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CARLESS LOVE - How much does it cost if it's free?

A review by Ian Mackay

  • It had to be written
  • The research is unrepeatable
  • It's a definitive work
  • There's little new
  • Reading it is hard work
  • We get no evaluation
  • It's too short
  • We understand Elvis no better
  • It's written for critics, not fans
  • There's no happy ending
  • It wasn't worth the wait
  • It is an essential purchase

    The response to Peter Guralnick's first book over four years ago, 'Last Train to Memphis' from both critics and fans meant that this was the most widely anticipated Elvis book since. There is little doubt that this second volume, which completes Guralnick's writings on Elvis, will now replace Jerry Hopkins' 'Final Years' as the one definitive work on which future researchers and academics will rely in the same way as his previous book replaced Hopkins' original 1971 biography. It is academic in style, with copious notes and bibliography; it will be the basis on which future generations judge Elvis.

    Anyone who has carried out a 'literature search' as part of any school or university thesis will start off at a gallop in Careless Love. It reads as exactly that, a thorough investigation of previous writings on Elvis covering the period 1958 to 1977, a comparison of the 'facts' from each and a decision on the most likely, to piece together what is probably the closest we will ever get to the true story.

    For those not used to this style of writing, it can be really confusing as there is simply a constant barrage of facts at the reader, with the continuing temptation, once the 'Notes' pages are discovered, to check the source of the information - often more enlightening than the factual statements themselves.

    What is missing from the book is what is required with any academic work; conclusions, opinions, a proof, a summary, indeed anything which indicates the reason for publication. This is missing from Careless Love and the result is a book which is bland, lacks tension and is unappealing to the ordinary fan or casual reader. It is a simple presentation of the facts.

    Incredible as this statement may seem, the book seems 'rushed'. It appears that the majority of the material was gathered for a single book to cover the whole of Elvis' life and that the initial book was a compromise. Of course, this is speculation but it seems like there have been some follow-up interviews to the original research for the 1994 book. Twenty years are covered in 661 pages compared to Last Train to Memphis which gave us a lot of detail in its 488 pages. The calculations of 'pages per year' at first seems 'fair' but when the sketchy details from his early life are considered, what we lose this time is the beautiful slow pace of Last Train to Memphis - the building of Elvis, the young man, the career, the musical development and the entertainer - the making of Elvis Presley. In Careless Love we do not even get a paced 'unmaking'. We get a jerky stumbling mess of the movie-ridden '60s with no attempt at critical evaluation, an excellent coverage of the NBC '68 Special and the 'Vegas '69 opening and surprisingly little effort expended on what was Elvis' life for the largest segment of his career, the '70's tours.

    Most readers will find the book boring in the enormous detail it includes covering contracts and corporate relationships between publishers Hill and Range and the Aberbachs, the William Morris Agency and the Colonel with Boxcar, Management III and RCA Record Tours and, somewhere in there, Elvis and his father. Guralnick confesses his own "very limited business understanding" and it is apparent that he has attempted to address this in the only way he knows, through research. The problem is that his description and explanation of the intricate relationships leaves the reader no further forward in recognizing their importance. Why? Because again the author draws no conclusions and offers no opinions.

    There is so much detail on the various women in Elvis' life that the investment of hundreds of words on casual relationships tends to demean the significant relationships, which he did have. In fact, the way the women are treated equally, no matter how short their time with Elvis, in terms of attention to detail on names, dates and places, Guralnick could just have put a grid in the book with their names, showing the overlaps.

    So much material is quoted from books that the authors of a number of them may be unhappy with the sheer volume lifted from publications still on sale. Ernst Jorgensen is quoted as a source throughout, from his book, via interviews and as a source for the music the author listened to. It looks like the sessions information has been added late to the book and at times the text itself seems so familiar to 'A Life In Music' that it feels like reading Ernst's book again.

    Guralnick had access to the EPE archives this time which, it appears, he didn't have for Last Train to Memphis. This is a pity as the Colonel's documentation from the '50s would have been fascinating reading in the earlier volume; the EPE material jumps out of the pages at the informed reader here - it is fresh, it is challenging at times and it results in the Colonel being stamped throughout the text.

    The obvious question - is there any new material? Considering the four-year wait and the unchallenged place Guralnick commands as the noted Elvis author from the musical critics' viewpoint, not much. A further interview with Priscilla is good reading, Dirk Vellenga's excellent work on the Colonel rates special mention, as does the extensive NBC Special material from interviews with Finkel, Goldenberg, Howe, Binder and Belew.

    The other additional interview sources that are obvious in three readings of Careless Love are the reminiscences of Joan Esposito, Cliff Gleaves, Lamar Fike and Jerry Schilling.

    The most illuminating text, however, is in the all too brief words of Sri Daya Mata, who must be in her '80s now - she gives a brief insight into her time with Elvis and his spiritual development. This is admirable work on the part of a detailed and untiring researcher and Guralnick deserves the thanks of fans for it.

