No Mercy For No King: Being Elvis by Ray Connolly

by - January 11, 2018

After reading Being Elvis by Ray Connolly, in honour of Elvis' 40th death-anniversary, one thing echoed through my mind: I don't like this Elvis. I've been enticed, like many before me, with the image of a young Elvis Presley swaying his hips, testing his vocal capacity and therewith 1950s society. Although later Elvis became a mimic of himself and, well, changed into a glamped up karate showman, you can't help but appreciate and even secretely love the tackiness and universal acceptance of 'positive Americanism' he represents.

So when I read the introduction of the book, in my copy written by Dutch journalist Peter Buwalda, I snorted at the question 'why read about Elvis, can't you better just listen?'. Not the best way to start a book the reader hasn't even begun by persuading them to not read it at all. However he soon smooths this thought over explaining that Elvis' iconification in post war culture is something you can't simply hear in his imbalanced, brilliant but later more sloppy work. The question nonetheless stings after working my way through the first few chapters; I wish I'd just listened.

Elvis Presley performing at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in 1956 in Tupelo. Source: Roger Marshutz MPTV via Time Magazine.

Are you lonesome tonight?

Connolly has written a critical exposé (not necessarily new, but still surprising for the uninformed) with short and punchy chapters chronologically following Elvis' lifeline. From poor nobody to rich somebody, or so the legend goes. There are a few central themes Connolly works his way through, but most notably is the as-I-called-it 'psychological decay' of Elvis.

My copy of the book, which is a translated version, actually goes by the name Een eenzaam bestaan (red. A lonesome existence). This, as you might agree, sets up a different story or interpretation of the story than Being Elvis. It immediately connotes the words on paper with asking from the reader to show mercy for what's been told; as it's all been an act to break from the loneliness. While, arguably, Being Elvis has a stronger show-and-tell element to it that, from the title, lays out the story and creation of the personage that's come to be known as Elvis (and all the dodgy choices he made along the way to become just that) without immediately asking to sympathise.

Although I do get why they chose to name it A lonesome existence as 1) it's hard to one-on-one translate the word 'being' while keeping the right intention behind the word and 2) loneliness is ascribed by Connolly as the main reason behind Elvis' psychological decay. As there was no such thing as internationally worshipped pop idols back in the day, the unfamiliarity of pop idol existence left Elvis on his own with no one to connect with or look up to. Even, as Connolly tells, when The Beatles dethroned him as only pop idol in the world, they got to share the burden that comes with their status between the four of them (while Elvis stayed all by him self).

Elvis reading fan mail in his hotelroom in New York City, 17 March 1956. Source: © Alfred Wertheimer via Smithsonian Institution.

The power of a name

Although it's not a secret that fame isn't the most mental-healthy job one can get, I was still astonished and frustrated by the way Elvis works his way through it (pasiveness, naivety, sickly sense of duty) which is full of contradictions and results from the get-go in unhealthy behaviour. Behaviour that can be sustained for all those years through the creation of a protective system. This in a sense excuses his abuses, nurtured by image control and -most importantly- the constant need for money. Loneliness might be the main symptom of pop idol-ism, the protective system is a dangerous and destructive recurring result trapping everyone who comes too close to it. Even the pop idol himself.

The power of creating and establishing a system that protects and maintains unacceptable behaviour (in this case anger outbursts, drugs abuse, infidelity while demanding complete control over the life of his lovers and even an attempted assassination) becomes normalised and excused first in name of unique talent only to get overpowerd by 'the name' itself. Though it's harmful for the holy image which at any moment can capsize and the person behind the name who becomes more and more problematic, it's even more destructive for those who (innocently) fall victim to it and are recycled through the system into a downward spiral. Only able to escape by pure bravery, exposure of the system or, in the case of Elvis himself, death.

Making it rain

These days we aren't strangers to similar protective systems set up while its destructive subject takes up a position of untouchable power abuse. Connolly finds it pitiful that the strings of this system, often held tightly by Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis' manager and downright gold digger. Also Dutch), has disadvantaged Elvis' career and talent development. This combined with Elvis' growing passive and uncaring attitude mixed with a strong desire to escape or ignore the truth, creating his own alternate universe probably encouraged by a cocktail of drugs, doesn't help when trying to hang on to his legendary status.

Connolly is sometimes very dismissive (not without reason) of Elvis & co and their actions, but doesn't condemn him and at the end still has enough praises left. Praises certainly are at place but should come with a warning sign or a big BUT behind it. As it turns out Elvis wasn't the 100% goofy good guy we nowadays associate him with. He also shouldn't be excused for his damaging role OR eternally condemned by it; as I wholeheartedly agree that mad times create mad situations that sometimes are impossible to escape. If you are ready to shatter the impeccable (tacky) status of this beloved legend, go ahead and read this biography. Otherwise: just listen.

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  1. Although it's not something I would normally pick up the way you have described it really interests me. I'm a big fan of Elvis's music but never really read about who he was beyond that. If I see this around I think I'll be picking it up.

    Jordanne ||

    1. I also really love Elvis (especially his earlier work and I must say at one point I was absolutely obsessed with his Comeback Special. Especially, for some weird unexplainable reason, his performance of Lawdy Miss Clawdy...). Although this book really shatters that charming vision I had of him, it's also good to know the struggles behind all the presented glam and to (try to) understand how his career has developed over the years eventually into the image we have of him today. I actually just finished reading a biography on James Dean (I'm, again for some unexplainable reason, working my way through 20th century legends) and it can really shed a new light on their work and the persona we interpret them to be in today's culture.

  2. Your writing is so engaging and so interesting to read, I would never normally think about reading a book like this but you’ve made me intrigued! x

    1. Thank you! That's, like, the biggest compliment you can give me and I'm literally blushing over here!

  3. Brilliant review and write up. I have to admit, I’m not a fan of Elvis. For no particular reason it’s just not my kinda music and I’ve never been interested but it’s strange when you’re a fan of someone then read something which completely changes your perspective of them.


    1. Haha! No worries, you're not going to get casted out because you don't like Elvis (there's a big part of his repertoire that also isn't for me). But yeah, it's interesting how a certain image is made and protected and presented to us while there's SUCH a contradiction and harmful behaviour behind it. It's something that really gets you thinking in the grander scheme of things...

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  5. I would love to read this and so would my Mam. We are both big fans of his music and the fashion culture he stood for, but agree he was a very flawed and troubled man. Reading about someone's true life rather than the sugar coated media version is always fascinating and makes you really feel like you go to know them :-)

    1. After reading this I indeed feel I 'know' or 'understand' him a lot better (although that's naturally also just a coloured vision of him put forward by the author and when or how do we know if we truly KNOW someone, especially a someone as Elvis). But yeah, you should totally read this if you want your dream-vision shattered... ;)