The cover photograph shows Elvis with light-brown hair, circa 1956. That, says Bobbie Ann Mason, is “the Elvis we all want to remember.”
And Mason helps us remember. She is a southerner, an Elvis fan since her teens, a writer whose words have earned countless honors and been among the finalists for a Pulitzer. Though she never denies Elvis’ recklessness or sugar-coats his self-destructive behavior, Mason does offer a sympathetic perspective. She knows firsthand where he came from.
It is impossible to separate Presley’s life and career from his southernness. When he traveled, he simply packed up the south — in the form of his family members and entourage of friends — and took it with him. To Las Vegas, to Hollywood, to Bad Nauheim, Germany.
His poor southern upbringing enabled him to identify both socially and musically with black culture. It prompted a fearful obsession with religion and spirituality. It probably explains his decision to haul poultry in the back of a yellow Fleetwood Cadillac. And it certainly sheds light on his subservient relationship with Colonel Tom Parker, who was bent on controlling both his personal and professional life.
But before Presley’s own life began to consume him — before the death of his mother, the horrific movies, the illicit relationships, the amphetamines and depressants — there were idyllic days in Memphis. In fact, while writing this book, Mason spent two weeks living in the brick ranch house Elvis purchased for his parents on Audubon Street.
The ties of kinship and family were strong — some might say unnaturally so — and Elvis’ soul ached any time they were severed. Even Jesse Garon, his stillborn twin, may have contributed to his destiny, Mason suggests: “His sensitivity to sound and rhythm went back all the way through his life — perhaps even to the womb, to the extra heartbeat he heard as his mother’s blood pumped through him. Perhaps that echo was always with him, the sound of his twin’s heartbeat and womb thrashings. He began his life with a backbeat.”
Presley’s musical star may have risen on Audubon Street in the mid-1950s, but it reached its zenith at Graceland. And there, too, it began its steady decline. Mason borrows from a variety of memoirs, biographies and personal interviews — as well as Peter Guralnick’s authoritative work — to paint a picture of a young man struggling to find his identity.
And once he finds it, he has no clue how to escape his own grasp. In the late ’60s, there’s a fleeting sensation of hope as Elvis shakes off a decade of stagnation and once more pours his creative energy into performing. But it’s not enough. We already know how the story ends.
At 169 pages, the book is short. And to see Elvis’ entire life unfold in one or two sittings is a powerful reminder that he lived it nearly that quickly. Through it all, Mason has a writer’s eye for peculiar detail: Elvis was wearing pink pants and a lace shirt when he first met Scotty Moore, before they recorded “That’s All Right” in the summer of 1954. Gladys Presley preferred Schlitz beer and caught a 50-pound jackfish in July of ’56. Elvis saw a cloud shaped like Joseph Stalin in March of ’65. When Mason describes a hamburger from Dudie’s Diner, you feel a strong urge to wipe your chin with a paper napkin.