Back in November, it was reported that EPE was “taking the Elvis out of Elvisfests”; in other words, Elvis festivals that featured ETA’s or that had contests involving ETA’s were not going to be licenced.

Neal Rubin, a writer with the Detroit News, discovered that his article on the topic had traveled very quickly around the globe, and that it had been posted on many different Elvis sites including one in Australia and on LadyLuck Music in Montreal, Canada.
(Elvisfest loses the 'Elvis')

Fans world-wide objected to the way Neal reported this news and he found himself on the receiving end of countless e-mails -- many of them rude, threatening, profane. This was the focus of another article. (
Elvis fans happy? Fat chance)

I, myself, e-mailed Neal but, in addition to receiving his brusque generic response to the fanatics who had been downright rude, I also received a cordial note stating that my e-mail had a “reasoned tone” and deserved a nicer response than the generic one.

At this point, I asked Neal if he would be willing to give his perspective as to why Elvis is often treated by the media as the punch line to a bad joke.

Neal responded immediately and, over the course of a few weeks, this column gradually came together.

In the meantime, as we all know, EPE reversed its original decision and the Elvisfests will continue to be licenced, to have ETA’s, and to have ETA contests, if they so wish. Neal also wrote a much mellower follow-up article for the Detroit News which reported EPE’s turnaround on the topic.
(Elvisfest can let it shake again).


Readers may or may not agree with the content of the following interview, but the purpose was to engage in a dialogue with a member of the mainstream press on the topic of Elvis in the media -- and I thank Neal Rubin for taking the time to respond to me.

INTERVIEW


Carol: Neal, when I read your first article, what jumped out at me were the negative remarks about Elvis. On re-reading the article, I see your point was, perhaps, that EPE's licencing rules regarding tribute artists weren’t valid in light of the fact that Elvis was human and not the idealized image you feel that EPE is presenting to the public.


Nothing you said about Elvis in your article is factually untrue, but why do the media generally tend to focus on "fat" and "drugs" and "dying on toilet" and food/weight jokes when there are so many positive facts to write about? Elvis accomplished much in his lifetime and, for most of his career, he was slim and very good looking. The gold records lining the walls of the trophy room at Graceland are enough to tug the heartstrings of even the most diehard cynic. Elvis is also a member of the Rock ‘n' Roll, Gospel, and Country Halls of Fame, a Grammy award winner, and much more. Why do you think the “positive" rarely comes out in articles about him?


Neal: For casual fans or people who don't care much either way, the enduring image of Elvis is the jumpsuit era, or even the popping-out-of-the-jumpsuit era. It's hard to say why since, as several people pointed out, he was only overweight for a small portion of his life. Had he lived long enough to retire, or to move away from the jumpsuit phase into, say, a sportcoat or tuxedo phase, the jumpsuit image might not have been the one that stuck. The Beatles, for instance, aren't necessarily remembered wearing Nehru jackets.

As for the positive side of Elvis, it was chronicled at length during his lifetime. Every time he gave away a Cadillac, it was news. I did point out in a follow-up column that EPE was being mean-spirited in the name of someone known for generosity. But most references to Elvis I see nowadays are brief and specific; unless you're writing about unexpected presents or luxury cars, I don't know that the Cadillacs would come up.

I just posed the question to another writer walking by -- why does Elvis' death get written about so much more than his life? -- and she said, "Because aside from the occasional re-released songs, the last newsworthy thing he did was die." So there's another viewpoint.


Carol: The content of your article was of interest to those of us who organize, attend, or participate in Elvis festivals --- both in Canada and the US. The content alone, along with the name "Elvis," would draw a fair number of readers. The negative remarks detracted from the content and shifted the readers' focus. For example, why did you feel it necessary to refer to Elvis as "fat, dead singer" when "the late Elvis Presley" would have done quite well?


Neal: The snippy comments about Elvis were detracting and distracting to serious Elvis fans, but to most of the hundreds of thousands of people I write for in the Detroit News, they were just words helping to illustrate a point. My constituency isn't the president of an Elvis fan club in England. As I'm writing that column on a tight deadline, I'm outraged at EPE on behalf of the people in suburban Detroit whose non-profit Elvis festival is under attack.


My point was that EPE was being overprotective of a sugar-coated Elvis who doesn't exist. In retrospect, I'd have toned those two sentence fragments down, but I'd have made the same point.

Carol: I’d like to address what you call your “snippy comments.” If most of the hundreds of thousands of people you write for in the Detroit News really don’t care one way or the other about Elvis, and would have just as readily read a less derogatory description, then why choose to use words which demean Elvis and insult the serious Elvis fans who would be reading the article because of the newsworthy content alone? I’m not sure I buy your argument; you could have expressed your outrage at EPE and made your point without demeaning Elvis at the same time.

.

