With Elvis has Left the Building, the longstanding editor of GQ has inexplicably written a book that could serve as a handy, if perhaps overly comprehensive, compendium of bad journalistic habits: from the over-arching flaw of failing to decide what you want to say to such specifics as the excessive use of the phrase ‘American dream’ and wildly random scene-setting. (In the lengthy section on 1977, the year of Presley’s death, we learn that ‘five days before Luciano Pavarotti made his first appearance on American television, the rings of Uranus were discovered’.)
Admittedly, for the fairly niche audience of readers interested in Elvis but entirely ignorant of the circumstances and immediate impact of his death, Dylan Jones does provide a pretty solid account of both. Yet, in his introduction he also promises to explain how the death in question ‘affected us all, how it changed our culture, and what it still means today’ — none of which he manages, and most of which he doesn’t attempt. It turns out, for example, that ‘today’ is here being used in the loosest sense, with Jones’s list of references to Elvis sightings petering out in 1992. (‘Not a day goes by when he isn’t mentioned in the news,’ he claims at one particularly desperate point.) As for the effect on ‘us all’, Jones concentrates largely on the world he clearly remembers best: that of British punk rock.
By now, there may possibly be a few people left who don’t know the basic punk mythology — how the old guard became so remote from the kids that a musical year zero was declared. Presumably for their benefit, then, Jones recites it all over again. But after that, confusion soon sets in, as he variously argues that the punks of 1977 were right not to like Elvis, wrong not to like Elvis and right to like Elvis.
So if the book doesn’t fulfil its opening promises, what do we get instead? The answer is essentially a baggy anthology — the kind in which almost any section could go almost anywhere — of whatever crosses Jones’s mind.
Which brings us to another important lesson for the aspiring journalist: if you’re going to use lots of padding, then at least try to disguise the fact. Jones, by contrast, follows his assertion that American punk had ‘no association, pro or con’ with Elvis by telling us the story of some American punk bands anyway. He also keeps imagining what Elvis might have done instead of what he did. We get an extended description, for instance, of a performance he could have given in 1978 of the Stones’s ‘Miss You’ before the rather anti-climactic sentence, ‘But then Elvis was never going to perform “Miss You”, because Elvis was dead.’
No wonder that Jones’s most indisputable passages are those in which he more or less confesses how little he has to say. Elvis, the final chapter concludes, ‘remains a fascinating enigma, one whose primal motivating forces will probably never be known’.
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