Corrections or additions?
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
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
"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
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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