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.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little