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Interview With Peter Guralnick On The Unmaking Of

Jun 25, 2000
E.I.N.'s media monitor coms up with this interview which dates from 04-15-1999, so over a year ago, but it is a nice insight in Elvis' character, so we decided to put it online.

Peter Guralnick is an author and music critic. In 1994, he published the first of a two-volume biography of Elvis Presley. Last Train to Memphis was a meticulously researched portrait of the young Elvis Presley.

In his introduction to Last Train to Memphis Peter Guralnick wrote that his goal as a biographer was no less than to "rescue Elvis Presley from the dreary bondage of myth, from the oppressive aftershock of cultural significance." It's a mission that Peter Guralnick continues in the second, darker installment of his Elvis biography. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. The book follows Elvis from the height of his fame in the late '50s, to his early death in 1977.

Guralnick talked to the host of The Arts Today, Eleanor Wachtel, about Elvis' vulnerability with the women in his life.

Eleanor Wachtel: "Peter Guralnick, in the first volume of your biography of Elvis, Last Train to Memphis, closed with a haunting portrait of Elvis in 1958, utterly devastated by the death of his mother... What long-term impact do you think the loss of his mother had on him? It seemed to haunt him his whole life and affect his relationships with women and everything that happened to him after that."

Peter Guralnick: "I think that, most of all, it haunted his idea of what his mission on Earth was meant to be - about the justice of the universe. I mean, I've never come up with a good phrase for that but I honestly think that it challenged his faith. I don't mean to say that he had so simplistic a faith that he thought everything would come out well for him and, you know, he was the only chosen person in the world.

"But the way in which success came to him was so extraordinary. It was so swift and so much according to what he had genuinely imagined that it might be, that I think he was devastated. He was shaken by what the death of his mother could portend and the meaning of that success. That was, I think, how it affected him the most.

"Women often said, and particularly in later years, that they graduated from the role of girlfriend very quickly into the role of nurse and mother. But Elvis cast himself in a passive role with women, all of his life."

Eleanor: "Although, curiously, he was always interested in younger women. Often much younger women."

Peter: "He was, but he was looking for younger women to take care of him. One of the reasons I think that Elvis, from the time he was very young, found himself so comfortable in the company of women, was because he would reveal a side of himself that simply didn't fit in to the society at that time, in which he grew up. And later it didn't fit in at all into the world he created around him. He created this macho world around him. He created a world in which one part of him felt comfortable, in which he didn't have to prove himself again and again. And all these guys are looking up to him, and they're all imagining what Elvis is doing behind those closed doors.

"I tell you, one of the best stories that I know, illustrating that, was when Elvis was 21, in the summer of '56, and he was down in Biloxi, Mississippi, with a woman named June (she was from Biloxi,) and he went down - this is probably Elvis' only summer vacation. And June is a very funny, feisty and independent woman, very much like most of the women that Elvis went out with. He did not chose passive women, whether they were young or not. June was close to his own age though, and June was giving him some kind of backtalk and Elvis got furious.

"He says 'Come here you,' and he pulls her into the bathroom, which is the only place where he had any privacy in the house, and he slams the door behind him. And as soon as he slams the door behind him, he turns to June and he looks at her with those eyes, and he says ' You know, you were right. I'm really sorry. It was my fault.'

"They stay in there for a couple of minutes. He then opens the door, swaggers out, gives everybody the impression, you know, that he's really put her in her place. And that's the end of the story. But I think that's the kind of relationship Elvis had with women all of his life."

Eleanor: "Elvis did manage to recover some of his enthusiasm for his musical career in 1968 when he taped an unconventional television special for NBC, Elvis' first performance in front of a live audience in seven years, and maybe his last in that kind of intensity and originality. Can you describe how the TV show became a kind of turning point?"

Peter: "The reason for the '68 special was that, essentially, his movie career had run out. And the Colonel, being the ultimate pragmatist, says 'What are we going to do now? 'and went to NBC, which had exhibited some interest in having Elvis on for some years and proposed doing a special. Now the Christmas special, people have always said this is an example of the Colonel's philistinism, he didn't even understand Elvis.

"Well, he went into the idea of doing this Christmas special with Elvis, but as soon as he met the producer of the special, Bob Finckle, Finckle said 'This is a very bad idea, to do a Christmas special. I mean, it may be fine to do your radio Christmas specials, it's very nice and everything, but what we need here is a retrospective of Elvis' career. Something that's going renew people's attention on Elvis Presley and all of the reasons they first came to him.

"And the Colonel said 'fine,' which is something that's never really been understood up until now. And Elvis went into it the same way he went into the movies, in his very oddly passive way. He met with the director and the musical director and he said, 'Listen, whatever you want to do is fine with me.' They were the ones to construct the story, with an improved section in the center of it, which they'd hoped would bring out the true Elvis.

"As it turned out, that's exactly what happened. Elvis showed that incredible flair he had for connecting with an audience in that improved section. On the small, boxing ring of a stage, surrounded by an audience filled with fan club presidents and fans, and you can just see him today. It's been put out, one of the shows, just as itself - not as the entire '68 special, but the sit-down show. And you can see the way he just lights up. The way he connects. The way that something comes out of him that just doesn't come out in any other way. And it's still a thrilling moment."

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