A Photography Exhibition by Campbell Mitchell
“Is it a sausage? It is certainly smooth and damp looking, but who ever heard of a 172 pound sausage…is it a corpse? The face just hangs there, limp and white with its little drop-seat mouth, rather like Lord Byron in a wax museum. But suddenly, the figure comes to life. The lips part, the eyes half close, the clutched guitar begins to undulate back and forth in an uncomfortably suggestive manner. And wham! The mid-section of the body jolts forward to bump and grind and beat out a low-down rhythm…As the belly dance gets wilder, a peculiar sound emerges, A rusty foghorn? A voice? Or merely a noise produced, like the voice of a cricket, by the violent stridulation of the legs?” -Time Magazine, 1956
“Four at a time, fans filed by the stone lions guarding the gates, past the casket and back into the 90-degree heat…a throng, stretching a mile on either side…hundreds fainted in the heat…even as the world scoffed, their loyalty had never been in any doubt and so it remained now.” Guralnick (1999, p.655-656)
My initial idea for Viva was survey of the continuing cultural impact made by Elvis Presley in the United Kingdom, but as the project developed, however, the staggering impact that Elvis had made and continues to make on people’s lives became the more interesting and poignant aspect to the whole idea of Viva.
Viva is a documentary project – I was seeking to document a particular niche culture within the wider popular music culture. Writing about documentary projects, Wells (1996, p.102) comments that such projects used to be “concerned to draw the attention of an audience to particular subjects, often with a view to changing the existing social or political situation.” She notes that the post-war years produced an altered society and that this changed world transformed documentary photography. Now, she argues, “the old hierarchy of importance has been abolished : hereafter the subject matter of documentary is both dispersed and expanded to include whatever engages or fascinates the photographer.” Viva was never conceived to change the world – the idea of Elvis, his image, the distortion of that image by both fans and commerce and his iron-like grip on aspects of the popular culture were both engaging and fascinating to me.
Bennett (1999, p.600), writing about tribalism in music suggests that, “those groupings which have traditionally been theorised as coherent sub-cultures are better understood as a series of temporal gatherings characterised by fluid boundaries and floating memberships.” Whilst there are tribal elements to Elvis fandom, I feel that they do not fit easily into Bennett’s model. Elvis fans have taken their devotion further than the average rave child or Northern Soul fan. I would not class them as a musical tribe – they are something much more than that – there are no “fluid boundaries” nor “floating membership” in the tribe of Elvis fans. Instead, their belief is absolute. There is another model, other than musical tribalism which describes Elvis fans much more accurately.
It was my attendance at the Elvis Four Nations Competition that first alerted me to the parallels between religion and Elvis-worship. The journey to Graceland can easily be read as a Hajj for Elvis fans a pilgrimage they must make at least once in their lives. The worship of the ETAs (Elvis Tribute Act) on stage can be read as transubstantiation. They are not cheering and reaching out to touch Jon Fleming, an Alloa fitness instructor (current World Champion ETA) – they have suspended their belief and they are in the ballroom of the Las Vegas Hilton, not Alloa Town Hall. The collection of merchandise can be read as the worship of relics. The behaviour of fans towards the ETAs and the stage shows of the ETAs themselves are hugely and strictly ritualistic. The costumes of the ETAs are stitch-perfect recreations of the fabulous costumes Elvis wore. Women reach up with one hand to wipe the sweat from the brows of the ETAs as women used to do for Elvis. The ETAs distribute scarves to the faithful as Elvis once did himself (dozens each show – carefully draped around his neck by his backing singer and stage manager, Charlie Hodge). Doll (2009), writes, “The typical Presley concert of the 1970s was more like a series of rituals and ceremonies than a performance by a mere entertainer. Elvis engaged in dramatic actions and gestures throughout the concert, which were emotive, expressive and therefore exciting to the audiences. Similarly, specific songs signalled certain behaviours that the fans looked forward to, especially those involving interaction between the singer and the audience.” The act is set in stone - fans do not want anything to jar their fervour and the ETAs follow these tropes and rituals to the letter for a similar reason to those experiencing religious fervour - they want to believe that they are watching Elvis as Christians want to believe they are drinking blood and eating flesh. Rose (2009) notes that, “Elvis’s fans were unusually loyal and demonstrative throughout his career and this interactive aspect of his act – from the beginning of his career to the end- was partially responsible.” If the ETA on stage behaves as Elvis and they behave as the fans used to, then the faith and belief of the fans can be maintained. I feel that the ETA-based images in Viva will help demonstrate to anyone with a passing visual knowledge of Elvis the rigid structure to both their acts and the fans reaction to them.
There is a split between the ETAs. Some talk on stage between delivering songs as if they were giving a history lecture. “This song was a particular favourite of Elvis,” they will say. The fans do not take to this idea well as it breaks the spell. They much prefer when the ETA becomes Elvis and says, “This here song was one I recorded at Sun Records in July ’56.” The ETA is Elvis made flesh.
