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masterpiece reading: peter guralnick on elvis presley

August 1, 2013

51hsMB5VMYLI’m about 15 years late to this party. I don’t know what kept me from undertaking this journey sooner. I’ve known for years that Peter Guralnick’s masterful two-volume Elvis biography is widely considered one of the definitive music books of our time. I’ve read Guralnick before and have been impressed by his ability to fuse meticulous research with immensely readable prose. But for whatever reason, I didn’t dive into these books until a few months ago. Now it doesn’t matter that it took so long, it only matters that I read them.

This is going to be a thoroughly raving review, but the one caveat I will include is that I highly recommend reading these books back to back with no pause in between. As much as I enjoyed Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley I have to admit that I didn’t fully appreciate its greatness until I made it through the end of Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. The deep background of the first book, the careful detailing of his rise to superstardom, made his heartbreaking fall from grace in the second book painfully real. I feel like I’ve been living with Elvis for months now, his story never far from my thoughts. We all know who Elvis Presley is, we’re all familiar with his dual image as the swaggering young heartthrob and the bloated, jumpsuited parody that his imitators seem so fond of recreating, but Guralnick’s deft hand shows us Elvis as a person. A man caught between the simple aspirations of his upbringing and the caged-in reality of immense fame and fortune.

Careless Love There are so many “what-ifs” in the story of Elvis, what if he hadn’t hooked up with Colonel Parker? What if he’d gotten the chance to be in real movies instead of just poorly made throwaways? What if he’d had a publishing arrangement that brought him the kind of songs that inspired him instead of embarrassed him? “The Unmaking of Elvis Presley” is a perfect subtitle for the second book, where troubling decisions and maddening consequences come to dominate the narrative. The last 200 pages are utter tragedy, as you find yourself rooting helplessly against history when the doomed ending comes so clearly into view.

I actually couldn’t write this post for a few days after finishing the book because it really does hit you like a punch in the gut, the abysmal end to such an incredible life. I’ve found myself re-listening to everything Elvis. Good music biographies make you want to start all over again with an artist, listen for the struggles and the joys that you’ve come to know as part of them and find where they’re reflected in the music. In that regard these books are a real revelation.

It was 44 years ago yesterday that Elvis had his triumphant return to live performing with the first show at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. After reading about those performances they’ve shot to the top of my Time-Machine-Concert-Agenda. In the meantime, I’ve been playing the Aloha from Hawaii album all week and have a whole new understanding for the legions of Elvis fanatics, including my own baby sister.

I may be 15 years late in reading these books, but they are truly timeless. Thanks to Peter Guralnick for bringing his tremendous talents to this subject, and all hail the King of Rock & Roll…

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