Magazine article The Spectator

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

Magazine article The Spectator

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

Article excerpt


by Griel Marcus

Faber, L9.99, pp. 248


by Griel Marcus

Faber, L12.99, pp. 366


by Simon Crump

Bloomsbury, L10, pp. 145

Only two weeks before Bill Clinton's 1992 inauguration, America faced the consequences of a more important election: a national referendum choosing which image of Elvis Presley would appear on a commemorative stamp: Fifties rocker or Seventies icon. While the postal service made Elvis official, Greil Marcus believes Clinton won the presidency by donning shades and blowing tenor sax on Saturday Night Live, becoming America's first Elvis president. Bubba may have started, like Elvis, as poor white trash swinging in the general orbit of Memphis; now he replaced the King as a national icon.

But as `tabloid Clinton stories replaced tabloid Elvis stories' the joke went sour. The gyrations of Clinton's hips enraged America's would-be moralists just as violently as Elvis's hips had 40 years before. When columnist George Will whined about the `stain of the vulgarians' on the White House, it recalled the New York Daily News' verdict on Presley: `suggestive and vulgar, with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos'. America divided over Clinton as they had over Elvis 40 years earlier. To many in the heartlands, as Marcus quotes Jonathan Alter, `Clinton may be a hound dog, but he's our hound dog.' You can't impeach rock 'n' roll.

Double Trouble's essays, spanning the Nineties, are best when they confront the elements that draw America to Elvis and Clinton. This happens at odd times: Marcus's finest take on Clinton may be his obituary of the character actor J. T. Walsh: `Perhaps Clinton was playing Walsh all along.'

Marcus calls America 'a land of no alternatives' because it invents itself, rather than calling upon its history, as Britain might. Elvis divided the country because he 'revealed one America to another -- revealed America to itself. Anyone doubting the power of that revelation need only seek out Elvis The Way It Is, the recut version of Denis Sanders's 1970 documentary which was one of the highlights of this year's London Film Festival. This is the 'comeback' King playing the International in Las Vegas, with the celebrity distractions edited out and the full power of Elvis's performance, his hold over audience and musicians alike, given its full substance. …

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