Dead Elvis

In Dead Elvis, Greil Marcus celebrates the ways in which Elvis Presley is still cherished 14 years after his death, but his are not your typical fan’s notes. To be sure, Marcus believes that many of Presley’s records contain first-rate, revolutionary performances. But he also thinks that in death the singer has become a unique cultural artifact — that ”dead Elvis” can inspire and absorb anything and everything: mindless adulation and ferocious contempt; ”working-class poor taste and upper-class camp”; impersonators and investigators; paintings, songs, and novels created in his image.

Dead Elvis, subtitled A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, is a compendium of Presley’s post-corporeal life. The book’s large pages reproduce examples of Elvis-inspired artwork, and Marcus describes odd Elvis-rooted music such as ”Welcome Home, Elvis,” an eerie 1977 country ballad by Billy Joe Burnette written from the point of view of Presley’s stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon. The unifying idea of Marcus’ book is that we shouldn’t view these creations as isolated, Elvis-addled gestures but rather as ”a great common art project, the work of scores of people operating independently of each other, linked only by their determination to solve the same problem: who was he, and why do I still care?”

Marcus’ own solutions to these problems have given shape and purpose to his career. His 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’ Roll Music remains the finest study of rock; it ends with a section entitled ”Elvis: Presliad,” an extended meditation on the importance of Presley’s music that has transcended its subject to become one of the defining essays about American popular culture.

Marcus’ 1989 book, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, located parallels between turn-of-the-century avant-garde art and late-’70s punk rock. Relatively Elvis-less, it was also relatively aimless. Marcus can seem aloof and sententious; even in Dead Elvis, he has a tendency to combine hard-boiled terseness with deconstructionist mulch: ”Because of Elvis’s arrival its moment — the mid-fifties — was convulsed, and started over. Because of that event, the future has possibilities that would have been otherwise foreclosed.” Hmmm well, if you say so, Greil.

In general, though, Dead Elvis is Marcus at his most accessible and revelatory. It is necrophilic in the best sense, expressing hot passion for a cold body without violating it. ”Elvis’s status as a corpse legitimized him,” he writes, ”made him an interesting subject, a fecund metaphor.” This book is funny in a deadpan, irreverent way, and extremely combative in a highly entertaining way (Marcus delivers the definitive attack upon Albert Goldman’s supposedly definitive 1981 biography, Elvis).

Elvis, even a dead Elvis, makes Marcus feel good, because in a sense the singer is still alive, ”sneak(ing) out of the crevices of songs, movies, novels, comic strips, poems, scholarly works, and television shows, in a seemingly permanent ubiquity.”

”To me,” Marcus writes, ”it remains wonderful that we are still faced with questions we are only beginning to learn how to ask; that ‘So much for Elvis Presley’ is a sentence no serious person has yet been able to write with a straight face.” Condense the wonders of Dead Elvis and you realize that, ultimately, Marcus has written a slightly, crucially different sentence — ”So much Elvis Presley” — and done it not only with a straight face but with intense pleasure. A-

The King as Commodity Fetish

The Elvis Presley we read about in filler items in the daily papers is the booby prize. No, says media widow Priscilla (divorced from Elvis before he died, she can’t quite be the real thing), it isn’t true that she and daughter ! Lisa Marie have turned over the entire Presley estate to the Church of Scientology, though the Church has brought both mother and daughter a peace beyond price. On the other hand, Priscilla confides, it is true that having already chopped up Elvis’s Bel Air house and bronzed the bricks and sold them at Graceland, she is now ready to unload the furniture, tables on which the hands once placed a Pepsi, chairs into which the corpus actually sank (probably she didn’t bother to have ’em dry-cleaned; maybe there’ll be a telltale stain?). The prices are high, but ”I never saw such junk in my life,” said a fan. ”My God, what would Elvis think?”

Over at the Berkeley Psychic Institute, also known as the Church of the Divine Man, they’re working on the problem. In fact, they go to the source almost every day: Elvis has been channeled.

Dead Elvis
  • Book