Tuesday 18 September 2018

Developments in Elvis Fan Culture: An Interview with Nigel Patterson (part 3)

Nigel Patterson works for the Australian government and has been a dedicated Elvis fan since 1969. 

His participation in organized fan club activity in the Australian Capital Territory from the mid-1980s onwards led him to start the Elvis Information Network in 1999. It rapidly became a prominent and respected Elvis site. EIN recently reviewed my book Counting Down Elvis, so I took the opportunity to interview Nigel, hoping he might provide a fully-fledged ‘insider’ account of Elvis fan culture. He is living proof, however, of the idea that academia and Elvis fandom are somehow fully separated is a myth: Nigel once ran an academic course called ‘New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema’ at Canberra College. He has also kept up with academic writing on the Presley phenomenon.

This is the third and final part of a three part interview. Click for part one and part two...

You may be unusual as a fan for taking an active interest in the few academic debates around Elvis. The government asks us to justify our research on the basis of behavioural change in the real world. Is there anything you have read in my work that has caused you to change what you do at EIN?

That is an interesting question and not one I’ve previously considered.

I think the value of academic commentary such as yours is that it provides us with a better understanding of the dynamics surrounding acceptance/non- acceptance of Elvis and how ‘connection to Elvis and other fans’ operates on a subliminal level. In this sense it necessarily informs at least some of our articles and commentary.

For example, in your book, Understanding Fandom, you address the issue of whether Elvis fandom was or is religious practice and enlighten the reader to the relevance of Emile Durkheim’s study of the social ecology of Australian clans engaged in totemic religion; the function of the division between the secular and the sacred in society; and as mentioned earlier Durkheim’s concept of ‘effervescence,’ where crowd members (read ‘Elvis fans at Graceland’) experience is so strong that they subconsciously recognise their shared connection.

Also, your work is appreciated by many people as it dispels the notion that ‘fans’ are an overly obsessed group when in fact there is only a small proportion of fans who are obsessive, and in the context of changes in media technology and production, fandom has become a central mode of consumption for people with a shared interest or passion.

In your view, what aspects of the Elvis phenomenon has existing scholarship underplayed or missed out on?

What an interesting question. The only issues that spring to mind are Elvis as an agent of social transformation and the power of Elvis fans to come together to aid those in need, are often not given adequate recognition.

In the case of Elvis’ socio-cultural impact, a number of academics have argued the case but generally it seems to be an understated and under-appreciated issue by many academics and music journalists, although this is slowly changing. In my opinion, it contrasts starkly with academic and music journalism discourse around the Beatles and the social change they ushered in.

Academia has published (and I suspect will continue to publish) many thought provoking volumes which educate, challenge and position the Elvis story in an objective, rather than subjective, framework involving rigorous and analytical consideration. 

Your books on fandom - as well titles such as Elvis Culture (Doss); Images of Elvis Presley in American Culture (Plasketes); Elvis AfterElvis The Posthumous Career of A Living Legend (Rodman); Graceland: Going Home with Elvis (Marling); InSearch of Elvis (Chadwick); Dead Elvis (Marcus); and A Sociological Portrait (Leasman) - offer a broad variety of aspects to and perspectives on how Elvis is perceived and should be viewed in the context of academic analysis.

Regarding the second issue, Elvis fans (through fan clubs) have a rich history in raising money for charities and other worthwhile causes. It would be interesting to compare these efforts in relation to similar undertakings by fans of other celebrities. The findings also may be instructive in informing the issue of a shared morality or charter among Elvis fans.

You are a very avid Elvis reader. Can you tell me about that – do you see that as part of or a separate thing to your music fandom? How do they work together? By what criteria do you judge outstanding additions to the Elvis library?

I have always been a reader – in my youth I devoured adventure and science fiction novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Black Beauty, Tom Sawyer, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. By my late primary school and early teen years, when I was expected to read often dense and slow moving books for high school – think Bleak House by Dickens, my tastes diversified and reading pulp fiction and film/television related books became a favourite pastime. I read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, found pleasure in many of Whitman Publishing’s television related releases such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Circus Boy, Lassie, Spin and Marty and even its series of books targeted at girls, particularly the Donna Parker and Annette series, the latter of Mickey Mouse Club fame and who I had a big crush on as an eight year old. The Whitman books had a generally formulaic but engaging narrative style that appealed to both sexes.

Those genres were a welcome relief from the more complex and less adventurous books dominating school curriculum. I was more interested in exciting adventures that took me away to exotic places far from the humdrum of school lessons.

