There is a adage that has made its way around the media world the past few years that goes, “Photo or video or it didn’t happen.” Imagine if we applied that rule to the Elvis community, and to the history of Elvis (and the Presley family) going back nearly 100 years. What would our knowledgebase look like with only facts that can be seen and heard? What would happen to all the information that is not tangible in some way? Where would it go? Would it simply vanish?
An author many years ago opined that Elvis left us with very little of himself. Sure, we have his body of work, and we have a small bit of on-camera commentary, and we have the parts of his life that we can see and absorb. But from a first-person perspective on the facts of his life, Elvis is largely absent, and we have been left to rely on Elvis’s friends and family and associates to paint a picture of Elvis for us that has proven to be blurry, at best. Grossly self-serving, at worst (and I am being kind).
When Elvis spoke in public, either in very brief interviews or when a microphone was put in his face, he said very little of substance, and he said very little about himself. Colonel Parker isolated Elvis to such a degree that most interviews or press conferences consisted of some basic questions, with some basic answers, and then as soon as anything of substance was brought up, Parker shut down the interview. Elvis was likewise kept away from talk shows and substantive media appearances, like we might see on a primetime news show. At the June 1972 press conference in New York, for example, we see Elvis seated at a bank of microphones like he is ready to sit for a full, proper interview, and yet only one important comment was made by Elvis in that press conference, perhaps the most profound thing he ever said about himself (we’ll get to that later). But at the time, no one recognized the comment for what it was. The rest of the press conference featured standard media inquiries, and was unremarkable. Asked for several of his political and social views, Elvis refused to answer.
If Elvis did not tell his own story, then who is telling it? The storytellers here are the Schillings and the Espositos and the Wests and the Smiths and the Thompsons of the Elvis World. All of these people were given a very unique opportunity: tell the story of your relationship with the world’s most beloved entertainer. Only later was the caveat added: “…but don’t worry about truth, accuracy, context, or bias…just write the story and let the fans sort it out.” So do the fans then handle the information properly, and consider sources, context, logic, etc., or do they just cherry-pick what they believe (or want to believe) and discard the rest? The answer is obvious.
When a supposed first-person story is told, how do we know what’s true, and what is sort of true, and what is not true? How much truth can we really have when we are missing one of the key components of these stories? Let’s look at a few examples (hypothetical or “real”) of how this plays out:
Larry Geller says he and Elvis ate dinner together on February 5, 1965 (hypothetical). Did Larry and Elvis eat dinner together on this date, lacking any sort of tangible evidence other than Geller’s claim? We don’t know, but we have to go by what Geller says, as he was the only person who was present who is still living.
Priscilla Presley says that she and Elvis talked about getting back together shortly before he died. Did Priscilla and Elvis talk about getting back together in mid-1977? We don’t know, but we have to go by what Priscilla says, as she was the only person who was present who is still living. (This doesn’t mean the claim is true, or that the Elvis community must believe the claim, just that Priscilla is the only source.)
Rick Stanley said that on the morning of August 16, 1977, Elvis told him he didn’t want to be bothered under any circumstances. Did Elvis really say this to Rick? We don’t know, but we have to go by what Rick says, as he was the only person who was present who was still living for many years after 1977.
See how this works? We have two people present, and one of them is no longer around, so the story is told by the person remaining. (In this Rick Stanley example, there is no known precedent for Elvis having made the “do not disturb” request as described by Stanley.) That person writes the story; that person writes the history.
So much of what we “know” about Elvis comes from people who were with Elvis, and speak about incidents and experiences they shared with Elvis. But these are all told through the eyes and memory and bias of the speaker, with Elvis’s input completely absent.
Looking at the broader picture, the one person who did not write Elvis’s history is Elvis himself. We have no (or very, very little) record of Elvis talking about his opinions, his beliefs, or his feelings; instead, his public statements are off-the-cuff throwaway lines that add nothing to our understanding of him. An interesting example of this is the 1968 Comeback Special, where Elvis is supposed to talk about the music/bands he likes. But what does he do? He mentions The Beatles, and “The Beards,” and then loses interest and drops the subject. The viewer was supposed to be informed and enlightened by Elvis’s words about himself, but Elvis didn’t bother to inform, he just threw it away.
