Dead Elvis (Magill Book Reviews)
In DEAD ELVIS: A CHRONICLE OF A CULTURAL OBSESSION, Greil Marcus, author of such influential works of cultural criticism as LIPSTICK TRACES: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (1989) and MYSTERY TRAIN: IMAGES OF AMERICA IN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL MUSIC (1976), publishes the results of a curious project he began after first learning of the death of Elvis Presley in August, Marcus resolved to collect whatever references to or manifestations of this legendary rock-and-roll star came his way. At first he expected these to be limited to the months immediately following Presley’s death, but he found that they continued in a steady stream throughout the following years. Informally yet thoroughly, Marcus chronicled the proliferation of Elvis-related anecdotes, imagery, “sightings,” and continuing influences throughout mass media and the arts, both in the United States and abroad.
In a handsome volume replete with illustrations (many of them in color), Marcus demonstrates the persistence of Presley’s celebrity status, one looming even larger after the singer’s death. The former senior editor of ROLLING STONE draws upon his extensive knowledge of so-called “alternative” music to show how such performers as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols approached their own careers with “The King” in mind, even if they expressed their response to his example through violent rejection or scorn.
DEAD ELVIS delivers a constant interplay between the sordid aspects (drug abuse, erratic performance, pointless movies, questionable taste) of Elvis’s career and the inspirational role he continues to play for other performers and for a broad range of admirers and devotees. Marcus surveys numerous examples of the uses these many fans and fellow performers have made of Presley’s example. Yet despite the diversity, the author continually draws his readers back to his version of the Elvis myth and the contradictory but liberating role he believes it to have played in our culture.
Sources for Further Study
Atlanta Journal Constitution. December 22, 1991, p. K10.
Booklist. LXXXVIII, October 1, 1991, p. 202.
Cosmopolitan. CCXI, November, 1991, p. 36.
Kirkus Reviews. LIX, September 1, 1991, p. 1142.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 24, 1991, p. 1.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, November 3, 1991, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, November 15, 1991, p. 53.
San Francisco Chronicle. December 1, 1991, p. REV4.
The Village Voice. December 10, 1991, p. S5.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, December 1, 1991, p. 16.
Dead Elvis (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Not so many years ago, the idea that rock and roll or related aspects of American pop culture could provide suitable material for serious writing would have been laughable. Greil Marcus was one of the writers who changed all that. Through his writing in Rolling Stone and through the significant books he both authored and edited, he demonstrated myriad ways to connect what was vital in American pop music to the deepest currents in American culture in general, wedding, one might say, pop music criticism to “American Studies” in its more ambitious academic manifestations.
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989) stands as his major work, one that suggested startling parallels between punk rock and the modernist avant- garde. His earlier Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music (1975) was a tour de force that explored liminal, subterranean aspects of culture brought to the fore through the music of Elvis Presley, The Band, Randy Newman, Sly and the Family Stone, and others. Marcus’ edited books as well have been distinctive contributions to often overlooked aspects of recent pop culture. The collection Rock and Roll Will Stand (1969) captures the spirit of that brief cultural moment of the late 1960’s when Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets” sequed into The Rolling Stones’s “Street Fighting Man,” and somehow, each seemed equally central to the concept of revolution. Two additional edited collections of essential rock music criticism are among Marcus’ accomplishments.
Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession defies categorization; it is an eccentric and unprecedented book. The first observation to be made is that it is an exceedingly attractive book, with arresting typography, fine-quality paper, and impressive overall design. It abounds with striking illustrations and art reproductions, many of them in full color. Marcus explains the genesis of the book by way of a personal account of his learning of Elvis Presley’s death. He describes his resolve, formulated soon afterward, to collect what turned out to be a never-ending stream of “Elvis sightings,” defined by Marcus broadly as any cultural appropriation of Elvis and his legend (not simply screaming tabloid claims of Elvis’ continued existence).
Marcus presents his book as a kind of biography of Elvis Presley’s life since his death. By “life” he appears to mean the obsessive fascination with Presley’s image, his sound, and what could only be described as his charisma or mystique. Any of or all these aspects of “Elvisness” surface in the wide variety of cultural manifestations Marcus cites. These include tabloid articles, comic strips, and the use of Elvis references by comedians, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and artists. The handsome reproductions of paintings include many so- called alternative music album covers, such as the laser art of Chila Kumari Burman, whose Portrait of Elvis Presley in the Style of Jackson Pollock adorned a 1989 release by The Mekons, a critically acclaimed (by Marcus and others) British band.
While such features enhance the book’s appeal, it is, more or less admittedly, the disgorged contents of whatever file cabinet Marcus used to store his post-1977 Presley tidbits. As an established music critic attuned to each new stirring and swelling of the pop-culture current, Marcus was well positioned to amass the curious materials that would eventually occasion Dead Elvis. The book’s organizing principle is also its greatest limitation, however, since even such a thorough student of contemporary media cannot help but overlook significant items and details to be gleaned from an ongoing cultural process the very scale of which defies one author’s attempts to chart its course.
Greil Marcus knows progressive pop music thoroughly, and he enlivens his text with quotes from song lyrics that, more often than not, approach the subject of Elvis with far more irreverence and satire than the keepers of the Graceland flame could possibly stomach. Examples include the obscure early-1980’s New York band Cool It Reba, wise-guy Los Angeles songwriter Warren Zevon, and the early 1990’s cult band Dread Zeppelin, who manage to send up Led Zeppelin and reggae along with “The King.” There are bands as well who somehow affirm the Presley legend even as they seek to express their rejection of it. Living Colour, one of the most important and innovative bands of recent years, expressed their scorn in “Elvis Is Dead.” Despite their contempt for the Elvis cult, this band takes their place alongside Elvis impersonators and every other example that serves the author’s purpose in cataloging the “dead Elvis” phenomena. One of 1991’s most impressive pop albums was Never Loved Elvis by a band called The Wonder Stuff. Where Living Colour developed a single song from their 1990 album Time’s Up to a slap at Elvisness, The Wonder Stuff chose to designate an entire collection of songs...
(The entire section is 2077 words.)