Two Saturdays ago Ms. Diane and I were sitting in a little outboard-rigged rowboat in the middle of the bayou that oozes off Lake Martin near Lafayette, LA. The day before there’d been that icy storm in New York; here it was like springtime, mild and clear. The sun was setting in a silent, spectacular blaze way over beyond the 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 traffic on 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 swampy stink you’d expect, something more smoky, like frankincense.
Mr. Coerte Vorhies 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-blasted cypress stump; a busy woodpecker. Vorhies said the water was literally full of alligators–6, 9 feet long, the occasional monster making 17 feet–and in the summer along the levee they sun themselves in such numbers you walk there at some peril, but they’re rarely seen in winter, hibernating in the mud five feet down in water thick and dark as Guinness.
Vorhies is a guar-on-teed local character, a Cajun Dutchman, white-bearded, a mostly retired geologist for the oil companies; flew the Mustang, possibly the most beautiful airplane ever built, in the Air Force between WWII and the Korean War; now runs a famed bed and breakfast (where we did not stay) in Lafayette called Bois des Chenes and gives these swamp tours. He gets written up a lot in travel magazines, Gourmet, has regular celebrity guests–cosmonauts, movie stars. He’s that kind of guy, a sophisticate in the country. Burly and robust despite a quintuple bypass last year, decked out in Army surplus camouflage gear with a shotgun under a blanket in the bottom of the boat, he sat at the tiller and discussed with equal aplomb the environment, duck hunting, world politics and fine dining in New York and New Orleans. Lafayette seems thick with guys like him. It’s out in the middle of the bayou but it ain’t no bumpkin town, more a professionals’ hideaway–lawyers, oil execs, semiretired gourmet chefs who’ve moved out there from New Orleans like the 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, strung out in a V against pink-tinted clouds, a flock of ibises are descending to their nests for the evening. Ibises are big birds. It is so still, and they’re so close overhead, that we can hear their wings puffing air, whuff whuff whuff, slow and measured, a sound like corduroy slacks make.
They’re perfect-looking, their great wings describing precise arcs, their small heads, their long beaks with the curl at the end. It strikes me that they look exactly like they do in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Exactly. Completely unchanged over thousands of years. These ibises over my head and the ones that flew over Tutankhamen’s are indistinguishable, interchangeable. And each of the living ones 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 is very nearly the perfect, Platonic ideal of “Ibis,” in a way that none of the higher orders of animals can be. We’ve rendered dogs so variant no single living dog can be equated with the ideal of “Dog.” Cats, horses. No single human is the Platonic “Human.” But pretty much every gator is “Alligator,” any ibis “Ibis.”
Sorry, being around animals gets me thinking that way. It could be because they can’t talk and ruin it for me. (This may be a hidden danger of those communicating with the apes projects. Where’s your highmindedness, to say nothing of your funding, if the gorilla turns out to be an asshole?)
My other excuse 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 Elvis biography (volume one, Last Train to Memphis, came out in ’95). And a question Guralnick expressly raises is this distinction between the real and the ideal; between Elvis the man and “Elvis,” the star; between the biographical facts and all the legends and myths; between Elvis, a remarkable performer, and Elvism, the arguably even more remarkable set of worldwide social phenomena he set in motion.
I personally have spent some time pondering this question; I wrote a book on Elvism, as opposed to Elvis, that came out not long after Guralnick’s first volume did. If he read my book, which is unlikely, Guralnick must have hated it. In Last Train to Memphis he specifically stated that his intent was to write a factual, historical biography that would “rescue” Elvis from Elvism, from all the “dreary” myths and legends, the cultish worship and Elvis imitators and fat-Elvis jokes, etc, etc. Personally, I don’t find Elvism dreary at all; 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 critic and historian, takes the traditional music critic’s position that everything of 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 kitsch and distraction.
Guralnick spent more than 10 years researching and writing these two volumes; at over 1000 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 more respectability; this is the definitive, serious, scholarly, no-bullshit, all-facts version of Elvis’ life–the if-you-only-read-two-books-about-Elvis books–that can be taken seriously by people who don’t much care for Elvist culture. They never gave Elvis himself such respect. These two volumes will undoubtedly be the standard reference texts in Elvis biography for some years to come, and they deserve to be.
Not that there haven’t been some fine, serious, scholarly books written about Elvis, and Elvism, over the years, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Guralnick or most of his reviewers. The explicit spin Guralnick introduces and most of his reviewers innocently ape sets this work apart from and actively in opposition to 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 little of it firsthand.
