Careless Love

The Unmaking of Elvis Presley


By Peter Guralnick

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Hailed as “a masterwork” by the Wall Street Journal, Careless Loveis the full, true, and mesmerizing story of Elvis Presley’s last two decades, in the long-awaited second volume of Peter Guralnick’s masterful two-part biography.

Winner of the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award

Last Train to Memphis, the first part of Guralnick’s two-volume life of Elvis Presley, was acclaimed by the New York Times as “a triumph of biographical art.” This concluding volume recounts the second half of Elvis’ life in rich and previously unimagined detail, and confirms Guralnick’s status as one of the great biographers of our time.

Beginning with Presley’s army service in Germany in 1958 and ending with his death in Memphis in 1977, Careless Love chronicles the unravelling of the dream that once shone so brightly, homing in on the complex playing-out of Elvis’ relationship with his Machiavellian manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It’s a breathtaking revelatory drama that for the first time places the events of a too-often mistold tale in a fresh, believable, and understandable context.

Elvis’ changes during these years form a tragic mystery that Careless Love unlocks for the first time. This is the quintessential American story, encompassing elements of race, class, wealth, sex, music, religion, and personal transformation. Written with grace, sensitivity, and passion, Careless Love is a unique contribution to our understanding of American popular culture and the nature of success, giving us true insight at last into one of the most misunderstood public figures of our times.


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Author's Note

It's difficult to be a legend. It's hard for me to recognize me. You spend a lot of time trying to avoid it…. The way the world treats you is unbearable…. It's unbearable because time is passing and you are not your legend, but you're trapped in it. Nobody will let you out of it except other people who know what it is. But very few people have experienced it, know about it, and I think that can drive you mad. I know it can. I know it can.

—James Baldwin, interviewed by Quincy Troupe

THIS IS A STORY of fame. It is a story of celebrity and its consequences. It is, I think, a tragedy, and no more the occasion for retrospective moral judgments than any other biographical canvas should be. "Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel," Milan Kundera wrote in what could be taken as a challenge thrown down to history and biography, too. This suspension of judgment is the storyteller's morality, "the morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding." It is not that moral judgment is illegitimate; it is simply that it has no place in describing a life.

Elvis Presley may well be the most written-about figure of our time. He is also in many ways the most misunderstood, both because of our ever-increasing rush to judgment and, perhaps more to the point, simply because he appears to be so well known. It has become almost as impossible to imagine Elvis amid all our assumptions, amid all the false intimacy that attaches to a tabloid personality, as it is to separate the President from the myth of the presidency, John Wayne from the myth of the American West. "It's very hard," Elvis declared without facetiousness at a 1972 press conference, "to live up to an image." And yet he, as much as his public, appeared increasingly trapped by it.

The Elvis Presley that I am writing about here is a man between the ages of twenty-three and forty-two. His circumstances are far removed from those of the boy whose dreams came true in the twenty-second year of his life. It is not simply that his mother has died, testing his belief in the very meaning of success. With or without his mother by his side, he would have had to grow up; he would have had to face all the complications of adulthood in a situation of almost unbearable public scrutiny, a young man little different in temperament from the solitary child who had constructed a world from his imagination. The army was hard for him not just because he was temperamentally unsuited to it but because it was something he knew he had to succeed at, both for himself and for others. The artistic choices he faced when he returned to an interrupted life were far more ambiguous than the good fortune he had so innocently embraced, and he never came fully to terms with the burden of decision making that those choices placed upon him. His natural ability to adapt, his complex relationship with a manager whom he perceived not just as a mentor but as a talisman of his good luck, served him in both good and bad stead. He constructed a shell to hide his aloneness, and it hardened on his back. I know of no sadder story. But if the last part of Elvis' life had to do with the price that is paid for dreams, neither the dreams themselves, nor the aspiration that fueled them, should be forgotten. Without them the story of Elvis Presley would have little meaning.

I've tried to tell this story as much as possible from Elvis' point of view. Although he never kept a diary, left us with no memoirs, wrote scarcely any letters, and rarely submitted to interviews, there is, of course, a wealth of documentation on the life of Elvis Presley, not least his own recorded words, which, while seldom uttered without some public purpose, almost always offer a glimpse of what is going on within. I've pursued contemporary news accounts, business documents, diaries, fan magazines, critical analyses, and the anecdotal testimony of friends and eyewitnesses not with the intention of imposing all this on the reader but simply to try to understand the story. In the end, of course, one has to cast aside the burden of accumulation and rely on instinct alone. There is always that leap of faith to be made when you accept the idea that you are painting a portrait, not creating a web site. Certainly you have to allow your gaze to wander, it is essential to take every possibility into account, not to prejudge either on the basis of likelihood or personal bias—but you also have to recognize that with the angle of perception changed by just a little, with a slightly different selection of detail, there may be an altogether different view. This is where the leap of faith comes in: at some point, you simply have to believe that by immersing yourself in the subject you have earned your own perspective.

