Books: Sheer, stark terror in the Jungle Room

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

by Peter Guralnick, Little, Brown pounds 19.99

On 30 October 1976, with less than a year to live, Elvis Presley entered a recording studio for the last time. Actually, that's not quite right. Since the 41-year-old Presley could no longer summon sufficient interest in his own work to make the short trip to one of the studios in Memphis or Nashville where his great hits had been created, a desperate record company had shipped the necessary equipment to Graceland, his mansion, where it was set up in the den, known as the Jungle Room.

By this time Elvis's career had been reduced to little more than a sequence of money-grubbing tours arranged to subsidise a micro-economy devastated by expensive habits: not just his own compulsive spending but his manager's addiction to gambling. The music that had brought Presley fame and fortune, and with which he had helped create a new global popular culture, now stirred barely a ripple on the surface of a consciousness dulled by pharmacological extravagance.

The session was a disaster. In the second and concluding volume of his definitive Presley biography, Peter Guralnick describes how Elvis delayed his arrival until the musicians were on the point of mutiny. After getting one song down on tape, he lost interest as soon as he was informed that a shipment of motorcycles had arrived. A while later he returned to the Jungle Room with a machine-gun. Telling his aides that he wasn't feeling in the right frame of mind to sing, he sent everyone home. In other words, a typically bizarre and tawdry episode in the later life of the iconic figure of rock and roll.

But what survives of that day, apart from another anecdote to add to the Presley legend, is the song, a four and a half minute version of "He'll Have To Go", the old Jim Reeves hit. In front of a spare arrangement featuring eloquent guitar and a discreet choir, Elvis delivers this rueful ballad with emotional sobriety, firmness of tone, careful phrasing, exquisite command of vibrato, and the general air of a man in his prime. Further away from the bloated Elvis-in-Vegas caricature it could hardly be - and, like his versions of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land", Dylan's "Tomorrow is a Long Time" and an old Bing Crosby B-side called "Beyond the Reef", it utterly undermines the conventional wisdom that his post-army output was worthless.

The author sees the truth at the heart of the apparent contradiction between the grossness of the behaviour and the beauty of the music. Where other chroniclers (most notoriously the late Albert Goldman) chose to depict the unlettered attitudes and crass self-indulgence as the essence of the man, Guralnick's motivation begins with his love of the music, and with Presley's desire to create a blend of rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, Neapolitan bel canto, country and gospel. Where Goldman saw only a mongrel, Guralnick's interest in such many-faceted music gives him the key to understanding a character whose multiple impulses were often in conflict.

Understanding, but not excusing. Neither hagiographer nor hatchetman, Guralnick tells the story as fairly and as scrupulously as could be imagined. His patient willingness to weigh and present evidence from all sides, using his own extensive interviews and a careful selection of material from previously published sources, allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. So Presley's genuine charm and generosity are set against his manipulative womanising and cronyism, with vivid and credible new testimony from various girlfriends and members of the Memphis Mafia.

Alongside the grotesque self-gratification (perhaps kick-started by the sergeant who introduced him to amphetamines on manoeuvres in Germany) and self-indulgence (it's clear that the decline of the Detroit auto industry was caused not by unrestricted Japanese imports but by Presley's death, which put an end to the bulk purchases of Pontiacs, Lincolns and Cadillacs) are the missed opportunities, such as a romance with Ann-Margret, his co-star in Viva Las Vegas, whose intelligence might have been his salvation. Instead he married Priscilla Beaulieu, a malleable teenager whose looks were strikingly like his own, while continuing to invite a string of actresses, models and Tennessee beauty queens into his bedroom for heavy petting and Bible readings.

We examine his manager, the self-invented Colonel Parker, whose relentless greed and myopic refusal to concern himself with the quality of the product led directly to the erosion of Elvis's powerful work ethic. The rigorously self-critical performer who in 1956 had insisted on running through 31 takes of "Hound Dog" had fallen so far by 1972 that his drummer, Jerry Carrigan, could say of him that "He'd settle for anything". By the time Parker realised what his strategy had achieved, it was too late. But Guralnick's analysis of the Colonel's often brilliantly instinctive pragmatism also allows us to glimpse the reasons why Elvis might have agreed to a 50-50 split with his manager, and then consented to the apparently lunatic decision to sell the freehold of his entire back catalogue to the record company for a one-time payment of $5.4m in 1973, allowing Parker, thanks to various bonuses and consultancy fees, to walk away with the lion's share of the gross.

And we watch Presley, his tendency to self- absorption encouraged by an adoring mother and reinforced by his public, stumble into the shallows of spiritual exploration, blissed out on Kahlil Gibran and Madame Blavatsky, bombed out on Tuinal and Dexamyl and Placidyl and Dilaudid, experimenting with LSD, half-searching for someone to worship, half-convinced of his own divinity.

Reviewing the first volume, Last Train to Memphis, in these pages five years ago, I expressed (amid many admiring comments) a reservation about the need for quite as much circumstantial detail as Guralnick provided, questioning its effect on the narrative momentum as he took Elvis from his birth in 1935 to his induction into the US Army in 1958, at the height of his popularity. At 658 pages of text, Careless Love is almost half as long again, and almost twice as densely footnoted; yet it is also considerably more gripping as it follows Presley through the long rallentando of his final years, as he increasingly fails to live up to his own observation to his friend Jerry Schilling: "You know, one of the most important things in life is to be able to cope with not having anything to do." Guralnick's compassion renders his subject not less weird, but more human.

There are no easy judgements here, and the sense that the author shares the reader's distress is generally achieved by implication. The writing, plain in the very best sense, seldom betrays the technical difficulty of sustaining interest in such an airless world and its often dismally repetitive behaviour. And, towards the end, viewing the footage of a 1977 concert, Guralnick sums up Presley's pitiful fate in a paragraph of wonderful grace and resonance: "He gives the impression of a man crying out for help when he knows help will not come. And even after more than 20 years it is almost unbearable to listen to or watch, the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty, and in its place sheer, stark terror." Homeric in its play of beauty and folly, this is a monumental work.

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