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A Review of
Elvis Presley: A Southern Life
Hardback: Oxford; 2015
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Reviewed by Adam P. Newton.
For the last 50 years, Elvis Aaron Presley incited libidos and passions with his golden voice, twitching hips, and good ol’ boy Southern charm. And it took Joel Williamson less than 400 pages to rob The King of the personality, swagger, and joie de vivre that made him one of the most iconic performers of all time.
Admittedly, Williamson’s thesis was never to glorify Presley, much less indulge in any blatant hagiography. The purpose of this tome was to strip away the glitz and glamour a bit in order to better understand Elvis the man at the expense of Elvis the cultural deity. And as a former “D-List” music critic who believes Sam Phillips deserves more credit for Elvis than Colonel Tom Parker, I welcomed the chance to see behind the curtain.
Yet, I came away sorely unsatisfied with this book on several levels. In an effort to provide an unvarnished look at The King, his life, and his legacy, Williamson’s narrative is clinical and impersonal with how he accumulated facts, but rambling and callous with how he presents them. He takes what could be a supremely compelling melodrama – one that circles perpetually around Elvis’ addition for affection and acceptance – and castrates it with an abundance of armchair psychoanalysis.
The story is broken up into five distinct sections: 1) “The Death of Elvis;” 2) “The Bubble;” 3) “Why Elvis?”; 4) “Comeback and Die;” and 5) “The Fall.” The initial section discusses the psychology, pharmacology, and coverup around the details of his death on August 16th, 1977. This is the shortest part of the book, as the story concludes there as well.
We’re then introduced to how the “cult” of Elvis was cultivated. Williamson speaks specifically to how Presley incited and interacted with his (mostly female) fans to create and sustain his following. Much hay is made about the balance Elvis strikes between his on-stage sexually charged persona and his off-stage projection of “Aw shucks – I’m just a good Southern gentleman.” The author gives much credence to how this dualistic worldview set the stage for how crowds (i.e. young, Christian women from good Southern homes) received Elvis and how he responded to them. The claim is eventually made that all Elvis wanted to do was to make women happy with his performances, and this desire to please his crowd with his art (not to make art that he enjoyed personally) drove his career and personal life.
The book then begins work as a standard biography by working through the Presley’s family tree to make the case for his parents’ relationship and how he related his parents. This description serves as the only real attempt to root Elvis in any sort of Southern cultural tradition – despite the attempts made to root Elvis’ rise in the civil rights landscape of the mid-20th century. In short, Vernon Presley is portrayed as consistently shiftless and willing to mooch off his famous son, while Gladys Presley is the driving force of Elvis’ life. Hence, Elvis took care of his dad like a son should, but saw himself as the primary breadwinner of the house that his mom needed. All of this serves as further proof that Elvis required extensive external validation for his life choices, instead of cultivating any internal motivation for success.
The third section also dives into the machinations of Colonel Tom Parker to make Elvis into a cultural force with unimpeachable character. We’re introduced to the reasons for Elvis retreating from regular recording, his movie career, his time in the Army, and more – all launched to recover his reputation from the sexual creature of his early recording career. And it’s during this time that Williamson feels Elvis’ paranoia set it in: as he became more specific in his taste for drugs and women – young, virginal cuddlers who ran counter to his public perception as a lion in the sack – he cultivated his personal bodyguard (eventually termed the “Memphis Mafia”) to protect him from naysayers and the public learning his habits.
With parts 4 & 5, Williamson walks us through the last nine years of Presley’s life, and time and again, he returns to the old well of Elvis wanting the approval of others for his life choices. The famous “Comeback Special” in 1968 was a rousing success in the public eye, though behind the scenes, it was more the work of producers attempting to present Elvis in the best possible light. We’re also introduced to a litany of women, firearms, and attempts of Presley to ingratiate himself with law enforcement (including President Nixon and various drug awareness task forces).
The result: We’re graced with a vision of a tortured man who subservient to his own whims and desires at the expense of his own health and wellbeing. By surrounding himself with people who can’t tell him “No” and don’t encourage him to say “No” to things that aren’t good for him, we see an impulsive Elvis who demanded loyalty at all costs and who was consumed by appearances, addictions, and attention.
Williamson plays on a twisted version of the universal desire for love and acceptance many of us have, but does so in a way that reduces Elvis to a mere morality tale. By this account, everything Presley did – whether consciously or unconsciously – was designed to either show or receive love. From his stance as an artistic chameleon who sought to make music his fans wanted (not that the found interesting) to his quasi-Oedipal relationship with his mom and how he related sexually to the other women in his life, Elvis’ whole existence was a cry for help and approval. He was a man in control of his circle, but out of control of his desires.
But here’s the rub. While I believe the Williamson has gifted us with an unflinching and provocative glimpse into the life of Elvis Presley – one that subtly explodes much of the squeaky-clean mythology around The King – he does so without much verve or passion. I’m not asking for a salacious tell-all that produces a laundry list of the shenanigans in which Elvis embroiled himself. I want to read a biography wherein the writer displays even a modicum of interest in the person under investigation. Williamson doesn’t need to like Elvis to craft a competent case study of the man’s life, but he does need to give us more than “just the facts, ma’am.”
Elvis Presley: A Southern Life comes up short in too many ways. Fans of Elvis will come away frustrated, as Williamson favors artifice over the art created by The King, and the portrait painted of their hero is quite unappealing. Folks interested in one of the seminal figures in rock music history will find scant few pages actually talking about Elvis’ role in the scene (much less the actual music he created). And people looking for an investigation of The South through the lens of one of its treasured sons won’t find much substance outside of surface-level discussions about race and class in Tupelo, MS and Memphis, TN. The book is so much less than the sum of its parts.