World of Hurt 
Peter Guralnick's Careless Love
By Robert Cochran

From Gadfly May 1999


Eleven years with Elvis—that's what Peter Guralnick put into his massively documented, two-volume biography. The second half, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, a dismal chronicle of protracted decline, made it out in time to depress the festivities of Christmas just past. But think about it—eleven years up to the eyebrows in the worst of tales, a spectacular saga sure enough, but one in which the high points (high as they are) come early and fade fast. The "unmaking" of Elvis, in fact, was well under way even before Guralnick's first volume closed on Presley's departure for Germany as a private in the U.S. Army in 1958.

His mother was dead; television ghouls had neutered him with above-the-waist camera angles, a tuxedo (Ed Sullivan) and a serenade to a basset hound (Steve Allen); and the heartbroken teen idol was already describing himself to his Assembly of God pastor as "the most miserable young man you have ever seen."

And that's in the first volume. What hope then for the second, when the pills take hold and first Hollywood and then Vegas beckon? When paranoia and messianic delusion link up with a persistent karate jones and a serious case of firearm and law badge fetishism to leave our man confused as to whether his deepest affinities are with Jesus, Bruce Lee or Herbert Hoover? Guralnick, of course, knew only too well what awaited him, what would occupy the second half of his long immersion in Elvis; he announces a hell-bound ride right from the jump: "I know of no sadder story."

True enough, true enough. But Guralnick tells it straight on, bringing to his latest chosen task the same meticulous research and earnest address that served him so well in the first volume, in his earlier genre study, Sweet Soul Music, and also in his wonderful portraits of blues and country musicians in Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway. Perhaps Guralnick's most remarkable quality, in this volume especially, is his absolute refusal to mock. He will criticize, even criticize harshly—Elvis' vocal performances at their worst were "insipid"; in his movies he was often "a cardboard cutout or a piece of moving scenery." But he will not jeer. Elvis Presley in his foolishness and pain was often a ludicrous figure, an easy mark for a comic, but Guralnick simply will not laugh. (There's a moment in Lost Highway where he reports his own embarrassment when a minor-league rocker asked if Guralnick really meant it when he wrote that the rocker and all his failed brothers had everything going for them but talent. It was just a quip, a wiseass remark in passing, but it hurt somebody's feelings, and Guralnick seems to have learned a lesson, vowed to write Careless Love in a voice that would allow him to answer in the affirmative if ever the ghost of Elvis were to ask him if he meant it.)

This required considerable tact. Consider, for example Elvis' 1965 encounter with God in the Arizona desert, as reported by spiritual advisor and hairdresser Larry Geller. "'Whoa,' says Elvis, staring at a singular cloud in the sky, 'That's Joseph Stalin's face up there.'" Geller, looking for himself, cannot deny it, but then, as Elvis wonders aloud why a portrait of the famous Russian despot should be sent to him from on high, everything changes: "'The face of Stalin,'" Presley tells Geller, tears streaming down his face, "'turned right into the face of Jesus, and he smiled at me.'"

This whole scene, it is an understatement to observe, invites hilarity. Many, including many who were present, have so reacted. But not Guralnick. The scene itself is presented in Geller's voice, but Guralnick himself introduces it as Presley's "vision on the road to Damascus." A less generous reporter would at least note that Elvis was on the road to Los Angeles, to star in a movie called Harum Scarum.

Or consider another moment, more widely known and even more bizarre, if possible. On December 19, 1970, an angry Elvis stormed out of Graceland, incensed at attempts to curtail his lavish spending. (Just weeks earlier he'd blown twenty thousand dollars in three days buying guns as Christmas presents for friends and people off the street—Clebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace! Squeeze off a few rounds! Car-buying sprees, which also resulted in luxury vehicles for lucky strangers, were even more costly.) After spending the following day riding airplanes back and forth across the country (Memphis to Washington, Washington to Dallas, Dallas to Los Angeles), he returned to Washington early on December 21 with pal Jerry Schilling and limousine driver Gerald Peters in tow. The King, it turned out, had business with the President.

