- Speaking in Tongues: Dead Elvis and the Greil Quest
‘You gotta learn how to speak in tongues.’
‘I already know how,’ Elvis says.—Greil Marcus, Jungle Music
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language
of the living.—T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
From the evidence in Greil Marcus’s new book, the dead Elvis is a Postmodern Elvis, a hermeneutic object in whose emptiness even fictions becomes simulacra. Subtitled A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, Dead Elvis collects Marcus’s writings on Elvis from 1977 to 1990, but they are inspired by the wide range of representations that make this book more of a cultural conversation than a chronicle. Marcus calls the invention of dead Elvis “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?” The collective representation both legitimizes and subverts “Elvis,” the cultural production that would make discerning who the man was irrelevant were it not for the imagination invested in the project.
For those who still care, the questions are sometimes really, really big ones: is Elvis in Heaven or Hell? (we’ve given up on the K-Mart in Kalamazoo). Is Elvis more like Hitler or Jesus? The questions are openly joking but mask the still unsettled doubt about what it means that we want Elvis, alive or dead. Should we think about him with Melville, Lincoln, and Faulkner (as Marcus did so brilliantly in Mystery Train) or was he just a piece of Southern white trash (as Albert Goldman wishes) or, like Byron, “an epicene and disrupter,” one of the “revolutionary men of beauty” who burn godlike (as Camille Paglia argues). This book doesn’t really explain who he was, or even why we still care. Its strength is in showing how the art project is coming along, what image of Elvis, dead, we are keeping alive. Too recent for the book was the phenomenon of Americans voting on which image to keep alive. The heady choice of young or old Elvis on “the stamp” engaged us more than our political elections and plays like a last ritual of mass investiture, a kind of cultural laying out of the robes in which Dead Elvis will officially ascend, transcend, and return to sender.
The book contains reviews Marcus has written on Nik Cohn’s King Death, Goldman’s Elvis, Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highways, and Nick Tosches’s Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. These reviews are often occasions for Marcus to comment both on the various authors’ uses and abuses of Elvis and on his own continuing fascination with the king who wouldn’t die. Combined with the many visual representations in paintings, album covers, and other less classifiable forms, the book itself becomes part of the art project. Marcus assembles a set of Elvis images that range from the stupid to the clever. The article in Publish! Desktop Publishing on “Clones: The PostScript Impersonators” that is illustrated with computeresque-Elvis clones is an unexpected triple pun in what would otherwise be the dullest of pieces. The exhibition advertisement for “Outside the Clock: Beyond Good and Elvis,” rewrites Nietzsche’s wisdom in a pop vernacular. Holding all of this together is Marcus’s own cultural obsession; more than a decade after his death, “Elvis was everywhere, and each mask was simply the thing the thing wore over its true face, which no one could see” (188).
“The thing” speaks in tongues both vulgar and sublime, and Marcus is struggling with the translation. Questing after what it was in the music that holds us, Marcus writes abstractly of “the grain of his voice.” His Elvis remains an “inner mystery . . . where the secrets are outside of words. . . .” The problem is how to account for the magnitude of Elvis’s “cultural conquest” when it “remains impossible” to believe that Elvis “understood” what he was doing. “Is it possible that Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show not as a...