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Two Saturdaysago Ms. Diane and I were sitting in a little outboard-rigged rowboat in themiddle of the bayou that oozes off Lake Martin near Lafayette, LA. The day beforethere'd been that icy storm in New York; here it was like springtime, mildand clear. The sun was setting in a silent, spectacular blaze way over beyondthe moss-hung cypresses standing up to their hips in scummy green swamp water.It was completely still, except that you could just hear the hum of trafficon Interstate 10 a few miles away, running out of Baton Rouge west to Lake Charles.There was an odd and not at all unpleasant taste to the air, not the swampystink you'd expect, something more smoky, like frankincense.
Mr. CoerteVorhies was pointing out stray fauna?a female nutria, a kind of swamp rat,nesting on a log; a beautiful great blue heron, standing on one leg near a lightning-blastedcypress stump; a busy woodpecker. Vorhies said the water was literally fullof alligators?6, 9 feet long, the occasional monster making 17 feet?andin the summer along the levee they sun themselves in such numbers you walk thereat some peril, but they're rarely seen in winter, hibernating in the mudfive feet down in water thick and dark as Guinness.

Vorhiesis a guar-on-teed local character, a Cajun Dutchman, white-bearded, a mostlyretired geologist for the oil companies; flew the Mustang, possibly the mostbeautiful airplane ever built, in the Air Force between WWII and the KoreanWar; now runs a famed bed and breakfast (where we did not stay) in Lafayettecalled Bois des Chenes and gives these swamp tours. He gets written up a lotin travel magazines, Gourmet, has regular celebrity guests?cosmonauts,movie stars. He's that kind of guy, a sophisticate in the country. Burlyand robust despite a quintuple bypass last year, decked out in Army surpluscamouflage gear with a shotgun under a blanket in the bottom of the boat, hesat at the tiller and discussed with equal aplomb the environment, duck hunting,world politics and fine dining in New York and New Orleans. Lafayette seemsthick with guys like him. It's out in the middle of the bayou but it ain'tno bumpkin town, more a professionals' hideaway?lawyers, oil execs,semiretired gourmet chefs who've moved out there from New Orleans likethe Pastors, the couple who run the very nice little b&b we did stay in,T'Frere's.


Anyway,we're sitting there in that little boat in that prehistoric-feeling swamp(actually, the Mississippi created it with a shrug in geologically recent times),the setting sun casting long fingery shadows through the bare cypress branches,when Vorhies gives us a shush and points. Just overhead, at treetop level, strungout in a V against pink-tinted clouds, a flock of ibises are descending to theirnests for the evening. Ibises are big birds. It is so still, and they'reso close overhead, that we can hear their wings puffing air, whuff whuffwhuff, slow and measured, a sound like corduroy slacks make.


They'reperfect-looking, their great wings describing precise arcs, their smallheads, their long beaks with the curl at the end. It strikes me that they lookexactly like they do in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Exactly. Completely unchangedover thousands of years. These ibises over my head and the ones that flew overTutankhamen's are indistinguishable, interchangeable. And each of the livingones is as perfectly formed as a hieroglyphic one; each is its own ideogram.What I mean is that there is so little differentiation from one ibis to another,as in all lower orders, nutria, alligators, that each example of an ibis isvery nearly the perfect, Platonic ideal of "Ibis," in a way that noneof the higher orders of animals can be. We've rendered dogs so variantno single living dog can be equated with the ideal of "Dog." Cats,horses. No single human is the Platonic "Human." But pretty much everygator is "Alligator," any ibis "Ibis."


Sorry, beingaround animals gets me thinking that way. It could be because they can'ttalk and ruin it for me. (This may be a hidden danger of those communicatingwith the apes projects. Where's your highmindedness, to say nothing ofyour funding, if the gorilla turns out to be an asshole?)


My otherexcuse is that on this trip down South I was reading a most appropriate book,Careless Love: the Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, 767 pages,$27.95), the second and last volume of Peter Guralnick's massive Elvisbiography (volume one, Last Train to Memphis, came out in '95).And a question Guralnick expressly raises is this distinction between the realand the ideal; between Elvis the man and "Elvis," the star; betweenthe biographical facts and all the legends and myths; between Elvis, a remarkableperformer, and Elvism, the arguably even more remarkable set of worldwide socialphenomena he set in motion.


