As I read Simon Crump’s My Elvis Blackout, the internet was venting its excitement and anger over some of the revelations thrown up by Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. The outrage over Armstrong is an indicator of how disappointing we find it when the people we look up to and idolise turn out to have feet of clay.
So how do you write about celebrities who are probably really awful people in real life? Crump’s solution – fictionalised accounts in which the celebrity in question commits crimes, acts of violence, and other grotesque acts. It’s as good an answer as any.
My Elvis Blackout has had an odd publication history; as Crump notes in the afterword, it has, since its creation in 1998, been “a chapbook, a hardback, a trade paperback, a tee-shirt, a short film, a CD and even a band”. It was published in 2000, was out of print for many years, and has recently been reissued as an ebook by Galley Beggar Press. In the interim Crump published Neverland, a lurid, fictionalised account of Michael Jackson that, the author claims, was finished mere hours before the singer died and was probably a rather startling contrast to some of the fawning accounts of his life that followed.
In My Elvis Blackout, Crump gives us a series of short stories (some are less than a page long) in which Elvis Presley is reimagined in a number of startling ways. He murders other celebrities, including Dame Barbara Cartland and “Lady in Red” singer Chris de Burgh – though de Burgh comes back as a zombie to complain. He stands up his high school girlfriend on the night of a dance, only to confess to her later that he has murdered a classmate and become obsessed with human hair. We hear of his adventures as a foetus, when he would escape his mother’s womb, dress in the poodle’s tartan coat and go shoplifting. Of the time he was drugged on a cooking show with hilarious results – until all those associated with the show were fired. Many of these stories are told in a matter-of-fact tone that is completely at odds with their subject matter. “It was pretty soon after the time when Elvis had been abducted by aliens and he was still very touchy about the whole topic of intergalactic space travel.” Or “convinced that Led Zeppelin had sabotaged his plane, Elvis was now on his way to teach them a lesson.”
So how do you write about celebrities who are probably really awful people in real life? Crump’s solution – fictionalised accounts in which the celebrity in question commits crimes, acts of violence.
Dropcap OnViolence is a constant throughout the collection. Often it’s casual; out of nowhere a character’s throat will be slit or giant ants will eat the flesh off her. It is even tender; Angie Crumbaker describes the boyfriend who has just committed murder as “so handsome that my aching heart began to bleed”. Sometimes it is visceral, as when we read of cannibalistic rituals at Graceland, where “human entrails had formed a thick crust on the surface of the pool”. It’s never played for laughs, even when it could be. The abovementioned Led Zeppelin revenge plot goes terribly wrong, but it seems more to draw attention to its lack of humour than anything else.
As someone with only a mild interest in the musician, I often found names and associations that seemed vaguely familiar; such as a reference to Presley’s having to shave off his sideburns to enter the US army. This feels in some ways like a pre-internet book, pieced together from what scraps we do know about a celebrity. Crump says it was written in the mid-1990s, before the internet was quite as big a part of our lives as it is today.
But much of this, particularly what it obliquely says about celebrity culture, feels new and fresh. In his introduction to the book, Jon McGregor tells an anecdote about another of this year’s “fallen”celebrities, Jimmy Savile, and his sexual harassment of a young woman who was subsequently fired for retaliating. “We used to think this was a funny story” he says, after a beat.