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Devil's Bargain 

Elvis Yoko Anna Nicole

Wednesday, Aug 21 2002
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Illustration by Peter Bennett

LATE ONE NIGHT IN THE SPRING OF 1978, I WAS SITTING in the railway station of a small English town waiting for a train that had been delayed for hours. On the next bench was a 40-ish man in a black leather jacket.

"You have a match?" the guy abruptly asked, and when I answered no, he said, "So you're a Yank." I nodded and he looked at me intently. "You killed him, you know."

"Who?" I asked, hoping I wasn't dealing with a lunatic.

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"Elvis!" he said, shocked that I didn't know. "You Americans killed him . . . You didn't love him enough."

Well, at least that last part was true. Like most people born after 1950, I scarcely noticed The King, and bombing down the San Joaquin Valley last Friday, through the windshield-bespattering farmland my wife calls Bugaria, I was reminded why I'd spent my youth thinking of Elvis as little more than a greater Pat Boone. Our car stereo had mysteriously short-circuited -- all the buttons suddenly froze, as in a scene from the next Shyamalan picture -- and we were stuck on an oldies station that, like all the media, was commemorating the 25th anniversary of Presley's death. Mile after mile, it kept dredging up so-called classics like "Good Luck Charm" and "Smorgasbord" and the achingly heartfelt, unspeakably corny "Are You Lonesome Tonight?," the kind of rubbishy material Presley started doing in his early 20s and never stopped singing. No one in history was ever allowed to make so many rotten records.

Driven by an admixture of naiveté, weakness, eagerness to please and poor-boy ambition (the Presleyologists are busy measuring the precise proportions of each), Elvis had made a devil's bargain. To assure long-term profitability as a star, he domesticated the outlaw qualities that made his presence feel so subversive in mid-'50s America: the churning sexuality, bursting youth energy and natural-born bluesiness that wrapped white skin around black music. Far from being a deliberate subversive, he conspired with his handlers in turning himself into a conventional show-biz creature, churning out abysmal movies and becoming the kind of crummy crooner that his first fans had worshipped him for not being.

Of course, pop artists have always found it easy, almost obligatory, to betray their gifts. What gave Presley's saga its special symbolic potency was its juxtaposition of vast artistic diminution and equally vast bodily expansion. He became one of those run-to-fat icons -- Orson, Marlon, Liz -- toward whom Americans always enact a ritual ambivalence. We love ridiculing these oversize celebrities while they're alive, then once they're gone, cherish them for being so doggone human. All these years later, I'm still not sure what it says about our national psyche that we voted to put the drug-addled Fat Elvis on our stamp rather than the young, handsome, charismatic Thin Elvis who anyone in their right mind would rather be.

I was too young to have seen Elvis' breakthrough appearances when they occurred -- my knowledge of his cultural importance has always been purely theoretical -- but racing past Bakersfield, I suddenly got an intimation of how it might have felt to have heard him way back when. After hours of deadening "classics," the DJ suddenly popped on "That's All Right," the 1954 Sun recording that was perhaps Elvis' artistic summit. Instantly, everything changed. The air was filled with sex, energy, fire. The song was so rousingly alive that I grasped how such a sound might have exhilarated teenagers just dying to be jolted from their Eisenhower-era torpor. It hardly matters that the revolutionary part of Elvis' artistic career lasted about as long as a mayfly, or that he had far less talent than James Brown, Ray Charles and the countless jazz musicians who hated him because his rise put them out of work. The point about pop culture is that, whether they're brilliant or not (think of Marilyn Monroe), individual performers can change the whole culture -- Wop Bop A Loo Bop! -- just like that. America was different once Elvis got on TV and swiveled his hips to "Hound Dog." In a matter of seconds, he showed much of white teenage America a new world -- he was the Christopher Columbus of Youth Culture -- and it doesn't matter that he didn't lead them all the way there. They could do the rest themselves.

All these years later, of course, media coverage of the 25th anniversary could scarcely be bothered to ponder Elvis' meaning to American culture. Instead, it became the latest pretext, like Spider-Man or Samantha Runnion, for a marketing-driven bombardment designed to promote the illusion of a national consensus. (In that connection, let me be the first to mutter that, with three weeks still to go, I'm already sick of the relentless anniversary coverage of 9/11.) Everyone hopped on the Dead Elvis bandwagon. TV Guide ran a 3-D cover that showed you The King puckering, Internet marketers assailed you with ads for box sets, and NewsNight With Aaron Brown used Presley puns as the banners beneath their segments ("Elbe has left the building" for the disastrous Central European flooding). Meanwhile, over on Charlie Rose, a couple of brainy rock geeks dissected Elvis' legacy with the customary help from the show's host: "To have such talent, to have had such impact -- it shows my naiveté about human nature -- and to destroy yourself . . . but we've seen others do it." Charlie was just recently returned from heart surgery, so it was good to find that statuesque marble head already in midseason form.

If all the coverage seemed frivolous, boosterish and incoherent, this was probably fitting, for it's essential to the Presley story that it keeps resonating in so many unexpected directions -- from Bill Clinton being nicknamed Elvis (aptly, it turned out) to William F. Buckley writing his 2001 novel, Elvis in the Morning, and then going on the chat shows to talk (fib?) about what a great musician he thought The King was. Among those who went to Memphis for the 25th anniversary, there could've been no weirder couple than Lisa Marie Presley and new husband Nicolas Cage, who not only has aped Elvis more than once on film but also famously collects Presley memorabilia. Talk about devil's bargains! While it's scary that Cage would add a live human being to his collection ("She comes with a Certificate of Authenticity," joked Entertainment Weekly's Jim Mullen), what's really terrifying is that this isn't even Lisa Marie's craziest marriage.

LIKE COUNTLESS OTHERS, I WAS RAISED TO VIEW YOKO Ono as the scary-haired demoness who broke up the Beatles. I'd long ago learned this was a misogynist cliché (does anyone still believe it?) and that Ono was a serious artist linked to, among others, John Cage, Allan Kaprow and Fluxus. Still, I'd never gotten a true feel for her work until last week when I checked out the "YES Yoko Ono" show at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. There, you encounter the famous piece that so delighted John Lennon, the stepladder to the magnifying glass through which you can find the word "Yes," plus lots of other low-key pleasures -- droll bits of collage art, a vending machine that dispenses pieces of "sky," a Plexiglas maze named "Amaze" leading to a toilet, and a series of all-white chess sets atop a row of all-white tables lined with all-white chairs, like something from the White Room of their Dakota pad. What struck me was how a woman widely seen as utterly humorless and controlling created Out Art so filled with poker-faced fun and affirmation. Much of Ono's work is slight and charming, but most of the world never realized that she was ahead of her time, because they were still living in the past of the world's most famous rock band.

It was always a source of tension in her relationship with Lennon that his voluminous fame took away from her autonomy. Which may help explain why her work increasingly explored feminist themes. Perhaps her most powerful expression of this is her 1969 film Rape (made in collaboration with Lennon) in which the camera starts off interviewing a young Viennese woman who at first seems flattered to be filmed. But once the camera relentlessly follows her all the way home, she starts feeling assaulted and freaks out.

A startling piece of proto-reality TV, Rape looks positively utopian in these days of The Anna Nicole Show, whose star's whole career has been a series of devil's bargains -- on both sides. Unlike Ono's young heroine, Anna Nicole Smith never stops being a willing participant in her rape by the camera, which delights in capturing her crazy-vacant eyes, upper arms that balloon like Evian bottles, and countless dimwit maunderings. The show would only be bearable if Smith were actually putting it on. But how could she be? She's Elvis -- if he'd never had any talent.

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