Thursday, April 1, 1999

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick

A Review of Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love:

The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

Originally published in Toast Magazine, April 1999

By Peter Guralnick
Little, Brown, $27.95

When Peter Guralnick published Last Train to Memphis, the first volume of his biography of Elvis Presley, it was hailed by fans and critics alike as the first serious treatment of one of our century’s most intriguing figures. Even Elvis’ former manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, called it “a different kind of book.” Neither an apologetic panegyric nor an exploitative tell-all, it examined in close detail all the facts about the singer’s rise from poverty to unimaginable success and popularity. But that book tells only the first half of the story, covering the time from Elvis’ birth in 1935 to his induction into the US Army in 1958, and now, four years after the publication of the first volume, Guralnick has published Careless Love to complete the story.

Guralnick calls this book a tragedy, and true to his word, Elvis Presley’s ghastly, pathetic, and utterly banal fall more than qualifies him as a tragic figure. The story begins with Elvis on hold in Germany as he waits for his stint in the Army to end and for his reign as King of Rock ’n’ Roll to resume. On top of the world as he’s drafted, Elvis struggles to be seen as just one of the boys, and this may be the first step downward. The ultimate symbol of rebellion and unleashed sexuality, Elvis loses nearly all street credibility when he wholeheartedly embraces the patriotic-young-man role laid out for him. But he wears it so well and is so lovable that we can’t help expecting him to return the same old Elvis.

With the Colonel running things on the home front, Elvis returns to find that he’s as popular as ever. But from his first recording sessions and his appearance on Frank Sinatra’s pathetic welcome-home special, it’s evident that the fire is out. He’s still beautiful and talented (and ten times cooler than Sinatra) but that’s just about it. Gone is the driving fury that transformed both popular music and culture, and in its place we find an adorable automaton. It’s not that Elvis consciously decided to sell out, but it’s evident from listening to the empty virtuosity of songs like “It’s Now or Never” that he was more interested in honing his technique with safe material than with challenging himself or his fans.

And then there are the movies. Elvis saw himself as a Brando or a Dean, but the Colonel saw dollar signs in cute comedies about girls and race cars. Of course, all this is old news to Elvis fans, but Guralnick’s painstaking account brings new depth to Elvis’ struggle both with the Colonel and with his own image. Elvis is profoundly frustrated with the lack of substance and challenge—in his music as well as in his movies—but Guralnick’s portrait shows Elvis as much to blame as his manager. He chooses to be led rather than to lead, and as the Colonel refines his money-making techniques, the paths that Elvis follows become increasingly narrow, in marked contrast to the bold expansiveness that marked his life and work in the 1950s. In elaborate detail, Guralnick recounts the deals that slowly turned Elvis into a laughing stock. We learn how Elvis wasn’t allowed to record a song to which he didn’t own the publishing, and how two-week filming schedules maximized movie profit for everyone involved. The publishing deals insured maximum profit as well, but Elvis had to stop singing Leiber and Stoller songs and start singing songs written by studio hacks—songs like “Ito Eats” and “There’s No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car.” One scene finds Elvis smashing acetate demos against the studio walls in his frustration, but he never objects.

His lifestyle is as disappointing as his artistic situation. Here’s a man with unlimited wealth and opportunity, to whom the world is open, and he spends all his time womanizing and partying in Las Vegas with his entourage. Living on the uppers he discovered in the Army, Elvis and company spend every night going to clubs and bringing countless women back to their hotel rooms. Of course, some of their hijinks are truly hilarious, but mostly they’re boring and sad. It’s not that Elvis lacked culture—although he certainly did—it’s that he had access to so much simple pleasure that he couldn’t imagine pursuing any other path.

Which leads to more boredom as the highs become more and more elusive. Which leads to more womanizing and more pills. In the background of all this is Elvis’ relationship with Priscilla Beaulieu, his stay-at-home girlfriend whom he met in Germany when she was just fourteen. Guralnick’s account necessarily lacks the intimacy of Priscilla’s memoir Elvis and Me, but the distance says a lot about how Elvis felt about and treated his wife-to-be. He wanted the nice girl at home, but he just couldn’t help himself when he was faced with women like Ann-Margret on a daily basis.

