Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 11, 1999
Head: Peter Guralnick
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Elvis Presley is one of the most important figures in the popular culture of this century. My guest, Peter Guralnick, is the author of what is generally acknowledged as the definitive Elvis biography. The second volume of Guralnick's two-part bio has just been published. It's called, "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley."
Guralnick describes it as a story of celebrity and its consequences. The book begins with the 23-year-old Elvis starting his Army service in Germany in 1958, and ends with his death in 1977 at the age of 42. This was a time when Elvis went from being a rock and roll pioneer to a movie matinee idol and a flashy Vegas performer.
Much of the music Elvis recorded in the '60s was songs from the soundtracks of his movies, such as this song written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- ELVIS PRESLEY PERFORMING "VIVA LAS VEGAS")
Bright lights city
Gonna set my soul
Gonna set my soul on fire
Got a whole lot of money
That's ready to burn
So get those stakes up higher
There's a thousand pretty women
Waiting out there
They're all living
The devil may care
And I'm just a devil
With love to spare
So viva Las Vegas
Viva Las Vegas
GROSS: Peter, in your book you write that Elvis constructed a shell to hide his aloneness, and it hardened on his back. You say, I know of no sadder story. What makes this chapter of Elvis' story so sad?
PETER GURALNICK, AUTHOR, "CARELESS LOVE," "THE LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS": Well, I think you see the blight of so much promise, and not just of promise -- I mean, that's a terrible thing to say to anybody -- but of the hope that Elvis embodied. I mean, there was such an innocence, in a sense, to what he set out to do, and there was such an obliteration of any of the -- any of the gray areas. Any of the confusions which assault us all.
And to such a great extent, all of his hopes, all of his dreams, all his aspirations, all of the things that he had imagined that was far beyond the scope of any of his experience -- came true in such unimaginable fashion. And then to watch the blurring of this dream, and to watch the way in which it goes away to the extent that, in the last few years of his life, he is so terribly depressed and most of all disappointed in himself.
I mean, we don't necessarily think of Elvis as an inward looking person, and yet you can see over and over again how he has disappointed his own expectations. And I think that that's the core of the sadness at the heart of the story.
GROSS: What are the disappointments in himself?
GURALNICK: I think the greatest disappointments are that he -- there are two. There are really two-fold: one is that he didn't accomplish the things that he set out to do. And they might have been things as basic as establish a home, marry -- establish a marriage from which he would never stray.
Have the kind of picture postcard version of the story that he had promised his mother he would have. He didn't do those things. I think in other ways, though -- I mean, in a larger sense, he was confused as to his mission. He understood the impact that he had had on the world. He understood the way in which people were drawn to him. He understood the way in which everything that he put out in public became a matter of enormous significance, but he didn't understand what the significance was to himself.
GROSS: Would you compare the experience of writing volume one of your Elvis bio and writing volume two? Volume one being, you know, the young exciting Elvis. You know, this promising career. Somebody who is like electrifying all of music. And volume two, which ends up with Elvis, you know, kind of like fat and addicted to various pharmaceutical drugs and then dying so young.
GURALNICK: It's a -- the experience -- I think the greatest comparison to the experience would be that if you had the choice to dictate the terms of the story you would never dictate the way it came out. I mean, that's what makes it most difficult.
From the standpoint of writing about it, it represents a totally different set of challenges. In the first volume all of the drama is taking place onstage. I mean, you can see what's happening -- it's happening at an incredible velocity. Elvis' success happened virtually overnight. There are appearances which you can scrutinize, there are interviews which you can listen to.
Once Elvis gets out of the Army in 1960 he retreats behind a wall which is very difficult to get passed. And he retreats into a life which is almost devoid of drama with a few exceptions. So, the great difficulty in writing about it is to give a sense of that life, to give a sense of what the life actually is and yet not to drown the reader in some of the frustration and the boredom that Elvis felt.
And also to suggest a sense of the interior life that is going on, which it's possible to deduce but which is far less accessible than it is at the beginning when Elvis just comes right out in those first few years. Somebody asks him a question -- they ask him about his music -- he starts talking about Arthur Crudup. I mean, whatever is on the surface comes right out, and there are so few interviews in the later years that one is sometimes hard pressed to find access to that inner life.
GROSS: In your introduction you write that, you know, you are suspending judgment on Elvis the man. But you don't, in your book, suspending judgment on his music. And the book is filled with your perceptions and critical views about his music.
