The American sacred space of Graceland

Another Train to Memphis

After thirteen years in Memphis, I am finally delving into the cultural history of this iconic American city. And since all roads in Memphis lead to Graceland (at least for the greatest number of tourist visitors to the city), Elvis Presley is a logical starting point. Recently I have been wading through Peter Guralnick’s 2-volume biography of the entertainer, and as I begin the second book, I put down some of my thoughts about the first volume (Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, Little Brown, 1994) on the Goodreads site, copied here:

Explaining Elvis Presley as a cultural phenomenon remains an elusive task. Some twenty years after publication of the first volume of Peter Guralnick’s two-volume study of Elvis Presley, and nearly thirty-seven years after the entertainer’s death, there is little sign that the King’s popularity may be lessening. On the contrary, Elvis appears to be more popular today than he was when he gasped his last breath in 1977 face-down in the shag carpeting of his Graceland bedroom.

Like Elvis himself, Guralnick’s biography has stood the test of time. Despite its flaws as a historical account, it is still the standard reference on the details of Elvis Presley’s life and career. Last Train to Memphis is a rather long book, and the narrative lumbers along under what sometimes seems like a crushing burden of historical detail, often about what some readers may regard as inconsequential adolescent peculiarities of a poor white boy in the American south of the 1950s. Yet, that poor white boy, and especially his offbeat interests and obsessions, reveal some mysterious key to the American youth culture that erupted from its adolescent somnambulism in a decade marked by both national prosperity and social unrest.

Despite the unquestionable impact of his subject’s emergence on the national scene, Guralnick maintains a local focus; red scares and civil rights never intrude into the personal tale of the Presley family making do among the other urban poor in Memphis. Even when the superstar entertainer enters the Army at the end of the first volume, there is no attempt to explain the necessity of a peacetime military draft and how the government was able to conscript such an influential figure at the height of his career. Guralnick stays focused on the Elvis story.

For Guralnick, staying focused on Elvis involves exploring the web of personal relationships that made his superstardom possible. A confluence of genius surrounds the young Presley, from Sam Phillips to Dewey Phillips to Tom Parker, and a varied collection of minor characters making their contributions as well. Elvis is the hero throughout, the unblemished saint with natural if unpolished musical ability whose likable good manners, voracious curiosity and knack for innovation, uncanny awareness of audience response, and unwavering ambition to be famous, catapult him to the top of the entertainment world in unprecedented time. Guralnick documents the details of this remarkable career and the personality behind it, sometimes to tedium, but often with dramatic depth.

His journalistic style and his devotion to documenting the previously untold factual details of Elvis Presley’s life and career steers Guralnick away from outright commentary about the social contexts and moral implications of the Elvis phenomena. His uncritical tone, however, reveals his own somewhat star-struck affection for the King. Elvis’s sexuality remains almost entirely undiscussed, even though there is page after numbing page of the multitude of women he was “dating,” and his constant need for the companionship of multiple male “pals” is never questioned in terms of its erotic implications. Elvis’s moral character remains above reproach even as he allows his business manager Tom Parker to deal underhandedly with the loyal bandmates who accompanied Elvis on the crucial early rise to stardom; the plight of Scotty Moore and Bill Black only hint at the superficial nature of the star’s moral character. Another area that Guralnick glosses over is the complex relationships between blacks and whites in Memphis and throughout the south during this era. The young Elvis lived in a world of state-sanctioned racial segregation, and although Guralnick pays some attention to African American influences, there is scant discussion of the ability of a white youth to benefit from crossing cultural boundaries in ways that were unavailable to black youth of the time.

Certainly Guralnick has compiled a wealth of valuable details in this remarkable if largely uncritical biography of Elvis Presley. As has been often remarked, this is one of the earliest serious studies of a cultural phenomenon that continues to confound a host of commentators; Last Train to Memphis marks a huge improvement over the mostly sensationalist tabloid accounts that preceded it. Indeed, it remains the baseline for subsequent critical studies of the King of Rock and Roll.

Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee, that he purchased in 1957 (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2007)

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