Caught in a Trap
Four years ago I briefly met Peter Guralnick at a book-signing in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time Guralnick -- one of the few great chroniclers of American music -- was basking in considerable acclaim for Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, the first volume of his Elvis Presley biography. The book, arguably the first legit Elvis bio ever published, achieved Guralnick's goal of forcing the reader to approach Presley not as the patron saint of kitsch but as a revolutionary force in American music, someone who belonged in the same sentence with Robert Johnson and Hank Williams, not Wayne Newton and Tom Jones.
Last Train was a largely inspirational tale of a young man who rapidly climbed from the projects of Memphis to unprecedented popular success, encountered the ridicule of the Ward-and-June-Cleaver set, and handled the whole thing with impressive grace. Surely for someone like Guralnick, a Presley fan since he was in his early teens, writing Last Train must have been a joyful experience. But when I approached him at the book-signing and asked about the second volume, which would document the frequently pathetic second half of Presley's life, Guralnick simply said that the next volume was going to be a much tougher book to write.
Well, tough it may have been, but Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley achieves the nearly impossible. It brings coherence and dramatic tension to a story dominated by confusion and boredom. At 766 pages, this tome is hardly a breezy bathroom read, and when coupled with the almost equally massive first volume, its very scope suggests that Presley's frequently juvenile existence deserves as much scrutiny as FDR's or Churchill's. This might amuse some scholars, but it's worth remembering that no less a historian than David Halberstam ranks Presley among the most important figures of the century. Yet with few exceptions Presley's life has been explored in print with a shoddiness to rival '60s film atrocities like Clambake and Tickle Me. Albert Goldman's contempt-filled 1981 sleazefest, Elvis: The Films & Career of Elvis Presley, is merely the most infamous of these offenders.
In a New Times interview, Guralnick reveals that it wasn't simply the depressing nature of Presley's final years that made Careless Love such a hard tale to convey.
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"I think the difficulties were twofold," he says. "First, it presented an entirely different set of technical challenges. The story of Last Train is made up entirely of Elvis' external progress. In other words it reflects all his ambitions and aspirations, and the achievement of those ambitions is a direct line and it reflects what's going on inside.
"In the second part of the story, that isn't the case at all. There isn't a clear line of progress, nor is there a clear line of regress. There's a lot of repetitive events. But my aim is the same as with the first book or the same as it would be if I wrote about Bobby 'Blue' Bland or Charlie Feathers: to get inside the story, to tell the story from the inside out. But the inside is much more opaque in the second volume, and Elvis has retreated. In the first volume, Elvis is giving interviews, and they may not be the most in-depth interviews, but at each stop along the way, he's saying how he feels about his success, how much he's sleeping, all kinds of things like that. Then there are practically no interviews once he came home from Germany.
"The other thing is that I was faced with an overload of information from all sides. There have been so many memoirs, and you want to approach these both with the same openness and with the same skepticism as anything else, but due to the repetition of so much of this information, the description of some of these stories will stem more from the original source than from the experience the person had."
As an example Guralnick relays a story he omitted from the book, of Elvis stopping at an all-night donut shop in a seedy part of Washington, D.C., a few nights after his December 21, 1970, meeting with Richard Nixon. He begins to show off his gaudy jewelry and belt to the shop's patrons, explains that the International Hotel in Las Vegas presented him with the belt, and suddenly pulls out a gun, saying "This is what says I get to keep it." Several of Elvis' aides claimed to have witnessed the event, although Guralnick's research suggested that most of them could not have been there at the time. Strangely, after insisting that they saw the incident take place, two of these sources called Guralnick back and said that, after much thought, they both realized that they had not been at the donut shop but had simply heard Elvis tell the story so often and so vividly that they eventually came to believe they had seen it with their own eyes.
However sympathetic he may be toward his subject, Guralnick does not shy away from revealing Elvis' dark side, recounting familiar stories of Presley hitting a girl in the breast with a pool cue or punching out his aide Red West over some imagined insult. He also examines the icon's sexual double standards, not allowing his girlfriends to so much as smile at one of his friends, while he felt free to bring a parade of women into his bed. Equally important, Guralnick applies his sharp critical instincts to Presley's work, debunking relatively ambitious early-'60s films like Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, which most critics have tended to treat as bright spots in his canon. To quote Careless Love: "If you were to pick out the one thing that is desperately wrong with Wild in the Country, leaving aside a script that is freighted with all the 'sensitive young man' cliches of its time -- it is Elvis Presley."
