Reading Elvis


Carter


In
the last two decades, the image of Elvis Presley has been so thoroughly
obfuscated by myth and parody, it is near impossible to recall his life and
music without bringing to mind the ridiculous and tragic figure he had become
by the time of his death.


With that in mind, Peter
Guralnick’s two-volume biography, Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of
Elvis Presley
(Little, Brown, 1995) and the recently published Careless
Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley
(Little, Brown, 1999), is a welcome
and authoritative revision of Presley’s legacy. By replacing what he calls
the “chorus of informed opinion, uninformed speculation, hagiography,
symbolism, and blame” with meticulous research, empathy, and no personal or
moral ax to grind, Guralnick gives us back the fragile, insecure, enormously
talented human being lost in the myth known as Elvis.


The broad outline of
Presley’s rise and fall is known to many. Poor, southern white trash boy
gets discovered by record producer (Sam Phillips) looking for a white man with
a black sound. The kid becomes an overnight success, “the king of rock and
roll,” but in the process trades his inspiration for wealth, fame, and the
security of an insular world guarded by fawning friends and his trusted,
controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Stuck in a work cycle producing
embarrassing movies, banal music, and grandiose Las Vegas styled live
concerts, he becomes a bore and a joke. Physically wrecked, 14 different drugs
in his system, spiritually empty, Elvis Presley dies in 1977 at the age of 42
while sitting on his toilet, gold pajama bottoms at his ankles.


Guralnick’s two-part
biography follows this same arc, but unlike other Presley biographies, and the
many “life with Elvis” accounts offered by hangers-on, lovers, relatives,
and employees, steers toward clear-eyed description, and as much as possible,
the point of view of Elvis. Armed with more than ten years worth of research,
hundreds of interviews, and a deep affinity for the music and culture that
gave birth to Elvis, Guralnick takes a story that millions assume they know
and transforms it into a revelatory and poignant meditation on “celebrity
and its consequences.”


Tracing Presley’s family
and social background, childhood and adolescence, early musical passions, and
meteoric rise to stardom, Last Train To Memphis is clearly the more fun
read of Guralnick’s two volumes. Propelled by the young Elvis’s drive to
invent a life beyond his humble origins, the first book sustains an exuberant
energy even as it sketches a bittersweet portrait of a young man wounded by
deep-seated insecurities. Stigmatized by his poverty, shy, lonely, and
undistinguished in any way, the young Elvis Presley discovered in music, a
form of peace and self-expression absent from his everyday world. Music, all
kinds of it (blues, gospel, pop, country,opera), became his all consuming
passion, though few of his peers seemed to care or notice.


Still, according to Guralnick,
the 18-year-old singer who showed up at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records in
Memphis in 1953 had only a vague vision of where his musical interests might
lead. Though a raw, unshaped talent with no definite ambitions, Presley had
something unlike anyone else. And through experimentation, instinct, and
accident, he and Sam Phillips, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bassist Bill Black,
found a wondrous “rockabilly” sound in recordings such as “That’s All
Right,” “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” “Baby Let’s Play House,” and
“Good Rockin’ Tonight.”


The circumstances of the
legendary Sun sessions have been recounted in many other books, but the notion
persists that Elvis’s creative breakthrough was nothing more than a rip-off
of black music. Guralnick, like Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and other music
writers, presents evidence of Presley’s broad range of musical influences (Bing
Crosby, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams,
Ray Charles, Ivory Joe Hunter, Arthur Crudup) and the out of nowhere surprise
that yielded “That’s All Right.” As guitarist Scotty Moore recalled:
“All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and
acting the fool, and then Bill picked up the bass, and he started acting the
fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the
control booth open—I don’t know, he was either editing tape, or doing
something—and he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And
we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a
place to start, and do it again.’”


Up until the moment of
Elvis’s spontaneous cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s blues, Sam
Phillips, a passionate fan of African American music and producer of records
by blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, said he had heard nothing
in any of the songs Presley had previously performed that indicated any
interest in this kind of music. But growing up in the low-income neighborhoods
of Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Presley had absorbed the music of poor
whites and poor blacks without making distinctions or classifications. When he
finally revealed his attraction to black music, Phillips sensed more than the
emergence of a bold, new talent. Here was a kindred spirit who might join him
in his mission to “knock the shit out of the color line.”
As a child working on his
father’s farm, Sam Phillips had developed a deep enthusiasm and respect for
African American music and culture. Moreover, he came to believe (and
advocated publicly and privately) in the social equality and unique
individuality of all human beings. Through music, particularly the traditions
of working class whites and blacks, he hoped to affirm his egalitarian vision.
While the young Elvis Presley did not consciously express Phillips’s
philosophy, through his lack of prejudice and powerful projection of
aggressive desire and yearning, the singer seemed to be striving intuitively
toward the same dream.


