Posts Tagged ‘Elvis


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.


Best New Albums 2013 – #14: Elvis Presley – Elvis At Stax

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#14: Elvis Presley – Elvis At Stax

For me, this was a year where I finally started giving Elvis his due. Really, I’ve never thought much about the guy, other than the clichés and a general acknowledgement that he popularized rock back in the day.

Things started to change for me when I read Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train (see my review here) and later when I read Peter Guralnick’s biography of Presley’s early years (again, see here for my review). But the real tipping point came with a CD I actually bought for my mom: Elvis at Stax.

Originally recorded in 1973, this captures Elvis at a fascinating point in his career. He’d just sold his back catalog to RCA and was in the midst of a divorce. But he was also recording what he wanted, with his best backing band and in one of the most famous studios in America. Little wonder that some great music came out of this, arguably the last great music of his career.

This CD is a mix of a handful of finished sides and a bunch of unused outtakes. And it’s mind-blowing to see how much of this music, the bulk of it very good, was basically shelved and forgotten about. And for the stuff they used? Buried on forgettable albums, back in the days when RCA used to issue multiple Presley records a year. But together, man, it’s a smoking album.

Let’s start with the finished takes: rocking versions of Promised Land and Raised on Rock, soulful versions of I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby and If You Talk In Your Sleep and a gospel tune: Help Me. They’re polished, slick and usually pretty good. And maybe you’ve heard them all before, but never all at once. That’s a nice plus.

But the unfinished stuff is where the treats lay. I Got A Feelin’ in My Body has a snakey, funky guitar break, a backing choir and Presley singing his ass off. He breaks into balladry on  cover of Danny O’Keefe’s Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues. He goes into blues on Three Corn Patches, a song written by his old songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. His backing band is in top form here, too.

Be warned, these are raw recordings: “Damn these takes are going by fast,” he says, breaking into laughter. Other times, songs break down and are re-started. But it’s rewarding. As you dig a little dipper, you can hear the finished sides get stripped away and see how he’d take different approaches and see what worked. A highlight: If You Talk In Your Sleep, with the horns stripped away and Presley’s vocals right at the forefront. Even if you’re not really an Elvis fan, this might just convert you.


Music and Myth in America: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus

Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' RollMystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll by Greil Marcus

Rock is the quintessential American music form. Say what you will about jazz, bluegrass and hip-hop, it’s rock that people identify with the US more than any other. It’s one of those assessments that people make not because of the music, or the people who make it, but because of the culture: rock is so tied into what it means to be an American, it’s hard to separate it. Even the Brits try to sound like they’re from the south when they rock out.

In this  series of essays about America, rock music and the cultural history between the two, Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is an attempt to place music in the greater context of America and, in particular, American culture. Here he’ll go between Moby Dick to Robbie Robertson to Stagger Lee to Elvis, making the connections one never thought about before and can’t help but see afterward. Don’t worry, it sounds more high-handed than it is and it’s a blast to read to boot.

In a series of essays about bands and musicians – Sly Stone, The Band, Robert Johnson and Elvis, among others – Marcus looks at the roots of music and the traditions between each, tying together disparate elements like Moby Dick and slavery to music’s role in culture. It’s thought provoking and gave me, someone who’s been listening to some of these acts for years, a new angle to look at their output.

One good example is The Band’s second album: Marcus makes the case that their long experience and travels through America, first as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and later for Bob Dylan, gave them the breadth and exposure to America to become commentators on it; only an outsider could write as nuanced a look at the south as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and make it, as Marcus writes, “not so much a song about the Civil War as it is about the way each American caries a version of that event within himself.”

Later, Marcus ties together the common elements between the songs on their second album, The Band:

“The shifts between songs finally let us understand that the man who sings King Harvest wants nothing more than to sing a song like Rag Mama Rag; we understand that the voice on Rag Mama Rag is real because it’s been shaped by the terrors of King Harvest and knows a chance to dance them away for what it’s worth.” (pg 57)


In this essay, Marcus makes a great case for this album’s importance: it’s more familiar than their first record, although it lacks a song as iconic as The Weight, and that familiarity comes from the common roots of their music. It’s an album inspired by where we’ve been, looking backwards at a time when music was pushing forwards, coming together as a remarkable synthesis of two. It’s unfortunate that The Band lost the thread shortly after, releasing one good concert film (The Last Waltz), one decent album (Stage Freight) and some forgettable ones before breaking up for good in the mid 70s.

