By Jane and Michael Stern
Knopf. 211 pp. $35
What a strange coffeetable book this is. With a gold lame' cover and a gatefold title page that opens like the gates of Graceland, it is a collection of photos, trivia and commentary on the most important figure in American pop culture. Yet at the same time that it celebrates Elvis Presley, it demeans him.
Jane and Michael Stern, whose previous books include such excursions into heartland civilization as "Roadfood," inform us at the outset that this is not a biography but more of an iconography. "There was a time when he was merely the most popular entertainer in history," they declare. "He is more than that now. He is a symbol of America as recognizable as the flag."
Indisputable though this may be, he was a musician first. And it is this portion of "Elvis World" that is given astonishingly short shrift. While there is a section devoted to Elvis' movies, plus a short sampling of lyrics written for him, there is no list of his hit singles. Would anyone write a book about John Wayne that neglected his cowboy roles?
The Sterns make the point that music is not central to "Elvis World," the world of the fanatic fan. Nevertheless, to highlight the Cadillacs, the teddy bears, the Graceland grotesqueries, the Elvis imitators, the excesses perpetrated by young girls who worshiped him, is to reduce the impact of Elvis on pop culture to its lowest common denominator.
Well, that might be the point. "Elvis World" reminds us of just how tacky stars could get ... and how we fans returned the favor. He was vulgar; we should not be allowed to forget that.
On another level, "Elvis World" is a rich reminder of the voice, the wiggle and the sneer of a young white boy who changed our lives forever. With Elvis, the hillbilly hiccup was grafted to black rhythm and blues. A new art form was born. Sex and rock 'n' roll invaded sedate living rooms. Where would we be without them?
A chapter aptly titled "The Shock of Elvis" documents the A-bomb power with which he blew the '50s to smithereens. The hysterics brought on among earlier generations by Rudy Vallee and Frank Sinatra were decorous compared to those generated by Elvis. Even afterward, Beatlemania was tame by comparison. Furthermore, along with James Dean and the young Brando, he radiated an image of revolt a decade before the '60s made the notion of youthful revolution viable.
The paragraph above is the stuff on which serious tomes about pop culture are built. But the Sterns, to their credit, refuse to remain in this exalted realm. There follows the recipe for Elvis' "Most Famous Favorite Snack," the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. There is an inventory of Elvis' pantry and of the cigar box that toadies were required to have on hand wherever the King went. The latter contained 15 items, including wood-tipped cigars, two emery boards, one jar of Occuline eye pads (in Los Angeles only), gum and sourballs. There is page after page of photos of Elvis memorabilia, such as statues and banners and buttons. Let's face it: The road to Graceland is paved in plastic, lined in velvet.
When it comes to Graceland itself, the Sterns pull no punches. On one hand, it is "the most recognizable private home in America" other than the White House. On the other hand, " 'good taste,' 'bad taste,' 'kitsch': such small terms do not do justice to Graceland ... It is a black hole in the aesthetic universe, where ordinary standards vanish." The jungle room, said to be the highlight of most pilgrimages to the King's Memphis estate, is described and illustrated in excruciating detail.
For whom is this book intended, anyway? For the fanatics, certainly. Also for nostalgic fans like my friend L., a sober reporter on weighty topics for a major news organization, who, on the day Elvis died, was moved to write a nationally syndicated story about her adolescent tenure as president of an Elvis Presley fan club.
However, if you regard Elvis as the king of rock 'n' roll rather than the King, period, maybe you should wait for the paperback, and spend your bucks on the compact disc reissues of the Sun sessions instead.
One final quibble. On Page 6, some of the most significant lyrics of all time are misquoted. The correct syllables are: "Awop bop a loo mop a lop bam boom."
The reviewer, a New York-based writer, spent much of her allowance on rock 'n' roll records as a teen-ager.