At the University of Arkansas they're acting out Elvis sociodramas. Seven people crouch together and pretend they're a Cadillac. That's nothing - later they try to be his haircut.
The Elvis Memory Shop, P.O. Box 181010, Memphis, has some keepsakes for you: laminated memorial obituaries ($2) per, electroplated necklace ($4), medical examiner's final report ($1). Also there are authentic copies of the King's driver's license and last will and testament.
And then there's Yucca Marketing, in Phoenix. They go the extra mile. For five smackers you get your name next to E's on a marriage certificate bearing a gold embossed "Seal of Remembrance." "Marry Elvis' memory," says the ad (in the classifieds of a grocery-store tabloid). Hurry, Limited offer.
Maybe you get the idea. Death sells in America, and in 1977, the year when not only Elvis and Bing, but Groucho and Charlie Chaplin and Freddy Prinze and Guy Lombardo and Zero Mostel all departed this moral coil, it sold like hotcakes. It was, as one tabloid headlined it, "The Year We'll Never Forget."
But in fact, death has always seemed to sell big in the cradle of capitalism - and you don't have to ready Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One" for proof. So two decades ago, James Dean, a 24-year-old rebel without much of a cause, slams a silver porsche Spyder headlong into another car on a lonely California highway and becomes - what? A "legend," a marketable myth. You can still find an occasional mawkish "souvenir" around - locks of hair, pieces of his clothing, chinks from his tombstone in Mairmount, Ind. Too, there are all those pamphlets claiming "proof positive" he's still alive.
So poet Sylvia Plath commits suicide in 1963 and becomes - what? The darling of college-age intellectuals. Suicide chic. (Publication of 696 of Plath's letters did very well a few seasons back; so did A. Alvarez's "The Savage God," an account of Plath's suicide and the author's own attempted suicide).
So a giant, brooding, incalculably talented Thomas Wolfe as the legend goes, who thought you couldn't go home again, prowls New Yorks Washington Square in the dead of night, wracked with loneliness and self-despair, burning himself out at just 38, only to become - what? A kind of paragon of Southern doom, the model of magnificent failure and lost promise. It all plays in Peoria.
So do the legends of Marilyn Monroe, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway. Photographer Diane Arbus. Novelist Virginia Woolf. Poets Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Hart Crane, Randall Jarrell - suicides all.
Death sells in politics, too - and the ashtrays and assorted trinkets bearing the likeness of John F. Kennedy that still go briskly at National Airport and elsewhere aren't the least of the proof. One remembers Teddy Kennedy standing in St. Patrick's Cathedral a decade ago, his voice cracking, asking that his brother Bobby not be enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. Even then he must have known. And in a way, the same logic applies to Hubert Humphrey, a sudden object of national idolatry. Never mind that he was once a controversial figure.
Poet James Dickey, long transfixed by the subject of death in America, once attempted an explanation for all this: "One wants to be doomed, you see. America wants one to be doomed." He said it has to do with catharsls - hearts cleansed by failure and madness and just plain blind fate.
The academics have explanations, too, Sazanne Pallak is an assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown, specializing in mass-media attitudes. She guesses the Elvis demand might be more media-inspired than anything else. "There's a lot of evidence these kinds of frantic needs to buy are engineered, manipulated. I haven't really done a study of the Elvis phenomenon, but it seems to me the appeal must have to do with what he symbolized, what his music meant to a generation now making its own passage. Media can key to this."
Pallak isn't sure, though, what would have motivated teen-agers and older age groups to rage for Elvis, as sales and TV ratings show they have. (Several of Presley's television tributes last fall nearly went off the Richter scale.) But she thinks musicians, especially singers, lend themselves to mass merchandizing easier than other fallen idols - say, athletes or movie stars (though Brian Piccolo and Carole Lombard, for two, got their outpourings).
"There is the illusion, you see, that a singer's voice is communicating directly to you, with you," Pallak says. "A voice can quickly release deeply felt emotions. Everything spins off that."
Apparently, it helps if one's demise is untimely, too. Probably no one but Elvis himself (who used to kid about it, supposedly) really thought he'd die young. And what would James Dean be like if he were alive today, one wonders. Would his voice be reedy, his body paunchy? Would he be given to ranting about the ecosystem on late-night talk shows? No, Dean works because he was a comet - a candle snuffed early.Some would call it timing.
The music business has always seemed to neatly accommodate tragedy and catharsis - and long before Presley unwittingly turned the death industry into a billion-dollar bonanza. Pop American music history is full of perfomers whose deaths were commercially mined - from Bix Biederbecke to Charlie Parker to Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Jim Croce (whose posthumous sales even he wouldn't have believed; in fact he's just been re-released again).
Janis Joplin was rock's first genuine martyr. Shunted from one screaming amphitheater to the next, often as not loaded up with Southern Comfort, she seemed almost willfully to propel herself toward self-destruction. Quick success and quick finale. When they found her that morning in the Landmark Motel outside Los Angeles, her body wedged between the bed and a nightstand, her veins shot through with heroin and tequila, she seemed a kind of proof for an awful theorem. Author David Halberstam once called the American cult of the failure of success.
