Harper, 1995, 947 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-109336-X
As someone born in 1975, it can be daunting, at times, to figure out the enduring popularity of Elvis Presley, who died in 1978. While other figures of his era have since long passed away from common memory, his legacy only seems to grow with each passing year. Endless droves of imitators, burgeoning cults and a mind-bending array of memorabilia only contributes further to his mystique.
It’s a fair bet to say that the image of Elvis has since long been stripped away from the man who was Elvis. Seeing his image pop up as sort of an all-American symbol of decency can only make one wonder; who was the real Elvis Presley?
Indeed, a whole cottage industry has popped up around this question, in the form of various biographies written about the man. If Elvis isn’t the most written-about historical figure of the twentieth century, it’s not clear who is. (Okay; Hitler. Don’t argue a rhetorical question.) Most of the books about him, however, have been written with a differing degree of accuracy by people who were not necessarily closely associated with “The King”, or had direct financial interest in maintaining his continuing untarnished image. Elvis Presley: Confessions from the Memphis Mafia is different, being a 600-page collection of testimonies made by members of the “Memphis Mafia”, a group of personal assistants that travelled with Presley for most of his career. These ex-confidantes are now more akin to disgruntled veterans, and he book is their chance to set the record straight on what has previously been said about Elvis.
Indeed, the biggest asset of the book is its sense of authenticity. More than 95% of the book are direct quotations from three members of the “Memphis Mafia”, with occasional bridging comments by Nash and a special “guest appearance” by the wife of one of the co-authors. Nash’s sense of editing is superb, and the book truly is like sitting down with three Elvis experts and hearing them talk about their favourite subject. They provide a complete insider’s view of the true Elvis Presley, a socially maladjusted, pill-popping adult teenager whose personal integrity couldn’t begin to cope with the demands of fame inflicted on him by his musical talent.
As such, Elvis becomes a tragic figure in this book, someone who suffered from the untimely death of his mother, a bad manager (“Colonel” Tom Parker, who was actually an illegal immigrant terrified that someone would discover his secret and deliberately restrained Elvis’ career in consequence), an emotional dependency on chemicals, bad advice, deep-seated contradictions and a bunchload of psychological problems. His death is made predictable, even inescapable. Presley becomes a sacrifice to the price of popularity. (But not, interestingly enough, a heroic sacrifice; the Elvis Presley of this book is not someone you would pity or sympathise with)
Great stories in this book include Elvis’ presidential visit, his fascination with guns (and shooting thereof), his weird sexual fetish, his often illogical generosity, his financial problems, his military service in Germany, his reaction to his movies, etc…
Unfortunately, one get the sense that this is not an entry-level biography, as it spends a significant part of its time denouncing mistakes made by other books, tabloids and documentaries in trying to describe the true Elvis. The insider-speak of the three “mafiosos” gets obscure at time, though Nash makes a very good job of vulgarizing the most obscure elements for a wider audience. An impressively complete index completes the book and makes it eminently suitable for reference.
In a sense, Elvis Presley does achieve its goal in that I do not feel as if I have to read another biography about this rather loathsome singer ever again. As a bonus, I’ll be ready for next time someone ever tries to make of Elvis a saint that he so obviously wasn’t.