At 6:30 am, they were at the White House gate to deliver Elvis' six-page handwritten letter to President Nixon, composed on the plane, to a startled Marine guard. In it, Elvis offered his services as "Federal Agent at Large" in support of the administration's fight against drugs. What he really wanted was another badge. And he got it, too, at Nixon's order, after a hastily arranged Oval Office meeting and photo session just after noon.

This entire scene, it goes without saying, would seem to demand a response of disbelieving laughter. Elvis Presley, arguably the most stoned man in America at the time—as early as 1959 he was making single pickups of "four quart-size bottles of amphetamines" from an Army dispensary in Germany—had arrived unannounced at the White House carrying a Colt .45 and managed not only a private meeting with the President but also an appointment as a badge-wielding "Special Assistant" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. But here too Guralnick holds back from mockery, basing his narrative on the account published by Egil "Bud" Krogh, Nixon's deputy counsel. Guralnick himself refrains from comment, closing the episode from the perspective of Schilling and Sonny West, who had been included in the Oval Office visit at Elvis' request: "Sonny and Jerry never stopped to ponder the many strange things that had occurred on this day. As far as they were concerned, there was one thing, and one thing only, responsible for whatever had happened to them, good or bad: they were with Elvis Presley."

Such reticence is justified, finally, by the portrait that emerges by the close of this sustained, painstaking, 660-page examination. It's a hard read, certainly. As the awful movies and overproduced Vegas shows and tours follow one on the other, the account too takes on a surreal repetitiousness. The reader is drawn in, joins the entourage, appalled but somehow held, page after page, waiting for the terrible end. After a point, everyone knows that this before us is a dead man walking, and the only question still open is when he's gonna fall.

Contradictions abound. Elvis was surrounded at all times by leeches and toadies and was in consequence always essentially alone. He came on the sexiest man alive—he was, he sang, "a mighty mighty man," but what he really liked was watching women in white bras and panties wrestle. He called his girlfriends Mommy and had them read stories to him as he fell asleep. He never knowingly had sex, he said, with a woman who had borne a child. His devotion to law-and-order themes did not keep him away from LSD or cocaine, or from seriously contemplating the contract killing of his ex-wife's lover.

As the tawdry story unfolds, readers will find less and less credible Guralnick's suggestion that it is a tale with "no villains." Lengthy lists, in fact, well up from the page. Parasites were everywhere—relatives, pals, girlfriends, karate instructors, doctors (especially doctors). Pals always made sure Elvis' teams won their pickup football games; girlfriends always wore the clothes he liked; karate instructors awarded him black belt ranks far above his level of real accomplishment ("selling rank," they called it); doctors pumped him full of drugs, but prescribed even more conscientiously the regular emptying of the patient's wallet.

But despite this omnipresent sycophancy and greed, Guralnick makes good on his claim that Elvis' biography is not simply the tale of a man betrayed by his friends. Always, he insists, there was a part of Elvis that could never, even in his darkest hours, reject the identity he had gained by his own talent and industry and luck and by Colonel Tom Parker's managerial skill. To the last, Guralnick says, there was a part of him that "enjoyed being Elvis Presley." His every dream, he said in picking up an award from the Jaycees in 1971, had "come true a hundred times." When that dream turned to nightmare, he lacked not only the imagination but also the will to escape, to reinvent himself (like Dylan, say, or Madonna) in different guise. And this, a finally subjective, internal division, Guralnick at last convinces us, is at the root of Elvis Presley's sad tale. "He constructed a shell to hide his aloneness, and it hardened on his back."

Amen. Peter Guralnick deserves, if possible, even more praise for Careless Love than for its predecessor. It was a harder tale to tell, but he persevered, got it told. Elvis Presley was by no measure an articulate man, but he spoke himself most deeply when he sang, and now, more sharply than before, the songs will resonate with the life behind them. "Are you lonesome tonight," he sings—the song is an old nugget, a weeper from the 1920s, complete with "recitation," and Elvis did it first at Colonel Parker's request (it was his wife's favorite song). But he makes it his own (name a version by another singer?), makes it speak his own isolation and solitude. "Are you sorry we drifted apart?" he asks, his own regret and heartbreak clear as confession. "Does your heart fill with pain?" he cries, lost in a world of hurt.

Yeah. Yeah, it does.