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Kissing those blue suede shoes

by
02 January 2015

Elvis Presley's fans display the zeal and commitment of disciples, writes Ted Harrison

THE Christmas lights stay on for several extra days at Graceland to celebrate the birth of the King - the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

Thursday 8 January 2015 would have been Elvis Presley's 80th birthday. At his Memphis home, surrounded by the Christmas lights, fans will cut a cake in his memory, watched by thousands of others via the internet.

The anniversary of his death is marked every year by Elvis Week, a summer festival. Overnight from 15 to 16 August, a solemn candlelit vigil is held. Tens of thousands of fans walk in silence up the driveway of Elvis's former home, Graceland. to his grave in the Meditation Gardens. They carry flickering candles, as Elvis's music plays gently in the background. It is, many fans say, a profoundly spiritual occasion.

Although Elvis's death in 1977 prompted an eruption of grief, it might have been supposed that, over time, he would fade from public memory. At the time of his death, he was well past his pinnacle of fame; yet, today, the name Elvis is universally recognised, and a new generation is discovering his music in unlikely ways. For instance, a re-mixed version of an obscure Elvis track became a worldwide hit for the soccer World Cup in 2002.

And Elvis has refused to die. Fans began to invent rituals by which to remember him. When Graceland opened to the public, the mansion became a focus of what can only be described as pilgrimage. Today it attracts around 600,000 visitors a year. Many leave offerings at his graveside.

Prayers and petitions to Elvis can be found in profusion, many written on the estate wall:

"Elvis we believe, always and for ever"; "Every mountain I have had to climb, Elvis carried me on his back"; "Elvis, when are you coming back?"; "Only two people have moved the world so much, Jesus our Lord and Elvis our king."

Elvis imagery makes great play of a perceived connection between Christ and Elvis. A satirical work by artist Chris Rywalt shows Elvis displaying his sacred heart, in a style mimicking Roman Catholic iconography. Many Christians will regard this as insulting and sacrilegious, yet good satire can hint at hidden truth. The truth in Elvis's case is that some fans have come to conflate the two figures.

One version of the Elvis life story begins "He was born in a house little bigger than a stable." The nativity narrative was given additional colour by Elvis's father, Vernon, who described how, at the time of his son's birth, "a wondrous blue light hovered overhead" above their home. On the outer fringes of Elvis "theology", there are fans who claim that the biblical Gospels are prophecy, foretelling the life of Elvis.

Confused by his own success, Elvis himself undoubtedly held some strange ideas about who he was. Encouraged by Larry Geller, his hairdresser and unofficial spiritual adviser, he wondered whether he was a quasi-messianic figure.

The vast majority of the thousands of current fans would not explicitly acknowledge Elvis as a spiritual figure, and yet what they do in his name can best be understood in religious terms.

Graceland is likened by the medievalist Dr Gary Vikan to a locus sanctus, a holy place associated with an important sacred event, where pilgrims pray, venerate relics, perform penance, or seek healing. Elaborately decorated artworks are left there as offerings, each one telling a unique story of a fan and a personal relationship with the dead Elvis.

There are a number of Elvis churches, but most, such as the "First Church of Jesus Christ, Elvis", are elaborate jokes. Serious fans seek solace in Elvis at shrines in their own homes.

Highly significant is the part played by the Elvis impersonators. Once discouraged, but now fully endorsed by the Elvis estate, they have evolved into a kind of priesthood. They take weddings but, more importantly, they lead their congregations in celebration.

An Elvis tribute concert has become a kind of eucharist: there is even "a communion". Fans line up to receive scarves and kisses from the presiding Elvis. The Elvis music chosen will vary, but one number is a constant - An American Trilogy - which expresses an Elvis theology. It starts with an incarnational reference: "For Dixieland, that's where I was born Early Lord one frosty morn," as if to confirm that Elvis was born into the real world and was truly human.

Then a passion is foretold: "So hush little baby don't you cry. You know your daddy's bound to die." And finally comes the moment of resurrection: "Glory, glory hallelujah, His truth is marching on."

Elvis's religious roots were Bible-belt American. In his later years he added gospel music to his repertoire. It is not surprising, therefore, that fans have borrowed heavily from the Christian tradition in constructing a religious-like movement in memory of Elvis.

Many fans see no contradiction between loving Elvis and being practising Christians. During Elvis Week, one Roman Catholic church in Memphis holds a mass for fans, with plenty of Elvis T-shirts and tattoos on show.

Only time will tell if Elvis's fans have constructed a pastiche of Christian practice which is of little threat to orthodoxy, or if Elvis has spawned a new heresy.

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious affairs correspondent.

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