I have spent eleven years with Elvis. Much longer if I go back to the pieces I originally wrote to try to tell the world why I thought his music was so vital, exciting, and culturally significant, how it was part of the same continuum of American vernacular music that produced Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Sam Cooke, the Statesmen, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Golden Gate Quartet. I still think that—but immersion in the subject has changed my view in other, more subtle ways. Once I saw Elvis as a blues singer exclusively (that was my own peculiar prejudice); now I see him in the same way that I think he saw himself from the start, as someone whose ambition it was to encompass every strand of the American musical tradition. And if I am still not equally open to his approach to every one of those strands, I can at least say that I have awakened to the beauty of many of the ballads I once scorned and come to a new appreciation of the gospel quartet tradition that Elvis so thoroughly knew.

In the course of writing these two volumes, I interviewed hundreds of people, some dozens of times. There were moments, certainly, when I felt as if I had at last gained access to Elvis' world; just as often, I was made aware that no matter how long one peers in from the outside, it is never quite the view from within. That's why it's so important to keep going back—not just to try to understand the sequence of events but to give the picture a chance to come into deeper focus. You want to try to capture the chipped paint on the doorknob, the muted conversations in the hall; you want the reader to hear the carefree exuberance of Elvis' laugh—even if none of these things ever fully emerges from the background. Perhaps there is no need to point out that this is a task that can drive both writer and interview subject almost mad. But what struck me again and again, as it has struck me with every book that I have written, was the graciousness of the participants, their own curiosity about what actually happened, about others' perspectives on events in which they themselves had participated. There was no question in my mind that almost without exception everyone I interviewed was telling the truth as he or she saw it. Interpretations might be shaded, time frames telescoped—but there was no conscious attempt at distortion, save for the universal human impulse to see oneself at the center of the picture.

I have tried to respect those truths. I have tried to understand each of the witnesses' stories. But most of all I have tried to understand Elvis', and to give the reader, too, a new basis for understanding by delineating the context in which frequently well-known events occurred. That search for context—sometimes it can be not much more than how the weather was—is, as much as anything else, at the heart of my own deep-seated belief in research. Not that ultimate meaning can ever be uncovered (I must admit, I have my doubts about ultimate meaning), but, on the most basic level, how are we ever to understand cause and effect if we don't know which came first? History may well be, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has suggested, "an argument without end," but it can provide fruitful grounds for debate if certain rules of evidence are observed. There is room for the widest variety of interpretation, Schlesinger points out, so long as we recognize that we are establishing "small truths [in order] to place them in larger contexts and perspectives," that "we are prisoners of our own time and our own experience." So, too, are the protagonists. "Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin did not sit around a table and say, 'Isn't it great living in the past?'" in the formulation of historian David McCullough. "They didn't know any more how it was going to come out [than we do]." Which to me means that one must respect not just the story but the way in which it develops; judging the past by the standards of the present sheds little light on understanding, it represents no more than the I-told-you-sos of history.

There are no villains here. The story of Elvis' inexorable decline—what could almost be called the vanishing of Elvis Presley over a period of time—is neither a simple nor a monolithic one, and it may have no greater moral than the story of Job or Sophocles' Oedipus Rex: Count no man lucky until he has reached his journey's end. The kind of fame that Elvis experienced requires constant reinvention if one is to escape its snares—and, as more than one friend of Elvis remarked, his desire to escape was ambivalent at best; as much as he may at times have been tempted, he was not about to throw away the identity he had so assiduously created, he enjoyed being Elvis Presley.

The last few years of his life amounted to little more than a sad diminution; this is what has become the basis for the caricature that we so often see repeated in our pathographic times. More significantly, the music with which he made his mark has become a battleground for competing ethnocentric claims: Elvis Presley, whose democratic vision could not have been broader or more encompassing, is used as the centerpiece for accusations of cultural theft. This is a misunderstanding not just of Elvis Presley but of popular culture, which even in its purest forms cannot help but represent the polyglot borrowings that radio and the phonograph record first introduced almost a century ago. You don't have to like Elvis Presley—but it's impossible, if you listen to his music, not to recognize both his achievement and his originality. He was no more a copy of blues singer Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup than he was of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe—though they, along with a far-flung range of influences (Roy Hamilton, Mario Lanza, Dean Martin, Clyde McPhatter, Jake Hess), were among his heroes, and he unquestionably absorbed their music into his own. That music exists, like all art, without explanation (if it could be formulized, why wouldn't everyone do it?), but it came about no more by accident than Duke Ellington's carefully worked-out compositions or Robert Johnson's blues. That is what the story keeps coming back to in the end—the music. That is the mystery that will continue to reward repeated explorations, long after the frenzy of fame is finally gone.


