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Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

3.4 7
by Bobbie Ann Ann Mason

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When Bobbie Ann Mason first heard Elvis Presley on the family radio, she recognized him as "one of us . . . a country person who spoke our language"—Southern, working class, a little wild. In Elvis Presley, the bestselling author of the two modern American classics Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country captures all the vibrancy and tragedy


When Bobbie Ann Mason first heard Elvis Presley on the family radio, she recognized him as "one of us . . . a country person who spoke our language"—Southern, working class, a little wild. In Elvis Presley, the bestselling author of the two modern American classics Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country captures all the vibrancy and tragedy of this mythic figure.

With heartfelt intimacy and a novelist's insight, Mason charts the intoxicating life of the first rock-and-roll superstar, whose music shattered barriers and changed the sound of America. Elvis the impassioned singer and charismatic youth embraced the celebrity brought him by a host of top-forty hits and movies. But Elvis the small-town boy and devoted son was in no way prepared for being catapulted into an unimagined stratosphere. This is the riveting story of an unforgettable man and his indelible legacy.

Author Biography: Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of Shiloh and Other Stories, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award; Feather Crowns, winner of the Southern Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and the bestselling novel In Country(which was made into a film starring Bruce Willis). Her memoir, Clear Springs, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She has received two O. Henry awards and two Pushcart prizes for her short fiction in publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's. Her most recent short story collection is Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail.

Editorial Reviews

An Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason

Barnes & Noble.com: How did you come to write this biography of Elvis, given your fame as a writer of fiction?

Bobbie Ann Mason: It's a short biography, so I couldn't tell everything. It's more of an essay with a point of view. I came at all of this as a southerner, and I approached it in a somewhat literary way, using images and descriptions of photographs and little moments in his life that were not that well known but that I thought might be revealing. It was Elvis's dream to rise above his impoverished background and to buy his mama a Cadillac and a nice home, and that dream fueled his music. I am from western Kentucky, and my fiction takes place in that setting, which is directly north of Tupelo [Mississippi, Elvis's hometown] and Memphis. So I grew up hearing the same music and being aware of a similar culture. I felt I had some insight into him.

Another motivation for writing the book was to counteract that stereotype, all of those clichés about Elvis. Many people don't know much more than spangle jump suits, the guy who shot out TV sets, gorged on peanut butter sandwiches, and gave away cars to perfect strangers. That's really not Elvis. His people were country people, and they had their own culture, and Elvis was always loyal to that world at the same time he wanted to get out of it. And he was always uncomfortable when he would cross class lines. There is so much about Elvis that you can understand when you understand the textures of that upbringing.

When Elvis first was able to buy his parents a house in Memphis in 1956, I imagine that there was probably nothing more exciting in his life from then on -- the ability to achieve that dream, the idea that they could have a real house, a nice house with two bathrooms, four bedrooms. Gladys hung her wash out on the line because it was what she was used to, but the neighbors didn't approve. Life became impossible at that house because Elvis's fans stole the wash, and it was getting on his mother's nerves. It was his parents who found Graceland because it was out in the country -- so Gladys could have some chickens and Vernon [Elvis's father] could raise some hogs. Elvis bought it and kept it as his home for the rest of his life. It was the place he was devoted to, where he honored his mother.

B&N.com: He was extraordinarily close to his mother, Gladys. Could you talk about his relationship with her?

BAM: I think it was a very volatile relationship. She was very strict with him as well as indulgent with her affection. And after she died, it is often said that he lost his moral compass. And part, I think, of his lack of inhibition in his performances and as a performer are ways of rebelling against her, in a way. He could let loose on stage in a way and cause all of the girls to squeal when he would go on road trips and was discovering his sexual magnetism as a performer, much to his surprise. He was totally devoted to his mother. At the same time, he couldn't be what she wanted for him to be, which was to marry a nice girl and have children. And Gladys died and Elvis had difficulty after that.

B&N.com: Please tell us about Elvis's early career and why he was considered so controversial.

