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Winning Ugly

A peerless writer finds a unique way to appreciate Memphis.

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There is no one better at raising aspects of popular life to consciousness than Greil Marcus, a resident of Berkeley, California, but, as the author of such seminal works as Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces, a diviner of the whole cultural universe. An examiner of nuances whose work goes beyond mere music criticism, Marcus is one of several eminences who, next week, will grace the latest in a series of University of Memphis seminars on Elvis Presley that have been going on annually for most of the 25 years since the King's death.

Marcus doesn't have "opinions." Ask him a question on any subject and you will get a full-fledged, considered answer to rival any published essay. He can not only discourse, for example, on the differences in the way the Beatles' "Revolution" and the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" sound and what the lyrics of those songs say, he can tell you in precise and vivid terms the different worldviews contained in each of these similar but distinct takes on the ferment of the late '60s. Marcus notes how each group is distanced from real "revolution" -- the Beatles by choice, the Stones by social impediment -- but through the charged excitement of its sound, compels the listener to confront the barricades of convention.

Call this sort of thing semiotics or call it good sense, Marcus is one of the masters of the method.

Unlike his good friend and fellow popular-music sage Peter Guralnick, who will also take part in this year's seminar, Marcus is not a continual visitor to Memphis, nor does he, like Guralnick (the author of a definitive two-volume biography of Elvis), consider our city his favorite among all others.

But Marcus' warts-and-all take on Memphis is, in its own way, just as flattering.

"Memphis is the ugliest fascinating city in the world," he said this week. "It's full of the unpredictable. It's louder than most places and has a totally wry sense of humor. The people of Memphis have no parallel in the world. They're different from everybody else, and they're almost always right."

Just to make sure we heard him right, Marcus repeated his description. Memphis, he said, is "a remarkably ugly-looking place." But that's okay: "Memphis people don't care what the place looks like. The life is in the people." He compared the Bluff City to its sister city just down the road, Nashville. "Nashville," he said,"is a very stolid, very organized town. Everybody there, insiders and outsiders alike, knows what the rules are and plays by them. It's very organized. It's a company town." He paused. "Nashville is a business. That's all it is." Whereas, Marcus continued, "there's a mystique to Memphis, with its confusing, violent, heroic past."

Part of that confusion, Marcus said, has to do with the persona of Elvis himself, a proletarian icon who was misunderstood both internally and externally. "He was a great embarrassment to old Memphis. He was not somebody they'd want to be in their houses or to marry their daughters." As for the rest of the world, "Elvis is so well known but so unknown, because most people don't really know who he is. Media caricatures have replaced the real thing."

Greil Marcus will discuss the latest compilations of Elvis recordings and some vintage photographs of the King by Ernest Withers at an August 15th seminar at the University of Memphis. He will be joined by Guralnick, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, record executive/songwriter Eddie Ray, and others.

Jackson Baker, a Flyer senior editor, was a co-founder, with John Bakke, professor emeritus and former chairman of the U of M communication and fine arts department, and U of M music professor David Evans, of the U of M Elvis seminars. Baker will take part in this year's seminar.

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