By Joel Francis
Elvis Presley led a boring life.
I realize this seems like a preposterous statement, especially coming from someone who devoted a good deal of time reading Peter Guralnick’s 1,000-plus page, two-volume biography of The King. But I stand by my statement.
Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Carless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley stand as the definitive works on the totality of Elvis’ life. Other books might provide better insight into a specific part of Elvis’ story, but for a cradle-to-grave examination, I can’t imagine how anyone could do it better than Guralnick.
In addition to being a great writer, Guralnick is a thorough researcher. While Elvis left no record of his life beyond the carefully cultivated figure in copious interviews, films and records, Guralnick gets to the soul of the man through first-hand interviews with scores of musicians, friends and – most importantly – women.
Through the memories of Dixie Locke, Elvis’ first girlfriend, we see the inception of his royalty. She was 15 when they met (Elvis was 19) and a sophomore in high school. They started seeing each other regularly when Elvis was a truck driver, delivering supplies at job sites for Crown Electrical in Memphis. Locke paints the picture of a man who was confident in his ability as a musician, but didn’t want to be pushy about his passion. Elvis’ always had his guitar with him and wouldn’t hesitate to play and sing if asked, but would never initiate a performance on his own.
Locke was on a two-week vacation with her parents when Elvis got the call from Sam Phillips to cut some songs for Sun Records. When she returned, Elvis was playing shows all over the area with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. Elvis and Locke did an admirable job of trying to remain a couple, but Elvis’ life had changed too much over that short amount of time. He was home less and less and the couple found they had fewer things in common each time he was back in Memphis. Elvis was still shy, tender and devoted, but he was no longer living a life that could be contained by a white picket fence and nine-to-five job.
Elvis’ rise on the Louisiana Hayride tours, the Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan television shows is well-covered territory. In many ways, his life crescendos upon entering the army. Although just 23 at the time, Elvis and his manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, were worried a fickle public would forget about The King while he was overseas. When Elvis returned from Germany two years later, he hit the ground running, recording singles and making movies to regain any lost momentum. He also came back with a habit for pills and a 14-year-old love interest, Priscilla Beaulieu.
In many ways, the events of 1960 and Elvis’ return to America set up a cycle of events that he was either never willing or able to escape for the rest of his life. Elvis would fly to Los Angeles or go on location for a movie shoot for a few weeks, pop into a California or Nashville studio to record the music for the film’s soundtrack, a stand-alone single or his own album, have a few weeks off, then be off to another movie shoot with a sprinkling of several more recording sessions, rinse, lather, repeat.
In the days of the Kennedy administration, it seemed like everything Elvis touched turned to gold. He had hit records and was a big box office draw. Because success came so quickly, both before and after the army, Elvis kept a tight circle of friends, people he knew from Memphis or the service, people he could trust. This is certainly natural and understandable. And because Elvis and his crew were all males in their early 20s, it made sense for everyone to burn the candle at both ends and have as much fun as possible. If that meant you had to take a few pills so you could stay up for 20-plus hours at a time and cavort around Las Vegas or the Sunset Strip, so be it.
The enduring problem was Elvis never found a greater purpose in life. He began with ambition to be a legitimate actor in the mold of Marlon Brando or James Dean, but it didn’t take long for Parker or the studio heads to realize that people would gladly pay just for the privilege of seeing their idol on the big screen, regardless of the vehicle. So, any attempts at prestige went out the window and the movies got quicker and cheaper. For most of the ‘60s, Elvis was appearing in three new movies each year.
Likewise, the unmistakable brilliance in being able to transform a standard like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” into something completely fresh and revolutionary was also being commodified. In order to make as much money as possible, Parker and RCA records insisted that they have a significant cut of the publishing on any song Elvis would record. As the decade progressed, the person responsible for finding new material from their publishing company got lazier and lazier and the material suffered significantly. There are many true gems to emerge from this period, like Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s “Viva Las Vegas.” But those moments are tarnished by the amount of embarrassing dreck like “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
Near the end of the decade, Elvis was tired of releasing such undercooked material (although he never got tired of cashing the checks). His routine had been pretty static for several years at this point, although because Elvis’ fame kept growing, the circle around him became even more insular and isolating. And because everyone had been taking stimulants to stay awake for so long, they now needed depressants to help them sleep.
Here again, the underlying issue of a greater purpose comes back to the fore. When you can buy anything you want without fear of running out of money, when you can bed any woman you want on charm alone and you can get out of any jam simply because you are Elvis Presley it all becomes very rote very quickly. Put another way, a life without friction is no life at all.
Elvis flirted with different hobbies, trying to fill that void. He bought a ranch and everyone got horses, he got into karate, then collecting law enforcement badges, guns and racquetball, but eventually tired of it all. Nothing scratched that itch.
Shortly after the summer of love, Elvis finally stood up for himself and declared he wanted to start touring again. (As a point of reference as to how out-of-touch Elvis was at this time, try imagining him at the Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock. It is almost impossible.) Coincidentally, the public was finally tiring on to Elvis’ cinematic manure and stopped showing up at the theaters. The ’68 Comeback Special re-established The King’s musical bona fides and invigorated his recordings for a while. The fans flocked to his concerts, which earned rave reviews, but in reality, Elvis had only traded three- or four-week movie shoots for two- or three-week tours. The rest of his hamster wheel remained the same.
After Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla ended in divorce, he desperately started cycling through a dizzying number of women. This time, though, he wasn’t (just) looking for sex. He was searching for a connection. He felt isolated from his entourage, his family, his manager, even well-meaning fans. Who he was as a person had been consumed by what he was as a celebrity.
Several women in Guralnick’s book express surprise that when they met Elvis, thinking their world was going to get larger. Instead, it shrank to hotel suites, Graceland and a dozen constant hangers-on. By the mid-‘70s, Elvis had given up any pretense of caring. He put on weight, quit trying onstage and lashed out at everyone around him. The merry-go-round of uppers and downers had given way to cocaine.
In his final years, Elvis was burning through money in futile attempts to buy intimacy. He’d buy a fancy car for a girl on their first date, then get sad when she wanted to leave Graceland to be with her friends or family. “Well I gave her a car and she leaves me in it,” Elvis quipped. He begged his dates to hold his hand and stay with him until the pills take over enough for him to fall asleep. He speaks baby talk and expects them to wait on and care for him. By the end, it is no surprise that Elvis dies, only that the inevitable took so long. And it didn’t really take that long. Picture Elvis in that gorgeous black leather attire onstage in the fabulous (and weird) ’68 Comeback Special. Now think of him bloated, squeezed into a jumpsuit. Those moments are less than 10 years apart.
Could this have been avoided? Looking at Judy Garland and Kurt Cobain, the answer seems negative. But Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Dave Grohl would say otherwise. Heck, Frank Sinatra outlived Elvis by two decades, and Sinatra started his career when Elvis was in grade school.
Elvis rarely spoke up for himself, preferring to follow a schedule someone else laid out for him. Maybe he didn’t want to let down all the people depending on him, but it ultimately meant he became a pawn in his own life. He was far too content with the superficial for far too long, rarely searching for depth until he had become fallow.
As Guralnick notes in the introduction to Careless Love, Elvis’ story is a tragedy. It is compelling and fascinating by what it suggests and lacks, but as a long-form, day-by-day narrative, it plays like a boring recitation of Groundhog’s Day as the same events cycle past again and again. As a vacation, I’d swap places with Elvis in a second, but in the long view I’ll take my mundane life over Elvis’ boring one any time.
Cue “Heartbreak Hotel.” Roll credits.