If ever a biography were to accomplish documenting the beginnings of the life and career of Elvis Presley with dignity, respect, and honest perspective, Peter Guralnick’s ‘The Rise of Elvis Presley – Last Train to Memphis’ would be that book. I just finished reading it this weekend, and up to – even perhaps especially – the very last chapter the book evoked empathy from me regarding Elvis, his relationships with his family and friends, and his almost naive purity. Guralnick succeeds in telling Presley’s story, and that of the forces at work around him, in a way that someone – on some other planet perhaps – who had never before heard of Elvis Presley, could come to understand what an endearing and sincere person he really was.
Make no mistake, I didn’t get the feeling at any point that this was a sugar-coated tale of the King. It was an honest account of a human being, caught up in a whirlwind which he himself could have never imagined. Although there were no profound reveals (at least not for me), the biography was woven in such a way that, again, not to overuse the term ’empathize’, I felt it did a remarkable job of making Elvis real and tangible. A young man so caught up in gratitude, and indebtedness that we can see the glimpses of how it could, and inevitably did consume him.
Yet this book is only Guralnick’s first of two, and his second book, ‘Careless Love – The Unmaking of Elvis Presley’ is one book I may put off for a bit. The first book’s story – with the exception of the loss of his mother Gladys – was really overall uplifting. Certainly there were lows, and some moments where Elvis might have made better decisions, but in the end it was mostly warm and fuzzy.
One particular triumph of Mr. Guralnick’s was his depiction of Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s notorious manager. It’s no secret that Parker was no good guy, but Guralnick – at least in this first book – did not present him as I have so often seen as the self-serving nefarious bad guy. Tom Parker was what he was, and the author makes no bones about his being unpopular, but still allows for the flow of the story to continue without continuously making the Colonel out to be the ultimate villain… although that may be yet to come.
From a music standpoint, Guralnick made me feel as if I was there in the studio with Elvis, from his first recording session at Sun Records of ‘That’s Alright Mama’, to his inevitable evolution as an artist. Always unsure as a person, but clear on what he wanted to achieve musically, while innocently and almost unknowingly breaking down racial barriers with his new, unique and virtually unclassifiable style of music, which would eventually become known as ‘Rock n Roll’.
The book concludes with Elvis’s departure for Germany in the Army, just after the passing of his beloved mother, and admittedly, I shed a tear for the boy who was to be King. Guralnick narrates Presley’s deep emotions, and his longing hunger for love and approval which would eventually be his undoing – not as some sort of character flaw – but as a human frailty not uncommon to the human condition. There is a clear illustration of Elvis Presley’s ego in a never ending struggle with his wholesomeness and good heart, trying to find the balance while making everyone happy, which, sadly, can never be achieved.
Kudos to Peter Guralnick and his biography of The Rise of Elvis Presley. I would recommend it to even the most avid Presley fan, but perhaps particularly to those unfamiliar with the kid from Memphis who changed the world.