Five years after his death, Elvis Presley survives as the great enigma of American popular culture. Recent biographies -- from Ilona Panta's "Elvis Presley: King of Kings" (complete with its leading question, "When Elvis returns, will you be ready?") to Albert Goldman's "Elvis," which roundly condemns southern culture and rock music -- have clarified nothing. We are still left asking how is it that this naive, lonely, ambitious, often very mediocre musician remains a fixation for millions of Americans.
Dave Marsh, who has written a passionate biography of Bruce Springsteen, as well as "The Rolling Stone Record Guide" and "The Book of Rock Lists," is perhaps too much of a fan to provide the definitive Presley life. No matter. One suspects he was asked to provide words merely to keep pace with the late Bea Feitler's classy layout of hundreds of full-page and double-truck pictures, a fitting companion on the coffee table to Geoffrey Stokes' "The Beatles" (also designed by Feitler).
It may well be that the true Elvis story is best told through photographs. Look at Elvis from 1954 to early 1956, the cat-like energy stretched taunt in his face and body; look at the fans and the ecstatic glee and release in their faces; then look at everything post-Col. Tom Parker and see the marked change, the surrender, the self-betrayal, the evidence of the rot that has set in.
Unfortunately, just as Marsh's text suffers from selective omissions, there's an imbalance in Feitler's photos: 24 pictures of Elvis in the Army, 19 of them full-page, accompany less than two pages of text that don't even mention a central Presley truth--that after the Army and the death of his beloved mother, he was never the same as an artist or as a man. And despite a rambling retelling of the 1968 television special that revived Presley's career, there's only a quarter-page picture to celebrate that transcendent moment. Still, many of the pictures are dishearteningly eloquent.
Although Marsh set out to define and correct the Elvis myths of previous writers, he does so in a superficial manner. His "Elvis" might have benefited from a hard-nosed refutation of Goldman's gossip and misrepresentations, but Marsh is satisfied with a general denunciation of expose's of Presley's private predilictions and habits.
Instead of a promised analysis of Elvis' childhood, comeback, film career and final years -- which Marsh claims are the less well-known periods in the Presley story (though two books have been written about the films alone) -- we are treated to a chronology. Marsh hasn't done any new interviews, and he borrows freely from the work of others (Greil Marcus, Ellen Willis and Peter Guralnick). Elvis himself is never heard, just observed. It's all been said before; here it's simply pulled together.
And Marsh makes a curious decision: He will try "to examine Presley's life in terms of the American culture that scorned him, a culture which he ultimately changed forever." But no such thing happens, unless one counts Marsh's tired stabs at the record and film industries, the Army and Parker. There is practically nothing personal about his subject -- parents, Priscilla, drugs, emotions, sex, the confused life behind the public image. He suggests that Elvis epitomized "the greatest freedom we have been granted in America, the freedom to invent ourselves . . . there is no way one man will ever achieve more, working with himself, by himself, than Elvis Presley did." This was really true only of the early Elvis, who succumbed quickly to his own achievement. In the end, Marsh provides little more than a study guide.
There, of course, is the objection that $35 is too high a price to pay for a superficial study. The same amount of money will buy both volumes of the Jerry Hopkins biographies in paperback, several of the "Memphis Mafia" memoirs (the best is "Elvis: What Happened," by Red West and Dave Hebler), the insightful "When Elvis Died," by Neal and Janice Gregory, and maybe the best Elvis book of all, "Elvis '56," a photographic essay by Alfred Wertheimer. These books may not look as impressive on a coffee table as the splashy Marsh-Feitler book, but they provide a lot more sustenance.
One senses that unraveling the Presley riddle is best left to the true fans via "The Paperdoll Elvis Book," by Al Kilgore and Jim Fitzgerald, the same team responsible for "The First Family Paperdoll and Cutout Book." You get three underwear poses of Elvis, one of Priscilla, and 28 costumes for him, five for her. The costumes offer their own biography, from Rockabilly Cat and the "Steve Allen Show" (with a hound dog in top hat on a pedestal) through various movie costumes ("Love Me Tender," "Jailhouse Rock," "Viva Las Vegas" and "Harum Scarum") to an Army uniform to the Singer Special to Las Vegas to Black Belt costumes. In a weird way, this publishing artifact is just one more sign that Elvis Presley has yet to be uncovered.