October 1958–March 1960



HE ARRIVED IN BREMERHAVEN on October 1, 1958, as a member of the 750-man Thirty-second Tank Battalion, Third Armored Division, part of the fabled "Mailed Fist of Europe." He was met at the dock by fifteen hundred fans, five television news teams, two newsreel operators, and reporters and photographers representing virtually every major European periodical and newspaper. It was a well-planned operation, with only one autograph seeker breaking through police cordons, and one young woman, a German reporter, presenting Private Presley with a bouquet of flowers.

He was subdued on the troop train to Friedberg, just north of Frankfurt, some two hundred miles away, eating with the cooks in the kitchen car so as to have a moment or two of privacy, thanking each one individually for their hospitality. Military plans called for him to interact with the press and the public for the next few days—but only for the next few days, while he was still undergoing processing. A press conference was scheduled for the following morning, and he would undoubtedly be faced with the same kinds of questions that reporters came up with everywhere else. Did he still want to meet Brigitte Bardot now that she was formally engaged? What did he think of German girls, even if he had never met any? Would his music change? Would his popularity remain the same? Colonel said he just had to get through it; he had his job, the press had theirs, and there was no reason that they couldn't serve each other's needs. It was his job to be like any other soldier, and once this initial flurry of attention was over that was just what he would be.

It had been a strange and solitary crossing. Not so much because he was alone on the transport ship—he had made friends with a number of the guys—as because, with his mother gone, he was truly alone in the world. Seeking solace, he read and reread some of the poems about death and motherhood in the book he had been given by a fellow GI just prior to his departure, an anthology called Poems That Touch the Heart. He sought out the companionship of sympathetic souls, requesting to bunk with Charlie Hodge, the little guy he had met on the train to the Brooklyn Army Terminal who was a fellow southerner, singer, and veteran of show business himself. At night, Charlie said, he could hear him thinking about his mother—he could tell by the way Elvis breathed, and he would try to cheer him up, telling him jokes, running through old vaudeville routines, until at last his friend dropped off to sleep.

Several days out to sea, Elvis and Charlie were put in charge of a talent show on the U.S.S. Randall, and they held auditions and staged the program, with Charlie MCing and telling jokes and Elvis playing piano in the backup band. Although he threw himself into the entertainment, he would not take the spotlight, saying that he didn't want to steal attention from any of the other GIs but giving rise at the same time to rumors that he had been forbidden to perform by his manager. He was generally liked by, but distant from, his fellow soldiers, who observed him with the same understandable mistrust that he might just as well have felt for them. "Charlie," he told his new friend, "you keep me from going crazy."

In Friedberg he was stationed at Ray Kaserne, a barracks for German SS troops during the Second World War. He got through the obligatory press briefings (he was interested in German girls; he planned to buy a guitar in Frankfurt, since he had not brought one with him on the ship; he would like to see an opera and attend some classical concerts while stationed in Germany). He was initially designated jeep driver for the commanding officer of Company D but was quickly transferred to Company C, a scout platoon, where he was assigned to drive for Reconnaissance Platoon Sergeant Ira Jones. Not only was Jones, a tough, no-nonsense enlisted noncom, deemed to be the man for the job; the fact that the company spent much of its time in the field on maneuvers might help to remove Private Presley from the public eye.

His family arrived on Saturday, October 4, and Elvis had dinner with them at their hotel in Bad Homburg that evening. It was a strange grouping, the young towheaded soldier, his handsome forty-two-year-old father and gaunt sixty-eight-year-old grandmother, plus two buddies from home, Red West and Lamar Fike. He was avid for news of Memphis, almost desperate to connect. He needed people he knew, people he could trust, and to Lamar there was no great mystery as to why any of them were there; "Elvis always kept his own world with him; he kept his own bubble." After dinner he posed for photographs with his father and grandmother, then reluctantly returned to camp. He was exhausted, he told reporters; he just wanted to get back to the barracks and get some sleep.