What about Elvis and his proposal to Ginger Alden in January 1977? She says he proposed, and several people have corroborated that he had the ring made for that purpose, and that the proposal took place in Elvis’s bathroom on the night of the 26th. This is not difficult to believe. But who was in the room at the time? Ginger and Elvis, and only Ginger and Elvis. So, like the examples above, we have to go by what Ginger says, as she was the only person who was present who is still living. But what about the people who say Elvis was not going to marry Ginger, and/or that he did not propose as she described? How do they know? Did Elvis tell them he wasn’t going to marry her? If so, did he explain why he proposed? Or if he didn’t propose, did anyone ask Elvis, “Hey, why is Ginger saying you proposed to her if you didn’t?” Or, “If you proposed to Ginger, why are you telling me you aren’t going to marry her?” One of the fascinating things about the Ginger/marriage question is that so many people around Elvis at the time said afterwards (and some continue to say this 45 years later) that Elvis was not going to marry Ginger, and yet they never describe the discussion beyond their self-serving claim that “Elvis wasn’t going to marry Ginger.” Did this discussion address any of the obvious questions? Did Elvis explain himself? Did he explain why he would get a huge diamond ring made and then propose to Ginger if he did NOT intend to marry her? Did this person ask any questions? These people always want to argue whether Elvis was going to marry Ginger, but did any of them ask Elvis: “ARE YOU GOING TO MARRY HER, CONSIDERING YOU PROPOSED AND GAVE HER A RING?” Seems pretty obvious to ask this, doesn’t it? But we never hear that. What happens instead is that people are able to manipulate the story to reflect their own biases and beliefs, and then offer up claims that seem to exist in a vacuum. If you believe Elvis proposed to Ginger, and that he DID intend to marry her, then you need only listen to Ginger’s first-person account. If you believe Elvis proposed to Ginger but was NOT going to marry her, then all you have to do is say, “Elvis told [someone] he wasn’t going to marry her.” See how easy this is? It’s easy because Elvis is no longer here, and Elvis’s positions on these, and many, many other topics, are unknown. Thus, the story is written by other people.
[Try this experiment: Ask someone who doesn’t “like” Ginger Alden if Elvis was going to marry her.]
The larger point here is that in Elvis World there is so little objective truth; instead, there is “truth” based on “belief,” and “truth” based on bias and, often, a clumsy, ill-conceived agenda. Read a Facebook comments section and you’ll see what that means.
Imagine this: Elvis dies in 1977, and there are no books written about him after his death. The only books available are by Hopkins, Yancey, and the West/West/Hebler trio. There are no books by Priscilla, or Larry, or Marty, or Joe, or Ginger, or the Stanley family. No books by Guralnick, either, since so much of his work is based on these other resources. What would the Elvis community know about Elvis absent these books? Looking at it another way, is it better to be ill-informed, or not informed at all? To receive misinformation, or no information? Myth, or nothing? Conflicting accounts and claims, or no accounts and no claims? Would the Elvis community understand Elvis better with these books, or totally without? I am beginning to wonder.
I am also beginning to wonder if actual truth even matters, since so many fans dismiss the truth if they find it doesn’t comport with their beliefs.
As things stand now, I believe we have Elvis’s life and death, as described in “official” accounts, that individually exist as an “approximation of truth.” Though this is a scientific theory/construct, it loosely means that things are represented in ways that might be close to the truth but are nevertheless false. (Or to expand on the theory a bit, things might be close to the truth, but not as close as we’re expected to believe.) Is this where much of the Elvis Presley story can be found, in an abstract, shadowy space where truth doesn’t really exist? His life as shaped and sold by his estate is certainly not based on objective truth, and the facts of his death are misunderstood by a large portion of the Elvis community. With both, you can find fans just about anywhere who believe things about Elvis that are not true, or don’t believe things about Elvis that are true. Unfortunately, many fans seem to prefer it this way.