The King Has No Clothes

A million adoring fans can't be wrong, can they?
Elvis Presley is the poster boy for the sorrows of superstardom. It's an old and now-familiar story: Unprepared for the realities of international fame and fortune, Elvis -- immensely talented, charming beyond belief and massively charismatic -- found himself adrift in a sea of sycophantic hangers-on, ecstatic fans and seemingly endless financial resources. But was it a dream come true or a gilded cage?

Until Peter Guralnick wrote Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Aron Presley in 1994, most of Presley's biographers were from within The King of Rock and Roll's "inner circle." Filled with personal debt, anger or awe for The King, their portrayals could not withstand tests of time or truth. But Guralnick's exploration of Elvis's childhood and rise to fame was notable for being rigorously factual and providing intimate appreciation of Presley's musical agenda.

Picking up where volume one left off (after the death of Gladys Presley and Elvis's induction into the army), Guralnick's recently released Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley captures The King's life through the overstuffed jumpsuit years: his introduction to 14-year-old Priscilla, the Colonel, the motion pictures, the Memphis Mafia, the studio sessions, the pharmaceutical addictions, Las Vegas, karate, the tours, the girls, the guns and even a stoned trip to the Oval Office where Elvis tried to persuade a bemused President Nixon to make him a federal narcotics agent.

Perhaps most important, Guralnick is the first to explain successfully how Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a onetime carnival huckster, maintained an enduring hold on a man whose genius was beyond his grasp. Careless Love meticulously documents the Colonel's cutthroat dealings with RCA Records and the movie studios -- deals which resulted in staggering paychecks for both Presley and Parker, who by the mid-'70s was splitting his sole client's earnings 50-50.

Guralnick ran into the Colonel on the author's tour to promote Last Train to Memphis, which, of course, Parker didn't like. In defense of his work, Guralnick told him, "I wrote this book for love, not money." The Colonel responded in perfect form: "Money's not so bad either."

But Guralnick doesn't love The King so much as his music. "Had it just been the myth of the star, I wouldn't have written the book," he said. The author began his music-writing career by doing unpaid short capsules on blues artists for the Boston Phoenix in the '60s. He has since venerated long-ignored blues players in such essential works as Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock and Roll, Lost Highway, Searching for Robert Johnson and Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.

Guralnick's account of Elvis's precipitous fall from grace to Graceland illustrates the lack of perspective we've had on Elvis's life. Much has been written on the rise of The King, but none with this sobriety and restraint. Elvis's final years have become little more than a gross caricature in popular folklore. Guralnick treats every aspect of Presley's life, including his forays into spiritual mysticism and his growing dependency on prescription drugs, with dignity and critical distance.

"I wanted to explore the meaning of the events as they happened at the time," Guralnick says, "rather than using the vantage of the present and applying significance of mythic resonance or judging the moments by their final outcome. I tried to create the context. If I was writing about a housepainter, I would do it in the same way."

-- Brendan Doherty

Peter Guralnick will sign and read from his Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, on Friday, January 22, from 7-8:30 p.m. Call (713)523-0701 for information.

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Brendan Doherty