IT WAS HARD, harder perhaps than anything he had ever done—and army life was only part of it. Two days after his family arrived they changed hotels, and three weeks later, after Elvis had received permission to live off base with his two family dependents, they moved again, to the elegant Hotel Grunewald in Bad Nauheim, just twenty minutes from the base. There they had the whole top floor to themselves, but it was still cramped, with Red and Lamar sharing a bedroom and, more significantly, feeling distinctly out of place in the subdued setting of a European health spa for wealthy, primarily elderly visitors.

Red reacted, as he generally did, by blowing up at anyone and everyone who got in his way. Elvis wasn't paying either one of them anything, they were there as his friends, but he did tell his father to give them enough money to have a good time—a couple of hundred marks, or roughly $50, a week apiece. Vernon, who couldn't see what either one of them had done to deserve such largesse, doled out no more than two or three marks a night to each, and they nursed their money, and their resentment, at Beck's Bar around the corner, where Red was prone to sharp altercations with fellow drinkers and local policemen. There had never been any love lost between Red and Vernon anyway, and with Vernon doing his share of drinking, there was the constant possibility that things could really get out of hand. For Elvis the only truly peaceful time of the day was when he was with his grandmother, "Dodger," who never judged him, who wanted nothing from him, who called him "Son" and recalled every day of his childhood with the clarity and wonder generally reserved for chronicling the lives of the saints.

There was a moment of confusion just after his arrival, when it seemed as if the army was breaking its agreement with Colonel Parker not to put any pressure on Elvis to perform. The Colonel had waged an extensive campaign to develop contacts in Washington and then to persuade them that it would be against the interests of the armed services for Elvis to appear as anything but an ordinary soldier, while remonstrating at the same time to Elvis that he should resist any such opportunities, however innocent they might at first appear. Nonetheless, John Wiant, the European editor of Army Times, approached Elvis and Vernon about a Christmas benefit for German orphans and pursued the matter with Colonel Parker after Vernon explained that he had no authority to accept or decline such an invitation. Even the Colonel was panicked for a moment, since clearly the pressure was coming from above, but he counseled Elvis to make no commitments and immediately advised his principal contact in Washington, E. J. Cottrell, the assistant chief of information at the Department of the Army, that not only would this be against everything they had both been working for, it would also end up costing the army money to provide the security necessary for a show of this sort—and if such security were not provided, it would look very bad for the army. Cottrell responded in an amused but sympathetic vein, and while the story got into the newspapers and continued to surface in one form or another for some weeks, it seemed to reflect little more than an ongoing struggle between the State Department and the army over the correct deployment of Private Presley, with the outcome all but conceded to Colonel Parker.

Gradually things began to settle into a routine. Because Elvis was up at 5:30 A.M., the rest of the household was, too, though they could go back to sleep, of course, once he left for the base at 6:30 in the black Mercedes taxi he had hired to take him back and forth. Many days he was home for lunch, and he never returned later than 6:00 P.M. except on Friday, which was "GI party night," when they scrubbed the latrines and cleaned the barracks, often until ten o'clock, in preparation for Saturday-morning inspection. It was for the most part congenial enough work; he was improving his map- and compass-reading skills in preparation for maneuvers and keeping his jeep in top condition. And he had a little girl—she was sixteen, but she looked older—a typist with an electrical supply company in Frankfurt who had just showed up with a photographer the day after Elvis' family arrived in Bad Homburg. She and the photographer waited outside the hotel until Elvis emerged with his father, and when she approached him on the pretext of getting his autograph, not only the photographer that she was accompanying but all the other photographers who had staked out the hotel clamored for the two of them to kiss. Elvis was only too happy to oblige, and the papers were full of news of Elvis Presley's "German girlfriend," Margit Buergin, the next day. Lamar got her number for him, and he saw her a few times. She was a nice girl who lived with her mother and had to be home every night. Sometimes she even brought her little German-English dictionary along on their dates.

Home was a nagging memory that on occasion he could barely sustain. He called some of his pals and told them how much he missed Memphis, kidding around about the German "chiclets"; he had his father call home on October 15 to order a generous supply of alfalfa pills from a Memphis pharmacy because he had heard that that was a good way to help keep your weight down. He wrote breezily to a few girls, confiding his unease but acting as if he could handle it. But Anita Wood was the only one to whom he truly unburdened himself—even though he was not exactly sure how he really felt about her.

