Despite what the more lurid American magazines periodically tell us, Elvis Presley is as dead as a doornail. What survives of him is his reputation and, of late, that too has been in rather poor health. The equally deceased Albert Goldman, in his biography of the world’s first great pop star, delivered an unforgettable picture of Presley stupefied by cheeseburgers and pharmaceuticals, trussed up in a giant nappy, surrounded by all the white-trash status symbols that unlimited wealth and stupidity could assemble, and meeting his end in the toilet.
Goldman’s savage demolition job, based on the somewhat unreasonable assumption that Presley should have been an intellectual aesthete, needed to be counterbalanced, and American music writer Peter Guralnick has duly obliged. Last Train to Memphis is the first instalment of a two-volume biography which aims to let some air out of the King’s bloated corpse and conduct an altogether kinder embalming. Guralnick comes to the job with decent credentials, in particular a terrific account of Southern soul entitled Sweet Soul Music.
Guralnick exhibits many of the traits of the best American music writers: his research is painstaking, his expertise wide-ranging, his curiosity unbounded and his enthusiasm unquenchable. Close to 500 pages are here devoted to the five years between 1953 and 1958 (a period brought to a natural end when duty