Last Train to Memphis

‘Love Me Tender’ is part of that rare breed of song that really cannot be sung by many others since it so greatly represents the man who did so first, and Elvis does sing it in a way that is indeed very tender, very vulnerable, almost as if the King was truly desperate for the love of that elusive figure he’s heard singing to.

It wouldn’t surprise me, for in his book Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick destroys nearly every popular conception of Elvis as the Godlike figure that floats in American modern folklore and instead collects from a variety of interviews, mostly with people who knew him before his fame, to piece together the portrait of a young man who was incredibly human and who seemed to go against nearly every grain that is associated with mammoth fame for the modern, young artist. Never did Elvis seem lose sight of his origins, or of the few people who helped to get him where he was. He never obsessed over having more money or riches of any kind.

The only wealth he ever seemed to value was that found in a genuine friend, and I’ve got a feeling that the more of the first type of wealth he acquired, the less he seemed able to find of the second. But that apparent descent surely must be the subject of the second volume of Guralnick’s biography, which chronicles those years after the first 23 of Presley’s life.

The early years, however, those first 23 leading up to Presley’s induction into the military, are the subject of this first volume; and the author does a remarkable job at making us feel that we are indeed on a train with Elvis to some promised land that lies low in a cool spring dawn. Bob Dylan praised the book, saying how Elvis seems to jump from the pages, that “you can feel him breath.” This is very true.

The goal I would think of any biography is to shed some sort of new light on its subject; and this is even a greater priority for those whose story already seems so well-known or whose image is so deeply engrained in the collective consciousness.

The key to Guralnick’s success in doing so lies in the glaring vulnerability that he reveals in Elvis’s young personality. I was struck by how often, or how easily, Elvis would worry about a girlfriend’s whereabouts or whether they were getting too much attention from other men. I was surprised too in discovering how greatly those early obscenity accusations affected him, when he was thought to be singing the devil’s music and spreading some kind of anti-religious doctrine, and how hurt he was by this and to have his faith so heavily scrutinized.

Still, I found the most profound aspect of his vulnerability to be that extraordinary sense of humility and generosity that he maintained in those years, and the great affection he held toward his fans, exemplified in the book’s final scene in which Elvis, days after losing his mother, stands atop a departing military freighter, waving goodbye to his admirers with such graciousness, that it seems all he wants to do as he sails out to sea is stay with them forever.

Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go…

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