BAM: Nobody had done anything like this before: the mixing of the music, rhythm and blues, and country music. Elvis loved all kinds of music. He was hearing it in his head from the time he was born. It was the way he performed without inhibition and the way he brought in these new strains of music that upset the nation at large. I think that maybe southerners were not so shocked, depending on what class level they were. So, it was the revolutionary new music and the fact that he swiveled his hips.

He thought it was funny. All his life he mocked his image. When he first, very first, went on stage, and his leg was shaking out of nervousness, he didn't know why the girls were squealing. He thought they were criticizing him, but it took him not very long to discover what they were responding to. I think he just let loose in a way because he didn't know any better. He was always very polite and had manners, but that kind of crude behavior that he let loose with, he just thought, What the hell? This is creating some excitement. I like it.

B&N.com: Elvis did a large number of films but grew dissatisfied in Hollywood. What bothered him about it?

BAM: He wanted from the very beginning to be taken seriously as an actor. Singing was natural to him. He always sang -- gospel music especially -- but had also grown up with movies. That was just a dream -- something you couldn't even imagine you could ever do. But he got the chance to go to Hollywood and was so serious with Love Me Tender that when he showed up the first day he had memorized not only his own lines but also everybody else's. Not just that day's worth of dialogue but the entire script. He kept losing out on big opportunities to make serious movies because the Colonel discouraged him.

B&N.com: There was a very spiritual side to Elvis. He grew up a fundamentalist Christian. As an adult he explored numerous religions, including many Eastern religions.

BAM: Elvis was a very serious, introspective person. He had a very religious upbringing in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. It didn't suit his needs as he got older and more famous, but he couldn't stop thinking about these more spiritual questions: Why was I chosen to be Elvis? Why did this happen to me? What should I do about it? So, because he had a religious bent, he explored a lot of religions and underlined a lot of passages in books that he thought applied to his situation. He just read all the time and was tormented by these questions.

Ultimately, he thought he had an important role to play, not as a minister but as an entertainer. He was devoted to being Elvis. His tragedy was that he was so sincere in trying to move up to the image that the public imposed on him. He would say nobody could live up to an image but he was so grateful to his fans for making him the King of Rock 'n' Roll that he felt he had a duty toward them -- a responsibility. So, in a way, he was the servant of his fans. And that probably inhibited him artistically as well.

B&N.com: How did Elvis get involved in taking drugs, and how did the habit lead to his death?

BAM: Elvis started to take amphetamines in the army because his officers gave them to him so he could stay awake during tank patrol. And he loved them and he placed his faith in them, because he innocently thought they could not be bad for you if the army officers agreed to give them to you. He liked it, and he kept using them after he got out of the army. That really was his drug problem, because he had to take downers to go to sleep. His faith was in prescription drugs. He then abused them, because he thought they were all right. So, he ruined his health.

B&N.com: How do you explain that Elvis is the great American musical figure, a great American phenomenon -- even in death? Why is he such an important figure in American history. And exactly why has his image survived him?

BAM: Elvis, of course, changed American culture [and] American popular music. By the end of the 20th century, rock 'n' roll was the dominant world form, I guess. And he was largely responsible for that. And his image -- and this is a scary thing -- he had the power to communicate directly with people. First of all, he was musically electrifying. Secondly, he was an electrifying performer. But it is a complex question, why his image has survived him. We may not realize how huge his popularity is, but [during] Elvis Week in August there are fans in Britain [who] will charter 10 to 20 jets. Also, that recent [recording] of 31 No. 1 hits went platinum in Brazil and many other countries. It went triple platinum in the U.S. The power of his music is his ultimate legacy. I hope it is not jump suits from the '70s. Most people got to throw away their clothes from that time.

B&N.com: What are you working on now?

BAM: I am working on a novel. It takes place in Lexington, Kentucky, where all my fiction does. I don't know much more.

