The Book Club

Elvis Everywhere

Dear Bill,

Thanks for the arch confession; let me offer one of my own. I adore Elvis. When I was younger I loved him so much I erected a shrine to him in my living room. I forced friends to sit through Elvis movie marathons on cable TV, read from Priscilla’s Elvis and Me over the loudspeaker at the record store where I worked, and thrilled to both “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Burnin’ Love.” At twenty, I considered Elvis sexy, ridiculous, and deeply meaningful.

From the beginning, though, this passion for Elvis has been incongruous, troublesome. Born four years after he returned from his Army stint, and old enough to be disgusted when he’d O.D.’d on his bathroom throne the year the Sex Pistols broke, I could only pay homage to this royal in his fallen state. To me (and to every smart rock and roll lover under age 40), Elvis survives most vividly as the bloated walking corpse of the late Vegas period, stuffing his face with peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches as he assumes a karate stance. Just page through Dead Elvis, the 1991 overview of post-mortem Presliana by Greil Marcus. The punk artists Marcus champions picture Elvis in Hell, as Hitler, sweating with greed, stunned with lust. Like these hagiographers of abjection, I discovered Elvis as an idol of American corruption. Ours is a generation seduced by the stench of his breath.

Rock purists who are not particularly Elvis fans relentlessly fetishize Presley’s emergence at rock’s birth partly because they can’t stand the fact that the desecrated Elvis really rules our souls. Your assertion that Presley made only 45 minutes of good music after 1956–the statement that bothered me most in your deliberately incendiary letter–smacks of this willfulness.

Yes, Elvis made history at nineteen, but he made plenty of astounding music after that, as he haphazardly continued to explore the interstices of gospel, country, rock, and pop. Some of his schlock stinks, but much of it shines. Just listen to soundtrack “throwaways” like “Viva Las Vegas,” or later stabs at meaning like “Kentucky Rain” and “Suspicious Minds.” Early Elvis music is, in fact, not as singular as some of this stuff. Howlin’ Wolf was more shocking, Little Richard was weirder. I heard “That’s All Right Mama” at the supermarket the other day and it didn’t sound any more arresting than the Box Tops song that followed it on the store’s tape.

Even if you still refuse to acknowledge the adult Elvis’s artistry, you can’t deny that his story, however sordid, has taken on the status of modern myth. To even say this is a cliché, one Peter Guralnick fights as much as you do. “I wanted to rescue Elvis Presley from the dreary bondage of myth, from the oppressive aftershock of cultural significance,” he writes. He knows he’s working in the shadow of Dead Elvis, and like any ethical biographer he wants to save his subject’s life.

To do this, Guralnick chooses to relive it almost day by day. You consider this perspective “tiny;” I found it as big as a black hole. Guralnick does deny himself a lot–he downplays the great contextual resources available to Elvis scholar, so he can see things as Presley saw them, unfolding. In his book’s first volume, his approach feels incomplete, because Elvis was tongue-tied and shy on the way up, and the chroniclers and collaborators around him weren’t terrifically analytical either. But in Careless Love, the morass opens up, as Elvis and the many people devoted to him become urgently obsessed with answering the question two cronies posed in their own tell-all: Elvis: What Happened?

It’s not sycophantic to try to stay with Elvis, because, as Guralnick makes eminently clear, Presley himself neither truly loved or understood himself. If readers can’t figure out that the man’s delusions of grandeur, narcissism, sexual perversity, outrageous appetite and profound lack of self-understanding made him a jerk, it’s not Guralnick’s fault. He lays out all the sordid facts, in language no more or less reticent than his accounts of Elvis’s accomplishments.

Guralnick tackles that question as if he were Sergeant Joe Friday on “Dragnet,” recording each passing hour for the record. But he’s more like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo,” accumulating details that darken the picture. In her New York Observer review of Careless Love, Francine Prose wrote that the book made her realize that Elvis is an unsolvable mystery. She must have never really thought about the King before, because that’s the first thing a fan comes to know about him. The next step is trying to make that paradox speak.

Human paradox speaks through tragedy, and that’s why Guralnick (among many others) views Elvis in those terms. Elvis was a jerk–everybody knows that. His repulsiveness only feeds the mood dominating our cultural conversation about him: not veneration, but bewilderment. If he was such a moron, how did he enrapture us? The merely pathetic man lacks that power. The tragic man retains it, even in disgrace, because his flaw lies dormant and deep in everyone. Guralnick finds the flaw in Elvis. Yet his own book proves that this tragedy is not the one he says it is. More on that later.