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Reading: The Ineffable Elvis

Greil Marcus's obsessions may not always be interesting to readers, but they do save the author from much tedious research.



Greil Marcus launches his new book, a study of Elvis Presley's presence in popular culture since 1977, with a clever title--Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession. Given the omnipresence of Elvis in contemporary life--as the song says, "Elvis Is Everywhere"--he often seems more alive today than he did during much of his career. "The enormity of his impact on culture," Marcus writes, "was never really clear when he was alive." Only after his death can we truly understand the meaning of Elvis, as he returns to us from beyond the grave in bizarre and varied forms of kitsch: as a ghost, or still alive, in the tabloids; as Love Me Tender shampoo; as the lead singer for a band, Dread Zeppelin, that plays only reggae versions of Led Zeppelin songs. For millions of others Elvis is no joke; he lives on in memory as "the King," a minor and benevolent deity of sorts. "No one," Marcus suggests, "could have predicted the ubiquity, the playfulness, the perversity, the terror, and the fun of this, of Elvis Presley's second life." Dead Elvis is an attempt both to capture some of this playful cascade of meanings and to make some sense of it all.

Unfortunately Marcus's intriguing idea has led to a surprisingly insubstantial and unsatisfying book. It is nothing so systematic as a "chronicle of a cultural obsession." Rather it's a disorganized and disconnected collection of essays and book reviews Marcus has written over the years that in some way talk about Elvis. Some of them are mildly interesting in and of themselves, but the book is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. Marketed to appeal to those who wish to appear hip and knowing, the book (alas) will make you neither, though to be fair it might look good on your coffee table.

Dead Elvis has nevertheless been heralded with extensive publicity and some critical fanfare. Publisher's Weekly called it "consistently amazing" and hailed Marcus as "a philosopher and critic with a novelist's passion and creativity [who] writes with flash and style." Esquire saw the book as "proof that the most insightful, impassioned voice in American pop music belongs to [Marcus]." Marcus seems to have developed quite a reputation as a rock 'n' roll highbrow. His first book, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, has been regarded as a classic of rock criticism for quite some time. But being a mere critic of American music and culture wasn't enough for Marcus. His following book, Lipstick Traces, attempted to connect the punk explosion of the late 70s with certain elements of the European intellectual and artistic avant-garde earlier in the century. Though it was a sprawling, often ponderous tome that only a handful were likely to read all the way through, in the eyes of his fans its pretensions raised Marcus from rock critic to rock philosopher. The novelist Jay Cantor gushed that "Greil Marcus makes his words answer to his most ecstatic experiences. . . . [stringing] hyperbolic moments [of madness] for us like a beautiful necklace. I find that the wearing of such gaudy jewelry can bring one courage." Well, whatever turns you on.

What is it in Marcus that evokes such uncritical praise? In part, he practically begs to be considered Important, and many have taken the bait. Marcus presents himself as a high-powered, relentlessly hip critic with Things to Say, a critic so postmodern that in his Dead Elvis bibliography German Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno nestles up next to The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, starring noted philosopher Andrew Dice Clay. In a way, Marcus's success is similar to that of semiphilosopher Camille Paglia, whom he admires and in many ways resembles. Writer Molly Ivins has complained of Paglia's "I am the Cosmos" mentality, her tendency to elevate her own subjective responses to the level of philosophy. Marcus is afflicted with a similar narcissism. The book is less a chronicle of cultural obsession than it is an exploration of Marcus's own obsessions; this may not always be interesting to the reader, but it certainly saved Marcus from much tedious research. When Marcus writes something like "Elvis . . . took no prisoners: he released you into the world" my question is: Who is this "you" anyway?

Marcus apparently thinks that any cultural critic worth his salt should somehow be able to capture the "essence of Elvis." He never quite succeeds, but it's not for lack of trying. The book is filled with windy evocations of Elvisness, most of which end by admitting defeat: Elvis, it appears, is well-nigh ineffable. "The controlling reason why it is so hard to think about Elvis aesthetically rather than sociologically is that his achievement--his cultural conquest--was seemingly so out of proportion to his means," Marcus ruminates. "Continents of meaning--of behavior, manners, identity, wish, and betrayal, continents of cultural politics--shifted according to certain gestures made on a television show, according to a few vocal hesitations of a handful of 45s. No one knows how to think about such a thing."

Though he himself doesn't quite know how to think about Elvis and the continents of meaning, Marcus is sure the King had quite an effect on American culture, a greater effect than mere historians have heretofore suspected: "Because of Elvis' arrival, because of who he was and what he became, because of his event and what we made of it, the American past, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, looks different than it would have looked without him. Because of that event, its moment--the mid-fifties--was convulsed, and started over. Because of that event, the future has possibilities that would have been otherwise foreclosed." Have the American-history textbook publishers been notified? Will future students learn about Jonathan Edwards and all of his Calvinist buddies in the light of Marcus's new Elvis scholarship? Only time will tell.