In relation to my Elvis reading I have quite eclectic musical and literary tastes so I can often find pleasure or things of value in publications others may find not as interesting. I don’t get to read as often as I would like these days. Work is often busy, I am employed in a policy area with the Australian Government, and other interests have increasingly encroached on my time for ‘things Elvis.’ I have many Elvis books I’ve only skimmed though and I expect when I retire I will have time to properly explore them.

When I read an Elvis book I am usually interested in either refreshing my knowledge and understanding of the Elvis story or otherwise looking for something new or something that has historical significance.

I have been an advocate for books written by Darrin Lee Memmer. Some have taken exception to this claiming Memmer’s books are biased and challenged his often controversial conclusions. Personally, I find the books stimulating and a much needed counterpoint to the somewhat tiresome ‘generally accepted’ stories published in most new Elvis books.

I don’t agree with everything Memmer has written or concluded, but I do appreciate his research and often fresh perspective on his subject matter. In particular, some of his most recent books have added significant historical records of ‘things Elvis’ through word-for-word interview transcripts and in relation to the death of Elvis, the author accessed official documents archived in the University of Memphis. These records included fascinating material from the Jerry Hopkins archive and the actual police, medical examiner and hospital reports from August 1977 and transcripts of the official interviews with the paramedics and doctors.

But getting back to a core of your question, to me the intertwining of my appreciation of Elvis’ music and deep interest in books written about him is a complementary thing, although I have to admit I listen to much less Elvis music after nearly 50 years as a fan compared to the number of Elvis related books I regularly read.

What do you think Elvis’s interests in reading and/or film viewing said about him as a person?

By all accounts (and his personal library) Elvis had a voracious appetite for reading. While Elvis may not have been well educated in the formal sense, he was certainly well read and knowledgeable on many subjects. In a sense Elvis was, like many others, ‘self-educated,’ had an inquiring mind, and could converse on a wide range of subjects.

In his younger days he was an avid reader of comics, his favourite being Captain Marvel Jr (with his cape!) and western novels. In his adult years his personal library was an eclectic collection comprising books on American and British politics, history, war, guns, and a range of sports including martial arts. As most fans know, he also had a substantial collection of spiritual/religious and metaphysical books. 

One of Elvis’ favourite books was The Impersonal Life  - he was so taken with this book he bought bulk copies and gave them away to his family, friends and other people he met.

He certainly wasn’t “tsundoku” as the Japanese would say - acquiring reading materials, but letting them pile up without looking at them.

Given the breadth of Elvis’ interests and reading I think it is fair to say that he was a person interested in the world and interested in bettering himself as a human being.

What widely accepted stories about Elvis do you think are false?

The first story is the recurring theme that ‘Elvis was racist.’ The theme largely arises for two reasons: the view that Elvis ‘stole’ or ‘appropriated’ Black American (race) music without properly repaying his dues to that community. The second reason is the long discredited article in Sepia magazine that claimed Elvis said “the only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” The theme has recently resurfaced due to Eugene Jarecki’s documentary film, The King, which compares the current state of America to Elvis’ demise and is currently screening in American cinemas.

Two articles (here and here) provide a reasonable overview and debunking of the issue.

A second theme is that Elvis was not well educated. This issue regularly appears in online commentaries, on TV, and in scholarly articles. While the claim may be true in a formal academic sense, as discussed in my previous answer, when we consider how ‘well read’ Elvis was, and the breadth of knowledge he had on a wide variety of topics from politics to history and spirituality, it is untrue. Elvis became self-taught and could hold intelligent conversations on many different subjects. In any case, the theme is, by nature, value laden.

The third theme is that Elvis didn’t die on August 16, 1977 and faked his own death. I briefly touched on this in an earlier question. That a national survey in the US in the 1980s identified that more than half of the American population thought Elvis was still alive may surprise some people, but reflects the strength of the idea in its heyday. The theory once sold millions of books, generated more than a dozen different newsletters, many online discussion groups and countless mass media articles.

Today, there are only a handful of websites still promoting the theory and there is at least one Facebook page, but otherwise it seems most people have now accepted Elvis did die in 1977. For those who still believe Elvis didn’t die in 1977, I recommend they read True Disbelievers: The Elvis Contagion by Professors R. Serge Denisoff and George Plasketes.

Do you think the people closest to Elvis have been straight with fans about what he was like? To what extent do you think people like Joe Esposito have slanted or even made up stories? How can we discern what’s true out there?

First, let me say the Elvis world has always been full of fanciful stories.

