Book Review: Double Trouble by Greil Marcus

That’s a weird drawing of…Oh…

Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives is not the kind of book I can talk about in a cohesive manner, because of its fractured, collected style, with much accuracy. This being said, I’ll spend a few paragraphs trying to do just that because I think it’s worth it. This book is about, at its most general, the interesting parallel between Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton in the 1990s. (The obvious caveat here is that Presley died in 1977). DT is not a biography, of either man, but it’s certainly biographical. If it was to be a singular life story, the life would be the Clinton presidencies of 1992-2000, presidencies dressed up as the slightly overweight, disconcerting Clinton-Presley of the cover. American culture, to Greil Marcus for these 263 pages, is wrapped up in the majesty and mystery of Elvis Presley, and is so wrapped even to the heights of the presidency.

I have to admit, becoming interested in this book, or becoming interested in finishing it, was difficult. It’s for the same reason I sometimes have trouble swallowing the contemporary, resurging style of long-form journalism à la Grantland (which don’t get me wrong, I love). I submit that maybe everything isn’t a metaphor—that naming your article “Extrapolate This Reference: Proper Noun and the Digression About Something Larger” turns me off, and not on. Of course, I always get giddy when it works and I get it, because, to me, it’s the most entertaining non-fiction strategy. It works for the majority of this book—the cultural, historical and intellectual ways it engages the reader make it a pleasure to read, especially in the wee hours with an anything-on-the-rocks.

Like I said, the arguments contained within the 42 essays compiled in Double Trouble, dealing with people from Elvis & Clinton to J.T. Walsh to Andy Warhol, do not lend themselves to a quick summary. But the beginning of the book and its most common thread throughout deal with why Bill Clinton was so often and effectively (as in the election) compared to Elvis Presley. “Vote for Elvis” was an actual campaign slogan used for Clinton’s election in 1992. Marcus takes the reader through the metaphors and tropes of the American psyche that led to this very unusual double-consciousness with which many Americans viewed Bill Clinton. The highlights, if the reader’s interests lie most fully in this pairing of personalities, are the introduction to the book and “The Last Laugh,” Marcus’ keynote address at the conference “Elvis: the state of his art”; they most comprehensively explain the theories about the fascinating duality.

The best portions of the book dedicated solely to music are those that cover Bob Dylan’s acoustic revival with Good As I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), and his masterful comeback with Time Out of Mind (1997). Marcus, a Dylan scholar of the highest order, speaks with clarity and truth about some of the nuances of Dylan’s performances so late in his career. Outside of Presley and Dylan, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana get the majority of attention in the collection—and so they should in a book about culture in the ’90s. However, maybe the best chapter in the book, musical or otherwise, is “Images of the Present Day” that deals in grandiose fashion with the concepts of rock-stardom, integrity and death. The themes are not out of the ordinary for the book. Marcus’ topics, like his prose, are severe and insightful. He has made an art form of rock scholarship. He writes at the end of the chapter:

“In a time when it has been definitively pronounced that we have reached the end of history, the death of rock may appear to be a very small thing. Certainly it is if you believe that rock ’n’ roll and history have nothing to do with each other—if you believe that rock ’n’ roll cannot help make history, and that history cannot help make good rock ’n’ roll. If you believe that, though, you may have to accept that rock ’n’ roll never existed at all.”

Most of these types of chapters are cluttered towards the beginning of Double Trouble, as the subject matter moves to politics quickly and heavily for its conclusion. The move is necessitated by Marcus’ feeling that after the ’92 election was over, Clinton became solely Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States, and Elvis disappeared…again. The book ends, as the ’90s did, with the Clinton presidency over and there is a very anachronistically amusing essay called “A Look Back,” which includes two versions, or should I say visions, of Clinton’s (and the country’s) future. Both have elements of truth…some: “Everyone recognized President George W. Bush’s pardon of ex-president Bill Clinton as a master stroke. Following Bush’s surprisingly comfortable victory over Al Gore…”

Having spent the ages of 3 – 13 living during the 1990s, Double Trouble gave me a perspective for the decade outside of racecar toys and the trials of junior high school. I once announced to one of my grade school teachers that there was a war going on in my house. Naturally, she was concerned and contacted my mother who cleared up the issue. The war, of course, was the Gulf War on TV. This makes me aware of two things: one, that even though I glorify an image or feeling for the ’90s—peaceful suburban lawns, the charming rift between teenage angst and spoiled teenagers, Pavement—the decade didn’t exactly include my truly formative years (I was too young), so Marcus really handed down some knowledge; and two, that culture and events, in this case the Gulf War, enter and influence the psyche however founded or unfounded their sources. For me, there was a war in my house and thus, there was a war in my house. It wasn’t true, but for a time it was and the memory of that time is forever. If, at any given time, Elvis exists as a young version or an old version, a “secret angel” or an American curse, an innovative heartthrob or a ghostly national mirror, a bad joke or just a joke—the dualities collapse on themselves, do they not? Only one Elvis is true at the time he’s true and to the person he’s true. If the entire saga of Bill-Clinton-as-Elvis is a metaphor, it’s that cultural touchstones, legendary personalities and defining moments—however they’re appropriated and whether they’re real or fake—are always real. Everything is real. If it has or had power, it’s always true.

Here is Marcus with some brief thoughts, if not specifically on this particular book, on Elvis’ legacy:

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