Powers and Wyman

Powers and Wyman

New books dissected over email.
Jan. 25 1999 1:13 PM

Powers and Wyman

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Dear Ann,

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I have a confession to make. It's not a device, it's true. Elvis Presley makes me feel uncharitable. He makes me feel mean. Everyone else seems to love him. He's said to be adored by millions, and critics great (Lester Bangs) and small (Dave Marsh) worship him. Who can forget Bangs writing how, at a live show late in his career, Presley gave him "an erection of the heart"?

Yet when I listen to most of his music, when I read the books about him, I feel a strong--and, again, uncomfortable--dissonance with all of that. I think Elvis Presley was a fucking moron. I don't mean that he was dumb, though he was. I mean that he was a jerk. Throughout Peter Guralnick's new book, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, you see a remarkably clear portrait of a spoiled boyman who indicates his feelings and desires through alternate doses of brutish cruelty and temporary flattery. He's pompous and pretentious, desperate to act as if he's in charge. He has a ludicrous Christ complex. He surrounds himself with lunky, slavish good old boys and treats them like dirt. He whines, roars, seduces to get what he wants, too often things that are immoral or illegal. He's a sexual predator, primarily of young teenage women. He was an unattractive drug addict for decades. As early as his Army years, he lived on speed, kept a secretary as a concubine, bedded an unending string of other women, and connived to separate a 14-year-old girl from her family. He acts in horrid movie after horrid movie, squanders the potential of what should have been the most formidable money-making opportunity of any cultural figure of the century, and fritters away the cash he did make.

And worst of all, he delivered about forty-five minutes or so of genuine or lasting artistic effort in the last 20 years of his life. And isn't a genuine and lasting artist what Elvis Presley is supposed to have been?

This story Guralnick delivers with a moan and muffled sobs, all of them for Presley's benefit, not his victims. He's like the mother of a slain gangster ululating over his coffin. "Look what they did to my baby!" she wails. She has an excuse. Guralnick and Presley's other partisans bear similarly genuine feelings, I'm sure. But I don't share them, and sometimes I feel bad about it.

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It's worth stating succinctly what's interesting about Presley. There is something almost incontrovertible about the early Elvis. He was born in the middle of the Depression to a failed sharecropper. His invention of himself was so extreme that you really can't think of any example of comparable ambition.

In the 1950s, his utter physical beauty and unprecedented charisma mixed in volatile fashion with the growing mass media and a new class of leisure youth. Among other things, he was the decisive catalyst in the creation of rock 'n' roll, which I understand had some effect on American life in the 1960s and the decades after. You could make the argument that the genre's continuing force has something to do with Presley's musicological significance, a heroic and authoritative fusion of gospel, country, blues, and pop. He was able to deliver that fusion vocally, which is saying something. The metaphorical implications of this are heady. Presley's career, noted Greil Marcus in his still-interesting "Presliad" essay, "almost has the scope to take America in." More poetically, he writes, "Elvis gives us a massive road-show musical of opulent American mastery"--with all the potential for excess embodied in those last three words shudderingly apparent.

Guralnick is a gem of a critic and scholar. I grew up reading his nuanced essays on the seminal figures in blues and rock 'n' roll, collected in books like Lost Highway and Sweet Soul Music. Careless Love is the second volume of the writer's Presley biography. The first, Last Train to Memphis, was an account of the singer's early life, his discovery, and subsequent two-and-a half years of stardom, closing with his induction into the Army, in March 1958. Guralnick's first volume, though bothersome on some of the same points, was easier to read. His respectfulness for the music there and his earlier books served to contextualize careers. I find it less useful here. I think in large part he's appalled at Albert Goldman's corrosive Elvis and wants to provide a corrective, but his protection of his subject goes beyond his duty as a journalist. In a way, he's really not writing what I would call a biography; rather, it's a relatively honest hagiography, an appreciation. Guralnick vouchsafes the bad parts--the violence, the drugs, the decline, etc. etc.--but he doesn't like it and refuses to analyze them. Any sign of intelligent life from his subject is lovingly held up for inspection and hosannas. The rest of it just gets recounted.

I have a problem with biography like this. "I know of no sadder story," intones Guralnick in his intro. The line has been agreeably trotted out by every reviewer I've noticed. They're confusing the tragic with the pathetic. Gerald Marzorati, writing in the New York Times Book Review, compared the book to Robert Caro's multipart LBJ biography, and went on to say, "It must be ranked among the most ambitious and crucial biographical undertakings yet devoted to a major American figure of the second half of the 20th Century." That statement is a violence against journalism, biography, and Elvis Presley. Guralnick's book is a stolidly written, superficial, and weepy accumulation of stories that he selectively interprets almost unfailingly to the advantage of his subject. He's as much an enabler as the singer's cronies and family. Caro's work, massively researched, beautifully written, and searingly argued, is a formidable step toward understanding and assessing an important figure and his times; this book, dismayingly unsynthesized, tells its story exclusively from the point of view of its subject. It is by definition something tiny.

But that's just another example of how Elvis Presley is treated by history. Since he was such a moron, he probably deserves this last indignity. Indeed, it's probably necessary that he suffer it. But that's a hobbyhorse I'll get into tomorrow.

What do you think? Am I the jerk, for wanting to give this poor errant child--and his sanctimonious biographer--a good swift kick in the butt?

Bill

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Ann Powers is a pop critic for the
New York Times. She is writing a book about the emotional life of modern day bohemia, to be published in fall 1999. Bill Wyman is a critic and editor. He was formerly a staff writer at the Chicago Reader and arts editor of the SF Weekly. This week they discuss Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley,by Peter Guralnick, and Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin,by Alice Echols.