I sometimes wonder how different Elvis Presley's career would been if he had been christened Joe. As it was, there was always going to be something odd about him. What sort of name was Elvis? What did it mean?
In the early days his peculiarities were tied up with the peculiarities of rock'n'roll. In Britain we just thought this was what it meant was to be young and American; in the United States what it meant to be young and from the South. But as his career unfolded - the movies, the army, Hollywood, Las Vegas - as we learnt what else rock'n'roll could be, then Elvis's peculiarity was that he was not a typical rock'n'roller or even a rock'n'roll star at all. Relatively speaking, after all (relative to John Lennon or Jim Morrison, to Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jackson), Elvis's tastes in drugs and kinky sex, his displays of folly in excess, were disappointingly normal. As Karal Ann Marling puts it: "Elvis Presley's sins were blessedly ordinary ones magnified by money. Fooling around. Lying to yourself. Popping a pill. Sitting on the sofa when there are better things to be done." And, for those of us who are still touched by his voice, not giving much of a damn about anything, least of all his art.
The thing no one has ever been able to explain about Presley, in short, is his passivity. Marling records that late in 1966, when Presley's box office returns and record sales were in decline, manager Colonel Parker persuaded RCA to buy Elvis's gold Cadillac, and send it on tour as a surrogate for the singer. "So the Cadillac opened shopping centres and allowed itself to be admired in the parking lots of theatres ...The car tour was a great success. In Houston, 40,000 came to take a look and take home a free 'Elvis Presley's Gold Car' postcard. In Atlanta the car was the guest of honor at a dinner for 250 dignitaries."
And this reflects too the other peculiarity of Elvis Presley as a pop star: his impact as a visual (rather than aural) icon. Presley has become more famous in death than any other popular performer this century because of the instant recognition factor - the sideburns, the Nudie jackets, the girth, the jumpsuits. And if Marling's most remarkable achievement in Graceland is to write a book about Elvis that is genuinely illuminating, this is, in part, because she is not a musicologist but an art historian. Her concern is with Presley's visual rather than musical tastes, his role not as iconic stage and film and TV performer but as consumer.
Graceland, Presley's house turned tourist attraction, lies at the heart of Marling's book. It is where we can see most clearly how Presley read the meaning of his success: what his money could buy. And it is now a Historic Place, the second most visited Historic Place on the US tourist circuit. It is not just Presley fans who are fascinated by what he kept there.
Marling remarks towards the end of her book, that "of all Elvis's many sins, the most terrible to our day and age are the aesthetic ones. Tacky furniture. Sideburns. Clairol 'Black Velvet' hair dye. Sequined bell-bottoms. Shag carpeting. Get real, El!" In his Presley biography, Albert Goldman concluded that nothing in Graceland was "worth a dime". But then, as Marling puts it, Goldman hated Elvis and got this wrong too. "It isn't so. Those of us born any time between 1933 and 1977 - the Age of Elvis - can tell you to the dime what everything in Graceland is worth, in hard cash, in hours of overtime, in months of dropping quarters into polyvinyl pigs ... the house is full of things that we all have or used to have or used to want, or hate."
For the Presleys money was not a way of moving out of the working class but of realising its fantasies: they still shopped in the same furniture stores and garages and outfitters, but now they could really afford to indulge themselves. Far from shaping the tastes and styles of his audience, Elvis shared them; for the cultural historian, the Graceland tour is a record of how the American working class commodified its postwar dreams. Presley was as dazzled by the decorative aesthetics of Hollywood and Las Vegas as any of the fans who queued to see him on celluloid or in performance at the Showroom International.
Marling describes Presley's life not as a career stalled or a talent wasted but as a state of perpetual tourism: Elvis as the visitor - Nashville, New York, Los Angeles; Europe, Hawaii, Las Vegas - who had to keep coming home. A home rooted in the "old" South but shaped by mass culture, by country music, film star lives; a retreat from modernity put together in shopping sprees.
I went to Graceland once, before Presley's death, to sneak in the gates and pick a souvenir blade of grass. Marling writes that "visitors never fail to be shocked by the sight of the hill and the trees and the big white mansion stranded in an endless strip mall, a hundred yards from a fume-choked six-lane highway which has not been appreciably gentrified by being called a boulevard. 'I never dreamed that a man of his stature could live on such a street,' says one fan who speaks for many." But I do not remember feeling shocked or even surprised. There was a logic to the setting: the tawdry grace, the hint of humour, the self-conscious expansiveness that summed up Elvis's own musical appeal. It was as if, to explain where he had got to, he had to show himself (and us) where he had come from. And in understanding this, Marling's Graceland becomes both a disturbing and a moving meditation on American popular culture.
Simon Frith is professor of English studies, Strathclyde University.
Graceland: Going Home with Elvis
Author - Karal Ann Marling
ISBN - 0 674 35889 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £16.50
Pages - 258