I’ve just completed Peter Guralnick’s massive, two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. At nearly 1,200 pages, these books are clearly intended for the serious Elvis fan. And as music biographies, they are simply superb. Guralnick, without casting moral judgments, simply chronicles Elvis’s meteoric rise, long sojourn at the top of the cultural summit, and precipitous descent from the mountain.
By the time I started paying attention to music in the mid-1960s, Elvis was already past his prime. Upon his release from the army in 1960, he returned to the cultural spotlight as a romantic crooner, a schlockmeister, and the principal actor in a long string of bad movies. And, with the exception of a handful of worthwhile singles, he continued that way until his death in 1977. I missed the whole King of Rock ‘n Roll hype, and I never really understood what all the fuss was about. As far as I was concerned, Elvis was a cartoon character. He was Redneck Stud Man. He wore capes, like Superman and Batman, sang ridiculously over-the-top, embarrassing Vegas swill, and made middle-aged women squeal. Okay, I briefly considered the cape angle as a way to become a Chick Magnet, then dismissed it out of hand as absurd. And that’s the way I viewed Elvis. He was a buffoon, the surreal fantasy stud of a million bored Midwestern housewives. And I didn’t think much more about him.
Eventually, of course, I heard those fifties records. And I discovered, at least in part, what all the fuss was about. The guy had a voice for the ages, and when he used it on great material, as he did for most of the first four years of his career, he was a force of nature, a miracle. And his influence on popular music is incalculable. He was the great dividing line. After 1956 the musical world could be conveniently encapsulated as B.E. and A.E. All shook up was just about right. He was the earthquake that changed the way we heard music.
And all too soon he became an embarrassment – to those who loved good music, and, perhaps most profoundly, to himself. Guralnick’s books help to unlock that enigma, and show an enormously conflicted man – alternately kindhearted, mean-spirited, humble, self-absorbed, proud, and deeply ashamed. Elvis was capable of acts of great generosity, and he was also capable of the most flippant, uncaring insults. He believed his own hype, and yet he never quite felt comfortable in his own skin. Most disturbingly, he was a man who was defined by both his faith and his addictions, belting out “How Great Thou Art” in concert as if he meant it (and he probably did), all the while blasted out of his mind. His life was one big contradiction – the biggest star in the world circling the drain, watching his life become smaller and smaller with each passing year and each passing tour.
Elvis left the building quite a few years before he died. He checked out emotionally and never came back. I see parts of myself in him, and the contradictions that defined him are not unfamiliar to me. But he saddens me, this enormously gifted man. If I didn’t particularly like him before reading Peter Guralnick’s books, I like him now. His story is a peculiarly American tragedy, focused on the Bible Belt and conspicuous consumption, on the gaping hole in the soul that no amount of stuff, and no amount of adulation, could fill. He died as the King, seated on a porcelain throne, choking on his own vomit. No one has really worn the crown since him. I’m not sure why anyone would want to.