Books

Sex, drugs and the rock king

Elvis Presley died isolated and vulnerable

NICHOLAS JENNINGS March 1 1999
Books

Sex, drugs and the rock king

Elvis Presley died isolated and vulnerable

NICHOLAS JENNINGS March 1 1999

Sex, drugs and the rock king

Books

Elvis Presley died isolated and vulnerable

CARELESS LOVE:

THE UNMAKING OF ELVIS PRESLEY

By Peter Guralnick

(Little, Brown, 766pages, $37.95)

Early on in the second volume of Peter Guralnick’s biography of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Presley tells a musicpublishing associate about a recurring nightmare. The year is 1960 and the 25-year-old singer had been back in the United States only a few short months after completing his military service in Germany. But already his manager, Col. Tom Parker, had him making two albums, two movies and a TV special with Frank Sinatra. Presley’s popularity meant that he always had a large entourage, and legions of fans camped near his Graceland mansion. But in the nightmare, Guralnick writes, “there were no fans outside the gates, there was no Col. Parker, and he felt alone, helpless, and deserted.” The dream turned out to be prophetic, as Guralnick’s tale makes painfully clear. Although the hangers-on, fans and Parker stayed with him until his death in 1977, Presley died an isolated and vulnerable man.

Guralnick’s first volume,

Last Train to Memphis, was a celebratory fable about Presley’s rise from humble, truckdriving roots to iconic status as the revolutionary rocker.

With Careless Love, the author has written an epic tragedy.

Presley is the story’s ultimate victim, a flawed creative genius with no control of his talent or his career. But Guralnick is careful not to point a finger solely at Parker, the carnival huckster turned showbiz impresario. Instead, the author shows how everyone around Presley— family, lovers, bodyguards and doctors —treated the singer as a cash cow. Trapped in his tight inner circle, Presley was fed,

fêted and fuelled on drugs by sycophants willing to cater to his every whim.

The rot set in, as far as drugs were concerned, during Presley’s army stint in Germany. It was there that he discovered amphetamines and began using them indiscriminately to offset the effects of his late-night escapades with Priscilla Beaulieu, the 14-year-old daughter of a U.S. army captain. On his return to the United States, Presley jumped into a succession of quickie movies, all calculated to capitalize on his sexy image and sensuous voice. From 1961 to 1969, Presley made nearly 30 movies, often as many as four a year. Although few were well received critically, their commercial success led to 11 top-selling sound-track albums. By the mid-1960s, Presley was earning $1 million per movie plus a percentage of the gross. Parker was happy but Presley, Guralnick writes, started to reveal “an uncertainty, an almost fatalistic sense of dissatisfaction.”

The singer tried to console himself with drugs, mostly speed and tranquilizers, and a steady parade of actresses and beauty queens—even after his 1967 marriage to Priscilla. Guralnick details Presley’s particular fondness for young, impressionable virgins—each one, Guralnick writes, a “blank canvas” ready to be moulded to Presley’s own needs. He also began seeking spiritual solace during the 1960s, first with his hairdresser, Larry Geller, who introduced him to numerology and metaphysics, then with guru Sri Daya Mata.

Rarely does a fallen hero get a shot at redemption. Presley did, with a 1968 television special. Dressed all in leather, Presley performed with a raw, sexual power not seen since his pre-army concerts a decade before. Abandoning his script, he tapped into what the show’s producer, Steve Binder,

called “the darkness, the wild, untamed, animalistic things” that were such a part of his nature. Guralnick, who witnessed the performance while covering it for a Boston newspaper, seems to relive the excitement when he writes: “Each wildly unpredictable element seems only to encourage Elvis to forget himself all the more, encourages him, paradoxically, to find himself.”

But the comeback was short-lived. By the early 1970s, Presley grew lazy and developed a taste for grandiose ballads and messianic posturing, as well as an ever-increasing appetite for pharmaceuticals—even after he managed to get Richard Nixon to make him an honorary officer in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Las Vegas, Nev., which had provided him with a fantasy world and what Guralnick calls a “respite from all the self-doubt,” contributed to the decline. His shows there, featuring a paunchy, jumpsuited Presley, became glitzy, gaudy affairs that drew comparisons to Liberace and Zsa Zsa Gabor. His last tour, in June, 1977, was depressing for everyone involved. Writes Guralnick: “More and more the feeling grew that they had set out on a doomed voyage, captainless, rudderless, with no hope of turning back.” Presley died at home two months later. An autopsy revealed that he had 14 different types of drugs in his system, many at toxic levels.

Masterfully and movingly told. Careless Love stands as the definitive chronicle of the King’s downfall. Although clearly a fan of Presley’s best work and appreciative of his extraordinary talent, Guralnick does not avert his eyes from his subject’s failings. Presley had the common touch, an ability to make people feel they were the sole object of his attention, in part because he desperately wanted to be loved. The ultimate tragedy is that Presley, deeply insecure to the end, never loved himself enough to be able to cope with the fame or his own mythology.

NICHOLAS JENNINGS