Thus, to cite a particularly disappointing example, Terrence Rafferty in the January GQ, sniffing that Elvis’ “carcass has been picked over so thoroughly–by biographers, tabloid reporters, critics, quick-buck memoirists, sociologists, ‘cultural studies’ professors, psychologists (I hold in my hands a tome entitled The Inner Elvis)…that he’s almost more enigmatic today than he was in the summer of 1977, when we heard the awful news. Elvis has now died two deaths: the first by drugs, the second by deconstruction.”
This may be knot-headed anti-intellectualism, but in fact it is echoing Guralnick’s intro to Careless Love, where the biographer argues that Elvis has become so misunderstood “because he appears to be so well-known,” that it has become impossible to distinguish Elvis the human being “amid all the false intimacy that attaches to a tabloid personality…” Guralnick’s biography, Rafferty tells us, “restore[s] the flesh to Elvis’s beleaguered, overanalyzed bones.”
Again, I know I’m touchy about this, having written one of those overanalytical books, but if you think about it for a second, Rafferty’s eagerly yes-manning Guralnick on this–you know and I know Rafferty hasn’t actually read much of that Elvis literature he’s shrugging off–magically manages to be simultaneously anti-intellectual (scholarly analysis is bad) and elitist (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 it is looniness and fluff. But not the whole of it, and Guralnick’s two volumes are hardly the first serious, thoughtful work on the subject. It should be added that Guralnick himself has read the previous Elvis literature extensively; his notes and bibliography are immense, and in some chapters he leans heavily on previously 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 eventually banished in an uncharacteristic team effort by Priscilla, Col. Parker and the Memphis Mafia.)
Of Guralnick’s two volumes, I most liked the first half of the first volume, Last Train to Memphis, the part where Guralnick discusses Elvis’ childhood and young manhood, the start of his career, his early days as a growing regional star not yet discovered by Ed Sullivan and Hollywood.
I liked that part best for two reasons. One’s practical: There was a lot of material in there from Elvis’ early years I’d not encountered before, anecdotes I hadn’t read before, interviews with schoolmates and teenage girlfriends I’d never heard about before. You just don’t come across new information or 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 and acquaintances, Elvis has indeed been, as Rafferty says, one of the most, probably the most written-about celebrity ever. The upshot is that after a certain stage in Elvis’ life–after he becomes a star–there aren’t many new stories to tell about him. It’s central to his tragedy that for the world’s hugest pop star the life he led for his last 15, 20 years was a 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-up biography style, mostly makes for rather uninteresting reading; the dramatic highs and lows, being relatively scarce, are also by now rather shopworn and pawed over.
So it was inevitable that in much of Last Train to Memphis and more in Careless Love Guralnick is retelling stories that should be awfully familiar to anyone who’s interested enough in Elvis to read over 1000 pages’ worth of a new biography. That Guralnick often tells these stories in rather more detail than the fan may have read before doesn’t necessarily make the familiar
more interesting, and sometimes has the opposite effect. Someone who knows their Elvis stories may find that they’re skimming large patches of this second volume. And I suspect that anyone out there coming fresh to these tales (is there anyone out there like that?) may still find much of this volume rather lacking in the grand human drama they may have expected from the King, a larger-than-life figure who, for the bulk of his adult years, lived a terribly smaller-than-life life.
Are there any fresh insights here? Yes, some, and Guralnick deserves all the credit for doing the painstaking legwork, getting the unusual interview, to ferret them out. For instance, he includes previously unexamined interview material that defends Elvis against the perception that he didn’t know how abysmal his films were. This material indicates that he clearly knew they sucked, but felt powerless to improve them, because the movies had always been Col. Parker’s gravy boat, and in his relationship with the older man–part Freudian, part Faustian–Elvis never felt able to gainsay the Colonel’s wishes, being trapped in playing the role of the perpetually obedient boy. (Tellingly, the Colonel referred to Elvis throughout their careers together as “my boy.” Sorry, Terrence, is that too psychological?)
There are other tidbits, like a phenomenal, and phenomenally sad, quote from Muhammad Ali, who knew Elvis in his bloated, drug-addled, stuck-in-Vegas later years:
“I felt sorry for [him], because he didn’t enjoy life the way he should. He stayed indoors all the time. I told him he should go out and see people. He said he couldn’t, because everywhere he went, they mobbed him. He didn’t understand,” said Ali, a lifelong fan, who probably more than anyone else in the world was himself in a position to empathize and understand. “No one wanted to hurt him. All they wanted was to be friendly and tell him how much they loved him.”
