Sunday, December 30, 2012

Here I am, come meet a lonely, lonely man

Peter Guralnick's Careless Love, the second volume in his two-volume biography of Elvis, weaves together many stories and themes in an effort to both chronicle Elvis's career from his army service to his death and to explain what led to his death at such a young age. It is impossible to touch on every facet of the 661-page book without just summarizing the story, so I'm choosing to use the song "Lonely Man," which was part of the soundtrack to the 1961 movie, Wild in the Country, to highlight some of the main themes Guralnick emphasized in his chronicle of the second half of Elvis's life.

It's a lonely man who wanders all around...

Elvis returned home from Germany a changed man, still suffering the grief of his mother's death two years before, already addicted to amphetamines acquired in the army, and with almost unending energy to party and play all night. The group of guys took shape at this time, becoming a constant presence, including at his 1960 recording sessions shortly after his return home. As soon as he got home, Elvis resumed his role as the breadwinner and leader of the pack, both of the guys and his family.
He felt sometimes as if there were a weight pressing down on him that he could no longer bear. He was surrounded by friends and relatives, all dependent on him, all looking to him for help, for guidance, for handouts - for something. He could give them jobs, he could dispense money and favors, on the surface they all deferred to him, and he was clearly the one in charge - but in his darkest moments he suspected that it was all a masquerade, they were like bluebottle flies buzzing around a dung heap, with no more loyalty to him than a fly would feel. (78)
Elvis was not really "one of the guys." Because of his fame and money, he was isolated from his family and friends. He also never quite shook the shyness and awkwardness of his pre-fame days. In spite of the fact that he had a safety net of guys around, and a revolving door of women with whom he sometimes just talked, sometimes did more than talk, Elvis seemed to be always set apart from everyone else in his life. Some of his relationships with women - with Priscilla, Linda, perhaps with Ann-Margret - gave him the outlet he needed to be himself. But even then, he could be only himself in fleeting moments, like while watching TV in his bedroom, with the curtains closed to shut out the rest of the world.

Searchin', always searchin', for something he can't find...
Elvis's dissatisfaction with his career led him to try to find meaning through other avenues, namely spiritual ones. With the help of his hairdresser, Larry Geller, Elvis explored various philosophies in his attempt to define a purpose for his life, in order to find something worthwhile amidst the mundane reality of his career. During one of the cross-country trips aboard his bus, Elvis believed that he saw the face of God in the clouds. He was about to give up on his spiritual quest, believing that God wasn't listening to him, when he had this vision that brought him to tears. He so wanted to feel something real, to experience something emotionally significant. Everything else in his life seemed superficial and out of his control; through his spiritual explorations, Elvis was taking charge of at least one part of his life and finding satisfaction in it.

While Elvis's interest in spirituality was sincere, and his spiritual quest was an ongoing part of his life, he was also known for being obsessed with something until he tired of it and then moved onto the next obsession. Larry eventually fell out of favor and Elvis became obsessed with karate. He talked about producing a documentary about the martial arts and even funded a karate school. He also bought the Circle G ranch and played the rancher until it became financially unfeasible. All of these hobbies and obsessions were just ways for Elvis to escape from his life and implicitly give the Colonel permission to run his career while he ran his personal life.

Always so unhappy, taking shelter where he can. Here I am, come meet a lonely, lonely man.

During the movie years, Elvis felt that he had become the laughing-stock of Hollywood. His dreams of being a serious actor never materialized and the movies he was contracted to make just served to embarrass and frustrate him. In 1964, an article appeared in the Las Vegas Desert News and Telegram, which, according to Guralnick, confirmed all of Elvis's worst fears.  
Would you believe that Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole owe part of their current success to Elvis Presley? These two brilliant actors...might not have had the opportunity to star in [Becket] were it not for Sir Swivel Hips. ...Elvis helped finance Becket indirectly. Producer Hal Wallis, who has made Presley's biggest hits, also produced Becket. And were it not for the revenue from Elvis' movies, there might not have been the wherewithal to film Becket. Says Wallis, "In order to do the artistic pictures, it is necessary to make the commercially successful Presley pictures. But that doesn't mean a Presley picture can't have quality, too." ...At the moment Wallis is shooting Roustabout, starring Elvis. This story may not be the greatest, but then O'Toole and Burton can't sing like Elvis either. (171)
The Colonel was a blessing and a curse. He certainly catapulted Elvis from the southern tour circuit to a nationwide audience. He succeeded in making Elvis a household name and making Elvis a very rich man. The Colonel also succeeded in making himself a very rich man, often at the expense of Elvis's artistry. The Colonel made the Hollywood deals, allowing Elvis to be pigeon-holed into formulaic movies with increasingly bad soundtracks. He kept Elvis on tour in the '70s, even when it was clear that Elvis was unwell and the combination of the exhausting tour schedule and his drug use was leading him to an early grave. For Elvis's part, he didn't do nearly enough to stand up for himself and fight for more creative control. He did manage to record a few gospel albums, and he went along with NBC's plan for the comeback show instead of doing the Christmas special that the Colonel originally championed, but he never made any global changes to his career. He never seemed to fight for control over his professional life.