Guralnick, however, while
underscoring the heavy blues influence on many of Elvis’s early recordings,
clearly shows that the song repertoire, musical styles, licks and rhythms,
stance and sentiments that converged in Presley’s music did not derive from
exclusively black roots. Whether he was covering a bluegrass tune of Bill
Monroe, a country weeper of Leon Payne, a blues of Big Mama Thornton, or a
rocker of Little Richard, Elvis’s singing and musical backing expressed a
broad cross-pollination of influences and genres. The resulting
interpretations, inevitably, sounded only like Elvis.


Perhaps the best proof for
this case can be found on last year’s The King’s Record Collection,
Vols. 1 and 2
(Hip-O), a 2-CD package offering the original versions of
tunes that Elvis later covered. Though Chuck Berry and Little Richard may
stake a legitimate claim to the King Of Rock and Roll title, The King’s
Record Collection
demonstrates not only Presley’s varied and good taste,
but the distance he went to make a song his own.


In regard to his “theft”
of the blues, here’s how Presley explained the origins of his take on blues
in a 1956 interview: “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just
like I’m doing it now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like
that in their shanties, and their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind
’till I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I
used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I
ever got to the place where I could feel like old Arthur felt, I’d be a
music man like nobody ever saw.”


Indeed he did become a music
man like nobody ever saw. But it wasn’t just how he sang (“hillbilly in
R&B time” one Louisiana DJ called it) or what he sang (almost the full
spectrum of American music). It was also his good looks, the way he stood, the
way he moved, the sneer of his lips, the greased back hair, the turned-up
collar, pink pants and black coat. All of these qualities combined to make
Elvis Presley a phenomenon above and beyond all the other white rock and
rollers who followed in his wake (Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison,
Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran).


As for black rockers (Chuck
Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino), given the racial barriers of
the time and the growing buying power of white teenagers, no African American,
no matter how great their talent, could possibly contend for the crown of King
of Rock and Roll. Though black music in the 1950s was beginning to make its
radio crossover around the country, most whites heard it first and preferred
it most translated through white performers. Surprisingly, Gural- nick, the
author of several other books illuminating the racially tangled histories of
Southern rooted musical forms, has little to say about how race attitudes
handicapped the popularity of black rock and roll.


Still, as Guralnick shows,
for the white folks around to register the shock and excitement of seeing
Elvis on his way up, “the hillbilly cat” did seem like something from
another world. When his first records were released by Sam Phillips,
Presley’s mutation of country and R&B traditions had neither artistic
credibility nor proven commercial potential. As a Southern white working class
youth, his image fit no pop idol mold.


But with his restless body
language and impassioned singing, Presley struck a nerve. In expressing his
desperate need to break free of the drab and stifling life he had been born
into, he connected to an entire generation. Within a few short years, he
exploded from “a promising hillbilly act” recording for a small
independent record company catering to a regional market to phenomenal pop
success generating 14 consecutive million selling hit singles for the major
label RCA.


In
retrospect, it is easy to see the historical forces at work in Presley’s
success. The post-war economic boom, an expanding youth market, more black
music on white radio, cross-race musical exchanges (particularly in the
South), the rise of young movie star rebels (Marlon Brando and James Dean),
and a square, conformist mainstream culture, set the stage for rock and
roll’s inevitable arrival. Nevertheless, when Elvis Presley stepped before
audiences in the 1950s, he was something strange, unexpected, and undeniably
charismatic.


Guralnick supplies ample
testimony of Elvis’s mesmerizing impact on musicians and fans witnessing his
early performances. What he fails to convey is the depth of the negative
reaction Presley inspired. To the majority of the adult world, Elvis provided
fodder for jokes and derision. He was both talentless and disgusting. At best,
a harmless passing fad. At worst, a bad influence. But to some, particularly
in the South, his music and persona expressed something more dangerous—a
subversive degradation of white culture. Modest, soft-spoken, and ever polite
off-stage, Elvis on-stage embodied the breakdown of racial taboos. The joy and
release delivered in his performances came organically bundled with threat and
provocation.


In his essay on Presley in Lost
Highway
(Godine, 1979), Gural- nick quotes Elvis recalling his earliest
musical influences in the Pentecostal First Assembly Of God: “Since I was
two years old, all I knew was gospel music, that was music to me. We borrowed
the style of our psalm singing from the early Negroes. We used to go to these
religious singings all the time. The preachers cut up all over the place,
jumping on the piano, moving every which way. The audience liked them. I guess
I learned from them. I loved the music. It became such a part of my life it
was as natural as dancing, a way to escape from the problems and my way of
release.”


