Its A PITY that Elvis, the first "serious" biography of the late and for some reason widely lamented Elvis Presley, is marred by serious flaws, for Albert Goldman has otherwise done a commendable job with a difficult and elusive subject: he has unearthed an enormous amount of material, much of it luridly fascinating, and he has arrived at a number of seemingly acute perceptions about Presley's life and career. But those flaws can't be overlooked: Goldman's contempt for Presley's Southern milieu, his mannered, intrusive, imitative prose style, and his penchant for sweeping, unsupportable generalizations.
Those weaknesses seriously diminish the book, but let's face it: Goldman has come up with so much juicy and revealing information that the temptation to forgive him his sins is very great indeed. He has written a long book, but it is not too long; few readers are likely to wish that many of its anecdotes and asides had been omitted. If he is ignorant about the South, he is well informed about pop music and show business; his accounts of Presley's ventures in those worlds are sensitive. And it must be said that he appears to have done a gritty job of wheedling information from many of Elvis' associates; considering the obsessive secretiveness and clannishness of that crowd, this is no mean accomplishment.
In all the digging that Goldman did, what he mainly came up with was dirt. To say that most of Presley's life was vile is not overstatement. Though it is true that he was at times the victim of those smarter or wilier than he, by and large he made his own choices, he wallowed in them and he suffered for them. He was an arrested adolescent who never got much beyond the emotional age of 16, and who maintained through his entire adult life the tastes and behavior patterns of a semiliterate redneck teen-ager.
Behind all the glitter in which he lived--the mansions in Memphis and Los Angeles, the lavish suites in Vegas and other hot spots-- was a life of near-pervasive filth. Literally. In describing the "imperial suite," Goldman writes:
"One item need not be stocked in quantity: soap. Elvis's brand is Neutragena but he rarely bathes. Lamar says Elvis takes a 'whore's bath' --a quick negligent wipe of the armpits and the crotch. He may not do even that much. Priscilla was so disgusted by Elvis's lack of personal cleanliness that when she renovated their last house on Monovale Road, she had his shower stall rigged with three spray nozzles: one for the head, one for the torso and one for the lower extremities. It was a good idea, but Elvis objected. Taking showers was dangerous. How many times had he slipped and fallen!"
If that's not enough grime for your tastes, consider this description of Elvis at mealtime: "His favorite feed consists of a pound of Dixie Cotton bacon, fried to a crisp; a quadruple order of mashed potatoes, brimming with 'thickenin' gravy'; a large portion of sauerkraut; a dish of crowder peas; and a stack of sliced tomatoes. Piling the sauerkraut and peas atop the potatoes, he stirs these foods ito a thick viscous paste. Then spooning up this mush with one hand, with the other he grasps the solid foods, eating always with his bare fingers."
From birth to death, Elvis was true grit. It clearly never occurred to him that the remarkably limited interests and tastes he acquired in Memphis might be altered or broadened; he was never anything more than the son of Vernon and Gladys Presley, and that, alas, was not much. He was exposed to wealth, glamour and beauty to an extent most of us can scarcely imagine, yet it all rolled off his back; he never got beyond an adolescent love for cars, planes and fancy machines, an animalistic approach to sex, and a passion for immediate gratification. Perhaps because money came to him so suddenly and effortlessly, he had no sense of its value and wasted it indiscriminately; his spending pattern, Goldman writes, was a "deadly combination of profligacy and stupidity."
His sex life, about which Goldman has much to say, was base and twisted. The great male sex symbol of the '50s and '60s, who fancied himself an exotic lover in the tradition of Rudolph Valentino, was in point of fact a naive and insecure hayseed who got his jollies from watching teen-aged girls, wearing only white panties, wrestle with each other, and who evidently got his fattest charge from masturbating after witnessing such exhibitions. None of the women who talked with Goldman is quoted as describing him as a satisfactory or even adequate partner.
This, then, was "The King of Rock 'n' Roll": an ignorant provincial of astonishingly narrow, inflexible range. He was also, as Goldman somewhat inadvertently reminds us, a performer of similar limits; in fact, the central point of the biography seems to me to be Goldman's offhand mention of "the incongruity between his limited talents and his limitless fame." It is true that his early recordings, the famous Sun Records sides recorded in Memphis in the early '50s, had an appealing energy and made a crucial connection between black rhythm and blues on the one hand and white country and western on the other. But having made that connection, and having established himself overnight as a global celebrity, Presley did remarkably little interesting work in the quarter- century that was left to him.
In part, Goldman argues, this was because his manager, the notorious Colonel Parker, steered him into safe recording and movie projects that guaranteed profits without posing professional challenges. But the larger point seems to be that Presley had neither the spirit for such challenges nor the artistic mettle to meet them. He had a moderately pleasant voice and a visceral appeal to the tortured libidos of certain women, and that was that; there was no more there there.
Presley was in fact as blatant an example as one could hope to find of the emptiness that passes for celebrity in this benighted age. Except for the punkish insolence, there was no reality behind the image that he presented to his adoring fans; what disappointment lay in store for those eager girls who pressed their way into his chambers!
Though Goldman makes a halfhearted effort to argue to the contrary, the Elvis Presley who emerges from this book is a person wholly without redeeming virtue. He was selfish, greedy, stupid and lazy. That he was so widely and passionately adored says more about us than it does about him, and what it says is not good.
Goldman understands much of this: the "emptiness, the insatiability and paranoia," the insecurity and fearfulness, the venality and, above all, the stupidity. Because he is a conscientious biographer he tries to like his subject, or at least to pity him, and to make the reader feel the same, but all the evidence that he so forthrightly presents damns the effort; what he demonstrates is that there was scarcely enough art in Presley to justify the contemptible life.
Goldman is least successful in delineating the texture of Presley's Southern background. The basic difficulty --how else is one to put it?--is that he is a New York Yankee with a disdain for all things Southern. He does not understand the fragile connections of Southern society and culture, so all he can do is mock them. His attempts to capture Southern speech are mere caricatures; the condescension that permeates his portrait of the South is a serious weakness.
So too is his prose. Goldman is one of those writers who was exposed early to Tom Wolfe and has never gotten over it; he apes Wolfe at his worst while completely missing Wolfe at his best. To wit: "Dewey Phillips! What a natural-born freak! You think city people are wild? You think all that off-the-wall jive comes from the Harlem ghetto? No, mah boy, they's many a crazy, likah drinkin', pill poppin' countrah boy that kin get hissef jes' as racked-up 'n' ragged as the craziest coon they ever treed on Beale Street." Six hundred pages of this, and the brain is numb.
Goldman's prose also can be inflated past credulity. He says that Presley's first meal in the Army "was reported more exhaustively than any meal in history," thereby conveniently ignoring the Last Supper. Elvis was "the most photographed man in history." Presley's entourage was "the most intently partying group of bachelors in the history of Hollywood." Presley was "the world's most notorious sex symbol." Colonel Parker was "one of the highest rollers in the history of Las Vegas."
Aside from its sheer silliness, this flapdoodle makes you wonder about other aspects of the book. If Goldman is willing to make an inflated claim, might he also be willing to inflate or jazz up an incident? When he tells us what Presley is thinking, as he does from time to time, where does he get such unique information: from the memory of someone who talked to Presley at the time, or from his very own little muse? Since Goldman supplies no footnotes and rarely identifies his sources within the text, those doubts do arise.
Elvis, in other words, is a maddening book. On specific incidents or assertions, it can range from the plausible to the preposterous; yet the overall picture it presents is persuasive. Indeed, it would be one of the better show-biz biographies if its prose style were not so infantile--but in that respect at least, author and subject are perfectly wed.