Elvis Presley may be as famous as Jesus Christ or Coca-Cola, but to me he’s just the boy who broke my heart.
It was his beauty that first struck me, but it’s the profound sadness of Elvis Presley that still enthrals me. The first time I consciously remember studying that doe-eyed, long-lashed androgyny, I knew nothing about him. Aged four, I wasn’t aware of the weight of cultural meaning attached to Elvis, but I did understand that there was something deeply melancholy about the boy on the black and white postcard I held in my hands; a postcard I find today suspended between the pages of Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.
Having assimilated numerous biographies, watched all of his films (yes, even Harum Scarum) and lovingly listened to his music till I’m as familiar with it as I am my own body, I can now contextualise that lost boy and begin to comprehend the mechanisms of his unhappiness.
Every culture is fated to produce a perfect metaphor for itself and Elvis is a pure product of 1950s America. He was young and beautiful, he wanted to be a good man and, like America, he started out full of promise. Despite his best intentions, his potential was never fully realised. His worth was expended by other people for their own advancement as he was forced to merge art with commerce. ‘Son, right now you got a million dollars’ worth of talent,’ Colonel Tom Parker told him. ‘By the time I’m through you’ll have a million dollars.’
Elvis’ life story is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. It’s the Greek tragedy of a charismatic but flawed hero. It’s the tragedy of a mama’s boy who lost his mama and spent the rest of his life searching for the perfect custody of smothering authority figures. It’s the tragedy of the distorted American Dream: once the dream of self-sufficiency, now the dream of excess.
Re-reading Peter Guralnick’s astounding biography of Elvis, I can’t help hoping desperately for a happier conclusion. This time it’ll be different; he’ll find creative fulfillment, his mother won’t die. But, of course, he doesn’t. And she does. Character is destiny and Elvis Presley’s life moves, page by page, towards its inevitable conclusion as, lovelorn, I place the treasured postcard back inside the book…