Marcus is best in small doses; in some ways, this small book is not nearly small enough. As critic Dwight Macdonald once said of a book by Marshall McLuhan (a pop philosopher who had even larger pretensions than Marcus), "A single page is impressive, two are 'stimulating,' five raise serious doubts, ten confirm them, and long before the reader has staggered to [the end] the accumulation of contradictions, non sequiturs . . . exaggerations, and chronic rhetorical vagueness has numbed him to the insights . . . and the many bits of new and fascinating information." Someone should read this passage to Marcus, or his editors, before he writes again.

The central problem is a kind of hubris on Marcus's part, his perpetual critical overreaching. He can write pages of readable and often perceptive prose--entire essays, even--but then his penchant for "philosophy" undoes him, and he says things like "Elvis works today as a demon, and as a termite, but he works most of all in this realm of impossibility, now an idiot, now a judge." Or, to switch insect metaphors: "As the big cricket Elvis climbs a trouser leg and nibbles away at himself, only to reappear in the rags of many costumes, Gregor Samsa in reverse, Cinderella after the clock struck but ready for Saturday night, a saturnalia you'd probably just as soon stay home for." True, these quotes have been taken out of context. But I assure you they make no more sense in the book than they do here. Can you imagine a context in which they'd make sense? And he's got a million of 'em.

As a book reviewer Marcus is not half-bad, in part because the format constrains his more lyrical outbursts. His review of Albert Goldman's Elvis biography, for example, effectively puts down an arrogant attempt to defame not only Elvis but the American south. "Goldman's Elvis," Marcus writes angrily, "seeks . . . to exclude Elvis Presley, and the culture of the white working-class south . . . and the culture of rock 'n' roll . . . from any serious consideration of American culture." Marcus goes on to report sadly that Goldman's "bait is being taken: in the New York Times . . . Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that after reading Goldman's book 'one feels revolted by American culture for permitting itself to be exemplified by the career of Elvis Presley.'" Of course Marcus is right to protest the vacuous elitism that attempts to reduce Elvis's career and his culture to pathetic jokes.

The book also corrects those (like Goldman) who attack Elvis's music as a pop perversion of some pure musical essence--whether black rhythm and blues or white country. In fact his was an original hybrid, vitalized by its very "impurity." Those who see Elvis's rock 'n' roll primarily as a kind of cultural theft ignore the complexity and creativity of Elvis's musical and cultural appropriations. He obviously borrowed extensively from black music and culture, but he brought something of his own culture to the mix. Marcus quotes Nat D. Williams, the "mayor" of Memphis's Beale Street, who recalls that when Elvis first started out on Beale Street "[he] was a favorite man. . . . He had a way of singing the blues that was distinctive. He could sing 'em not necessarily like a Negro, but he didn't sing 'em altogether like a typical white musician. He had something in between that made the blues sort of different. . . . Always he had that certain humanness about him that Negroes like to put in their songs." Elvis was no Vanilla Ice.

Marcus also criticizes those who regard mass culture in general, and rock 'n' roll in particular, as "a pathetic dilution of a rich cultural tradition," in the words of one critic, presumably a dilution of a more "authentic" folk culture. Though on some level Marcus finds the vision of outsider cultures protecting their musical heritage appealing, he senses there's something missing from the picture. "I like minority culture, outsider culture that refuses to compromise with the mainstream," he writes in a 1981 essay, "but there is no greater aesthetic thrill than to see minority culture aggressively and triumphantly transform itself into mass culture, suddenly affecting the lives of millions of people who were not prepared for it, and then to see that minority culture . . . see if it can stand up against the bargain mainstream culture is always ready to make. And that is what happened when, twenty-five years ago a host of minority cultures--blues and country, bands of escaped tenant farmers white and black--came together and, stealing what they wanted from the mainstream, from Swing era jazz and bland white pop . . . reformed as rock 'n' roll." Few music critics are as well attuned to the dynamics of this cultural mixture as Marcus is; this is one of his genuine strengths.

A similar cultural eclecticism, Marcus points out, underlies the punk appropriation of Elvis during his extended "second life." Punk, Marcus argues, brought to contemporary culture "a reversal of perspective . . . a loathing that goes beyond cynicism into pleasure, a change of bad into good and good into bad." In other words, punk encouraged an ironic approach to culture that allows us to actually enjoy Elvis's terrible movie songs, for example--the mind-numbing "Queenie Wahine's Papaya" and the gender-bending "The Bullfighter Was a Lady." It turns jokes like Dread Zeppelin into legitimate forms of homage. But this insight is hardly original; Marcus merely reminds us that "camp" appreciation of things that are "so bad they're good" is based as much on real affection as it is on scorn. On my wall, watching me as I write these words, hangs a giant Elvis . . . tapestry, I guess, since it's made of cloth, showing a 70s Elvis with a huge, awful helmet of hair; he's surrounded by 52 American eagles and wears a button saying "Politically correct, and proud of it." It's the tackiest thing I own; I hung it up--and attached the button--because I like the poor guy, of course.

