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?

FBI informant.

Totally forgiven.

Elvis Presley, never marched with or for MLK.

Nothing could ever make up for that!

Got it?

Now who was it again that asked the real question in the year he already knew we would never walk away from?


  1. NDJ

    Um, I gave up reading Marcus decades ago when he was overcome by punk, so needless to say I don’t read “Ask Greil.” So I have to ask you: how is the movie playing in a theater whose marquee is captured in the background a photograph of a non-related event a part of any context? (I hope I am wording that correctly, as I have no idea what Marcus is on about with Withers’ “context.”)

    As for Elvis and the moving goalposts: perhaps we should put a positive spin on this and interpret it as a manifestation of the continuing awe in which Presley is held, especially by folks old enough to have been affected (even if only residually) by his still-under-appreciated accomplishments of the ’50s.

    Keep on keepin’ on!


    PS: And I am at the library, which is why this comment is finding its way to you . . .

    • Marcus wrote a few lines once upon a while ago about the juxtaposition of the King funeral March in Memphis passing under Presley’s then current movie release (he’d have had one up almost any week in the sixties, of course) which happened to be Stay Away Joe….It’s the kind of random construction I might have commented on myself (though of course I’d of had a different take.)

      I wasn’t much bothered by his take on that (it was supposed to be a comment on Elvis’ irrelevance, just a few months before the Comeback)

      But the whole There’s Nothing Elvis Could Have Ever Done that would make up for not being part of MLK’s funeral march was grating…and typical.

      As is the double standard.

      But you might be right about there being a positive side in that it’s always Elvis they come for…Like he’s still the one they need to make sense of. \

      Kind of like how Greatest Slugger arguments always used to be about Babe Ruth and…somebody.


      I thought we decided the Incognito thing was going to suffice for your home computer…Do I still need to call GoDaddy? No problem if so.

  2. NDJ

    Innarestink: I received email notification of your response (“Marcus wrote a few lines once upon”) to my comment (above). But when I come to your site (normally or ingonito), your response isn’t here for me to see …


  3. Is it possible that Elvis didn’t attend King’s funeral out of respect? He couldn’t go anywhere without attracting a crowd which would have been a distraction. I was 16 that year, trust me, it would have been obscene at a funeral. Marcus has no idea what goes on inside the heads of teenaged girls.

    • Hi Peggy….It’s possible. It’s certainly the reason he didn’t go to Bill Black’s funeral around the same time (which he had more reason to attend)….My guess is Elvis knew very well how easy it was for entertainers to be used for ends they never intended. Not sure when he met Ali, but I could imagine them discussing the subject!

      And “Marcus has no idea what goes on inside the heads of teenaged girls” may be the truest words ever spoken!


  4. “Ignoring melody and rhythm”? ELVIS? ELVIS PRESLEY? It proves even more than I thought about those who call themselves “critics” with, seemingly, no sense of irony therein: Not only are they tone-deaf, but somehow, they’re often rhythmically deaf.

    No wonder you’re ever of two minds about Marcus. First he’s championing the Shangri-Las, exhibiting impeccable taste, and then he’s failing to hear the two musical elements that the King re-invented. Weirdness. Weirdness, I say. I wonder if he meant something else — something sarcastic about the way non-rock’n’roll people perceived Elvis at the time, maybe — and was typing in a hurry, hence failing to really get the idea across. It would explain the bad grammar.

    Thy kingdom come / thy will be done / thy records re-released
    All kneel to second-guess him / Bless him / Let him rest in peace!
    (The Stray Cats, “Elvis on Velvet”)

    • What’s really weird is that he means all that “ignoring” as a compliment. But the risks are emotional, not matters of technique (or at least not that alone)….I realize it’s a response to a question in a mailbag, so it’s something he might change or edit if challenged or merely upon reflection.

      But sometimes the less a man thinks the more he tells you what he really thinks….if you know what I mean.

      And I never knew the Stray Cats did a song called Elvis on Velvet….I must hie to YouTube asap!


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