Neal: My mandate here is to be local and be funny, or at least light-hearted. People who read me regularly recognize that. If the sheer outrageousness of those passages didn't make people laugh -- and dozens of readers told me they did -- they at least helped create the pace and tone I was looking for. Would I have done the same thing with someone who was still alive, or who lived here? Probably not. But the simple fact that extremists have insisted Elvis is alive means that comedians can get laughs by pointing out that he isn't. I've heard black comedians get the same reaction with references to Tupac Shakur.


Carol: Why do the media not refer to other dead rock stars -- John Lennon, for instance -- in as derogatory a manner as they do Elvis? Many of them were drug users. Some were fat; some were eccentric. John and Yoko certainly had their moments.

My local paper, The London Free Press, on the day after George Harrison died, featured a glowing front page article about him, yet the editorial cartoon depicted a fat, grotesque Elvis in a cave in Afghanistan (i.e. found Elvis in a cave, not Bin Laden --- not really relevant to the topic at hand and another way to get a cheap laugh at Elvis' expense).


Neal: I've never thought about it before, but if the circumstances of John Lennon's death and Elvis' death were reversed, I imagine Lennon would be treated less lovingly and Elvis would be seen as more of a martyr. Again, it might have something to do with longevity. Lennon and George Harrison were able to outlive their worst moments. Yoko isn't mentioned as much as Elvis these days for obvious reasons, but percentage-wise, I'd guess she's even more of a cheap punch line.


Carol: In your reply to the fanatics who wrote to you -- some sending profane and nasty e-mails -- you intimated that most Elvis fans were over the edge, have contributed to the problem, and have helped to turn Elvis into a caricature. Yet, that really isn't the case. The media tend to zero in on the small percentage of "loonie" fans at any opportunity – and on the really awful impersonators. There are many, many "normal" Elvis fans. Many have been fans for years, and they’ve now been joined by new generations of younger fans. The music and the man have stood the test of time. There are also some very good and very talented impersonators /Elvis tribute artists. Why do the media tend to focus on the joke rather than the reality?


Neal: Taking that last part first: If I'm covering the Michigan Elvisfest or a convention where Xerox has an Elvis impersonator at its exhibit, I'm not judging quality. I'm just writing about the Elvis impersonator. Likewise, if I see a fan at Graceland shrieking and tearing his clothes, that's where my attention -- and everyone else's attention, media and non-media alike -- will turn. I don't know that anyone seeks out the eccentrics, but when they're there, we can't help but see them.

I'm not saying that most Elvis fans are over the top, but I've met some who are, and they absolutely contribute to the cartoonish nature of his legacy. People whose response to a perceived insult toward Elvis is to swear at or threaten a stranger only make things worse. If John Lennon had spawned thousands of impersonators, or if hordes of his fans proudly named their children Sean and Julian, or if they set up Lennon shrines in their dens, his image would be different, too.


Carol: Neal, I’d like to thank you for responding to the questions I’ve asked you. Do you have any final words on this topic?

Neal: Have you ever wondered whether Elvis' origins have anything to do with how he's treated now, whether by the media, late-night comedians or pop culture in general? Is he being picked on by people, subconsciously or otherwise, for a background that was poor and Southern? I'm not saying that's the case, but it's something that occurred to me the other day. If Elvis had been from suburban Philadelphia, he'd probably still be stereotyped, but the stereotypes would be much different. Would he be less ridiculed for overindulging on cheese steak sandwiches instead of fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches? Would Graceland and the people who visit it be regarded differently if the house was on Philadelphia's Main Line? Obviously, Elvis' upbringing shaped him. You can't separate him from that, and you wouldn't want to. But it's an interesting what-if.

Carol: It’s a very interesting what-if. Elvis has been picked on and ridiculed by the groups you've mentioned above, and he may well have been treated differently if he'd been from suburban Philadelphia but, as you say, Elvis’ upbringing shaped him. His origins and upbringing made him who he was and have contributed to the love that his fans have for him. Born into abject poverty in post-Depression rural Mississippi, he achieved the American Dream. He was human on this level also and, although there are many lessons to be learned from Elvis’ life, his story has given hope to others facing similar difficulties. I believe he is admired by many not only for his tremendous musical legacy but also for the basic values that were instilled in him as part of his upbringing -- his financial support of his parents, his genuine religious beliefs, his generosity to those less fortunate, his kindness, and his quest for knowledge. Elvis’ origins and upbringing are probably also a contributing factor as to why people from all stations in life, rich and poor alike, visit Graceland each year -- making it one of the most visited houses in the US, second only to the White House.

Again, I’d like to thank Neal Rubin for providing me with the opportunity to conduct this interview and for responding to the questions I put to him. I know how much time it takes for me to do one monthly column. Neal writes four columns a week and has many deadlines to meet -- so, thanks for your time and input, Neal. It’s very much appreciated. Now -- about that remark you made in your follow-up column about “those pesky Canadians”!!!!

...... Carol interviews Neal Rubin of the Detroit News