The Fall of The King

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There is a red light right at the start. In 1994's Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick movingly, and with the greatest empathy, showed the unlikely and glorious shaping of a poor white boy from the Deep South into a musical demigod. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown; 767 pages; $27.95), the second and concluding volume, is a long coast on the dark downside, a story of ugliness and indulgence and encroaching desperation.

"It is, I think, a tragedy, and no more the occasion for retrospective moral judgments than any other biographical canvas should be," Guralnick writes, switching quickly from slowdown to full stop. "I know of no sadder story." Any of the black bluesmen Guralnick loves and writes about so well could tell him a dozen before a dropped dime hit the floor. But no bluesman, and few entertainers of any kind, has managed to achieve the sheer dimension of Presley's story. Just as Elvis' girth fascinated fans and the press during his last, misbegotten years, so too it is the outsize scale of Presley's life that makes the story irresistible. Or, at least, unavoidable. The King, dying on the shag-carpeted bathroom floor of Graceland, his gold pajama bottoms around his ankles, his face in a puddle of vomit, was so overindulged and tuned out of reality that he must have been surprised to discover he was mortal.

He was a junkie, mostly by prescription; a hedonist, generally by inclination; and a profligate, largely by longing. He wanted to be the naughty boy and the good son both. He carried his collection of police badges with him everywhere, a putative peace officer who loved to disturb the peace. He was afraid of the dark, so he slept in the day, explaining, "I know in the daytime when I go to sleep that it's dark in my room, and I pretend like it's night, but I know it's daytime, and I'm not afraid to fall asleep."

Whatever he did with his women--have a calculator handy to keep count and a schematic to keep track--he retained a kind of adamant adolescence, fearful and aggressive at once. In bed he preferred kissing, snuggling and cuddling to getting down to the serious business of physical intimacy; or, in the indelible words of one of his girlfriends, Sheila Ryan, "he preferred pumping to actual sex." If the affair progressed, Ryan observed, "all of a sudden you graduated into Mother. You were expected to take care of him ... He needed water, he needed pills, he needed Jell-O, he needed to be read to." But however long they lasted, these women never passed caretaker status. He could give his whole heart only to his real mother Gladys, whose death closed the first volume, as her son went off for his hitch in the Army.

Elvis remained haunted by Gladys to the end of his days. He may have been prodigious, but, in Guralnick's thorough and compassionate telling, he could never be the prodigal son. He paid regular visits to her grave, as if trying to reclaim something. He traveled around the country, but he never left home in any deep sense. Indeed, at the end, he hardly left his room. "Oh, God, son, please don't go, please don't die," his father Vernon wailed as Elvis' daughter Lisa Marie, 9, ran frantically around the house, trying to get into the bathroom where her father lay dead, yelling, "Something's wrong with my daddy, and I'm going to find out."

Maybe what was wrong was the music. Simple as that. Because Presley, in the proudest sense, was a simple man, and the music was always his glory, his animating spirit, his means, even at his bleary end, of temporary transcendence. And the music had been compromised, so stunted that his soul just shut down. Maybe part of his heart died when Gladys passed, or maybe he just lost heart. But his life also started to drift as the music spun out of control. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had wrapped him so tight in a skein of interwoven business and publishing deals that he had little creative room to move. "We're caught in a trap," he sings with devastating intensity in Suspicious Minds, one of the great tunes of the later years, sounding like a lifer who has the keys to his own cell but has lost them somewhere in the dark that frightens him so.

In the end, of course, the dark overwhelmed him. Careless Love, a chronicle of shadows and sadness, is no sentimental epitaph. It is the fine and careful measure of a pilgrim traveler who was never sure what he wanted, gave too much of what he got, and had to say Amen before he could even be sure the Lord was listening.