When journalist Albert Goldman issued the book Elvis in 1981, the rock-and-roll community was stunned and appalled. Fans who still got misty at the thought of Elvis Aron Presley's 1977 demise weren't ready for a tome that painted their hero as a moronic hillbilly and a sexual deviant who would bend heaven and earth for a glimpse of white panties stretched over the derrieres of underage girls. Worse, Goldman didn't seem to feel that Presley's music was all that important in the cosmic scheme of things. He suggested that the King's brilliant early tracks were accidents in which Presley played an almost incidental part and that subsequent efforts revealed that the man behind the image was incredibly overrated and creatively bankrupt.
It's no surprise, then, that the pop-cultural elite has embraced Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown). The book's author, Peter Guralnick, is a well-regarded critic and musical historian with a passion for rhythm and blues and a long-nurtured admiration for the Presley oeuvre. Train brims with this passion--a zeal complemented by an attention to detail that gives its writer's preoccupations shape and focus. So thorough is Guralnick that portions of the narrative concerned with touring apparently document each and every show on Presley's itinerary. Guralnick was equally obsessive in researching other parts of the book; he quizzed virtually everyone still living who was in close proximity to Presley during the years between his 1935 birth and his 1958 induction in the Army (a second volume will follow Presley until his death). When eyewitnesses were not available, Guralnick relied upon contemporary interviews. At one point he even makes reference to Goldman, quoting from his conversation with actress Natalie Wood, who met her maker shortly thereafter. Predictably, Wood's comments are among the sweetest and most complimentary that found their way into Elvis.
In many ways, Guralnick's decision to put the best spin on the events of Presley's life seems just as questionable as Goldman's bile-spewing approach. For long stretches, Train is as reverent as the average biography of Jesus Christ, and even during those times when Guralnick reports behavior that might not cast Presley in the most positive light, he softens the blow by hinting that society, rather than flaws within Elvis himself, was responsible for transforming his innocence and naivete into something darker and more disturbing.
The sketches of the pre-fame Presley call to mind the title alien in E.T. Elvis arrives in Tupelo, Mississippi, like a creature from another planet--utterly pure and unstained by the foibles and prejudices that afflict those around him. He miraculously avoids being besmirched by the racism that runs rampant throughout the South, in part because of the simple goodness of his poor but plucky parents, Vernon and Gladys (excoriated as buffoons by Goldman), but mainly as a result of his childlike guilelessness. Up until the time when his notoriety began to take on unprecedented proportions, Guralnick's Elvis comes across as a youngster completely lacking in self-consciousness yet infused with an almost saintly humbleness and an instinctive knowledge of what is fine and just and right. What Goldman saw as ignorance becomes ingenuousness in the hands of Guralnick, who seems certain that Presley was legitimately dumbfounded that anyone could believe his leg-shaking, hip-swiveling exuberance was actually sexual provocation.
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In the segments of Train during which his renown is gathering steam, Presley begins to indulge in the privileges of stardom; for example, he has members of his retinue troll for willing girls following concerts even as he leads on hometown steadies with vows of love. However, Guralnick's kindly telling of these tales tends to blanch the sordidness from them. Presley, he writes, was unfailingly gentle with the Memphis girls he left behind, and he treated his one-night stands with uncommon politeness, talking to them for hours before deflowering them in his bedroom. In this way, Train implies, he was giving his companions a gift they'd treasure for the rest of their days--rather than simply using them to sate his desires.
To be fair, Guralnick's tone undergoes a subtle change as the book comes to a close; a few scenes (mainly those dealing with Hollywood) find Presley revealing a calculating side that previously had been hidden from view. In this way, Guralnick seems to be preparing the reader to see Presley's decline as a tragedy in which the singer's basic virtue slowly succumbed to the temptations foisted upon him by a world not nearly as perfect as he. If only he could have stood up to moral corruption as well as, say, Forrest Gump...
How close this portrayal is to the truth is unclear; at this point, Presley seems less like a person who once walked the earth than a blank page on which each of us can scribble our own dreams. Train is Guralnick's, a highly readable epic filled with strong characterizations and indelible looks behind the curtains at the making of some of the most vibrant music produced in the second half of the twentieth century. And if the Elvis at its center has only a peripheral connection to the real thing, who cares? He belongs to you now.