James Sullivan
As scores of Elvis Presley biographies will tell you, Elvis was born alongside a stillborn twin. For bestselling Kentucky novelist Mason (In Country), the beating of that other heart in the womb is only the first mythic episode in a life that transcended the most imaginative fiction. Elvis "began his life with a backbeat," she writes in this highly enjoyable rendering of the Presley folklore. There can hardly be anything left unsaid about Elvis, and Mason acknowledges as much. Gliding through the particulars—the dizzy rise to superstardom, the development of the quintessential Vegas act—she is at her sharpest when analyzing Presley's inner turmoil. In later years, his sometimes bizarre antics were symptomatic: "He seemed to plead with the audience to see through his act—to reject him," she writes. The pressures of being Elvis were colossal, and Mason's little bio ably illuminates them.
Publishers Weekly
Written by fellow Southerner Mason (In Country; Clear Springs), this abbreviated biography suffers fromthe series' length limitation but makes up for it by hitting the significant points. Mason credits Elvis with inventing rock and youth culture and "[puncturing] the balloon of 1950s serenity and conformity." She posits that the result of his stint in the army "was to erase his rock-and-roll rebel image and turn him into a mainstream all-American boy next door," and that in 1969, after almost a decade spent making bad films, "he was genuinely invigorated by making good music again." It's when Mason offers her insight into Southern culture that the biography turns superficial, like her attempt to contextualize the bloated figure of the drug-addled singer's late years by noting that "in the deep-fried South, his shape was a familiar sight, typical of his age group." On the other hand, she does intrigue, stating that Elvis "was innocently authentic, but he craved the inauthentic, as country people, who are so close-uncomfortably close-to what is starkly real, often do." Unfortunately, Mason doesn't have the room to explain because she has to get back to zooming through the rest of Elvis's life before her space is up. As such, this intro to Elvis will be useful, but is still no substitute for Peter Guralnick's definitive two-volume biography (Last Train to Memphis, Careless Love), which Mason praises in her acknowledgments along with many other sources. (Dec. 30) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
In her story of the man with arguably the most famous hips of all time, Mason creates a worthy addition to the Penguin Lives series of bite-sized biographies of famous folks penned by contemporary novelists. Here teens will get a good idea of where today's boy bands got their roots. As Mason generously dishes the dirt that teens will probably be most interested in, such as Elvis's adventures in excess with his infamous entourage, the "Memphis Mafia," and his doomed romance with naïve teen Priscilla, she is always compassionate in her telling and often makes Elvis out to be a victim of his unprecedented fame: "Elvis, the consumer supreme, was consumed, both before and after his death." Mason's storytelling skills really shine when she describes two of the more bizarre episodes of Elvis's life: his impromptu jam with the Beatles-during which Elvis reportedly said to the star-struck Mop Tops, "If you guys are just gonna sit there and stare at me, I'm going to bed," and Ringo ended the evening playing roulette with Colonel Parker-and his strange meeting with President Richard Nixon, at which "he almost surely was stoned." Mason's novelistic approach will appeal to teens who are looking for an entertaining biography that does more than list names and dates. Mason's main theme-that fame is often an unquenchable fire-will be a familiar litany to those raised on the sounds of 'NSYNC. Mason provides a worthy general purchase for most public and high school libraries. Source Notes. VOYA CODES: 4Q 2P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2003, Viking,192p,
— Jennifer Hubert
Library Journal
Award-winning novelist Mason spins a tragic tale of Presley, who tried to fill his role as the great American hero but could never escape his poor Southern background. She covers the familiar terrain of his impoverished youth in Tupelo, MS; his initial success at Sun Records; his rise to fame and army draft; his mother's death and his own early drug experimentation; his 1968 comeback; his sequined Vegas persona; and his increasing loneliness, drug addiction, and premature death in 1977. Throughout, Mason casts Presley as a complex figure, a man who was consumed by low self-esteem and fears but driven to succeed, who symbolized teenage rebellion yet called his mother everyday, and who became the ultimate American icon but could not shed his white-trash roots. Though clearly written and accurate, this addition to the huge Presley bibliography seldom provides any new insights and sometimes embellishes basic facts with overly imaginative conclusions. Part of the "Penguin Lives" series, this slender book will satisfy only the few who have never read much about the King. An optional purchase. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/02.]-Dave Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A noted fiction writer (Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, 2001, etc.) applies a bracing working-class sensibility and a native understanding of Elvis Presley’s southern roots to the familiar tale of his meteoric career. Penguin Lives are not usually based on primary sources, and Mason acknowledges as her main reference Peter Guralnick’s definitive two-volume biography (Last Train to Memphis, 1994; Careless Love, 1999). She didn’t need to do original research to feel close to the King. Raised on a farm in Kentucky, the author absorbed the same diverse musical influences, from R&B to gospel to opera. "When he emerged with his own startling, idiosyncratic singing style, we recognized its sources," she recalls. "Elvis was great, so familiar—and he was ours!" It wasn’t just a musical heritage they shared. Mason, who has written about her own feelings of inferiority as a country girl attending the University of Kentucky in Lexington, nails the opposing drives that sent a polite mama’s boy onstage to drive girls wild with his gyrations. "Elvis was born into the mind-set of poverty," she reminds us: "the deference toward authority and the insolent snarl underlying it." This instinctive understanding is particularly helpful in addressing the thorny question of Presley’s loyalty to Colonel Parker, whose focus on the fast buck played a major role in his artistic decline. Elvis and his parents knew the Colonel was a con man, Mason believes; they wanted someone unscrupulous to "maneuver among the bankers, lawyers, company executives . . . because they knew the big dudes would just stomp on them." Her take on Presley’s drug use as a means of suppressing his insecurities is similarly convincing. Readerslooking for evocative descriptions of the King’s boundary-smashing music will do better with Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train or Dave Marsh’s Elvis, but Mason’s plain prose and blunt opinions are the perfect vehicles to convey his utterly American life. Although the complexities of Elvis’s character and his place in American culture can’t be entirely explicated with such brevity, Mason grasps the essentials with perception and passion. Author tour

