A Misunderstood Symbol – Jacob Ian

The Rodeway Inn in Memphis is a shit hole. It’s the kind of place where the clerk behind the admissions desk spends an eternity examining your ID, because terrifying, dangerous people actually check in there all the time. People who’ve robbed and killed people, probably sometimes only hours or minutes before. He takes a very deliberate photocopy of your driver’s license.

Both the ground floor and the second floor walkways are littered with abandoned shopping carts, some half-full of trash and filth, others totally empty and in stacks of two or three, just like at the stores they came from except here they’ve been rammed inexplicably up against the hotel room walls and left to roll aimlessly about. You get the very real, very realistic feeling that there are people watching you from the trees as you check in to your room, probably the people who these shopping carts belong to. The Rodeway Inn in Memphis is the sort of place where you have to really worry about disgusting bugs living in your mattress, why there’s a cigarette burn under your pillow, and where the curly black hairs on the sheets have just come from. The real kicker is the fucked up, mysterious door that leads straight into your neighbors room and locks only with a latch that’s, thankfully, on your side. In the morning, there will literally be barbecue sauce fingerprints prying at your car door handles.

When you finally get to Graceland, it’ll be chock full of old people. Like all of Florida just kind of up and moved for a moment to a fat man’s house on the Southeastern Tennessee border. There are gates everywhere, over every possible entry point to everything you will find a gate. The parking lot is hot as hell and, for some reason, mostly empty. Parking in the shade is a must, far out on the edge of the lot where one or two sad trees stand watch. The security guards are really suspicious of you. They’re on their walkie talkies and they’re following your movements, just in case. Why are there young people at Graceland? Surely they must be Satanists or piss-takers or vandals coming to loot the ruins.
At the gift shop there are forty dollar DVD tours of Elvis’ house, just in case paying the exorbitant fee to have someone drive you up to the front door in a golf cart wasn’t already enough. For those who want to replay the scenes over and over again, cling murderously to every last memory and burn it forever into their brains, this is the ticket. I’m thinking you can probably find this exact thing for free on Youtube, but try explaining that to Aunt Maude and see what gets through. You’re pretty much just going to be hanging out across the street, staring over at the big black gate while all these old baby boomers shuffle in and out on one last, ceaseless pilgrimage before they curl up and die. They say social security’s going to run out before we’ve grown old, and who among us could really afford the sixty or seventy bucks to actually take a tour of the place? That privilege goes to the ancient, used-up ones, those who’re old enough to actually remember the hip shake in question and the feeling in the air when it set America foaming at the mouth in all directions.
How misunderstood a symbol, Elvis Presley. How misaligned.

Over the decades since August 16th, 1977, our culture has rendered him nearly flattened, completely one dimensional, neatened into a nice little pile of quaint references and one-liners. The ruling, established elite has appropriated him nearly entirely, and transformed what once was a strange, volatile one-man, one-entity bridge between many disparate worlds into a single icon of white bread schmaltz. We all know he wasn’t truly evil, that his dancing wasn’t actually indicative of any sort of real devilishness. He was an eager boy from Tupelo, Mississippi who found himself in all the right places at all the right times and with all the right moves. He, preposterously, sang hillbilly music with an R&B swing. His first recording was intended only as a gift for his mother. But, I maintain that there was something truly wicked in that voice, those aforementioned hips, and especially in all that comeback special black leather.

A mama’s boy crept, then crawled into a festering hole of prescription drug addiction and sexual confusion, finding himself emotionally alone in a massive mansion too expensive to really actually be his. The women were always howling, not just whimpering or crying or screaming, but an unbridled, savage rabbit’s death howl. He let the eyes sparkle just a little, thrust his hips just a little, and the entire stadium was clawing over itself in an instant to tear even just a single piece from his gold lamé jacket. He let his looks go, one day bloated himself into a sweaty-faced caricature of the king that had effortlessly conquered America. He did karate onstage and a kaleidoscopic swirl of uppers and downers off of it, or just before he was scheduled to waddle out onto it. He flew to the White House and got Nixon to give him an official badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Then, late one night, he popped his last pill and sailed off to some distant shore.

Now, here he his in Berkeley, hanging faded and frayed on my wall. Like a saint, like an angel, like Jesus, he’s a tapestry that I’ve hung there to be reminded of always. I love him, I question him, I doubt him, and I cherish him. Below him, you’ll find a giant pile of plastic skulls in every shape and size and color, a stack of old, outdated swingers directories from Ohio in the eighties (with pictures), and two CPR dummies missing their faces. One of them wears a black trucker’s hat, printed in white ink across its front panel is a large cross and the words “THE KING LIVES.” You can find us there most nights, in front of a coffee table littered with empty, miserable beer cans and half-scorched roaches. A single candle burns, a cheap digital projector hums as it barely lights up the room, and we watch music videos endlessly in five feet by eight feet across the living room wall.

Jakob Ian lives in the Bay Area and writes about music.

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