Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

4.0 13
by Peter Guralnick, J. Charles
The New York Times hailed Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis as a "triumph of biographical art." Careless Love, the concluding volume of his masterful two-volume life of Elvis Presley, confirms Guralnick's status as one of the greatest biographers of our time.

Recounting the last two decades of Elvis's life -- from his army service in


The New York Times hailed Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis as a "triumph of biographical art." Careless Love, the concluding volume of his masterful two-volume life of Elvis Presley, confirms Guralnick's status as one of the greatest biographers of our time.

Recounting the last two decades of Elvis's life -- from his army service in 1958 to his premature death, in Memphis in 1977 -- Careless Love unlocks the tragic mystery of the King's transformation. Guralnick chronicles the unraveling of a rock-'n'-roll dream, homing in on the complex relationship between Elvis and his Machiavellian manager, Colonel Tom Parker; his marriage to the bewitching Priscilla Beaulieu; his growing addiction to prescription drugs; and of course, the legendary music that made it all happen.

This is the quintessential American story, encompassing elements of race, class, wealth, sex, music, religion, and personal evolution. Written with grace, sensitivity, and previously unimagined detail, Careless Love is a unique contribution to our understanding of American pop culture and the nature of success and downfall. Guralnick finally places the events of a too-often mistold tale in a fresh, believable context.

Of Last Train to Memphis, Bob Dylan wrote, "Elvis steps from the pages, you can feel him breathe, this book cancels out all others."

Editorial Reviews

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.

Ken Tucker
...Mostly what Guralnick is obliged to chronicle the story of a man who gave up his creative life for the security of wealth and unquestioning friends....Careless Love documents the life of a sheltered bore who turned his miracle into a tragedy as well as a joke.
Entertainment Weekly
Craig Havighurst
Together [Guralnick's two Elvis books] make up a 1,100-page masterwork — a streamlined and riveting narrative tracing the rise and fall of arguably the most important entertainer of the century.
The Wall Street Journal
Michiko Kakutani
...This volume tells a far more depressing tale than its predecessor....he gives us a harrowing...litany of lost opportunities, failed movies, manic enthusiams...and crazed drug binges....Mr. Guralnick manages to recount such events without indulging in the faintest bit of voyeurism or sensationalism...
The New York Times
Atlanta Journal & Constitution
Time Magazine
Masterly....Careless Love, a chronicle of shadows and sadness, is no sentimental epitaph. It is the fine and careful measure of a pilgrim traveler who was never sure what he wanted, gave too much of what he got, and had to say Amen before he could even be sure the Lord was listening.
Rolling Stone
...Guralnick is an old hand at tracking shadowy, enigmatic figures....[His] assessment of the man's work — and of the people and events that surrounded and shaped him — is remarkably balanced....[and] clear-eyed...
Library Journal
This sequel to Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis (Little, Brown, 1994), completing his intensive biography of Elvis Presley, does not disappoint. Careless Love picks up the thread with Elvis's hitch in the army through his death in 1977, a period that becomes increasingly darker and more complex. The breadth of Guralnick's research is nothing short of amazing, and his lyrical narrative presents an empathetic portrait of a man struggling with drugs, sex, family, personal eccentricities, money, and the delicate web of relationships surrounding any famous figure. Elvis's manager Colonel Tom Parker, wife Priscilla, father Vernon, and a host of close associates are portrayed with candor and insight. Details about everything from recording sessions to private conversations make this work hard to resist for die-hard Elvis fans as well as casual admirers. Guralnick's honesty and skill make this tale all the more disturbing, peeling away the romantic image of a fine talent to reveal a deeply troubled man. For all performing arts/ entertainment collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/98.]--Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ
Gerald Marzorati
Careless Love...must be ranked among the most ambitious and crucial biographical undertakings yet devoted to a major American figure of the second half of the 20th century.
The New York Times Book Review
Rolling Stone
Charles Wright
...[T]he book soars when its author...analyzes presley the musician and the accomplishments of individual recording sessions or concerts...
Biography Magazine
D. Keith Mano
As Elvis said of himself, "People will come from miles around to see a freak."
National Review
Publishers Weekly
It's an epic American tragedy, captured here in all its complexity.
Kirkus Reviews
Guralnick concludes his majestic two-volume biography of Elvis Presley with copious evidence of Elvis' creative and personal plunge. Last Train to Memphis brilliantly illuminated the mystery of Elvis' genius; what it consisted of and where it came from. The unanswered mystery here is how someone who reshaped American culture between 1954 and 1958 could have so completely insulated himself from that culture for most of the rest of his life.

