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Yesterday's review.

Greil Marcus is one of my formative writers. His Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century is the reason that in high school one of my life goals was to resurrect the Situationist International. It's a secret history that actually is one: it traces cultural ideas and slogans from medieval Europe into punk rock, a memetic linkage of certain kinds of counterculture. Probably the only book to talk about Johnny Rotten as a Lollard. I will never stop loving it. It was a shaping book. Marcus is also one of the writers who's taught me the most about criticism, about the linking of disparate elements and the uses of rhetoric and irony. I gather he's mostly famous as a rock critic, but I'm pretty sure he was one of the people who invented what is now called 'cultural studies'.

This is an early book of his, one I hadn't managed to track down, and it's not where I'd suggest starting, because it has several gaping flaws. It's meant to be a discussion of the posthumous life of Elvis, the ways in which Elvis Presley's image and recordings and interviews and artifacts have gone on (in extremely peculiar ways) without him. (I mean, why are there in the world so many paintings of Elvis on velvet? People do not do paintings of the Beatles on velvet, certainly not as an industry. There are provocative questions here.) The thing is, though, it wasn't conceived as a whole book-- it's a collection of various articles Marcus wrote about Elvis as a cultural phenomenon, some before Elvis died, some around that time, and the rest stretching over a period of years afterward. So it has no unifying thesis or theory.

And it leans heavily on an assumption which for me, at least, does require some basic explication or at any rate shoring up: Marcus is at times very defensive about his certainty that Elvis was a genius. I am of a generation where I did not hear, growing up, the music of Elvis Presley. My parents did not listen to it and it wasn't on the radio. I have encountered some of it since, and my problem with it is not just that the idiom is old, because I love, say, Robert Johnson as much as the next person who cut classes in college by mistake because 'Hellhound on My Trail' was on repeat. I have no idea what Greil Marcus hears in Elvis. I agree that there has to be something there, because people would not do the really weird shit they do because of Elvis if there weren't something. (There are so many comic books in the world with zombie Elvis in them. Marcus keeps having panels from different ones. It is amazing. There's a picture in this book of a love letter to Elvis, which might be an intentional art statement or not, in which the author, who has collaged the frame of the thing with lace and pictures of herself topless snuggling ceramic Elvis figurines, pauses in the middle of a diatribe that sounds like a fundamentalist revival gone sideways to write 'Tell me whether you are God', and neither Marcus nor I have the faintest idea whether she means it. Marcus has corresponded with her and still doesn't know. There has got to be a reason for this sort of thing.) It's just, this is the sort of book that would work better if Marcus admitted that whatever it is he hears is not, necessarily, universal; for one thing maybe then he could get into the question of what it is that causes some people to hear it while others do not, a question for which his current answer appears to be 'some people are Philistines', never a reasonable attitude for a critic. Speaking as one of those Philistines, I would in fact like to know! I always want to know why people like something!

However, in the later portions, when Elvis' death was not quite so fresh and there had been more time for people to run rampant with an image no longer connected to a living human being, the book's very incoherence begins to work for it. The chapter which is a pile of media quotations about instances in which people express the satirical notion of cannibalizing celebrities, intercut with various appearances and reappearances of the slogan from Paris, 1968, about how people who speak about revolution without understanding the subversive power of love have corpses in their mouths-- Marcus doesn't need any text of his own, just a pair of scissors, and the argument that builds here is complex, frightening, and not readily communicable through more conventional vectors. It begins to be one of those books that shapes itself around something through indirection, through talking about a great many things other than its own subject: reviews of other books, quotations from various musicians, anecdotes from Marcus' life, and the sense of some kind of vortex at the center, the whatever-it-is that Marcus is trying to catch by not looking at it.

I have no idea what he's trying to catch, because I don't think he did catch it in this book. Maybe if he'd intended it as a book from the beginning. At present, this stands mostly as a collection of extremely strange material. But a lot of its elements, sometimes unexpected ones, reappear in his later Prophesy and the American Voice, which does know exactly what it's talking about, and which I highly recommend. If you're a completist, or studying his methods, this makes a great runup to that. If not, well, how morbidly curious are you about posthumous Elvis paraphernalia?


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