And I would like for you now to play something for us -- to choose something to play -- that you came to really love while writing the second half of this biography. Something that you might not have noticed before or cared that much about before. But that you see something in now that's very special.
GURALNICK: I think the thing that I came to more than anything was an appreciation of two things: one was the gospel music which I hadn't known as well, and didn't know as much about. And the other was the ballads that Elvis -- that Elvis sang, particularly in the early '60s and particularly the ballads by Don Robertson and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.
And there's a song in "Viva Las Vegas" called "I Need Somebody to Lean On" which is almost a kind of dream sequence in the movie and represents the kind of interior vision that I think we don't often associate with Elvis' music. And that's the song I'd like to play.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- ELVIS PRESLEY PERFORMING "I NEED SOMEBODY TO LEAN ON")
I need somebody to lean on
I need somebody to tell my troubles to
And always deny them
I'm close to crying
But what good
Tell me what good
Would my crying do
I need somebody to help me
Help me forget all those worries
On my mind
And what I (unintelligible)
If someone would hold me
GROSS: That's Elvis. A song from "Viva Las Vegas." Peter, I'm glad you chose that. I'm not familiar with that or at least not very familiar with it. That's really nice, and it is much more jazz oriented than your used to hearing Elvis.
GURALNICK: Well, it's really -- its Elvis' Charlie Rich. I mean, the articulation, the quietness, the control of it is just so antithetical, in some ways, to the way people think of Elvis. And yet if you listen to some of the songs he was recording in '60, '61, '62, '63 you'll hear music like that, and you'll hear him exploring different areas. Sometimes more successfully than others, but to me that moment in the film, "Viva Las Vegas," is the most extraordinary moment in some ways of his post Army career.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. The second volume of this two-part biography of Elvis Presley has just been published. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Guralnick. And the second volume of his two-part biography of Elvis Presley has just been published. It's called "Careless Love."
When Elvis was in the Army he was stationed in Germany near Frankfurt. You describe his Army experience as very difficult for him. What made it so difficult?
GURALNICK: Well, I think there were several things that were difficult: one is, that if you think about Elvis you've got to imagine an only child who has virtually never slept away from home. I mean, this is -- he was not only an only child, but an adored only child.
And the idea of -- you can see from the very fact that when he's in the Army, both in Texas and then in Germany, he lives, first, with his parents in Texas and then with his father and grandmother in Germany. You can see how close knit his sense of family is and how self protective he is in terms of living within a world with which he's familiar.
And so the very idea of going into the Army -- I can totally sympathize with this -- I mean, growing up from the time I was six or seven years old everybody talking about the draft. I said, oh my God, you've got to live with all those other people? I wasn't an only child even.
But I think the other thing was that he had had his sense of certainty so disrupted by his mother's death. His mother's death was more than just losing the person he was closest to in the world. It almost -- it also almost removed any sense -- the sense of purpose with which he had proceeded so certainly up to this point.
I mean, in his mind a great deal of the reason for his success, a great deal of what he was working for was to buy his mother to a house. To give his parents things that they had never had. And it all worked out. It was as if it was meant to be. It was fated. And then to have it taken away from you at the height of that success -- the very person for whom its all meant -- really called into question a lot of basic beliefs.
The last thing which is just as pertinent is Elvis' identification with his audience. And there was a terrible fear -- there was a sense that he had achieved the pinnacle of success, and now he had this terrible fear that it was all going to be taken away from him. And not taken away from him simply in the terms of material success, but in terms of this connection he had with the audience.
GURALNICK: With his fans. And a lot of, you know, stars talk about the fans, the fans. But in Elvis' case there was no differentiation between himself and the fans. He saw himself as coming from there and as never leaving there. And the nightmare that he had until the very end of his life -- I think he told a reporter about it just weeks before he died. And it was one that came up -- I think he told Freddie Beanstock (ph) about it in 1960.
The dream that he continued to have was of everyone deserting him -- of his being all alone. Of the Colonel, his manager, gone and of the fans having left him there all by himself. And, you know, whatever you think of it, that was his fear.
GROSS: Although the Army cut him off from everything that had been his life, it was in the Army that his life was changed in ways that affected his future. For example, in the Army he was introduced to amphetamines by a sergeant when they were on maneuvers. What was the sergeant's intentions?
