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Literature: Love Him Tender

Peter Guralnick's masterful two-part biography paints a life with accumulated detail, suspended judgment



Handsomely issued as a box set whose exterior depicts Graceland covered by a rare Memphis snowfall, Peter Guralnick's two-volume life of Elvis, 1,300 pages long and 11 years in the making, proclaims itself as the definitive biography of The King. (The boxed set coincides with the reissue of Guralnick's two-part biography in paperback).

The previous contender was probably Albert Goldman's Elvis (1981), a work of sharp novelistic detail, great narrative energy and cultural insight, but one that was undone by unsupported speculation and a mean spiritedness that made the writer's judgments as suspect as any hagiographer's.

In this age of Letterman, we seem to demand public figures that we can worship and revile at the same time, and the sad Elvis of the last years -- a thick-tongued psychodrama, and a private life of Poor White bad taste -- is the Elvis that seems stuck in the public mind these days.

In the superb author's note that opens Careless Love, Guralnick writes:

The story of Elvis' inexorable decline -- what could be called the vanishing of Elvis Presley ... is neither a simple or monolithic one, and it may have no greater moral than the story of Job or Oedipus Rex: count no man lucky until he has reached his journey's end. The kind of fame that Elvis experienced requires constant reinvention if one is to escape its snares and ... his desire to [reinvent himself] was ambivalent at best; he enjoyed being Elvis Presley.

Nowhere in Guralnick's work do you find the moralizing, ominous foreshadowing and melodrama that seem to shape most show-biz biographies. In the introduction to Last Train to Memphis he writes:

When I finally decided to write the book, I had one simple aim: to keep the story within "real" time, to allow the characters to freely breathe their own air, to avoid imposing the judgments of another age, or even the alarms that hindsight inevitably lends.

Guralnick's young Elvis is a wonderful creation, and the cover of Last Train shows a superbly appropriate photograph of Elvis in a train compartment, listening to the acetates of his recording sessions on a portable phonograph that he almost seems to be cradling, as if in gratitude at his own awe and good fortune.

Guralnick is a gifted interviewer, and has coaxed some remarkably fresh memories from the people in Elvis' life. One of Elvis' girlfriends remembers him in the summer of 1956:

... when they were swimming there was always a phonograph sitting beside the pool. Elvis played "My Prayer," a hit by The Platters that summer, over and over again, until, at some point when the lead singer was approaching the climactic high note Elvis would always say, "I'm gonna get it, I'm gonna get that, one of these days, I'm gonna get that note, here it comes, here it comes..." And he'd try to relax and just let it out, and it just wouldn't happen and he'd scream and go under.

About Elvis at the time of the smash hit "Heartbreak Hotel," Guralnick writes:

Nearly all the picture from that time show a smiling, laughing Elvis, relaxed in a way that reveals little self-consciousness, only youth and pride. Healthy, innocent, brimming with energy and a sense that he has arrived, he clowns around in these photographs in a way that the grave-faced youngster of Tupelo days never would, and the rising young star never could, his hat tilted back on his hair mussed up, looking for all the world like the great god Pan.

George Plimpton and Jean Steins' Edie, a biography in the form of a collection of oral memoirs, revolutionized the genre, showing how the biographer, with minimal interpolation, could create a vivid, fully rounded portrait. It's clear that the interview is at the heart of Guralnick's approach to biography, as he explains in the author's note to the second volume:

... that's why it's important to [keep reinterviewing]. You want to try to capture the chipped paint on the doorknob, the muted conversation in the hall; you want the reader to hear the carefree exuberance of Elvis' laugh ...

When the singer Jimmy Rogers Snow recalls for us how Elvis used three different kinds of hair oil "so that when he performed his hair would fall just so," you see the point of the writer's method: to uncover the novelist hidden in everyman.

Guralnick's method, his imaginative empathy and patient accumulation of detail, has its big emotional payoff in the chapter on the death of Elvis' mother, Gladys Presley:

When reporters came to the house at midmorning, they found Elvis and his father sitting on the steps of Graceland, utterly bereft. They had their arms around each other and were sobbing uncontrollably, oblivious to the presence of anyone else. Elvis was wearing a white ruffled dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, khaki continental pants, and unbuckled white buck shoes. His mother's death, he told reporters without embarrassment or shame, had broken his heart.

Though Guralnick, unlike other writers, does not see his mother's death as the chief agent of Elvis' self-destruction, it's difficult not to feel its reverberations throughout the declining years of Elvis' life, in his self erasure in Hollywood, his excessive reliance on pharmaceuticals, his spiritual doodlings, and his impersonations of a rancher, karate master and lawman.

John Malcolm Brinnin, who wrote superb biographical memoirs of Truman Capote and Dylan Thomas, both artists like Elvis who peaked early and lived out their long declines in public, used the same quotation from Dorotheus as a sort of epitaph for both men, one that could sum up Guralnick's remarkable, sympathetic work:

"Thou mayest knowest this man's fall but thou knowest not his wrassling; and his struggle might have been such that he is redeemed in the eyes of God."

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