The other essays are just as provoking. In Every Man Is Free, he ties the literature of Los Angeles and the spectre of slavery to the music of Randy Newman (in particular the 1972 album Sail Away). In another, he examines the legend of Stagger Lee’s ties to black culture, and especially how they relate to the music of Sly Stone. To wit:

“On the way to the silent riot Sly shouldered the racial and sexual fantasies of a huge audience and staggered under them, as if he were Staggerlee himself back from the dead to live up to his myth. The images of mastery, style and triumph set forth earlier in Sly’s career reversed themselves; his old politics turned into death, his exuberance into dope, his old music into a soundtrack for a world that didn’t exist. As an artist, Sly used those facts to reverse the great myth itself.” (pg 78)

The heart of Mystery Train is his in-depth look at Elvis, which ties together all the elements of America: he cuts through the bullshit and hype to look at how one man came to represent so much, mean everything to a style of music and almost leave it as quickly – even if he still gave glimpses of his raw power here and there: on Ed Sullivan, on the Comeback Special, in the way he commanded himself on stage, doing so much while doing so little. A nod here, a move there and he had the crowd eating out of his hand.

Also of note is a giant Notes and Discographies section, which offers a more straightforward history of each act, breaking down their careers and discorgraphies (often with pointed opinions towards them), literature about them and suggestions for further reading. It’s nice to have a reference like this and having a seasoned critic like Marcus not only offer suggestions on where to go for everything (he seems to have an opinion on thousands of records), but what to read and to make it completely readable is a nice bonus.

Rating: 8/10. I read the fourth edition, which means the discography section was a little out of date (it’s since been updated, but I can’t speak to specifics), but it was still a blast. Still, the little things that nagged at me most were in the main text. Recommended for music fans, but I imagine some will find it a little pretentious. Still, there isn’t a better book in it’s vein. And if you’re like me, you’re going to go back and listen to these bands again and again.



Just Another Boy From Tupelo: Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

My mom’s a big Elvis fan, which means I’ve heard his music more or less forever. Hell, she once had an Elvis impersonator she was a fan of over for dinner. Then again, my hometown’s big into this scene, too. Growing up, there was a 50s rock festival every summer. A few towns over, there’s an annual Elvis festival. It was hard not to get tired of his music growing up.

But it’s hard not to be curious about the man, too: he’s so iconic in music, it’s impossible not to be aware of his shadow. There are tons of quickie, scandal-ridden biographies, the depictions of him as a pill-addled maniac in popular culture, even the iconic photo of him shaking hands with Nixon. By the time I got around to this book, I figured I already knew everything I needed to about Elvis: he got famous back in the day, made some movies, got fat, hooked on drugs and died. And as Peter Guralnick shows in the first volume of his two-part biography of Elvis, I was completely wrong.

In some ways, I’m surprised a book like this hadn’t been written before: a straight telling of Elvis’ life, cutting through the bullshit with an objective viewpoint, while still remaining sympathetic to the man himself. In other words: a book about Elvis, the world he lived in and how each influenced the other. Not about the idle gossip or rumours.

Here, Guralnick cuts right to the roots of Elvis, looking at him before he was famous, driving a truck for an electrical company and hanging out at Sun Records, looking for a recording gig. It’s a fascinating read: we see Elvis living in the projects, barely making it through school and working hard for a living. Throughout this book, this Elvis is always right at the shadows; even as his fame went through the roof and he bought Graceland, he still realized where he came from and was appreciative of his fans, going out and signing autographs and taking pictures. It’s a cliché to say celebrities love their fans, but at this point in his career, Guralnick makes a point of showing Elvis really did: on a regular basis, he’d go out to sign autographs for fans and press some flesh.

The musical side of his life is also illuminated. I have memories of Elvis as a singer who danced around, but there was more to him than that. He had rudimentary guitar skills, played some piano and learned songs after just a few listens. While he served something of an apprenticeship from Sam Phillips at Sun Records, he was always a driven, determined musician who was going to make it, one way or another. When Guralnick writes of the many sessions Elvis had, it becomes clear that Elvis was always a perfectionist, demanding take after take, sometimes radically altering the song in the studio until it sounded the way he wanted it to.

Just as interesting is the supporting cast: Gladys, his worrisome mother (who Elvis was utterly devoted to); his moody, jaded dad Vernon; Dixie Locke, the woman he nearly married right before finding success and remained close to, even after they separated; the eccentric DJ Dewey Phillips, whose show inspired Elvis and helped popularize his music; and of course, Tom “Colonel” Parker, the smart, shrewd and ruthless promoter who all but turned Elvis into a rock star and then into an industry.

Rating: 9/10. Music biographies don’t come better than this and I can’t wait to read the second volume. Recommended for rock fans, especially if you think you already know everything there is to know about Elvis; you don’t, not even close.