GURALNICK: Well, I think you got to look back not only on that time but on this time. I think that, you know, amphetamines were so commonplace that it would be virtually impossible to escape them, whether you were talking about a college environment, you were talking about the Kennedy Administration where Dr. Feelgood -- I forget the name of the doctor in New York who eventually, I believe, went to jail and lost his license. But who was giving amphetamine shots to, you know, the rich and famous. And with the world of country music, certainly, and perhaps in the world of popular music they were just so commonplace you would be -- you'd be hard pressed to find who didn't take them -- truck drivers.
And so when Elvis discovered amphetamines, here you've got this hyperactive kid who -- Scotty Moore talked about having to stop the car on the highway between gigs just to give Elvis a chance to work off some of his energy. He'd just run up and down the road.
And so, you've got this hyperactive kid -- he's given amphetamines, he's told they're good they'll keep your energy high, they'll keep you focused when you're on all-night maneuvers. They'll help keep your weight down. And he bought into it totally, just as many people of far greater medical sophistication did along the way.
GROSS: And you describe how he would proselytize, how he would tell his friends these are great. They'll help you do what needs to be done. They'll give you energy. You'll feel good. Try them.
GURALNICK: Yeah, no, absolutely. This is the point -- a lot of times, people will treat this as if Elvis had some deep dark secret. He didn't have any secret at all. He thought this was the greatest thing that ever happened. For example, when the songwriter Don Robertson ran into him in Las Vegas a couple of years after he was out of the Army, and Don started talking about having weight problems and Elvis sympathized with that.
Elvis sent one of the guys up to his room to bring Don down a whole bottle full of amphetamines -- a big jar full of amphetamines. And proselytized -- just evangelized for their effectiveness and their usefulness and all the things that they were good for. So, he wasn't hiding anything.
GROSS: Was Elvis on amphetamines forever after?
GURALNICK: I think that -- I would say he believed in amphetamines and with those things he believed in, he didn't turn away from. But I think that Priscilla spoke, I think probably accurately, about his...
GROSS: ...this is ex-wife Priscilla Presley.
GURALNICK: Yeah, Priscilla Presley spoke, I think accurately, about his use of both amphetamines and depressants. That when he was caught up in something, when he was really involved in something, that at those times he was least likely to take the drugs. And when he was bored, those were the times when he was most likely.
GROSS: You mention Priscilla Presley. Elvis and Priscilla met when Elvis was stationed in Germany in the Army. Priscilla's father was in the military and he had just been sent to Germany and brought the family. Priscilla and Elvis met when she was 14. What did Elvis Presley see in this 14-year-old?
GURALNICK: I think Elvis saw something -- he had the idea that he could mold the perfect woman for himself. I mean, he definitely had a Pygmalion complex. At the same time, Priscilla was extremely attractive. She was very mature. She was very sure of herself in a social sense. And she was someone who was a very determined person.
Once she and Elvis started going out, when her parents tried to discourage her, when they set up roadblocks, she was not someone who was going to be deterred. But I think the main thing -- I think there was a tremendous spark. I think that everybody -- you know, I wouldn't establish these arbitrary temporal guidelines because, I mean, there are different times and different mores. And obviously there were lots of marriages in the South among -- with girls just as young as that. And this is what Elvis grew up with.
GURALNICK: But most of all, for those people who were around at the time that Elvis and Priscilla first met, there was a sense that an explosion had gone off. I mean, there was no question in the minds of Charlie Hodge or Joe Esposito, Elvis' friends in the Army, that something unusual had happened.
They'd seen lots of girls come and go, and they could see the attraction that existed. And how do you -- I don't know how you ever explain that kind of attraction.
GROSS: I want to play another record here, and this is a track that he recorded at, what I think, was his first recording session after coming back from the Army. And this is a song called "It Feels So Right" which -- recorded in 1960 -- which you described as being exuberantly dirty.
And it's really -- is a really good track. With, as you point out, really dissonant chords that match its sexual message. Anything else you want to say? I've already quoted you a couple of times, but if there's anything else you want to say about this track before we hear it.
GURALNICK: No, I like those quotes.
GROSS: So let's just hear it then. This is Elvis from 1960.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- ELVIS PRESLEY PERFORMING "IT FEELS SO RIGHT")
Step in these arms
Where you belong
It feels so right
How can it be wrong
Now something in the way
That makes me
Want to hold you tight
I know that nothing can be wrong
That feels so right
Each time we touch
GROSS: That's Elvis Presley recorded in 1960 right after he came out of the Army. My guest is Peter Guralnick, and he's just finished the second of his two volume biography of Elvis. Volume two is called "Careless Love."