Where Guralnick's story really differs from that of Goldman is in its tone. Goldman made no attempt to hide the fact that he considered Elvis an idiotic, talentless hick, and every anecdote was filtered through this prism. Guralnick is realistic about Presley's flaws, but he approaches the bio with a respect for the man's talent and musical accomplishments. In addition the scope and sense of detail that Guralnick brings to his subject put Presley's displays of anger or pettiness into a fair and reasonable context, whereas Goldman seemed most interested in stringing together as many scandalous rumors as he could unearth and fobbing the whole thing off as a biography.
The most intriguing element of the book is the way it frequently provides sharp contrasts between what was happening in Presley's career and what consumed his private interests. For instance, in the mid-'60s, while he was making his most inane, formulaic movies, Presley became obsessed with spirituality, even attaching himself to the obscure Self-Realization Fellowship -- a movement started in 1920 by an Indian holy man -- a good two years before the Beatles became infatuated with the Maharishi. (Elvis also took LSD in December 1965, only a few months after John Lennon and George Harrison experienced their own lysergic deflowering.)
In addition the bio provides strong evidence that Elvis knew early on that he was floundering on the big screen and was deeply depressed about it. If anything, such fleeting obsessions as spirituality, horseback riding, and karate seemed to be his way of escaping a career that had become a trap. The details that emerged caused Guralnick -- who once wrote in the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll that Presley had a near-complete lack of taste -- to rethink old positions. For one thing Guralnick says his early judgment -- that Presley was a blues singer who was compromised anytime he sang another form of music -- did not take into account Elvis' own eclectic tastes and broad ambitions.
"I wasn't open, I had no idea that he set out to do from the very beginning what he ultimately ended up doing," Guralnick says. "I didn't know, for instance, the Don Robertson ballads, or something like 'I Need Somebody to Lean On.' It's very jazzy. It's Elvis as if he might have been Charlie Rich. There's a whole bunch of stuff, from '60, '61, '62, up to '63, where he explored new directions."
In fact Careless Love makes the convincing case that the early '60s was a rich musical period in which Elvis tried to establish a mature path for his work. But when a solid studio album like the bluesy Elvis Is Back was dramatically outsold by Presley's throwaway soundtrack albums, the King caved in to Col. Tom Parker's insistence that they stick exclusively to soundtrack recordings, which could benefit from the cross-promotion of a hit film.
Presley was also hamstrung for years by the Colonel's insistence that they not record any song for which their company, Hill and Range, could not get the publishing. The upshot, as Guralnick points out, is that from 1963 to 1967, while at the peak of his vocal powers, Presley practically ceased to be a recording artist. Ironically, in the '70s, when publishing was no longer a concern and the Colonel was actually anxious for Elvis to go into the studio, Presley no longer had the desire or the physical command to deliver the goods.
Like any compelling tragedy, Careless Love invites dozens of what-ifs for even the most casual Presley fan. What if Elvis had disconnected himself from the sycophantic Memphis Mafia for which he felt responsible? What if he had accepted Elia Kazan's offer to do a film together? What if his tentative stabs at songwriting with Red West had blossomed into something more?
"I think it's the same kind of fear of failure that anyone creative has to recognize," Guralnick says of Presley's reticence to fully commit to songwriting. "People talk about writer's block, well what does that mean? It means that you or I look at a blank screen and we have a perfect idea in mind, and we know that as soon as we put something down on that screen, the perfection is marred. I think that's a natural reaction.
"I think that Elvis would have gotten enormous satisfaction out of writing. He was someone who was desperate to express himself in all kinds of ways. If you could have given Elvis a gift, you could've given him a course in comparative religion at UCLA. It's something he would have loved, and it may have given him the courage to fail. And as he became 'Elvis' more and more, the one thing he couldn't do was fail.
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