The (Urban) Legendary Elvis

Michael Goss
Magonia 31, November 1988
As the late Gilbert Harding used to say of dyspepsia: 'Of course I get it, but I don't suffer from it' ... I can take the Sunday Sport or leave it alone. Often I leave it alone for weeks at a time until some temptingly outrageous headline like 'Hitler was a Woman' makes handing over the 35 pence not only justifiable but essential. On grounds of research into contemporary rumour-legend dissemination processes, you understand. But you knew I was bound to say that.

And what happens? I buy the thing, I read the news behind the banner headline and I find I've been conned, taken, deluded, hornswoggled. Actually I'm not sure about having been hornswoggled but ... yes, that as well ... probably. For Sunday Sport stories have a disconcerting way of turning out to be not quite what the headline encouraged me to anticipate. After the gross disappointment of 'Marilyn Monroe is Alive and Working as a Nanny' last June a Sport exclusive which disappoints for reasons I can no longer recall I vowed I wouldn't let it happen again. Then, only a month afterwards - 'I am Elvis'.

One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go. I've bought the paper, I've scooted out of the newsagent and into the back-alley ... quick look to see if anyone's watching ... I plunge into the guts of the paper. Skirt the other Monty Pythonesque articles, the green aliens, the impossibly endowed earthly females: all I want is to get at the interview with whoever or whatever is claiming to be Elvis Presley, died 1977 as far as most of us are concerned but now ostensibly back from the dead and here exclusively interviewed in Britain's sabbatical sexsational equivalent of Disneyland Shock. Horror.

Well, a-bless-ma soul. I'd been prepared for doubt and paradox. How could it be otherwise with Sunday Sport alleging the continued existence of Elvis in this world when other publications had been aflood with incontrovertible evidence that he has been manifesting to the most lively degree in the next? You know the sort of thing: Elvis speaks but only c/o Fleet Street's latest tame medium. Only last year, too, he was positively identified by a truck driver as the Phantom Hitch-Hiker who'd thumbed him down outside (yes?) Memphis. Elvis himself did the identifying, 'I'm Elvis Presley, sir', he announced in suitable southern drawl moments prior to the critical vanishing point of the operation, Is that unambiguous' or what?

Some Hitch-Hikers are like that. They hate to leave the driver (or the audience) in any doubt as to who they're supposed to be. You can read more of this incident in Raymond Moody Jr's Elvis After Life, an adroit title, which alone seems to put the hip-waggler's current status beyond dispute. [1] Not to labour the point: in order to qualify as a Phantom Hitch Hiker you generally have to be dead. Here was the Sunday Sport ostensibly proving that Elvis was alive. But I wasn't prepared to have the paradox resolved so neatly.

Anyhow, I'd bought the paper under the assumption that it contained a variant of a contemporary legend not the Phantom or Vanishing Hitch Hiker this time, but the type classifiable as He Is Not Dead. The article would undoubtedly claim that, contrary to all belief and published information, the rock megastar had not died back in 1977; that would now be revealed as a monumental, marvellously engineered sham which enabled a tired, desperate Elvis to steal away from the voracious limelight into quietly anonymous retirement from which the Sunday Sport had managed, albeit temporarily, to resurrect him. That is what these not-really-deceased megastars always do in popular rumour legend.

Marilyn Monroe (d. 1962) is in a Tibetan monastery. (As was Adolf Hitler, though only in some versions of his survival legend, and I would not categorise him as a megastar in the same sense). [2] Bruce Lee (d. 1973) is alive and well and domiciled in China. Jim Morrison (1971) stepped out of The Doors and into Africa, Buddy Holly, disfigured by the 1959 plane crash, is in the USA; I can't remember exactly where. Nor can I remember (if indeed I ever knew) the supposed whereabouts of James Dean, but he isn't in Heaven.

