The War Against Cliche

   The War Against Cliche


What happened, El?' said Vernon Presley to his son, one day in 1956. Elvis was twenty-one at the time, and a multimillionaire. 'The last thing I can remember is I was working in a can factory and you were driving a truck.' Elvis laughed. 'I don't know what it is,' he later told a reporter. 'I just fell into it, really.'

What happened was this. The Presleys were Depression-shoved nomads from the deep rural South. Elvis's uncle, Vester Presley, was a teenager before he owned his first pair of shoes. Looking for work, the family straggled into Memphis. Elvis was a half-employed slum spiv when he did his first audition. He recorded the rockabilly classic 'That's All Right, Mama'—and suddenly the tenement Okies found themselves in Graceland, a Doric mansion at the far end of Elvis Presley Boulevard.

It was during Elvis's much-publicized stint of military service in Germany that the present writers came into the story. Dee Stanley was the wife of a morose sergeant stationed in Bad Nauheim. On a bored impulse Dee gave El a call, to offer him some Southern hospitality. They arranged to meet for coffee. As it happened, Elvis was on manoeuvres; but Dee was greeted and squired by the courtly, personable and recently widowed Vernon... On her return to the US, Dee got a divorce and ensconced herself at Graceland, with her three small sons, Billy, Rick and David.

Elvis, We Love You Tender is their story, cobbled together twenty years on with the excitable help of journalist Martin Torgoff. Elvis's entourage was divided into TCBers and TLCers: those who Took Care of Business and those who gave Tender Loving Care when the exhausted menfolk returned from the road. One way or another, then, the Stanleys were seldom far from Elvis's side. In many respects their book is a sorry effort—coarse, sentimental and lurchingly written. But the vulgarity of its idiom provides some inadvertent literary interest, and the memoir is far too damaging to all concerned for one to doubt its authenticity.

'Elvis was an enigma,' writes Torgoff, 'a walking, breathing paradox.' Oh no he wasn't. Indeed, in the circumstances it is hard to imagine a character of more supercharged banality. Elvis was a talented hick destroyed by success: what else is new? All that distinguished him was the full-blooded alacrity of his submission to drugs, women, money and megalomania, and the ease with which these excesses co-existed with his natural taste for spiritual conceit and grandiose Confederate machismo.

First, the women. During his early days on the road, Elvis 'decided to see how many chicks he could bang just for the hell of it'. He liked women who were 'classically feminine', didn't drink or talk too much, and had 'that unbeatable combo of beautiful, rounded ass and long tapered leg'. These women were called 'foxes'—'quality women' as opposed to 'dogs'. 'No dogs around the Boss' was a TCB rule. Some foxes were easier to catch than others; but then El would 'slap a Mercedes or a home on them and...' (His youthful wife Priscilla, incidentally, tired of Elvis's infidelities and ran off with one of his karate instructors.) There was, however, 'nothing kinky' about the King. 'Elvis', says Rick, 'was very proper.'

Similarly, Elvis was never a 'casual' user of drugs, and despised hippie concoctions like marijuana and LSD. He drank hardly at all. 'My head tells me I need a pill,' he would inform one of the captive quacks who tended him. Anything that came from a prescription seemed scientifically sanctified to Elvis. The uppers and downers he took souped up his bodyclock and probably contributed to the heart failure that caused his death. He tried drying out on numerous occasions; but minor TCBers would smuggle 'medication' into his room. 'They'd get stuff for it, you know, cars.'

On the road, Elvis carried a minimum of two guns on him at all times. He occasionally threatened fellow motorists with these if they honked or yelled at him too much. He enjoyed shooting up TV sets and hotel chandeliers. Never back down from a fight, he told his step-brothers, or else 'you're gonna feel like shit for the rest of your life'. 'A man has got to be a man,' he explained. Elvis elaborated tellingly on this theme in his song 'US Male': 'Mess with my woman, and you're messin' with the US Male. That's M-A-L-E, son, that's me.'

Meanwhile, Elvis would regularly repair to the quiet and elegance of Graceland. Here, all was matriarchal propriety: mild rough-housing with the boys, teetotal barbecues by the pool, communal prayers and a terrifying variety and intensity of familial emotion. Here, too, Elvis pursued his interest in religion and fringe parapsychology. He believed himself to be blessed with psychic powers; his entourage apparently spent many a tedious hour pretending that Elvis could read their minds. He was 'really into miracles'. Elvis pondered on the afterlife, entertaining tasteless reveries of his coming reunion with his dead twin and much-lamented mother. But he still lived the life, in a thickening mist of drugs and boredom. There was the usual eighteen-year-old in his bed on the last morning, as Elvis lay dying in the bathroom next door. 'My baby is gone. My baby, Dee,' said Vernon.