Peter, I want to ask you a little bit about the entourage that Elvis had around him. And he started this entourage, I guess, after he got out of the Army. You know, friends, bodyguards, people who were always around him. What did he need it for? What did he get out of it?
GURALNICK: I think he got a sense of reassurance. He got a sense that he was validated in a way. He felt a sense of comfort around him. And he wasn't challenged. He was able to -- I think that it amounted to the same thing as what many stars do. He created a portable world around him so that wherever he was, it was home.
And he had done this to some extent before he went into the Army. He had had two or three guys around him. His cousins, Junior and Gene, were frequently -- frequently went out with him. George Klein (ph) the DJ from Memphis went out with him sometimes -- and different friends. But it became a much more institutionalized thing, and grew and grew to the point where he had between 12 and 14 guys with him frequently -- in the '60s.
But what it meant was that he never had to go outside of that world, and he never had to worry about being approved of. He never had to worry about being challenged. And I think it reduced his world to a considerable extent. I think that many of the guys would agree that it got old very quickly. And that had Elvis been more outgoing in a social sense it would have created a more challenging and a more satisfying life for himself.
GROSS: Peter Guralnick. He'll be back in the second half of the show. The second volume of Guralnick's two-part biography of Elvis Presley has just been published.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with Peter Guralnick. The second volume of his two-part biography of Elvis Presley has just been published. It's called, "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley."
Peter, let's talk about Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who took over Elvis' career after Elvis left Sun Records. While Elvis was in the Army, Parker kept him in the public eye even though Elvis was out of sight. How did Parker manage to do that?
GURALNICK: Colonel Parker was one of the great promoters of all time. And the ingenuity which he brought to that job -- the imagination -- really the genius that he brought to it was for all of his promotions -- he would do anything. He would use balloons for promotions. He would use albums. And he did everything that he could -- absolutely everything.
He sent a photographer over to Germany while Elvis was there. Cautioned Elvis not to let anyone else take his picture because they could sell these pictures and they could use them for publicity opportunities. But more than anything, what he was doing when Elvis was in Germany was keeping up Elvis' confidence that he would have something to come back to.
There were lots of public opportunities, and there was also a need for income because Elvis hadn't set aside a great deal of money. He had -- and there was a fear -- and he had a good many things to maintain. Just maintaining Graceland was expensive.
But aside from manufacturing -- aside from finding sources of income and manufacturing publicity opportunities, more than anything else the Colonel wanted to have Elvis feel confident that he had something to come back to. And he worked incredibly hard to set up movie contracts.
GROSS: Does this explain, in part, Elvis' loyalty to Parker over the years?
GURALNICK: I think, absolutely. I think there was a mutual loyalty which extended for a very long time. I think Elvis' loyalty was very much predicated on the sense that the Colonel never walked away from him. That at a time, for example, when Elvis was in the Army -- when he was most vulnerable, most afraid that everything was going to go away.
Not only did the Colonel show every evidence that he was working for Elvis exclusively, he turned down every opportunity he had to go to work for anybody else. And there were a good many opportunities. Now, the Colonel was not reluctant to let Elvis know that he turned these opportunities down.
GROSS: Right. Yeah.
GURALNICK: But at the same time, he did turn them down. And each of them was in a position where there was no telling what was going to happen. But the Colonel devoted himself exclusively and very imaginatively sustaining him.
GROSS: In marketing Elvis, Colonel Parker figured that the strategy to have was to make sure that Elvis was in a lot of star vehicles in the movies. And that they included records in the movies, and then the movies could sell the records and the records could help promote the movies. And after a while, the only records that he wanted Elvis to make were records that were connected to the movies. How did that strategy do commercially and artistically for Elvis?
GURALNICK: Well, commercially it was a stupendous success. And it wasn't a strategy that emerged always sudden. It was one that evolved over a period of three or four years. But the main point was '60 and '61 the Colonel had a dawning realization that was ultimately the basis for what we know as MTV, that the movies could serve the records and that the records could serve the movies.
And he had two aims in mind. I mean, as -- from a strictly commercial point of view to have a hit with a song "Viva Las Vegas," and allow that hit to bring people into the movie theaters clearly makes sense as a commercial strategy. The second thing was that he never wanted to give RCA, Elvis' record company, enough leverage so that they could start putting out records that he and Elvis did not strictly control or so that they could kill the market that he saw as Elvis'.
