My American Dream: Mystery Train
Elvis’ Childhood, 2017 oil on linen 22 × 33 in. | 55.9 × 83.8 cm
Elvis’ Childhood, 2017
oil on linen 22 × 33 in. | 55.9 × 83.8 cm

At the little museum at Sun Studios, of course there is an Elvis section, as Sam Phillips, founder of Sun (along with his friend Marion Keisker, who famously mentioned Elvis to Sam) discovered him, and helped to change culture forever. These are the “rosebuds”‘ of Elvis’ childhood, including a signed high school yearbook, childhood photos, records, and memorabilia, and significant to me, a Captain Marvel Jr. comic. I love and teach comics, have created graphic novels (currently working on one on James Dean!) and teach how suturing into icons and avatars when reading comics (or watching cartoons or regarding fine art!) can be a transcendent, fundamental moment. Captain Marvel Jr. was reported to be Elvis’ favorite, and in a primary way, help shape his identity and existence. Along with Tony Curtis (pictured above on the record player), Elvis died his hair black to look like the character, along with a spit curl in front. Significantly, the Captain Marvel lightening bolt is exactly the same as Elvis’ “Taking Care of Business (TCB)” band. One can even argue his later look, with the jumpsuit and the cape, inspired consciously or unconsciously for his love of superheroes and Captain Marvel (Shazam!). Moreover, Elvis is the epitome of the American Dream, in that he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, gave music (and movies) to the world, and if you like Elvis, to make the world a better place (and to provide for his family). At the same time, Elvis can be a bit of a ridiculous character, too, a patriarch that meant well but had flaws. I love Elvis for his ability to breathe life into songs he didn’t originate—as an artist that sometimes works, inspired by the Pictures Generation, from appropriation, how he was able to suture his being and emotion in pre-existing pop structures is moving to me. I do think his early Sun recordings are transcendent, but also his later work too, 1968 “comeback special” and beyond. But here is the records from his early years, born on the wrong side of the tracks, “white trash” but able, largely through his relationship to African American culture (he would go to the gospel church with his friends, and was welcome in the community), despite the colonialist politics, help to invent something new, along with all the black musicians and artists and the hillbilly crew at Sun. The guitar with the Hawaiian scene is emblematic of not just Blue Hawaii, but also his faith in music to take listeners to other worlds. I listened to his entire catalog while painting this, and hope some of his influence shines in the picture.