I am a biography junkie. I started reading them in third grade via a 1960s elementary-school series—primers on Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale, and George Washington Carver come to mind. But as a teenager, I was obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll and devoured the first music biography I got my hands on: Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 biography of Bob Dylan. When I moved to New York from North Carolina in search of punk rock, I became oddly fascinated with vintage honky-tonk, rockabilly, and folk, largely because I read Chet Flippo’s moving story of Hank Williams’s tragically short life, Your Cheatin’ Heart (1981), Nick Tosches’s scorching Hellfire (1982) on Jerry Lee Lewis, and Joe Klein’s masterful Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980).
Since then, I’ve read too many music memoirs, “as told to’s,” and music biographies to count. Among my all time-favorites are the Etta James/David Ritz co-write, Rage to Survive and, of course, Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Though I can easily recommend several excellent biographies of bands, particularly Evelyn McDonnell’s Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways and Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, I’m going to limit my Top 10 list (in alphabetical, not numerical order) to biographies of individual musicians. I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Robert Hillburn’s definitive Johnny Cash: The Life, but I’ll never finish that hefty volume in time to meet the deadline for this piece.
1. Heavier than Heaven: A Life of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross
A longtime music writer based in Seattle, Cross covered Cobain’s band Nirvana from its earliest gigs, and his incisive reporting on Cobain’s broken childhood in Aberdeen, his brilliance as an artist, songwriter, and musician, and his tragically short life is powerful and heartbreaking. (Cross’s biography of another Washington State icon, Jimi Hendrix—Room Full of Mirrors—is also exceptional.)
2. Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis
DeCurtis’s astute analysis of Lou Reed’s lengthy career–and his empathetic coverage of the complicated artist’s walk on the wild side of life–makes this book a page turner. Reading DeCurtis’ account of Reed’s heroin addiction was helpful as I tackled this subject when writing about Janis Joplin.
3. Hickory Wind: The Life & Times of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres
Fong-Torres’s detective work uncovered the real story of the “cosmic country” pioneer’s childhood in Georgia and Florida (a tale right out of Tennessee Williams), as well as illuminating Parsons’s tragically short music career. He doesn’t let Parsons off the hook for his foibles, while giving him his due as a brilliant but flawed artist. (Full disclosure: Fong-Torres invited me along as an assistant on his research travels and taught me how to write biographies along the way.)
4. Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams – The Early Years, 1903-1940 by Gary Giddins
A novice on Crosby’s oeuvre, I read renowned jazz critic Gary Giddins’s in-depth study of one of the 20th century’s early stars to learn about the era from which my first biography subject, Gene Autry, emerged, and I wasn’t disappointed. I got quite the education—and enjoyment—from reading Giddins’ detailed account of the crooner’s first 37 years. Volume 2, Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946, which came out last year, is on my “to-read” list (hopefully before my annual viewing of Holiday Inn and White Christmas).
I know. I’m cheating. But you can’t read just one of Guralnick’s beyond-comprehensive two-volume biography of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. (It would be like reading only one of Robert Caro’s LBJ bios.) The writing is eloquent, the research is deeper than deep, and both books are full of heart. After reading the second one, I vowed never again to make a fat Elvis joke.
6. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough
Originally, the mercurial Canadian-born artist collaborated with McDonough on this riveting account of the prolific musician’s life but withdrew from the project and tried to stop McDonough from continuing. That story alone is worth the price of admission, but McDonough’s humorous storytelling, eye for detail, and pure persistence make this lengthy tome a must-read–and it’s much more exciting than Young’s own self-indulgent and meandering Waging Heavy Peace.
7. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith
I read this fascinating account of James Brown’s turbulent life before starting a biography of Alex Chilton, and the deep background on Brown’s ancestors in Georgia inspired me to try to dig up Chilton family history in Mississippi. Smith’s writing on the Godfather of Soul’s music–including “the one,” the funk beat he invented, is sharp, while the story of his career ups and downs is mesmerizing.
8. Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz
Reading about Strummer’s formation of the Clash was only a portion of what makes this biography a great read. Strummer’s early years and pre-and post-Clash musical lives are fascinating, and make it that much harder to accept the vibrant musician’s sudden death from an undetected heart problem on the eve of his band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
9. Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano
Saviano spent much time with the late Guy Clark and his songwriter/artist wife Susanna Clark, and this book is as much a portrait of the couple as it is of Clark alone. It’s a moving story and an in-depth look at one of the great Texan singer-songwriter-guitarists and the Nashville boho salon the Clarks created, which included Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle, among other intriguing characters.
10. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons
Simmons’s biography was published two years before Cohen’s death at age 82, but it’s hard to imagine a richer portrait than this one. She delves into the stories behind the songwriter’s unparalleled work, as well as his life as a seeker, which took him from Cuba and Greece to Nashville, New York, and the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy. Simmons’s analysis of Cohen’s singular catalogue is exceptional, her comprehensive grasp of his unusual and multi-faceted life beyond impressive.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Elvis Presley disappeared 35 years ago today.
I choose the verb disappeared for a reason. Not because I’m a big believer in conspiracy theories or Elvis sightings — I am not — but because in a very real sense Elvis Presley didn’t actually die on Aug. 16, 1977, he simply moved on to a different level in the ether of superstardom. When asked what he planned to do once Elvis was in the ground, his evil genius of a manager, Col. Tom Parker, said it all: “Why, I’ll just go right on managing him!” As Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick put it, “RCA (records) would discover that Elvis was as great a sales phenomenon in death as in life.”
Even more phenomenal than the unquenchable hunger for Elvis music, Elvis impersonators, and Elvis memorabilia (black velvet paintings, ashtrays, liquor bottles, etc.) is the relentless outpouring of books about Elvis. I call it ElvisLit — a river of words that gives every indication, year after year after year, that it will never run dry. Guralnick described it as “the cacophony of voices that have joined together to create a chorus of informed opinion, uninformed speculation, hagiography, symbolism, and blame.”
The chorus of ElvisLit can be divided into several sections, beginning with straight biographies. Guralnick’s two-volume bio — Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1995) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (2000) — definitely comes from the informed opinion section of the chorus. Running over 1,300 pages, with extensive source notes and 23 pages of bibliography that includes such heavyweights as W.J. Cash and C. Vann Woodward, it’s a magisterial work of biography, the perfect melding of dogged research, deft writing, and the ability to tell one roaring hell of a story. The key to Guralnick’s success, I believe, is that he was able to empathize with his subject without idolizing or patronizing him. Guralnick boils Elvis’s message down to this: “the proclamation of emotions long suppressed, the embrace of a vulnerability culturally denied, the unabashed striving for freedom.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Albert Goldman’s 600-page pathography from 1981, Elvis, an uninterrupted airing of vignettes about the appalling side of the subject: his mother fixation, his perpetual adolescence, his balky penis, his atrocious diet, the isolation and drug use that sent him to an early grave. The book gives almost no indication that Elvis Presley possessed talent, or that he had the power to drive crowds into a foam-at-the-mouth frenzy, or that he remade the landscape of American pop culture. You’ll want to take a shower after reading this book.
In between these two extremes is the respectable handiwork of a small army of fine writers, including Dave Marsh, Jerry Hopkins, Nick Tosches, Roy Blount Jr., and Bobbie Ann Mason. Here’s how Mason, a native of rural Kentucky, saw Elvis: “He was one of us, a country person who spoke our language…a barometer of the culture, a sort of hillbilly voodoo doll.”
A barometer of the culture…Now we’re getting somewhere, now we’re approaching the nut of why Elvis continues to inspire writers of all stripes, from serious scholars and artists to hacks shamelessly trying to turn a fast buck. The brilliant Greil Marcus, who wrote insightfully about Elvis when he was alive, uncorked a wicked book in 1991 called Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession. Marcus explained his motivation for writing the book in this way: “I found, or anyway decided, that Elvis contained more of America — had swallowed whole more of its contradictions and paradoxes — than any other figure I could think of… I understood Elvis not as a human being…but as a force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself.” In his glowing review of the book in the L.A. Times, David Foster Wallace agreed, concluding that Elvis was a “synecdoche of America.”
