The Myth Behind the Truth Behind the Legend: Albert Goldman’s ‘Elvis’ (12/81)


MONEY
When Lamar Fike, for many years a member of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis Presley’s stable of paid friends and gofers, decided to sell his story, he spawned a small industry. Agent Kevin Eggers brought Fike together with Albert Goldman, a fifty-four-year-old pop critic and former college professor. The word went out that Fike had the goods, and Goldman was to give the goods some substance—to turn what might have been just another scandal book into “the definitive biography.” Serious money was put behind the project, and it paid off. Before publication, Goldman’s Elvis generated well over $2 million in subsidiary rights: a $1 million U.S. paperback sale, a $400,000 U.K. paperback sale, a movie option, high-priced excerpts in Rolling Stone and Ladies Home Journal, newspaper syndication through the New York Times service. Because of the money involved, and because of Goldman’s reputation as a New York intellectual, the book has been reviewed widely and prominently; as no book on Elvis Presley before it, it has been taken seriously. Despite some partially negative or carp­ing notices, the reviewing media have accepted the book as it presents itself—as the last book we will need about Elvis Presley.

SCANDAL
The promised scandal is there in plenty, and because of the saintliness in which Elvis was wrapped throughout his lifetime, it still has punch. There is first of all dope, Herculean quantities of it; then sex, orgies, and homemade pornographic videos piled upon fetishes, phobias, and neurotic dysfunction; then violence, a much thinner theme, but including accounts of cruelty, gunfever, and gunplay; then fat, then waste—all of it testimony to a schizophrenia as out of control as it was cossetted. But the significance of Goldman’s book is not to be found in its collection of scandals—Lamar Fike’s memories, rumors, composite scenes, old stories fleshed out or simply repeated. An exile from the real world, Elvis Presley built his own world, and within it—where the promise was that every fear, pain, doubt, and wish could be washed away with money, sex, drugs, and the bought approval of yes-men—Elvis Presley rotted. It was a fantasy of freedom with the reality of slavery, the ultimate validation of D. H. Lawrence’s dictum on what he took to be the American idea of freedom: “Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing.” The real significance of Goldman’s Elvis is in its attempt at cultural genocide.

HOW TO DO IT
It is Goldman’s purpose to entirely discredit Elvis Presley, the culture that produced him, and the culture he helped create—to altogether dismiss and condemn, in other words, not just Elvis Presley, but the white working-class South from which he came, and the pop world which emerged in his wake. For such a task, revelations about the moral weakness and ill-spent life of a single individual are useful, but no matter how numerous or squalid such revelations might be, they are not sufficient. It is necessary to utterly destroy the individual’s claim on our attention by leading the reader to feel in every way superior to him; to sever the in­dividual from the social context that might make sense of his work or allow the reader to feel kinship with him; to bury what might remain of that social context in bigotry and stereotyping; to selectively omit important parts of the story being told, and to falsify others; and to surround the enterprise as a whole with calumnies and lies.

SO WHAT
Were it not for the money behind the book and the consciousness of the book that money has produced, Goldman’s Elvis would be little more than a 598-page attempt to prove that Albert Goldman is better than Elvis Presley, just as Goldman’s earlier Ladies and Gentlemen, LENNY BRUCE!! was a 555-page attempt to prove that Albert Goldman was hipper than Lenny Bruce. How else to explain Goldman’s bizarre aside that because Elvis was uncircumcised, “he saw his beauty disfigured by an ugly hillbilly pecker,” unless one assumes Goldman is inordinately proud of his own lack of a foreskin, and wants everyone to know about it? But because the book is having its intended impact, and because Elvis Presley is so large a figure, intertwined with the lives of millions of people in ways that have hardly begun to be examined, a good deal is at stake. What is at stake is this: any book that means to separate a people from the sources of its history and its identity, that means to make the past meaningless and the present incomprehensible, is destructive of that people’s ability to know itself as a people, to determine the things it might do as a people, and to discover how and why those things might be done. This is precisely the weight of Goldman’s book, and it is precisely the weight of the cultural genocide he wishes to enact.

