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?

THE REAL ALI…AND THE “MYTHIC” SOUTH (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #77)


By far the best thing I saw in the ubiquitous coverage of Muhammad Ali’s passing this weekend was a rerun of a seventies show with Howard Cosell which had the champ analyzing footage of great former heavyweight fighters, from Jack Johnson forward, and explaining why he would have beaten them. (He hemmed and hawed only when he got to Rocky Marciano, which is where everyone should hem and haw because Marciano’s ring style was, in its way, as improbable as Ali’s own…plod like a dumpster, hit like a truck…keep hitting until whatever’s in front of you goes all the way down and stays down.) It was as funny as it was serious and vice versa, with both Ali and Cosell at their considerable best.

The best thing I read this weekend was a link back to Gerald Early’s appreciation of Ali in The Muhammad Ali Reader, which can be found here. It recognizes and contextualizes Ali’s real achievements without glossing (as so many did the past few days) either Ali’s relatively smooth ride (for a black man in America, that is) or his own often virulent race-baiting, most pointedly directed at blacker-than-he-could-ever-hope-to-be opponents like Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier.

The only thing in Early’s fabulous essay that I found a little bemusing was this:

Ali has been compared to a number of famous people, from Oscar Wilde to Jack Johnson, from Elvis Presley to Jay Gatsby. I think he bears no small resemblance to our two finest jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and perhaps his genius might be best understood in relation to theirs. Like both of them, Ali was a southerner. Like Ellington, he came from the border South and so did not experience the most brutal sort of racism, but like Armstrong, who came from New Orleans, he came from a mythic southern place, Kentucky, with its Thoroughbreds, its bluegrass, its mint juleps, its colonels, so he experienced a deeply self-conscious white South, which may explain why he felt the oppression of racism so deeply without having to endure a great deal of it

Just curious, but isn’t “mythic southern place” a redundancy? I mean what part of the south isn’t mythic? Appalachia? The Delta? Charleston Bay? Ole Virgin-i-a? Memphis? The Bayou? The Glades? Miami Beach? The Redneck Riviera? Tex-ass? Tobacco Road? Rocky Top? Shiloh? And yes, Ole Kain-tuck and N’awlins, too. Funny thing. If the physical, moral and spiritual battles that determine what your civilization will look like get fought on your ground, you end up being mythic, whether you like it or not.


(Ali, Tom Parker, Vernon Presley, circa 1978)

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Ring Lardner, Richard Pryor and the Fast Disappearing Art of Trash-Talking)

The week was filled with mostly mind-numbing buzz about Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman’s speechifying (and subsequent standard round of mostly mind-numbing non-apology apologies) after last Sunday’s NFC title game.

For all the fuss it kicked up, what struck me about Sherman’s immediate post-game spiel was that it just wasn’t very interesting. Words like “dull,” “witless,” “insipid,” “predictable” kept running through my mind when it was live and no amount of replays could dislodge them. I mean, as trash-talking goes, repeatedly calling a guy “mediocre” is about as lame as it gets. What’s he supposed to come back with?

“Well, you’re…you’re…you’re AVERAGE!”

Seriously, folks.

It was, nonetheless, sadly inevitable that Sherman–being black–would receive a certain amount of racist bile in return (probably quite a lot, though it’s hard to know for certain–let’s just say any is far too much and far, far worse than anything Sherman himself did or said).

And it was equally inevitable that well-meaning ignoramuses of varying stripes (all queuing up for membership or renewal in what we around here like to call the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade, or DBCCB for short) would try to elevate his behavior by making their own set of race-specific assumptions (“He’s from the street man…and he went to Stanford, see, so he can’t be what you say he is, see,…The game just finished man and that’s how the game is and he was excited see,” etc., etc., etc.) and, yes, by just plain making stuff up.

My favorite example of this latter was the frequent assertion (frequent enough I even heard it on MSNBC, where nothing is ever said out loud unless it’s already been thoroughly processed as conventional wisdom) that ran along the lines of “I didn’t hear anybody calling Richie Incognito a thug.”

For those who don’t know or remember, Incognito is the white Miami Dolphins’ offensive lineman who was caught bullying an African-American teammate earlier this year with truly vile behavior that included dull, witless racial epithets and a dull, witless promise to defecate in his mouth.

Good, clean fun no doubt.

If you do a standard internet search using the phrase “Richie Incognito thug,” you will find pages and pages of items which are heavy on examples of obscure media outlets like the Washington Post and the Sporting News very specifically calling a white man (in this case Incognito) a thug, interspersed with a sprinkling of posts like this one insisting nobody has ever done any such thing!

The usual foo-fer-all between the usual intellectual titans in other words.

It happens that, entirely by coincidence, I’ve been reading the Library of America’s Ring Lardner collection (I’m planning to officially review it some time in February), which begins with Lardner’s first major work You Know Me Al, a short novel initially published in 1916. The book is, among many other things, a detailed essay on the finely nuanced art of trash-talking as it existed in the then national past-time sport of big league baseball a century past.

It’s narrated (through a series of letters sent to a friend who was evidently descended directly from Job) by a clod-hopper named Jack Keefe who is on his way to being the ace of the Chicago White Sox staff and far too clueless to know when he’s being ripped to shreds (especially by a coach named Kid Gleason) and wears his complete ignorance like a suit of impenetrable armor.

I’ll save the snappy lines for my review but, believe me, when it comes to smack, nobody has introduced any new angles in the last hundred years.

Just to see how things stood at roughly the half-way point between then and now, I went back to the work of another genius, Richard Pryor (I hardly need prodding), who has some version of playing the dozens (a specifically African-American version of America’s real national pastime–the putdown) running through his entire body of work and has a sort-of parallel version of Keefe and Gleason going on in his sketch titled “The Gang,” where Gleason is a kid named Clifford who tells jokes that are actually funny and Keefe is a kid named Bubba who tells jokes that make no sense whatsoever.

Everybody laughs at Bubba’s jokes anyway because his ignorance is as mighty a shield as Jack Keefe’s and–more importantly–he’s bigger than everybody else.

I just provide this brief historical perspective because none of the dozens of commenters I heard or read this week did anything similar. (Not saying that nobody did, just that nobody I sampled did and I sampled quite a few.)

Hence nobody I read or heard actually got around to calling out Richard Sherman’s real failure.

He played a great football game, made a great, game-saving play…then he choked on a bone during what we all know is now the truly important event otherwise known as the Post Game Interview.

With Ring Lardner and Richard Pryor (not to mention Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson) as role models (role models he might have been expected to honor and emulate being a product of both Compton and Stanford) he tried to step into their shoes and ended up sounding nothing whatsoever like a “thug” (that was just the stupid people talking and easily parried) but everything like a clod.

More Keefe and Bubba than Gleason and Clifford then.

And what was borderline tragic about all this is that, when other, earlier interviews with Sherman–taken in more sedate surroundings–surfaced later in the week, it turned out he’s normally genuinely funny and self-aware and sharp as a tack.

Alas, you only get one chance to make a lasting first impression and the real shame about last weekend is that Richard Sherman clearly could have been a contender in an age that desperately needs one–a true thorn in the side of the deadbeats who instead spent the week justifiably claiming him as one of their own and to whom he will now be forever indebted.

Guess if we’re seeking purely random inspiration we’ll have to stick with the rapidly receding past a while longer.