These stories, as I just remarked, conform to a type. Someone in the public's adulating eye, focus of unconscionable admiration and gossip is abruptly taken from us. There is a car crash, a plane crash, a drugs overdose or something similar. There may well be suspicious circumstances surrounding the event, hints of assassination, for example yet on the face of things the central fact of the Great One's sudden death cannot be rejected. And yet, given time and circumstances not entirely intelligible, there may come rumours to defy this central fact, The star is not dead after all. The publicised death which appeared so final, so terminal, was a concerted and well-planned cover behind which he or she slipped unobtrusively from a life-style which had become intolerable, even hazardous.

Emphasis upon 'concerted', emphasis upon 'hazardous', A strong element of conspiracy is innate in these 'Undead' rumours. Logically and I apply the word to narrative consistency within the rumour, not in any external or objective sense the Star needed conspirators to pull off the escape and to sustain the sham-death scenario. It could also be that some crypto-conspiratorial cabal needed to be fooled into acquiescence before they had a chance to make the Star's death violent and proper; the FBI/CIA were after poor Marilyn, the Chinese drug-dealing mafiosi had evil eyes on Bruce. Whatever the onus, the Star fakes death, retires to safe anonymity where, relieved from pressures of the old life, he or she can develop artistically and spiritually. Marilyn Monroe becomes a Buddhist adept. Jim Morrison writes poetry. Only Rumour and its infallibly informed narrator with his access to amazing privileged information penetrates the trick.

Survival rumours are more than exercises in creative thinking or assays of popular credulity. Rejecting the finality of death, they affirm belief not merely in the survival of a particular person but in a system of values and memorised sensations associated with that person. Back then, in the time that the Star represents for us, things were better. Our beliefs, our brighter, more optimistic perceptions, are enshrined in the music and image of Jim, Buddy, Elvis. In their own way, and it is no less valid a way for its frequent alliance with the entertainment industry, these are lineal descendants of King Arthur, Friedrich Barbarossa and all the past heroes who have been credited with survival beyond their official life-spans. They are access points to a Golden Age or at any rate, to an age more golden than the one we're living in at present. [3]

I am Elvis. That's what the headline said and it was in the uncertain light of survival rumours like those just sketched that I read it. The Sunday Sport could not be indulging in metaphor. Elvis, legend in life, would now be shown to be a legend in pseudo-death. He had not departed in 1977, at least, not so far as we'd been led to believe. Gracelands was not a mausoleum, but a wonderful illusion: Heartbreak Hotel without the heartbreak. I paid the newsagent my 35 pence. I got ...

... What I got was an interview with a weighty German woman who claimed that Elvis lived through her. Or as her. She was Elvis which was all the headline had undertaken to provide: she was, in short and in fact, the reincarnation of Elvis. Well, that's all right, mamma. I've heard better and I've heard worse. And for certain Elvis, or his non-material form, has shown himself a far from aloof being. No recently defunct superstar bar one has shown greater willingness to communicate via motley mediumistic channels; the single exception, odd to say, is the inestimable Marilyn Monroe. [4]
I didn't so much as blink when a sensitive from London's eastern fringe told me how she'd come home one night to find Elvis materialised in her living room
Of course, there's the old problem of how a person can be addressing us through psychically attuned souls from the spirit world one moment and then be pinpointed alive alive-o in some out-of-the-way corner of this present world, but I can live with that discrepancy as with many another. Didn't so much as blink when a sensitive from London's eastern fringe told me how she'd come home one night to find Elvis materialised in her living room. ('He smiled at me.' Well, he would.) Didn't even worry how Elvis, whose solitary visit to these shores was when his plane touched down for a few brief hours in Scotland, could find his way to Hackney. I know all about it, you see; I am a great fan of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). So I had to concede it was fair enough for him to return as a large Teutonic Frau. But I still felt the Sunday Sport had cheated me.