HILLBILLIES EAT DOG FOOD WHEN THEY CAN’T GET SHIT
It is hard to know where to begin: the torrents of hate that drive this book are unrelieved. On Elvis’s background: “The Presleys were not an ordinary family: they were hillbillies… A more deracinated and restless race could not be imagined… Just as the hillbillies had no real awareness of the present, they had no grasp on the past… [Vernon and Gladys Presley were] the original Beverly Hillbillies… [Gladys Presley was] not merely ignorant, but a hillbilly Cassandra… [Vernon Presley was] a hard, mean, nasty redneck… a dullard and donkey… [with a] deadened dick… Like most Southern men, Vernon had a knack for slippin’ away… ‘I jes’ can’t see mahself over theah in a fereign country’ [Goldman pretending to quote Gladys Pres­ley].” On the South: “rickets, a disease produced by not having enough money or enough brains to eat right… a [gospel] sing is one of those parochial institutions endemic to the South… [Pentecostal Christianity] is a set of superstitions… the corny old saws of hillbilly faith healers… a classic white trash bluegrass song… No matter how much of the black style these white boys take, it always comes out sounding as Caucasian as the Klan… Of all the dumb activities in this dumb working-class school about the dumbest was shop: Elvis Presley’s major.” On Presley: “Little cracker boy… sang like a nigger… He loved above all else to impersonate the jive-ass nigger pimp… [he looked like] a homosexual in drag… a latent or active homosexual… his fat tongue… his mush-mouthed accent… his country-bumpkin cousins… smug, stupid, embarrassingly self-conscious screen rooster… [his] dumb jocko-shlocko Memphis-in-Bel-Air milieu… pig junkie… the face of a young George Wallace.” On there being nothing lower than a male hillbilly like Presley except any kind of woman: “His middle-aged woman’s passion for knick­knacks, curios and chatzkahs… throwing things like a hysterical woman… he would always go inside a stall, like a woman… like an obese go-go girl… propped up like a big fat woman recovering from some operation on her reproductive organs.” And on, and on, and on. Right here, you have the essence of the book.

THE MYTH BEHIND THE TRUTH BEHIND THE LEGEND
“Myth,” Goldman writes, “is what we believe naturally. History is what we must painfully learn and struggle to remember.” Within this remarkably philistine formulation, Goldman makes much of his puncturing of Myths (his capitalization), all of which were punctured long ago, which exist to be punctured because Goldman has labored to inflate them, or which are punctured only by fiat and mystification. Goldman notes, for example, that it is a prime Presley Myth that Elvis took much of his style from free-wheeling Pentecostal preachers. One Goldman phone call, to the man who has headed the Presleys’ Tupelo, Mississippi, church since 1944, confirms that services there were invariably reserved and genteel. Another Myth destroyed. There remain only a few problems. First, the minister in question arrived in Tupelo when Elvis was nine, and says nothing about services during Elvis’s formative years. Second (as Goldman himself will claim when he needs to find roots for Elvis’s later interest in spiritualism), the Presleys attended tent meetings and traveling revivals, where the preaching was often far wilder than in a settled church. Third, there are Elvis’s own words. “The preachers cut up all over the place, jumping on the piano, moving every which way,” Elvis told an interviewer in the mid-fifties. “The crowd responded to them. I guess I learned from them.” Why would Elvis lie? Goldman has no need to explain, as he refrains from quoting Elvis on the point.

The real myths a reader confronts in Goldman’s book are those of his invention. By far the worst of these concerns Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, and the man who first recorded Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, and Johnny Cash, and who made the first important records with Howlin’ Wolf and many other blues singers.

NIGGER
Perhaps the most famous statement in the history of rock ‘n’ roll is that attributed to Sam Phillips by Marion Keisker, his co-­manager at Sun during the early and mid-fifties, and in fact the person who truly “discovered” Elvis—noting his name, vocal style, and a phone number at which he could be reached after the eighteen-year-old showed up at the Sun studio to make a “hear-­your-own-voice” record so that he could hear his own voice. The statement is simple and elegant. “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel,” Keisker remembers Sam Phillips saying, “I could make a billion dollars.”[1]

In Goldman’s book what we are offered is very different. “If I could find a white boy who sang like a nigger,” Goldman has Sam Phillips say, “I could make a billion dollars.”

Goldman presents himself as a hipster (in fact he is a hippie, in the fifties meaning of the term: one whose only interest is to appear hipper than anyone else in the room), and perhaps to the hipster, who alone comprehends the primal genius of the black man, all non-hipster ofays are racists, but Sam Phillips was one of the great pioneers of racial decency in this century. He worked with blacks day in and day out, and in the fifties, in Memphis, he was ostracized for it: “Hey Sam,” he heard, “you smell okay today—must not have been with those niggers!” Sam Phillips ran the only permanent recording facility in Memphis, and he had opened it solely to record black musicians.

Inspired by Goldman’s example with the Tupelo minister, I picked up the phone and called Marion Keisker in Memphis. (Though Goldman claims to have based his book on more than six hundred interviews, neither he nor his researchers ever spoke to either Keisker or Phillips.) I read her Goldman’s version of Phillips’s statement. This is what she said:

“UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES! What? I never heard Sam use the word `nigger’—nothing could be more out of character.” She paused to catch her breath. “Never. Never—never. I don’t believe Sam ever used that word in his life, and he certainly never used it to me.”