Those searching for peculiar bits of Elvis kitsch will find a few choice items in the book, like a Brazilian transcription of the lyrics to "Heartbreak Hotel" that transforms the simple tale of woe into bad beat poetry: "Now I'm part of seven / Said my mama three / You use cute this Jail further ever did see / I show I'll be alive when you call for me / Come on to the Jail / Let's rock it wanna be." Marcus also reports that in 1987 White House press secretary Larry Speakes opened a press briefing with a recording of "That's All Right (Mama)," attempting to deflect questions about the Iran-contra scandal by telling reporters they were free to ask "anything at all about the King."

But beyond its occasional flashes of insight and hit-or-miss discoveries of interesting arcana, Dead Elvis ultimately leaves one frustrated. Despite Marcus's real talents as a critic, he never pulls his scattered insights together into a real argument that goes much beyond the obvious. What's worse, he can't seem to help tumbling into the kind of pretentious drivel I've already quoted, trying to raise the book to the level of philosophy or art. Why? A clue can be found in the book's introduction. "It's easy enough to understand a dead but evanescent Elvis Presley as a cultural symbol," Marcus writes, "but what if he--it--is nothing so limited, but a sort of cultural epistemology, a skeleton key to a lock we've yet to find?"

Hold it right there. Marcus is begging the question. In fact it is not easy to understand Elvis as a cultural symbol, and Marcus hasn't really even tried, much less succeeded. His book doesn't explain the dead Elvis's attraction to anyone but himself. He's described the phenomenon, to be sure--often insightfully, if incompletely. But he has not answered the central question: Why are so many of us, some 14 years after his death, still fascinated by Elvis? Why in some cases does this fascination take the form of ironic cultural appropriation, and in other cases near-religious devotion? After reading Dead Elvis we still have no idea, and not even much new evidence to sort through.

As for the second part of Marcus's musing--the bit about "epistemology" and "skeleton keys"--its very obscurity reveals its essential meaninglessness. I believe Marcus wants to be an artist himself, a visionary who can somehow through his words--as he says of one Elvis song--make "the ineffable say hello." Ultimately rock critics like Marcus don't identify with other critics; they want to be (no big secret here) like the performers themselves, and their criticism is thus all too often simply a respectable way of playing air guitar. Marcus doesn't just want to analyze culture and music, he wants to evoke their effects--and since his descriptive skills are so limited, he tends to produce instead verbosity and melodrama. This is less a problem in Dead Elvis than it is in Lipstick Traces, where he devotes page after page to pointless efforts to explain the powerful impact of certain songs. These passages almost invariably fall flat, in part because Marcus does not have a novelist's skills despite what his fans say. In Lipstick Traces, for example, he attempts to describe a particularly dramatic moment in a Sex Pistols song by announcing boldly "A guitar lick ripped the song and whoever heard it in half." Well, not exactly, unless your speakers are quite a bit more powerful than mine, Greil.

The only rock critic really able to get away with this kind of writing was the late Lester Bangs, who did actually transform his rambling, surrealistic critical monologues into a kind of art--he became, in a way, a performer in his own right. Marcus is a great admirer of Bangs; in fact he edited a very interesting collection of his writings called Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. But Marcus himself never quite manages the transformation: his rambling monologues remain rambling monologues, and all his attempts to make them arty simply make them more pretentious. Nothing in Dead Elvis quite matches Bangs's two-sentence summary of Elvisness: "Elvis was a force of nature. Other than that he was a turd." Brilliant! So let me put this bluntly to Mr. Marcus: You, sir, are no Lester Bangs. But you can be a decent critic when you don't pretend to be Lester Bangs.

Marcus has not learned nearly so much from punk as he thinks. As Marcus says, punk culture is based upon radical juxtapositions and relentless cultural appropriation, the kind of appropriation that allows us today to mock and glorify Elvis all at once, and that allows Marcus to enliven his writing with insights from both Hugo Ball, the German dadaist poet, and the TV show The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. But punk is about more than juxtaposition; it was also, musically and philosophically, a reaction to the pompous, pseudo-arty, 20-minute heavy-metal extravaganzas that were taking over rock music in the 70s. Punk songs were short and to the point; they were deliberately free of digressions and distractions. Marcus's prose style, by contrast, is the written equivalent of the lumbering, self-indulgent guitar solo that never ends. Marcus may revere Johnny Rotten, but his writing reminds me of Spinal Tap.

This is a pity. The "second life" of Elvis is a fascinating subject, but it needs a writer far more systematic, far less given to pretentious overstatement. It also requires a writer less given to extrapolating the broadest cultural meanings from his own personal experience, a serious cultural analyst sympathetic to the thoughts and feelings of others, from the punks who listen to Elvis Hitler to the serious fans who trek regularly to Graceland, not a self-dramatizing Romantic with a tendency toward narcissism. Let Dead Elvis rest in peace.

Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession by Greil Marcus, Doubleday, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Chuck Nitti.

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