After Elvis came out of the army in 1960, he increasingly became a clock-puncher. The times left him behind as he gamely acted in inanely trashy movies and sang inanely trashy songs in order to fulfill contractual commitments. Guralnick meticulously documents manager Colonel Tom Parker's cutthroat dealings with RCA Records and the movie studios, which resulted in staggering paychecks for both Presley and Parker (by the mid-'70s, Parker was splitting his sole client's earnings 50-50). While his celebrated 1968 TV special rejuvenated Elvis professionally, the overstuffed-jumpsuit years that followed had few aesthetic or personal high points. Hangers-on tirelessly served the King's whims, including multiple simultaneous affairs and the incredibly debilitating pharmaceutical habits that eventually did him in. Unconditionally loved by his audiences no matter how bloated, doped up, and incompetent he became, Elvis indulged obsessions with guns and karate and even took a stoned trip to the Oval Office, where he persuaded a bemused President Nixon to make him a federal narcotics agent. As his sometime spiritual advisor and hairdresser Larry Geller puts it, "The outside world was a distant place he ventured out into but never really lived in."

Careless Love is about claustrophobia, insularity, and disintegration: exactly the opposite of the previous volume's subjects. We miss the cultural context of the 1960s and '70s, but then, so did Elvis. The diffuseness of this life is reflected in Guralnick's narrative. Nevertheless, this sequel to his exhilarating first volume is the most meticulously researched and sympathetic, honest portrait of Elvis we are likely to see.

Wall Street Journal
"Riveting...A masterwork."

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Read an Excerpt


MEMPHIS, MARCH 1960They left in the aftermath of a blustery winter storm. The newly promoted sergeant emerged from the Fort Dix, New Jersey, paymaster’s office with a mustering-out check of $109.54 for travel expenses, food, and clothing. "Don’t forget my commission," growled his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, loud enough for newsmen to hear, and Elvis Presley smilingly handed him the check. He then strode toward a chauffeur-driven limousine surrounded by six MPs, as the post band played "Auld Lang Syne." Six teenage girls emerged from the crowd and the MPs closed ranks, but the young soldier slowed down, smiled, and stopped to chat with his fans. He reached into his traveling case and pulled out six autographed pictures, one for each girl, then disappeared with his manager into the limo as his army buddies yelled, "Go get ’em, Elvis."

It was two years since he had left civilian life, seventeen months since he had last set foot on American soil. He leaned back in the seat, a broad smile illuminating his handsome twenty-five-year-old features, and cast a backward glance at the forty-car caravan of reporters, photographers, and fans that fell in behind them on the snowy highway. It seemed in some ways as if he had never been away, in others that he was still a stranger in a foreign land. His fingers drummed nervously on the plush upholstery — he had scarcely slept the previous night, and even now he felt such a mix of emotions that it would have been impossible for him to express them all. He had told reporters that the only thing on his mind was to rest up at home for the next few weeks, but that was not in fact true. He had an RCA recording session coming up on which he knew everyone was pinning their hopes; his guest appearance on "Frank Sinatra’s Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley," a television special, was scheduled in less than a month; and Hal Wallis, who had signed him to his first motion picture contract just four years earlier, was planning to start production on G.I. Blues the moment these other obligations were fulfilled.

If he was certain of one thing, it was that his manager had a plan. The Colonel, heavy, saturnine, his hooded eyes veiling an expression of amused avidity that Elvis sometimes thought he alone could read, had stayed in constant touch with him throughout his army hitch. He had never come to see him in Germany — he was too busy orchestrating all the elements necessary to sustain his single client’s career — but he had maintained almost daily communication and provided a steady stream of encouragement, both strategic and paternal, even in the darkest days. No detail was too small for the Colonel to take up. He had continued to promote Elvis Presley merchandise, devised sales campaigns for each new record release, and hustled small-time theater owners when Paramount rereleased King Creole and Loving You the previous summer. He had fought the army to a standstill over plans to enlist Elvis as an ambassador-entertainer, refused to cave in to RCA’s increasingly importunate demands to have him record something — anything — while stationed in Germany, and then used the shortage of product to improve their bargaining position. He had negotiated movie deals in a climate of doubt (Will Presley’s Appeal Last? was a typical headline, and a typically voiced studio sentiment whenever money was being discussed) and had been so successful at it that they now had three starring vehicles lined up for this year alone, including two "serious" pictures for Fox.

