Caught in a Trap|
Peter Guralnick chronicles a Memphis tragedy in his passionate biography of Elvis Presley
After reading Peter Guralnick's empathetic portrait of Elvis Presley in 1994's Last Train to Memphis, fans might be forgiven for approaching the second part of this biography with a certain amount of dread. This volume, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, covers the dark ages of the King's court: the sex, drugs and post-rock-'n'-roll years. And it's all here in detail: The bad movies, the spiritual reawakenings, the '68 comeback, the Nixon handshake, the Vegas revues, the downward spiral into a pharmaceutical stupor.
The story will be familiar to many--which, strangely, makes Guralnick's generous, sympathetic version seem all the more foreign. He spent 11 years researching and writing both volumes, and his intimacy with the subject has animated the characters; Elvis, his family, and his entourage live on these pages. As Col. Parker told Guralnick over the phone after reading Last Train, this is "a very different book."
CITY PAGES: How did you go about the technical task of writing this book?
PETER GURALNICK: It's funny, because in some ways it presented a unique set of problems. With Elvis, you have someone who was so extensively written about, so extensively documented, and yet who didn't leave much of a written record. He didn't leave letters. He didn't leave memoirs. And while there's just a plethora of written information, much of it's memoirs. While they often reflect accurately the point of view of the person telling the story, they aren't intended to document in the usual historic sense.
There's a lot of oral material, from memoirs to fan magazines in 1955 to the chronicling of his later life in the National Enquirer and the Star. And I guess my feeling has always been, whether it's writing about Muddy Waters, or Ernest Tubb, or Bobby Blue Bland, you don't want to scorn any source.
CP: Did you feel an immediate barrier to communication in interviews, coming from the North?
GURALNICK: No, because I've been doing this all my life, and I started out almost entirely with blues singers. I couldn't have been more removed from that world. It wasn't like I was going to fool anyone into believing I was a blues singer. As a writer and as a reporter, you're always a stranger. You're not writing about the world that you inhabit; you're going out to explore other worlds. The fundamental thing is, you can't ever assume you have a place in these worlds.
CP: You've been immersing yourself in Elvis for 11 years. Has he become a permanent part of your consciousness?
GURALNICK: Yeah, but so has Bobby Blue Bland. So has Solomon Burke. So has Joe Tex. You're not ever looking at a single subject. There are worlds within worlds.
CP: But the difference is that you actually spent time with them, whereas you never met Elvis--or did you?
GURALNICK: I wrote him a letter. I sent him a review I'd done of the "'68 Comeback Special." It said how much I admired his work and how if he ever saw fit to give an interview I would be very eager to do one. The funny part was that while doing some research in the archives at Graceland, I came across the letter.
CP: It seems to me that you disliked the Colonel more in Last Train to Memphis. Having spent so much time with him for this book, do you find yourself resisting judgment now?
GURALNICK: I would resist judgment of anybody. It's the biggest temptation in the world, from which I'm not immune: to make easy judgments. But what I'm interested in is exploring a phenomenon. As soon as you advance a simple explanation, you're selling out your subject. The reality is that the person who seems like the biggest jerk may have hidden depths. Maybe not, but you'll never know if you don't leave yourself open to exploration. Sometimes it's just not worth the exploration, and it's easier to dismiss someone.
CP: Was the Colonel upset by the first volume?
GURALNICK: The Colonel called me up right after he got the book. He said, "You know, you've written a very different book." I said, thank you. I didn't know whether it was a compliment or not. "But there's just a couple of things. Did Sam Phillips really say those things about me that he said to you?" I said yes. He said, "I can't believe it. You saw Sam at my birthday party." I said I did. Then he said, "Did Hank Snow really say those things?" Now, in Hank Snow's case I was quoting mainly from his autobiography, but again I just said yes. He said, "What a lot of crap. Did you know I got a Christmas card from Hank Snow this year?"
The thing about the Colonel, he was the announced speaker at the Elvis Presley birthday celebration in January of 1988. And I went to Memphis just to see him, because I figured it might be the only chance I'd have to be in the same room with him, and to kind of absorb his aura. It turned out I was sitting there with the Phillips family. And Sam and the Colonel hadn't spoken to each other in roughly 25, 30 years.
