This is the second volume of the definitive biography of Elvis Presley, renowned as the king of rock and roll. The first volume is Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, which I have also reviewed. Biographer Guralnick spent 11 years with Presley, and he conducted hundreds of interviews in order to create a fond but balanced portrait of this key figure in American musical history. If you are going to read an Elvis bio, this is the one.
I came to read this through a combination of opportunity combined with respect for that historical role of this legendary musical figure. I was born too late to be much of an Elvis fan; he was falling fast as I was coming of age. By the time I was old enough to really hone my musical tastes, he had become a caricature who was mocked by stand up comedians. It was only recently, when I ran across the first volume in a used bookstore that I began to take a serious look at his career. I had read over 300 biographies and memoirs, and it seemed to me that anyone that takes contemporary musical history seriously ought to at least have a look at it, and so I did. I was amazed to find that before his tragic decline and death, he had enjoyed two decades of unparalleled success, outselling even The Beatles at one point. The first volume chronicled his rise to fame, and it was a lot more fun to read. This one is a like reading about the Titanic; it’s too huge to be ignored, but you know it isn’t going to end well.
Whenever I read a music bio, particularly of someone I did not follow closely, I get online and find the songs that are mentioned most often. As I read this one I moved from the book to my desktop and back again, checking out some of his work on YouTube…and I actually purchased one song, because it was catchy.
This volume takes up the life of our musician following his service during World War II. In Germany, he had met Priscilla Beaulieu, who was still in high school. Elvis was, for all his celebrity, not a real mature fellow, and she was just what he needed. He enjoyed her company while being careful not to break any US or military laws, nor damage either of their reputations. He wondered whether the American public would have forgotten him when he came back to the States, but thanks to the Colonel, his non-military manager who adopted the nickname for fun, he was very much in the mind of America’s teens.
“Colonel” Tom Parker was a real piece of work, a cold, calculating capitalist who would shove paperwork under the nose of Elvis’s grieving father the very day Elvis was buried lest the licensing of his image and music be usurped. Guralnick also gives a fair amount of detail to this old-school huckster, who nevertheless helped keep Presley’s musical career afloat for decades.
Elvis’s descent into the world of addiction and depression is a terrible thing to read about. Following the death of his mother, Gladys, who was the center of Elvis’s life, he struggled with insomnia. Though Guralnick never actually says as much, I got the feeling that he was afraid of the dark, and afraid of death. At night he always had a good-sized crowd of good ol’ boys ready to hang out with him at Graceland, rent the nearby movie theater during its off-hours for their private enjoyment, or enjoy the local entertainment when he traveled. Only when the sun rose did he sleep. And like so many celebrities that rose to fame before adulthood, he soon sank into a dark place where he had to travel with his pet physician, who would feed him Demerol and numerous other heavy-duty, hospital-grade drugs when there was nothing the matter with him that a decent diet and some exercise could not probably have cured, at first anyway.
The last years of Presley’s life were strange, and before he left us they became stranger. He did a lot of things commonly associated with bipolar disorder (my term, not the author’s): he couldn’t just buy a fancy car for his wife or girlfriend, but had to buy one for each of the guys, and then another for their wives. He bought houses for himself, and then he bought houses for others. He bought diamonds for himself, and each of the closer members of his entourage was given a giant diamond custom-set into a pendant with “TCB”, for “Taking Care of Business”, with his own signature lightning bolt all spelled out in smaller diamonds. He needed a ranch, so he needed a horse; then each of the guys needed a horse; they each needed a mobile home on the ranch and a truck to drive while they were there…and so it went. Vernon, Elvis’s father, was in charge of paying the bills, but when Elvis’s spending spun out of control, Elvis didn’t want to hear what his father had to say about it. He knew he was making money hand over fist, and the notion that he might truly go broke didn’t compute. Toward the end, as his life became more desperate, he decided he needed an airplane, customized inside so he could sleep while on board, and then he decided to buy one for the Colonel too.
It wasn’t just his spending that was bizarre. He developed a fixation on law enforcement, and he wanted to be a special private agent for the government so that he could turn in celebrities that used illegal drugs. (The irony would have been entirely lost on him, even had anyone had the guts to point it out.) He wanted a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover, and sent him an obsequious letter calling him the country’s greatest American. It didn’t work. He collected cop badges from departments in the cities where he performed; a few turned him down, but usually he could get them to give him one by cranking up the pressure while turning on the charm…and of course, as always, he gave a lot of gifts.
Then he decided to go to Washington D.C., and a desperate President Nixon, who had been spurned by nearly every celebrity musician and actor he’d ever had his people approach, invited him in and got him the badge he wanted.
But then, what’s a badge without the gun? Presley’s gun collection, together with his unsafe habits, sometimes firing a gun while he was personally loaded with a bellyful of narcotics just to get people’s attention in his home, frightened away the women that were in his life during and following his marriage to Priscilla and the birth of his daughter, Lisa Marie.
It just makes you want to sit down and cry.
The one time I visited New York City, I got a garrulous cab driver and asked if he had driven for celebrities. Indeed he had. There were some that were very rude to him, but he said Elvis Presley was a really respectful man, a true pleasure to drive around.
If you have never heard this legendary man’s music, get on YouTube or the streaming source of your choice and check out some of his work. Musically he was a genius, perhaps a savant, and that remained true for over a decade after he had served in the military. His place in musical history cannot be contested.
If you have a strong interest in music history and/or biographies, get this book, together with its companion mentioned above. It may be out of print, but used copies are not hard to come by. And keep a box of tissues nearby; this is one of the saddest endings you can imagine. A great legacy in spite of everything, and a tremendous tragedy.