In Peter Guralnick’s 1994 book ‘Last Train to Memphis’ (The Rise of Elvis Presley) and his 1999 follow up ‘Careless Love’ (The Unmaking of Elvis Presley) a post mortem rescue mission is attempted on the humanity of one Elvis Aaron Presley. Elvis Presley died a full twelve years before this writer was even born, and so I and many others can only look back on his life with an odd sort of disorientation from an unbridgeable distance of time and culture. Guralnick sets aside (although does not ignore) the countless debates about Elvis as cultural icon, public train wreck, and all the other well known issues surrounding him, to pursue him as he actually was, as a person. From what we can gather, a few facts pop out immediately. He was a great singer first and foremost who had a lifelong passion for music of all kinds. He was a mama’s boy from the start, to the consternation of his father Vernon Presley, and deeply religious, even though he had many failings in that area. But he was also a carefully created and brilliantly marketed image right from the start, and his life swung back and forth between an idyllic American dream and a macabre fairy tale/nightmare.
From the very beginnings of his success there were people whose job it was to be responsible for maintaining that classic Elvis image and squeezing every dollar (and that was quite a considerable sum, even then) out of it as possible. They’re still doing it in fact. More people visit the deceased Presley’s home of Graceland per year than do George Washington’s Mt.Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, or the White House. Make no mistake about this; Elvis was, from his initial sensational musical success in the fifties all the way to his sad and pathetic end in the late seventies, first and foremost, a product. Guralnick’s great success in this book is chronicling the beginning of that ‘product’ while also giving us a glimpse of the actual person whose life was swallowed up by said product.
His natural talent of course was singing. He was at best only a passable actor in any of his hap-hazardly constructed vanity pictures, but that did not matter. When Colonel Tom Parker came along and took over business in the world of all things Elvis, being the shrewd old carnie he was, he quickly saw that selling Elvis to a few thousand people at a time through his musical touring act was far less advantageous and profitable than selling him to millions of people across the country in different cities all at the same time on the big screen. And with that, Elvis the movie star was born. For a while it worked out alright, as his hot streak of hits continued in the mid to late fifties, but then as time went by and the sixties, and The Beatles, arrived, Elvis, who was still a young man at the time, was already being looked at as more of a tired gimmick than actual performer, a relic from a bygone era of rock n’ roll lore.
Over time his box office appeal dwindled and Parker, perhaps out of not knowing anything else to do with him, let him return what he was actually good at, making music, which he flung himself into, full force. From his comeback in 1968 to his untimely death in 1977 Elvis Presley managed one of the most grueling touring schedules of any popular performer in history. To put it in a way that would provide better context, he put on more shows in these nine years than The Rolling Stones have done in their fifty years as a group combined. This time around, seeing that Elvis’s days as a matinee idol were long over, and that the cash cow was about on its last legs, the Colonel and Co. would ride this thing out until it collapsed, which it ultimately did, pushing it faster and farther all the way into oblivion. All that would remain from that point on would be legends and impersonators.
This biography, which is among the most extensive and detailed that I’ve ever seen, flows like a fine novel and gives you fully fleshed out presentations of every important person in the life of Elvis Presley. From Marion Kessler, the secretary at Sun Studio who first discovered him on the fateful day he came in under the false story of ‘wanting to make a record for his mother’, to Sam Phillips, the producer of Sun whose goal in life was to bring the vibrant black music scene of the time to the masses, and of course, the aforementioned Colonel Parker, who hovers over the proceedings like a white hatted Darth Vader with a big southern drawl. There are countless others; friends, acquaintances, critics, fans, anyone who had a story to tell that would give Guralnick a clearer picture of Elvis as a human being.
Mr. Guralnick spent nearly two full decades of his life researching this two part biography. In that time he interviewed just about every person he could get a hold of with any connection at all Elvis. He says in the beginning that writing a biography is a bit like chasing after a ghost, the closer you get to feeling like you’re right there, the faster it can all disappear on you. But I’d say the ghost of Elvis Presley is done a fine service here, and captured as well as anyone could ever hope to. Guralnick pulls no punches and he doesn’t cover up for Elvis when he was at his worst, but this isn’t an expose. The most rewarding parts for me were in the first half of the biography in which you get to see Elvis as a boy, hanging around local radio stations in Tupelo, the shy, fidgety young kid dreaming of what he could not dare to imagine would one day be his life.
Another favorite part is the beginning of Elvis’ career and his touring with the ‘Blue Moon Boys’, his guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. Scotty Moore contributed several interviews to this project and his recollections are a true treat for any fan of the era to read. This is the Elvis that people want to remember, the young would be James Dean and his small band of cohorts who tore up the south with sizzling rock n’ roll performances, causing riots all along the way. This is before Ed Sullivan, the movies, and everything else. Elvis is not yet the secluded persona he would later become but an outgoing star struck kid in the midst of something he can scarcely comprehend.
There are interviews with several of his ex-girlfriends as well, the most memorable of which being the girl he was with at the time of his initial success Dixie Locke. Locke seems of all the people interviewed to have known the Elvis that Guralnick was chasing after far better than anyone else. She knew the shy kid bursting with unknown passion before his head became clouded with fame and all the excess it brought. It is very likely had Elvis never broken out big, they would both probably be living in Memphis together on Elvis’ pension as a retired truck driver. In his mother Gladys’ final years, that is what she devoutly had wished anyway.
Now long lost to history is the shy young boy from Tupelo who performed at a state fair when he was ten years old, or the nervous young man who strove to make a name for himself at the tiny Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee with his quaking quivery voice singing outdated ballads in 1953. For most people the only memories they have of Elvis are of the mass marketed images that were manufactured for them. You have the young, hip, cool and confident Elvis of the fifties decked out in his gold jacket and black pants, the ‘Aww Shucks’ Army Elvis, just trying to do his part, the drive in movie idol of the sixties, the comeback Elvis, and finally, the sad, lonely, overweight and strung out Elvis of his final years. None of these, aside from the last one, in which he was just a beat up shell of himself, give you an idea of who he actually was though. This book attempts to remedy that. And in my opinion, it does a damn fine job of it.
If you’re just going to read one of this two volume set though, I’d go with the first one. ‘Last Train To Memphis’ covers the first twenty or so years of Elvis life and spends most of its near 500 pages covering the mid to late fifties, while Careless Loves spends a similar length covering the twenty year collapse of Elvis’ life, which is at times, very tough to get through. I have to admit my enjoyment of these books was definitely helped by the fact that I am a fan of much of Presley’s music, having been exposed to it since my early childhood, my favorite era admittedly being his beginnings and great songs like ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘That’s All Right’. (Another one of the great joys of this book for a fan is learning of the situations that brought about many of the classic songs of the Elvis catalouge.) I think more so than anything I can say here, the following summary written on the book jacket best describes the experience I had while reading ‘Last Train To Memphis’ and to a lesser extent ‘Careless Love’. “Elvis steps from the pages, you can feel him breathe, this book cancels out all others.” —Bob Dylan