Greil Marcus on Elvis: Spirit and Flesh

Elvis was not a "phenomenon." He was not a "craze." He was that perfect American symbol that would outlive us all

Rock and roll musician Elvis Presley performing on the Milton Berle Show in Burbank, California on June 4, 1956. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This story originally appeared in the September 22nd, I977 issue of Rolling Stone

There was a message to call the mainland, so I did. We don't follow the news much here when we are on vacation; the radio, especially on the outer islands, is mostly static, and this time we had brought along a cassette machine and some homemade tapes and didn’t listen to the radio at all. "They want you to write a piece about Elvis," I was told on the phone. "An obituary." What kind of joke it that? I thought, Rolling Stone doesn’t keep a ready file of obits. "What kind of joke is that?" I said. "Why, he died today,” I was told. "A heart attack, apparently."

I didn't accept it at all, not in any way, but at the same time I knew it was true, and even as part of me withdrew from that fact, headlines began to fly through my brain: Nude body of George "Superman" Reeves found. Singer drowns in own vomit. James Dean spoke to me from the grave, man claims. Nude body of George "Superman" Reeve found. Singer drowns in own vomit. James Dean spoke to me from the grave, man claims. I went down to the bar at the hotel where we are staying, and while I was waiting for my wife I ordered a Jack Daniel's, I would have asked for Wild Turkey, but this was no night to drink Kentucky whiskey; Jack Daniel's is straight from Tennessee, just like Elvis Presley's first 45.

Like most other people my age – 32 – Elvis mattered to me in the Fifties; I loved his music, bought some of his records, and never went to any of his movies. He was great, but he was also weird, and I kept my distance. Clearly, though, I had some sort of buried fascination for the man, and when he appeared on TV late in 1968 for his comeback, I found I could handle that fascination; in fact, I was caught up in it, and for five years I spent far more time listening to Elvis' music, from the beginning on down, than to the music of anyone else. I found, or at least decided, that Elvis contained more of America – had swallowed whole more of its contradictions and paradoxes – than any other figure I could think of; I found that he was a great, original American artist; and I found that neither of these propositions were generally understood, at least not in sufficient depth. So of course I wrote about it all, feeling, after 20,000 words, that while I had never written anything so good before, I had only scratched the surface.

I did not write about "a real person"; I wrote about the persona I heard speaking in Elvis' music. I wrote about the personalization of an idea, of lots of ideas – freedom, limits, risk, authority, sex, repression, youth, age, tradition, novelty, guilt and the escape from guilt – because they all were there to hear; reading my perceptions back onto their source, I understood Elvis not as a human being (his divorce was interesting to me musically) but as a sort of force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture (or anyway ours) that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself. This, I tried to find a way to say safely, was what Herman Melville attempted to create with the white whale, but this was what Elvis Presley turned out to be. Or rather, made himself into, or maybe, agreed to become. And because such a triumph had to combine absolute determination and self-conscious ambition with utter ease, with the grace of one to whom all good things come naturally, I imagined a special dispensation for Elvis, or, really, read it in the artifacts of his career: that to make all this work, to make this metaphor perfectly, transcendently American, to make it new, it would be free. In other words, this would, as it had to, be a Faustian bargain, but someone else – and who cared who? – would pick up the tab.

I thought about all this, sitting at the bar, still believing every word I had written but wondering if I had not somehow turned myself into the most lunatic Elvis fan of all. Suddenly I began to get angry. I thought: disgusting, sordid, ugly, sleazy, stupid, wasteful, pathetic. I thought of George Reeves again; for some reason I still could not make the event real – every time I focused on it consciously, the idea of Elvis dead, not here, seemed to imply that he had never been here, that his presence over 23 years had been some kind of hallucination, a trick – and as a way to avoid the event, I began to glide toward the corpse. I got tough. I played journalist. No one could tell me he died of anything but booze and broads, I said to myself. Isn't that what everybody in showbiz dies from? Why should I think Elvis would be any different? Heart attack, my ass. I dumped the whole affair into Vegas. I wanted to cut-loose from it all, but I was still too angry, and confused, not at anyone or anything: not at Elvis, or myself, or "them," or the fans, or the media, or "rock," or “success." lt was simply rage. I was devastated.

