Caught in a Trap

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

So at some point, Sam decided to go over to the Colonel and I went with him. I don't know that I was invited to go with him, but it was a historic moment that I thought would be a cool thing to observe. I shook hands with the Colonel and they had a cordial exchange. And I went back to the Phillips table.

I wrote the Colonel as soon as I got home: "Dear Colonel, it was so nice to meet you, I'm working on this book..." And much to my surprise, in a few days I got a letter from him. It began "Friend Peter"--that was how he addressed people. So we carried on this correspondence for a while, and he invited me to his birthday party in Las Vegas in June of '89. And after the party, he was sitting on this red, thronelike chair in front of this carved elephant--he was fond of carved elephants. And he and Sam Phillips were arguing hammer and tongs over the details of what happened in November of 1955. And each was fully armed with all kinds of details which didn't exactly contradict the other's, but their interpretations were totally different.

I shook the Colonel's hand and told him I just wanted to thank him for having me at the party. He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me towards him and said, "Peter, I put you on the list." And I looked at him like, Yeah, of course you put me on the invitation list. But what he meant was that he had validated me in the eyes of other guests by inviting me to the party. He was well aware that I was doing the book, and he was well aware he was doing me a favor, and he wanted me to be aware of it. When I got home I began writing these people at the party, and there's no question in my mind that I got all kinds of interviews as a result.

CP: One thing you point out is that Elvis loved being Elvis. He didn't really seem to want to be anything else.

GURALNICK: A large part of him loved being Elvis; another part of him wanted to give it all up and become a monk. I don't think that Elvis was ever really secure. For all of his ability to sort of play the paterfamilias to this group of guys, to show a kind of confidence in terms of dealing with everyone else's problems, I think there was a lurking insecurity in all of his dealings that came out again and again.

CP: You seem to shy away from grand psychological conclusions...

GURALNICK: I don't believe in grand psychological conclusions either in books or real life.

CP: But where do you think that insecurity came from?

GURALNICK: I think there was a fear of showing ignorance, of showing vulnerability, which is a common fear. It doesn't seem that complicated a thing. He's perceived in an almost symbolic way. And here's somebody who was intelligent, who was sensitive, who was all too aware of his fallibility. And was very much aware, from a standpoint of class and region, of the shortcomings of his educational background and of the world from which he had risen.

CP: Why didn't he ever face up to his drug problem?

GURALNICK: It's a process. How many junkies have you known in your life?

CP: One.

GURALNICK: Well, I've known quite a few, and I would say there's no common thread. Some junkies are good people, some aren't. But the addiction is a symptom, not a cause. I asked Scotty Moore over and over if he'd ever known Elvis to take pills. Elvis as a kid was so hyperactive you'd have to stop the car on the road so he could run up and down to get out his energy.

CP: Do you think if he'd taken Ritalin for hyperactivity he could have avoided falling into the cycle of downers he took to go to sleep?

GURALNICK: I think he was not well-served by the medical community. I think if you were looking for an indictment, it would not be of Doctor Nick, who's been used as a scapegoat for the whole thing, but it would be of an approach to medicine that permeates our society--which permeated it then and permeates it to this day. And I think to some extent the overprescription of Ritalin today is no different from the overprescription of amphetamines in the '60s. I think American medicine always thinks there's a drug to cure every ill or perceived ill.

CP: A lot of people look to this as the definitive biography. Is that too much pressure for you?

GURALNICK: Sam Phillips gave me a long pep talk at the beginning of one of our eight-hour interviews. And he said, "By God, if you don't tell the truth, then I'll know I've been talking to the wrong fucking person." That was part of it, it went on. He was saying, don't listen to me, don't listen to anybody. You've got to listen to your own voice, and if you don't, you won't tell the truth.

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