Exploiting Elvis :
Biography of Presley's manager mostly reinforces his reputation as a leech
By DAVID HINCKLEY, (New York) Daily News
http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainmen ... 0506c.html
Review: THE COLONEL
By Alanna Nash
Simon & Schuster, $25
Public interest in "Colonel" Tom Parker has been akin to the public's attention to, say, the rats that carried the bubonic plague to Europe. Typically, a focus on vermin has more to do with their impact on others rather than with the rats themselves. Similarly, Parker's impact was primarily on his most famous client, Elvis Presley, whose career and life he helped shape from 1956 until Elvis' death in 1977.
Was the Colonel a self-promoting hustler who saw Elvis only as an all-you-can-eat meal ticket, or was he a shrewd businessman who saved Elvis from the pop-culture boneyard and made him an American icon?
Music journalist Alanna Nash has produced the first major book to focus on Parker rather than Presley, and it provides the most industrious research to date on the former's mysterious youth in Holland, his scuffling years in American carnivals and his often questionable stewardship of the king of rock 'n' roll.
The book's extensive quotes provide valuable insight into how people who were there viewed the rise and fall of the entire Presley/Parker drama.
Yet in the end, Nash comes to much the same conclusion as previous writers and commentators. Where Elvis is concerned, she suggests, the Colonel was pretty much a swine, taking an unconscionable cut of his income, lashing him to a series of silly, demeaning movies and most appalling of all, doing nothing while Elvis, for all practical purposes, killed himself. In fact, she suggests, Parker saw advantages in Elvis being dead. Deceased, Elvis couldn't carry out his threat to change managers, and a dead Elvis would be a lot easier to capitalize on than the drug-addled live one.
At the same time, "The Colonel" isn't simply an indictment. It notes that Parker was good to many people, friends and charities. He was good to his wife, he had a sense of humor, and he knew marketing and deals, though he often wasn't as shrewd as he thought.
The enduring image of Nash's Colonel, though, isn't the triumphant hustler. It's a guy who spent much of his life losing a fortune at casino tables and slot machines. He earned well over $100 million, she notes, and died with less than $1 million.
In tracing how he got there, Nash connects a lot of dots. But at many critical junctures, Parker still slips away, forcing her into speculation that makes "The Colonel" sound more lurid than the hard information supports.
It also doesn't help that she paints Elvis as miserable almost from the moment he became famous. This characterization makes it easier to portray Parker as a perpetrator and an enabler, but other Elvis biographers have argued convincingly that Elvis' life was more nuanced and often happier.
Nash ultimately builds much of her portrait on the premise that Parker fled Holland in 1929 because he had killed a woman. That would explain his lifelong evasiveness and his fear of anything like overseas travel that might cause the government to look into his life.
But did he do it? We'll probably never know. It's possible Parker was secretive and evasive just because that's how he figured he could win the game. Maybe he was an instinctive chameleon - charming and churlish, nasty and nice.
By book's end, the Colonel has become pretty much the guy we suspected he was at the beginning. If you think he drove the Elvis train, he's a critical figure. If you think he was along for the ride, he's a curiosity.
Originally published on July 13, 2003 , (New York) Daily News