Peter Guralnick and Elvis

After finishing a book about the Beatles, I decided to read a book about Elvis Presley. I guess this is becoming my summer of exploring 20th-century pop music.

Several years ago a writer named Peter Guralnick came out with a widely praised two-volume biography of Elvis. It had always seemed like something worth reading, so last week I decided to buy the first volume, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, which takes Elvis from his childhood up to his induction into the U.S. army in 1958.

I came away disappointed.

Guralnick writes in an engaging style, and I finished this book having learned a lot about Elvis as a person. But unlike what Jonathan Gould does with the Beatles in Can’t Buy Me Love (the previous book I’d read), Guralnick provides little historical, musical, or sociological context for Elvis’s life. As a history lover, I really liked how Gould talked about what was going on in Britain and the U.S. when the Beatles became famous, what made their music distinctive, the rise of LSD culture, how “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” contributed to the development of serious rock music criticism, and so on. He goes off on many interesting tangents.

Early on, Guralnick writes about Sam Phillips (who recorded Elvis at Sun Records), Dewey Phillips (who gave him his first radio exposure), and Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis’s manager), but once Elvis gets famous, the book is basically one concert tour after another, as Elvis records one song after another, with barely any discussion of the individual songs or what made them significant. Elvis does this and then Elvis does that and then Elvis does this other thing.

Guralnick vividly portrays the frenzied reactions Elvis got whenever he performed, and that’s fun to read. But there’s little in the way of analysis. He never tells us exactly why¬†Elvis inspired such a reaction in his fans. He never stops to tell us why Elvis or his music was revolutionary, what made his music different from what came before. He doesn’t tell us about the state of American popular music in the mid-1950s, he doesn’t tell us about the political or cultural atmosphere of the times, he doesn’t describe what the film industry was like when Elvis made his movies, and so on. The book sticks pretty closely to Elvis and the people around him. We rarely step away from him except for the early discussions of Sam Phillips, Dewey Phillips, and Colonel Parker.

I guess Guralnick does a good job of portraying what it was like to be Elvis, and that’s commendable. I just wanted more.

Oh, and another thing: before reading about the Beatles, I didn’t know much of their music beyond their biggest hits. But once I started listening to their songs I really fell in love with them. Many of them are so inventive, creative, and fun. Even their lesser songs are pretty enjoyable.

The same didn’t happen with Elvis, though. I listened to some of his songs while reading the book, but I couldn’t really get into them. Granted, I pretty much just listened to his early rock hits. I wonder if I would like his more tuneful ballads instead. But his music didn’t really move me in a visceral way like the Beatles’ music did.