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Hot Rails to Hell 

Elvis, Part II

Wednesday, Mar 17 1999
LONG BEFORE HIS BODY WAS INTERRED, NEXT TO his beloved mother's, in Graceland's Meditation Garden, Elvis Presley was entombed alive behind the mansion's walls.

The shadow of that living death hangs heavily in the pages of Careless Love, the second of Peter Guralnick's two volumes devoted to Elvis' life. Knowing how things will end, one can hardly suppress a shudder while reading the prologue, which describes Elvis' return to Memphis in March 1960 after his Army service; in that passage, the gates of Graceland swing closed behind the car bearing him home with a chilling finality.

Guralnick undertakes a difficult task in the current volume. His first book about Elvis, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994), charted the ascent of the man blurbist Bob Dylan called "the incendiary atomic musical firebrand loner." That tale -- a thrilling American success story and a breathtaking drama of musical invention -- was enchantingly spun, with a freshness and lyricism unencountered in other Presley tomes. Careless Love seeks to present a similarly unique portrait of a far more familiar Elvis Presley -- the tabloid Elvis, whose Tinseltown fall, brief renascence and awful decline in the '60s and '70s was the stuff of gossip-column rumors and talk-show gags. The story is no less painful or appalling in Guralnick's telling than it was in past recountings, but one leaves the new book with a deeper understanding of the professional and personal failures that led Elvis to an early grave in August 1977 at the age of 42.

SINCE ELVIS HAS BECOME PERHAPS THE PRINCIPAL figure in the American popular pantheon, the history covered in Careless Love will be well-known even to those who haven't read any of the dozens of Presley biographies and memoirs already on the market. Guralnick takes in Elvis' 1958­60 Army sojourn in Germany, where he met his wife-to-be, Priscilla Beaulieu, as a 14-year-old service brat and became equally well-acquainted with amphetamines; his early-'60s return to show business, which found him buried for most of the decade in a series of forgettable, cheaply made Hollywood musicals; his rebirth as a legend in the December 1968 NBC TV special; his epoch of Vegas stardom; and his years of long, agonizing decline -- divorce, womanizing, profligate spending and prescription-drug addiction.

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The outline of Presley's later life and career could be used to indict the singer, and has been. In a famous review in the Journal of Country Music, Greil Marcus excoriated the late Albert Goldman's 1981 best-seller Elvis, often cited as "definitive," as an attempt "to entirely discredit Elvis Presley, the culture that produced him, and the culture he helped create." Peter Guralnick is just the writer to supply an antidote to Goldman's heinous work. His writing about Elvis, in both Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, is marked by a boundless, yet never blind, affection for the singer's music, Southern culture and rock & roll. Moreover, Guralnick is uniquely equipped to write about the disfigurements of Elvis' character. In his earlier collections of short pieces, Feel Like Going Home (1971) and Lost Highway (1979), he wrote about musicians -- bluesmen Skip James and Howlin' Wolf, rockabilly singer Charlie Feathers, country vocalist Hank Williams Jr. -- who were intransigent, strange or downright unlikable, and he managed to get to the core of their great artistry without ignoring their often considerable failings as men.

One of the problems Guralnick faces in Careless Love is that there is precious little art to speak of in Elvis' later career. After Elvis Is Back, the liberating album he cut in 1960 upon his return from the Army, hardly any good work was recorded, save a pair of deeply felt gospel albums, until early 1969 and his great sessions in Memphis with producer Chips Moman, which produced, among other tracks, "Suspicious Minds." Guralnick subtly suggests that the banal music Elvis made in the latter half of his life was the product of a general insouciance on his part (the carelessness of the book's title) and the absence of a motivating figure like Sun Records' Sam Phillips, who midwifed Elvis' unique synthesis of American musics in his breakthrough recordings. Only when a strong personality like Moman or Steve Binder, producer of the '68 comeback special, enabled Elvis to assert his Elvisness, Guralnick implies, was anything of worth created; for all his good intentions, RCA Records producer Felton Jarvis never found the key to unlock the best in his charge.

It would be easy to make Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' manager, the villain of the piece. This, after all, was the man whose credo was "You got a product, you sell it," and it was Parker who, with Elvis' (again, careless) complicity, condemned his one and only client first to a round of more than two dozen hopelessly empty musical comedies, and then, after his Vegas apotheosis, an equally spirit-destroying round of one-nighter tours. But Guralnick, who notes, "There are no villains here," paints a full and sympathetic portrait of the old carny hand, who supplanted both Elvis' late mother, Gladys, and Sam Phillips as the central influence in the singer's life. "Colonel" emerges as a cagey, funny, highly adept professional with his own set of problems (not the least of which was a serious addiction to gambling, which forced him to keep Elvis on the road, bringing in income). Parker was not unaware of his "boy's" troubles, and a 1973 blowup in Vegas over a drug-addled performance created a rift between the two men that was never entirely mended. By 1976, Parker would sorrowfully declare to some shocked backstage observers, "My artist is out of control."

Elvis' hot-rails-to-hell decline is delineated by a variety of inside witnesses, all of whom receive respectful treatment from Guralnick. As in Last Train to Memphis -- which was highlighted by a stunningly beautiful chapter depicting Elvis' pre-stardom idyll in 1954 from the point of view of his girlfriend Dixie Locke -- the writer gets a lot of his best stuff from the women in Presley's life. Priscilla Beaulieu Presley is drawn as a sexually precocious and ultimately rebellious spouse who bridled at Elvis' attempts to turn her into his constricted notion of the "ideal woman." His other consorts offer observations about his immature, needful approach to a relationship; one ex-girlfriend, Sheila Ryan, tells Guralnick, "It was adolescent -- until all of a sudden you graduated into Mother."

Even the most maligned figures in the Presley saga -- Memphis Mafiosi Joe Esposito, Charlie Hodge and Jerry Schilling, hairdresser and spiritual guru Larry Geller, and personal physician George Nichopoulos (whose handle "Dr. Nick" has been appropriated by the quack sawbones on The Simpsons) -- are painted less as conspirators and sycophants than as unhappy, often co-dependent victims, held in the thrall of Elvis' stardom.

GURALNICK ULTIMATELY VIEWS ELVIS PRESLEY AS A man whose terrible isolation in a hermetic existence of meaningless privilege and luxury sealed his doom. Larry Geller says of the singer's years in the Hollywood desert, "In Elvis' life the outside world was a distant place he ventured out into but never really lived in . . . [E]ven the most dramatic event assumed the texture of an episode on a television series." And Jerry Schilling, who finally quit Elvis in disgust in 1976, observes, "Everything lapsed into everything else, and the rest of the world was just this little tiny bubble that you couldn't really relate to anymore."

One leaves the book with a new comprehension of the forces that conspired to make Elvis Presley's unprecedented success a velvet-lined coffin, a kingly bondage. Bruce Springsteen used to conclude his marathon shows with the declaration, "I'm a prisoner of rock & roll!" After reading Careless Love, we realize that it was Elvis who was the music's truest prisoner.

CARELESS LOVE: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley | By PETER GURALNICK | Little, Brown & Co. | 768 pages | $28 hardcover

  • Elvis, Part II

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