I do understand the motivation for those who were close to Elvis to write books. There is a high level of demand for these releases, albeit on a lesser scale than around 1987, which seems to have been the peak for Elvis-related book sales. And people have to make a living. Several of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia only knew working for Elvis and found it very hard after he died. Only a few, for instance Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling, had a career they could move to after Elvis’ death.

I have had the great pleasure of meeting and/or interviewing many of Elvis’ inner circle, including Vester Presley, David Stanley, Joe Esposito, Jerry Schilling, Charlie Hodge, Lamar Fike, Marty Lacker, George Klein and Dr Nick. They were all great people to talk to, and usually they presented a very positive view of Elvis. That is often quite a natural thing to do in relation to people we are, or have been particularly close to.

Undoubtedly, a few people were very adept at changing the subject if they were asked a difficult question. Others were/are very adept at repeating the corporate line strategically promoted by Elvis Presley Enterprises.

Have any of those close to Elvis made up stories? Pragmatically, one would expect some would have, as we all know people who do make up or embellish stories. In fact, surely we are all guilty of this at times.

In the case of Elvis the situation is muddied by the fact the media will pay for interviews that ‘sell,’ ie. they need a juicy piece of information to attract readers or viewers. This can be attractive to those who may be struggling financially.

Separating truth from embellishment can be difficult. Consider for example the different accounts of the same incident(s) in Elvis’ life, as recalled by Billy Smith, Marty Lacker and Lamar Fike in Alanna Nash’s great book, Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia.

In a world that is ever increasing in complexity and shades of grey, it is wise to consider the possibility of falseness and critically assess claims by asking questions and reading/researching widely in order to improve one’s chance of finding the truth.

Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling now seem to be some of the chief curators of Elvis’s image. What did you think of their HBO documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher, in terms of the way it portrayed its subject?

Generally, Elvis Presley: The Searcher was an excellent two-part documentary which examined the Elvis Presley story with an emphasis on his musical influences and music.  

It was somewhat let down by the involvement of Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling as Executive Producers as it meant the viewer received a sanitized version of Elvis’ life. For instance, his declining health and over-dependence on drugs in his final years was glossed over. I understand the motivation from a marketing perspective, but from a historical perspective it is disappointing that a full and proper account of the Elvis Presley story was not expressed. In my opinion the documentary was a rare opportunity sorely missed.

I have a few Elvis mysteries you might be able to help with… To your knowledge: Did Elvis play on Roy Orbison’s Odessa, Texas, TV show in the 1950s? Did William Faulkner really write to him?

That Elvis appeared on the Roy Orbison Television Show is one of those myths that periodically crop up in the Elvis world, in blogs and on fan forums. I am sorry to have to disappoint, but the story is just a myth. EIN published a detailed article on the issue by noted Elvis researcher, Shane Brown, which can be found here.

The William Faulkner issue is interesting, and one I can’t answer. That Faulkner came from a privileged, well-educated upper class background while Elvis came from one which was working class suggests there should have been a wide chasm between them in socially conservative 1950s’ America. However, when Elvis broke nationally in the US, Faulkner, nearing 60, may have observed a shared sense of rebelliousness with Elvis. While I personally don’t think Faulkner would have written to Elvis, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility, and like the claimed telephone conversations between Elvis and opera icon, Mario Lanza, it makes for a very good story which is yet to be substantiated by ‘hard evidence.’

On the subject of Elvis and Faulkner, Professor Joel Williamson in his excellent and controversial biographic study, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015) noted that Elvis and Faulkner were born within seventy-five miles of each other in north-eastern Mississippi. He posited that perhaps Sam Phillips and William Faulkner who both spent time in the Gartley-Ramsey Hospital and who both “struggled with racial and class orthodoxies in their native South, sat in rocking chairs on the broad front porch of the Gartley-Ramsey [Hospital], watching Elvis Presley, the shambling teenager, making his less-than-eager way down Jackson from his home in the courts to Humes High.”

I find Williamson’s thought to be an interesting one.

What Elvis mysteries do you think are left to solve?

One could proffer the view that what mysteries about Elvis are left to be solved might better be left unsolved. Once the mystery is gone interest wanes.

Issues that spring to mind are Elvis as an agent of cultural change/social transformation and the power of Elvis fans to come together to aid those in need. These important issues are often not given adequate recognition. I discussed them earlier in our interview and it is interesting that was in the context of issues existing scholarship/academia has underplayed. One could posit that there is a correlation between them remaining unsolved and that academia has underplayed them.

Thanks, Nigel, for a fascinating interview.