This is Rick's version of 'the paradox': 'He was a true believer who made his own rules so that his beliefs could blend with the way he lived his life.' Handy, that. 'Elvis was Elvis,' Torgoff concurs. 'He was just the King!' Does this remind you of anything? The world-view of a child-in-arms, for instance, a couple of weeks before the primal scream? Everyone who ever met Elvis, it seems, is currently writing a book about him, from his numerologist to his under-gardener. Elvis, We Love You Tender will not be the least lurid, but it will probably be by far the warmest—vivid testimony to the hysteria that the King still manages to inspire.

Observer August 1980

Despite their virtuoso triviality, their naïve snobbery, and their incredible length, the diaries of Andy Warhol are not without a certain charm. Of course, they aren't even diaries; they are the 'Collected Cassettes' or the 'Collected Wiretaps'. On most mornings Andy Warhol called his former secretary, Pat Hackett, and rambled on for a while about what he did the day before. She made 'extensive notes', she explains, and typed them up 'while Andy's intonations were fresh in my mind'. So that's what we are looking at here: 800 pages—half a million words—of Andy's intonations.

But it works, somehow. 'Peter Boyle and his new I think wife were there.' 'Princess Marina of I guess Greece came to lunch.' 'Nell took her clothes sort of off.' 'Raymond [is] out there posing for David Hockney—Raymond takes planes just to go pose.' Ms Hackett's editing, one feels, is affectionate and scrupulous, yet correctly unprotective. And after a while you start to trust the voice—Andy's voice, this wavering mumble, this ruined slur. It would seem that The Andy Warhol Diaries thrives on the banal; for in the daily grind of citizenship and dwindling mortality, the nobody and the somebody are one.

Meanwhile, here comes everybody—or at least everybody who is somebody. 'We went over to Studio 54 and just everybody was there.' 'You go to places where people are sort of nobodies.' 'Everybody was somebody...just everybody came after the awards. Faye Dunaway and Raquel Welch and just everybody.' But who is everybody? Or who is everybody else? Everybody is Loulou de la Falaise and Monique Van Vooren and Issey Miyake, Peppo Vanini and Yoyo Bischofberger, Sao Schlumberger and Suzie Frankfurt and Rocky Converse, Alice Ghostley, Dawn Mello and Way Bandy and Esme, Viva, Ultra and Tinkerbelle and Teri Toye, Dianne Brill, Billy Name, Joe Papp, Bo Polk, Jim Dine, Marc Rich, Nick Love and John Sex.

Similarly Andy went everyplace, or everyplace that was anyplace—or not even. He goes to the opening of an escalator at Bergdorf Goodman, to Regine's for Julio Iglesias's birthday, to an icecream-shop unveiling in Palm Beach, to Tavern on the Green for a 'thing' (this is a word that Andy has a lot of time for) to announce that Don King is taking over the management of the Jacksons, to the Waldorf-Astoria for the Barbie Doll bash, someplace else to judge a Madonna-lookalike playoff and someplace else to judge a naked-breast contest. It strains you to imagine the kind of invitation Andy might turn down. To the refurbishment of a fire exit at the Chase Manhattan Bank? To early heats of a wet-leotard competition in Long Island City? Some days, of course, nothing much happens. 'Had to go close on the building and we had to drink some champagne with the people,' for instance, listlessly accounts for Oct. 19, 1981. Or take this eventful interlude in September 1980: 'I tried to watch TV but nothing good was on.' Ah, such striving. If you try, you can make Andy's life sound almost ghoulishly varied: 'I had the rock kid who ate the heads off bats'; 'Lewis Allen came down with the dummy-makers who're making a robot of me for his play.' But really every day was the same old round. Occasionally he stayed in and dyed his eyebrows, or read the memoirs of some old movie queen, or met with success in front of the television (The Thorn Birds or I Love Lucy; this is the man who saw Grease II three times in one week). And every now and then a mention in the news media proves to be as good, or as bad, as the real thing: 'There was a party at the Statue of Liberty, but I'd already read publicity of me going to it so I felt it was done already.'

During the years covered by the diaries (from 1976 until Warhol's death in 1987), the planet was spinning, as it always spins, but Andy's self-absorption remained immovable. Events of world-historical significance are simply given a quick sentence here and there, before being engulfed by the usual gossip and grumbling. This isn't to say that Andy remains untouched by current affairs. The 1986 American raid on Libya seriously disrupts a live television show he's doing. The Achille Lauro hijacking in 1988 causes concern, because now everybody will be watching The Love Boat...with my episode on it'. The fall of the Shah of Iran spells a lost commission ('At dinner the Iranians told me that when I paint the Shah to go easy on the eye shadow and lipstick'). For Andy, as for Bellow's Citrine, history is a nightmare during which he is trying to get a good night's rest: 'Some creep asked us what I thought about the torture in Iran and Paulette said, "Listen, Valerian Rybar is torturing me here in New York." He's still decorating her apartment, she was complaining that it's been a year.'

