Four years ago, Peter Guralnick published Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, a serious, meticulous, explosively entertaining biography that traced Presley’s family lineage, musical influences, and the rising arc of his career as the avatar of rock & roll. That volume, by far the most comprehensive rendering of Presley’s early life amid the scores of books written about him — and a pungent rebuke to Albert Goldman’s oily 1991 anti-biography, Elvis — stopped when Presley was 23, at a peak of popularity, and freshly enlisted in the Army.
Now Guralnick has brought forth the second and final volume of the singer’s story, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, picking up two years after he left off. Presley, now 25, is ready to reenter civilian life — that is, to resubmerge himself in the maelstrom of the stardom created by his musical breakthrough and the entreprenurial machinations of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. As Guralnick begins, Parker has booked Presley to record an album that will become Elvis Is Back, to appear on a TV special to be called Frank Sinatra’s Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley, and to go into production on a movie, G.I. Blues.
That only the album — a fine collection of bluesy rock — proved worth Presley’s effort is the ominous start of the ”unmaking” in Guralnick’s title. And while Guralnick in his author’s note avers that ”the story of Elvis’ inexorable decline…is neither a simple nor a monolithic one,” that’s precisely what the biographer’s meticulousness and honesty turn his book into. The reasons for Presley’s downfall are indeed simple and monolithic: With a couple of glorious exceptions, his work in music and film became banal and repetitious — a betrayal of his early promise and achievement.
Obliged by his sense of thoroughness, Guralnick drags us through the filming of every one of Presley’s schlocky movies. Clambake, Roustabout, and Speedway sound even deadlier to make than they are to watch, which is really saying something. What could Guralnick have done to make this tedious material more lively to read about? He might have offered more pointed interpretations of the work, I suppose, but that would call for him to assume the sort of critic’s role that Guralnick has always assiduously avoided. He surely could have dealt with all the bad movies and bad soundtrack songs more succinctly.
But the other aspects of Presley’s life weren’t all that interesting either, hung as he was in a kind of drug-addled limbo. When not working, he occupied himself having pillow fights with soon-to-be-wife Priscilla, dating other girls with notable awkwardness (”He was so retarded,” says one dissatisfied vixen), practicing karate, collecting sheriffs’ badges, seeing Stalin’s face in a cloud, and contemplating becoming a monk. But mostly the increasingly bored, frustrated singer kept himself medicated on amphetamines and painkillers as well as what he called ”attacks” (Demerol, Seconal, Valmid, etc.) prescribed by the notoriously obliging ”Dr. Nick,” Dr. George Nichopoulos.
Guralnick’s research unearths good stuff at regular intervals. For example, in addition to learning that Presley’s healthiest addiction was to Monty Python’s Flying Circus reruns (he could do whole routines by heart), it was news to me that Presley had wanted to portray his country-music equivalent, Hank Williams, in a movie — a jolting notion that came to nought. And the chapter on Presley’s galvanizing 1968 NBC TV special is fascinating; Guralnick reveals the enormous amount of rehearsal behind the production, which was presented as an off-the-cuff jam session.
But mostly what Guralnick is obliged to chronicle in Careless Love is the story of a man who gave up his creative life for the security of wealth and unquestioning friends. Cut off from the world by his trust in the Colonel, who never wanted his charge to become a feisty, independent entity like the Beatles, Presley became paranoid (he kept an anti-American enemies list that included the Fab Four, Jane Fonda, and the Smothers Brothers) and pathetic (he contracted iritis in his eyes from the black dye he used on his eyebrows). Where Last Train to Memphis spoke of a miracle — how an impoverished young man became a revolutionary artist and a king of popular culture — Careless Love documents the life of a sheltered bore who turned his miracle into a tragedy as well as a joke. Guralnick tells that joke with eloquent sorrow and muted poignance. A-