I personallyhave spent some time pondering this question; I wrote a book on Elvism, as opposedto Elvis, that came out not long after Guralnick's first volume did. Ifhe read my book, which is unlikely, Guralnick must have hated it. In LastTrain to Memphis he specifically stated that his intent was to write a factual,historical biography that would "rescue" Elvis from Elvism, from allthe "dreary" myths and legends, the cultish worship and Elvis imitatorsand fat-Elvis jokes, etc, etc. Personally, I don't find Elvism dreary atall; I think of it as rather a happy efflorescence of popular grassroots religion-making,like snake-handling, or Santeria, or the Branch Davidians with much better music,and I find it fascinating on that level. Guralnick, a career popular-music criticand historian, takes the traditional music critic's position that everythingof value in Elvis is to be found in his music, period, and that everything else,starting with the movies and fanning out from there, is silliness and kitschand distraction.


Guralnickspent more than 10 years researching and writing these two volumes; at over1000 pages, it's clearly the heftiest, most detailed Elvis biography yet.And, not surprisingly, the critical praise has been high and virtually unanimous.No Elvis book I can think of has been more widely reviewed or afforded morerespectability; this is the definitive, serious, scholarly, no-bullshit, all-factsversion of Elvis' life?the if-you-only-read-two-books-about-Elvisbooks?that can be taken seriously by people who don't much care forElvist culture. They never gave Elvis himself such respect. These two volumeswill undoubtedly be the standard reference texts in Elvis biography for someyears to come, and they deserve to be.


Not thatthere haven't been some fine, serious, scholarly books written about Elvis,and Elvism, over the years, but you wouldn't know it from reading Guralnickor most of his reviewers. The explicit spin Guralnick introduces and most ofhis reviewers innocently ape sets this work apart from and actively in oppositionto those other books, virtually the entire canon of Elvis literature, which,like so many other phenomena that have been associated with Elvis over the years,is so easily written off as foolishness by sophistiques who know very littleof it firsthand.


Thus, tocite a particularly disappointing example, Terrence Rafferty in the JanuaryGQ, sniffing that Elvis' "carcass has been picked over so thoroughly?bybiographers, tabloid reporters, critics, quick-buck memoirists, sociologists,'cultural studies' professors, psychologists (I hold in my hands atome entitled The Inner Elvis)...that he's almost more enigmatictoday than he was in the summer of 1977, when we heard the awful news. Elvishas now died two deaths: the first by drugs, the second by deconstruction."


This maybe knot-headed anti-intellectualism, but in fact it is echoing Guralnick'sintro to Careless Love, where the biographer argues that Elvis has becomeso misunderstood "because he appears to be so well-known," that ithas become impossible to distinguish Elvis the human being "amid all thefalse intimacy that attaches to a tabloid personality..." Guralnick'sbiography, Rafferty tells us, "restore[s] the flesh to Elvis's beleaguered,overanalyzed bones."


Again, Iknow I'm touchy about this, having written one of those overanalyticalbooks, but if you think about it for a second, Rafferty's eagerly yes-manningGuralnick on this?you know and I know Rafferty hasn't actually readmuch of that Elvis literature he's shrugging off?magically managesto be simultaneously anti-intellectual (scholarly analysis is bad) andelitist (and all the rest of it is low-class).


Unlike Rafferty,I've actually read scores, hundreds of Elvis books, magazines, newsletters,newspaper articles, scholarly papers, etc., and of course much of itis looniness and fluff. But not the whole of it, and Guralnick's two volumesare hardly the first serious, thoughtful work on the subject. It should be addedthat Guralnick himself has read the previous Elvis literature extensively; hisnotes and bibliography are immense, and in some chapters he leans heavily onpreviously published memoirs like Priscilla's and Larry Geller's.(Geller was Elvis' Hollywood hairdresser and spiritual adviser in the mid-60s,through whom Elvis got into new-agey studies and LSD; he was reviled and eventuallybanished in an uncharacteristic team effort by Priscilla, Col. Parker and theMemphis Mafia.)


Of Guralnick'stwo volumes, I most liked the first half of the first volume, Last Trainto Memphis, the part where Guralnick discusses Elvis' childhood andyoung manhood, the start of his career, his early days as a growing regionalstar not yet discovered by Ed Sullivan and Hollywood.