Thus we have the myth behind the truth behind the legend.

The effect of Goldman’s revision will be twofold. Because his book will be the most widely read and widely consulted biography of Elvis Presley, his perversion of Sam Phillips’s statement will replace the statement itself: it will be quoted in reviews, articles, among fans, and in other books, and it will defame the reputation of Sam Phillips. [2] And because Goldman has placed a racist slur at the very founding point of rock ‘n’ roll, and because, here and elsewhere, he works to make racism seem ordinary, matter-of-fact, and obvious, he will contribute to the acceptance of racism among rock fans, who might learn a different lesson from an honest version of their history, and he will contribute to the growing fashionableness of racism among Americans of all sorts.

DEGENERATE
If not racism, then eugenics. Having established “hillbillies” as a “deracinated race,” Goldman sets out to prove that Elvis’s line was the most degraded of all—resurrecting the long-discredited theories of Henry H. Goddard, who in 1912 published a study of the “Kallikak” families (from kallos, the Greek word for beauty, and kakos, for bad). According to Goddard, a “Martin Kallikak” had a one-night stand with a bar woman of low morals, and later married a Quaker. The first liaison produced a line of criminals, drunkards, and morons, while the second produced only “the highest types of human beings.” The findings thus proved that poverty and antisocial behavior (and, conversely, wealth and good character) were entirely a matter of inheritance—of genetics. The purpose of the study was to affirm that the poor were poor because they were inferior, that social programs (for, say, the eradication of pellagra—or rickets) were a waste of money, and that certain sectors of the American population had no place in society. Goddard bolstered his research—he could ascertain a person’s level of imbecility by a glance or by hearsay—with faked photographs. “Goddard’s Kallikak family functioned as a primal myth of the eugenics movement for several decades,” Stephen J. Gould writes in The Mismeasure of Man. Longer than that: as late as 1961, many years after Goddard himself had repudiated the import of his work, his falsifications were presented as fact in a major American psychology textbook.

Finding “strong reason to believe” that Bob Lee Smith, Elvis’s maternal grandfather, may have married a first cousin, Goldman gravely informs his readers that “genetics may explain why the children of Bob Lee’s brothers and sisters turned out well, whereas Bob and [his wife] Doll produced children who exhibited an abnormally high incidence of addiction to drugs and alcohol, emotional disorders and premature death.” Goldman turns his tricks well. While most of Elvis is written in the voice of the hipster (“they’s many a crazy, likah drinkin’ pill-poppin’ countrah boy that kin get hissef jes’ as racked-up ‘n’ ragged as the craziest coon on Beale Street”), in the addled syntax of a person who dictates rather than writes (“envying what is beyond one”), or in the tones of a man who simply can’t be bothered with decent language when the subject of that language is so obviously contemptible (“What really bugged Elvis was that they could never find one of those trick cars, like they have in the circus”), here Goldman slips easily into the simultaneously vague and definitive cadences of the social scientist. Thus he offers the litany, familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the literature on eugenics, of “violence,” “convulsions,” drink, birth defects, and “homicidal madness,” until “Finally one comes to Elvis, whom we see now as possibly the victim of a fatal hereditary disposition.”

Whatever that means—and of course outside of Goldman’s intentions it means nothing at all. There is no such thing as “a fatal hereditary disposition.” But the claim does have its purpose. Is it possible that the rot, the schizophrenia, that took over Elvis was in some way bound up in the fact that as a working-class hero who (no matter how great his fortune) never left the working class, Elvis could not integrate the worship and derision which were his fate from his twenty-first year? That Elvis’s life represented a real American dilemma? By no means. It was all in the genes of the “bad side” of the Presleys, and the Presleys were part of a “de­racinated race” from the start. As Goldman says, “there is absolutely no poignance in this history.”

