His body, like Christ's, was available for consumption by true believers: a rumour alleged that Presleyburgers had been made from his minced corpse and distributed like communion wafers to 'New York and West Coast rock aristocracy'. Less favoured acolytes made do with the fetishistic heirlooms they traded.
Locks of his hair, dyed the blue-black of a raven's wing, still sell for thousands of dollars. His ghost, made of sequinned ectoplasm, materialises in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train. In 1979 an underground film exhumed the cadaver (this time unminced) for a farewell concert tour, at the end of which its putrid flesh was sliced off and sold piecemeal.
The Elvis myth exists to deny death, or to console us for its undeniability. Nevertheless, it's likely that whatever is left of him reposes in the meditation garden at Graceland, beneath a bronze plaque doubly emblazoned with a cross and his personal logo - a lightning bolt to signal the electric energy that caused his pelvis to jerk and quake, with the initials TCB as a reminder to Take Care of Business, the motto of his Memphis entourage.
Elvis is gone, but his widow Priscilla remains with us, and she was in London last week to promote a book and a memorial video documentary about him; he may have mouldered, but she still looks exactly like the 14-year-old he began to woo while he was a GI in Germany in 1959.
Myths repudiate death, and cosmetic surgery has its own way of slyly refuting time. 'She looked like a little doll,' cooed Elvis's cousin Patsy when the schoolgirl Priscilla, surrendered by her parents, came to live at Graceland as both his ward and bedmate.
Priscilla, now 60, is still doll-like - dainty, impenetrably painted, with waxen cheeks and a pursed mouth that is under too much duress, after the tightening she has undergone, to blab out secrets. A face not lived in has no way of registering her distress. Her eyes, pinioned open, continue to look at the world with dazed wonder, and her voice is that of a breathy, tentative teenager.
She is, whether she admits it or not, a damaged creature. 'I was someone he created,' she told me when we met. 'I was just a kid, and I was consumed by him. I could never speak my mind; all I desired was not to disappoint him.'
Elvis dictated the colour of her hair, which was dyed as inkily as his own and then teased into gravity-defying cones; he insisted on the mascara that turned her eyes into volcanic craters, and the false lashes that flapped above them like nocturnal birds; he picked out the tarty costumes she wore when she came home from Catholic school, shed her uniform, and began to play what she calls 'his femme fatale'.
He dosed her with uppers to adjust her moods, and deprived her of her favourite food, tuna salad, because he disliked its smell. 'Yes, he was quite critical. What you're seeing,' said Priscilla, pointing to her transfixed face, 'is the product of constant criticism.'
Elvis once caught her frowning as she glanced up from her homework, and gave her a slap on the forehead to warn her that it was wrinkling. 'If I looked up, it had to be with my eyes only, so the skin would stay smooth. See, I'm so well trained that I can't do it now even if I want to!' She illustrated: her brow has indeed been immobilised, ironed flat.
Elvis 'was committed to my purity', as Priscilla puts it. He courted her like one of the pining minstrels in medieval romance, and left her unsullied after she moved in with him. Until their marriage in 1967, they contented themselves with heavy petting. Consummation was adjourned until the wedding night in Las Vegas; the result was immediate impregnation.
The criticism continued. 'Elvis was always talking about women who let themselves go when they were expecting, who used it as an excuse to gain weight. So I actually lost eight pounds when I was carrying! I ate only eggs and apples, I never drank milk. No, I wasn't allowed to see a doctor. Elvis didn't like to have new people around. We were in a cocoon at Graceland.'
The birth of their daughter resulted in a wounding sexual rejection. Elvis felt, according to Priscilla's testimony in the book, that 'he just couldn't have sex with a woman who'd had a child'.
When I asked her about this, she revised the record, although the book reports on the end of 'intimacy'.
'No, no, of course we were having sex! I mean, he was Elvis after all, and I must say he was very creative, very playful.'
Despite this fervour, I was reminded of Lisa Marie's assertion - in a television interview during her brief marriage to Michael Jackson - that she and Jacko were rabbiting away in the nuptial suite at Neverland.
So why did Elvis embargo postpartum intercourse?
'Oh,' said Priscilla a little prissily, 'I guess he had a madonna complex.'
The marriage unravelled, and they were divorced in 1973. 'He was still very lovey with me, but only upstairs, when the guys weren't around to impress. He was a Southern boy, a man's man, and girls were kept out of sight. The other wives and I were only allowed to leave Memphis and go to Vegas at certain times - first nights or last nights.