What you really want nowadays is likeliest to come from the USA. Within 48 hours after my interment of the cozening Sport deep in our rubbish bin, I received a letter from my American friend and fellow weird-stuff connoisseur George Behe. George had included his normal quota of State-side cuttings, including one headlined: 'The King in Kalamazoo?' Like George Behe, Kalamazoo can be found in Michigan. It is chiefly (perhaps only) famous for figuring as the place where some crooning balladeer boasted of having a girl, viz, I gotta girl in Kalamazoo. [5]

The paper from which the Elvis article came described it as 'this city of time-warped quaintness between Detroit and Michigan', which sounds pretty damning. Unlike George Behe, who resides elsewhere in Michigan, Elvis Presley has now reputedly settled in Kalamazoo. Or rather, he'd allegedly been seen the previous week (which I believe places the adventure somewhere between 10-16 May this year[1988]) in a red Ferrari parked outside the Burger King on Westnedge Avenue. You'll acknowledge a certain aptness about this. King of Rock meets King of Burgers. Some close to him testified to Presley' latter day mania for burgers, sometimes in vast inhuman quantities, so... And there's the spiritual development aspect to remember. Marilyn studies Buddhism, Jim Morrison writes poetry ... Elvis eats burgers.

The Detroit News report set forth staff writer Frank DeCaro's pilgrimage to the city of time-warped quaintness. At Holly's Grill (Holly's Grill?) he caught up with his chief informant, 51-year-old Mrs Louise Welling. It was her two 20-year-old kids who'd had the honour of spotting Elvis outside the burger house and they 'wouldn't lie'. The King had spotted them spotting him, though, and 'threw on those dark glasses right away'.
Besides which and better: Mrs Welling had seen him for herself not then nor in Kalamazoo, but the previous September in a supermarket near Vicksburg: 'just as alive as you please. He wore a white jumpsuit and a motorcycle helmet. I was so surprised to see him'. And again the next November at the J.C. Penney entrance of the Crossroads Mall, Portage. She straight-armed any suggestion, tacit or overt, that she might have seen an Elvis imitator. She'd know the real Elvis if she saw him. This was the Elvis. She'd seen him. Mrs Welling was a force to be reckoned with. She represented, went on the article, none other than the Michigan connection. To forestall your unvoiced query: Mrs Welling it was who provided some of the crucial Michiganic data in a new book by G(ail) B(rewer) Giorgio of Marietta Ga.: Did Elvis Presley Die?

No, he certainly didn't! wrote Ms Giorgio, answering her own question and at some marketable length. Elvis fabricated his death in 1977 misled his over-fervent, pressurising fans, retired to a blissfully quiet, ordinary life. (Admit it. You could guess that was coming.) Retired to a blissfully quiet, ordinary life in ... Michigan ... perhaps in Kalamazoo. (Admit it. Without the build-up, you wouldn't have guessed that Kalamazoo was coming.) Her evidence: voice tapes and photos (post-1977); the fact that on his headstone Elvis's middle name is misspelled ('Aaron' for 'Aron'). The singer had fastidiously ducked out of defiling the sanctity of the grave by using his real name on a false tomb. Then there were the anomalies. Why (and how?) had Presley's death certificate disappeared? Why hadn't his relatives claimed the insurance? Why had the death certificate hey, hold on! what death certificate? She just said - Anyway, why did a death certificate give the deceased's weight as 170lb when the world knew that just before his demise Presley's avoirdupois had ballooned to 250lb? Why had his personal possessions, including jewellery, not been found?

To be truthful, I learnt of the anomalies not from the Detroit News, but from our own Sunday People some weeks later. [6] Grabbing at a neat transatlantic corner-filler, this source spoke of 'Hysteria in America' reaching fever pitch in the aftermath of the Giorgio book's appearance: in response to pleas for truth or confirmation from 'so many nutty Elvis fans', a Los Angeles radio station was said to be offering 'a staggering $lm to anyone who can bring the King into their studios for an interview'. (Some listeners were allegedly prepared to up the price for a personal and private meeting - a pink Cadillac and a four-bedroomed house were among the bribes mentioned. Me, I'd have taken the staggering $1m.) This probably won few friends at Gracelands, where Mr DeCaro had already met a less-than-ecstatic response to his enquiries. 'It's definitely not true', commented a spokesperson for the Presley estate. 'A lot of it has to do with making a buck. And that so many people wish it were true'.

