I know some of you follow Greil Marcus’s Mailbag (which I can’t link–it’s available under “Ask Greil” if you follow the Marcus link under my blogroll). For those who don’t, here’s the text of a question from one of his readers and his response, regarding the new Docu-flick The King.
I saw The King in NYC yesterday, really enjoyed it—you had the funniest line when you mentioned “crackpot religions” in LA in the late ’60s.
Only thing I got a little turned off to was criticism of Elvis for not marching with Martin Luther King like Brando and Heston did. Why no mention that by performing material on national TV in 1956 by black artists he opened doors for them like no one before? Plus that many people—James Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, as well as Ali—truly loved him and made no secret of it.
I don’t know—what do you think—is it me?
I think it’s a hard question, less about the March on Washington than any number of civil rights protests in Memphis, and while Van Jones is a blowhard, with, here, none of Chuck D.’s dignity or thoughtfulness, he makes a serious argument. It hit home for me years before, when I looked at the Ernest Withers photo of King’s funeral procession in Memphis passing the State Theater, where the marquee has Elvis’s latest movie, Stay Away Joe—which in context, the context Withers built, means, “Elvis, stay away.” And he could have been there, in his home town, the same place where he sometimes recited the end of King’s March on Washington speech. “If I Can Dream” is about that speech and about the assassination—no, Elvis didn’t write it, but he sings it as if he’s tearing it out of his heart, unsure, tripping and stumbling, desperate to say what he means, to get it across, ignoring melody and rhythm, more like someone jumping on stage to give a speech than being paid to sing a song—but that doesn’t make up for anything. The kinship that James Brown, B. B. King, Eddie Murphy, Muhammad Ali, and Chuck Berry might have felt for Elvis, or his role as some kind of racial ambassador, doesn’t either. Sure, the Colonel would have kidnapped him and held him in Fort Knox to keep him from appearing in public in any kind of civil rights march, but hey, if you’ve seen an Elvis movie, you know he could find a way out.
This leads back to some themes I’ve hit on here before, but this feels like a good time to re-visit them.
I’ll take that attempt at pure musical criticism first:
“ignoring melody and rhythm.”
Here’s a question. If you’re relying on the counterfactual, which fact are you trying to hide?
That Elvis was using melody and rhythm in ways you don’t understand? Or merely in ways that would undermine the larger point you are about to make?
(To revisit my take on “If I Can Dream” you can go here.)
“But that doesn’t make up for anything.”
The examples Marcus gives of what Elvis did that didn’t “make up for anything” are designed to let us know that Elvis couldn’t have done anything that made up for not participating in at least one Civil Rights march, the way (as the questioner reminds us) even Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston did.
For Elvis, more than forty years after his death, the goalposts are still moving.
For everyone else, they remain the same.
Just a reminder on how this works:
Bob Dylan converted to Fundamentalist Christianity (and has never quite renounced it, preferring to dance around the question).
Neil Young and Prince loudly and proudly endorsed Ronald Reagan (whom Marcus and many other Libs consider a fascist).
John Lydon and David Lynch (two of Marcus’ great heroes) have said kind things about Donald Trump. (NOTE: Elvis is still called to account for who he might have voted for, had he lived to see the day.)
Ray Charles (no Elvis fan) was a life-long rock-ribbed Republican who sang for Reagan and George W. Bush. And you should have seen the contortions the obituarists at all the Good Liberal periodicals put themselves through when Ray had the bad taste to force-multiply the association by dying the same week as the Gipper.
Elvis Costello once got drunk and called Ray Charles a “blind, ignorant nigger.”
Totally forgiven…even by Ray Charles!
Dozens, if not hundreds, of liberal African-American icons never quite managed to march with or for MLK or the Civil Rights Movement. Too many to list, really.
All totally forgiven.
And, oh yeah, that photographer, Ernest Withers?
Elvis Presley, never marched with or for MLK.
Nothing could ever make up for that!
Now who was it again that asked the real question in the year he already knew we would never walk away from?