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Charles Taylor"Everything is so dreamy when you are young. After you grow up it kind of becomes -- just real."
-- Elvis Presley, 1966
More like a nightmare. You think you're ready for what this tale holds because you've heard it before. And still you're not prepared. "I know of no sadder story," writes Peter Guralnick in the introduction to his Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, the concluding volume of his Presley biography, and long before you reach the end, you feel that sadness hanging over every page.
Covering the years from Elvis' 1958 arrival in Germany with the Army to his death in 1977, Careless Love simply can't be as exhilarating as Guralnick's preceding volume, Last Train to Memphis. That was a book about erasing boundaries; this is a book about acceding to them. But it's because of the vividness of Last Train (described by Bob Dylan as "Elvis as he walks the path between heaven and nature in an America that was wide open") that Careless Love achieves the depth of tragedy.
That can rarely be said of showbiz biographies or stories about addicts, which all tend to follow the same downward trajectory. Elvis' story is both. But let's remember who we're talking about here. The Elvis of these books isn't the figure Greil Marcus -- whose critical writing on Elvis remains unsurpassed -- described last year as "a punch line without a joke." That is to say, a part of our iconography who's so familiar -- as camp icon, as imagined savior, as a convenient symbol of all that's vulgar and tawdry -- that he's taken for granted. He's the most important artist of the last half of this century, the only one to have set off reverberations that changed the way the world looks. Guralnick doesn't attempt to prove that; he considers it self-evident. And if that strikes you as quaint or overstated or even ludicrous -- whether because you think popular culture can never be "art" or because "The Sun Sessions" or "All Shook Up" or "Suspicious Minds" never meant as much to you as "Court and Spark" or "Dark Side of the Moon" or "Never Mind the Bollocks" -- tough. The facts remain: Rock 'n' roll was at the core of the youth culture that changed society over the last 40 years, and Elvis put across the excitement and freedom of rock 'n' roll like no one before him, and only the Beatles since.
That assessment of Elvis' place in history is implicit in Careless Love, but Guralnick's focus is on the man. His great gift as a writer has always been an empathy that never eschewed critical judgments or embraced whitewashes. InLast Train to Memphis, he said that he wanted to allow the people he wrote about "to freely breathe their own air, to avoid imposing the judgment of another age ... both because I wanted to remain true to my 'characters' ... and because I wanted to suggest the dimensions of a world, the world in which Elvis Presley grew up, the world which had shaped him and which he in turn had unwittingly shaped, with all the homeliness and beauty that everyday life entails."
Homeliness and beauty aren't qualities you associate with the Hollywood sets, Vegas showrooms and endless successions of civic auditoriums where much of this story takes place. Nonetheless, those were the places (along, of course, with Graceland -- the most middle-class home imaginable) where Elvis' everyday life continued, and Guralnick evokes their atmosphere, the voices of the people present, without sacrificing the reality of a world that became increasingly unreal, made over according to Elvis' wishes into a prison of his own fashioning. "There are no villains here," says Guralnick, and amazingly, he's right. Not the Colonel, who may have kept Elvis afloat as much as he hindered him; not the infamous Dr. Nick, who may have tried to regulate the intake of an inveterate pillhead as much as he unconscionably abetted Elvis' habit; not even Elvis himself, who gave in to his physical and artistic decay much more than he resisted it.