Book Reviews

The Death And Resurrection of Elvis Presley (Reaktion Books)

elvis

The Death And Resurrection of Elvis Presley
Ted Harrison
Reaktion Books

In death, Elvis Presley has become larger than life. It was said that when he learned of Elvis Presley’s death, Colonel Tom Parker was nonplused; he told others that nothing would change; in fact, the nostalgia industry would make Presley even bigger and even richer than before. Crass as his sentiments might have been, he was absolutely correct. Author Ted Harrison’s latest book, The Death And Resurrection of Elvis Presley, examines the unique culture of death celebrity. Harrison categorizes the issue into three primary areas: economic, social, and spiritual, all three of which provide for compelling reading and contemplation.

Presley’s rags-to-riches story is so beloved because it fits nicely within the context of “The American Dream.” Here was a young man from a poor background who became one of the (seemingly) richest entertainers of his time, but who was still humble; he loved his mother, he loved Jesus Christ, and he was ever-mindful of his roots. HIs generosity was well-known, but he still lived a lavish lifestyle, which somehow made his decadence forgivable. Of course, all was not what it seemed; behind the scene, Presley had become a bloated, drug-addicted recluse prone to emotional swings and reckless spending, tempered with predatory management driven by Parker’s gambling debts. What the world—and even many of Elvis’ friends and family—did not know was just how bad things were for Presley. When he died, he was heavily in debt; he was down to his last million dollars, and had he lived, he would have most likely found himself declaring bankruptcy.

Thus, the most miraculous part of the Presley saga isn’t his life-after-death success, but that the estate was able to continue to exist at all. Graceland has become one of the most famous homes in the world, but that wasn’t really planned; instead, it became a museum in a last-ditch effort to keep it from being foreclosed and liquidated. One would never know it now, but Priscilla Presley’s efforts to turn it into a museum was a huge financial gamble, one that required her literally put up everything she owned just to get it off the ground. It was a risky move, but one that succeeded. Harrison details the behind the scenes business wheelings and dealings of the post-Colonel Parker Elvis Presley Enterprises, one that has seen its share of ups and downs, with ownership changing quite frequently, yet still managing to keep Graceland a vital museum that attracts fans from across the country.  It’s to Harrison’s credit that he was able to dig deep into the often tedium-inducing mundanities of business and create a compelling, informative read.

For those who follow the literature about Elvis Presley, the other two subjects covered with The Death And Resurrection of Elvis Presley cover familiar ground. It asks, essentially, the big question: what is fandom, and why Elvis Presley? It’s a broad question to ask, with surprisingly complex results and no easy answer, other than to say there is not a singular definition of an Elvis fan. Harrison takes it a step further and examines the metaphysical and spiritual elements at play, delving into the gray area of Elvis-as-Religion. We’re talking about something more than priests who dress up as Elvis—a hilarious tale of such a priest is a highlight—we’re talking about the rewriting of the Christ narrative with Elvis Presley as savior, a development Elvis was aware of during his life—and one he balked at—and one that is fueled by the “Elvis Is Alive” movement. Harrison could easily fall down the wormhole of conspiracy theory—admittedly, it’s fun to do just that—but he keeps his work on an even, logical, reality-based level,  even when reality is stranger than fiction. Two examples: a man bought a one-way ticket to South America and left Memphis at roughly the same time Presley died, and the name he used was one Presley often used while traveling. Another example is the Wow! Signal, the only known response SETI has received in its decades-long outreach into outer space, this event took place on August 15, 1977, mere hours before Presley’s death; it’s the source of “Elvis-As-Alien” conspiracy that was hilariously used in Men In Black.


The post mortem career of Elvis Presley has certainly been an interesting one, and Ted Harrison’s summation of it provides for compelling reading. It definitely proves that Ol’ Tom Parker crass prediction was right: death changed absolutely nothing, and death has only made Elvis Presley even richer and even more famous.

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