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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, November 10, 2002

Elvis Has Left the Building -- and He Ended Up at the Library

Elvis Presley was an American original, a genius and the prototype for the rock 'n' roller. Bill Haley may have preceded him, but Elvis' sex appeal left old Bill in the dust. Along with his formidable talent, Elvis possessed an ingenuousness, simplicity and affection for his fans that guaranteed his popularity.

Even after his death, Elvis refuses to die. Despite losing his way and self-destructing, Elvis appears to be everywhere in this 25th anniversary of his death. The books reviewed today, both new and classic, are among the best ever written about the king.

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown, 1994).

This is the definitive Elvis biography. The first volume of what has been called the best biography ever written about a musician or the best biography ever written period, Guralnick's book is written with great affection and tenderness.

Elvis lived the American dream. He came from a poor background and made it big. Raised in the black section of Tupelo, Miss., and the projects of Memphis and surrounded by blues, gospel and country music, this shy mommy's boy became another creature when he was performing -- wild, energetic and always moving and shaking -- all over! This volume ends with the death of his mother, Gladys, and his induction into the Army.

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown, 1998).

Guralnick's second volume is filled with tragedy. Elvis slowly destroys himself with the prescription drugs he began taking in the Army and replaces enthusiasm for his music with bravado and grandiosity.

In Elvis' 1969 song Suspicious Minds, recorded in 1969 at the height of his comeback, he sang about being "caught in a trap." Elvis himself felt trapped by the mediocre films and albums he was making, his marriage to Priscilla (which he had never really wanted in the first place) and the control of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Most of all, though, Elvis missed and strongly needed his mother. He was almost unnaturally close to her. She had always protected him from harm, but she could be tough on him, too. He needed someone to tell him he was killing himself with drugs and one-night stands. His high school friends, the Memphis Mafia, just prolonged his adolescence.

Dead Elvis by Greil Marcus (Doubleday, 1991).

Marcus is the dean of rock 'n' roll writers, his best book being "Mystery Train," which also contains a section on Elvis. This book is about the Elvises that people have created after his death -- for Elvis Presley has definitely taken on a second life.

Elvis has been reincarnated as Elvis Christ, Saint Elvis, Elvis Zombie and Elvis Fiend. The duality of interpretations reflects the two sides of Elvis: the "good Elvis" who tried to live up to Gladys' dreams for him, and the "bad Elvis," possibly his stillborn twin, Jesse.

Marcus argues that Elvis did more than change musical history; he changed history itself. He offered freedom to American youths in the 1950s, and they have never looked back.

Blue Suede Clues: A Murder Mystery Featuring Elvis Presley by Daniel Klein (St. Martin's, 2002).

One can imagine Elvis as a detective, becoming involved in helping other people solve their problems. Elvis had a democratic spirit, and though he took on airs with his intimates, he never felt he was better than anyone else.

Here Elvis comes to the rescue of an old Army acquaintance imprisoned for the murder of his fiancee. Just having finished filming Kissing Cousins and trying to convince Priscilla that he and Ann-Margret were not having an affair, Elvis takes some time off to help clear his friend's name.

When Elvis is ambushed by a suspicious stuntman and hurts his ankle, he begins taking pain-killers. Big mistake. Still, working with a genteel, alcoholic lawyer who is also a twin, Elvis uncovers chicanery inside his Hollywood studio.

A great mystery -- Klein really captures the king.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.