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Heartbreak Homage

[whitespace] book cover 'Long Live the King': Guralinick challenges the myth of decline surrounding the death of Elvis.

'Careless Love' re-thrones Elvis in his later years

By Michelle Goldberg

The second volume in peter guralnick's meticulous chronicle of Elvis Presley's life comes at an ideal time, because a new generation of pop aficionados didn't live through either the hippie heyday that made the King seem obsolete or the grotesque spectacle of his late Vegas years.

More than 20 years after Elvis' death, those just discovering the scope of his life may be best situated to see the man whole, without sneering or worshipful denial or the feeling of betrayal that must have haunted his earliest fans as he declined into self-parody. While Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis chronicled Presley's rocket-rise to fame, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley is a deeply respectful and elegiac account of his downfall. Even if you come to the book thinking that Elvis' end was gaudy and pathetic, it's hard to finish without feeling that the tragedy outweighs the farce.

There's no more ubiquitous or mysterious icon than Presley in American culture, and Guralnick, unlike the pop-mystic critic Greil Marcus, doesn't try to get to the heart of the Elvis myth and all its strange reverberations. Rather, he tries to discover the man himself.

We all know the implications of Elvis' fall. His death in 1977 eerily coincided with the Sex Pistols' breakthrough, doubly discrediting the values that the king in his prime stood for. His story can mean anything to anyone--it can be the story of a cynical white man getting rich off black music while real artists died in obscurity. It can be the tale of a poor Southern boy who beat the elites while staying true to his roots. It can be an object lesson in the failure of hedonism to produce transcendence, or of the corrupting potential of fame, or of genius wasted. Instead of trying to figure out what Elvis' undoing means to us, Guralnick explores what it meant to him, a vain, generous, insecure, gluttonous, charming man who felt unequal to his own legend.

The book's somber, worshipful tone is at odds with the often gruesome facts of Elvis' existence and, especially, of his impossibly sordid death. Indeed, it's almost as if Guralnick wants to rescue his hero from our irony-infected image of him, fat and face down in his own vomit with his pants around his ankles in his Graceland bathroom.

In a sense, Careless Love offers a rebuke to Albert Goldman's vitriolic 1981 biography, which was simply titled Elvis, as if to announce its intent to resolve (and dismiss) Presley's life once and for all. Goldman hated Elvis, going so far as to mock him for being uncircumcised. "He saw his beauty disfigured by an ugly hillbilly pecker," Goldman seethed.

Guralnick approaches the other extreme, waxing hyperbolic over Elvis' triumphs while downplaying his failures and his bursts of violence, self-destruction and extreme cruelty. Careless Love isn't, actually, as much fun to read as Goldman's book, if only because Elvis is riveting for its sheer salacious meanness--Goldman's attempt at character assassination is so extreme it turns into high camp. Guralnick's book has a vaguely textbook feel to it; rather than criticism or analysis, it aims for definitive reporting.

That's not to say that Careless Love isn't full of juicy bits--we get the full story of Elvis's seduction of 14-year-old Priscilla, his numbing succession of affairs and intake of pills, his Oedipal perversions, his comically grandiose materialism. But Guralnick tries not to let this obscure Elvis' achievements, even as he refuses to blame the King for squandering his talent in insipid Hollywood films and on the syrupy throwaway ballads that marked much of his post-'50s output.

In fact, one of Guralnick's goals has been to refute the notion that Elvis never made any good music after getting out of the Army. The book makes a convincing argument that the music Elvis made during his 1968 comeback was as great--perhaps greater--as the electrifying Sun Sessions of the mid '50s.

Careless Love is marred by a weird absence of context. Guralnick never delves into the radically shifting pop landscape of the '60s and '70s and how Elvis was left behind by it. We watch as Elvis volunteers to spy on the youth culture for J. Edgar Hoover and gets a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge from Richard Nixon, but Guralnick never analyzes Elvis' eagerness to set himself against the pop climate.

Guralnick is also surprisingly charitable to the Colonel, his manager, whom many blame for sabotaging Presley through his stubbornness, stinginess and buffoonery. Despite this lack of critical dissection, though, the book is a fascinating portrait of the inner workings of the King's sycophantic circle. By excluding the outside world, Guralnick almost re-creates the sealed-off and surreal pleasure dome that Elvis built around himself and ultimately suffocated in.

In an introductory note, Guralnick quotes Milan Kundera: "'Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel,' Milan Kundera wrote in what could be taken as a challenge thrown down to history and biography, too. This suspension of judgment is the storyteller's morality, 'the morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding.' It is not that moral judgment is illegitimate; it is simply that it has no place in describing a life."

This formulation seems a bit too pat. Fiction isn't life, and Elvis really did hurt the people around him. Nevertheless, it's this idea that lends Careless Love its generosity and that saves Elvis from ridiculousness.

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown; 767 pages; $27.95)

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From the March 1, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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