(I think I wrote this piece in the fall of 1994, for the local once-alternative weekly. It says pretty much all I have to say about California’s Central Valley, and about Elvis Presley.
(My brother always liked this story. He was the model for the character Tector. He was supposed to accompany me on this journey, but for some reason backed out. I brought him along anyway.
(He never made it to South America. Because when he died identification of the corporeal container was at best a guess, I like to think he actually did, and thrives there to this day. Freed at last of white people, and all the other demons that possessed him.)
The Feather River delta died years ago below too many goddam dams. The banks of the Yuba/Sutter bottomlands shimmer in that shade of scummy yellow-brown that settles round the throat of the toilet when you don’t scrub the thing very often. In signal-clotted fits and stalls I am following the highway, preparing to cross the river, frantically throwing garlic at the “I YAM WHAT I YAM” messages emanating from the jesusjumping signboard hung above the Yahweh Hotel.
I’m going to Graceland, Graceland West, in Yuba County: I’m going to Graceland. Poorboys and picaros, from felonious families; and we are going to Graceland. My traveling companion is thirty-three years old; he is the child of our father’s second marriage. With that shotgun cross his knees, we will not be well received, in Graceland.
In August the astoundingly anal publication American Demographics published a color-coded map of the entire United States, divided by county and denoting in blinding red those regions most likely to support fanatical clusters of demonically devoted fans of Elvis Presley.
Studying the map one finds an appalling red smear of Elvis running across nearly the entire south, spreading into the midwest, leaving huge festering tumors along much of the eastern seaboard. As one moves west, however, the Elvirus begins to recede, until, in California, there appears but a single spot of Danger, in Yuba County.
The map reflects the work of Bob Lunn of Direct Image Concepts, a Texas marketing firm. On August 29 a mean man on the San Francisco Examiner wrote a story about Lunn and his map, chortling that Facts Now Show that the county of Yuba is home to a bunch of dumb, aging women who alternately drag deeply on menthol cigarettes and fill their jowls with velveeta and spam, all the while crying over trashy TV movies featuring people stricken with horrific diseases. Outside their men patrol the town in CB-equipped pickups, guzzling malt liquor and endlessly searching for something to fell with their chainsaws. Nights they peruse together the National Enquirer, searching for news of the latest Elvis sightings, then flip the TV dial over to their favorite shopping channel, where they order by phone such tasteful souvenirs as the life-sized Elvis torso that spurts liquor from an autographed penis.
Poor Yuba County. The area suffers grievously for such a modest little county. It was troubled, of course, from the beginning, known even before the Civil War as the place founded by people who liked to eat each other—the undigested remains of the Donner Party coming to rest at Johnson’s Rancho, a few miles east of the town known today as Wheatland. Several years ago Rand-McNally pronounced the Yuba City/Marysville area the absolute worst place to live in the whole United States—worse than Love Canal; Icepick, Minnesota; or that place in Deliverance. Another study disclosed that great clumps of county citizens are riddled with cancer. Native son Wally Herger is a profoundly ignorant man, one of the dimmest bulbs to serve in the House of Representatives in this century. The county’s biggest employer, Beale Air Force Base, is a death farm. And every twenty years or so, through the machinations of Gaia and/or PG&E cloudseeders, the Feather River reclaims its heritage, transformed into a raging torrent that roars around town relocating roads, homes, and malls.
Still, it’s hard to understand why Yuba County should be so singled out. It seems to me any of the counties comprising the Annex of Hell, that great swath of poisoned desert stretching from Redding to Bakersfield, could fairly claim the mark of Elvi.
Take, for instance, the county of Sutter, lying there belly-to-belly right next to Yuba. It’s certainly no Garden of Allah. The place features the Sutter Buttes, easily the world’s most pathetic mountain range; a town—Karnak—named after a Johnny Carson routine; and a clot of bumbling butchers malpractitioning as doctors who persist in injecting my daughter with the wrong drugs while treating my ex-wife like a wino. Vada’s Motel is a hotbed of Yahweh cultists who daily plague Yuba City motorists with a large marquee bearing ominous blats from their arcane, discredited texts; of late they’ve stuck to the warning “The Fear Of The Lord Is Wisdom,” a genuinely nasty nugget summoning up everything wrong and rotten with their screwworm religion.
And how could Butte County possibly escape punishment? This is a place where young people routinely set fire to the streets when they’re not shooting each other over t-shirts. For many years the electorate regularly returned to office a sheriff who had no more sense than a pancake, and today accepts as DA a bombastic imbecile who believes in castration.