Part of the issue was that it wasn't really within Elvis to be confrontational. He might blow up at people from time to time, but he always apologized and tried to make things right with them. On the one hand, Elvis remained naive and immature in many ways, and that probably made him more comfortable with just going along with what the Colonel wanted to do. On the other hand, he became increasingly apathetic, too, and sometimes just didn't really care.

Of course, the drugs also played a large role in Elvis's unhappiness and in the stunting of his professional growth. The pills made Elvis moody, made him lose focus, and caused numerous other health problems. It's amazing how many times Elvis was hospitalized after his body had an extreme reaction to the cocktail of drugs he was taking, especially when you think about the fact that he was only in his late 30s and early 40s when this was going on. The drug issue gets back to the original problem of loneliness and isolation, too: with no one able to confront Elvis without fearing for his livelihood, including his doctors, Elvis was allowed to deny the existence of a drug problem and keep on going as if nothing was the matter.

In the end, Careless Love is about Elvis's wanderings and wonderings through the second half of his life. It is a sad, frustrating story, but one that also shows glimmers of hope, deep emotion, great talent, and beautiful artistry. It's very easy to focus on the sadder, more negative parts of Elvis's life because of the circumstances under which he died and his very public decline. I, however, want to close with some of my favorite quotes from the book that demonstrate Elvis's beauty and musicality that I think deserve our respect and remembrance.

The former lead singer of the Statesmen, Jake Hess, talking about Elvis's 1966 gospel recording session:
Elvis was one of those individuals, when he sang a song, he just seemed to live every word of it. There's other people that have a voice that's maybe as great or greater than Presley's, I don't know, but he had that certain something that everyone searches for all during their lifetime. You know, he sang a lot with his eyes closed, and I think the reason for that was because he [wanted] to have a picture in his mind at all times; if something was distracting him to where he couldn't put his heart into what he was doing, he would close his eyes, so he could get that picture of what he was talking about. That's the reason he communicated with the audience so well. (232)
About the finale of the '68 comeback special, "If I Can Dream":
Although he is singing to a full orchestral backing, it is the voice that predominates, as much as it would if he were singing unaccompanied.... The song is a well-intentioned liberal statement about peace and brotherhood and universal understanding, but it is not the lyrics that command our attention over the gulf of years. It is, rather, the pain and conviction and raw emotion in Elvis' voice as he sings of a world "where all my brothers walk hand in hand" and almost screams out the last line: "Please/let my dream/come true/Right now." (310)
From Norbert Putnam, bass player during the Nashville recording session in 1970:
...I came to understand, he expressed so many things with his voice - the lyrical content had nothing to do with what was happening [for] him. He was the only artist I ever worked with that could zing you - with the 'Elvis thing' - whenever he wanted. He was the greatest communicator of emotion that I ever knew, from beginning to end. (382)
Elvis, speaking to Kathy Westmoreland in May 1977: "His mission in life, he said, was 'to make people happy with music. And I'll never stop until the day I die'" (635).

Peter Guralnick at the end of the book, reflecting upon Elvis's lasting legacy (emphasis is mine):
Long before he was laid in the grave, the legend of Elvis' success, the one trademark it was impossible for even the Colonel to register, had been retailed over and over again, but now it was overwhelmed in a flood of reminiscences that a first strove to deny the "frail humanity" that bound him to the rest of the human race, then rushed to condemn him for it. The cacophony of voices that have joined together to create a chorus of informed opinion, uninformed speculation, hagiography, symbolism, and blame, can be difficult at times to drown out, but in the end there is only one voice that counts. It is the voice that the world first heard on those bright yellow Sun 78s, whose original insignia, a crowing rooster surrounded by boldly stylized sunbeams and a border of musical notes, sought to proclaim the dawning of a new day. It is impossible to silence that voice; you cannot miss it when you listen to "That's All Right" or "Mystery Train" or "Blue Moon of Kentucky" or any of the songs with which Elvis continued to convey his sense of unlimited possibilities almost to the end of his life. It is that sense of aspiration as much as any historical signposts or goals that continues to communicate directly with a public that recognized in Elvis a kindred spirit from the first. That is what we have to remember. In the face of facts, for all that we have come to know, it is necessary to listen unprejudiced and unencumbered if we are to hear Elvis' message: the proclamation of emotions long suppressed, the embrace of a vulnerability culturally denied, the unabashed striving for freedom. Elvis Presley may have lost his way, but even in his darkest moments, he still retained some of the same innocent transparency that first defined the difference in the music and the man. More than most, he had an awareness of his own limitations; his very faith was tested by his recognition of how far he had fallen from what he had set out to achieve - but for all of his doubt, for all of his disappointment, for all of the self-loathing that he frequently felt, and all of the disillusionment and fear, he continued to believe in a democratic ideal of redemptive transformation, he continued to seek out a connection with a public that embraced him not for what he was but for what he sought to be. (661)