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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the November 15, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

What Makes Elvis & Clinton Double Trouble?

Rock music, literature, TV, politics, postage stamps,

and prophesy. Is there any area of experience that is off-limits to

Greil Marcus, the Berkeley-based rock music and culture critic?

Marcus, whose latest book, "Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis

Presley in a Land of No Alternatives," is likely to be hailed

as a prophesy in its own right, gives a public lecture at Princeton

University on Thursday, November 16, at 8 p.m. The lecture title is

"The Crank Prophet Astride America, Grinning: The Case of David

Thomas." (For the tragically unhip, Marcus offers the helpful

hint that Thomas is "the behemoth singer for the great punk band

that formed in Cleveland 25 years ago, Pere Ubu.")

"I’m not an academic. I don’t teach," says Greil, in an interview

in his temporary office in the basement of Princeton’s McCosh Hall.

Marcus, who earned his BA in American Studies at U.C. Berkeley in

the 1960s and started graduate school with an eye to becoming a professor,

is teaching for the first time in 28 years with an undergraduate seminar

he calls "Prophesy and the American Voice," looking at the

ways religious prophecy permeates this nation’s existence.

"I’m a writer and I suppose my primary subject is music, not only

because I write about it often, but because whatever I write about

— as often as not — begins with a musical subject. It’s often

the sort of prompting or a suggestion of a piece of music or a song

that gets me started wondering about something," he says.

Characterizing his writing career, he says "It’s

not a job. It’s obsessive behavior." Joy, mystery, and passion

are all part of the chemistry of the process. He began his career

accidentally in the late ’60s when he bought a record represented

as a set of new live recordings by The Who. He tore off the shrink-wrap

and put in on the turntable only to discover he’d been ripped off

— the disc was nothing but old recordings and studio out-takes.

"I was angry. It was not what had been represented and I had wasted

$3.95," he recalls. "I wrote a review just to get revenge

and then I sent it off to Rolling Stone," a then fairly new magazine,

started by one of his college friends. "Well, a month later my

review was published and I received a check for $12.50. And

I thought, `Oh, this is easy!’" Here his tone drips with the irony

of such youthful bliss.

Today Marcus is the author of seven densely provocative books that

include "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music"

(1975), "Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession"

(1991), "The Dustbin of History" (1995), and "Invisible

Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes" (1997). Rolling Stone (where

he also worked as an editor), Esquire magazine, Artforum, Details,

the New York Times, and the Village Voice are some of the places where

his work has appeared. He currently writes regular columns for Interview

magazine and the Web-zine, Salon.com.

Whether the subject is politics, apocalypse, or nostalgia, most of

the musing essays collected in the new book, "Double Trouble,"

begin with a song or a performance and evolve from there. Marcus admits

the book is a product of its great title, borrowed from Elvis’s 1967

movie about a nightclub singer pursued by two unsuitable women. Anthologizing

articles published over an eight-year period, it explores the uncanny

kinship between Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley and the changing public

perception of both. At turns frightening and laugh-out-loud funny,

it’s a timely examination of the two men’s hold on the public imagination

and the terrain in which this imagination thrives.

It was, in fact, back in June, 1992, Marcus reminds us, when all the

polls showed Bill Clinton did not have a chance at winning the presidency,

that he took his saxophone with him on the "Arsenio Hall Show,"

put on dark glasses, and played "Heartbreak Hotel." This was

not the first, or last time that Clinton and Elvis were twinned in

the public mind. But Marcus was the first to name this particular

moment as the one that turned Clinton’s campaign around.

The book opens with a flash snapshot of the 1999 impeachment hearings

(was it just a year ago?), and the bizarre series of events and leaks,

nominally led by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, that was, Marcus

writes, "designed to drive Clinton from office through extralegal

means." With the benefit of hindsight, many of the book’s observations

are spine-chilling. How could anyone have known in 1992 the way that

Clinton’s public "passion play" would follow the Elvis script.

"Bill Clinton," writes Marcus, "is a man able to effortlessly

convince whoever is speaking to him that it is only that person’s

voice he hears — just as Elvis convinces so many that, from a

hundred rows away, he was singing only to them." And if you want

to check this theory, ask any among those who hosted the President

last month when he spoke at Princeton University.

And how many of us remember Al Gore’s speech at the ’92 convention

which opened with the confession that he’s been dreaming of this moment,

"Ever since I was a kid growing up in Tennessee — that one

day I’d have the chance to come here to Madison Square Garden and

be the warm-up act for Elvis."

