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January 8 - 15, 1999

[Book Reviews]

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Downward spiral

In Careless Love a god crumbles

by Ted Drozdowski

This year Elvis Presley's birthday will be marked in the usual way. On January 8, throngs of visitors will shed tears by his grave in the backyard of his Memphis mansion, Graceland. Tons of flowers will be sent to the site by fans from around the world. And it will be noted in newscasts and publications that Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll, was born on this day in 1935 and would have been 64.

Instead, Presley died in 1977 from what appears to have been a drug-overdose-induced heart attack while attempting to empty his bowels. His passing was as common and inglorious as it gets. Elvis was found with his pants around his ankles and his tongue swollen purple, lying cold on the bathroom floor. Hell of a way for a man to die, especially one whose stature in American popular history took on godlike proportions during his own lifetime.

This year, Elvis's birthday will also be marked by the publication of Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick's biography of the last 19 years of Presley's life. It is a marvelous book, richly written and thoroughly researched. At a time when journalism that reads like pulp fiction or tabloid writing has become standard to pop-culture biographies, Guralnick might seem to be almost as much of an obsessive about Elvis as Presley himself was about karate, airplanes, horse ranching, jewelry, and whatever else caught his fancy. But that's only because the Boston-based author and lifelong lover of music is working at the highest level of his art.

Guralnick, who began his career in music journalism as a contributor to the Boston Phoenix, has written fine books before. His Sweet Soul Music is one of the best volumes on evolutionary rhythm and blues. And his profiles of great American musicmakers in Lost Highway are delightful. But only Timothy White's classic biography of Bob Marley, Catch a Fire, comes close to the highwater mark Guralnick has set with his second book on Elvis Presley's life.

Guralnick's craftsmanship and devotion to detail are even more evident in Careless Love than in Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, his much-praised first volume of the story. That 1994 book (also published by Little, Brown) strained occasionally in its efforts to re-create the Tupelo and Memphis settings in which Presley was raised. In this second volume, Guralnick nimbly conjures visions of the Presley family's quarters during Elvis's stint in the Army in Germany. He paints a dark rainy night when Elvis, semi-coherent and carrying a loaf of bread under his arm, appears dripping wet at the door of one of his buddies' homes on his ranch to launch a wee-hours hunt for drugs. And Elvis's final years as a Vegas entertainer are re-created in often lurid detail -- the careless gunplay, the rock-star fits of destruction and anger, the groupie harvesting, the sycophantic phalanx of followers, the overdoses, and the frightening insecurity all stewing to a not-so-inevitable climax.

The image of Elvis in his latter days arriving backstage before a show and literally falling out of his limousine on all fours, raising a hand to keep his hired men from lifting him up as he crawls to his feet, is heartbreaking. He's pathetic, and yet at the same time he's fighting for even a small measure of the dignity and power that made him a performing legend. Right up until his own death, Elvis could not make peace with his mother's having died in 1958 -- and somehow that fueled a chain of insecurities leading back to his childhood as a loner and mama's boy. He grew up afraid of the night, which kept him from sleeping and gave him an excuse for his pharmacological intake. And the drugs, though they might initially put him out, would also wake him as their conflicting chemistry did battle within his body.

His fears also help to explain the chain of girlfriends he kept as a young bachelor rock star, a married man, and a divorced shell of his former commanding self. Elvis was terrified to sleep alone. And sex was far less a priority than having a warm body to hold at night, like a teddy bear. As the drugs and illness claimed him in his 40s, sex wasn't even a possibility. Loneliness was. In chronicling these and many other troubling aspects of Elvis's life, Careless Love deals with the long, slow painful death of a god -- a struggle with fame, power, creativity, sex, love, loss, obsession, and drugs. How could it be anything less than compelling?

Peter Guralnick Guralnick begins this half of Presley's tale in 1958, after Elvis was dispatched to Germany by the Army while at the height of his powers as an entertainer. Elvis brings as much of his Memphis overseas with him as he can, setting up house with his father, Vernon, his grandmother, and his circle of buddies who would evolve into the infamous Memphis Mafia: the confidants, bodyguards, sycophants, enablers, and spongers who -- along with Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker -- might have been able to save him with an appropriate display of honesty and character but who trembled at the thought of shaking their money tree out of his drug-influenced paternalism. Sure they were conflicted, seeing their friend become a staggering monster bent on destroying himself, but not enough to try to snap Elvis out of his downward spiral. They feared that such well-intended aggressiveness would dry up the stream of gifts and cash he directed at them. So they denied the desperation of his circumstances and merely hoped for improvement.

It's early on in Germany that Elvis is introduced to amphetamines by a sergeant who recommends speed as a way to stay alert on late-night maneuvers. Elvis innocently begins to believe the uppers will allow him to continue his own late-night maneuvers while meeting his usual daytime obligations to the Army tank corps. So he becomes a pill eater as he meets and woos a string of young women, including his eventual bride, Priscilla Beaulieu. She's a teenager when they meet, and Elvis -- smitten at first sight -- actually does pull off an elaborate scheme by which he manages to have Priscilla in his thrall while he beds Ann-Margret and other starlets and she saves herself for their marriage.

That's just one of the contradictions within Elvis's character that Guralnick illustrates in dazzling detail. Another is his growing devotion to spiritual searching, even as his appetite for drugs increases mountainously. At one point, Elvis has a religious vision in the desert where a cloud that looks like Joseph Stalin morphs into the face of Christ. Was it a transforming moment, as he believed, or the result of misconnecting synapses?

The story of Elvis's dissipation is intertwined and parallelled with that of Colonel Tom Parker. Despite occasional expressions of sympathy, Guralnick's presentation of the facts of their business relationship provides a clear-eyed view of Parker as a greedy prick who cared only about making money -- an old carny so devoted to the bottom line of the scam that he never realizes he's running his attraction ("the boy," as he calls Presley) slowly into the ground. Parker was responsible for Elvis's never making a good movie after 1958's King Creole -- instigating contracts that traded production time and money for inflated acting fees for Presley (and, of course, huge commissions for the Colonel). It was Parker who kept Presley out of the recording studio during the height of his powers in the early '60s in an effort to drive up the price of Elvis's contracts with RCA. And it was Parker who kept Elvis on the road in the mid '70s to pay off his own astronomical gambling debts when he should have spearheaded an intervention to land "the boy" in rehab and perhaps save his life.

Nonetheless, Guralnick gives Parker -- who died only last year, at 89 -- an even-handed assessment. And though it's obvious Guralnick loves Presley and his music (and the jolt of liberation it brought to young America in the 1950s), he does not shy from his subject's vanity, fear, or indulgences. Rather it is Guralnick's utterly realistic and unsparing treatment that reflects his love for Presley. The author's devotion to detail is not only good craftsmanship . . . it's outright devotion.

Peter Guralnick discusses Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley this Wednesday, January 13, at 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street in Brookline. Call 566-6660.


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