But then, cryptoconspirators being what they are, they would have to say that. It would require complicity on some scale to arrange the star's spurious demise and still more to keep the truth from emerging; frank dismissal of anything contradicting the preplanned fabrication would be obligatory. The scale and logistics of such a mendacious enterprise may raise doubts, but in rumour legends you are not expected to look too closely into the clockwork. Nor should you ponder aloud why the Star is jeopardising the entire operation by swanning around supermarkets in a white jumpsuit and motorcycle helmet.

The immediate catalyst of all the excitement the irresistible force which drew DeCaro Kalamazoo-wards had been a boldly worded announcement on the front page of the Weekly World News for 24 May. Occasionally castigated as that terrifying American phenomenon the 'supermarket tabloid', the WWN is one of few publications to give the Sunday Sport a two-foot start up a five-foot ladder and still romp home first. Cautious it is not.

Leering from the front page of the issue in question elbowing aside stories of a dog scared to death by a horror movie and a sex-change woman who now wanted to reverse the surgical trend, was a balding, bearded visage suggestive that the missing decade had not been kind to the King of Rock and Roll. No matter: 'Elvis is Alive!' shouted the headline, whose emphatic size made the exclamation mark seem somewhat redundant. This was what a WWN artist believed he looked like, beard and all. The issue sold exceptionally well in Kalamazoo, perhaps because that was where the article claimed the Alive Elvis now lived.

'If one does not believe Giorgio or Welling', wrote man-on-the-spot DeCaro judiciously, 'one must believe they believe Elvis is alive and well and living in Michigan'. But did anyone else believe it? Sadly, no other resident of Kalamazoo appeared to have noticed the celebrity in their midst. There was a polite rebuff waiting when DeCaro visited Columbia Plaza formerly a hotel, now an office conglomerate in the town's Haymarket district and according to sources not revealed, Elvis's new, clandestine home. 'Categorically and without question, he had not been in this building', said James Bodenner. 'I get really concerned when I hear crazy stories which have no basis in reality.' But then, Mr Bodenner is a property developer, not a folklorist.

Out on the streets, DeCaro found ample proof that the Elvis Lives! issue of the WWN had made an impact, though not everybody took it at its famous-face value. One man was prepared to believe that Elvis might be in Kalamazoo on the logical premise that 'I'm from Pittsburgh, and I'm here. Kalamazoo is as good a place as any.' Another reasoned that in certain respects Kalamazoo was better than most; it happens to be location of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company, manufacturers of the Minoxidil hair-loss treatment. Elvis, according to some gossipy sources, had been worried about his crowning glory and the interviewee apprehended that he might have homed in on Kalamazoo (and the Upjohn Pharm. Co.) to be as close as possible to the remedy for that problem.

Still others didn't worry too much over the truth or falsity of the rumour, but regarded the headline as good publicity for their own enterprises or for the town itself. Needless to add, DeCaro failed to meet Elvis in person. He had to settle for talking to someone who sort-of resembled the WWN artist's front-page conception and a record store manager who confided that there was also a Diana Ross running loose in Kalamazoo 'but he's an outpatient'.

Now, there is a slight trend for contemporary folklorists to undervalue audience scepticism and its corollaries. Rephrased: there is a slight tendency to assume that audiences are unfailingly duped by rumorised stories of the Elvis Lives! variety, to suppose that when a story is told as true and corroborated by devices like 'it was in the papers', the unwary accept it on that literal, uncritical level. The amused, shyly cynical response observed by the Detroit News writer suggests otherwise. An audience may accept a story as true for the duration of the telling (or reading). It may continue to accept it as true afterwards, but there again it may not; it may play along by part- or pretend-acceptance and it may not care for the literal truth of the thing one way or another. All or the people are not fooled all of the time.

