Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession
Two years ago, Sony Music released a box set of Elvis Presley music that purported finally to have everything: all 711 original Elvis masters released in his lifetime plus 103 rarities on 30 CD’s, a 240-page hardback book, and a “display case.” According to the Sony website, “THE COMPLETE ELVIS PRESLEY MASTERS is an indispensable piece of music history and the one collection no true connoisseur should be without.” All told, THE COMPLETE ELVIS PRESLEY MASTERS could be mine for $749.00, not counting tax and shipping.
The website description had me with “connoisseur.” Am I an Elvis connoisseur? Answer: did Elvis love his mama? So, I began to wonder to myself, Even though at last count I already have 419 of the 814 songs on THE COMPLETE ELVIS PRESLEY MASTERS, don’t I still need the remaining 395? Aren’t my 419 remastered Elvis songs the old remasters compared to the new remasters? Could there be hidden treasures within such as yet unprocured Elvis tunes as “Yoga Is As Yoga Does,” “No Room To Rhumba in a Sports Car,” and “Song of the Shrimp”? Would it be ok to ask my family not to eat on days beginning with “T” and “S” in order to free up the cash to buy this set?
Evidently, I haven’t named and claimed enough dough to justify the expense of 30 more Elvis CD’s, albeit with commemorative book and display case. For the moment, I’ll just have to admit that I don’t have what it takes to be an Elvis connoisseur and settle for “aficionado” or (worse) “dilettante.” The fact remains, however, that I’m often obsessed with Elvis Presley—not with Elvis the man, but with the music of Elvis, and even more powerfully, the idea of Elvis.
Given this fixation, Greil Marcus’s Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession immediately grabbed me. Dead Elvis isn’t a biography of the King—for bio purposes, try Peter Guralnick’s wonderful two volume work—as much as a rumination on his troubled legacy. Everyone knows Elvis, but how many people like his music? If so few in fact do (or can name more than a couple of his songs), however, why does everyone know about Elvis and have an opinion about him? As the years have trickled by, Elvis has turned into the ultimate interstate car accident that obligates compulsive rubbernecking. We watch with a mix of fascination that it happened, and condescension that we were able to avoid it. Worst of all in this case is the sinking, sad knowledge that the accident couldn’t have been avoided; it’s hard to imagine a world in which this accident hadn’t occurred. Elvis carries with him a tragic inevitability that is larger than the man himself, or even than his music.
Is it crazy for me to say that in some mysterious way Elvis is America? Marcus wouldn’t think so. He writes,
I found, or anyway decided, that Elvis contained more of America—had swallowed whole more of its contradictions and paradoxes—than any other figure I could think of; I found that he was a great, original artist; and I found that neither of these propositions was generally understood. . . I understood Elvis not as a human being, but as a force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself. This, I tried to find a way to say safely, was what Herman Melville attempted to do with his white whale, but this is what Elvis turned out to be. Or, rather, turned himself into. Or, maybe, agreed to become. And because such a triumph had to combine absolute determination and self-conscious ambition with utter ease, with the grace of one to whom all good things come naturally, I imagined a special dispensation for Elvis Presley, or, really, read it into the artifacts of his career: that to make all this work, to make this metaphor completely, transcendently American, it would be free. In other words, this would of necessity be a Faustian bargain, but someone else—who cared who?—would pick up the tab.
If you peel back the layers from Elvis the movie star or from Elvis the strung out, fat Vegas lizard and instead listen to his Sun recordings and Memphis sessions, or watch his 1950’s TV appearances and the comeback special, you’ll find something strangely and absolutely irreducible. His 1955 “Mystery Train” compresses the emotional history of at least this country into two and a half minutes, which would have been amazing enough, but then right at the end of the song, Elvis laughs! The cackle is astonishing—doesn’t Elvis realize what he had just recorded? Doesn’t he care? Is it all just a game? The astounding and infuriating thing about it is that Elvis sang “Mystery Train” as if life and death itself were rumbling around the tracks but then jokingly shrugged it all off as if it were nothing, and he meant both. For Marcus, it’s this contradiction that enables Elvis as Moby-Dick to have swallowed America whole.
Dead Elvis brilliantly fingers the paradox that I’ve felt for a long time: Elvis is omnipresent but universally misunderstood, neither of which is mere coincidence. As for the former, of course Elvis is everywhere; no pop star in the last fifty years has truly come close to dominating disparate streams of popular culture, or selling as many records, as he has. But with the latter, it’s easier to dismiss Elvis as the original tabloid celebrity than to ask fundamental questions about why his music cut so close to the bone. Comparing the best Elvis cuts again with Moby-Dick and Lincoln’s second inaugural address, here’s Marcus’s take:
With each of these examples there is a presentation, an acting out, a fantasy, a performance, not of what it means to be American—to be a creature of history, the inheritor of certain crimes, wars, ideas, landscapes—but rather a presentation, an acting out, a fantasy of what the deepest and most extreme possibilities and dangers of our national identity are. We read, or we listen, or with Lincoln we read and we imagine ourselves listening, then and there, on the spot, and we gasp. We get it. We feel ennobled and a little scared, or very scared, because we are being shown what we could be, because we realize what we are, and what we are not. We pull back.
The closer we come to our nobler instincts and deeper yearnings, the more crucial it is not to look down, but we can’t help it. It’s easier just to shuffle through Wal-Mart. It’s easier to remember fat Elvis.
(One item that Marcus frequently mentions but has no answer for is how, especially in the South, Elvis and Jesus are sometimes nearly interchangeable figures. I think that the Elvis-Jesus connection is one that can be played in any number of unfortunate biblical directions, but there’s at least one that makes sense to me. Elvis’s most enduring music gives voice to a longing for a better country, but one way to read the Presley biography is that the idea of the music couldn’t help but kill the man behind it. It was too much, so Elvis had to die.)
For those less inclined to consider what Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Poe, Lincoln, and Elvis might have in common, Dead Elvis could prove to be a tedious read. Greil Marcus has his fair share of haters, and even for me, a Marcus aficionado (connoisseur?), sentences like “irony [is] the alibi of desiccated modernism” come across as a little purple. Then again, Elvis had that gold lamé suit, didn’t he?