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The Legendary Test

Mark Simpson on the (fast diminishing) difference between fame and legend

(The Hospital Club magazine, Spring 2010)

A recent bloody assassination attempt on Gore Vidal, the last great American man of letters by the English journalist Christopher Hitchens in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair prompted me, and I suspect many others, to ponder the difference between fame and legend.

Both Vidal and Hitchens are famous of course, but only Vidal is a legend. Hitchens, for all his achievements, for all his impressive, furious scribbling, contrarian controversy, and admirable G&T habit, is not and never will be legendary.

Not because Vidal has written many more or better books than Hitchens.  Not because his essays are wittier, his sentences more elegant. Not because he knew the Kennedys – and dished the dirt. Not even because Vidal, in a wheelchair, wizened and enfeebled by war wounds, old age and a lifetime’s boozing, is a much greater man than the much younger Hitchens.

No, Vidal is a legend because it is as undeniable as his own mortality that he will live forever. Or at least, as long as people care to remember anyone these days. Should Hitchens be struck down tomorrow by a dodgy canapé or spiked tonic water, after the loud, fulsome eulogies have been delivered by his media colleagues, he would be completely forgotten. Hitchens is more aware of this than anyone, hence his entirely understandable yen to liquidate his one-time mentor. But precisely because Vidal is a legend the attempt backfires as hilariously as Wile E. Coyote’s did on Road Runner.

Admittedly though, there’s less and less interest in anyone who writes.  Unless of course they’ve left nice comments on your hilarious Facebook status update. Everyone is a writer now – or at least a typer.

That said, in a universe increasingly crowded with celebrities, applying the legendary test is a useful and humane way of thinning them out. Annoyed by someone’s ubiquitousness? Their success at making you see their gurning mug everywhere? The way they remind you of your own obscurity? Well, ask yourself this: will they be remembered and talked about when they are no longer around to remind us, incessantly, of their existence? At a stroke, you’ve done away with the vast majority of the bastards.

Even though most of them don’t really care about posterity  — because they won’t be around to exploit the image rights – it’s a fun game to play.  By this criteria, George Best is a legend, David Beckham – much more famous than Best ever was and possibly the most famous person in the world today – isn’t.  Paul Newman is, Brad Pitt isn’t (though his six pack might be). Morrissey is, Robbie Williams really, really isn’t. Thatcher is, Blair isn’t. Alan Bennett is, Stephen ‘National Treasure’ Fry isn’t. Julie Burchill is, Katie Price ain’t.  Princess Di is, Madonna probably isn’t. Hockney is, Damian Hirst, even pickled in formaldehyde, isn’t. And so on.

You’ll note that dead legends aren’t in the past tense – this is because legends by definition are never past tense. Probably the greatest legend is Elvis Presley. Hence all the reported sightings of him on Mars and down the chip shop. The King could never die on his khazi, obese and constipated. And in many senses Elvis really is alive – it’s just the rest of us I’m not so sure about.

Now, you might object that this is all a very subjective business, that the legendary test is really just a way of being nasty about people I happen not to like and nice about people I do. And you might not be entirely mistaken. But this isn’t really about who you like – it’s about who will last. Legends aren’t necessarily good or particularly nice people, either. Hitler and Stalin are legends, and so are Bob Geldof and Mel Gibson.

The 21st Century is not very conducive to legendary status. It’s very, very difficult to become one today – and very, very few people even bother to try.  Vidal, for instance, is really a Twentieth Century legend that has survived, much against his better judgement, into the Twenty-First Century – largely as a kind of bad conscience. Princess Di on the other hand is a legend in large part because she managed to die just before the end of the Twentieth Century. If she hadn’t, we would have grown very bored with her indeed by now. Katie Price’s fate would probably seem enviable by comparison.

Today’s infrastructure of fame is designed to discourage legends. The more mediated, the more wired the world becomes, the more people can become famous, more quickly – and the more people are interested in fame. But as others have pointed out, fame has to be more disposable. More fame and more famous people requires a much higher turnover. Legends, in other words, spoil the celebrity ecosystem because they refuse to be recycled and hog fame resources forever. Put another way, legendary status is analogue, not digital.

Impatience is another factor. In a wired world, even if people wanted legends, or at least sometimes felt nostalgic about them, no one could be bothered with waiting for someone to become one. So instead the media, MSM and non-MSM, creates ‘instant legends’, which are in some ways even more disposable than common-or-garden celebs.

Barack Obama is a recent example of an instant legend. A very popular 1960s tribute act of HOPE and CHANGE during the Primaries, when he was inaugurated as President last year the media – and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee – behaved as if both JFK and MLK were being sworn in after their assassinations. Lately the same media have been talking about the epoch-making Obama as a one-term President. He may yet achieve real legendary status, but if he does it will be in spite of his instant legend.