So that it was not so much that he had anything against Elvis recording anything other than movie songs, it was simply that he didn't want RCA building up a big backlog of material which would work against them in future negotiations. Nor did he want a hit not to serve the greater purpose of advancing Elvis' movie career, in which not only were they getting enormous amounts of money and salary but Elvis was getting 50 percent participation in the profits.
GROSS: How did this strategy serve Elvis artistically?
GURALNICK: It was a disaster artistically. It served to sink Elvis into a morass of, I'd say, depression and confusion. Because at a time when he was at his artistic height; at a time when he was singing songs like "I Need Somebody to Lean On" and Don Robertson's "There's Always Me;" at a time when I think he was ready to explore new directions as he did in his first sessions after he got out of the Army he was just completely shut down. And was confined to recording more and more trivial movie material.
And while, at first, he was -- well, while on the one hand, I think he understood the commercial strategy and he endorsed it, he agreed to it. He liked making $650-750,000 a movie -- $800,000 a movie. He was not against that at all. And he subscribed to the theory, but I don't think he, any more than the Colonel, recognized what its impact was going to be on him. And ultimately, what its impact was that it totally turned him off of both -- not just from the movies that he was making which became more and more -- more and more formulaic, less and less challenging. But it also turned him off from the music which became -- was an even worse example of formulas and triteness.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. The second volume of his two-part biography of Elvis Presley has just been published. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. We're talking about his book, "Careless Love," the second part of his two volume biography of Elvis Presley.
I thought we could pause here to play a record that Elvis not only chose, but he had a hand in writing. And this is actually not from one of the films, but it's a song I'll say I wasn't really familiar with but you write about it in the book, Peter. And it's a terrific record. It's called "That's Someone You'll Never Forget," and tell us a little bit about this song.
GURALNICK: Well, I think it's a song that -- whose title he suggested to Red West, and I think it's a song whose -- which is resonant with meaning for him because you really don't know who is it that he'll never forget. Is it his mother? Is it a girlfriend? Is it a lover? You just don't know.
But I think that Red West wrote the song primarily, and yet it was with Elvis' suggestion and I think with a great deal of emotional input from Elvis. And they went on to write one other song together, and that was the end of Elvis' songwriting career.
GROSS: You know, the way he sings on this reminds me of that haunted sound that he sometimes had on the Sun Records.
GURALNICK: Yeah, no. I think there's a tremendous sense of identification. I think that Elvis had all kinds of ambitions -- creative ambitions -- that were never satisfied. That had nothing whatsoever to do with being thwarted by anybody else. One of them, I think, would have been to be a songwriter. And he was quite open about the reasons that he didn't write songs, early on in '57 -- '56, '57 maybe in '58 too.
But I think '56 and '57 -- he was always completely open about the fact that, while his name might be on the songs, he had never written a song in his life. And the reason was he didn't feel he could write as good a song as the ones that he was being given.
And I think it's that fear of failure, that fear of exposing himself -- of exposing either his ignorance or his lack of instant -- or the lack of instant -- simply not seeing instant success was something that held him back in many ways. And it's a shame, in a way, that he didn't write more songs because I think he would've found a tremendous creative satisfaction from that.
GROSS: Well, let's hear t his 1961 recording "That's Someone You'll Never Forget."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- ELVIS PRESLEY PERFORMING "THAT'S SOMEONE YOU'LL NEVER FORGET")
The way she held your hand
The little things you planned
Have always (unintelligible)
That's someone you'll never forget
When she is far away
You'll think of fairy tales
And though she'll wait for you
That's someone you'll never forget
Others may pass your way
And let you think they'll always be true
But you know that they'll never replace
The one that waits for you
The way she held your hand
GROSS: That's Elvis Presley recorded in 1961. Peter, you say that, you know, in around the mid-'60s -- around 1964 -- that Elvis was getting pretty disillusioned with his career -- disillusioned with his films. And, as you put it, he was ready for a revelation, and that revelation came in the form of a 24-year-old hairdresser named Larry Geller (ph). And this was someone who had done Johnny Rivers' hair. Larry Geller became a spiritual figure in Elvis' life. Tell us something about who he was.
GURALNICK: Well, I think he was indeed a 24-year-old hairdresser. But he was someone who had had interest in the spiritual studies for a number of years at that point. This shows the role that coincidence can play in our lives, because Elvis' regular hairdresser Sal Orifache (ph) had just quit the hair salon and Larry was sent out as a substitute.
