Musician, January 1995

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Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

Peter Guralnick

Elvis Costello

Albert Goldman wrote a good book once. At least I remember being quite taken by Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce when I was 20 or so. Of course Mr. Bruce did not provide quite so much evidence to contradict the grave robber so I could be mistaken. Later on I found that the main virtue of Mr. Goldman’s writing was that it bounced. His Elvis biography rebounded very sweetly from the wall where I often seemed to fling it. Since his death Elvis Presley must have reached more people than he did in life. Yet he is caught in a smudge of tabloid fantasies, bio-flicks and gimmick books, the kind that are glued to a cassette message from beyond the grave.

Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis is much more than the book that was needed to set things straight. It is the great human story of the otherworldly soul who inhabits the Dorsey and Ed Sullivan Show clips and the spookiest Sun sides. At first older women gather, almost innocently, at his side. Later on the little girls understand.

Now you would probably want stained-glass windows in the front room and the odd parade of fancy cars if you had grown up as poor as told here. There is a dark chorus of sullen relations with names that sound misheard but the gothic and social engineering elements are left to lesser writers. Mostly it is the pure, thrilling discovery of the Sun sessions (and the roadwork!) that drives the book along.

The country must have appeared twice as big in those days with only a few berserk radio madmen to point the way. Back-scratching country show business didn’t really care if Elvis was part Dean Martin and part pine marten until, suddenly, he was everywhere and they were less than history. However, he really might have stayed a wonderful country freak with a few forgotten hits without the Colonels carney greed and cunning. After that there is a life that is no longer his own , paid friends and the sad falling curtain of occasional greatness struggling against trumped-up RCA excitement. Just listen to ‘Party’ next to ‘Blue Moon’ and you’ll see what I mean.

Last Train to Memphis is short on penis envy and pop psychology and long on first-hand account. I am not happy to hear that Ira Louvin was a bigoted hothead but glad that Bill Monroe emerges heroically. There are characters absent from other tellings of the tale such as tough Biloxi girlfriend June, who faces down the oafish pranks of Elvis’s guys. Five hundred pages take us only to the Army. The tragedies that must lie ahead in volume two will be hard to take.

As with his other writings on American music, Feel Like Going Home, Lost Highway, Sweet Soul Music and Searching for Robert Johnson, Peter Guralnick sends you rushing back to the recordings with fresh ears. This is the finest compliment that I can pay someone writing about music. What else can I tell you to persuade you to read this book? How about the raw Elvis belching on the mike under a deluge of screams and mumbling, ‘Fuck you very much, ladies and gentlemen.’ Gladys grooming every girlfriend to cook and take care of her son. The transcript of Elvis really losing his famous politeness in the face of a smart-arse interviewer who suggests that he is dragging church music onto the rock ‘n’ roll stage. The search for the perfect take of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ with so much at stake. The account of his mother’s death that may keep you awake at night. The picture on the steps of Graceland, inconsolable in unbuckled shoes. Some would say this is the beginning of the end. Volume two will be a difficult book to write.

Here at least the writer has made the man better than the myth.

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Musician, No. 195, January / February 1995

Elvis Costello reviews Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis.


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