October 8, 2009

Just completed reading both of Peter Guralnick’s excellent biographies of Elvis Presley: “Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley”, and “Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley”. I found the first volume (covering his early years through his departure Germany in 1960) more interesting, if only because Elvis’ early years are not as well-known nor as well-chronicled as his later years.

I come away from reading about his life with both a sense of awe and sadness more than anything. I mean, no one was as talented as Presley – he singlehandedly (and effortlessly) crossed the bounds of almost every kind of pure American “root” music imaginable – R & B, blues, soul, rockabilly, country, pop, and what came to be known as AOR (adult-oriented radio), and never sounded like a fish out of water. He obviously had a keen sense of what he could and couldn’t do musically, and it showed throughout his career, even in the worst of times.

Outside of music, of course, things were a great deal murkier. If there was a common theme throughout Guralnick’s books it was the fact that Elvis lived a life without boundaries and without control. Many have written about the so-called “Memphis mafia” that he surrounded himself with, calling them a bunch of leeches who should never have been allowed to cater to every whim Presley conjured up, but the fact is that was how Elvis wanted it. He wanted, yea, needed, control over the people around him, and it was through his gang that he was able to live the kind of life he lived and do whatever he wanted to do.

I’m sure the amount of success and adulation he received at such an early age had much to do with this, as well as his ultimate downfall. After all, I wonder how many of us would be immune to the very pressures and temptations that wild, early success brought him. He might have been “The King of Rock and Roll”, but in the end, Elvis was just as incredibly flawed as he was talented. He lived a hard, fast life, but he also brought joy to millions upon millions of people. His life was a flame that burned larger and hotter than life itself, and maybe it was better he left us at such an early age. After all, can anyone imagine the same kind of legacy were Elvis a dottering 70-year old burnout? It was only through his untimely death that he was able to become even larger than he was in life, if that even seems possible.

One other comment about Guralnick’s books and Elvis: the story of Elvis Presley cannot be fully understood without also recognizing the heavy role played throughout his life by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Whether it was watching Elvis’ movies, his concerts, or listening to his music, there was always an underlying cheap and corny aspect. His records were, by and large, horribly produced. His movies, while somewhat enjoyable to watch, were increasingly a waste of talent, and his concerts were often more spectacle than anything else. For all that Colonel Parker has to share the blame as much as anyone, for, outside of making his client as much money as he possibly could, he rarely though of Elvis as anything more than an object to be hawked and exploited to the very last penny.

At any rate, I highly recommend both of Guralnick’s books. Both were page-turners right from the get-go, and well worth the buy.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 22:24 | Comments Off on Contemplating Elvis
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