Reverberating Elvis 

The King lives on through artists inspired by a mama-loving Southern boy who made good and never forgot his roots

Elvis Presley's image, recycled, reconstructed, digested and regurgitated, saturates folk and performance art, photography and documentary, not to mention the bottomless, shapeless oblivion of American lore.

The infinite post-death Elvis expressions woven throughout cultural dialog are too lasting and too pliable to simply be cordoned off in a swift and nervous dismissal of lowbrow debris. Once he died, his story became the moral wastebasket as well as the fertile ground for a middle-class national narrative, and in many ways A.D. Elvis is a reflected microcosm of America itself: born of simple roots and launched along an endless trajectory of denial and excess and an irretrievable loss of innocence.

With declining loyalty to church and state, Elvis' unique monopoly on common culture and the bizarre mix of esteem and mockery his legacy demands is proof that most of us prefer truth and validation when it is matched with equal parts sarcasm and contradiction.

Most visual and performance artists who summon Elvis as muse for inspiration find themselves incapable of tracing his precise influence on their work. Many explain how he's important by relaying a personal story or anecdote -- a grayness that often translates to the perfect grist for enduring influence on contemporary art of all styles, genres and emotional perspectives. For artists, this kind of speechlessness is acknowledgment that he simply had "it," whatever it is.

Local artist and renowned Presley kitsch curator Joni Mabe, self-proclaimed Elvis Babe, Queen of the King, has amassed an Everything Elvis collection of curios and original creations worthy of simultaneous inclusion in Ripley's Believe It or Not and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The historic family boarding house in Cornelia that she restored to shelter the once-traveling show is now both a shrine to Elvis as well as an artist's rendering of the darkness and light in the real world of cultural fetish. The entire second floor is what a teenage girl's bedroom would look like if there were no such thing as parents: an intoxicating mixture of creativity and obsession given limitless license to run amok. Wondering what inspired the woman who Howard Stern called "the sweetest thing on two webbed feet" when she presented him the paragon of her collection, Elvis' wart, a personal friend of the artist remarks, "It isn't a joke. This is really how she feels about Elvis."

Musician and performance artist Robert Lopez, known to most as El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, has been substituting East L.A. for Tupelo in his pro-Latino, Elvis-impersonating shows for more than 10 years. Lopez is a genuine entertainer, and his shows include pyrotechnics, fog machines, backup singers the Elvettes (Priscillita and Lisa Maria) and at least five costume changes. The act weaves spectacle with insight as he performs -- with impressive musical prowess -- Elvis covers subbed with affirmative-action-age lyrics.

"I am the Anne Frank of Elvises," says Lopez. "Everything about him -- family, faith, food -- lends itself to a Latino identity, but it lends itself to all other identities, too -- even a lesbian Elvis. That's the idea most people miss. I am El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, but it could easily be El Vez the blank Elvis. You fill in the space."

While running the risk of turning into the Zen Elvis, Lopez outlines the kinds of infinite artistic possibility in the contradictions Elvis represents. He finds promise in the idea, which Greil Marcus was distraught over in his 1991 book Dead Elvis, that as soon as you try to explain Elvis' cultural significance, it vanishes, one quality equally canceled out by its opposite.

"We did our 'Rock and Revolution' shows in Europe, and at the moment when you're pumping your fist in the air, giant UFW banners are waving in the wind, me and the Elvettes are in mini camouflage outfits, your image is being blown up on giant JumboTron screens and you're getting thousands of Scandinavian kids to yell, 'Say it loud, I'm brown and I'm proud!' you realize this power could just as easily be used for evil. It's a great feeling. It makes you giggle. It's moments like that that encapsulate the whole yin and yang, good and evil, timeless-art-and-schlock, beauty-and-obesity thing and underlines that both can exist at the same time."

But a certain melancholy surrounds the king's presence in culture that is unique to white American, Western European mutts. Performers like Lopez, who pick and chose elements of Elvis' persona to use as a filter through which they can project their own ethnic identity, aren't looking to Elvis to be the be-all, end-all that those of us without a sturdy national and cultural identity of our own are inclined to do.

Co-producer and co-founder of Sensurround Stagings, Mike Katinsky, wrote and directed the play Viva Los Alamos, a-theatrical-parody-purporting-to-be-a-previously-unreleased-film-starring-the-late-king-of-rock-and-roll-not-licensed-by-or-in-anyway-affiliated-with-his-estate, in 3-D as a parody of every hackneyed Elvis cliché and every theatrical gimmick he could think of, which included allowing the audience to chose whether they wanted the old, fat Elvis or the virile, young Elvis as the star. During its two Atlanta runs at Dad's Garage and at the New York Fringe Festival, the audience always chose old and fat, which played out well for Katinsky, who began the project based on his fascination with Elvis kitsch.

"My first introduction was Kurt Russell playing Elvis in a mini series, and to be honest, I thought he was spooky," he says. "So I didn't think of Elvis as a person, I thought of him as a character. But after doing research, I found there's something underneath all that kitsch because the kitsch aspect is limited to English-speaking people. Other people in the world are real Elvis fans. But I couldn't tell you what launches it."

Mabe's theory for why kitsch fits in so well with Elvis is the same theory that explains his significance to the South: He never forgot where he came from. Once he earned some good money, he furnished Graceland like a low-class trailer, covering his Jungle Room cushions with fake animal fur; when he could have afforded the real hide, he preferred the fake, tacky stuff.

"I think I understand Elvis as a Southerner and as an artist. The South has never gotten over the fact that we lost the Civil War. We will always be reminded because most of the battles were fought here; we can't get away from it. We are the underdog. So when someone like Elvis comes along and succeeds and, on top of that, doesn't leave his roots, Southerners automatically see him as a hero, to the point of worship."

The religious symbolism is nothing new. Some Elvis writers have suggested that he was conscious of the fact that he was culture's sacrificial lamb and that America needed him, in essence, to die for their sins.

"I pass on all Elvis/Jesus connections," says Lopez. "Too easy? Too cheesy? Although I thrive on a diet of cheese. Maybe it's too predictable. But sex and religion has always been a great American tension. It's part of that whole mythos of when Saturday night turns into Sunday morning. Can you separate the two? I say, why do you have to?"

For Mabe, the religious parallels are too strong to ignore: "He is the first Protestant saint," she says. "People feel guilty for his death. The fans loved him so much that they would have killed him had they ever gotten near him, grabbing at his hair and clothes like a little child smothers a puppy or kitten. He became a prisoner of his own fame, and we feel the guilt of his death so that he had to die to be reborn. For me he was and still is sex and religion combined."

Part genius, part fool, Elvis' appeal defies any simple, pat summation. It wasn't just that he introduced a kind of marketable sensuality to music and fandom, but that he allowed an entire nation to make up his appeal for themselves, while the real man, according to Greil Marcus, "lived with nearly complete access to disaster all the time." Generations born after his death will know an objectified and disjointed Elvis, but that's no indication he'll be leaving the building any time soon.

Joni Mabe's Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis is on permanent display at the Loudermilk Boarding House Museum, 271 Foreacre St., Cornelia. 706-778-2001. Open Fri.-Sat. from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. A.K.A., a photography exhibit including photos of Elvis impersonators by Marvin Rhodes, runs through Nov. 4 at Shawn Vinson Gallery, 119 E. Court Square #100, Decatur. 404-370-1720. Open Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Fri.-Sat. by appointment.

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