Caught in a Trap

Peter Guralnick chronicles a Memphis tragedy in his passionate biography of Elvis Presley

After reading Peter Guralnick's empathetic portrait of Elvis Presley in 1994's Last Train to Memphis, fans might be forgiven for approaching the second part of this biography with a certain amount of dread. This volume, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, covers the dark ages of the King's court: the sex, drugs and post-rock-'n'-roll years. And it's all here in detail: The bad movies, the spiritual reawakenings, the '68 comeback, the Nixon handshake, the Vegas revues, the downward spiral into a pharmaceutical stupor.

The story will be familiar to many--which, strangely, makes Guralnick's generous, sympathetic version seem all the more foreign. He spent 11 years researching and writing both volumes, and his intimacy with the subject has animated the characters; Elvis, his family, and his entourage live on these pages. As Col. Parker told Guralnick over the phone after reading Last Train, this is "a very different book."


A once and future King: Elvis in concert, June 30, 1968
A once and future King: Elvis in concert, June 30, 1968

CITY PAGES: How did you go about the technical task of writing this book?

PETER GURALNICK: It's funny, because in some ways it presented a unique set of problems. With Elvis, you have someone who was so extensively written about, so extensively documented, and yet who didn't leave much of a written record. He didn't leave letters. He didn't leave memoirs. And while there's just a plethora of written information, much of it's memoirs. While they often reflect accurately the point of view of the person telling the story, they aren't intended to document in the usual historic sense.

There's a lot of oral material, from memoirs to fan magazines in 1955 to the chronicling of his later life in the National Enquirer and the Star. And I guess my feeling has always been, whether it's writing about Muddy Waters, or Ernest Tubb, or Bobby Blue Bland, you don't want to scorn any source.

CP: Did you feel an immediate barrier to communication in interviews, coming from the North?

GURALNICK: No, because I've been doing this all my life, and I started out almost entirely with blues singers. I couldn't have been more removed from that world. It wasn't like I was going to fool anyone into believing I was a blues singer. As a writer and as a reporter, you're always a stranger. You're not writing about the world that you inhabit; you're going out to explore other worlds. The fundamental thing is, you can't ever assume you have a place in these worlds.

CP: You've been immersing yourself in Elvis for 11 years. Has he become a permanent part of your consciousness?

GURALNICK: Yeah, but so has Bobby Blue Bland. So has Solomon Burke. So has Joe Tex. You're not ever looking at a single subject. There are worlds within worlds.

CP: But the difference is that you actually spent time with them, whereas you never met Elvis--or did you?

GURALNICK: I wrote him a letter. I sent him a review I'd done of the "'68 Comeback Special." It said how much I admired his work and how if he ever saw fit to give an interview I would be very eager to do one. The funny part was that while doing some research in the archives at Graceland, I came across the letter.

CP: It seems to me that you disliked the Colonel more in Last Train to Memphis. Having spent so much time with him for this book, do you find yourself resisting judgment now?

GURALNICK: I would resist judgment of anybody. It's the biggest temptation in the world, from which I'm not immune: to make easy judgments. But what I'm interested in is exploring a phenomenon. As soon as you advance a simple explanation, you're selling out your subject. The reality is that the person who seems like the biggest jerk may have hidden depths. Maybe not, but you'll never know if you don't leave yourself open to exploration. Sometimes it's just not worth the exploration, and it's easier to dismiss someone.

CP: Was the Colonel upset by the first volume?

GURALNICK: The Colonel called me up right after he got the book. He said, "You know, you've written a very different book." I said, thank you. I didn't know whether it was a compliment or not. "But there's just a couple of things. Did Sam Phillips really say those things about me that he said to you?" I said yes. He said, "I can't believe it. You saw Sam at my birthday party." I said I did. Then he said, "Did Hank Snow really say those things?" Now, in Hank Snow's case I was quoting mainly from his autobiography, but again I just said yes. He said, "What a lot of crap. Did you know I got a Christmas card from Hank Snow this year?"

The thing about the Colonel, he was the announced speaker at the Elvis Presley birthday celebration in January of 1988. And I went to Memphis just to see him, because I figured it might be the only chance I'd have to be in the same room with him, and to kind of absorb his aura. It turned out I was sitting there with the Phillips family. And Sam and the Colonel hadn't spoken to each other in roughly 25, 30 years.

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