    Over 400 sources are named, including my old mate Gerry McLafferty's excellent 'Elvis in Hollywood - Celluloid Sellout' book. It's just a pity that Guralnick chooses to treat the movies with nothing like the seriousness Gerry does. There are many unquoted periodicals and over 400 people thanked individually although the list is a straight copy of the one included in Last Train To Memphis. The author's obsession with detail, references, structure and bibliography extends to over 100 pages of such material, including, incredibly, a ludicrous index of every reference to Elvis Presley, which goes over three pages, hardly surprising in a book about Elvis Presley.

    The author includes 'A Brief Discographical Note' which is perhaps the only 'payment' Ernst and BMG get for their participation. It majors on the '50s but it also, to its credit, lists the current and planned BMG releases. Ludicrously, it suggests that we explore 'The Million Dollar Quartet', that shambles of off-mike singing and fitful playing which is best confined to the 'curiosity' rack.

    Where Guralnick excels is in his research of Fan Club magazines and his in depth and unstinting press research. Deserving of special mention is Trevor Cajiao, whose interviews in 'Elvis the Man and His Music' really provide the 'glue' for much of the book. There are extensive quotes throughout and the reader of Careless Love simply must be directed towards the original in depth interviews published last year in 'Talking Elvis'. One problem with Guralnick's use of this material is the way the obvious love Duke Bardwell had for Elvis, which was apparent in his Talking Elvis interview, is lost in what seems like a bitter outcome for Duke in Careless Love.

    It is more than a pity that there is no fan perspective in the book. Our publications are scoured for details and rumors but the importance of the fans, the audience, the influence we had on Elvis' continuing live performances is lost, suggesting monetary considerations only for the '70s touring which so taxed Elvis' health.

    On the '70s live shows, his coverage of the August '74 Vegas change in repertoire doesn't recognize the importance of its perceived failure and the possible influence a turn-round in the music could have had on Elvis' life at that point. Pittsburgh, that landmark show on New Year's Eve 1976, amid a possibly 'best ever' tour, gets one line only and yet the well-known, already flogged to death 'disaster' shows get the full treatment. Guralnick covers the live material, at best, sparingly, almost reluctantly and he reveals his lack of enthusiasm for the songs and, almost by implication, the genre of the 'Elvis tour'. 'Let Me Be There' is dismissed as 'sugary' in a rare burst of opinion; perhaps it was, by the original artist but I defy anyone to categorize the 'Live in Memphis' and 'Live in Dallas' performances as such.

    He links the '73 Stax sessions with Elvis' state of health at the time and presents an interesting perspective which impressed, until Ernst's book and the Rhythm and Country sleeve notes were consulted! The big opportunity missed is in not pursuing the Colonel's gambling debts. He simply quotes from contemporary accounts, often described as 'rumors' in the book, and attempts no investigation. Surely, if this were proven, it would be illuminating in our search for the cause of Elvis' career stagnation. Again, we are left frustrated. Guralnick reports on but draws no conclusions from the offer to Elvis of 'A Star Is Born'. He regurgitates the well-known facts when most fans think it was a real opportunity for Elvis to come back into movies strongly and make a real career change, if not rescue the man himself.

    Guralnick attempts a one-man rehabilitation of Doctor Nick and continues Ernst's restoration of Charlie Hodge as a significant influence on Elvis and his music. For both, a justifiable case is made.

    He insults a few people along the way, paying particular attention to Marty Lacker and seems to almost pick on him uncharacteristically at points although the former Memphis Mafia member is mentioned in excess of 50 times in the book and is quoted extensively. Surprisingly and unnecessarily, he pursues the hero too, referring to Elvis' use of 'Childish Block Letters' in notes for the karate movie. Unusually, this is not a quote from anyone - these are Guralnick's own words and many fans will find such comments insulting. How many of us have handwriting that could be readily compared to this 'style' when making notes?

    The ending was thoroughly disappointing. Elvis dies! But of course, Guralnick would leave us with a critical appraisal of his career. No, it's the bathroom, the ambulances, the autopsy and the funeral. Important that this was included in yet another book in detail, just in case we missed it in the previous hundred.

    The only telling piece in the whole book where we get a hint of the author's feelings is where he describes his contemporary review of the NBC TV Special. It may pay dividends to obtain the text of his full original review as the impression given is one of the author's embarrassment in trying to justify what seems to have been an attempt to write a pretentious intellectual piece on the man without sounding like a fan. It's the first and only time we get an insight into Guralnick's relationship with Elvis.

    If there is one hint of a 'theme' in the book, where we see a modicum of creativity from the author, it is in the cataloging of pills. Guralnick does not let us down; he traces a Memphis Newspaper report from '58 of Elvis being sent them from home! Of course we trail the 'medication' from the army onwards to death - surely, 'The Unmaking of Elvis Presley' and perhaps his only conclusion.

    One last point, the last time I looked, Rapid City was in South Dakota, not Iowa. The source may not have been accurate but it was free and such small mistakes are unlikely to result in the unmaking of Peter Guralnick.