MIMIC
In order to destroy Elvis Presley as an American original, who might tell us something worth knowing about America, Goldman moves to destroy Elvis as an American (“The Presleys were not an ordinary family: they were hillbillies”), as a person (“Elvis was a pervert,” we are told, because, Goldman reports, he was fixated on “the vision of black pubic hairs protruding around the edges of white panties”—a pervert, presumably, like James Joyce, who was fixated on the vision of white panties with little brown spots on their rear sides), and as an artist. Goldman has some positive things to say about a few of the early Sun recordings, though they were, he reminds the reader, nothing new (Elvis’s “notion of what was hip was almost quaint”), little more than “parodies,” and essentially fake: Sam Phillips “attached to his new star’s raw and untrained voice the electronic prosthesis [Goldman means the slap-back echo Phillips had used earlier on many blues records and used later on many rockabilly records] that masked his vocal faults while it transformed—or shall we say transfigured?—his vocal quality into the legendary Presley sound.” After a justifiable dis­missal of “Heartbreak Hotel,” which was less an Elvis record than an attempt by RCA to bring him into the pop mainstream, Gold­man mostly ignores the rest of the early RCA work and, when Elvis returns from the Army, jumps straight into a condemnation of such bloated (and still exciting) discs as “It’s Now or Never,” omitting any mention of Elvis Is Back!, the powerful blues and R&B album with which Elvis in fact announced his return to pop music. When it comes to the unrehearsed, small-combo rockabilly blues of the 1968 comeback TV special—certainly the most mature and passionate music Elvis ever made, and very likely the best music he ever made—Goldman writes it off as not even worth consideration as “a document,” reserving his praise instead for the shlocky Broadway arrangements that made the rest of the show so conventional. He must do this because the small-combo music can be credited to no one but Elvis himself, who not only sang but played lead guitar—and Goldman grants approval to Elvis’s music only when it can be credited to someone else.

To make a rejection of Elvis’s music credible, though, Goldman must discredit both the response that greeted it (easily done: “broad, coarse effects… appropriate to all the broad, coarse sensibilities in his audience… [rock] was little more than a gag reflex regurgitating the high school enthusiasms of the Swing Age”) and the possibility that it had authentic roots. Having already disposed of the Myth that Elvis absorbed, and transformed—integrated into his personal culture—the spirit of unfettered Pentecostalism, Goldman turns to the great question: “How did Elvis learn to sing black?”

Forget that Elvis’s first records were rejected by white DJs as too bluesy and by black DJs as too country—forget that to people who knew Southern music, Elvis’s version sounded new. To Gold­man, Elvis was simply an inspired “mimic”: he learned what he knew off the radio. His music had no human source, which is why it was not real music—it was just another commodity, and it was learned as a commodity.

Which leaves, for Goldman, one more Myth to be taken down: the Myth that Elvis spent time on Memphis’s Beale Street, drawn there by the blues. Goldman wastes little space on the problem: “all one has to do to test that idea is to imagine how Gladys would react to such a pastime. Why, every weekend people got killed down on Beale. No, it is unthinkable that the boy who spent his weekends listening to records at Charlie’s would slip into the darkest and most dangerous part of the ghetto to hear somebody sing the blues.”

Robert Henry and Nat D. Williams are two more Memphians who somehow missed being interviewed by Goldman. Henry was a Beale Street promoter. “I taken him to the Hotel Improvement Club with me,” he told Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenall, au­thors of Beale Black & Blue, “and he would watch the colored singers, understand me, and then he got to doing it the same way as them. He got that shaking, that wiggle, from Charlie Burse, Ukulele Ike we called him, right there at the Gray Mule on Beale.[3] Elvis, he wasn’t doing nothing but what the colored people had been doing for the last hundred years. But people… people went wild over him.”

Nat D. Williams, the unofficial mayor of Beale Street, was also a history teacher, a newspaper columnist, a disc jockey, and emcee at the Palace Amateur Nights on Beale Street. He described Elvis’s performances on those occasions to McKee and Chisnell: “We had a lot of fun with him. Elvis Presley on Beale Street when he first started out was a favorite man. When they saw him coming out, the audience always gave him as much recognition as they gave any musician—black. He had a way of singing the blues that was distinctive. He could sing ’em not necessarily like a Negro, but he didn’t sing ’em altogether like a typical white musician. He had something in between that made the blues sort of different… Always he had that certain humanness about him that Negroes like to put in their songs. So when he had a show down there at the Palace, everybody got ready for something good. Yeah. They were crazy about Presley.”

Henry and Williams are recounting events that took place well before Elvis showed his face at Sun Records, and well before an electronic prosthesis was grafted onto his voice. Black people ap­parently did not notice the absence. And while Beale Black & Blue was published only recently, the information it contains has been available for years in Memphis to anyone willing to ask for it—as has the information that Elvis, whatever his mother might have thought, spent time as a teenager in Memphis’s black neighborhoods, having sex with black girls. Such information is missing in Goldman’s book not because it is dubious, but because it conflicts with Goldman’s portrait of Elvis as “an unregenerate Southern redneck who stopped just short of the Klan.”

