Burning Down the Road

Two decades after his death, Elvis lights out for the territory.

"Tales abound of close encounters with Cunanan in bars and discos and tony dinner parties," the San Francisco Chronicle reported on July 23, the day before the body of the killer of designer Gianni Versace was found on a Miami houseboat. Andrew Cunanan had traced the map of the country in a few short months, from California to Florida, leaving his dead in Minnesota, Chicago, New Jersey, Miami Beach; the paper was looking for the local angle. San Francisco gay men, the Chronicle said, "expressed shock and distress at just how widely known--and popular--the suspected killer appears to have been. 'Cunanan is the "Patient Zero" of serial killers,' said the San Francisco writer David Israels. 'Patient Zero'" (the French airline steward who the late Randy Shilts, in his book And the Band Played On, claimed first spread AIDS through the American gay community) "was supposedly everywhere and connected to everyone, and this guy was also everywhere and connected to everyone. He's been more places than Elvis."

Now, even taking into account daughter Lisa Marie Presley's 1996 ads for Versace Jeans Couture, one can dismiss this as a non sequitur--but I don't think it really is. In the corners of the popular imagination to which the media does not have ready access, Elvis Presley emerges precisely as a brooding, wronged, unsatisfied, malevolent drifter, traveling like Andrew Cunanan under different names and with different faces on a highway that in any case no longer recognizes him. This is the real-life Presley who George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, now says offered to have Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin who left Wallace crippled for life, killed ("Of course I told him to not to," Wallace says). And it is the spectral Elvis captured most powerfully and most ambiguously in an art project by Ned Rohr of Arizona: an untitled 1997 Elvis calendar.

Here, month to month, in obsessively detailed photo collages and text, is the drifter's account of an American wasteland. In every picture, Elvis in a famous photo--a young Elvis reclining in bed, crawling face-down across a stage, or greeting fans; an older Elvis, emoting or just wearing a lei--is surrounded by members of indigenous tribes from all across the world: Ainu, Arabs, Pygmies, Brazilian Amerindians, Balinese. They are mostly silent, looking straight at the camera, which is to say at whoever is paging through the calendar. The tableaux can be very complex, as in April, where a young Elvis dances in front of a small, 1950s amplifier. Behind him is his original bassist, Bill Black, but also an old, bearded man dressed in the desert rags of a Bedouin, playing a stringed rectangular box. Behind the three of them is a well-dressed crowd of curious African Americans; only Elvis looks away.

He moves on, through the year, mostly in the Southwest, but also in Missouri, Maine, Las Vegas, and somewhere off Highway 61. Rohr's Elvis speaks in his own queer voice: a voice no Elvis listener has heard before, a voice that, weathered by its years in exile, is instantly credible. "Motel-6," he says in January, "Battle Creek, Michigan... Desperation drives me to another one of these places. The shoddiest I have ever seen. Shod being rare in any quantity, at the 6er's, I am spellbound... This 6 crumbles at the edges. From the rusted steel and corroded cement of the big outdoor stairwells to the toilet that rocks a bit when mounted, wets the floor slightly with each flushing." This is luxury on his road. Everything is breaking down. The people he meets are consumed by powerlessness and a lust for vengeance on enemies they cannot name. "Slot machines to the horizon, well-oiled and warm," he reports in November. "They sound like a Cadillac when you lose, like a beaten Chevy with the horn stuck when you win." It is only his tone of resignation and bemusement that keeps the horn being stuck for the whole year; his own anger flares up every time he remembers who he used to be, remembers a show he once gave, a song he once sang, the look in the eyes of a girl he once met. He is in an America where everyone has already lost, where there is almost no one worth killing. As he could be remembering from a time before anyone knew the name Elvis Presley, he is in "the hostile, often pesky world of the uninsured," and only a fool can page through this 1997 and not feel judged.

Closing Ned Rohr's work, I imagined it being dropped from an airplane by the thousands over Memphis on August 16, while some unseen sound system pumped out that 1955 "Shake, Rattle and Roll," that 1968 "I've Got a Woman," and I wondered what would happen--how those now gathered there would respond, what they would say. I imagined people smiling and dancing to the music, and throwing the calendars away. After all, who starts a new calendar in August?

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