating on what Elvis means to American culture. I was too young to get him when he first burst onto the national scene in the ’50s, a rock and roll rebel who combined Southern Gothic and that music all the kids were dancing to down at the malt shop.
And the ’60s, well, Elvis didn’t really fit the whole 60’s ethos. He was quaint by then, left by the wayside like everything else from the Eisenhower era by a generation that wanted to change the world.
In the ’70s, fat, glitzy-suited Vegas Elvis was a parody of himself, and like many things and people in poor taste, the King was on his way to becoming a camp parody of himself even before he died from too many pills and not enough people willing to say “no.”
These days, someone would check Elvis into Betty Ford and he’d come out sober and give us many more years of the master entertainer he always had been. But that wasn’t to be, and what we’re left with, and what my collection pays tribute to, is the apotheosis of Elvis, God of Excess.
America’s Protestant saint is a classic American fairy tale. Poor kid comes from nothing, and by dint of talent and luck, becomes a sensation that when he performs, people get so hysterical they want to rip him apart, literally. So he has to hide from his fans. The wicked wizard in the fairy tale would probably be his manager, the Colonel, but that’s a subject for another essay.
It’s the whole trash with money theme that fascinates me. Elvis was richer than he or anyone in his family ever dreamed of. Unused to a life with fine French antiques or ancient Persian rugs, Elvis figuratively furnished himself and his home by running through Pep Boys with a magnet. If it was bright and shiny and glittered, or it had an animal skin print, Elvis, by God, bought it. Have you ever been to Graceland, or even seen photos of the place? It’s a monument to dubious taste, but so cool for being so outrageous, just like the King his ownself.
Elvis wasn’t afraid to drive around in Cadillacs the size of the Empire State Building and the color of sunset over the Grand Canyon. The quiet understatement of a bespoke suit was alien to him. Remember his gold glittery suit? Elvis knew what he wanted, and never felt the least restraint in going for it. He reveled in his new money, knowing that at any moment, it could all disappear, just as suddenly as it arrived.
How many of us have secretly admired something outrageous, awful and campy, knowing we could never buy or display it, because it wouldn’t do? People might talk. Neighbors might complain to the community association. Our friends might shake their heads in disgust. We have to be tasteful. We have to match, fit in, be subtle, and do what’s right, what’s being shown in all the magazines. To toss that restraint to the winds, to shed our Spanx of other people’s opinions, well most of us just can’t do it. Some of the novelty would wear off really fast, for one thing, and for another, it’s just not how we want to live.
Elvis, God of Excess, knew no such restraints. It glittered or it shone or it was loud, Elvis saw it and pronounced it good.
Somehow, doing a bathroom with Elvisania, seeing the King died on his throne, seems a fitting tribute to the Inner Elvis we all possess.