Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley
In what was to be the last year of his life, in conversation with erstwhile crony Red West, Elvis Presley asked the Biblical question, “What profiteth a man if he gains the world and loses his own soul?” On the accumulated evidence of Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley, volume two of Peter Guralnick’s biography of The King, one would think this to be a subject Elvis knew something about. But in context it’s a largely rhetorical question, and it’s clear that, to the bitter end, he was as wrapped in denial as the courtiers who served him.
Volume one of Guralnick’s labors, Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley (1994), was an epic adventure, the tale of a polite country boy who, by dint of talent, ambition, and luck, made history, and it was an exciting story. Careless Love, by contrast, is a tragedy, the tale of a polite country boy who made lots of money but lost, well, his soul, and it’s a sorry story.
The narrative shape of Elvis’ post-Army career is well-known. The triumphant return to recording in 1960 with a mess of rhythm & blues (Elvis Is Back) and four consecutive #1 singles is followed by a long wandering in the aesthetic desert of the ’60s, with a seemingly endless string of trivial when not outright dreadful B-movies coupled to a recording career of increasing irrelevance and decreasing sales. Then, from the brink of pop oblivion, Elvis is back again, via the 1968 television special, the soulful From Elvis In Memphis, and the first year of the Vegas shows.
But it’s a short lived renaissance, followed by another near decade of desultory studio work (note all the “live” albums of the period) and constant touring, the shows becoming ever more bombastic before ultimately deteriorating to embarrassing, if unconscious, self-parody, as Elvis slowly stumbled toward his drug-addled date with August 16, 1977. Sad enough in outline, it’s plain pitiful in detail.
In Last Train To Memphis, socio-historical context was everything, as Elvis’ early career was placed squarely in the Memphis of the 1950s and the wider musical culture that made him even as he remade it; there, he walked the streets of Memphis and made casual music with peers. In Careless Love, such context is nothing.
Elvis was seemingly unaware of the continuing musical ferment of Memphis through the 1960s and ’70s (or anywhere else, for that matter), the other cities where he worked and played — Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Las Vegas — are virtual voids, little more than soulless place names. This absence of material context in Careless Love reflects the increasingly isolated life Elvis led from the early ’60s on, as well as the emptiness of most of his music (the renaissance of ’68’70 being the exception to prove the rule).
Surrounded and protected by the best friends, family, and management team that money could buy, he was so heavily insulated from the real world that specificities of place and time hardly matter to the telling of the story.
It’s clear from both volumes that Guralnick is as much passionate fan as cool scholar. But it couldn’t have been much fun, as a fan, to write Careless Love, and as a scholar it must have been equally difficult. It’s a story of decadence and inexorable decline, of tragic self-destruction, and the temptations to despair and moral judgment must have been great. He avoids both with ease and grace. In the end he is left, and so are we, with the voice, the music. “That is the mystery that will continue to reward repeated explorations, long after the frenzy of fame is finally gone.” Amen.