Osama Bin Laden is one of the very few people to have already achieved true legendary status in the 21st Century – along with, I suspect, Lady Gaga. Which sort of proves the rule.

© Mark Simpson 2010

Elvis Hasn’t Left the Building

Why Elvis the ‘virile degenerate’ refuses to let us rest in peace

by Mark Simpson  

(Independent on Sunday, April 2000)

Elvis didn’t want to be black, he wanted to be Tony Curtis.

A natural blond, Memphis’ belle boy dyed his hair in imitation of his 50s idol’s shiny black pompadour and continued tinting it that unnatural-supernatural blue-black colour until the very end (though later it was probably merely to hide the grey). Even those virile sideburns, which by the early Seventies seemed to be bracketing the world, were deceivingly dyed too.

I know this is a shocking, indecent thing to bring up, and not just because of the way Tony Curtis’ ‘hair’ looks now. We like to think of Elvis as rock’s Unmoved Mover, The King, the original, the alpha and omega – the fount of all pop cultural sovereignty. ‘Before Elvis there was nothing,’ as John Lennon famously put it. In a world where popness has become the measure of everything, we’re all Elvis impersonators now – and we don’t want to think that we might be inadvertently ‘doing’ Tony Curtis.

As the parade of celebs who lined up recently for the premiere of the re-released, re-edited, re-mastered 1970 Vegas gig movie ‘Elvis: That’s the Way It is’ bears testimony, all the new pretenders want to be seen in His presence, even if it’s only a celluloid one. Maybe it’s just the PopStars in Your Eyes, but Elvis seems to keep on getting bigger while those that came after him keep getting smaller. Elvis was the first truly giant pop star created by post-war consumerism and it’s attendant media.

Since then, shopping and looking have become everything, and Elvis has become the personification of the looking-glass world we inhabit now, a latter-day Narcissus who drowned in his own reflection (on his bathroom floor) – but granted immortality in a universe of surfaces and permanent (shallow) memory. ‘Elvis’ is Fame’s first name in an age when ‘fame’ is something we’re increasingly over-familiar with.

Perhaps this is why in Elvis’ face we can see an angelic/demonic premonition of the needy faces of so many of those stars that have come after: Tom Cruise, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Jim Carrey, Madonna, Bill Clinton, Diana, Jeffrey Dahmer. Elvis’ masculine androgyny and animal smartness seem even more modern today than when he launched his career. In footage of The King in action, all the male faces in the crowd – and many of the women – seem strangely frozen and meatish next to his, even when he is clearly half-paralysed by downers, the eyes all hooded and sleepy. As the lesbian Elvis Impersonator k.d. Laing observed: ‘He had total love in his eyes when he performed…’.

It only makes his ‘total love’ all the more potent that when he sang, he didn’t mean it, or didn’t know what he meant; we are left to sort it out, like the swooning victims of a passionate but exquisitely, totally careless lover (which is the condition of human subjectivity in a mediated world).

Elvis the Lover is also however the archetype of the post-war male ‘Pervert’. Radiantly narcissistic and dramatically unable to negotiate his Oedipus Complex, he is the prime idolatrous icon of a decadent, post-patriarchal age. Again, he may not have invented virile degeneracy (Clift, Brando and Dean, whom he also imitated, have a prior claim) but he patented it. True, it may have been campy Liberace who was accused of being the ‘quivering distillation of mother-love’, but it was good ol’ boy Elvis-the-pelvis (and Liberace fan) who got away with it and in fact made it cool.

Elvis, the beautiful boy who loved his mammy and almost forgot he had a daddy (as we did too: we always call him by his first name), the boy who desired to be desired so much he persuaded the whole world to eat him up, is the patron saint of the New Matriarchy.

Even today, twenty four years after his death, as we stumble into a century he never actually swung his hips in, Elvis the rock star, pop star, stand-up comedian and self-medicating Vegas showgirl remains the acme of the mediated male, and also of male desirability. Male love-me-tender passivity and vulnerability was endorsed and legitimised and transmitted by Elvis, helpfully preparing men for the (prone) role that consumerism had in store for them.

Tony Curtis fixation notwithstanding, Elvis really is ‘the original’, the template from which everything else is stamped, because he has become the ego-ideal of a mediated, ‘perverted’, dyed-sideburns culture. Since his death, through a process of global mourning and melancholia and constant re-runs and revivals, the lost lurve-object has been introjected into our collective Unconscious so completely that we don’t have to be lonesome tonight or tomorrow or in fact ever again. His absence has become an overwhelming presence.

Elvis really is alive. It’s just the rest of us that I’m not so sure about.

This essay is collected in ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story’


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