The following night I watched two separate television specials on Elvis' death, aired for most of the country the night before but broadcast a day late here in Hawaii. They were strange shows. On ABC one saw Chuck Berry, who had never hidden his bitterness at the fact that it took a white man to symbolize the new music Chuck and others, Elvis among them, created; here he did not really try to hide his satisfaction at having lasted longer than "the King." "For what will Elvis be remembered among other musicians?" Chuck was asked. "Oh," he replied, "boop, boop, boop; shake your leg; fabulous teen music; the Fifties; his movies." Not a man you'd want to trade ironies with in a dark alley – but even Jerry Lee Lewis, laughing, raving drunk and packing a pistol outside Graceland, demanding to be let in to see the King, had lasted longer. And could television have possibly aired whatever it might have been that Jerry Lee had to say about all this? One saw Elvis performing in Hawaii in l973 – we had been here at the time, too, and I remember feeling like an idiot as I looked for him on the beach – and in his later incarnation Elvis even began to look like George Reeves.

On NBC's special, hosted in an even tone by David Brinkley, a panel of experts had been assembled: Murray the K, famous DJ, was the "first civilized person [i.e., Northerner] to play an Elvis record"  – The first civilized person [i.e., Northerner] to play an Elvis record — Steve Dunleavy, the as-told-to part of a quartet of authors responsible for a just-published scandal-bio called Elvis What Happened? (his cowriters are former Elvis bodyguards, fired over the last year or so), and my friend and colleague Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone. Murray the K looked subdued and played the insider; Elvis, he informed America, had told him, Murray, that he, Elvis, would "not outlive his mother," who as it happened also died at the age of 42. Uh huh. Dunleavy looked bored, note his Australian accent, and spoke coolly – in the manner of, "Well, you know these showbiz types" – of Elvis in his last few years as a "walking drugstore." "It was a classic case of 'too much too soon,'" Dunleavy said, trying to slide around the cliché. Dave Marsh, however, is a rock critic; in his case that means not that rock is part of his life because it is his job, but that rock is his job because it is his life. Dave looked shellshocked, scared. He looked the way I was feeling, and he said intelligent things that perhaps not a large percentage of those watching were prepared to understand. "It's that Elvis has always been there," Marsh said. "I always expected him to be a part of American culture that I would share with my children." And of course that was it, Elvis was not a "phenomenon." He was not a "craze." He was not even, or at least not only, a "singer," or an "artist." He was that perfect American symbol, fundamentally a mystery, and the idea was that he would outlive us all—or, at least,live for as long as it took both him and us to reach the limits of what that symbol had to say.

Since I had already read Steve Dunleavy's book, though, I could not help but think that Elvis’ death might mean that those limits had already been reached, that the symbol had collapsed back upon itself and upon those who had, over the years, paid attention to it. The moment I enjoyed most in Elvis What Happened? came when I read that in 1966 Robert Mitchum offered Elvis the lead in Thunder Road – a perfect role for Elvis, and one that would have given him the chance to become the serious actor he had always dreamed of being – and I enjoyed that moment most because I knew that Mitchum had already made Thunder Road, in 1958, and so could conclude that the accuracy of the rest of the book might be suspect. Because while many of the events detailed in What Happened? are trivial, of the most unforgettable pillow fight I ever had sort, and some of the most sensationalized (Elvis demanding that his bodyguards set up a hit on the man who took away his wife) clearly inflated, what Red West, Sonny West and Dave Hebler have to say rings mostly true.

The Elvis of What Happened? is a man whose success had, simply, driven him nuts. As presented here – in, of course, the present tense, the authors make much of their desire to save Elvis from himself – Elvis has no sense of the real world whatsoever. He is schizophrenic, a manic depressive, insanely jealous, crazily "generous," desperate to buy loyalty and able to trust no one. Each of these characteristics is seen as inherent in his personality and his unique situation; each is intensified by huge, constant doses of uppers and downers, by an entourage of paid sycophants, by Elvis' obsession with firearms and by his paranoid fantasies of vengeance and death. Each of these neurotic dislocations seeks some sort of resolution in Elvis' desire to check the limits of what he can get away with (Can the near death of a young girl he overdosed – according to the book – be covered up? Sure it can), coupled with his desire to bring punishment upon himself for breaking rules he knows are right. Commentator after commentator on the night of Elvis' death mentioned that his life was never complete after his mother died, implying that had she lived he would have also; it seems clear, after reading What Happened?, that one route of Elvis' pathology was his inability – from, inevitably, the beginning – to be as good a boy as his mother must have wanted him to be. 

