Caught in a trap

Peter Guralnick's Careless Love sheds new light on the opaque unraveling of Elvis Presley

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 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 (officially released on January 8, to coincide with what would have been Presley's 64th birthday) achieves the near-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 this century. Yet, with few exceptions, Presley's life has been explored in print with a shoddiness to rival 1960s film atrocities such as Clambake and Tickle Me. Albert Goldman's contempt-filled 1981 sleazefest Elvis is merely the most infamous of these offenders.

During an 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. Rather, he insists, "The difficulties were twofold: 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 doughnut shop in a seedy part of Washington, D.C., a few nights after his December 21, 1970, meeting with Richard Nixon. Elvis 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 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 doughnut 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 girls into his bed. Equally important is that Guralnick applies his sharp critical instincts to Presley's work, debunking relatively ambitious early-'60s films such as 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."

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