The Gospel According To Elvis
In the beginning was Darkness, and a World without Rock and Roll. Agents of the Light, like Luke, St. Crispin and the Duck, prophesied the coming of a King. But until that immaculate reception could take place on the radio, the World had to suffer through a cold war diet of White Buck and Faust, washed down with Republican pabulum of the Bald One and Rubber Man.Thus, roughly, begins The Gospel of Elvis (Summit, $9.95), a witty romp through the sacred corridors of pop iconography that strikes the perfect note for these loopy times. When Elvis sightings are as common as Big Macs and frustrated guitar-heroes like Dave Koresh can start their own religions, rock 'n' roll has clearly entered new and unprecedented cultural realms.Almost two decades after his death, Elvis is generating more income than he ever did during his lifetime. And precisely because the exploitation of Elvis-as-Icon is so crass, it's hard to take the upsurge in Elvis worship -- a phenomenon that was poignantly and painfully reported in a recent New York Times article, "Elvis, Healer" -- very seriously. But, indeed, 'tis true. Elvis is not just a cash cow for Presley Enterprises, he is a sacred cow to many of his fans.Although the author of this Biblical tome, Louie Ludwig (or "Saint Louie the Secret One True") may be a heretic, he's not a complete unbeliever. A musician, record producer and historian, Ludwig loves the sinner but hates the sin. That is, he reveres Elvis Presley as a singer and cultural emissary, bringing rock 'n' roll to all the hungry Beaver Cleavers in the era of Eisenhower (the Bald One) and Nixon (Rubber Man). But he is disgusted with the manipulation of the King during his life and now -- well into his postmortem -- his true-believing fans.While Ludwig's book is satire, his jabs are gentle, in fact, gentler than he intended. Perhaps such confusion with the forces of Light and Dark are to be expected from someone who left New Haven many moons ago to live in the land of voodoo, New Orleans."It was only upon rereading what I'd written that I realized I'd created a loving and tender portrait of Elvis," says Ludwig, who produces records for a number of New Orleans musicians. "He was a genuine mythic figure. It's not even hard for me to say he was a messiah, in that he changed society and culture in such a profound way, or that he was a savior, in that he saved us from the boredom of Pat Boone [White Buck] and the rest of the Land of Plenty's mainstream in the fifties. Now, of course, Elvis is also the most powerful human trademark on the planet. And his estate is in the hands of someone who wants to usurp that throne [Michael Jackson]."Ludwig, a former "serious Bible student," used the Scofield Reference Bible as his model and the format of The Gospel of Elvis fell into place. In addition to being an informative fable about the King's life -- replete with "Snake" as Col. Tom Parker, "WoMan" as Milton Berle, and "Babylon" as Las Vegas -- it's also a nifty piece of historical research with "Caesar Patricicius" as FDR and "Grandfather War" as the Civil War. It serves well as a sociological tract with "potions to conquer the sloth," as in amphetamines and "the prophets of nothing," as in the existentialists. Finally, it's a clever send-up of Bible scholarship, replete with Concordance a la Scofield -- what he calls "a sort of pre-computer hypertext" -- epistles, commentaries, illuminations, apocrypha, and "Notes of St. Cliff.""I was worried about who would interpret this book the least accurately," said Ludwig, citing the fundamentalist Christians who can't abide the Bible being desecrated in any manner, or the fundamentalist "Elvisists," who either take it as the gospel or can't abide the King being written about in any but the most hagiographic terms. But, saints be praised, Ludwig is reassured -- and surprised -- by the number of people who "get it" quickly, who pick up on the satire while also sensing the affection for Elvis-the-Man that percolates beneath the surface.During the two years that Ludwig spent compiling The Gospel of Elvis, he was amazed by the number of people he met who eagerly volunteered the details of "life-altering religious experiences" they've had via a divine Elvis."I've met several women of the appropriate age who insist that they've been to bed with Elvis," said Ludwig, "Not metaphorically but actually slept with him. Either he was hounding women all over the country while he was alive, or he is a powerful part of our collective unconscious." Or, as Ludwig more generously put it in the New York Times, "I was always touched and occasionally haunted by the intense feelings of longing, hope, renewal and transformation that Elvis can evoke."Augmenting Ludwig's take on a divine Elvis is the work of Robert Therrien, a New Haven artist best known for his syndicated "Bad Bob" cartoons. In his latest collection, The Anatomy of the Screaming Man (Longriver Books), Therrien includes religious depictions of Elvis. He uses thick black ink to suggest the woodcuts of Durer, and imitates Byzantine portraits, giving his "Screaming Jesus" the sneakily sacred tone he finds in a lot of the current Elvis trinkets."Elvis-as-Jesus seems to be an ongoing theme, especially in black velvet paintings," said Therrien, who created the Bad Bob series for a T-shirt business in 1991. "He was treated like a god when he was alive, so why stop when he's dead? He did have some Jesus-like qualities, though. He came from no money, he was humble and he never wrote a song."Among the latest batch of sacred trinkets are a CD called The Legend Lives Forever in Latin (K-Tel) and an Elvis Presley MasterCard, sanctioned by Elvis Presley Enterprises (read: twin Scientologists Mikey and Lisa Marie). Elvis Lives in Latin is not, as one might hope, a reverential Gregorian chorus intoning "Tenere me suaviter" ("Love Me Tender"), but a long-haired Finnish professor named Jukka Ammondt warbling like a poor man's Roger Whitaker. It's the sort of crooning you'd expect to hear from a gondolier on the River Styx, just before debarking in Hades (and, if that's not enough, Ammondt's recent "tour" made "News of the Weird").The credit card offer comes with a $35 annual fee and a monthly rate on purchases of prime-rate-plus-8.60 percent (the current total is 17.35 percent). Some of the annual fee goes to the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation, which allegedly donates money to "charities Elvis so generously supported during his lifetime." The card also entitles the bearer to 10 percent discount on all items in the Graceland Gift Catalog. Is this really what Elvis meant by life after death?More than 650,000 visitors pass through Graceland each year, second only to the White House in residential tourism. Most come to stand silently by Elvis' grave and commune with his spirit, not to mention to take home a souvenir that will, henceforth, have totemic value, having come from Elvis' own mortal home. Who are these people who worship Elvis?Maybe the final word on should go to Elvis himself. Or, rather, John Beardsley, a Bristol-based Elvis Presley impersonator. In between his busy schedule as a solo acoustic performer, Beardsley has created a "tribute to Elvis Presley" that is rooted in his own love of the man as a musical innovator. His Elvis act, which specializes in the 1969-1972 era, has kept him busy at times over the years. He, for instance, just got back from New Jersey, where he played at a diner opening, and he'll play a number of private functions over the holidays. But he has yet to run into people who have gone off the deep end of divinity with the King."Mostly, I run into people like me, big fans of Elvis," said Beardsley, "About as weird as we get is swapping stories about when Elvis toured Connecticut in 1975. I haven't met anyone who actually worships Elvis. Not yet, anyway...Hey, he was just a great all-around entertainer."Amen brother.