I thought of this, however, only after Elvis' death; before that, I had not taken the book all that seriously, Now I realize that what I had read in it was at the source of my anger at his death, my sense of ugliness, and waste. The book had disturbed me when I read it, but not that much; I wrote a brief review and forgot about it. It is only now that I can see through the padding and the mean-spiritedness of the volume to what it has to show us: a picture of a man who lived with almost complete access to disaster, all the time. The stories that illustrate this are not all that important; you can read them, or you can make them up, whether they have to do with the onstage freak-out brought on by dope and who knows what else; the M-16 that went off at the wrong time; the rage no one could cool down. There is nothing in this book, I think, that would have ended Elvis' career had he lived (perhaps today, even the worst possible ties imaginable regarding Elvis' Army relationship with the then 14-year-old Priscilla might not really hurt him with Middle America; Elvis did finally marry her, after all). But the book's last pages, purportedly the transcript of a telephone conversation Elvis had with Red West sometime after Elvis fired him – a conversation in which they discussed the book that had come out as What Happened? – are themselves ending enough.

The feeling I get, reading stuff like this, is that Elvis may well have wanted this book to appear; that he wanted the burden and the glory of acting the King removed once and for all; that he wanted, finally, relief. Of course, that may only be what the authors of What Happened? want us to think. Peter Guralnick has often written about Elvis, and always brilliantly; every time, I think, he has headed his pieces with a quote from William Carlos Williams: "The pure products of America go crazy." In Elvis' case both Peter and Williams were obviously right. But it still seems too pat to me, as do the detailed explanations of What Happened?, because they merely reduce something we can not quite get our heads around to something that can be laid to rest by a line.

With Elvis in the ground, his death is still out of my reach. This isn't, I know, just another rock & roll death; it isn't any kind of rock & roll death, because it is the only rock & roll death that cannot be contained by the various metaphors rock & roll has itself created. Nor can it be contained, as Steve Dunleavy, and at times I, try to contain it, by showbiz metaphors. The problem – and it may take us years to really understand this, years during which some of us will have to keep these files clean and the stacks in order, reminding others that Elvis was not influenced by Chuck Berry, but by Roy Brown, and so on – is that there is just too much there, and that all of it – the art, the boy, the man, the source in the South, his reward in Hollywood, the recognition and adulation all over the world for more than 20 years – is all mixed up together.

The problem is that Elvis did not simply change musical history, though of course he did that. He changed history, pure and simple, and in doing so, he became history – he became part of it, attached to it, as those of us who were changed by him, or changed ourselves because of things we glimpsed in him, are not. And it must be added that to change, history is to do something that cannot be exactly figured out or pinned down; it is to create and to pursue a mystery. That Elvis did what he did – and we do not know precisely what he did, because "Milkcow Blues Boogie" and "Hound Dog” cannot be figured out, exactly – means that the world became something other than what it would have been had he not done what he did, and that half-circle of a sentence has to be understood at the limit of its ability to mean anything at all. Because of Elvis' emergence, because of who he was and what he became, because of his event and what we made of it, the American past, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, looks different than it would have without Elvis. Because of that event, its moment – the mid-Fifties – was convulsed, and started over. Because of that event, the future has possibilities that otherwise would have been foreclosed. 

And you see, we all knew this, We knew it, I think, all the time. You can hear it in the music. Somehow, Elvis must have had a sense of it, too. That is why, really, his death makes no sense. no matter if he died of an "irregular heartbeat," an overdose, as a suicide, in an accident, or in any other way.

And this is what, I think, Dave meant when he said that Elvis had always been there, and hinted that, at least for those of us who helped make Elvis' event, Elvis would of necessity have to outlive it. As with the death of FDR for another generation, it is not simply a man’s death that makes no sense, and is in some crucial, terrible way not real when history is personified, and the person behind that history dies, history itself is no longer real.