So at some point, Sam decided to go over to the Colonel and I went with him. I don't know that I was invited to go with him, but it was a historic moment that I thought would be a cool thing to observe. I shook hands with the Colonel and they had a cordial exchange. And I went back to the Phillips table.
I wrote the Colonel as soon as I got home: "Dear Colonel, it was so nice to meet you, I'm working on this book..." And much to my surprise, in a few days I got a letter from him. It began "Friend Peter"--that was how he addressed people. So we carried on this correspondence for a while, and he invited me to his birthday party in Las Vegas in June of '89. And after the party, he was sitting on this red, thronelike chair in front of this carved elephant--he was fond of carved elephants. And he and Sam Phillips were arguing hammer and tongs over the details of what happened in November of 1955. And each was fully armed with all kinds of details which didn't exactly contradict the other's, but their interpretations were totally different.
I shook the Colonel's hand and told him I just wanted to thank him for having me at the party. He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me towards him and said, "Peter, I put you on the list." And I looked at him like, Yeah, of course you put me on the invitation list. But what he meant was that he had validated me in the eyes of other guests by inviting me to the party. He was well aware that I was doing the book, and he was well aware he was doing me a favor, and he wanted me to be aware of it. When I got home I began writing these people at the party, and there's no question in my mind that I got all kinds of interviews as a result.
CP: One thing you point out is that Elvis loved being Elvis. He didn't really seem to want to be anything else.
GURALNICK: A large part of him loved being Elvis; another part of him wanted to give it all up and become a monk. I don't think that Elvis was ever really secure. For all of his ability to sort of play the paterfamilias to this group of guys, to show a kind of confidence in terms of dealing with everyone else's problems, I think there was a lurking insecurity in all of his dealings that came out again and again.
CP: You seem to shy away from grand psychological conclusions...
GURALNICK: I don't believe in grand psychological conclusions either in books or real life.
CP: But where do you think that insecurity came from?
GURALNICK: I think there was a fear of showing ignorance, of showing vulnerability, which is a common fear. It doesn't seem that complicated a thing. He's perceived in an almost symbolic way. And here's somebody who was intelligent, who was sensitive, who was all too aware of his fallibility. And was very much aware, from a standpoint of class and region, of the shortcomings of his educational background and of the world from which he had risen.
CP: Why didn't he ever face up to his drug problem?
GURALNICK: It's a process. How many junkies have you known in your life?
GURALNICK: Well, I've known quite a few, and I would say there's no common thread. Some junkies are good people, some aren't. But the addiction is a symptom, not a cause. I asked Scotty Moore over and over if he'd ever known Elvis to take pills. Elvis as a kid was so hyperactive you'd have to stop the car on the road so he could run up and down to get out his energy.
CP: Do you think if he'd taken Ritalin for hyperactivity he could have avoided falling into the cycle of downers he took to go to sleep?
GURALNICK: I think he was not well-served by the medical community. I think if you were looking for an indictment, it would not be of Doctor Nick, who's been used as a scapegoat for the whole thing, but it would be of an approach to medicine that permeates our society--which permeated it then and permeates it to this day. And I think to some extent the overprescription of Ritalin today is no different from the overprescription of amphetamines in the '60s. I think American medicine always thinks there's a drug to cure every ill or perceived ill.
CP: A lot of people look to this as the definitive biography. Is that too much pressure for you?
GURALNICK: Sam Phillips gave me a long pep talk at the beginning of one of our eight-hour interviews. And he said, "By God, if you don't tell the truth, then I'll know I've been talking to the wrong fucking person." That was part of it, it went on. He was saying, don't listen to me, don't listen to anybody. You've got to listen to your own voice, and if you don't, you won't tell the truth.
I'm not unaware of a sense of expectation among a lot of people, in particular those who cared about Elvis. And obviously, I don't want to disappoint that expectation. But most of all, I don't want to disappoint myself.
Peter Guralnick will read from Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley Friday, January 15 at the Hungry Mind Bookstore; (651) 699-0587.
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