Above all he had kept Elvis’ name in the headlines for the entire two years, a feat that Elvis had never believed possible — and he had shared every detail of the campaign with his protégé, confiding his strategy, describing his "snow jobs," bolstering the homesick soldier when he was down, praising him for his courage and forbearance, making him feel like a man. They were an unbeatable team, a partnership that no one on the outside could ever understand, and Elvis was well aware that Colonel had not taken on one new artist in the time that he was away.

The present plan was more in the nature of a diversion, and Colonel was having fun with it. They were heading for New York, he had informed the press; they were going to have a big news conference at the Hotel Warwick and then spend the weekend there. But that, of course, was nothing like what he had in mind. He had in fact worked out five fully developed alternate routes and schemes, with any number of decoy vehicles and even a helicopter on standby if need be — but, really, his only intention was obfuscation, at which he was preternaturally adept. They lost the caravan of accompanying vehicles somewhere in New Jersey. "Elvis Presley mysteriously vanished from a snow-packed fan-laden highway," it was reported in the newspapers the following day, but in actuality they simply retreated to a hotel hideout in Trenton, where they rendezvoused with the rest of the group: three-hundred-pound Lamar Fike, who had accompanied Elvis to Germany and remained faithfully by his side the entire seventeen months; Rex Mansfield, Elvis’ army buddy from Dresden, Tennessee, to whom the Colonel had gladly agreed to give a lift home; the Colonel’s chief lieutenant, Tom Diskin; and assorted other record company representatives and members of the Colonel’s staff. For most of the day they holed up in Trenton, with Colonel relaying confusing messages to the world at large through his secretary in Madison, Tennessee. That evening they took a private railroad car to Washington, where they boarded the Tennessean, scheduled to depart at 8:05 a.m. Once again they occupied a plush private car, attached to the rear of the train, but now their schedule was known to the world, published by the Colonel with the idea of giving his boy the kind of welcome a home-coming hero deserved.

There was a crowd of fifteen hundred in Marion, Virginia, twenty-five hundred in Roanoke, and substantial turnouts at smaller stops along the way. Elvis emerged on the observation platform at every one, slim and handsome in the formal dress blues he had had made up in Germany with an extra rocker on the shoulder designating a higher, staff sergeant’s rank. It had been, he explained embarrassedly when challenged about the extra stripe, a tailor’s mistake, but some of the more cynical reporters put it down as the Colonel’s work, or, simply, Elvis’ vanity. He never said a word at any of the stops, merely waved and smiled, and, in fact, somewhere in Virginia, Rex took his place on the platform at the Colonel’s insistence, and with the Colonel’s assurance that the fans would never know the difference.

Inside the car the Colonel and Elvis were rolling dice at $100 a throw, and Elvis gave Rex and Lamar enough money so they could play, too. When Rex tried to return the several hundred dollars that he subsequently won, Elvis offered him a job as his chief aide. There would be lots more money, he said, if Rex would just stick with him, and a glamorous life to boot. Talk to the Colonel, he suggested, if Rex had any doubts.

To Rex’s surprise the Colonel, whom he had been hearing about from Elvis ever since they had first met at the Memphis induction center two years before, advised against it. After listening carefully to Rex’s well-formulated plans for the future and what he considered to be his prospects for business success, Colonel Parker "told me that he thought I was good enough to make it on my own and that I did not need to hang around Elvis. He said that I was not like most of the other guys that hung around and that his best advice was not to take the job. Then the Colonel told me not to tell Elvis what he said, because it would make Elvis mad. . . . He said he had given me his honest, sincere advice, but the final decision was still mine. Again, he said to me, ‘If you tell Elvis that I told you not to take the job with him, I’ll deny it.’"

