Events » Book Reviews

Keys to the King

The Rough Guide to Elvis serves as your road map to the shifting place known as "Elvis country."

by

comment
Twenty-eight years after his death, the body of information on Elvis Presley is extensive, to say the least. On top of his copious crop of recordings, films and TV appearances, there have been more than 100 biographies, numerous documentaries, and at least one academic conference (the International Conference on Elvis Presley, held at the University of Mississippi in 1997). It's not an exaggeration to say that there are few figures in history -- almost certainly none other in America -- who have received the kind of attention as that bestowed on the King. Something about this poor boy from Tupelo, Miss., and the way he touched the world turned his story into more than the sum of its parts. Over time, he has evolved from a simple pop idol into America's preeminent self-representative myth.

Paul Simpson's Rough Guide to Elvis (recently revised for its second edition) is an attempt to ease navigation of the landscape that is the King. Because the Rough Guides are primarily travel books, Rough Guide to Elvis isn't a deep biography or trenchant criticism. Instead, it is an overview of Elvis for the casually interested done in the same way conversationally hip reporters might give travelers an overview of Bulgaria in preparation for their Bulgarian jaunt.

Rough Guides also publishes books on musical genres (there are several including Cajun, though Elvis is the only solo artist to merit his own edition), but like travel books, they set readers up with everything they need to know to "get around" in reggae or Slavic folk music, with an emphasis on breadth over depth. With these basic tools, readers can wander off the explicit path and start their own exploration. The idea of writing a travel book about a person makes an interesting assumption, that culture itself is country -- terrain to be explored via static points on a map. Physical geography (a mountain, a river, a building) has objective truths the way cultural history (a film, an album, a marriage, a jumpsuit, a drug overdose) has its own.

The variable is the traveler, who creates meaning by processing those truths through his or her own experiences.

Few cultural phenomena lend themselves as easily to this concept as does Elvis. The effect he's had on world culture is complex, pervasive, and full of nuance to the extent that people who "travel" through Elvis country can, in fact, have extremely varied experiences of him, just as different travelers to New Orleans come away with their own unique impressions of the city, each one equally genuine.

For some fans, Elvis is a cheesy icon of bloated decadence in a spangled jumpsuit; for some he's the good-hearted country boy ruined by excess; for some he's the computer-aged conspiracy-theory star on the cover of supermarket tabloids, or the white boy who stole the blues, and so on. These are individual maps imposed on Elvis territory the same way a visitor to New Orleans might think of it as a place defined by restaurants and cemeteries, or neon cocktails and beads, or ghost stories and Anne Rice. There are almost limitless versions of New Orleans the same way there are countless versions of Elvis. Travelers take the facts and create their own meaning with the X factor of experience.

Simpson's Rough Guide lays out Elvis territory as any good guidebook should, with information untainted, for the most part, by opinion. Almost everything's there: basic bio and discography, capsule reviews of each film, reports of conflicting accounts and plenty of ephemera and apocrypha, from background on Col. Tom Parker to an account of David Bowie's obsession with Elvis. Because Elvis is as much a phenomenon as a person, the travel guide treatment is a good idea. It's possible to have a perfectly good time in New Orleans without any knowledge of its history or mystique, but it improves a visit to know something about Storyville's role in the evolution of jazz, say, or Jean Lafitte, or the French Quarter fires. In the same way, watching an Elvis movie is goofy fun, but it adds something to know how he chafed at being put through the wringer, churning out family-friendly schlock when he wanted to be the next Marlon Brando.

Nobody sane would truly attempt to explain Elvis Presley, and this book doesn't try any more than one would try to "explain" New Orleans, Paris or London. Elvis impacted American culture to such an extent that he has attained almost mystical significance as a symbol, though he remains simply a brilliant rock 'n' roll singer. Consequently, there are as many ways to experience him as there are people who care to. Nick Tosches wrote, "Elvis is a mystery that can never be solved"; similarly, Elvis is a place that can never really be mapped. He remains a malleable frontier, evolving as culture -- and individuals -- continue to translate his impact.

On the 28th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, The - King remains as mysterious a figure as ever.
  • On the 28th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, The King remains as mysterious a figure as ever.

Add a comment