Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Book Report: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

It takes guts to write about Elvis, icon of icons. Telling the story of the real man, and not just rehashing his image poses a unique challenge when Black Leather Elvis and Fat White Jumpsuit Elvis are so firmly embedded in our cultural shorthand. Peter Garulnik proved equal to the task. His two part biography is unflinching and exhaustively researched. (Diary entries from Evlis' fan club president anyone?) But what impressed me most was the way he refrained from judging anyone involved with this eccentric and totally American life story, including Elvis himself.

I'd read Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley years ago, and had put off reading the sequel, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, because I knew how heartbreaking it would be. Eric gave it to me for Valentine's day and so I plunged in.

The book opens with Elvis joining the army, where he begins using amphetamines to stay awake practically around the clock. He creates the rotating circle of friends and sycophants that would surround him until the end, creating an impenetrable barrier between himself and the world at large. Instead of being part of the world, Elvis created a world unto himself. His title "The King" was perfect for a man who loved to tell anyone who questioned him, "You don't like it? There's the f*#%ing door."

After his release from the army, Elvis and the Colonel managed to stay on top for two more decades, accumulating a level of wealth, power and fame that most people only dream of. Elvis, with his stratospheric stardom, was among the first to experience fame's curious effect on a private life.

Any whim could be indulged to an extravagant degree, as when he took his jet to get a sandwich in Denver, ate it on the way back to Memphis and decided to turn around again for seconds once they'd landed. With any wish a finger snap away, surely, thought Elvis, total contentment and enlightenment were inevitable. The reality is much stranger. 

The mind tells us we want to be indulged, coddled, spoiled, humored. But this is a trap from which escape is nearly impossible. An atmosphere that will never challenge you, never force you to change or grow will become more and more surreal as it more and more closely mirrors your own unique neurosis and appetites. It's happened to them all- Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears.

Your world shrinks down to a closed off group who are there through a strange mixture of reverence, greed and sublimated desire. And as time goes on, those who were there for love can't take it anymore and you end up alone with the vultures and rats. The picture of celebrity we are fed- The Cars! The Villas in Italy! The Shopping Sprees! The Yachts! is a world away from the reality of  tinfoil covered windows blocking out daylight, hours watching closed circuit t.v from Graceland's security cameras, shady doctors sending boxes of pills and filing in to give injections to medicate away every twinge of inexplicable misery. The misery is the most confusing part. You should be the happiest man alive, you have everything! (Reminds me of the Springsteen song "Better Days" where he sings "Fortune's sweet kiss is like eating caviar and dirt.It's a sad funny ending when you find yourself pretending, you're a rich man in a poor man's shirt. ")

As I read about Elvis, what broke my heart the most was that he really did have an incredible gift, and sincere passion and devotion to music. But in the Velvet Prison he'd constructed, there was no way for him to grow as a human being, and therefore, no way for him to grow as an artist. Instead, he was reduced to a grandiose idea of himself, a cardboard cut out like the characters he played in all those terrible films. His last years were permeated by self indulgence that rotted away his health, his dignity and alientated him from anyone who truly cared for him.

It's a sad story, but not an uncommon one, and I doubt I'd do much better. I think it was John Lennon who said, "Everybody knows money can't buy happiness, but everyone wants to find out for themselves."

How would you handle fame and fortune? Can you think of anyone who has managed it with grace?

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