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Elvis: the untold legacy of Tupelo

If he hadn't beenborn with the mostintensely spiritualvoice ever, ElvisAaron Presley wouldbe celebrating his 66th birthday tomorrow, probably at a truckstop outside Memphis. Oh, and rock 'n' roll would never have happened. But he was and it did, leaving Joe Jackson mesmerised by a visit to the birthplace of the one true King.

"On a cold and grey Chicago morn,

A poor little baby child is born ...

In the ghetto."

THESE, of course, are the opening lines from In the Ghetto, one of the tracks on a new LP, Elvis: The 50 Greatest Hits, which is currently in the top 10. Making this the sixth successive decade in which Presley's recordings have found their way into a total of more than one billion homes. Roughly one for every four people on this planet!

And yet, to appreciate this kind of phenomenal success fully you have to travel as I did last summer to Tupelo, where 66 years ago tomorrow morning a poor little baby child was born in a ghetto-like "shotgun shack", built by his father Vernon for $180.

It's only as you stand at the front door and imagine shooting a shotgun through the two tiny rooms and straight out the back door that you realise why such homes are called "shotgun" shacks. It is that small.

So small that Elvis would later tell visitors to Graceland, his Memphis mansion: "You could set down that little ol' shack right there in the living room and still have space left over." For his young daughter Lisa Marie to play in, presumably.

Then again, I believe Presley never really left the shack in which he was born, that its presence lingered in every room of Graceland, every space he inhabited, physically or otherwise. Indeed, in his bedroom, right up to the night he died, Elvis kept a framed copy of that legendary photograph of himself at the age of two, or so, looking as haunted as the sound that RCA's Joan Deary identified the first time she heard Heartbreak Hotel. And Elvis was haunted. To a labyrinthine degree.

Later, I'll get back to that photograph. But first an earlier, verbal snapshot that deepened Presley's depression at one point in the Seventies as he sat in Graceland remembering how grinding poverty cursed his life from the start. "Shit, man, my little brother died and my mama almost died because we couldn't afford to go to no damn hospital."

Yes folks, Elvis Aaron Presley, a mixture of Scots-Irish and Native American blood, did have a brother. A twin called Jesse Garon. He was born dead at 4am on January 8, 1935, then placed in a shoebox by the 19-year-old Vernon Presley while the family doctor worked frantically to save the life of the second of Gladys Presley's twins. She was 22. And Elvis arrived 35 minutes later.

Could Jesse have been saved if Gladys gave birth in a hospital? Who knows? But Elvis obviously believed his brother need not have suffocated to death.

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Likewise, Elvis never forgot that even the $15 the doctor charged that night had to be paid by Welfare. And that Jesse Garon was buried in an unmarked grave because the Presleys couldn't afford $3.50 for a headstone. Or that it was only when Gladys saw to it that her stillborn son had a "proper" burial that she allowed herself to be moved to the charity ward in a local hospital after doctors told her she herself might die as a result of constant haemorrhaging inside her uterus.

Gladys and Elvis remained in hospital for two weeks. But though Gladys's life was saved, the aftershock of such a traumatic experience seems to have initiated a process that finally led to her premature death at the age of 46 the result of liver failure, compounded by alcohol and barbiturate abuse.

Journalist Chris Hutchins says: "Gladys drank moonshine to drown her grief that Jesse had died at birth ... " and, no doubt, the pain of being told she couldn't have any more children " ... and Elvis cried tears of guilt because he had been the twin to survive."

Presley would always feel "guilt and loss", suggests Elaine Dundy, author of Elvis and Gladys. But also "something else, without which we cannot begin to fathom Elvis's character".

And it was a triumphant character. "He, after all, survived. Did this not prove he was the strongest? The most powerful? Would it not be necessary for him to prove this all his life? The division in Elvis's soul was not between good and evil but between power and powerlessness."

Neat theory, but not totally true. The schism in Elvis's soul wasn't simply a pull between power and powerlessness. Presley biographers Peter Harry Browne and Pat M Broekse say Gladys claimed "the twin who lives inherits the strength of the baby that died." She "instilled in her son the belief that he had a responsibility to live for two himself and his dead twin." Creepy, right?

TRUE to her Christian fundamentalist belief, that "when a baby dies, he automatically goes to Heaven" because "as an infant, there is no way for sin to enter their lives", Gladys also told Elvis that Jesse was "an angel" with whom he could commune through prayer. Elvis soon began to hear his brother's voice "enjoining him to do good deeds and lead a good life", says Albert Goldman.

