Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Not the Messiah: the careless unmaking of Elvis the man

From the Vaults: This is a book review I did for the South China Morning Post of Peter Guralnick's Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Aaron Presley. Along with Greil Marcus, Guralnick is one of the more thoughtful and prescient writers among the pack of hacks contributing to the ever-swelling annals of Elvis literature. Watch this space for my own excellent Elvis adventure, when I followed the Hong Kong Elvis Presley Fan Club to Graceland and beyond for the candlelight vigil and assorted other bizarre rituals and commemorations of the King's death.

Much has been made of the elevation of Elvis Aaron Presley from mortal to royalty and, eventually, deity. Many a writer has found a rich furrow to plough, comparing the King and his sad fall from grace (and from Graceland's toilet) to a Christ-like sacrifice; describing the antebellum mansion and its surreal surrounds as the Stations of the Cross for the ever-swelling army of acolytes. The Candlelight Vigil as Midnight Mass. The jump-suited, fuzzy-chopped impersonators as a weird, wobbly bottomed priesthood.

How refreshing, then, to witness this rare and tender resurrection performed over more than 700 pages by Peter Guralnick - the resurrection of Elvis the man. No easy task, this, reclaiming Presley's life from under the crushing weight of supermarket tabloid history. Guralnick acknowledges the challenge in an author's note: 'Elvis Presley may well be the most written-about figure of our time. He is also in many ways the most misunderstood, both because of our ever-increasing rush to judgment and, perhaps more to the point, simply because he appears to be so well-known. It has become almost impossible to imagine Elvis amid all our assumptions, amid all the false intimacy that attaches to a tabloid personality . . .' Impossible for a lesser writer, perhaps, but in Guralnick's patient and capable hands Elvis lives and dies anew. This is the second part of his painstaking project, the first being Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley.

In Careless Love, Guralnick takes up the tale with Presley's two-year army stint in Germany, beginning in October 1958. It is here that he discovers a taste for amphetamines, enabling him to rumble around with a tank crew during the day and to party all night. It is here, too, that he meets Priscilla Beaulieu, the 14-year-old daughter of a US army captain who was later to become his wife and give him his only child.

Just months after arriving back in the US, his Svengali-like manager, 'Colonel' Tom Parker had already lined up two movies, two albums and a television special with Frank Sinatra. But, as he recounts to one of his friends, he has a recurring nightmare in which, Guralnick writes, 'there were no fans outside the gates, there was no Col. Parker, and he felt alone, helpless and deserted'.

Death and desertion were fears that continued to haunt him throughout his short life - fears he attempted to quell with a veritable pharmacopoeia of drugs, his trademark peanut butter-banana-and-bacon sandwiches and his curiously innocent brand of debauching. Even before the drugs robbed him of his ability to perform in bed, Presley showed a predilection for young virgins who could be moulded to his taste. And once between the sheets, he preferred cuddling and petting to penetration.

Between 1961 and 1969 he was to make almost 30 movies, many of which Presley was thoroughly embarrassed to be associated with. But despite the occasional blow-up, he put his complete trust in the Colonel's grand plans. By midway through that decade, he was pulling in more than US$1 million a picture but his recording sessions became increasingly sporadic and lacklustre.

In 1968, he made a brief return to the raw sexuality and power of his pre-army days, with the famed 1968 television 'comeback' special. It was to be a short-lived renaissance, however, followed by a tortuous slide into apathy, virtuoso drug abuse and erratic behaviour. Guralnick, without ever saying so explicitly, paints a near-textbook case of manic depression. Elvis would go on wild spending sprees, showering friends and even strangers with Cadillacs and jewellery, egged on shamelessly by the Memphis mafia, the motley band of rednecks and sycophants determined to ride the Presley juggernaut until it crashed and burned.

By the early 1970s, he seemed happy to be a parody of himself, indulging in grandiose ballads and messianic posturing, jumpsuits straining around a burgeoning gut as he went through the motions in Las Vegas. Answering his own earlier question, he told a friend: 'I think it's important for me to just entertain . . . make people happy, help them forget their troubles for a while.' By 1977, it was all over. His drug-addled body could take no more. 'Wise men know, when it's time to go,' he sang in one of his last concerts. And it was.

'Elvis was a hero to some but he didn't mean s*** to me,' came the nasty rasp of rappers Public Enemy. But he does mean something to most people, if only as a life that encapsulated the hopes and fears and failed dreams of that strange great land we call America. Guralnick's hard graft and lyrical quill bring us a good deal closer to understanding the foible-filled fable that is the life and death of Elvis Presley.

Careless Love: The unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick Little Brown & Co $340

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