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Heartbreak Hotel: A Tribute to the King in Verse
Jeremy Reed
London: Orion Books, 2002.
£12.99, 250 pages, ISBN 0-75285-159-4.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

I first stumbled across Jeremy Reed in one of the English / American bookshops of the left bank in Paris. The novel was hidden away on the bottom shelf of a dusty bookcase and its title caught my eye; it was called Diamond Nebula (1994). I quickly found this was an author after my own heart: postmodern without being hermetic, with obvious enthusiasm for David Bowie, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, and mostly J.G. Ballard. I don’t mean the regrettably mainstreamed Ballard of recent years, the Ballard of the somewhat banal Empire of the Sun (1984) or the boring Super-Cannes (2000), no, I mean the good old Ballard of such subversive jewels as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) or Crash (1973). Go back to the books, don’t trust the movies adapted from his works—though David Cronenberg is perhaps more commendable than Steven Spielberg in that respect (in the same way, Philip K. Dick’s work back in the fifties and early sixties was light years ahead of its time and immensely powerful, now he’s constantly plagiarized in American and European movies and sometimes adapted—Blade Runner, Screamers, Confessions d’un barjot, Total Recall, Minority Report—but don’t trust the movies, get the books).

The voice connected with her as David Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’, one of the elliptical montage-effect lyrics from his mid-seventies’ Berlin period. […] Cindy couldn’t locate the source of the music. There was no indication of a human presence. […] Inside, her eye was arrested by an open photograph album. […] David Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre, 1972; at the LA Forum in 1976; Hiroshima, 1973; LA Amphitheatre, 1974; Wembley, 1976: the images seeming to have been chosen for their visual diversity and metamorphoses. Over the page were weirdly angled shots of Ballard getting into his car at Shepperton after the publication of Crash; and then the publicity photographs of him that had appeared on the jackets of High-Rise and Myths of the Near Future, together with a series of solarized images in the manner of Man Ray, in which the writer’s head was superimposed on Brancusi sculptures. Cindy flicked through the obsessive preoccupations: Warhol screened by black glasses on a couch at the Factory, and then seen filming Edie Sedgwick and Gino Persicho in Beauty 2; and a few pages on, isolated, filming Chelsea Girls.

Of course, it helps if you know exactly what Reed is talking about. Presumably, people like me, who share most of his “obsessive preoccupations”, will find his fiction more congenial than, say, people who listen to classical music exclusively and favor Turner over Lichtenstein.

After I’d read Diamond Nebula, I bought some of Reed’s previous books. He is an extraordinarily prolific author; does this man ever get any sleep? In Delirium (1991), he “interprets” Rimbaud; “the sort of perception which Rimbaud would have recognized”, wrote Robert Nye perceptively in The Guardian. In When the Whip Comes Down (1992) he “interprets” the Marquis de Sade. In Isidore (1991), Reed “interprets” Lautréamont. Lipstick, Sex and Poetry (1991) is a suitably-named autobiographical piece about his early days. But Reed has also published at least eight poetry books (often well-received and prize-winning), including the very unusual Red-Haired Android (1992), about aliens, gender-bending and rock ‘n’ roll; if the title immediately makes you think of Bowie in the early seventies, you’re on the right track. Reed’s Red Eclipse (1989) features the imaginary notebooks of Charles Baudelaire’s mistress Jeanne Duval. His Dorian (1997) is an interesting sequel to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, absolutely not to be mistaken for Will Self’s recent Dorian (2002), which is a perplexing rewrite of the same. His Sadean erotic novels, such as Sister Midnight (1997) don’t impress me so much, admittedly, but they are not without merits, as such things go.

Moreover, Reed has written fine rock biographies of Brian Jones, Scott Walker, and Marc Almond. In The Last Star: A Study of Marc Almond (1995), he elevates the art of biography to rare idiosyncratic levels, like Wayne Koestenbaum, whose books have been reviewed in Cercles, and whom Reed actually quotes (great minds think alike):

[…] Almond’s version of Eartha Kitt’s spiky narrative of revenge, “The Heel”, also saw him adopt a woman’s role to convey the song’s classic tale of jealousy and betrayal. The exercise in gender transference had never sounded so authentic. Almond was heard committing hedonistic regicide in order to adopt a diva’s tragic identification. “Disturb gender, and you disturb temporality; accept the androgyne, and you accept the abyss”, Wayne Koestenbaum tells us in The Queen’s Throat.

Almond and Reed share many passions: David Bowie, the Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, Georges Bataille, J.G. Ballard, Derek Jarman, Scott Walker, Jacques Brel, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jean Cocteau, and especially J.K. Huysmans. “What is it like to be a torch singer?”, asks Reed, “Is it so very different from being a poet?” At any rate, this particular poet and this particular torch singer often plunge their readers / listeners into the same sleazy delectable Camp. And incidentally, Almond has also published very acceptable poetry, in addition to a gripping autobiography, Tainted Life (1999).

Elvis Presley, however, gets no mention in Tainted Life, and as far as I know Almond has never slipped any Presley number between a Juliette Greco song and a Charles Aznavour cover. But in Heartbreak Hotel, Reed shows unbounded enthusiasm for the King. Or perhaps “enthusiasm” isn’t quite the right word. Reed knows a monumental pop culture icon when he sees one. This book is hard to classify; it is a biography as much as it is a novel or a collection of poems. I suppose it could simply be called a book about Elvis in verse, without the semi-playful allusions to the surrealists of Reed’s previous poetry (the dust cover announces “a tribute to the King in verse”). I wonder how his faithful British poetry-loving readers will react to it. I myself would without hesitation recommend it to anyone wishing to celebrate the King’s death’s twenty-fifth anniversary in style; it makes a superb present for inconsolable fans. Reed notably celebrates (sometimes in the first person singular) Elvis’s endearing white-trashiness, his bad taste, and his raven black pompadour-styled hair. He evokes each key episode of his career, from the humble beginnings to the Las Vegas excesses, via the mythic Sun Studios; he conjures up his dead brother, his mother, his entourage in general. He also pauses now and again to take a stroll with James Dean, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, even Liberace (who had much more in common with Elvis than many diehard Elvis fans are willing to acknowledge), or, unsurprisingly, David Bowie (“Major Tom’s cremated ashes buried in deep space”).

Here are some samples:

Dust as the South’s ubiquitous dry surf,
Arkansas, Nashville, a pink Cadillac
sidles with schmaltz ostentation across
a ranch-gapped landscape. When a tyre pops,
a mean hood in silver-spurred biker’s boots,
his Clairol-black pompadour part-collapsed,
moons by the car, holding a teddy-bear
won at a local carnival. […] [8]

Stage-dressing’s a two-hour ritual,
doing his hair makes inroads on ennui,
he’s suddenly all he’s got,
narcissistic about a wicked pimple,
learning to do thin-highwayed eyeliner. [10]

About Elvis’s brother:

We’ll meet each other the B-side
of life—he’ll be my guardian at the end,
grabbing my hand to cross the one-way bridge. [12]

Here are some characteristic poem titles: “Five Fan Letters from Elvis to Jesus Christ”, “Elvis Eyes a Jam Donut”, “Boredom as Big and Blue as the Sky”, “Dancing On Hot Red Lips, My Love”, “Elvis’s Anti-Ageing Policies”, “Freaky Obsessions”, “Elvis Does Some Coffin-Testing”. The whole book is at the same time a contribution to and an examination of Elvis’s legacy. The King has, after all, changed the face of pop culture—if not the world—forever.


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