Marcus (1991, p. 203), writing about an Elvis tribute album, says “Elvis becomes a magic mirror, then a lost reflection.” The fact of the man, his life, his triumphs and many flaws are swept away in this ritualised and religious behaviour. I hope that the Elvis merchandising shots from Viva capture something of this distortion. The fan’s need for a perfect idol has fragmented the facts of the King’s life. I was too caught up in capturing the object of worship in the early stages of Viva, too dazzled by the perfect recreation of the King’s clothing and stage moves and too interested in the tawdry nature of the merchandising to notice the fans.
Sturken and Cartwright (2009, p. 56-57), writing about aesthetics and taste make the following observation- “ ‘Bad’ taste is sometimes regarded as a product of ignorance of what is deemed ‘quality’ or ‘tasteful’ within a society…Taste, in this understanding, is something that can be learned through contact with culture…Taste can be exercised and displayed through patterns of consumption and display.” There is nothing tasteful about a fan’s singing, revolving Elvis Christmas tree nor a cuckoo clock – not to mention the full-sized Elvis statue in one fan’s garden. Nor the Elvis bowling ball. Or ironing board. Or…almost every object in the house of one particular obsessed couple featured in Viva. These totems of worship can, however, be seen as “something that can be learned through contact with culture.” The problem is that these disciples’ culture revolves exclusively around worship of the King; their taste is certainly “displayed through patterns of consumption.” I do not feel that their taste is a result of ignorance as Sturken and Cartwright suggest, for they seem intelligent and involved people. It could be argued, rather, that their lives had become so blinkered and so focussed on one object of worship and of desire that any other considerations, including those of aesthetics and taste, are wiped away.
Who are they building these cathedrals to obsession for? In the same way that Jesus will never see the glory of St. Paul’s or St. Mark’s – Elvis will never see Eugene and Cathy’s house. Faith and belief are what sustain them. I am an atheist, which is perhaps why I find the cult of Elvis fandom particularly interesting. In the extreme cases I encountered during Viva, fanhood has spilled over into a kind of theism. Elvis is the King, the one true god. The parallels between religion and Elvis worship continue beyond the fervour and faith they seem to share and beyond the rituals and behaviours described above.
The followers of the King shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of Elvis’s life. Guralnick (1999, p.638) describing watching a recording of one of Elvis’s last concerts, writes painfully, “ He gives the impression of a man crying out for help when he knows no help will come. And even after more than twenty years it is almost unbearable to listen or to watch, the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty, and in its place sheer, stark terror.” The knowledge of Elvis’s sad decline and ignominious death is commonplace. He died in a bathroom in Graceland with fourteen different drugs in his system – “ten in significant quantities.” (Guralnick (1999, p.652), yet the fans choose to ignore these aspects of his life. I feel that the sad truth of his later years lend poignancy to the later section of the images selected for Viva. Wells (1996, p. 250) states that, “to decode photographs…more effectively, it is essential to understand their context.” I hope that the images within Viva provide the context to Elvis’s continuing existence as a cultural icon and as a near-deity beyond the sordid nature of his later years and death.
What started out as a kitsch exploration of the continuing appeal of Elvis Presley has become, hopefully, something more – something deeper. My aims for Viva now are that it helps identify and explore a deeper ancient human need for ritual, for spectacle, for faith and for dedication. I hope that the images portray the uneasy dance between fans, ETAs, merchandise and the flawed image of Presley himself. His memory has become twisted and venerated to fit the needs of the fans and of the huge multi-million pound industry that continues to feed so voraciously on both Elvis and the hopes, needs and desires of his fans. I hope, also, that it says something about commercial exploitation and about the commodification of dreams.
The more I researched Elvis Presley, the more photographs I took and the more people I spoke to, the sadder Viva became. What had begun as a look at the pantomime elements of the King’s life and legacy became darker and sadder as it went on. In the end and in spite of all the tawdry costumes, obsessed individuals and mountains of hideous merchandising, nothing can obscure the true legacy and the bounty that Elvis left the world. Guralnick (1999) writes at the end of over 1,200 pages of biography; at the end of talent and of fortunes celebrated and squandered; after the death of hope and of astonishing beauty and agonising ugliness; through the drugs, the cars, the dreadful movies, the planes, the guns, the women, the Colonel, the bombast, the hype, the grubbing and grasping exploitation, and the bloated corpse of the man himself, “ It is impossible to silence that voice; you cannot miss it when you listen to “That’s All Right” or “Mystery Train” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or any of the songs with which Elvis continued to convey his sense of unlimited possibilities almost to the end of his life. It is that sense of aspiration as much as any historical signposts or goals that continues to communicate directly with a public that recognized in Elvis a kindred spirit from the first. That is what we have to remember.”