In Bristol, Tennessee, a young reporter from the Nashville Tennessean got on, alerted by a collect call from the Colonel’s staff. Presley, wrote David Halberstam, was "like a happy young colt. . . . He wrestled with some of his bodyguards, winked at the girls in the station, and clowned with his ever-faithful manager and merchandiser, Col. Tom Parker. ‘Man, it feels good to be going home,’ Presley said. ‘So good.’ Then he put a hand over the Colonel’s receding hairline and said, ‘Andy Devine [a portly Hollywood character actor], that’s who it is. Andy Devine.’ ‘Quit pulling my hair out,’ the Colonel said. ‘I’m just massaging it for you,’ Presley said. ‘Every time you massage,’ [the Colonel replied], ‘I have a little less left. . . .’

"The Colonel, both remarkably excited and unshaven after the cloak and dagger days on the east coast . . . was pleased. Pleased with his boy, and pleased with the hordes of youngsters that he had to fight off. ‘As many or more than before,’ he said, pointing to the mobs. ‘Better than ever.’"

Halberstam observed three thousand teenagers in Knoxville waving banners and signs, as the train made its stop at 8:55 p.m., less than eleven hours from Memphis. He could feel the excitement mounting, the young singer’s nervous energy would allow him neither to sit still nor to sleep all through the long night. He continued roughhousing with his companions, practiced his quick draw, and threw in an occasional demonstration of the Oriental discipline of karate, which he had been studying seriously in Germany for the past few months. If he ever lost his voice, the Colonel remarked dryly, "we could make money with his wrestling." When Memphis reporters joined the party in Grand Junction at 6:15 a.m. and then at Buntyn Station a little more than an hour later, he was still wearing his dress uniform with Good Conduct ribbon and Expert’s medal for marksmanship prominently displayed, but by now he had donned one of the two formal lace shirts that Frank Sinatra’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Nancy, had presented to him at Fort Dix on behalf of her father. "If I act nervous, it’s because I am," he told Press-Scimitar reporter Bill Burk. "I’ve been gone a long time, a long time," he muttered almost to himself, as the train pulled into the station. What had he missed most about Memphis? he was asked. "Everything. I mean that — everything."

Two hundred fans, reporters, and the just plain curious were waiting when the train arrived at 7:45. It was snowing, and there was an icy wind, but the crowd chanted, "We want Elvis," as they massed behind a six-foot-high wrought-iron fence. "It was nice to have you aboard," said the conductor, H. D. Kennamer, shaking his hand. "Thank you, sir," said Elvis Presley, squaring his shoulders and plunging back into the life he had once known. He walked along the fence, shaking hands through the bars and recognizing familiar faces. He spoke briefly with various friends and fans, then indicated to the Colonel’s brother-in-law and aide, Bitsy Mott, that he wanted to confer with Gary Pepper, a twenty-seven-year-old cerebral palsy victim who had recently taken over the Tankers Fan Club (Elvis had been assigned to a tank corps) and was holding a "Welcome Home, Elvis, The Tankers" sign above his head. Bitsy wheeled Pepper through the crowd, and they had a brief meeting, with Pepper apologizing that there wasn’t a bigger turnout, it was a school day, after all. "Elvis bit his lip," reported the newspaper, "seemed to be trying to repulse tears, and said, ‘I’ll see you later, pal.’"

Then he was gone, scooped up in his old friend police captain Fred Woodward’s squad car, arriving at Graceland less than thirty minutes later with lights flashing and siren screaming. "The gates swung open," reported the Memphis Press-Scimitar, "and Woodward’s car . . . shot through at nearly 30 miles per hour. Then the gates closed. The king was once again on his throne."

Copyright © 1999 by Peter Guralnick"

Meet the Author

Peter Guralnick has been called "a national resource" by Nat Hentoff for work that has argued passionately and persuasively for the vitality of this country's intertwined black and white musical traditions. His books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. Of the first Bob Dylan wrote, "Elvis steps from the pages. You can feel him breathe. This book cancels out all others." Of the biography as a whole, the New York Times Book Review declared in a lead review, "It must be ranked among the most ambitious and crucial biographical undertakings yet devoted to a major American figure of the second half of the twentieth century." Other books include an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music, Sweet Soul Music, Lost Highway, and Feel Like Going Home; the biographical inquiry Searching for Robert Johnson; and the novel, Nighthawk Blues. His latest book, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, has been hailed by the San Fransisco Chronicle as "monumental, epic tale told against a backdrop of brilliant, shimmering music, intense personal melodrama, and vast social changes." He is currently at work on a biography of Sam Phillips.

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