I likedthat part best for two reasons. One's practical: There was a lot of materialin there from Elvis' early years I'd not encountered before, anecdotesI hadn't read before, interviews with schoolmates and teenage girlfriendsI'd never heard about before. You just don't come across new informationor stories about Elvis all that often anymore. As one of the hugest stars of the century, and one who has been outlived by virtually all of his friends andacquaintances, Elvis has indeed been, as Rafferty says, one of the most, probablythe most written-about celebrity ever. The upshot is that after a certainstage in Elvis' life?after he becomes a star?there aren'tmany new stories to tell about him. It's central to his tragedy that forthe world's hugest pop star the life he led for his last 15, 20 years wasa bizarrely small, constricted and dull one, marked by soul-deadening routine,indolence, boredom, a general retreat from the world. Surprisingly, and sadly,Elvis the rock star led a mostly uninteresting life that, delivered in straight-upbiography style, mostly makes for rather uninteresting reading; the dramatichighs and lows, being relatively scarce, are also by now rather shopworn andpawed over.


So it wasinevitable that in much of Last Train to Memphis and more in CarelessLove Guralnick is retelling stories that should be awfully familiar to anyonewho's interested enough in Elvis to read over 1000 pages' worth ofa new biography. That Guralnick often tells these stories in rather more detailthan the fan may have read before doesn't necessarily make the familiar more interesting, and sometimes has the opposite effect. Someone who knows theirElvis stories may find that they're skimming large patches of this secondvolume. And I suspect that anyone out there coming fresh to these tales (isthere anyone out there like that?) may still find much of this volume ratherlacking in the grand human drama they may have expected from the King, a larger-than-lifefigure who, for the bulk of his adult years, lived a terribly smaller-than-lifelife.


Are thereany fresh insights here? Yes, some, and Guralnick deserves all the credit fordoing the painstaking legwork, getting the unusual interview, to ferret themout. For instance, he includes previously unexamined interview material thatdefends Elvis against the perception that he didn't know how abysmal hisfilms were. This material indicates that he clearly knew they sucked, but feltpowerless to improve them, because the movies had always been Col. Parker'sgravy boat, and in his relationship with the older man?part Freudian, partFaustian?Elvis never felt able to gainsay the Colonel's wishes, beingtrapped in playing the role of the perpetually obedient boy. (Tellingly, theColonel referred to Elvis throughout their careers together as "my boy."Sorry, Terrence, is that too psychological?)


There areother tidbits, like a phenomenal, and phenomenally sad, quote from MuhammadAli, who knew Elvis in his bloated, drug-addled, stuck-in-Vegas later years:


"Ifelt sorry for [him], because he didn't enjoy life the way he should. Hestayed indoors all the time. I told him he should go out and see people. Hesaid he couldn't, because everywhere he went, they mobbed him. He didn'tunderstand," said Ali, a lifelong fan, who probably more than anyone elsein the world was himself in a position to empathize and understand. "Noone wanted to hurt him. All they wanted was to be friendly and tell him howmuch they loved him."


Wonderfulas that is, moments like it don't come often enough in this rather dullplod of a life's story; there certainly aren't enough of them to dissuademe from my larger disagreement with Guralnick's approach, which is morea philosophical one. Every biography is, to some extent, a philosophical work.In choosing a life to write about, choosing how to shape and arrange it, whatto put in and what leave out, every biographer is making a philosophical statementnot just about that particular life, but human life in general?not justwhat it meant to be this specific human, but what it means to be human. I thinkthis is true from the trashiest checkout counter Di-is-dead quickies with theirheavyhanded morals to infinitely more thoughtful work like Guralnick's:Every biographer is, willy-nilly, a philosopher.


What I likedabout the first sections of Last Train to Memphis was Guralnick'sconviction that a young man named Elvis Presley set about, very consciouslyand early on, to become?to, literally, create?"Elvis," thestar. It has not always been understood how much Elvis had to do in creatinghis own success; after Guralnick, the skeptics will have to give him more creditfor it.