"As Elvis grew up, he had beside him always a phantom double, a secret sharer, a veritable doppelgaenger. This spirit brother is one of the most important characters in the life of Presley, for from adolescence onwards, Elvis's behaviour patterned itself into two sharply opposed selves, one inspired by an extravagant notion of goodness, the other by a no less exaggerated idea of evil. Every feature of Elvis's subsequent life and career bears the stamp of this dichotomy."

Indeed, Elvis himself once said: "I have the power of heaven or hell in me. That's what I've got to learn to balance. I've got to learn how to conquer the hell." And if you think Goldman's comment doesn't apply to Presley's career, go look at the '68 Special, which Elvis opens with the satanic Trouble (with its refrain "I'm evil"), and closes with the immaculate If I Can Dream.

He even recorded the latter, to a backing tape, curled foetus-style on a concrete floor. See what I mean about Elvis being haunted from the start? Or blessed, depending on your religious beliefs.

Peter Whitmer's recent book, The Inner Elvis, takes us even deeper into the psychic minefield set in place when a person loses their twin. "His entire life had its tap root in this psychologically seminal event," he says.

"Elvis inhabited the ultimate private world. Spoke with, sought guidance from and felt constantly in contact with not just an invisible being, but a genetic carbon copy of himself who occupied an almost godlike position in this twisted but profoundly spiritual relationship.

"He sought communion and reunion with the twin, sensing that his dead brother was a spiritual guide who directed him to search for meaning in life. Through meditation, numerology, compulsive study of the Bible, numerous other spiritual tracts and, ultimately, drug use."

Heavy? I know. And that sure is a new and, to me, feasible tilt on Presley's prodigious drug use. If Lennon and his like could say LSD helped them "get in touch with God", why shouldn't Elvis believe similar substances opened up the psychic phone line to his brother? Or God?

In fact, in '64, after reading one of those 300 "spiritual tracts" (Joseph Benner's The Impersonal Life) and being told by "spiritual adviser" Larry Geller that "the 'small, still voice within' is the expression of divine intelligence to our outer consciousness", Elvis said: "I used to hear that voice my whole life, especially as a kid. I used to think it was my brother Jesse. Now I know what it is. It's God."

Amen to that. And amen to the fact that, before recording his timelessly inspiring 1966 gospel album How Great Thou Art, Presley, while meditating, said to Geller: "This album is going to touch people in ways we can't imagine. This is God's message and I'm His channel. Only I can't be if my ego is there. I have to empty myself so the channel is totally pure and the message heard loud and clear. I'm not going to move out of this chair until I'm guided by that small, still voice within."

HITMER, not surprisingly, traces right back to the womb Presley's, eh, genesis, as one of the most "profoundly spiritual" singers of our time. "He and Jesse, alive until birth, were subjected to daily exposure to the music, rhythm and motion of Assembly of God services that spoke the language of their mother's faith," he says.

"They both spent months connected literally, placentally and mystically as part of Gladys's daily pilgrimages to the church. Their birthright was the beat. Their world was solidly packed with sounds of guitar and human voice in spirited song. Exhilarating. Vigorous. Animated. A never-ending gospel song.

"Before birth, the twins were trained to listen, to move and 'feel good' to the sound of instruments and voices. With Jesse's death, Elvis was left with permanent traces formed during his pre-natal life. He knew down deep that a part of him was missing. He would attempt to fill the void with music the sounds that triggered his first sensations of connectedness try recapture the basic, primal experience he shared with Jesse.

"For Elvis, music would go beyond passion and become a compulsion. Music and communicating through music would define the man. Music would also prove, in the end, to be hollow, shadowy only half the equation. It could never reproduce the whole boundless galaxy of sensuality and thrill first lavished upon him and Jesse."

God only knows what Elvis would have made of Whitmer's analysis. Though, given that one of the last books he meant to read was Music: The Keynote of Human Evolution, Elvis might have agreed with all but the final two sentences. I'd argue that, right up the end of his life, singing did reproduce the "boundless galaxy" he experienced when he first heard gospel music. In the womb. Or wherever.

LVIS certainly said something similar during the 1972 movie Elvis on Tour. "Singing gospel songs more or less puts your mind at ease. It does mine. I just love to sing, since I was two years old. We grew up with it, from the time I can remember. I grew up with gospel because my folks took me there. When I got old enough, I started to sing in church. It comes out in every song. It's just a part of you. You don't even think about it."

