17
Dec
13

A Hunka Hunka Hot Mess: Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis

Dead ElvisDead Elvis by Greil Marcus

A collection of previously published writings on Elvis, Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis is an attempt to put Presley in a greater context, to reconcile his place in American culture. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful, but I’m not sure it’s something any one person can do, too.

The pieces range from book reviews to in-depth criticism to obituaries, published in places like The Village Voice, Artforum and Rolling Stone. Some look at works about Elvis: Joni Mabe’s collages; Albert Goldman’s trashy biography. Others have a looser connection, like the review of Nick Tosches’ biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. Some of Marcus’ impressions are insightful and intelligent, sometimes they’re a little academic (like when he quotes Vaneigem). Throughout, it’s juxtaposed by images of Elvis: fine art, bootleg record covers and underground comics. Taken as a whole, they show society’s fascination with someone who meant something to nearly everyone. But what he meant isn’t quite clear.

With all the breakdowns of culture, the looks at myth-making and the role of art, Marcus’ book is weighed down by its own criticism. He spends so much time tying together the disparate elements of popular culture, it’s easy to lose sight of the subject itself: Elvis often vanishes here, washed over by Melville, UK punk and art theory. The book builds to a climax, but what’s the climax? Elvis is still dead, Elvis is still alive. Yes and…? It never seems to get that far.

Oddly, it’s a quote by Lester Bangs that he runs early in the book which hits the mark best:

“I can guarantee you one thing: we will never agree again on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”

And that’s the rub: Elvis mattered to everyone, once. His role has changed so much since his death and continues to change, making Marcus’ Ahab-like quest to nail down a meaning futile. What does Elvis mean? Depends on who’s asking, I suppose.

Rating: 3/10. No wonder there’s a gushing quote by David Foster Wallace on the back: like his bloated Infinite Jest, this book pads out it’s thesis with unneeded juxtaposition, analysis and, ultimately, rings hollow. Compared with his essay on Elvis in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll, this book feels superfluous. You might as well read that one again.

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