The miracle of Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnick's portrait of Elvis Presley's early years, was that it erased the memory of that bloated caricature of a performer who staggered across the stage in Las Vegas and elsewhere in his final years and presented us instead with the exuberant young man of the 1950s who was in the throes of fashioning a new kind of music.
Expect no such happy miracle in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, the second volume in Guralnick's excellent and exhaustive biography of the King of Rock and Roll. This book is, as Guralnick himself writes in his opening note, a tragedy. It follows Elvis from his years in the Army in Germany, through his strange, prolonged courtship of Priscilla, his unfulfilling career in the movies, his triumphant return to live performance, his growing isolation and seemingly inexorable decline, and, finally, his death in Memphis in August of 1977.
In laying out this tragedy, Guralnick avoids the two great temptations of the modern biographer: mistaking the salacious detail for the telling detail and indulging in easy psychologizing. Sure, there is plenty here to titillate the willing reader. This is, after all, Elvis, the most famous musician of his era, a performer who brought an electrifying sexuality to slumbering, black-and-white, post-World War II America. Should we be surprised that he was not a one-woman man?
Guralnick neither excuses nor glosses over the details. But behavior that looks tawdry, or worse, resembles a tabloid headline, looks quite different in the context of this biography. In fact, one of the most fascinating and endearing revelations about Elvis is that until the final few years of his life, when his drug addiction altered not just his physical appearance but his personality, he was unfailingly polite and thoughtful of others, forever Gladys's dutiful son. This was a character trait that was universally remarked upon. Even the descriptions of Elvis's slow, solicitous seduction of Priscilla—and of other girl-women—are more likely to raise questions about Elvis's psychological complexity than to provoke disgust.
Guralnick, who has written extensively about popular music and musicians, is at his best in describing Elvis the musician and performer. He conveys the special intensity Elvis brought to his performances—and the remarkable contrast between this Elvis-in-the-spotlight and the almost shy, and increasingly withdrawn, private Elvis. Careless Love documents what a truly extraordinary—and wide-ranging—musical sensibility Elvis possessed. This is its single-most important contribution to our understanding of Elvis Presley.
But what happened to that sensibility and why? The easy answer has always been to blame the drugs, or to blame the over-protective crowd of hangers-on, or to blame the manipulations of Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Careless Love makes clear that there's blame enough to go around—and that blame is an insufficient explanation. The truth is, there are no easy answers. You watch it coming. You wish you—or someone—could stop it. It's perplexing and it's tragic, and you know that Elvis himself is helping it happen.
Or as Peter Guralnick writes succinctly, "He constructed a shell to hide his aloneness, and it hardened on his back. I know of no sadder story."
Alden Mudge is a reviewer in Oakland, California.