Bill has left the building

<i>Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in the land of no alternatives</i> by Greil Marcus (Faber &amp; Faber, &pound;9.99, 248pp)
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The Independent Culture

So farewell, then, Slick Willie. Back in the days when Elvis Presley was still alive and (after a fashion) performing, his shows would climax with someone portentously announcing "Elvis has left the building." Next January, Bill Clinton will himself leave the building and the nation - not to mention the planet - to the tender mercies of either the irritating preppie know-all Al Gore or, as currently seems more likely, louche rich-boy waster George Dubbya Bush. In a sense, the pair represent the (separated) two faces of Clinton's conjoined-twin psyche: Gore the data-devouring policy wonk, and Dubbya the glad-handing bad ol', good ol' boy, conspiratorially winking past the debate at the audience.

So farewell, then, Slick Willie. Back in the days when Elvis Presley was still alive and (after a fashion) performing, his shows would climax with someone portentously announcing "Elvis has left the building." Next January, Bill Clinton will himself leave the building and the nation - not to mention the planet - to the tender mercies of either the irritating preppie know-all Al Gore or, as currently seems more likely, louche rich-boy waster George Dubbya Bush. In a sense, the pair represent the (separated) two faces of Clinton's conjoined-twin psyche: Gore the data-devouring policy wonk, and Dubbya the glad-handing bad ol', good ol' boy, conspiratorially winking past the debate at the audience.

If Slick Willie were constitutionally free to run for a third term of office, the polls suggest that he would win, despite being the most vilified President since Richard Nixon. So why is that? Because the voters love him. And why do they love him? Because, so Greil Marcus tells us, he is Elvis.

Or at least he's a sort of Elvis. Fat Elvis, Las Vegas Elvis - "thangyew, thangyew vehmush" - but an Elvis nonetheless, because of "their common status as outsiders - as white male southerners without family money (hillbillies, no 'counts, white trash - the source, of course, of much of the identification made between Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley, and of Clinton's own heartfelt or cynical identification of himself with Elvis)."

This identification was cemented when, during the 1992 campaign, Clinton "took his saxophone onto the Arsenio Hall show, put on a pair of dark glasses, and blew 'Heartbreak Hotel'." That moment, according to one of his speechwriters, "might have won him the election, but it also ruined his presidency".

Greil Marcus is probably the world's greatest living rock critic, and a virtuoso at projecting the rockin' way of knowledge into the larger world outside. He's also an old Berkeley leftie, but with this collection of remixed essays he does not offer a left critique of Clinton (let alone emulate Christopher Hitchens by placing such a critique at the disposal of Clinton's far-right enemies) so much as a mythic cultural history of Slick Willie's Presidency.

The Clinton/Elvis connection fascinates Marcus. The essay "Presliad" was a cornerstone of his benchmark work Mystery Train in 1975, and his most recent return to the subject, Dead Elvis, examined Presley's posthumous career: "radioactive, with an immeasurable half-life, decaying backwards to lay waste to the past as surely as it claims the future". As Tommy Lee Jones laconically informs Will Smith in Men In Black, "Elvis ain't dead. He just went home."

Not for nothing did Ice-T point out that "Clinton's a brother". He may not have been much of a brother to the black convict from Arkansas on whom he pulled the switch when he was running for president, but Ice had one thing right. Most African-Americans are keenly aware that the US political establishment, Republican and Democrat alike, treated Clinton like a "nigga".

Such treatment has given them a sneak preview of what America's first black president - whoever he or she may be, and whenever he or she may eventually take office - can expect from the existing governing class.

Policy-wise, Clinton may have backed away from every hoped-for challenge against big business and the Christian right. Nonetheless, they knew he was their enemy on cultural, if not political, grounds, and they dealt with him accordingly.

After all, he was trailer trash, and as such should never have been allowed to become president. His election victory in 1992 was treated like a coup rather than a democratic defeat, and the right made it clear that they refused to accept the legitimacy of his presidency.

In addition, they saw him as a representative of sex-and-drugs-and-rock'n'roll Sixties counter-culture - even if most supporters of that culture did not. After all, he had protested against the Vietnam war rather than fought in it. He had done so from the safety of Oxford (and I don't mean Oxford, Mississippi), and at least once he had been close enough to a spliff to make an issue of whether or not he inhaled. That ol' Hound Dog hadn't sung the GI Blues; so, instead, his enemies tried to make him do the Jailhouse Rock.

Clinton has fronted for some rotten policies during the past eight years, just as Elvis spent over two-thirds of his career cutting rotten records and shooting worse movies, but that couldn't compensate for his outsider status and - worse! - for his refusal to be apologetic about it. There they are, El and Bill, with their fleshy faces, sensuous lips, over-styled hair, and eyes simultaneously roguish and slumbrous: hound dogs to the manor born.

Other figures dance through Marcus's saga, shadowing its two principals: Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain; Sinead O'Connor and P J Harvey; Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg and Oliver Stone. However, scant mention is made of that other baby-boom, rock-generation leader. His accession, like Clinton's, gave the lie to the notion - which was prevalent during the Sixties attempt to invent youth as a political class - that things would change once Our Lot were running things. But then Tony Blair is a simpering Anglican vicar by comparison with Clinton's full-on Baptist preacher - not so much an Elvis as a Cliff.

El and Bill were po' boys made good according to the purest precepts of the American Dream, and they were punished accordingly. It's enough to make a white boy want to play the blues.

* Charles Shaar Murray's life of John Lee Hooker, 'Boogie Man', is published by Penguin

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