Gladys, too, would often tell a similar tale. "When Elvis was just two years old, he'd slide off my lap, run into the aisle, scramble up to the platform and stand looking at the choir, trying to sing with them. He was too little to know the words but could carry a tune, watch their faces and try do as they did."

This is the truth about Elvis. He was, for whatever reasons, an instinctive "spiritual" singer. And not just when he sang gospel. Presley even turned secular tunes like In the Ghetto into spiritual music, likewise those guilt-free celebrations of pure sex such as One Night if not every song he sang.

"Evil" or "immaculate", says Whitmer, the songs all sprang from the same dichotomous "tap root" and were directed towards the same deity. Indeed, during Presley's final tour in 1977, he sat alone at a piano and sang Unchained Melody so soulfully it could only have been addressed, through God, to Gladys and Jesse. And I say this with some certainty. Because at the time just months before his death Elvis had begun to dream about both welcoming him "home".

Now, as a romantic, I am inclined to end the tale there. But the need for truth is even more intrinsic to my own soul so I must say that there are even darker elements to Presley's story, elements which are rarely addressed in print. Or discussed among us Elvis fans.

Which brings me back to the photograph I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Of Elvis, aged two, looking haunted. Even then.

Actually, the copy of that photo Presley kept by his bed ("to remind me of where I come from, who I am") was one of him standing alone symbolically enough scalpelled out of a family portrait that included himself, his father and mother.

And Elaine Dundy believes the "tension emanating" from the three original figures in the photograph suggests it may have been taken "at the police station" the day Elvis's dad was sent, for three years, to the Mississippi state penitentiary at Parchman. And that the photo was taken at "Gladys's insistence" so that she, Vernon and Elvis could have this "remembrance of them all together to cherish in the harsh months to follow".

Maybe. But not long after Vernon was imprisoned, the curse of poverty struck again. Gladys and Elvis were thrown out of the family home after failing to make their payments.

And why was Vernon sent to Parchman? He sold a hog for $4 and changed the cheque to either $14 or $40 ("because we needed the money for food", Elvis would later explain). But Elvis never did talk publicly about the "shameful" fact that his dad was a "jailbird". Though this is one of the potential "scandals" Colonel Parker used to keep Elvis in line.

NOR did Elvis ever discuss publicly or, I suspect, privately the vexed question of whether or not he and his mother had sex. Presley's stepmother Dee says Vernon insisted they had. Elvis's buddies Lamar Fike and Marty Lacker disagree.

"The Presleys were so poor all three had to sleep in the same bed," says Fike. "And Elvis slept with her when Vernon was gone, until he was 13, when they moved to Memphis.

"But this stuff Dee told the National Enquirer about Elvis and Gladys being lovers is nuts. I don't care what Vernon said. That never happened."

Likewise, Marty Lacker believes "many young boys sleep with their mother, especially when they're scared. Elvis's father was in prison for a long time and I'm sure that was a frightening situation but to say that Elvis got off on sleeping with his mother, or that she molested Elvis, is a lie."

Maybe. But many commentators now draw a direct cause-and-effect link between the claim that Elvis and his mother had sex and the fact that, during his adult life, Presley refused to sleep with any woman who was a mother including Priscilla, his wife.

Priscilla also dismisses the mother/lover story as "sensationalist", but she admits: "He told me it was difficult because I was a mother. Elvis tried to make love to me but was uncomfortable with the act."

Here's Lamar Fike again. "He didn't even want to sleep in the same bed with her. Elvis slept with his mama when she was sick, but didn't want to lie with his wife once she became a mother. You figure it out."

Prompting Marty Lacker to add: "Elvis told everybody he never wanted to have sex with a woman who'd had a child. He never said why. Everybody theorises it was because of his mother. I don't buy that shit. It was just one of his quirks."

Some quirk. And, yes, psychologist Peter Whitmer does address this subject but concludes that, since there was no proof of "frank sexual contact" between Gladys and Elvis, it may be more accurate to say Presley was "a victim of a syndrome called 'lethal enmeshment', 'psychosocial incest' or 'nonsexual incest"'.

Either way, in her book The Ultimate Elvis, Patricia Jobe Pierce probably gets even nearer to some psychosexual truth about Elvis when she says that, no matter how many women Elvis moved through, he was always reaching back towards his mother (Irish sons take note).

"In the final analysis," suggests Pierce, "Elvis trusted no one after Gladys Presley died. She remained his only true confidante, even though he abandoned her for his career at the end of her life. No matter how many friends or lovers he had, no relationship paralleled that of Elvis with his mother. She was truly the only woman in his life."

That's why Elvis never really left that shotgun shack.

Amen.


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