May 29, 1992


Filed under: Archive,Books


Dead Elvis

Greil Marcus


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Greil Marcus has a lot to say about Elvis Presley. That was clear when he quit as a reviewer for Rolling Stone to write Mystery Train, a micro-history of American popular music based on portraits of Robert Johnson, Robbie Robertson, Sly Stone – and most impressively, Elvis Presley. Mystery Train, published in 1975, took its title from the eeriest of the recordings Presley ever made for Sam Phillips in the legendary Sun Records sessions of 1954-5. In his book Marcus proposed a startling simple view of American rock music- that it didn’t belong to youth culture or what was then known as the counter-culture, instead it was a part of the mainstream itself.

Elvis Presley was his prime exhibit, apotheosis of Americana- Elvis the Pelvis, The White Negro, the Southern Baptist antichrist, Tar Paper Shack to Graceland. Elvis was bigger than Melville, more popular than God. But he was also, in Mystery Train, pre-eminently the musician who, by some kind of alchemy got hold of Hound Dog, a minor hit from Willie Mae Thornton and made it into something the world had never heard before.

In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus dealt with Elvis that marvellous boy, confluence of musical styles- country, blues, rock and roll. The Sun King of 1955. In Dead Elvis, the King has become the White Whale.  The fifteen years since Elvis Left the Building have not been kind. Marcus finds him buried deep in kitsch and calumny . The author is, as they say, relaxed about that. Dead Elvis includes all kinds of satiric and perverse memorabilia and Marcus is happy to whisper old scandal. But while there is no particular gallantry toward the King’s Memory, Marcus’s book nonetheless charts an unease about it all. Taking the grandiose premise that Elvis is America, Greil Marcus begins to drop his post-modern cool to consider that what America does to Elvis, it does to itself.

In fact that’s just what he says in Blue Hawaii his tribute to Elvis at the time his death- “Elvis was not a phenomenon. He was not a craze . He was not even, or at least not only, a singer or an artist. He was that perfect American symbol, fundamentally a mystery, and the idea was that he would outlive us all- or live for as long as it took both him and his audienceto reach the limits of what that symbol had to say.”

Promising, but not enough. In Mystery Train, Marcus drilled down deep into the music- described it, sifted it, worried over it and drew some interesting connections and conclusions. In Dead Elvis he readily allows his subject to become a a conceptual blob. Only in lazy times could you call that a perfect symbol.

Marcus’s introduction, importantly printed in great big type, doesn’t help much either. “As a surprised , then amazed, then confused, finally entranced chronicler of this tale -in other words, simply someone who has paid attention to it- I am anything but its narrator. I have written sometimes as a critic, sometimes as a collector. Many voices speak in this book, often in images for which I’ve provided only captions and a context, often in streams of plain quotation, other people’s words making cultural moments that need nothing from me. There is a good deal in this book I cannot explain. It’s easy enough to understand a dead but evanescent Elvis Presley as a cultural symbol, 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. ”

Now that’s specious- and disappointing. As you read through the 200 odd pages of Dead Elvis it becomes evident that it is a miscellany with no particular place to go. There is a great deal unexplained because Marcus seems to be too enamoured of the confusion to ask the right questions.

Dead Elvis is a collection of occasional writings dating from 1977 to 1991- most by Marcus, some by others. He has accumulated a whole wad of Elvis references- in other people’s songs, in pop art and in comics. He has gone drift-netting for Elvis Junk and Viking have helped him spread it all out in the sun. The fact that much of it doesn’t mean sqiddley is a disappointment but not a complete loss. As occasional writing, Marcus’s reviews certainly have their moments. For instance, his account of Private Elvis, Rudolph Paulini’s collection of photos of Elvis in Germany, his commentary on William Eggleston’s official Graceland photos, and his vehemence at Albert Goldman’s scurrilous biography of Presley. He is perceptive in his literature search – of Elaine Dundy’s Elvis and Gladys and, in Priscilla Presley’s Elvis and Me, he even finds a moment of wit. She recalls her senior year in High School in Memphis as Elvis’s Graceland “ward” -“While my classmates were deciding which college to attend, I was deciding which gun to wear with which sequined dress.”

In 1981 in an address in Memphis on the anniversary of Presley’s death, Marcus used two props – a video of Elvis singing Trying to Get to You, from his comeback TV special, and an Elvis whiskey bottle with a removable head.  “That was Elvis in 1968 facing an audience for the first time in nine years and that was Elvis today, four years after his death. Nobody …knows what to do with this: the singing and the bottle. The contradiction is too big. Contrast and contradictions have always been the language in which Elvis has been talked about.”

The life and memory of Elvis Presley have been travestied without mercy. Marcus’s book of clippings, bootlegs and mockeries attests to this and in a roundabout way is a kind of penance for it. Even considering the vulgarities, the crazy paranoia, Graceland and Disgraceland, Elvis doesn’t deserve the disrespect.  Marcus perceptively describes Presley as a man “who lived with nearly complete access to disaster, all the time.” And when he gets his flaky narrative close to that idea and away from Elvis the Ineffable Symbol of It All, then Greil Marcus and Dead Elvis both come to life.

The Adelaide Review, No.99, 1992, p.34.

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