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Tragic tale of a Southern boy hounded by fame

"Elvis" by Bobbie Ann Mason (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $35)

book review by Stephen Cummings - The Age, Melbourne, 15 June 2003

According to Kentucky novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, "The popular hero in our age struggles with fame. Caught in the arms of his lover ... Celebrity ... he cannot withdraw prematurely. He wants to go all the way, and yet he knows he should retreat and become a monk."

It's more than a quarter of a century since Elvis Presley's death, and yet he remains a larger than life figure. The Weidenfeld & Nicolson Lives series is a set of concise biographies that matches authors with familiar faces. Presumably, the dilemma for the writer here is presenting a fresh take on such a well-known life as that of the king of rock'n'roll.

Before Elvis, or so the folklore goes, America was sunk in post-war torpor. In a time of full employment, teenagers had money to spend. A new sub-cultural class emerged and for the first time it became apparent what a powerful economic force they could be. Rock'n'roll was born in America and its defining moment was Elvis Presley. "His music blended all the strains of popular American music into one rebellious voice," notes Mason.

Her biography is a succinct (182-page) read. She gives credit to Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, among others, for providing her with a factual support for her discursive meditation. All the key moments are here, from the outrageous to the heartbreaking.

Mason writes with great warmth about Presley. They shared a Southern background and it is this Southerner's viewpoint that Mason returns to again and again to account for Presley's epic journey. Her aim seems to be to provide a sympathetic understanding of Elvis as a real person. "I heard Elvis from the very beginning on the Memphis radio stations ... Elvis was great, so familiar ... and he was ours."

What Mason brings to the task is empathy and the fiction writer's ability to highlight moments that truly illuminate the American legend's life. "The arc of Presley's meteoric rise was essentially tragic," she says, and writes of the singer as though he were a character from a novel by William Faulkner, who was born only 24 kilometres down the road from Elvis. Much of the biography is devoted to the idea of the singer as a product of the regional and social forces that shaped him and which he simultaneously embraced and fought against.

Elvis was raised revering authority, which allowed a provincial hustler such as Colonel Tom Parker to bulldoze him into making movies he didn't want to make and record material he didn't want to sing. "In the context of Elvis's world, when you come from poverty, you cannot turn down $150,000, no matter what you have to do for it. His predicament was an inevitable result of his aspirations," says Mason.

Presley's story is a saga of an insecure, dirt-poor boy with phenomenal talent completely unprepared for fame and fortune. His mother picked cotton and his father spent time in prison. His need for instant gratification - to eat and spend to excess - makes much more sense when played out against such poverty.

As a singer Elvis went where no one had gone before, not even Sinatra, who was continuing in a line of crooners. Presley was changing the sound of America. Unlike, the '60s groups, whose way he paved, Elvis, "rebelled against poverty, not affluence. He wanted acceptance, not alienation".

The tale arrives in two acts. The first is joyous and uplifting; the second deals with Presley's emotional and physical unravelling as a result of prescription drugs and boredom as the magic that first ensnared him fades.

The two acts are punctuated by the death of his mother, Gladys, who Mason refers to as his moral compass. Mason also points to the fact that all Elvis's women left him. She makes much of the singer being born a twin and that his brother, Jesse, died at birth. Gladys believed that Elvis carried the strength of both infants. According to Mason, "his sensitivity to sound and rhythm went back all the way through his life perhaps even to the womb, to the extra heartbeat he heard as his mother's blood pumped through him. Perhaps that echo was always with him, the sound of his twin's heartbeat and womb thrashings. He began his life with a backbeat." Unlikely, but not improbable I guess.

I specially liked Mason's description of Presley meeting with President Richard Nixon. Elvis was dressed for the occasion in a purple velvet tunic, gold jewellery and a military-style cape. He was keen for the President to make him a Federal Agent at Large and give him the appropriate badge. The two men hit it off, which is not surprising as both lived isolated lives protected by their minions. Nixon remarked: "You dress kind of strange, don't you?" To which Presley replied: "You have your show and I have mine."

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