This necessarily minimises any pernicious effect that wild stories promoted by papers of the Weekly World News or Sunday Sport ilk might have. Some ten years ago about the time that Elvis died or didn't your average paranormalist writer railed at the shabby treatment his/her subject received in the popular press. Revolutionary scientific truths were being devalued as mere entertainment. The People were being misled. Pop journalists were contemptible, perhaps indictable liars. This ignores a most salient fact. One of the paranormal-stroke-anomalous's main sales points has always been its entertainment value. Both parties narrators and audiences comprehend this.

The Sunday Sport is in show business. 'More out-of-this-world fun every week', is all the paper promises; and I've taken that statement of editorial policy direct from the header to the story of a how a World War II bomber recently discovered on the Moon has magically vanished, remarkable news broken to the breathless British Sabbath readers. Out-of-this-world stories out-of-this-world fun transport readers out of this dull, practical world. But they realise that that the dull, practical world is still there and return to it. No-one is really, seriously misled.

Or look at it another way. When F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us about Jay Gatsby, his incredible grandeur and unrealistic love for a girl who patently cannot be worth all the effort he puts into loving her ... we know he's lying. There never was a Jay Gatsby for a start. Yet we don t feel insulted by all the pretence. After all, Fitzgerald is telling us a story and a story can establish its own truth over and above mundane kind.

Perhaps most of us regard popular anomalistically themed accounts UFO contacts, ghost encounters, undead dead superstars in much the same way. Literal truth isn't in it. There is no truth and no fiction, only stories.


1. Or you can read it in my 'The King of Rock Back on the Road', for The Unknown, November 1987, pp. 22-23. But that filler was merely adapted from the National Enquirer's review-cum-excerpt of Raymond A. Moody Jnr's Elvis After Life. Whether the author was aware of the Phantom Hitch Hiker's folklore heritage I cannot say.

2. Hitler's unlikely sounding escape to the even less-likely sounding refuge of a Tibetan monastery was testified to by another supposedly undead super-Nazi no less a person than Martin Bormann. The story seems to have been promoted by the proprietor of the pro-Nazi magazine Tempo der Welt in May 1950, who claimed to have heard it from Bormann's lips in Morocco; the implications', of course, were that the Fuhrer had escaped both death in the Berlin bunker and Allied vengeance and would return to resurrect the Third Reich at some opportune future time.

3. I analyse and seek historical analogues for some popular survival rumours in 'The Undead', and article for The Unknown of October 1987. Incidentally, and unlike the subjects of that article, The Unknown is now very much and indubitably dead.

4. The Elvis-MM connection was (allegedly even more intimate a secret love-affair, no less. Or so claimed the very first issue of The Sport (17 August 1988). The Sport, as you surely know without telling, is a Wednesday spin-off from the Sunday Sport. Ah, but could they keep it up every day? (Snigger).

5. No, I can't remember who wrote or sang the original, it used to crop up regularly on Sunday evenings in a programme called Sing Something Simple. In case you're interested, the Girl was also lauded as the 'toast of Kalamazoo'. I always get the tune mixed up with Chatanooga Choo-Choo, but that's my problem, not yours.

6. "$lm To Bring Us Elvis!", Sunday People, 7 August 1988, p.14.

7. The discovery of an American bomber, vintage WWII, in a lunar crater by means of Russian satellite pictures originally appeared in the 24 April 1988 issue of Sunday Sport, rivalling but not equalling the "It's Gone!" story in the papers 21 August 1988 issue was a goggle-eyed item on how the new royal baby is believed to have communicated with a Balmoral-transmitting UFO. Not to mention page 15's "Pansy from Planet X". Yes ... definitely better not to mention the Pansy from Planet X.