That left Elvis and his buddies free to be bad boys with the showgirls in between! Not that I was any angel. Eventually I took on someone.' The euphemism is characteristic. Priscilla's maiden name is Beaulieu (pronounced Bewlew) and she is as much of a genteel Southern belle as Tennessee Williams's Blanche du Bois.
When my more mobile brow furrowed in puzzlement, she lisped a shy clarification: 'I took a lover. It was my way out.'
What, I wondered, were the demons that drove Elvis? She thought him vulnerable, and wanted to nurture him; a child herself, she had to replace the mother he lost a year before they met.
'He was criticised when he was growing up for the way he looked, the way he wore his hair - just like he criticised me - and that must have been quite impactful.
People laughed at him because he was very fussy, he'd always carry his own utensils when he went out to eat because he didn't want germs.' I'd read that he was unhappy with his body, even though his fans worshipped it as a phallic totem. Was it true that he disliked his spindly legs? 'I'm not quite agreeing about the legs,' said Priscilla.
'All I would say is that he always wore a T-shirt when we were at the beach or in the ocean. He thought, being Elvis, that he should have a hairier chest. Of course if it were now he'd be waxing off the few hairs he did have!'
Graceland was the court of an absolute monarch, whose nocturnal habits were fuelled by benzedrine. Priscilla has her own cautious way of describing his manic whims:
'Well, Elvis was very spontaneous. It would be, "Now we're all gonna go horse-back riding, or out on our motor bikes. Or we're gonna take the plane to Vegas."
And you couldn't say you didn't want to.'
As at court, the corridors were thick with whispers, and the paranoid king suspected his fawning entourage of treachery.
'He'd call on the intercom every morning to see who was in the kitchen before he went down to have his breakfast. He didn't like it if there was someone in the room who was on the outs.
Often it was a family member wanting money.' After their separation, Priscilla watched as Elvis simultaneously inflated and imploded. His body ballooned, choked with bacon cheeseburgers and pint tubs of ice cream, and he hid it behind jewelled capes or inside cavernous jumpsuits; his act became louder, more hollowly self-parodic.
'He was terribly insecure by the end. People were always saying to him, "You didn't fill up the room today, it wasn't a sell-out." Sometimes they had to curtain off whole areas of seating to make it look less empty. No one could tell him he had a problem, or get him to deal with his addictions. Just think - if he were alive now, he'd be in his early seventies, and remember how good Cary Grant looked when he was that age!'
Despite Priscilla's fond reverie, I find it hard to imagine Elvis as a dapper pensioner, elegant despite arthritis and a toupee. Premature death ensured his immortality, and led almost immediately to a flurry of reincarnations - the claims in the tabloids that his statue had been found on Mars, the plaster statuettes sold like votive icons, the annual competitions in Vegas for Elvis clones.
After his death, Priscilla conferred another kind of immortality on him: she incorporated him. She set up Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. which runs Graceland as a museum and controls commercial rights to his image; her book, the DVD and a new set of CDs are the latest attempts to perpetuate the franchise.
'No, I never did anything out of revenge,' she said when I asked about her motives for taking that lover. But her triumph over the man who divorced her has been sweet and lucrative. 'I loved him, I still love him,' she told me, and her behaviour is wistfully reverential.
But demolition is also part of the agenda: Priscilla knocked down the house Elvis occupied in Los Angeles, bronzed the bricks, then shipped them to Graceland for sale as souvenirs.
She speaks now about 'the bigness of Elvis Presley'. What you notice about Priscilla is her littleness - her frailty, and her bemusement at what has happened to her. It would be easy to call the adolescent who beguiled Elvis a nymphet, like Nabokov's Lolita.
But she looks to me like one of those nymphs who in classical fables were snatched by a passing god and whipped off to heaven where they were flattered, pleasured and shown the view from on top of the world before, when the fickle deity tired, being dumped back on earth again.
If Priscilla could look up (which she knows it's unwise to do) she would probably be scrutinising the sky and asking it the same questions she heard Elvis repeating during his sessions with the gurus he consulted: 'Why me? Why was I chosen?'
And if she had a single request, it would probably be the one she made when Lisa Marie phoned her in Los Angeles to tell her that Elvis had died: 'Send the plane for me.'
Spotlight by Peter Conrad
-Copyright EIN, May 2005
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