All Shook Up

How Elvis left the building.

“Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant nothing to me”—that’s what Chuck D said, and there are plenty of reasons to agree with him. Anyone young enough to miss Elvis Presley’s early years but old enough to witness his long, steep decline—and the national obsession with him that keeps the supermarket tabloids in business—might wonder what all the fuss is about. Elvis’ success was mostly a function of being in the right place at the right time; if he hadn’t been around to make black music palatable to rebellious white teenagers, someone else would’ve done it. The guy didn’t even write his own songs, for chrissakes.

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick Little, Brown, $27.95

Yet, as Peter Guralnick points out in the introduction to Careless Love, the second and final volume of his definitive Presley biography, the singer has become such an icon—both celebrated and disgraced—that it’s easy to lose sight of the individual behind the bacon-and-peanut-butter-sandwiches mythology. Reducing the larger-than-life image to human scale, Guralnick provides a scrupulously researched (661 endnotes!) and painstakingly detailed account of Elvis’ life from his 1958 arrival in Germany as the world’s most famous army private to his death in Memphis at 42. Reading this chronicle of the gradual derailment of Elvis’ dreams, it’s impossible not to see the singer in a more human light.

The agent of Elvis’ downfall enters the narrative early: During maneuvers in Germany a sergeant prompted Elvis to first try amphetamines. It was also in Germany that Elvis met the then-14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, who eventually became his wife and the mother of his only child, Lisa Marie. Throughout his life, however, Elvis had more women than even Guralnick can keep track of—or track down. Nothing if not excessive, Elvis seemed to feel that he had to live up to his image as a sexual rebel, and eventually his faithlessness drove Priscilla away, as well as her successors.

In every other facet of his life, however, Elvis seems to have been too faithful. As Guralnick describes the symbiotic relationship between Elvis and his longtime manager, flamboyant former carny Colonel Tom Parker, you have to admire the singer’s loyalty and marvel at his blindness. Elvis trusted his manager so much that, by default, the Colonel made artistic decisions he was ill-equipped to make. The endless parade of subpar movies, the botched recording sessions, the hastily assembled albums—all made money for Presley (and Parker), but at the expense of his long-term goals and, ultimately, his self-respect.

The singer in his later years was an unbearably sad, paranoid figure, addicted to a wide variety of prescription drugs and searching for ever-elusive spiritual satisfaction amid a coterie of sycophantic friends and greedy relatives. In the end, the drugs took such a heavy physical and mental toll on Elvis that nothing short of a miracle could have extricated him. Always self-indulgent, Elvis in his final months was a National Enquirer headline waiting to happen. Guralnick describes several near-misses, with doctors in constant attendance as Elvis stumbled and rambled his way through concert appearances. “His voice is almost unrecognizable, a small, childlike instrument in which he talks more than sings most of the songs, casts about uncertainly for the melody in others, and is virtually unable to articulate or project,” Guralnick writes of Elvis’ last televised concert. “He gives the impression of a man crying out for help when he knows help will not come. And even after more than 20 years it is almost unbearable to listen to or watch, the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty, and in its place sheer, stark terror.”

Guralnick watched all the archival footage, listened to tapes of the recording sessions, sat through every movie and album. He interviewed, re-interviewed, and re-re-interviewed all the key players in the Presley drama. Sometimes, in fact, these layers of detail threaten to bury the reader, and you wish Guralnick would offer more contextual information about the musical and social upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s. Yet this vacuum-packed style is true to Elvis’ day-to-day existence; he was isolated, first from the outside world, later from even his closest friends and family. Careless Love captures perfectly the stifling, debilitating atmosphere of this legend’s waning years.

Elvis’ personal failures were interwoven with his career missteps. He couldn’t sustain his youthful rebellion, and his audience wouldn’t let him grow old gracefully. If fame hadn’t ruled his life, he might have been able to reinvent himself as a gospel singer. But the audiences would have been smaller, the money not as great, and cash was the Colonel’s motivation; increasingly, it became his client’s as well. So Elvis vanished into self-parody, a tragic figure whose heroic transformation never came. Guralnick tells Elvis’ story as an epic American tragedy, and by the end of Careless Love, even those who aren’t ardent fans will have to agree.

Peter Guralnick will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Monday, January 25.