Wiseman-Trowse, N. J. B. (2009) Oedipus wrecks: Nick Cave and the Presley myth. In: Welberry, K. and Dalziell, T. (eds.) Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp. 153-166.
This chapter examines the role of the iconography of Elvis Presley in the music and writing of Nick Cave, giving particular attention to his 1985 album The Firstborn is Dead and his debut novel And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989). The Firstborn is Dead opens with ‘Tupelo’, a conflation of biblical imagery and the birth of Presley, a theme developed in his debut novel through the story of Euchrid Euchrow, a mute fanatic born into a backwoods community in 1933 (2 years before Presley's birth). Cave uses the myth of Presley to develop an inverted history of the King, an ambivalent figure, using a carnivalesque re-reading of his life to understand the power of what that myth might represent. The novel takes the birth of Elvis and the death of his twin, Jesse as the starting point, positing Euchrid as a primal power placed at first in relation to his own stillborn brother and later to the daughter of the town's prostitute, Beth. Through Cave's inversion of the Presley story, he attempts to reawaken the visceral power at the heart of what Presley represented, a power potentially compromised in later years by his movie career and subsequent removal to Las Vegas. Cave is connecting with an American Gothic vision (shared most notably by John Houston's adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's Wiseblood) that writers such as Stanley Booth have identified at the heart of Presley's early impact. It is through this re-awakening of primal myth through the inversion and carnivalisation of cultural idioms that much of Cave's oeuvre operates (his collection Murder Ballads fulfils a similar function for reconnecting to a dark blues at the heart of contemporary popular music). Through a close examination of the novel and its musical predecessor (tracks such as ‘Black Crow King’ and ‘Say Goodbye to the Little Girl Tree’ also act as antecedents to the novel), the use of the carnivalesque, a trait employed in other areas of Cave's work, will be explicated to understand his re-placing of the Presley myth and the implications for this subsequently on Cave's own work. Further, the particular function of imagery used in an archetypal form suggests an examination of the shared iconography of Cave’s early work and the Elvis mythos. Whilst Cave has suggested that the power of the myth of Presley resides in his later ‘Vegas’ incarnation as a direct manifestation of his own disintegration, the utilization of Presley’s biography as a source of archetypal imagery provides a way to reconnect with more abstract forms of power that lie at the heart of performance. While Cave makes the distinction between the critically lauded ‘pre-draft’ Elvis and the ‘Vegas’ showman, through his inversion of the Presley mythos Cave explicates what it is that makes Elvis such an archetypal image in Western popular culture, and further the way in which that archetype connects to deeper mythologies that underpin rock culture (a subject developed by Bill Drummond in the UK and Greil Marcus in the US). As such The Firstborn is Dead acts as a musical parallel of And the Ass Saw the Angel that makes clear the role of ‘primality’ at the heart of the artistic experience. As Cave becomes Euchrid so too does he become the myth of Presley, a manifestation of primal power apparent in its own inversion. The relationship between primality and performance has continued to be a major theme in Cave’s later work and will be considered in the context of the Presley mythos
Nick Cave; Elvis Presley; Carl Jung; Popular Music