BOOK REVIEW / The King's early reign: Last train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley - Peter Guralnick: Little Brown, pounds 17.99

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The Independent Culture
FOR THOSE who go along with John Lennon's remark, on being told of the demise of Elvis Presley, that the greatest of all rock 'n' roll singers had 'died the day he went into the army', this is the book. The first of two volumes of what is clearly intended to be a definitive biography, it stops on 22 September 1958, with the 23-year-old Presley - as yet unspoilt by Hollywood and Las Vegas - waving to thousands of weeping fans from the deck of the USS General Randall before setting sail for Germany and service with the Second Armored Division. In other words, having dealt with Presley's childhood and adolescence in 88 pages, Peter Guralnick spends the next 400 taking us from 'That's All Right, Mama' to King Creole, a matter of a mere four years.

In some quarters, this may be thought excessively diligent. But for the author of several highly regarded books of essays on the blues and country musicians of the Southern states, it is an attempt to tell the biggest story of all. His portraits of Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Charlie Rich were no more than trailers for the main event. Only Elvis Presley incarnates the perfect union of blues and country, of the black experience and the white, which is at the heart of Southern music and which, it must be said, lit the fuse of the entire pop culture phenomenon. Beyond its singular qualities, his career can be seen as the mechanism through which black culture began to colonise the world's sub-conscious, a complex and still emerging process of payback for slavery. In which case, it is probably worth a closer look.

The problem for Guralnick is that any reasonably committed Presley fan already has a shelf of books devoted to the subject, ranging in scope and quality from Elvis and Gladys, Elaine Dundy's portrait of the singer's close relationship with his mother, to something called The Death of Elvis: What Really Happened. Jerry Hopkins had the first serious bite at the story, with Elvis in 1971, six years before the subject's death; a decade later, under the same title, Albert Goldman produced a notorious 600-page effusion of bile and prejudice. Those requiring an unmediated version can seek out Elvis In His Own Words; data freaks need look no further than Worth and Tamerius's admirably comprehensive Elvis: His Life from A to Z and Patricia Jobe Pierce's newly published The Ultimate Elvis (Simon & Schuster, pounds 15.99). For a visual record, there are Alfred Wertheimer's fine photographs in the essential Elvis '56, reissued this month (Pimlico, pounds 9.99).

There are books devoted to studies of his house, his military service, his movie career, his marriage, his manager, his first record label, his medical history, even his posthumous role in American myth (Greil Marcus's Dead Elvis). Do we really need another book capable of telling us (as Guralnick does) that Elvis wore pink trousers with a blue stripe on the day he recorded 'Heartbreak Hotel'? What's left?

Using - as 50 pages of footnotes dutifully attest - a range of newly acquired testimony as well as all the available material, Guralnick has chosen to narrow the focus. A decent, scrupulous man, he seems to have decided to tell the story from a standpoint as intimate as possible without resorting to prurient inquiry or speculation. We are in the room with Presley for most of these 480-odd pages, seeing and hearing things as he experienced them, aware of the world's gathering interest only as something beyond the footlights or outside the mansion gates. Nevertheless, a single glimpse of Elvis caught by a girlfriend watching porn movies with his Memphis pals is virtually the only explicit indication of seriously unbuttoned behaviour. The sheer mass of evidence seems to have suffocated the narrative, leaving the reader to supply the dynamic.

Guralnick's purpose seems to have been to rescue Presley's corpse from the poisoned embrace of Goldman, who left little doubt that he viewed his subject as a retarded, perverted, racist slob responsible for popularising an art form no more elevated than greetings-card verse. ' 'Heartbreak Hotel's' grotesquely exaggerated and histrionic quality matched perfectly the hysterically self-pitying mood of millions of teenagers,' Goldman wrote, which is one way of looking at it but not the view of Guralnick, who observes on the same theme: 'It was a strange choice by any kind of conventional wisdom: gloomy, world-weary, definitely at odds with the irrepressibly vibrant image that Elvis had projected from the start . . .'

Only one of these descriptions will coincide with the mature recollection of those who, in 1956, heard in the bleak, shivering 'Heartbreak Hotel' an irresistible message from a new world.

Guralnick never loses his grip on the priorities. 'It was always about the music,' the recording engineer Bones Howe tells him. '(Elvis) would keep working on a song . . . He didn't care if there were little mistakes, he was interested in anything that would make magic out of a record. The sessions were fun, there was great energy, he was always doing something that was innovative.' In support, Alfred Wertheimer's description of the day's work in which the apparent spontaneity of 'Hound Dog' and 'Don't Be Cruel' was captured on tape - 31 takes of the former and 28 of the latter - is wisely borrowed from Elvis '56.

Paradoxically, though, a shorter book - one less intent on compiling information - might have given Guralnick greater scope to get to grips with the really big issues. At this stage, for instance, it is probably less useful to be told about the pink trousers than to be given an informed view of the relationship - by no means straightforward - between the races in the Mississippi of Presley's boyhood. Still, Guralnick effectively dismisses Goldman's charges of racism, demonstrating both that Presley admired black singers and that they recognised not just his ability but the good deed he was doing. The author identifies the key decisions made by Presley's manager, the idiosyncratic 'Colonel' Tom Parker, to reduce the status of Presley's two fellow musicians, the guitarist Scotty Moore and the bassist Bill Black, by putting them on salary, and, by concentrating on breaking into TV and movies, to build 'a career that would last, a career that could survive musical trends, which inevitably come and go, while permitting an incandescent talent to shine'. This was the vision that inspired such achievements as Fun in Acapulco and Viva Las Vegas.

As a heretic who listens as happily to 'Surrender' as to 'Mystery Train' and actually prefers 'His Latest Flame' to 'My Baby Left Me', I await the arrival of the final volume - scheduled for 1996 - with even more interest, and only slightly lowered expectations.

(Photograph omitted)