And Larry describes, and so do the other guys who were around at the time -- who describe much less sympathetically -- how, from the moment that Elvis met Larry -- from the very first moment -- they clicked in a way -- it was as if Elvis had been waiting for this kind of conversation all of his life.
And he started questioning Larry, I forget how exactly he got to the point of asking what is it you really believe, but Larry then started talking about it. And Elvis reacted immediately. You know, I've been thinking about these things all my life. These are the things that are always on my mind, which is true, I'm sure.
But they closeted themselves in the bathroom where Larry was cutting Elvis' hair and the guys, who were not unaware of who had Elvis' ear at any time, started banging on the door from time to time saying, are you OK in there Elvis?
And he was. He was fine. He was just talking about something that he had not had the opportunity to talk to anyone else about in his entire life. And he got Larry to quit his job that night. Larry came up to the studio the next day with books for Elvis to reads, and from there -- really for the next three years -- Elvis dedicated himself to spiritual studies. And that was the greatest threat that the Colonel ever faced, and probably the matter to which he reacted the most strongly in all of Elvis' career.
GROSS: Well, he kind of laid down the law to Elvis eventually, and tried to separate the two of them. What did Parker do?
GURALNICK: Well, the Colonel lay low for quite some time. He observed this, and he observed it with a good deal of concern, and expressed that concern on numerous occasions -- both to some of the guys around Elvis and to his own team. But he really didn't do anything until, finally -- literally it came three years later. He was very concerned about the extent to which Elvis' disaffection with the movies was perceptible to everyone from Hal Wallace to the movie's directors to the people that Elvis was acting with.
He was concerned that Elvis no longer seemed the least bit interested in the music he was recording. But he really was at a loss as to how to react, until finally in March of '67 Elvis fell in the middle of the night and hit his head, and was forced to postpone the start of his next movie, "Clambake." At this point, it was as if the Colonel had been given the signal. He stepped in immediately. He held a meeting of all the guys, including Larry. He said, there's kind to be no more talk about spiritual matters. There's going to be no more going to Mr. Presley talking about these religious issues.
He said, I know that some of you think that Elvis is Jesus Christ walking on water, but that is not the case. And from now on things are going to be done on a more businesslike basis. And Larry was gone within a couple of months. Remember, that was three years later and Elvis never forgot -- never left -- those books or those studies, and Larry was someone who came back into Elvis' life for the last year and a half or so on a very important basis.
GROSS: At what point do you think Elvis really kind of loses control of himself. You know, physically he gets very bloated. Emotionally he gets a little out of control. His use of uppers and downers gets totally out of control. Even his clothes were out of control -- the capes and the sequins. Is there a point where you see things just getting out of hand?
GURALNICK: Well, in a sense when you see the capes and the sequins and the costumes, it's almost as if the image, at this point, has become the man. You've see Elvis Presley the person subsumed by an image which he feels almost obligated to carry out.
But, yeah, I think there is a time. I think one would have been very hard pressed to have said -- let's say we were there at the time, I think it would have been very hard to say -- up until 1973 -- Elvis is on the down swing. There were certainly down periods, and there were times when things might have looked bleaker, you know, than at other times. But he continued to make music that mattered. He continued to have a sense of outgoing productivity, and he continued to explore different things.
But from '73 on, you just see an almost downward spiral. It was in October of '73 that he was admitted to the hospital with what amounted to an addiction to Demerol. And he had been seeing a doctor all year who had been giving him what were termed "acupuncture treatments," but as well as the acupuncture treatments Elvis was also being injected with a hypodermic needle with Demerol.
And when he was admitted to the hospital he was addicted to it. Now, to what extent he was aware of it, to what extent he blotted it out, I don't know. But from that point on, it was really a downhill ride, and both physically and emotionally -- I don't mean to say that this is what started it. I would see the first hospitalization as a symptom not as a cause. But from that point on, both emotionally and physically, he just went downhill.
GROSS: What was his voice like toward the end when he'd become such a caricature of himself?
GURALNICK: Well, he had a number of different voices at the end. I don't think he ever was able to regain the lurid beauty of the voice that he possessed in the early '60s. But he was certainly capable of performing with a good deal of strength right up until the end -- on certain songs.