Wonderful as that is, moments like it don’t come often enough in this rather dull plod of a life’s story; there certainly aren’t enough of them to dissuade me from my larger disagreement with Guralnick’s approach, which is more a 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, what to put in and what leave out, every biographer is making a philosophical statement not just about that particular life, but human life in general–not just what it meant to be this specific human, but what it means to be human. I think this is true from the trashiest checkout counter Di-is-dead quickies with their heavyhanded morals to infinitely more thoughtful work like Guralnick’s: Every biographer is, willy-nilly, a philosopher.
What I liked about the first sections of Last Train to Memphis was Guralnick’s conviction that a young man named Elvis Presley set about, very consciously and early on, to become–to, literally, create–”Elvis,” the star. It has not always been understood how much Elvis had to do in creating his own success; after Guralnick, the skeptics will have to give him more credit for it.
Then, having created that figure, having built “Elvis,” Elvis had absolutely no idea of what to do next. You could argue that with a very few flashes of gumption and 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 us Elvis creating “Elvis,” he spends the final three-fourths of his work rejecting that figure, denying it its importance, focusing exclusively on Elvis-the-man, trotting out the quotidian facts, figures, dates and anecdotes, minutiae of recording sessions and so on, resolutely refusing to consider or even acknowledge the larger social phenomena that Elvis was, undeniably if not willingly, spinning off. In his determination to eschew Elvis’ public side and focus exclusively on the private man, Guralnick retreats from the real world as surely, if not quite so disastrously, as Elvis did.
In the end, I think this attempt to defend Elvis, as it were, from his fans, his hype, his myth, his legend, is to do him the greater injustice. There’s this movement afoot among some historians and biographers lately–journalists too–to “purify” how and what is written about great figures, to somehow weed out the historical person from all the social phenomena that surround and, they
would say, distort our understanding of that person–to literally decontextualize them. To “separate the man from the myth,” to “filter out the media hype,” etc. etc.
I think it’s a fool’s errand, one that distorts and falsifies just as much as the hype it intends to remedy. Great men generate great hype and cannot be “understood” if the hype isn’t taken into account. An historian or biographer can’t ignore it simply because he doesn’t approve of it. Does it really add to your understanding of Elvis to try to grandfather some protection for him against the celebrity, the mythology, the legends he inspired? Elvis generated the most faithful and intense cult of fans any celebrity ever has. No other celebrity, not Michael Jackson, not Madonna, not JFK or Marilyn Monroe or John Lennon–no one comes remotely near to causing social phenomena as extreme (bizarre, ludicrous, however Terrence Rafferty wants to spin it)
as Elvis imitators, Elvis sightings, the international network of Elvis fan clubs, 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 that Elvis and “Elvis” didn’t have reciprocal impacts on each other?
Nonsense. Elvism is an inseparable aspect of the Elvis story. The fans do count. Anyone who claims to understand Elvis, perhaps the most fans-respecting celebrity in modern history, but doesn’t understand that, is missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.
Here’s the moment this became clear to me as I was reading Careless Love. Late that night after we’d been out in Mr. Vorhies’ boat, driving back to T’Frere’s stuffed with a mammoth Cajun-style dinner, we stopped at a place called Hamilton’s, a rough and raw, no-frills, old-fashioned roadhouse of a tin-roofed dancehall sitting in a cow pasture. Inside, past the hand-stamping booth, the space is open, spare, barnlike; a bare floor with some little tables and plastic bucket chairs pushed toward the back, a small corner bar with $1.50 cans of Bud, a small stage rimmed with Christmas lights, everything conceding precedence to the wide dancefloor.
It was still, I think, pretty early for a Saturday night at Hamilton’s, around 11, and the 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, where people are more mixed-together and seem more tolerating than up in the cracker’s Dixie in, say, Georgia. The band, a bunch of youngsters, was one Cajun frontguy on accordion and vocals, one very white Southern boogie-style electric guitarist and 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 were making some dirty, fonky roadhouse-style zydeco/ r&b/bar boogie nastiness, all fatback and scratchiness and hollering, that had everybody on the dancefloor and dancing real close, pelvis to pelvis, pube bone to pube bone, like we were all fucking standing up.
It occurred to me on that dancefloor in the midst of those people that Elvis would have loved Hamilton’s. The music would have been slightly different but otherwise it’s exactly the sort of place he would have haunted as a young man, 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: Elvis should have gotten out more, learned to live with “Elvis” more comfortably. So should Guralnick.