IN HIS PLACE
And that, I think, is enough. I have little stomach for any more: for an accounting of Goldman’s countless factual errors (Hank Williams’s death dated in the wrong year; “James Meredith,” who has surely suffered enough, being killed in 1969 at Altamont rather than Meredith Hunter), misspelled names, songs placed in the wrong movies, or the dismissal of James Brown as “an African witch doctor” and of Roy Brown, the voice behind B. B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Clyde McPhatter, and Jackie Wilson, as a “mediocre bluesman.” One can pause and say that Goldman has done useful work elaborating the truth about Colonel Parker (though he is not the first to reveal that Parker is a Dutch­man rather than the West Virginia carny Parker has always made himself out to be), and about Parker’s long-term mismanagement of Elvis’s career; one can say that the opening chapters of the book, set late in Elvis’s career behind the walls of Graceland and inside the Hilton International Hotel in Las Vegas, while clearly composites, are effectively creepy. One could detail the homophobic, ethnic, and racist slurs, the exaggerations, and the undocu­mentable assertions and conversations that mar even these sections of the book. But there is no point.

“The fascination,” Linda Ray Pratt has written of Elvis, “was the reality showing through the illusion—the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos… Elvis had all the freedom the world can offer and could escape nothing.” It is that pinch of ridicule—the ridicule in which a great part of America has always held Elvis Presley—that is the exploitative basis of Goldman’s book. Even the book’s errors, its disregard for the most easily confirmed facts, its degraded style, and its refusal of documentation or, most of the time, even attribution, is part of this: it emphasizes that a figure such as Elvis Presley does not deserve a serious biography.

But while Goldman’s Elvis is not a serious biography, it is a very serious book, if only for what it seeks to accomplish: to exclude Elvis Presley, and the culture of the white working-class South, and the people of that culture, and the culture of rock ‘n’ roll, and the people of that culture, from any serious consideration of American culture. The bait is being taken: in the New York Times review that will be syndicated all over the country, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that after reading Goldman’s book “one feels revolted by American culture for permitting itself to be exemplified by the career of Elvis Presley.”

There is no need to feel revolted: American culture has never permitted itself to be exemplified by Elvis Presley, and it never will. But certain Americans—and of course people from all over the world—have recognized themselves, and selves they would not have otherwise known, in Elvis Presley: Americans whose culture had taken shape long before Elvis Presley appeared, and those whose culture would have had no shape, would have been in no way theirs, had Elvis Presley been willing to keep to the place allotted to him.

He wasn’t willing to keep to his place, and now he is being returned to it. It is altogether fitting and proper that this be so, because as a redneck, as a hillbilly, as a white boy who sang like a nigger, Elvis Presley was never permitted to join the culture that has never permitted itself to be exemplified by what he made of it.


Footnotes
[1] From an interview with Keisker by Jerry Hopkins, as it appears in Hopkins’s Elvis (1971). Sam Phillips denies making the statement, believing (according to Keisker), that it implies he was only interested in money, when his ambition was equally to bring the two races and their music together.

[2] One of those who followed Goldman’s version was Robert Pattison, professor of English at Long Island University and author of The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism, published in 1987 by Oxford University Press. After receiving galleys of the book, I wrote the publisher, pointing out the distortion and insisting on its seriousness. The publisher replied that the author was sure Goldman’s words were correct, because they were “more vulgar,” and that, in the annals of popular music, “vulgarity is always closer to the truth.” Pattison was topped in 1991, in the New Republic, by Louis Menand. “Everyone who writes about popular music,” he said, “knows that before Sam Phillips, the proprietor of Sun Records, recorded Elvis Presley in 1954, he used to go around saying, ‘If I could find a white boy who sang like a nigger…'”

[3] Sam Phillips recorded Burse’s “Shorty the Barber” in 1950—Burse was only the second artist to record for Phillips—but did not release it.


Village Voice (Voice Literary Supplement), December 1981 (originally titled “Lies About Elvis, Lies About Us”); reprinted in Dead Elvis, 1991


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2 thoughts on “The Myth Behind the Truth Behind the Legend: Albert Goldman’s ‘Elvis’ (12/81)

  1. “Because his book will be the most widely read and widely consulted biography of Elvis Presley, his perversion of Sam Phillips’s statement will replace the statement itself.”

    Thankfully that failed to happen, largely because of Marcus’s magnificent demolition of Goldman’s hateful hack job. Gurlanick’s Elvis biographies have completely supplanted Goldman’s travesty, thanks in part to the ground-clearing performed by this essay.

    • It really is an impressive takedown.
      I’m surprised Goldman could walk down the street after that, without strangers hitting him with a sock full of horse manure.

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