Last train to Memphis. The rise of Elvis Presley
PETER GURALNICK. 576 pgs
Ed. Little, Brown and Company (1994)
"Last Train to Memphis" and its sequel, "Careless Love", make a deeply engrossing, carefully researched, finely written biography of Elvis Presley.
Author Peter Guralnick took eleven years to exhaustively research sources and interview people who knew Elvis personally and would tell their firsthand experiences. Guralnick's scholarly approach automatically eschews any hint of the fan adoration that can taint celebrity biographies. Guralnick might even have erred on the dry side rather than the juicy or dishy side of the story. This is all to the good, because Elvis' life story, a fantastic, zany, epic arc through American pop culture, is one that needs no embellishment and is served well by a measure of journalistic restraint.
Guralnick made a wise choice with the two-book format, because in Elvis' life there was a distinct "Rise and Fall." "Last Train to Memphis" is the rise: "Careless Love" is the fall. In each volume, Guralnick reveals much not just about Elvis, but about the people who were his family and closest friends and how their actions and relationships to him and to each other shaped Elvis into the man he became.
Accounts of his school days, his early days as a musician, his early girlfriends, and his family life all flesh him out as a human being and penetrate the shell of celebrity to offer a three-dimesional glimpse of the individual and his own ideas and aspirations and insecurities. The first volume ends with the death of Elvis' mother, a loss that sent him into the first tailspin of many, from which he never seemed to recover.
After reading this volume, you will be hooked on the story and will want to immediately begin the second volume, which is much darker and sadder as the King's world starts to unwind, chronicling his spiraling drug habit and his battles both public and personal. The second volume is catalogued and reported as dispassionately as the first, so that the same unblinking honesty that gave "Last Train" such sparkle and joy reveals the true depth of Elvis' isolation without having to resort to hyperbole.
Guralnick said it himself; that the rise to fame and the person were larger than life, and so too was the decline larger than life. It's an ending that leaves you feeling sad that what began so brightly should end so awfully.
I read these books because I knew very little about Elvis and wanted to know his life story, and they are a deeply satisfying and very credible account of the King's life. I can't imagine that there is a better bio out there for anyone who wants to study Elvis 101."