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Gale Group
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Read an Excerpt


ON AUGUST 16, 1977, when I learned that the King-Elvis Presley-was dead, I was vacationing in Nova Scotia. In the lounge at the inn where I was staying, the news came on TV. Stunned, I could only mumble some clichés. The bartender recalled the death of the actor Audie Murphy, a war hero of his generation. I felt far from home. Although I hadn't thought much about Elvis lately, I now sensed there was a great hole in the American cultural landscape. Elvis had always been there, hovering in the national psyche, his life punctuating our times-his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, his first movie, the death of his mother, the Army, his marriage, the 1968 "Comeback Special." It seemed inconceivable that Elvis-just forty-two years old-was gone.

For me, Elvis is personal-as a Southerner and something of a neighbor. I heard Elvis from the very beginning on the Memphis radio stations. Many parents found Elvis's music dangerously evocative, his movements lewd and suggestive-but when my family saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing "Ready Teddy," my father cried, "Boy, he's good!" We had been listening to rhythm-and-blues late at night on the radio for years, and we immediately recognized what Elvis was about. We had heard Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and Little Junior Parker and Big Bill Broonzy and Wynonie Harris and Elmore James. In the daytime we listened to big bands, pop hits, country, the opera, everything we could find on the dial. On Sundays we sang in church along with the congregation, and we heard plenty of gospel music-especially the Blackwood Brothers, who influenced Elvis so much. Elvis listened to the same regional stew, seasoned by the far-ranging reach of the radio, so when he emerged with his own startling, idiosyncratic singing style, we recognized its sources.

Elvis was great, so familiar-and he was ours! I don't remember the controversy he stirred up because everything he did seemed so natural and real, and he was one of us, a country person who spoke our language. It was hard to grasp how revolutionary his music was to the rest of the world. And it was years before we could realize what a true revolution in American culture Elvis had ignited.