Manners change too, though, and Andy is better placed, and better quipped, to reflect the general retreat, the increasing social distrust, of is final decade. In 1977 he can say of a woman dress designer: 'She acts like a businesswoman—she doesn't take much coke in the day.' But by 1987 it isn't just Andy who is drinking Perrier water and then curling up with a quarter of a Valium. AIDS makes its first appearance halfway through the book, in February 1982, where it is called 'gay cancer' (in contradistinction to 'regular cancer'). By June 1985 it is referred to as 'you-know-what'. The diaries show very clearly how the transcendentalism of the counterculture eventually turned in on the self, on the human body. Andy, already a fervent hypochondriac (he was shot in 1968 by a woman who had once appeared in one of his underground movies), shuffles on from beauty classes and pedicure into nutrition, collagen, shiatsu treatments, crystals, kinesiology and other desperate quackeries. By December 1986, AIDS itself is weirdly called 'the magic disease'.

It would be hard work, and a waste of energy, to do much disapproving of Andy Warhol. He doesn't take himself seriously enough for that—or for anything else. It is worth remarking that at no point does he say anything interesting (or even non-ridiculous) about art. He'll mention having 'a good art idea' or attending 'an art party'; he'll mention that 'art is big now'. 'We talked art,' he says, and he reader leans forward attentively, into this: 'Thomas told the story of the Picasso he bought from Paulette Goddard, it cost $60,000 and he brought it to one of the Picasso kids and they said it was a fake, and he said Paulette gave him a hard time, that she was "difficult," but she did give him his money back.'

It's all on that level. Andy's agent tells him 'not to take the wrinkles out too much on these old people'. There is a conference about Dolly Parton's beauty mark: is it in or out? 'I'd taken it out and they want it in, so I called Rupert [Smith, Andy's silk-screener] and told him it was in again.' Pia Zadora wants a painting and she'll 'take it with her if it fits into her husband's jet, so they were measuring it'. For the rest, it's desultory reports on how much his Marlons and Marilyns and Lizzes and Elvises are currently fetching. The Warholian apotheosis is duly reached when Andy does a commission for Campbell's soup. It troubles him—'Me standing there twenty years later and still with a Campbell's soup thing'—but he doesn't quite appreciate the asymmetry. Once the artist urging us to re-examine the ordinary, Warhol is now the commercial portraitist celebrating the vendible. 'And for all the work and publicity, I should've charged them like $250,000.'

Plainly, Andy was funny about money. Throughout the diaries he dutifully records the cost of everything—everything claimable, anyway. These bracketed price-tags look odd at first—on page 1: 'phone call for directions (phone $.10)'—but we soon get used to them. Andy's crab soap cost $6, and his bulletproof vest cost $270. 'She said Matt didn't relate to her (dinner $600 including tip).' 'Drank and talked and looked out of the window ($180).' Money has a habit of making people seem lopsided. Andy pays for Grace Jones's dinner, despite the wad of hundreds she produces. And yet: 'Went to church and while I was kneeling and praying for money a shopping-bag lady came in and asked me for some. She asked for $5 and then upped it to $10. It was like Viva. I gave her a nickel.' Well, it could have been worse. It could have said: 'I gave her a nickel ($.05).'

Warhol was a fame snob, a looks snob, a weight snob, a height snob and an age snob. But he got older, and iller, and was obliged to wander the biological desert of middle-aged gaydom. Childish himself, he became a frustrated parent. His chaste crushes never seemed to work out: 'Looking back now, I guess I wasn't seeing what I didn't want to see. Again. Does it ever end? Do you ever get smart?' Towards the close, the invitations dry up, the photographers pass him by, the calls go unreturned. 'I like ugly people. I do. And anyway, ugly people are just as hard to get as pretty people—they don't want you, either.'

His most thoroughly sympathetic moments come in his dealings with animals. Even here he is habitually wounded and touchy: 'I took all my old bread to the park and tried to give it to the birds but they didn't come around and I just hated them for that.' Or with his dachshunds, Amos and Archie: when he returns home from work on a rainy day and finds that one of them has wet his bed, 'I beat him up. Amos.' Or, most appropriately, most comically, most hopelessly, when the Walt Disney film crew arrives and asks him who his favourite Disney character is, 'and I said, "Minnie Mouse, because she can get me close to Mickey."'

New York Times Book Review June 1989

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Excerpted from The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis. Copyright © 2002 by Martin Amis. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.