It was almost as if he would wake up to certain songs. And a song like "How Great Thou Are" became the occasion for a tremendous emotional outpouring. A song like "Hurt," Roy Hamilton's song "Hurt," was always a dramatic reading. I would say the voice came up more as a bellow than in the controlled way that Roy Hamilton sang the song. At the same time, it was with both power and emotion.
But what's terribly sad, and what is the most revealing of Elvis' emotional makeup at the end is when the voice doesn't come out at all. When he was making the '77 television special, which didn't air until after his death, the first concert which was recorded in Omaha was left virtually unused.
Several songs were used for maybe -- like the ones I've described where he sounds OK. But in most of the concert, you would just hear this tiny little voice, and believe me I'm not exaggerating, it's just this small little childlike voice. And it's so sad, and it just sounds like this child crying for help.
And at this point, I don't know how your heart can't go out to him, and it's just -- what could be more awful than for a singer to lose his voice or for a poet to lose his song or whatever. But, I mean, what could be -- you just feel this sense of impotence and confusion on his part. And there is no help to offer.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. The second volume of his two-part biography of Elvis Presley has just been published. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. We're talking about his book "Careless Love," the second part of his two volume biography of Elvis Presley.
Did you learn anything new about the details or the circumstances of Elvis' death?
GURALNICK: No. No. I think they've been fully explored and I think the book, "The Death of Elvis" is probably as authoritative a work as we're ever going to get on all the circumstances surrounding his death.
GROSS: It's such a kind of ugly death for such an idol to have. You know, to be found dead in the bathroom with his pants down around his ankles lying in a pool of vomit. It's really so sad.
GURALNICK: It is, but, you know, I'm not sure that all death isn't ugly. I mean, you can't prettify death.
GURALNICK: And I think the thing that I felt most affecting, and the thing that surprised me as I wrote about this, and obviously I knew what there was to write about. I mean, I couldn't change the details of the story, but what affected most as I wrote about it was Elvis' father's reaction. I just found that so moving and so overwhelming in a sense.
GROSS: What was his reaction?
GURALNICK: He was just so devastated. And as Elvis was being taken out -- as Elvis' body was being taken out by the ambulance attendants Vernon was being held back saying, "I'm coming son. I'll join you. I'll join you."
But there's this sense of the whole purpose of his life -- I guess I came to have a feeling for Vernon that surprised me. I mean, this may have been the greatest turnaround in my feelings because when I started writing the book -- the first volume -- I probably had the same feeling as most people that here was this kind of shiftless guy who quit his job, you know, never was too enthusiastic about work. Quit his job when his son made it, and lived off the fruit of the land from that point on.
I don't have anything like that feeling at this point. I feel as if Vernon worked very hard all his life. He just -- he retired every debt. He did everything he could -- he sought so many jobs to support his family. But then after Elvis' success he did everything that he could -- everything that was humanly possible -- to protect his son. And you see him in that last scene how all that he has done has come to naught. He couldn't protect his son, either from himself or from those around him.
GROSS: Peter, you've been working on the Elvis biography for how many years?
GURALNICK: I started 11 years ago.
GROSS: That's a really long time. I mean, that's a large percentage of your life. And I'm wondering what it's going to be like for you not to be working on Elvis after you're done with all of your post publication duties. What are you expecting to do afterwards?
GURALNICK: Well, I'm excited about moving onto other things. I mean, I don't feel as if I ever leave any of my subjects. I mean, whether it's Charlie Rich or Sleepy La Beef or Solomon Burke. I mean, I continue to be involved or invested in what I write about because I care what I write about.
So, I don't feel as if I would ever abandon the subject. But I'm excited -- I started -- really over the last 10 or 15 years I've been working off and on with the idea of doing a biography of Sam Cooke, and I hope very much I'll be able to do that. And I also have left off fiction in various forms.
I left a novel in the middle when I got really involved in Elvis. And I'd like to go back to that and find out if there's anything there. So, I -- there are lots of things that I'm excited about moving on.
GROSS: Peter, I want to congratulate you on the completion of your Elvis biography, and thank you very much for talking with us.
GURALNICK: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Peter Guralnick's new book is called "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley." It's the second volume of his two-part biography of Elvis.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Peter Guralnick
High: Music writer Peter Guralnick has written volume two of his biography of Elvis Presley, "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley." Part one of his biography is called "Last Train to Memphis."
Spec: Entertainment; Culture; Lifestyle; Music Industry; Profile; Elvis Presley; Peter Guralnick
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Peter Guralnick
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.