Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter GuralnickPosted: September 1, 2022
Here are some notes from the sequel to Last Train To Memphis.
Elvis seems like he was basically a twelve year old all his life. He was really into fireworks, guns, karate (a LOT of this book is about karate), slot cars, policemen, cowboys, horses. He was constantly buying cars for people. One day he bought fourteen cars for people, including one for a random woman he met on the car lot. When he got a camera, he “quickly figured out the possibilities. Sometimes he used Priscilla alone, sometimes in Priscilla’s absence he got girls to wrestle for him wearing only white bras and panties, and occasionally he included Priscilla, too, in an expanded scenario.” He had no idea what anything cost and spent wild sums on weird jewelry he designed.
He had to be surrounded by people constantly. Assorted people he met around Memphis came onto his payroll and spent years as his professional pals. At one point one of them drew up a list of duties for everyone:
it was up to Marty to “call Mrs. Pepper for Movie Times (As Early As Possible); Transact Business and Correspondence with the Colonel’s office for Elvis,” and maintain a purchase order system for all charges in Elvis’ name. Alan Fortas got the assignment to, “along with Marty, be responsible for Organization both in good and bad situations,” maintain Elvis’ scrapbook, and “be in den with Elvis as much as possible.”
The scene at Graceland was pretty nuts:
In the short time that the Lackers had been living at Graceland, Elvis’ uncle Johnny Smith had threatened Marty’s wife and come at Marty himself with a knife, while Clettes Presley (Vester’s wife, and Johnny and Gladys’ sister), who drank as heavily as her brother, had made it clear that she had little use for him, too. Marty didn’t think much of Elvis’ retarded uncle, Tracy, who went around saying, “I got my nerves in the dirt” and made noises “like he was getting ready to explode”
At the end of the last book Elvis was 23 and his mother had died, just after he went into the Army. He was already about as famous as anybody, but he was considered kind of a joke by New York critics.
After the funeral he was sent to Germany, where he lived off-base in a weird household with his dad and a German secretary and some friends. His dad took up with the still-married wife of a fellow soldier of Elvis’ – the fellow soldier was drunk all the time and didn’t seem to notice. This twisted situation made Elvis angry, he had loved his mother dearly and this seemed too soon. If there’s a turning point in this book that set Elvis on the desperate and sad path that would pretty much be the rest of his life, I guess it’s this.
Elvis met Priscilla when her military dad was sent to Germany. She was 14, but for some reason her parents let them date. Elvis had strange ideas about feminine purity – he would sleep with other girls but wouldn’t want to sleep with ones he was seriously dating.
Once Elvis gets back to America his story and this book turns pretty repetitive and tragic. He was contracted to make a bunch of movies, and he seems to have been aware that these were terrible. He was ashamed of a lot of his recordings. After a few years of nutty partying, constantly on speed, he had a kind of breakdown. A new hairdresser, Larry Geller, showed up. Elvis started asking him probing spiritual questions. “There has to be a purpose… there’s got to be a reason… why I was chosen to be Elvis Presley.” Larry started bringing Elvis spiritual books, and Elvis started going to the Self-Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades.
But mostly he just kept doing crazy amounts of speed and massively powerful prescription painkillers given to him by “Dr. Nick.” There was a brief period in ’68 where he kinda pulled it together and had a huge TV special, and he played to huge crowds in Vegas, but he’s kind of a mess throughout this book.
Elvis had a weird thing about not liking ladies who’d had babies. He sort of turned on Priscilla after she had a baby (although he was cheating on her pretty thoroughly before, too). There’s a sad story of a woman who got pregnant by Elvis, tried to tell him, and then heard him say something about how once someone was a mother they were sacred and shouldn’t be interested in sex. She went and got an abortion alone.
The absolute low point might have been the day he flew to Washington, more or less on a whim, had a crazy letter he’d written on the plane delivered to the White House, where he brought a gun to his impromptu meeting with Nixon. In their meeting Elvis talked about how he felt the Beatles were really behind a lot of anti-American feeling. Then he gave Nixon a hug and took off.
Three years later some beauty pageant winner was sleeping in his bed when he died while sitting on the toilet. That day he’d thrown a raquetball racket at somebody, played Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on the piano, and been delivered a packet of “Seconal, Placidyl, Valmid, Tuinal, Demerol, and an assortment of other depressants and placebos which generally allowed Elvis to get several hours of sleep at a time.” Also he’d taken a bunch of codeine to which he was mildly allergic.
Anyway, this is a really sad book. I pretty much skimmed it. It seemed like a lot of the tragedies of Elvis’ life were a lot like those in Michael Jackson’s life. I guess it’s pretty near impossible to get super-famous when you’re a teenager and not implode. Elvis seemed to have a vague sense inside himself that he’d missed his potential, somehow. One of the band guys he played with in the first book said that he felt that Elvis was a kind of idiot savant – he knew hundreds of songs, but was strange and sensitive and had no idea how to handle being as famous as he was. Maybe nobody does!
He’s really likable all through Last Train to Memphis, I’ll prefer to remember him that way!