He knew how he was supposed to feel. The papers had linked them almost from the day they met in the summer of 1957, and he knew that Anita was certainly expecting that they would get married someday. In fact, in a moment of desperation, just before he left, he had even spoken to her about bringing her over to visit once things got sorted out. He wrote to her now that she should keep herself clean and wholesome, that he had never, and would never again, love anyone in his life as he loved her, that he looked forward to their marriage and "a little Elvis." In another letter he referred to himself as a "lonely little boy 5000 miles away," even as he was denying the newspaper stories about Margit (referred to as Margrit in the American press), and added in a self-conscious p.s.: "No one ever reads this, OK?"

But even as he wrote and tried to communicate some of his feelings of helplessness and isolation, things were actually starting to look up. He heard from Janie Wilbanks, the girl he had met at the train station in Memphis when the troop train had pulled in on its way to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, that she was going to be coming over to visit her uncle, an army chaplain in Germany, sometime around Christmas and couldn't wait to see him again. His buddy Charlie Hodge, from the U.S.S. Randall, showed up at the hotel on his first weekend leave and fit right in with the rest of the group. Elvis prompted him to tell Vernon the same jokes he had told on their crossing, and his daddy got a good laugh for what seemed like the first time since Mama died. Red and Lamar obviously liked Charlie, too, and they all harmonized on some old gospel numbers, which they sang a cappella or accompanied by the guitar that Elvis had gotten on his first leave in Frankfurt, with Vernon, too, joining in on more than one occasion.

There was a flurry of activity just before the company went out on maneuvers at the beginning of November that reinforced this growing semblance of normality. Elvis heard that Bill Haley was going to be performing in Frankfurt and Stuttgart on October 23 and 29, and went to see him both times, with happy reunions backstage at which Elvis confided to the older star that if it hadn't been for Haley's help and encouragement, he might still be driving a truck. A few nights later, on the Saturday night before departure, he had another date with Margit, who told the press that he was "a very nice boy" and she liked him very much. The following night, November 2, according to a wire-service report, he threw a "noisy pre-maneuvers party in his hotel, where the sounds of his guitar and singing bounced down to the sidewalks below and caused a crowd to collect. Between plunks on his guitar he confessed he liked Margit 'very much' and added, 'And I'm glad her parents like me as well.'"

He got a peculiar call from a woman named Dee Stanley around this time; she was the wife of a master sergeant stationed in Frankfurt, she explained to him, and she just wanted to invite him to dinner with her family. She knew he must be lonely, and she wanted to show him that a foreign country didn't have to be so cold and inhospitable. After spending a few minutes trying to figure out what she was driving at, he eventually told her to call on Monday, when he knew he would be on maneuvers and Daddy could just handle it.

Then they were off to Grafenwöhr, a cold, dismal location near the Czech border. At first reporters hounded him for pictures, and soldiers and officers who hadn't seen him before asked for autographs. But then the reporters were banned, and the soldiers got used to his presence, and things settled down into a predictable routine over the next seven weeks. This was where he finally proved himself to his platoon sergeant's satisfaction, enduring the same harsh conditions as everyone else, showing himself to be a resourceful soldier in field exercises as his reconnaissance unit took eight prisoners thanks to a clever ruse that he had worked out, finally becoming one of the boys. The first weekend that they had leave to go back to Friedberg, a notice was posted that buses would be available at a cost of $6 round-trip. When a number of his fellow soldiers didn't have money for the fare, Elvis told Sergeant Jones that he would like to help out, giving Jones money to loan out to the soldiers, who eventually repaid Jones without ever learning the identity of their benefactor.


  • "Riveting...A masterwork."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Let's get a little loud...Peter Guralnick's two-volume life of Elvis Aron Presley, of which Careless Love is the second installment, is not simply the finest rock-and-roll biography ever written. It must be ranked among the most ambitious and crucial biographical undertakings yet devoted to a major American figure of the second half of the twentieth century."—Gaerald Marzorati, New York Times Book Review
  • "Nothing written about Elvis Presley comes close to the detail, authority, and uncondescending objectivity that Peter Guralnick has brought to his two-volume biography...Hypnotic."—Andy Seiler, USA Today

On Sale
Dec 20, 2012
Page Count
768 pages

Peter Guralnick

About the Author

Peter Guralnick’s books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music, Feel Like Going Home, Lost Highway, and Sweet Soul Music; the biographical inquiry Searching for Robert Johnson; and Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. Guralnick won a Grammy for his liner notes for Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, wrote and co-produced the documentary Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, and wrote the scripts for the Grammy-winning documentary Sam Cooke/Legend and Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary Feel Like Going Home. His 2015 book Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll was a finalist for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, awarded by the Biographers International Organization. His most recent book is Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing.



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