But now the King was dead. Two writer friends of mine dropped everything when they heard the news and rushed to Graceland, Elvis's Memphis home, to grieve with the multitudes of fans. One of the writers snitched a rose from a floral wreath and still has it displayed under glass on her wall. The other helped himself to the newspaper that had arrived at Graceland the day after Elvis died-the paper Elvis would have read if he had lived. Elvis, who was taken seriously in a wide variety of circles, inspired such a need for connection. He mattered deeply to many different kinds of people. After his death, the world absorbed the story-the utter loneliness of his life, his grasping for ways to ease his pain and sorrow. It was a sad-in some ways a sordid-story, hard to take. Then the grief gave way to a nervous national joke throughout the eighties. Elvis had been part of American life, and now it seemed people didn't quite know what to do about him. Elvis was ridiculed, reduced to a caricature in a sequined jumpsuit. In 1992, the post office held a contest to vote on the new Elvis stamp; we could choose between the young, pretty Elvis and the older, bejeweled Elvis. Of course we chose the pretty one.

Some people refused to accept the news of his death. Sightings were reported. He became a barometer of the culture, a sort of hillbilly voodoo doll. As in life, Elvis was both revered and reviled. In 1980, a scurrilous biography portrayed him as a redneck with savage appetites and perverted mentality, and of no musical significance to American culture. This character assassination undoubtedly helped promote the national joke. Many may have found it preferable to reduce Elvis to a symbol, because Elvis made them uncomfortable. For some, he represented the dark forces, a crude creature from the lower classes; for others, he represented innocence, and the destruction of innocence is an unbearable sight. Perhaps joking about him-transmogrifying him into a fat, drug-crazed hillbilly with gargantuan appetites-both alleviated the guilt and conveniently removed him as a subject for serious examination. But the nineties produced a steady stream of reconsiderations of Elvis. Peter Guralnick's thorough two-volume biography helped to rescue Elvis's reputation and restore an understanding of his music. Guralnick sympathetically portrayed a life that he called an American tragedy.

A few months after Elvis died, I visited the small two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born. It was now a museum, outfitted as it might have been when the Presleys lived there. It was furnished with flea-market antiques-Jesus figurines and heart-shaped pincushions, a washtub, a washboard, a pie safe, a kerosene lamp, and dishes that had come free in detergent boxes during the Depression. But what mesmerized me was the glitter poster-glitter spilled on felt paper, forming the shape of Jesus, with a Bible verse. I hadn't seen one of those since childhood. I remembered them from church. The poster evoked a powerful memory-this fake relic, this reminder of the innocent, religious rock-and-roll artist who became a superstar like the world had never seen before. In the glitter you could imagine the foreshadowing of the sequined jumpsuit. The glitter poster, once ubiquitous in the South, was a little bit of fancy in a drab world. And it embodied immense hope.


ELVIS PRESLEY seemed to have sprung on the world without a history. His emergence in the mid-fifties was so sudden, his music so fresh, his personality so evocative that he could not be labeled. People went crazy. There has never been a mania quite like it. Teenagers went wild with excitement; their parents went wild with anxiety over Elvis's overt sexuality. Girls ripped his car apart; they stripped his clothes off; they were ready to rock and roll. Elvis's celebrity was an amazing American phenomenon, and the entire nation was gripped by it. Popular TV variety-show host Ed Sullivan at first found Elvis so shocking he declared he "wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole." Outside the South, the public found him frighteningly uncouth-a redneck from a backward, bigoted region. His music clearly had an affinity with rhythm-and-blues, from black culture. People heard raw jungle rhythms in his music-voodoo doings.

On the other hand, Elvis swept up marginal groups of people with a promise of freedom, release, redemption; he embodied a yin and yang of yearnings; he took people close to the edge and brought them back again; with his stupendous singing talent, he blended all the strains of popular American music into one rebellious voice; like Walt Whitman, he was large-he contained multitudes; he created a style of being that was so distinctive it could be made into an icon; he violated taboos against personal expression and physicality; he opened the airwaves to risk and trembling. Rock-and-roll had been brewing for years, but its defining moment was Elvis.

