CARELESS LOVE: THE UNMAKING OF ELVIS PRESLEY, by Peter Guralnick, Little, Brown and Company, 784 pages, $27.95.
Reading Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley is like watching a train wreck about to happen. You know what’s coming and wish you could do something about it, but you can’t. Elvis hurls down a track of self-destruction that is harrowing and, one feels, so unnecessary.
This volume is the second half of Guralnick’s biography of the legendary singer. The first, Last Train to Memphis, follows the performer’s remarkable career until he entered the army in 1958 and is, in a way, the more interesting work, explaining as it does where the phenomenon that was Elvis came from and mapping the cultural streams that fed his musical and performing styles. This second book details the star’s increasing dissatisfaction with his career (especially his movies), intermittent enthusiasms (particularly karate), wild generosity, failed marriage, boredom and isolation, and his nightmarish tailspin into drug addiction.
The depth of Guralnick’s research, based on hundreds of interviews and printed sources, is evident everywhere. The reader may tire of the coming and going of Elvis’s entourage, but the detail mirrors the tedium that often engulfed the singer. The book comes most alive when it discusses Elvis’s recording sessions. Although the author’s proficiency as a music analyst does not match his skill as a reporter, one comes away with a much deeper understanding of Elvis as an artist. Indeed, the wide range of Elvis’s musical interests is one of the revelations of both volumes. This is a man who debated the merits of the reigning opera tenors, attempted Beethoven at the piano, probably knew more gospel songs than any of his peers, and had an encyclopedic grasp of the blues.
By now, Elvis’s career has been firmly divided. There’s the young Elvis–favored by intellectuals and rock aesthetes–who rejuvenated a moribund pop scene by adapting African-American musical styles and engendering rock ‘n’ roll. And there’s the later Elvis–favored by hardcore fans and Elvis impersonators–of whom the mythos is that he loved his fans so much that he kept on giving and giving until there was no more to give. With the conclusion of Guralnick’s two-part study, both Elvises have the biographies they deserve.
Joe Gustaitis is a writer specializing in popular history and a frequent contributor to American History.