The Elvis mythology is set straight

January 10, 1999|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff

As party drugs go, codeine is not exactly a festive buzz. It hits like a sledgehammer, plunging the user into a dizzy state of numb exhaustion. And it has the unfriendly tendency to induce nausea and constipation.

Elvis Presley loved the stuff.

When he keeled over on the toilet 21 years ago, he had enough codeine in his system to knock 10 men unconscious -- along with potentially lethal doses of four heavy-duty sedatives and traces of nine other drugs. Among these was Dilaudid, a painkiller normally prescribed to chemotherapy patients.

Had he been almost anyone else, his death at the age of 42 would have gone down as a suicide. Instead, the original autopsy report said "cardiac arrhythmia." Heart failure. Exhaustion.

Thus was born the enduring myth that the sainted "King of Rock 'N' Roll" -- who should have celebrated his 64th birthday last week -- was worked to death by his manager, his doctor and his voracious fans.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, reveals Peter Guralnick in his new book "Careless Love, The Unmaking of Elvis Presley" (Little, Brown and Co. 768 pages. $27).

The long-awaited companion volume to 1994's "Last Train to Memphis," which recounted Presley's shotgun blast to fame, "Careless Love" records in equal detail his grinding descent into self-parody and madness. Here, finally, more than two decades after his death, is a biography worthy of the most influential cultural figure of the 20th century.

It could not have been easy.

For all his brooding introspection, Presley was not one for writing things down. And he has been entombed for so long in mordant lore, hero worship and quasi-expert revisionism -- more than 120 mostly bad books in all -- that the task of sorting out fact from fiction would seem almost a lost cause.

Beginning with the lacerating 1977 tell-all "Elvis: What Happened?" by ex-body guards Red and Sonny West, Presley's wives, girlfriends, Army buddies, spiritual advisers, water carriers and cousins-twice-removed have all cashed in on their precious memories.

It is from this muddy, trampled field that Guralnick exhumes the truth.

Alas, he finds, Presley was but a man -- an impoverished country boy trapped inside the body of a millionaire legend, uncertain to the moment of his death how he got there and racked by doubts that he was worthy of such largesse from God.

The 19-year-old truck driver who roared out of the Memphis housing projects to overnight stardom had arrived almost by accident. After walking into a neighborhood sound studio to record a birthday song for his mother, the amateur singer was invited back for more.

Three years later, she was dead and he was a household name.

"Careless Love" opens there. It was 1958. Elvis had just entered the U.S. Army. He was only 23. But he had scored an unheard of 11 No. 1 hits, bumping off the charts no less a personage than Frank Sinatra.

It was the beginning of what we now call "The Culture Wars." And Elvis -- who had been called a "nigger lover" and a "libertine" for the breadth of his musical influences and his raucous stage presence -- was fracturing the sexual, racial and class segregation of his time.

At least one man seemed to understand that dangerous days lay ahead.

Col. Tom Parker was a former carnival huckster who became Presley's manager at the nascence of his fame. It was largely at his urging that Elvis agreed to go into the Army, a move that Parker saw not only as a way to rehabilitate his image, but also to starve public demand to the point of hysteria.

Critics called it a dangerous gamble. Elvis himself was terrified that it might cast him back into poverty.

But during Presley's two years in Germany, Parker marketed six previously recorded throw-away singles into top 10 hits. And he turned the press into trained seals, feeding them fantasized tidbits that kept Sgt. Presley's name and newly crew-cut image in print.

Discharged in March 1960, the soldier boy rocketed back to the peak of the charts in a matter of weeks with "Stuck On You" and remained there for the next 23 months through a succession of eight top five singles. Gone was the snarling "Hound Dog."

It was an astounding transformation. But Guralnick shows that it also put Elvis on a precipitous slope.

Parker's all-too-brilliant marketing would fuel a lifelong clamor for the "product" that defied critical appraisals of its workmanship and placed impossible wealth in the hands of a vulnerable young man, relieving him of the burden of ever growing up.

The only child of hyper-protective parents, his world had always been small --- encompassed by home, church and a tight circle of friends and relatives. Over the years, they became virtual dependents, a blur on the closed-circuit television monitors above his bed at Graceland mansion and a constant reminder of his white trash roots.

So great was his own inferiority complex that he only ever felt comfortable among this hillbilly entourage.

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