Sounds like Elvis Country to me.
But no. It is Yuba, and Yuba alone, that must bear, again, the cross.
This time the denizens of Yuba, led by County Administrator Fred Morawcznski, would respond to a blast of unfavorable publicity with a canny mix of humor and hustle. September 30 would be designated “Don’t Be Cruel To Yuba” day. Out at the airport Elvi would appear from the sky, the media forced to gobble up “gourmet” Yuba sandwiches composed of canned ham and processed cheese. County bureaucrats would meanwhile use coverage of the Elvis connection as an opportunity to publicly pimp Yuba as a sort of official orifice ready to accept any entity promising to ram home business, business, business.
I would be there at the airport, but I would not go alone. If asked to confront spam, aircraft, politicos, and Elvis all at once, I would need brother Tector. A functional lunatic prone to the violent dismantling of stoves, phones, and autos, Tector was once so enraged by the drivel flowing from his television he first hurled the set into a rice bog and then drove his pickup deep into the mountains so he could purify himself by sleeping a week in the snow. At present Tector is preparing to flee to South America “so I won’t have to see any more goddam white people.”
“It’s gonna cost you some change,” he said when I sprung the Elvi idea. “I got to the point where I don’t do nothin’ for nobody, ‘less there’s a piece of gold attached to it.”
“Fine,” I agreed.
“And I’m bringing the .12 gauge,” he added.
“In case one of those bastards tries to sing.”
elvis is a hero to most
but he never meant shit to me
he was straight-out racist
sucker was simple and plain
motherfuck him and john wayne
I never had much use for Elvis Presley. During the years I lived in Yuba County, in fact, the only Elvis experience I can recall is the day I ripped my car radio out by the roots midway through “In The Ghetto.”
The guy issued twelve good sides; that’s all. Once he left Sam Phillips and Sun, he devolved into le schlockmeister grande. He had his moment, true; he was one of those there at the rockabilly beginning; but as soon as he had the chance he ran from rocknroll faster than Richard Pryor with his body on fire. Most post-’56 Elvis music is not only bad, it’s an outrage. He makes Neil Diamond sound like the Queen of Soul. Huge chunks of his stuff should appear only on those Rhino Golden Throats discs, slapped between Sebastian Cabot working out on “Like A Rolling Stone” and William Shatner bleating “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”
Hailing Elvis as the King of Rocknroll is a crime against reason. In his stage-straining whale-in-a-jumpsuit days I can see sense in referring to him as the Kong of Rocknroll, but never the King. Elvis is not about rocknroll. He’s about spangles, mediocrity, and women with blue hair. He didn’t even go out like a rocker. Instead of having the decency to choke on his own vomit or set fire to his plane with his crack pipe, he fell off the toilet. There he lay, flat on his face, a bloated human sewer sloshing with valmid, demerol, hycodan, amytal, carbital, seconal, valium, chlorpheniramine, and placidyl. Those aren’t rocker’s drugs. That’s the kind of toxic stew that should kill somebody like Jerry Lewis or Vic Damone, not the King of Rocknroll.
Still, people you might suspect of possessing intelligence persist in promoting the guy. The usually unusually perceptive rock writer Greil Marcus, for example, is so obsessed with Elvis he receives in his dreams messages scrawled on the dead man’s member. Marcus has felled whole forests perpetrating endless, insanely involved arguments defending everything Elvis. Most are a waste of a good man’s mind, but every now and then he scrawls something worth repeating. Such as conceding Elvis “might epitomize the worst of our culture . . . bragging, selfish, narcissistic, condescending, materialist to the point of insanity.” Bingo.
“Music,” Marcus writes, “must provoke as well as delight, disturb as well as comfort, create as well as sustain. If it doesn’t, it lies.” Elvis music, it is plain, lies.
“At its blandest,” Marcus argues in a brief for the defense, “the American mainstream has no limits at all.” This is pitifully true. But anyone who knows anything about streams knows that nothing of value is ever found out there in the middle. The mainstream is useful only for traveling fast, or as a convenient exit for those seeking to drown. In any stream, life is found around the edges. As with water; so too with music.
The fact that Elvis was mainstream is an indictment, not a recommendation. Who cares how popular he was, how many records he sold? That’s no criteria for measuring art. If it were, we’d have to accept Rod McKuen as the world’s greatest poet, and proclaim Walter Keane our premier painter.