On the radio and in the less
respectable parts of town where the Presley family lived with the support of
welfare and public housing, there was the blues. “I dug the real low-down
Mississippi singers,” Elvis explained, even though, like many blacks, his
parents considered it “sinful music.” Yet in these raucous sounds of
struggle and celebration, the young Presley discovered excitement and freedom
absent from the country, gospel, and pop tunes that made up the conventional
soundtrack of the white community.


However, for all his love and
natural absorption of black music, Elvis spoke the truth when he explained to
Sam Phillips that he didn’t sound “like nobody.” Black music was only
one of his interests. Ultimately, his ambition was to sing all kinds of music.
As much as he loved the low-down blues, Presley still maintained an enthusiasm
for pop crooners like Dean Martin and Perry Como. Though a true outsider in
his Sun Records days, from the beginning he aimed for nothing less than
mainstream success.


In the earliest moments of
his rise to national popularity, and within months of signing on with Colonel
Tom Parker and RCA, Elvis was moving toward a smoother, slicker sound
utilizing the latest studio technology, back-up singers, and expanded
instrumentation. For a few more years, one great rock record would follow
another (“Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Heartbreak Hotel,”
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”), but by the time he was drafted into the Army in
1958, Elvis’s most inspired and innovative music (with a few exceptions) was
already behind him.


Documenting the second half
of Presley’s life, beginning with his two-year stretch in the army and
concluding with his death in Memphis in 1977, Careless Love plots what
Guralnick calls an “inexorable decline.” Although the final volume of the
biography opens with the 25-year-old Presley charged to follow the blueprints
of Colonel Tom Parker to rekindle and magnify his stardom, gradually the story
turns somber, sad, and pathetic as Elvis succumbs to the many pitfalls of his
fame.


Piling up all the
excruciating details of the singer’s relentless downslide—the insulated
boys club life in his Graceland mansion, dumb and dumber Hollywood movies,
increasing dependence on speed and downers, blind faith in Colonel Parker,
juvenile sexuality and a deep need for mothering, all the pitiful efforts to
buy friends, lovers, and respect, and above all else, the betrayal of his
music to the formulaic demands of the mass market—Guralnick portrays a man
utterly ill-equipped to deal with the traps of sudden and unprecedented fame.
After all this thorough and
sordid reportage, however, the last half of Presley’s life still remains out
of focus. In choosing to dwell on all the intimate facts of Elvis’s
walled-in world, Guralnick’s second volume, unlike the first, offers
virtually no social perspective. With little indication of the magnitude of
the social and political upheavals happening outside his legendary mansion,
readers have no clear sense of how and why Elvis had become so completely
unhip by the 1960s. His hair, his clothes, his music, the gaudy
materialism—all of it expressed just how out of sync he was with the
changing times.


Guralnick, a passionate fan
of Elvis’s early music, is certainly aware of this, and in shorter pieces
has written of his disappointment and disconnection with Presley during the
1960s and 1970s. But in Careless Love, he ignores social context and
offers only vague hints of Elvis’s views on the Vietnam war, civil rights,
and other issues of the day. As a result, the picture of Presley in the 1960s
is both puzzling and incomplete.


We learn, for instance, of
Elvis’s brooding anguish over the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin
Luther King, his serious appreciation of socially progressive films like Dr.
Strangelove
and To Kill A Mockingbird, and an affection for Bob
Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.” But in 1970, in an entirely nutty
meeting with Richard Nixon, we have the King begging for an honorary
appointment as a federal drug agent and advising the president on the threat
of anti-Americanism fostered by hippie elements, SDS, the Black Panthers, and
the Beatles. How all this fits together in Elvis’s mind, Guralnick leaves
readers to speculate.


What is certain is that for
all the swaggering confidence Elvis exuded in public, he remained terribly
lonely and insecure. To cover his fears, he needed and demanded total
approval. To achieve it, he very quickly traded creative risk-taking and
“real life” for the easy ego-propping comforts sustained by his wealth and
bought and paid for friends.


As Guralnick painfully
recounts, this bargain never delivered much peace of mind. Elvis was deeply
embarrassed by his string of schlocky movies (Girls! Girls! Girls!, Clambake,
Roustabout, to mention only a few), and the increasing banality of his
music. He complained often of the burden of living up to his image, people
using him, the Colonel’s control over his life and career. Here and there,
like in his televised 1968 “comeback concert,” he showed signs of
thrilling power and naked emotions suggesting a possible redemption. But in
the end, as Guralnick puts it, “he was not about to throw away the identity
he had so assiduously created, he enjoyed being Elvis Presley.”