Friday, 31 January 2014

Best Elvis books ever: numbers five & six

Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

The definitive biography in two volumes, as warm and loving as Goldman is bitter and twisted. Goldman’s Elvis is a half-wit who lucked out. Guralnick’s Elvis is a singer who knew what he was trying to do and worked hard at it, in the studio at least, effectively becoming the first self-produced pop performer. 

So much serious (and ironic) Elvis commentary is based on duality. On one hand, the drug addict, on the other, the honorary narcotics agent. Lover of heavy-bodied Mama Gladys and also of pornos featuring heavy-bodied Gladys-like Mama figures fighting like hell-cats. The vibrant young iconoclast versus the ageing, bloated everyman. And, above all, the original duality, Elvis and his stillborn twin, Jesse. Whatever the merits of Guralnick’s biography — and they are overwhelming — it can also be read as the good twin to the bad twin of Goldman’s Elvis. The two portraits of the subject are different enough to make hardened doubters believe in parallel universes — the Sun King versus the Scum King. 

Erudite, sweet-hearted and exhaustive — not to say occasionally exhausting — Guralnick’s first volume takes the story up to Elvis’ departure for Germany in September 1958. ‘This book cancels out all others,’ was Bob Dylan’s judgment.

The second volume finishes the story. Which is a telling fact — four years of Elvis’ artistic career stretched across the first book, the remaining nineteen years squashed into the second. Aesthetically justified or not, it highlights Guralnick’s uneasiness at dealing with pop. The evil twin barely gets a look-in. Sometimes you can’t help but feel he overvalues sincerity, honesty and authenticity at the expense of pop’s other life-affirming demons: lust, avarice, exhibitionism. To put it another way, he wouldn’t know a great jacket if you bought it for him. 

Next The question that calms us all at moments of great stress: what would Elvis' hairdresser do?

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