Now that Elvis is issued by the Post Office it should be obvious to all just how little he really rocked the dominant culture. The federal government does not place subversives on stamps. The day we’re really in charge is the day we lick a likeness of Owsley.
it’s a desert because
because it’s a desert
“Can you believe they’re spending $10,000 on this farce?” I bellowed to Tector over the whining clatter of the highwinding engine. “Now I find out there’s some sort of mystery dinner connected with this thing. Some big bellybursting feed for these thieving capitalists they’re courting. No one can get a job in this county and they’re ladling out caviar and pouring the champagne.”
I swerved suddenly to avoid a bull thrashing about on the asphalt; the creature far gone in herbicide convulsions. We were speeding through the badlands of Yuba, bounding wildly over ravaged, potholed roads strewn with poisoned crows and choked with mutant weeds.
“Where’s the airport?” growled Tector. “Why are we out here in this goddam desert?”
“The valley is a desert,” I reminded him. “It has been ever since they threw up all these dams. Place used to be a great alluvial swamp, ‘cept very briefly, when it dried up in the peak of the hell of the summer. Then the animals and the Indians—the smart people—would move up into the foothills for the duration. Only white people are stupid enough to draw off all the water and then stick around for six months in this stinking heat.”
“I hate white people,” he shouted, savagely pounding the seat with the butt of his .12 gauge. “There is no reason for them at all.”
“I know, Tector,” I said soothingly. “Look, why don’t you turn on the radio. The paper says all these local stations are supposed to be broadcasting old Elvis tunes.”
Tector lowered his weapon and fiddled a bit with the dial, settling at last upon the jangled emanations of some caterwauling dixiefried baboon sobbing forth a strange and unnatural C&W confession:
got drunk last night and porked my cat
buried what was left in my cowboy hat
“That doesn’t sound much like Elvis,” I observed.
“You’re right, ” he replied. “I think it’s Jesse Helms.”
The Yuba County Airport is as ugly as any other commercial airport: a vast, flat, barren wasteland of concrete and noise. It was noon on the last day of September in the obscene Central Valley, so the heat hovered happily around 100.
Out on a corner of the tarmac milled a ragged crowd of manic boosters, gladhanding politicians, smarmy business vermin, pointless newsfreaks. A pathetically small number of tables set in an L bore the bounty of Yuba County: maps, hats, prunes. The suicidal sampled whitebread sand-wiches composed of either spam and velveeta, or peanut butter and bananas. On a flatbed stage yammered an endless procession of yoyos.
Displayed near the stage is a large reproduction of the County Seal, featuring a sheep, a shotgun, and a skull, broiling beneath a blazing summer sun. This tableau is encircled in a wreath of poison oak, the vines twining round the words of the County Motto: “Yahoo Yippity.”
“You lied to me,” Tector appeared at my side. “There’s no food here at all. I can’t find anything but a ptomaine-chili wagon, a prune table, and some swillstand peddling wine for three dollars a glass. Shit, for that kind of money I can pick up three bottles of MD 20.20.”
“We’ll need something stronger than that if this keeps up,” I mumbled.
“I hear there’s a lot of heroin in Yuba County,” Tector said hopefully.
Onstage the blowhards continued to wheeze.
“I happen to like Velveeta cheese,” Supervisor Jane Saunders offered bravely.
“Then you should be returned to the asylum,” suggested Tector.
Comes now a proclamation from Assemblybeing Bernard Richter: “What’s positive about Yuba County is the people, and the kind of values they represent.” Though he didn’t specify, surely Richter was referring to such illustrious Yuba citizens as the Donners, who noshed nightly upon the dear departed; Juan Corona, who roamed the fields and levees zealously checking the surplus population; and all the boys at Beale, out there following their bliss of bomb and burn and strafe and slit.
Some of the people here are from movies I’ve never seen. I am particularly intrigued by the wild-eyed woman in the blue silk dress with the slit up the side near to her pubes. One arm is wrapped in a cast; the other is furiously engaged in scraping across the tarmac a pair of cats flailing about at the end of some sort of custom double-headed leash.
Bob Lunn, the Texas marketing director who began this fiasco, spies the phalanx of heavily-armed, banjo-bearing albinos moving with huge coils of rope towards the stage and hastily halts midspeech to note that seventy percent of the county’s population does not, in fact, fit the Elvis profile. And those who do, he says, live not in the flatlands, but in the eastern third of the county.
“What is he talking about? “Tector explodes. “That’s the mountains. Oregon House, Woodleaf, Brownsville, Clipper Mills—the only place a sane person would live in this county.”