It is the music, the exciting, unstoppable music that lends the air of sadness to Viva. The contrast between what Elvis was and what his legacy has become that gives an air of poignancy to his life and his life after death.
Peter Gularnick, towards the end of “Carless Love” (his second volume of Elvis’s biography) says, “It is impossible to silence that voice.” No matter the size of the tidal wave of tat and blind, misplaced devotion and worship that threatens to engulf his true legacy, the music – The Music - that voice will always crest it.
Before I started Viva, I was a fan of the early Elvis tracks, but I don’t think that I was quite aware of the world in which this music was created, not the impact the music had on that world.
Elvis’s first appearance ever on a radio show was in 1954. The Louisiana Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole Opry in terms of power and significance in the US in the 50’s. Recorded in Shreveport, Louisiana, the Hayride was a weekly three-hour programme broadcast live on KWKH on Saturday night. In the pre-television era, the Hayride was primetime.
Elivis was nineteen year old on this first appearance at the Hayride. It was the 16th. October, 1954 – over fifty years ago. Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, drove the 200 miles from Memphis to Shreveport in his ’51 Cadillac with Elvis, Scotty Moore (guitar), and Bill Black (bass). Bill’s double bass was roped to the roof. The band had finished playing their regular slot at the Eagle’s Nest in Memphis and arrived just in time for their radio debut.
Elvis’s was extremely nervous and the audience’s reaction is a little tentative to the two songs. I feel that these early recordings are the most heartbreaking. Heartbreaking in the same way that the haunting early portrait photographs are. If he’d known what was to come – would he have put down the microphone and gone back to driving trucks?
Elvis on stage with Scotty and Bill for their Hayride debut, 1954.
The Hayride recording of “Hound Dog” from 16th. December 1956 could be a different artist from the nervous teenager of just two years earlier. He is assured and a pure showman. Peter Guralnick in his epic biography quotes a fellow musician who was there – “ This cat came out in red pants and a green coat and a pink shirt and socks, and he had this sneer on his face and he stood behind the mike for five minutes, I’ll bet, before he made a move. Then he hit his guitar a lick and he broke two strings. Hell, I’d been playing ten years, and I hadn’t broken a total of two strings. So there he was, these two strings dangling, and he hadn’t done anything except break the strings yet, and these high school girls were screaming and fainting and running up to the stage, and then he started to move his hips real slow like he had a thing for his guitar…” He cracks up twice during the song – revelling in the obvious effect he is having on the audience. He ‘vamps’ the song for the reprieve. He sounds like a stripper. The sound of the crowd even at this distance in time is still spine-tingling – it is the birth of the teenager – it makes the Beatles audience sound like polite applause at a classical recital.
Elvis was the start of it all and the best of it. I hope that Viva goes a little way to explain the continuing appeal of this extraordinary man.
THE MUSIC – all that really matters.
Elvis performing “If I Can Dream” on his ’68 Comeback Special, 1968.
My thanks go firstly to Mark Dunlop for his time, guidance, input and thoughtful suggestions. Without him, Viva would not be what it is.
Thanks go to Dr. Mark Percival, media lecturer at QMU and Prof. Martin Cloonan, professor of Popular Music Politics at the University of Glasgow for their help with the critical review.
I thank Peter Phillips, his team at the Elvis Four Nations and the staff of the Fairways Hotel, Dundalk.
I am grateful to all the ETAs, especially James Murray and Mr. Johnny Lee Memphis.
I thank Lisa Strathie and the Elvis Touch.
I am indebted to Margaret Nolan, Eugene Larravide and Cathy Monahan for allowing me into their homes.
I am grateful to The Printspace and The Framing Workshop.
I am grateful to The Rich Mix Arts Centre for booking Viva and Daisy Gili and Anna MacDonald at the London Film Academy for sponsoring the exhibition.
I thank and apologise to my friends and family for putting up with my one track mind and topic of conversation over Viva.
Finally, thanks to Stephanie Gibson.
Bennett, A. 1999. Subcultures or Neo-Tribes? Rethinking the Relationship between Youth, Style and Musical Taste. Sociology, 33:599.
Doll. S. 2009. Elvis For Dummies. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Guralnick, P. 1994. Last Train To Memphis – The Rise of Elvis Presley. London: Little, Brown.
Guralnick, P. 1999. Careless Love – The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. London: Little, Brown.
Hopkins, J. 1981, Elvis – The Final Years. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Marcus, G. 1991. Dead Elvis – A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Sturken, M. & Cartwright, L. 2009 Practices of Looking – An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wells, L. 1996, Photography – A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.
Time Magazine May 1954 – from www.wordpress.com [accessed 20/4/12]
Elvis has left the building.