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Review: Greil Marcus introduces Bill Clinton to Elvis Presley
"Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives"
(CNN) -- Sometimes the best criticism works in much the same way as the best art. It prompts you to run outside, find a friend (or even a stranger), force the work into her hands, and demand, "Read this." This is why TV cameras pan to the audience, cooking shows end with a meal, and live recordings are so exhilarating -- because the next best thing to enjoying art directly is to experience someone else's enjoyment of it.
In "Double Trouble," a new collection of criticism by Greil Marcus, there is a piece, "Images of the Present Day," that inspires this sort of reaction. Beginning with a discussion of a scene from a long-forgotten heavy metal video, Marcus gracefully moves on to a discussion of Nirvana, then "Blue Suede Shoes," and then the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me." It ends with a perfect paragraph on the role of rock 'n' roll in history, and what it means to suggest that rock may be dead.
Marcus' meandering essay yields a stunning conclusion: Once you see rock 'n' roll as something separate from history, you lose all understanding of what rock 'n' roll is or ever was.
Not another Clinton book
This is a recurring theme in "Double Trouble" and in many ways the subject of the book itself. Ostensibly about the points of convergence between Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley, "Double Trouble" begins by stating that both "Elvis and Clinton are alive in the common imagination as blessed, tawdry actors in a pretentious musical comedy cum dinner-theater Greek tragedy about their country's most unresolved notion of what it means to be good, true, and beautiful -- and evil, false, and ugly."
Marcus, a sometime columnist for Salon magazine (a content partner of CNN Interactive), begins his critique of this "dinner-theater Greek tragedy" with some quotes from columnist Frank Rich and director Oliver Stone, both of whom, almost jokingly, refer to Elvis Presley when discussing Bill Clinton. With this as his inspiration, Marcus sets out to "trace the footprints Elvis Presley left in the Clinton years."
Before you go clicking past this, thinking "Oh no, not another Clinton book," realize that this is, indeed, not another Clinton book. Marcus understands that the best (and perhaps only) way to burrow through this "common imagination" is not to deal directly with Elvis and Clinton, but to examine what surrounds them, picking apart the cultural climate that allows them to be linked in what is an often amusing but never meaningless way. Marcus does this through all sorts of cultural explorations, from studied inquiries into Kurt Cobain and P.J. Harvey to an amazing portrait of the late actor J.T. Walsh.
Like an archaeologist gleaning truths about a people from their architecture and food storage vessels, Marcus assembles his portrait of the Clinton years from everything but Clinton, using music, movies, and pop culture to present us the last eight years as something new -- something we lived through but may not recognize.
Lack of cohesiveness
In pieces that are sometimes obscure and convoluted, Marcus mostly succeeds in making his case. Unfortunately, by the end it is not clear what exactly that case is. In fact, what keeps "Double Trouble" from being definitive -- from being the book on the Clinton years -- is its lack of cohesiveness.
The connections are there: Marcus drags the reader along as Clinton is linked to Elvis time and time again. For example, it turns out that Steve Jones, husband of Paula, once played the ghost of Elvis in a Jim Jarmusch movie, allowing Marcus to point out that we, the public, were deprived of a trial, "with one Elvis righteously defending the honor of his wife against the depredations of another Elvis -- but for that we are all better off."
But in his discussions of these connections, Marcus is never able to shape them into the grand Theme that he's set for himself. There are corollary themes involving rock 'n' roll and its mortality, but Clinton and Elvis never come together, having exited off separate sides of the dinner-theater stage, leaving long before the audience demands an encore.
Despite this, for the most part "Double Trouble" holds its own, providing quite a few pieces that will send one out into the street eager to share. Whether it is "Images of the Present Day" or a later piece in which Marcus discusses the "White House Playlist," this is cultural criticism at its best.
Elvis leaves the stage. Finally.
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