Even though he was controversial, his popularity was huge from the beginning, and over the years he became entrenched in American culture. He had eighteen number-one hits in a row; his album of million-selling gold records itself sold a million records; fifty-four million people watched his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, an 82.6 percent share of the nation's viewing audience. In 1956, the year he became known nationally, he became a millionaire, with ten songs on Billboard's Top 100, more than any other artist in the past. His ascendance from regional star to national star to Hollywood all occurred in an eyeblink. He was a boy wonder, both endearing and threatening, with a talent that defied category. Elvis set in motion a style of music that would dominate the world for the rest of the century. It was the beginning of youth culture-kids got their own record players and radios. It was the breakdown of sexual inhibition, and the end of racial segregation.

Elvis's success-and the rock-and-roll revolution-punctured the balloon of 1950s serenity and conformity. America was sunk in its Eisenhower torpor. With its worry about the Soviets and H-bombs, the nation at large seemed desperate for sweet contentment. But race issues were on the boil. The Supreme Court had ruled against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education only a few weeks before Elvis made his first record in 1954. The time was right for a magical figure to burst forth like a natural symbol of integration. Black musicians praised Elvis for helping their own music to reach a commercial audience. Little Richard, the inimitable purveyor of "Tutti Frutti," said, "I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open the door so I could walk down the road, you understand?"

Later, Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, in Soul on Ice, credited Elvis with sparking the social revolution of the sixties. Presley "dared to do in the light of day what America had long been doing in the sneak thief anonymity of night-consorted on a human level with the blacks."

Popular music began to challenge conventional tastes, and music with a beat-such as Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day"-began to dominate the charts. Because of his suggestive movements onstage, Elvis was called "Elvis the Pelvis," a name that embarrassed him. He was excoriated for lewdness and lasciviousness. One headline called him the "self-winding singer." His hip-swiveling was denounced far and wide, but he professed innocence. He didn't mean anything dirty by it, he said. It was just natural to him to let loose and express what he felt. With his coy lip curl and his playful habit of interrupting his songs to mug or joke, he reminded us not to take him too seriously. Elvis always had a sense of humor about his persona, acknowledging the absurdity of his fame.

Still, the weight of it affected his performance: his behavior was self-conscious, self-deprecating. Every person who achieves any degree of fame experiences some disorientation, but for Elvis it was unique. In the history of the world, few individuals have had such great success and fame so suddenly, with such far-reaching consequence and with so little preparation for dealing with it. This is a startling thought. How did he bear the burden?

In wondering whether anyone else has ever experienced this sort of sudden global recognition, I can think only of the astronauts walking on the moon. Over two billion people saw the first moon landing. Nearly as many-one and a half billion-saw Elvis in the first satellite-beamed TV show, Aloha from Hawaii, in 1973.

Elvis's fame happened to him-not entirely unbidden, but in proportions he had not imagined or sought. He was a dreamer, aspiring to stardom. He wanted to be big. He had seen all the movies, heard the songs, knew where the rewards came from-Hollywood and New York, not Memphis or Tupelo. But his desires outweighed his confidence. And his fame socked him in the face. It was as though Elvis himself had made one giant leap and then the whole earth jumped on him for stepping so fancy-jiggling and hunching and gyrating his leg like a brace drill.

The test of the popular hero in our age is his struggle against fame. The personal story of Elvis is his private tussle with his public image as the King of Rock-and-Roll. His tragedy arises from the earnestness of his endeavor to be the superhero he believed he was supposed to be.

—from Elvis Presley: A Penguin Lives Biography by Bobbie Ann Mason, Copyright © January 2003, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

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Elvis Presley 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im the worlds biggest Elvis Presley lover and this made me love him even more!!!!!!!"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He has cool hair and he ricks
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Christina Drill More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im not going to buy this because i dont care about a dead guy with poofy hair. But i like 1of his songs. Dont waste ur $$ on this book.