Elvis Presley: Baby What You Want Me To Do Page 2

"In doing these things I listened to all these interviews Elvis did in 1956, got all this primary source material. Then, when I was writing the liner notes for The Complete Sun Sessions, I called up Sam Phillips, whom I had originally interviewed in 1979. But instead of interviewing him on philosophical matters or taking whatever came, I talked to him about producing Elvis. Then I talked to Stan Kesler [the Sun Studios musician who wrote "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone," which Elvis recorded at Sun (the Memphis Recording Service) in December 1954] and Scotty [Moore, Elvis' first guitar player] with the idea of how did you make these records, how did they come about. It was through doing that that I suddenly realized that Elvis can speak for himself. There's a way of telling this story that's entirely different from the received idea.

"The other thing, which happened at virtually the same time or maybe a year or two earlier: I was driving down McLemore Avenue with a woman named Rose Clayton, who grew up in Memphis and graduated from high school a little after Elvis, but knew him and a lot of people around. I was working on Sweet Soul Music [Guralnick's book about rhythm and blues], and as we were headed toward Elvis Presley [Blvd.], just before we got to Stax [Studios] there was this closed drug store on the right. She said, 'You know, Elvis' cousin used to work there. Elvis used to come in all the time, and he would sit there at the counter waiting for Gene to get off work. He used to sit there drumming his fingers on the countertop.' And then she paused and said, 'Poor baby.' And I had this epiphany, this illumination—that this was a real person, this was somebody I could write about."

The trick for any biographer is to determine which angle to take—for the writer to decide what, to the writer, is real, in this case, about Elvis Presley. How, for instance, to reconcile or relish a man who lived, to quote Goldman, "in the day world of the squares and the night world of the cats." Does the author have a preconceived axe to grind, pro or con, or does he/she seek balance? And, by the end of the final chapter, what image of Elvis has emerged?

Guralnick, a weekly music journalist turned author, is known for his linear, reliable prose, solid reporting, and reasonable syntheses. He is mostly content with laying out the facts as he hears and reconfirms them. However, when Careless Love reaches the mid-1970s, the time of Elvis' divorce and subsequent decline, there is a pervasive sense that not only is Guralnick struggling with his own crushed illusions about Elvis, but that he's grown disgusted with his subject's lackadaisical nihilism. The pace of the book quickens noticeably toward the end, and a disembodied tone enters in the last 150 pages—which, Guralnick admits, he rewrote more than anything he's ever written. He denies, however, that he ever lost faith in his subject.

"I tried to write it from the inside out. When you know the end, it's hard to keep that knowledge from the reader, but also from yourself.

"What it is is that you try to understand why people do the things they do. It's not a question of saying, 'Oh, that's terrible,' because that doesn't really lead anywhere. [Understanding what people do] is the only interesting kind of perspective, otherwise you're trumpeting about 'Well, I've done this. Well, I wouldn't have done that' And so what? All human behavior is human. There's no such thing as inhuman behavior among humans."

When Guralnick began uncovering some of motivations for Elvis' behavior on his visits to Memphis, he was startled to learn that mere logistics played a part in some of the most revered Elvis myths.

"A very simple example of that would be that I'd always repeated the litany that Elvis went to Beale Street to hear the blues. But even though I'd been to Memphis many times, what I didn't realize when I said that was that Beale Street was just around the corner from where he lived. It wasn't like he trudged miles through the snow to get to Beale Street."

Another incidence of logistics modifying popular lore concerns the famous first phone call between Elvis and Sun Records, when Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips' secretary, called Elvis to come down to the studio to make his first record. Legend holds that Elvis was there before she hung up the phone, which may in fact be nearly true—Sun Studios and the Lauderdale Courts housing project, where Elvis and his family lived at the time, were only a mile apart.

Any Elvis biography is necessarily the story of an amazing cast of characters: Elvis, his family, his many girlfriends, his buddies in the so-called Memphis Mafia, and, of course, the biggest character of them all other than the singer himself: his manager, Col. Tom Parker. That relationship of client and manager had an incalculable effect on Presley's career.

"[Presley and Parker] were really like, in a sense, a married couple, who started out with great love, loyalty, respect which lasted for a considerable period of time, and went through a number of stages until, towards the end of Elvis' life, they should have walked away. None of the rules of the relationship were operative any longer, yet neither had the courage to walk away, for a variety of reasons."

Guralnick wrote to, then met and established a relationship with Parker before the Colonel's death in 1998.