My wife and I talked about some of this down at the bar, while I watched the ice melt in my Jack Daniel's. She mentioned that she had asked me to take Elvis' "Long Black Limousine," from the 1969 comeback album, for our trip; for some reason I had never gotten around to it. It is quite a song: the story of a country girl who goes off to make it in the city, sell her soul, and come home, as she promised, riding in a fancy car – a hearse. Elvis never sang with more passion; he was bitter, and of what other recording by Elvis Presley can you say that? Of course, Elvis was no fool; he knew the song was about him, the country boy lost to the city if there ever was one, but he sang as if he liked that and loathed it all at once. He contained multitudes. His singing cut through the contradictions, blew them up. William Carlos Williams might say that "the pure products of America go crazy," but you might also say that the crazy product of America are pure, or something like that. When the stakes are as high as they always were in Elvis' case, the neat phrase is not to be trusted; always, it will obscure more than it will reveal. So we talked about "Long Black Limousine“ and about the only Elvis music we did have along, an outtake of"Blue Moon of Kentucky," from Elvis' very first sessions in July of 1954, with studio dialogue bouncing back and forth between a 19-year-old Elvis, his accompanists Scotty Moore and Bill Black, and producer Sam Phillips. They were jammin' like crazy, they said. And they were.

We sat for a while longer, and I ordered another Jack Daniel's. My wife explained the rationale behind the drink to the bartender, who seemed amused. There was, he said, a much more appropriate drink. We asked what. "Why, a Blue Hawaii, of course," he said. "You know, the movie?" That was two nights ago, but I still haven't been able to bring my-self to try one.

Elvis' fans surrendered to him instinctively, willing to take what he gave (no matter how silly), always confident that he could possess them completely any time he chose. Their faith, coupled with the complacency of his advisers, was both his glory and a plague. For if he was so great an artist in an environment where his mere presence was enough to incite riotous devotion, what might he have become in an atmosphere where creative challenge was fostered, risk encouraged, banality derided?

There is no denying that the final few years were depressing and humiliating – especially since their mediocrity followed the great moments of redemption, the 1968 TV show and the string of vital hits that surrounded it. "If I Can Dream," "Kentucky Rain," "The Wonder of You" and "Suspicious Minds" were among the greatest records he ever made. As depressing as the musical backsliding – perhaps more so – was the physical deterioration. From a lithe, athletic and infinitely sexual creature, Elvis became the antithesis of our dreams.

Still, many of us turned in each new record with expectations that must confound those who missed even the final glimmerings of his majesty. Why did we bother? 

Because Elvis was unique. He had it all. Every element of the rock & roll dream was his – pink Cadillacs, beautiful women, untold wealth, true genius and inspiration – and that was a claim no one else could ever make. A few others might have had some hope of it, most notably Chuck Berry. Berry united his own set of opposites: black and white, adult and teenage, verbal and nonverbal. But Berry was also black, and though he, too, blazed a tough and glorious path, his race denied him the full honor due his genius.

In away, though. It was Berry's story, because of songs like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Promised Land," even though those songs came to stand as prophecies of Elvis, and finally as epitaphs for him. (It is especially ironic that those two songs were among among the finest recordings of Elvis' final years.) "Johnny B. Goode" was a story Elvis, and Elvis alone, lived out to the hilt. "Promised Land" must have seemed a plain fact to him – at least some of the time.

Perhaps i make too much of Elvis Presley – he was, after all, not a saint or a guru. But if any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one. In his wake more than music is different. Nothing and no one looks or sounds the same. His music was the most liberating event of our era because it taught us new possibilities of feeling and perception, new modes of action and appearance, and because it reminded us not only of his greatness but of our own potential. If those things were not already so well integrated into our lives that they have become commonplace, it would be simpler to explain how astonishing a feat Elvis Presley's advent really was.

Of course, it is unquestionable that there would have been rock & roll music without Elvis Presley. But it's just as un- questionable that the kind of rock & roll we have – a matter of dreams and visions, not just facts and figures or even songs and singers – was shaped by him in the most fundamental ways. 

His life must have been brutally lonely, for Elvis went it alone, took the biggest chance of all. One reason the Beatles did better, or at least lasted longer at their peak, was that they had learned from his mistakes and successes. Elvis had no such map to guide him, so he had to invent himself, over and over, come up with new terms for dealing with each situation. In the process, he invented us, whether or not we all know it. We are a hero-worshiping, thrill-crazy mob, I suppose, but at our best one that’s tuned into the heart of things – open, honest, unpretentious. Which is to say that he made us in his image.

Elvis was the King of rock & roll because he was the embodiment of its sins and virtues: grand and vulgar, rude and eloquent, powerful and frustrated, absurdly simple and awesomely complex. He was the King, I mean, in our hearts, which is the place where the music really comes to life. And just as rock & roll will stand as long as our hearts beat, he will always be our King: forever, irreplaceable, corrupt and incorruptible, beautiful and horrible, imprisoned and liberated. And finally, rockin’ and free, free at last.