Again, much of this is old news, but Guralnick explores it all in nearly day-to-day detail, conveying the incredible boredom without ever boring the reader. We find ourselves sleepwalking through life along with Elvis, and as with any great biography, we find ourselves understanding and even getting used to Elvis’ world, which is quite a feat considering how warped and claustrophobic it becomes. Elvis’ bizarre spiritual awakenings, his infantile but strangely touching relationships with women, his ever-changing obsessions—everything we talk about when we talk about Elvis suddenly becomes imaginable and almost rational when viewed this closely. But probably Guralnick’s greatest feat is that as we read we forget how it’s going to end. We rally with Elvis as he puts on a spectacular performance on the 1968 “comeback” special. And when he goes on to record the amazing “Memphis” albums, we have renewed faith, if only for a while. We’re forced to read as if it’s happening now, suspending all we know about Elvis in the hope that he’ll regain the glory we know he’s capable of.

But as in literature, there are harbingers foreshadowing the future. His “comeback” was as much the doing of zealous, true-believer producers as of Elvis himself, and as we see him renewing his enthusiasm, we also know that he’s not really in charge anymore. He’s singing the way people remember him singing, not the way he envisions for himself, and we understand that once these people are gone, Elvis will be adrift again. We want to believe, though, and for a brief moment, as he decides to start touring after almost a decade off the road, we’re the first in line to buy tickets.

Another of Guralnick’s abundant talents is his lack of prejudice when dealing with characters we’ve all made up our minds about—most notably the Colonel. In both volumes, Guralnick delves almost as far into the Colonel’s life as into Elvis’, and what emerges is a multi-dimensional—and utterly fascinating—portrait of Elvis’ real other half. I won’t spoil anything for you, but when Guralnick reveals the long-hidden truth about the Colonel’s background, you’ll realize that he needs a two-volume biography of his own. The only consistent word that anyone in the know uses to describe him is “genius,” and far from being a sinister figure, he truly believes that he has Elvis’ best interests in mind. He falls nearly as drastically as Elvis does, though, and ultimately he’s as responsible for—and as helpless to prevent—his and Elvis’ tandem descent.

Everybody knows the rest of the story—the increasing reliance on “medication,” the freaky religious weirdness, the outrageous spending sprees, the guns, the destructive relationships—but never before has it been this unbearably intimate. Not even Elvis: What Happened?, the tell-all biography by fired bodyguards Sonny and Red West, comes close. Perhaps the most surreal—and most famous—episode is when Elvis meets President Nixon. After hundreds of pages, we’ve become acclimated to Elvis’ world—a world in which he has complete power—and as we see him encountering a truly powerful figure and see how utterly absurd he is in comparison, we can only shake our heads at how comical our hero has become. Nixon’s all-too-real villainy makes Elvis not just seem silly; it makes him seem thoroughly out of touch with any kind of reality, and this may be the book’s final turning point. Before, Elvis was the master of his own warped reality—a reality that we’d bent along with—but now we’re forced to step back in astonishment. Now we realize that Elvis is totally out of it.

From here on, the book is sheer torture to read. The list of drugs, physical maladies, on-stage embarrassments, creative disasters, and emotional upheavals just drags on and on, with Guralnick assigning more and more pages per year as Elvis’ life limps toward death. Everyone sees it coming, but to see it actually happen is almost too much to take. Amazingly, the Presley estate opened its files to Guralnick, so we get to see it all, in all the goriest detail. Again, I won’t ruin it for you, but be warned: If you care about Elvis even just the tiniest bit, this book will break your heart.

It’s hard to make much of a judgment about Careless Love, because its treatment of the subject matter is so engrossing that it’s hard to see the book objectively. It’s difficult to separate Elvis from Guralnick’s book about Elvis, which I guess is the best praise you can give a biography. For Elvis fans, this is certainly not the only place to look—there’s much to be found in many of the insiders’ biased accounts—but it is most certainly the best. Bob Dylan’s statement that Guralnick’s biography “cancels out all others” may be a stretch, but it isn’t much of one.

—David Wiley