"One of the things that Clinton and Elvis share is that both of

them ended up dividing the country against itself," says Marcus.

"Maybe a better way to put it is to say they exposed the way in

which America is divided against itself. They became lightning rods

for two different Americas that often inhabit the same body.

"By the time Elvis Presley was 21 and had gained national fame

he had to realize that half the country hated him and wished he’d

never been born, and half of the country wanted to be him. Just imagine,

you’re 21 years old, and you are the focus for all this inarticulate

rage and desire that has split the whole country down the middle.

With Bill Clinton, when he faced impeachment, something very similar

was going on. Half of the country wanted him banished, and half of

the country said, `He’s a real person. I like him.’"

So do people take you for a prophet? we had to ask.

"I certainly hope not, " Marcus replies quickly. "The

work I do really comes from paying attention to coincidences and correspondences

— jokes that seem to have no meaning, songs that seem to have

no motivation behind them — and looking at connections that are

simply out there, that other people are making, maybe intentionally,

maybe without any seriousness whatsoever, and sometimes being captured

by a pattern.

"That’s really what went on in this book, `Double Trouble.’ It’s

looking at the connections that other people are making — all

over the place — and saying, This is obviously a joke, but it’s

a joke that seems to have a long life. There’s a story that’s not

speaking out loud, and maybe I can tease that story out."

Weaving bright new stories out of the motley material

of everyday life is Marcus’s strength. We wonder how much "stuff"

you have to absorb to critique pop culture.

"I take what I stumble on. I have always believed that the kind

of ideas that I have are really not that different from anyone else’s

ideas. They’re not more profound, they’re not more far-seeing, they’re

not more unlikely — it’s just that this is what I do for a living.

I pay attention, and I assume that what’s going on in cultural speech

matters."

Not surprisingly for a teller of tales, Marcus has a better-than-average

grasp on his own history. "My family is fourth generation Californian

so I’m very much a West Coast person," he begins. "I was born

in San Francisco, I’ve lived my whole life in the Bay Area. I came

to Berkeley in 1963. It’s 30 miles from where I grew up, and I’ve

lived there ever since." One of five children, his father is a

lawyer and his mother is a housewife. Marcus says he grew up in a

"liberal New Deal household."

Marcus and his wife, Jenelle Marcus, are the parents of two adult

daughters. The couple is living in New York for the semester, where

their eldest daughter is beginning a career as a literary agent in

New York City.

"Going back over my forbears: one part of my family came to California

in 1852 for the Gold Rush, not to pan for gold but to open a store

in San Francisco. But it was much too crowded so they continued on

to Hawaii where they started a coffee plantation," he begins,

before listing off what he calls "a polyglot group."

"I have a great-grandfather who was a liquor and grocery distributor

in Montgomery, Alabama, and who fought in the Civil War. He was a

captain in the Confederate army. The farther you look, the more varied

and opposing your own history becomes." A few years back, Marcus

and his wife visited Montgomery where they were given a guided tour

by a member of the historical society.

"It was really quite amazing because he would show me the house

where my grandmother grew up in the late 1800s, and right down the

street from it was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — Martin Luther

King’s first church. And he showed me where a great-great aunt of

mine had lived, and across the street was the Greyhound Bus Station

where the Freedom Riders had been attacked by racists in Montgomery.

So my own family history, which was new to me, was all intertwined

with the history of the Civil Rights movement which wasn’t new to

me — which was already part of my own history."

With his new book on Clinton’s presidency, the year’s weird political

season has provided plenty of food for thought. And even though our

interview took place before the unprecedented Presidential election

mayhem, Marcus’s observations on the system seem prescient.

"There are many different kinds of politics and electoral politics

is a thing in itself. It’s not the whole of politics. If you look

at the history of the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement,

the Feminist movement — if you go back further and look at the

Abolitionist movement, the Temperance movement — you find that

all kinds of enormous changes in American life come from outside the

electoral process. They come from people forming groups and making

demands that the system and the society never bargained on having

to fulfill.

"If you say, in the Declaration of Independence, `All men are

created equal,’ and you have a society in which that’s patently untrue,

one of two things can happen: the charter can become a dead letter

— or it can become an utterly subversive principle that will continue

to effect changes in the society and the polity as long as it lasts.

And that’s been the true history of this country."

— Nicole Plett

Greil Marcus, Princeton University Council of the Humanities ,

McCormick Hall 101, 609-258-5405. "The Crank Prophet Astride America,

Grinning: The Case of David Thomas." Free. Thursday, November

16, 8 p.m.


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