Then, havingcreated that figure, having built "Elvis," Elvis had absolutely noidea of what to do next. You could argue that with a very few flashes of gumptionand inspiration, he spent the rest of his life not knowing what to do next.In a sense, Guralnick's biography mimics this failing. Having shown usElvis creating "Elvis," he spends the final three-fourths of his workrejecting that figure, denying it its importance, focusing exclusively on Elvis-the-man,trotting out the quotidian facts, figures, dates and anecdotes, minutiae ofrecording sessions and so on, resolutely refusing to consider or even acknowledgethe larger social phenomena that Elvis was, undeniably if not willingly, spinningoff. In his determination to eschew Elvis' public side and focus exclusivelyon the private man, Guralnick retreats from the real world as surely, if notquite so disastrously, as Elvis did.


In the end,I think this attempt to defend Elvis, as it were, from his fans, his hype, hismyth, his legend, is to do him the greater injustice. There's this movementafoot among some historians and biographers lately?journalists too?to"purify" how and what is written about great figures, to somehow weedout the historical person from all the social phenomena that surround and, they would say, distort our understanding of that person?to literally decontextualizethem. To "separate the man from the myth," to "filter out themedia hype," etc. etc.


I thinkit's a fool's errand, one that distorts and falsifies just as muchas the hype it intends to remedy. Great men generate great hype and cannot be"understood" if the hype isn't taken into account. An historianor biographer can't ignore it simply because he doesn't approve ofit. Does it really add to your understanding of Elvis to try to grandfathersome protection for him against the celebrity, the mythology, the legends heinspired? Elvis generated the most faithful and intense cult of fans any celebrityever has. No other celebrity, not Michael Jackson, not Madonna, not JFK or MarilynMonroe or John Lennon?no one comes remotely near to causing social phenomenaas extreme (bizarre, ludicrous, however Terrence Rafferty wants to spin it) as Elvis imitators, Elvis sightings, the international network of Elvis fanclubs, the religious rituals that attend Tribute Week at Graceland every August,Elvis shrines in homes around the world, all of it. You may find it all "dreary,"or tacky or kitschy, but as a serious historian can you ignore it, pretend thatElvis and "Elvis" didn't have reciprocal impacts on each other?


Nonsense.Elvism is an inseparable aspect of the Elvis story. The fans do count. Anyonewho claims to understand Elvis, perhaps the most fans-respecting celebrity inmodern history, but doesn't understand that, is missing a crucial pieceof the puzzle.


Here'sthe moment this became clear to me as I was reading Careless Love. Latethat night after we'd been out in Mr. Vorhies' boat, driving backto T'Frere's stuffed with a mammoth Cajun-style dinner, we stoppedat a place called Hamilton's, a rough and raw, no-frills, old-fashionedroadhouse of a tin-roofed dancehall sitting in a cow pasture. Inside, past thehand-stamping booth, the space is open, spare, barnlike; a bare floor with somelittle tables and plastic bucket chairs pushed toward the back, a small cornerbar with $1.50 cans of Bud, a small stage rimmed with Christmas lights, everythingconceding precedence to the wide dancefloor.


It was still,I think, pretty early for a Saturday night at Hamilton's, around 11, andthe place just getting warmed up. Pretty much everyone there but us was black,but no one seemed to mind us; this is the deep deep deep South, wherepeople are more mixed-together and seem more tolerating than up in the cracker'sDixie in, say, Georgia. The band, a bunch of youngsters, was one Cajun frontguyon accordion and vocals, one very white Southern boogie-style electric guitaristand three young black guys on bass, drums and washboard. And they were smoking.Jean-Pierre & the Zydeco Angels, I believe they were called, and they weremaking some dirty, fonky roadhouse-style zydeco/r&b/bar boogie nastiness, all fatback and scratchiness and hollering, thathad everybody on the dancefloor and dancing real close, pelvis to pelvis,pube bone to pube bone, like we were all fucking standing up.


It occurredto me on that dancefloor in the midst of those people that Elvis would haveloved Hamilton's. The music would have been slightly different butotherwise it's exactly the sort of place he would have haunted as a youngman, absorbing the music, the moves, the culture. He would have loved the crowd,and I believe they would have been tolerant back with him, polite at least,maybe not even caring all that much that he was there. Ali was right: Elvisshould have gotten out more, learned to live with "Elvis" more comfortably.So should Guralnick.


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