Books: The end of Lonely Street

Sky-high on prescribed drugs, he wore a Bureau of Narcotics badge with pride... Charles Shaar Murray asks where it all went wrong for the King; Careless Love: the unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick Little, Brown, pounds 19.99, 766pp
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The Independent Culture
THE BEST one-sentence summary of the bizarre trajectory of Elvis Presley's life and career is still Little Richard's. Elvis, opined the Bronze Liberace, "got what he wanted, but he lost what he had". In Last Train To Memphis, the justly-lauded first volume of this monumental biography, Peter Guralnick told the story of how Elvis got what he wanted. In Careless Love, we watch Presley losing what he had. As his sly, manipulative manager Colonel Tom Parker once remarked, "When I met Elvis he had a million dollars worth of talent. Now he has a million dollars."

Careless Love picks up in 1958, with the 23-year-old Elvis's induction into the US Army and the death of his beloved mother, Gladys. These were pivotal events: the man was never the same after the bereavement and the artist was never the same after military service. He went in a threat to Western civilisation and came out a middle- American icon; a clean-cut family entertainer specialising in "Bing Crosby pictures".

An exhilarating late-Sixties return to form turned out to be little more than a mirage, and he spent the Seventies degenerating into the bloated, incontinent "Fat Elvis" who died in his bathroom, face down in a pool of vomit with his gold pyjama bottoms around his swollen ankles. He had 14 different drugs in his system.

Elvis's position on the subject of drugs bears an eerie similarity to Bill Clinton's on sex. Elvis believed that having something legally prescribed by a tame doctor classified it as "medicine", as opposed to "drugs", which were for hippies and subversives. The logical conclusion was the grotesque spectacle of Elvis, weighted down with guns and higher than a Branson balloon on the kind of expensive heavy-duty chemicals about which street dopers could only fantasise, boolsheeting his way into Nixon's Oval Office to offer his services as an anti-drug campaigner and blag himself a Bureau of Narcotics badge.

How did it all go so hideously wrong? As his buddy Lamar Fike remarked, "Elvis always kept his own world with him; he kept his bubble." One of his last girlfriends concurs: "Like the boy in the bubble - he was just this guy who had this wonderful charisma and things got blown way out of shape. He was just this innocent little guy."

If anything destroyed Elvis, it was precisely that. He was the first person from his background - redneck, blue-collar, white skin - to experience anything remotely like what happened to him. To maintain his equilibrium he surrounded himself with the posse of obsequious hometown buddies who became known as the Memphis Mafia and who combined with Colonel Parker to isolate him from the outside world. Spiritually deep but intellectually shallow, he had everything money could buy - but that was all he had.

So which Elvis are we talking about? There was the Elvis who endorsed Adlai Stevenson against Eisenhower in the 1956 election; who was - by the standards of his environment - quite spectacularly unprejudiced; who was pals with James Brown; who tried acid in 1965; who became utterly distraught at the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, and numbered To Kill A Mockingbird and Dr Strangelove among his favourite movies. Then there was the Elvis who considered J Edgar Hoover the greatest living American; who loved to wear cop uniforms and collect badges; who wanted to invite Khrushchev home to prove that anyone could succeed under capitalism; and who was so hung up about motherhood that he banished his bride from his bed following the birth of their child because he could not bear to have sex with any woman who had given birth.

To put it mildly, this is not a pretty story. Most of the best previous writing about Elvis has been analytical and polemical - much of that, in turn, has been the work of Greil Marcus, notably in Mystery Train and Dead Elvis. Here Guralnick plays it straight. In the preface to Last Train To Memphis, he stated that "if I have succeeded in my aim, I have given the reader the tools to create his or her own portrait of Elvis Presley." He has indeed succeeded - brilliantly and beautifully. What we are left with, ultimately, is a mesmerising account of America's broken promise writ large.