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101 of 108 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elvis: *This* Is What Happened, January 6, 2002
This review is from: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Hardcover)
Elvis Presley is one of those singular cultural figures who naturally and without defiance broke America apart and re-invented it. He didn't come as prophet or destroyer, not as a statesman or reformer, but as a guileless, unpretentious young man blessed with a talent and charisma and drive that leaves us mere mortals agape. In a way, he is like several other men of the era--Kennedy, Brando, Dean, later the Beatles--who created the "youth culture" to which we are (unfortunately) more enslaved to now than ever....
Wait a minute--did I just refer to Elvis as other than merely mortal? Not so, and Peter Guralnick's astonishing Careless Love finally makes it possible for us to grasp Elvis as human. While other books about him could fill a thousand mausoleums, let them, because Guralnick's two-volume set (the first is Last Train to Memphis (1994)), will stand as the definitive biography of this great American.
But before you dive in, let me say that Careless Love, while beautifully and carefully written, and extra-carefully researched--Guralnick had access to unorganized files in Graceland unlike anyone prior to him--it is dense with factual trivia insterspersed with the dramatic events of Elvis' life (and the lives of those around him). This book is not for the casual reader; in its intimate details, vast narrative, and utter lack of superhero worship glitter, this book will probably appeal less to traditional Elvis fanatics than to those seriously interested in this man who became a 20th century phenomenon.
Again and again, Elvis is described as "humble, shy, respectful, hard-working." This seems true, right, but what is most effective in Guralnick's portrait is what's shown and not told--Elvis' misplaced affections, his desire to keep family and friends around him at all times (but then, you can't blame him). These people, from his father Vernon, to Priscilla, to old friends like Red West, had to put up with his mood swings, his anger, his jet-setting on a whim, the covert operations of smuggling girls in and out of his bedroom. Seemingly without concern for finances he gave away Cadillacs, motorcycles, TVs, homes, jewellry, to those around him, testing loyalty, wanting only their dedication to his perverse lifestyle.
Guralnick makes it clear that one of the young men in Elvis' employ became one of his most trusted friends--and one who was hounded out of the circle by Elvis' "good ol' boy" cronies. Larry Geller was a hairstylist when he met Elvis in April 1964. Immediately there was a rapport, for Geller filled a gap in Elvis' life--a hunger for spiritual, even intellectual pursuits. Geller listened while E poured his heart out about his mother--and if you know anything about Elvis, you know he loved his mother and when she died, well, he was never the same.
Elvis became quite the reader--one of the many revelations here. I won't comment on the types of religious books he read--well, suffice to say today they'd probably be shelved in the dreaded "New Age" section of bookstores, but who am I to say? Sometimes the critic in my head won't shut up--but it's obvious that E had found a bedrock for his life that he had not found in Col. Parker, in Priscilla, perhaps not even in his music. You really feel it when Guralnick describes how Elvis' friends (and let's not forget, they were his employees as well) start to openly mock Geller and his interests, and, by proxy, Elvis' interests as well, although they would never do so to his face. This part of Elvis they could never understand, a part that required a depth of feeling--and perhaps an ego--that these guys didn't have.
Some of my favorite parts of the book were when Elvis was in Vegas. Contrary to popular belief, Elvis turned in many great performances in Las Vegas. After spending years away from the stage, preoccupied with Priscilla, the baby, bad movies, etc., he was glad to concentrate on the music once again. He handpicked his backup band, and the performances highlighted his freewheeling, energetic, off-the-cuff personality that had been stifled. Guralnick excels in revealing how Elvis' confidence and enthusiasm returned at this point, and how he spent less and less time with Col. Parker. In these pages, Elvis comes across as simply wonderful.

The best thing about this work is that it is simply about Elvis' life--indeed, it ends a mere page after detailing the funeral (50,000+ outside Graceland); James Brown gets a moment alone with the body; and Col. Parker tells a grieving Vernon Presley that even now they must think of the future (ooh, that conniving huckster bastard!) There is very little moralizing, even when it could be so easy: such as when Elvis wanted to have contracts put out on Mike Stone, whom Priscilla had had an affair with,and on his close friends Red and Sonny, who wrote the 1977 tell-all Elvis: What Happened?
No, what Guralnick gives us here is the portrait of a great man, a man whose legacy today is encrusted with gold and lacquer, a man who should be rediscovered and remembered as he is here: without myth, without ceremony, but with every respect and honor due him.
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Initial post: Aug 31, 2011 1:54:20 PM PDT
Wonderful review.
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