Elvis: Through a glass, darkly
ATLANTA (CNN) -- The division of Elvis Presley into two polar-opposite beings in America's collective consciousness was clearly illustrated when the Postal Service asked the public to pick which Elvis stamp they wanted: Young Elvis, all rock 'n' roll and swiveling hips and sexy promise, or Las Vegas Elvis, the sequined star who eventually battled insecurity, weight problems and depression, taking drugs until his body gave out in 1977 at the age of 42.
The majority chose Young Elvis. After all, it's the Elvis everyone wants to remember, before he was a caricature of himself, before he lost his mother, before things went terribly wrong. The stamp, released in 1993, shows young Presley smiling, the world at his feet.
Peter Guralnick remembers Young Elvis, too, as can be witnessed in his highly-acclaimed 1994 biography, detailing the time when the King really was the King. "Last Train From Memphis" relived, from a sober perspective, the glorious 1950s rise of Elvis as he stepped from the sticks of Mississippi to claim what seemed to be his birthright -- the throne overseeing the music that changed the world.
Unfortunately, for those who would rather hold onto the vision of Young Elvis, Guralnick also remembers Las Vegas Elvis, and everything that happened to Presley after he found promise in the neon-lit desert town. His account of the decline and death of the King has been the buzz of the book industry. Released in December, "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley," picks up where "Last Train" left off, as Elvis enters the Army in 1958. "Careless Love" has been hailed as an equal to the first volume, an unblinking, objective look at a man who simply falls apart in the unforgiving glare of the spotlight.
"The success is larger than life, the aspirations are larger than life, and the fall from grace is equally larger than life."
"I was trying to tell as honest and true a story as I could," said Guralnick during a recent book-tour stop in Atlanta. "Really, the challenge is to portray the world the person lives in, and in the first volume it was an expanding world. You can see in 'Careless Love' how constricted Elvis' world becomes."
Guralnick, 55, seems the perfect author to recapture the essence of Elvis in all its electrifying and brutal honesty, snatch it away from all those tabloid stories that buried the truth in years of unconfirmed fodder and ridiculous rumors of an Elvis afterlife here on Earth.
Though he says his only dreams as a child were to be a baseball player and a writer, Guralnick has firmly established roots in music.
At 15, Guralnick officially became a blues fanatic -- "Once I heard Lightning Watkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, I was just gone" -- who discovered by chance the original, raw Elvis, the young singer who started fooling around with blues and country in a Memphis recording studio, and created rock 'n' roll.
"RCA put out these two albums ... it had all the Sun sides on them, and I had never heard them before," says Guralnick. "I had heard the pop stuff, but those hadn't been played on the radio where I lived. So I just woke up to him. I said, 'Oh my God, he's a blues singer, a great blues singer.'
Guralnick, like most music fans, was captivated by the integrity evident in Elvis' voice.
"It's like Myrna Smith (of the Sweet Inspirations) said to me, 'When Elvis sang he was just there all the way. He communicated the songs.' That's not to say he was better. He communicated them in a way that was unique."
In 1968, Guralnick wrote his first article for Rolling Stone, a review of "From Elvis in Memphis." Over the years that followed he made a living as a journalist who focused and became an expert on American music.
"The only thing I've ever written about are subjects that I have chosen," he says.
In 1989, his extended essay on the life of mysterious blues legend Robert Johnson garnered praise. He also wrote "Sweet Soul Music," a profile of artists like Sam Cook, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Al Green.
And finally, Guralnick set his sights on an encompassing version of Elvis' story.
"When I first thought about writing the biography of Elvis, the reason that led me to think about it was that I suddenly saw a way in, a way to tell the story inside out," he says.
It took Guralnick 11 years of research, conducting hundreds of interviews with people associated with Elvis, scouring through fan accounts, diaries and other documents, cross-referencing and fact-checking all the information, before finally finishing his project in his two books.
Guralnick says before he finished "Last Train," he was unsure if there was a market for another book on Elvis.
"I thought a lot of people would dismiss the subject as trivial," says Guralnick, "and ... that regardless of what I achieved, the subject would be dismissed. I think I've been gratified more than anything. Whether people like the book or don't like the book, they treat the subject as worthy of discussion."
Guralnick's concern mirrored the whole problem with the Elvis persona -- he's dismissed by modern-day music fans because of what he became. In the end, he was a shadow of his former self, a pop icon who could hardly stand for the duration of his concert performances, let alone shake his pelvis because he was possessed by his own wild beat.
"I think Elvis was dismissed because of his popularity," says Guralnick, who says Presley became a symbol the moment he took blues into a new form of music. "He became a symbol of oppressive racism -- and there's no question in the African-American community he's regarded as a perpetrator of cultural theft.
"It's like he gained a lot from his popularity, but he suffers a lot for it too," Guralnick says.
The suffering is the hardest part to witness, but Guralnick doesn't hold back. In "Careless Love" it's all here, from the time when Elvis' momma died and he uttered the words, "Oh God, everything I have is gone," to his lower-than-low death, pajama bottoms at his ankles, fallen from the commode, face buried in his own vomit.
Between this, Guralnick weaves the most American of stories, which includes:
"I guess I thought of it as an American tragedy," says Guralnick of how he approached the story. "It has all the elements -- the success is larger than life, the aspirations are larger than life, and the fall from grace is equally larger than life."
Perhaps the saddest part of the story is that is all began with such innocent promise. Young Elvis was a man who wanted it all, and had no idea what he was asking for.
"Even as a child he had a vision of success taking place in a world that he couldn't possibly imagine, except through the movies," says Guralnick. "That's what lends the story either a tragic resonance or pathos or whatever."
But through it all, despite Hollywood and drugs and even death, Guralnick says Elvis never lost his connection to his roots, his fans.
And now it has become, after his death, a circus of fans who clamor at the gates of Graceland on the anniversaries of his birthday and death, which Guralnick believes is a media-induced frenzy that will eventually pass.
"The real story is that the fans are tied to Elvis by the same loyalty that he showed to them," says Guralnick. "He did show an extraordinary sense of identification with the fans. He had an almost mystical belief that all of his strength -- and his very legitimacy -- came from his fans."
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