“What’s all this nonsense about ‘great fishing?’” I was confused. “With all the pesticides they spray around here I’d expect an aquatic boneyard.”
“Oh, there’s fish all right,” Tector confirmed. “In fact, Yuba’s known far and wide as the place to go if you’re into two-headed catfish, or bass with big running sores all over their bodies.”
County Administrator Morawcznski is pounding home his favorite theme: Yuba must develop ways and means to surmount “intense competition” from other locales. To please today’s CEOs, he warns, “a community must offer more than cheap land, tax subsidies, and a pool of unskilled labor.” Because business is out there every night, cruising for “government that is innovative, progressive, cooperative, and flexible.”
“I think he means a county willing to put out like a good whore,” Tector translated.
Then, finally, the Elvi came from out of the sky. Three members of the Air America Precision Parachute Team, bailing out at six thousand feet, going down slow beneath billowing canopies of white, red, and blue.
Tector squinted upwards, shielding his eyes beneath the visor of a palm. “Looks like all the chutes opened,” he said glumly.
With our attention riveted on the heavens, a fourth Elvi contrived to arrive on the scene. From whence he came, I do not know; perhaps from below. Straight outta Vegas, he wore the sequined white jumpsuit and bore the black lacquered DA. Purposefully he strode to the stage.
“That bastard’s going to sing,” Tector warned.
It was true. As the fallen Elvi gathered in their chutes and boarded the big red KUBA van for transport to the stage, Elvi #4 was introduced as the real deal. A cassette deck would blast forth as band, we were told, while he himself would emit words and elvis his pelvis.
“You know, this is really pretty bad,” Tector shook his head. “I mean, Elvis was mostly a joke, but the guy really had something there for awhile. Why don’t they leave him alone?”
“Never,” I replied. “Not when it’s legal to reach into old films and pull forth images of Jimmy Cagney, making it look like he’s come back to sell Pepsi. Or dress some guy up as Shakespeare to blather about the joys of college. Jerry Falwell—remember?—used Jesus to push solid-gold pins shaped like fetus feet. Ours is a world without love, honor, or restraint. We’ll do anything, to anybody, for money.”
Hear, now, the Elvi. “Don’t Be Cruel,” dedicated, of course, to the people of Yuba County. Then, descending to the same hellish level of absolute tastelessness so often occupied by the original, the Elvi performed the execrable “Jailhouse Rock” in honor of the sheriff and his new man-cage. “Return to Sender” went out to Michael Dougan, the nicotine-stained Garfield, Oklahoma native who penned the Examiner attack. The deballed Dougan trembled up to the stage to cowardly shift blame onto a coworker, a sort of office super-nerd whose only job is to sit in a cubicle, draped in pocket protectors, toting up numbers. It was this villain, insisted Dougan, who first found the American Demographics piece and then placed it before Evil Editors. From zen on, sprach Dougan, he vas only doink hiz job.
Following this final humbling of the malefic, the pols and potentates were satisfied to completely surrender the stage to the Elvi. I knew if the creature attempted “In The Ghetto” no power on earth could control Tector, but the end came instead during a horrific rendition of “Poke Salad Annie.” Tector suddenly leapt on stage, snatching the mike from the startled Elvi and stunning the crowd with an announcement that Rush Limbaugh has just been arrested, dragged from the studio weeping and in chains, target of a sweeping federal indictment charging him with multiple counts of felony pedophilia. Sobered by this grim news, the Elvi swung into a heartstopping version of “Teddy Bear” in honor of the fallen fat man.
Ol’ Rush, I pondered, as we were evicted from the tarmac and hustled out and into the car. He of the room temperature IQ, with talent on loan from Billy James Hargis. They say he always fought fair, with half his chins tied behind his back.
“He didn’t say ‘fuck,’ and he loved his mama. Elvis was a nice guy.”
Elvis Presley was a human being. He was sent here, as were we all, with no instructions, guide, or lines at all. As a youth, he, as did we all, dreamed of one day holding the whole world in his hands. Unlike us all, he, once upon a day, did find himself holding, resting upon his palms, the whole blessed globe. For a single shining moment, he found that he himself, and he alone, held it; held it all.
Then, as would we all, he dropped it. He tried to do his best, but he could not. He couldn’t, first, hold the world; finally, he couldn’t even hold himself.
So let him rest. Let him rest, now, in peace. Let him, finally, be gone. Let him be. Let him and all that he is, fade away. Let him be remembered, same as all we rest, only by those who saw the shell settle into the grave.
did he leave the building
can he come to the phone
i’m all alone