Caught in a trap

Peter Guralnick's Careless Love sheds new light on the opaque unraveling of 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 that 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 them off as a biography.

The most intriguing element of Careless Love is the way it frequently provides sharp contrasts between what was happening in Presley's career and what consumed his private interests. 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 of 1965, only a few months after John Lennon and George Harrison experienced their own lysergic deflowering.)

In addition, Guralnick's 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 such as the bluesy Elvis Is Back was dramatically outsold by Presley's throwaway soundtrack albums, the King caved in to Colonel 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 mandate 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 eager 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 that he felt responsible for? 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 reluctance 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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