In country music, Hank Williams is the daddy of examples. He ended it all in the back of a Cadillac, with booze and pills, on New Year's Day, 1953 - the life gone, the legend made, just as he would have written it in a song. You can go to Nashville today and shuffle past the glass cases in the Country Music Hall of Fame where Hank's guitar is on display.
There are other relics of the faith there, too - Patsy Montana's S125 boots. Tex Ritter's six-shooter, the "favorite book" of Hawkshaw Hawkins - who went down in the same plane with Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas. A drugstore blonde, her voice hushed and soothing, will tell Nashville pilgrims of Gentleman Jim Reeves ("his plane crashed nine miles from this very building"), of Red Foley ("he wanted to sing 'Peace in the Valley' just one more time"), of Patsy ("she was everybody's 'I Fall to Pieces' girl"). Even the not so-dead are memorialized: Minnie Pearl's squashed hat with the $1.98 price tag dangling from it is there, as are Roy Rogers' and Dale Evans' boots.
1977, though, was clearly a case of its own. First, there was Elvis' death in August. The came the news of Bing. Bing Crosby of 70 films, 850 records, and 40 million singles of "White Christmas," was in truth pretty dead at the cash register - till he died. Sam Pasamano, vice president of national distribution for MCA records, Crosby's major label, says that in the five days after Bing's death in October, his back catalog sold 1,210,000 units. "If you want comparisons," says Pasamano, "that's about five times better than last year." Pasamano adds that MCA had a Crosby greatest hits album in the can when Bing died. The record was slated for release this month, but was rushed into the stores shortly after his death; it's going gangbusters. And of course the Crosby Christmas special in December did terrific too, getting a 44 per cent share in the ratings.
Moral? Count on them being nuts for you after you're gone.
Even Guy Lombardo grew larger in his death last year than in all those previous New Year's Eves. His "Auld Land Syne" album has sold over a quarter of a million copies since he died; for him, that's astronomical.
There's also the grisly tale of the rock bank, Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Skynyrd band's chartered plane went down in flames on Oct. 20. The crash killed two of the band's seven members, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zandt. Their new album had just been released on MCA (with unfortunate cover art of shooting flames - which is being changed). Since then the record has gone platinum, and everything else in their catalog is hot, too. "They were nothing in Washington till they died, just a second-rate commercial band," says Roger Speidel, head buyer for Discount Records' several stores in the area. "It's almost a sick joke in this industry - you know?"
The joke has been sickest with Elvis. As he was in life, Elvis in death is in a class by himself. "Unprecedented in the annals of the record business," is the way Sim Meyers, a spokesman at RCA, Elvis' label, describes the Presley sell. "We've reissued everything in the catalog. We don't figure it will ease till mid-'78." Meyers won't give out sales figures, though. "We don't wish to seem capitalizing on his death."
Factors, Etc., Inc., in Bear, Del., is more candid. This used to be a T-shirt heat-transfer and poster empire (they did Farrah Fawcett).The Elvis came along. The firm now claims "exclusive worldwide rights to merchandizing Elvis," negotiated in a special deal with Colonel Parker. Everthing but records and movies, says a spokeswoman. There is a suit over this, but in the meantime Factors or their sublicensees are getting out mugs, rings, watches, toothbrushes, calendars, tote bags, book bags, backpacks. There was even a line of Christmas ornaments. Factors' proudest effort, though, has been production of a limited edition of pewter statuettes, orders for which were taken through yesterday, when the King would have turned 43. Yesterday the molds were to be destroyed. "Forever."
In Canton, Ohio, they're making plates. "I'm sure you are as disgusted as I am over the cheap and undignified mementos of our hero that have appeared since his passing," writes Donna McCartney of the Canton Elvis Club in a newspaper ad. McCartney's plate costs $37 and comes in a display case inscribed "Elvis with you forever."
Closer to home, in a Langley Park record store, a girl in her 20s with auburn hair and sad eyes stands poised one rainy noon over four bins of Elvis records. The place has virtually every Elvis single in RCA's Gold Standard Series on sale, plus gaudy racks of albums and cassettes and eight-tracks of all those awful movies - "Harem - Scarem," "Clambake," "Double Trouble."
"I still think of him at least once a day," she says, speaking softly. "It's really crazy how someone outside your own family could affect you like this. Except it's like he is a member of my own family."
On another day, another fan opens his heart. His name is Billy Poore, he's 33, and he's been a follower of Elvis as long as he can remember. In his Maryland home is a picture of the King with his arm around Billy. It was snapped, he says, in a hotel hallway just before a show a few years ago. "He let me through the bodyguards, threw his arm around me, and just stood there while his boys were screaming for him to get on the elevator. I'll never forget it.Some of us have genuine feelings."
He pauses, maybe contemplating what they've done to his hero. Then, speaking softly: "My wife'll tell you, I lived and breathed Elvis Presley for 20 years. Before him all there was was Davy Crockett and Roy Rogers. Sure, in the last few years he couldn't put on the same show. But he went out there and tried for guys like me. I think he must've known he was a piece of meat. I'll bet he even knew all this selling would happen after he was gone. It stinks, if you ask me. But I'll bet he knew . . ."