Down and Out in Memphis – Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis PresleyCareless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

The last years of Elvis are the kind of thing everyone has some idea about, even if it’s only half-formed by rumour and stereotype. He was fat; he ate pills with the same energy he ate fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches; he starred in a bunch of forgettable movies, shot out TVs and died on the toilet. There’s some truth to all of those, but what I got from Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love is how sad the events were. And not for the usually listed reasons
The Elvis that comes through in these pages is something of a lesser man than the one in the first volume, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. After his mother’s death, Elvis was sent reeling, looking for answers and found them in spirituality and, eventually, drugs. His insecurity rose and rose to the point where it dominated everything, including his talents. And while every time he stumbled backwards – the string of bad movies, for instance – he somehow was able to bounce back: the NBC comeback special, the live-from-Hawaii concert; the recording sessions at Stax and American studios. And because he bounced back so many times, people seemed to think he’d be able to do it again once he descended into a haze of depression, pills and addiction.

What could’ve been a morbid read is instead sympathetic: Guralnick never comes across as cynical or jaded, even at Elvis’ most pathetic moments. His respect for Elvis comes through, whether it’s showing what depths Elvis had fallen to or showing the rare moments of triumph. And the love Elvis had for music, even at his most schmaltzy and melodramatic comes right through for readers.

But what comes through clearest of all is the sense of isolation and decay among Elvis’ inner circle. He was a charmer who surrounded himself with so many sycophants that even the best-intentioned people were sucked in, wreaking havoc even if they didn’t realize it. One passage particularly defined this world to me:


There was a spirit of entitlement that permeated the air. If one guy got something, everyone else wanted it too; it was jealous plain and simple in a sealed environment where the players never changed, the climate was always the same and the outside world was regarded with scorn – if it was regarded at all. (pg 491)

At his worst, Elvis was self-destructive and depressive, bordering on schizophrenic (see: his insane paranoia w/r/t Mike Stone or his even crazier plan to trap and murder drug pushers, a la the Charles Bronson movie Death Wish). And while the old sparks occasionally flared up in these later years, the people who surrounded Elvis, not to mention his encompassing, suffocating fame, kept things from changing. Instead, they spiraled down and down and down…

Rating: 8 10. A fascinating, yet depressing, read about the perils of fame and insecurity, of surrounding yourself with people who are there to agree or, even worse, to stay out of your way. And, ultimately of a talent that, for all it’s success, could’ve done so much more. Recommended. Pair it with the Elvis chapter in Mystery Train while you’re at it.




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