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DOUBLE TROUBLE Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives By Greil Marcus; John Macrae / Holt: 272 pp., $25

September 17, 2000|DOUGLAS BRINKLEY | Douglas Brinkley, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author, most recently, of "Rosa Parks." He is the director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and professor of history at the University of New Orleans

It was among the more indelible images of the 1992 presidential campaign: then-46-year-old Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee--struggling in the polls against his better-funded opponents, incumbent Republican President George Bush and billionaire Reform Party founder Ross H. Perot--took a chance on his baby-boomer appeal and sauntered onto the "Arsenio Hall Show" wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarers and blowing the Elvis Presley hit "Heartbreak Hotel" on his saxophone. Clinton, of course, was raised in Hot Springs, Ark., within 150 miles of Graceland, and knew exactly what he was doing in wooing the so-called Elvis Vote: proving, as critic Greil Marcus writes in "Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives," that he could "cut himself down to size" and "at the same time try to take off and fly." A disarmed Bush immediately jabbed back, in an attempt at pop-culture politicking of his own, that Clinton's "Elvis Economics" would turn the White House into America's "Heartbreak Hotel." Clinton won the election.

"Double Trouble" takes up where Marcus' 1991 "Dead Elvis" leaves off, updating through the Clinton years the author's study of the continuous influence "the King" has had on American society since his death in 1977. From 1992 to 2000, Marcus compiled comparisons of the two charismatic Southerners and contributed articles of his own on the notion to periodicals including Artforum, Interview, the San Francisco Examiner, SF Weekly and the New York Times. The result is "Double Trouble," a collection of 40 short essays brimming with savvy commentary, pithy anecdotes, trenchant observations and rollicking satire. Although "Double Trouble" doesn't measure up to Marcus' best books--1975's "Mystery Train" and 1999's "Invisible Republic"--it does offer irresistibly offbeat glimpses into the zeitgeist of the last decade of the 20th century.

The title "Double Trouble" derives from the Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman song performed by Presley in his 1967 movie of the same name. What's more, as Marcus points out in one essay written during Clinton's impeachment hearings, the Elvis movie "Double Trouble" is, of all things, about a magnetic Southern nightclub singer being pursued by a smitten 17-year-old heiress and used by a calculating woman his own age--characters not unlike the president, intern Monica Lewinsky and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Yet in a sparkling essay titled "The Last Laugh"--originally delivered as the keynote address on Aug. 14, 1998, at a University of Memphis conference--Marcus garners analytical inspiration for his new book from pop artist Andy Warhol's giant silk-screen "Double Elvis," a duplicated still image from the 1960 Elvis B-movie "Flaming Star" of the rocker in cowboy garb, with his legs spread like a gunslinger's and his pistol thrust forward. Warhol proudly presented "Double Elvis" as a gift to Bob Dylan, who was so unimpressed he traded it to his manager, Albert Grossman, for a used sofa. Today "Double Elvis" hangs in Pittsburgh's Warhol Museum and is worth millions, while dozens of other artists have paid homage to the painting with their own double, triple and even quadruple Elvises.

"The whole complex of who Elvis is, where he came from, where he went, is in this picture," Marcus writes of the pop art icon. "I can't begin to make it hold still, to make it talk. The Elvises in this picture can't talk, and they don't even try. Shoot first, ask questions later."

Marcus tries to answer some of the many questions Presley unwittingly raises about America's celebrity-obsessed popular culture. "The seemingly mindless identification of the dead Elvis Presley with a host of demons and fiends in the 1990s was a testament to his exile in his own culture," Marcus writes. "[I]t was also a replay of the assault this son of the Great Awakening had faced in 1956, when a preacher, speaking for millions, famously declared him morally insane."

Peter Guralnick, author of "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love," may be the leading biographical authority on the real Elvis, but Marcus stakes a claim here to authority on what Elvis represents: the essential contradictions that define American society. Marcus explains that Presley, like the United States itself, is in the eye of the beholder: insolent yet polite, vain yet humble, juvenile delinquent yet a pious churchgoer, a multimillionaire with trailer-park tastes.

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