I would go even farther than Marcus and Wallace and argue that Elvis’s life is a weirdly precise mirror of America’s story. Consider the parallels. Both the man and the nation began humbly — poor, neglected, despised. Both awoke to an inner flame, a gift, that was then harnessed to a ferocious drive. Both used that gift and that drive to create something unprecedented, something dangerous and irresistible and magnificent, which led to unimagined power and riches. Both were consumed by their power and wealth, became distrustful and insular, grew fat and sloppy, then slid into a terminal decline. Or maybe this is just a long-winded way of defining synecdoche.
But I think not. If Elvis went from man to metaphor during his life, I would argue that he has gone from metaphor to myth since his death. Every culture needs myths as much as it needs metaphors for itself, and those myths must be mutable. It helps if the source of the myth blazed early and died too soon (think of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson), because an incomplete life is easier to re-fashion and re-imagine than a long, full one. As Elvis biographer David Luhrssen put it: “In death Elvis became whatever anyone wanted to see in him.”
As the Guralnick and Goldman bios attest, two people can see a single life in very different ways. In my own case, a lifelong love/hate affair with Elvis has produced a strange strand of schizophrenia. There is so much to love — the Sun Sessions, kinetic masterpieces like “Little Sister,” the gospel stuff, the dance moves and the hair and the clothes, the pink Cadillac and the Stutz Bearcat. And there is so much to hate — the movies, the white jumpsuits, the Vegas shtick, fat junkie Elvis. This schizophrenia has led me to do some strange things, including getting tricked out in the Vegas kit I claim to loathe, on the occasion of a 10th Anniversary party on Aug. 16, 1987. Here’s the incriminating evidence:
By far the largest and most telling section of ElvisLit is the long shelf of books by and about People Who Knew the King. This includes everyone from blood relatives and true intimates to people way out on the margins, and the resulting books range from revealing to mildly diverting to downright schlocky.
So far we have gotten books by and about Elvis and his: momma (Elvis and Gladys by Elaine Dundy), wife (Elvis and Me by Priscilla Beaulieu Presley), family (Elvis by the Presleys by David Ritz), step-family (Elvis, We Love You Tender by Dee Presley, Rick Stanley, Billy Stanley, and David Stanley), step-brothers (Elvis, My Brother by Billy Stanley and Life with Elvis by David Stanley), uncle (A Presley Speaks by Vester Presley), aunt (The Forgotten Family of Elvis Presley: Elvis’ Aunt Lois Smith Speaks Out by Rob Hines), love interests (Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him by Alanna Nash and Caught In a Trap: Elvis Presley’s Tragic Lifelong Search for Love by Rick Stanley), Lord (The Two Kings: Jesus & Elvis by A.J. Jacobs), president (The Day Elvis Met Nixon by Egil Krogh), bodyguards (Elvis: What Happened? by Red West, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler, and Elvis and the Memphis Mafia by Alanna Nash, Billy Smith, Marty Lacker, and Lamar Fike), buddies (Elvis: My Best Man by George Klein, Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business by Sonny West, Good Rockin’ Tonight: Twenty Years On the Road and On the Town with Elvis by Joe Esposito, and Me and a Guy named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley by Jerry Schilling), guitarist (That’s Alright, Elvis: The Untold Story of Elvis’s First Guitarist and Manager by Scotty Moore), physician (The King and Dr. Nick: What Really Happened to Elvis and Me by Dr. George Nichopoulos), manager (The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley by Alanna Nash, and Elvis and the Colonel by Dirk Vallenga and Mick Farren), maid (Inside Graceland: Elvis’ Maid Remembers by Nancy Rooks), nurse (I Called Him Babe: Elvis Presley’s Nurse Remembers by Marian J. Cocke), secretary (My Life With Elvis by Becky Yancey), and gofer (Elvis’ Man Friday by Gene Smith). There have even been cookbooks (Are You Hungry Tonight? by Brenda Arlene Butler, and Fit For a King: The Elvis Presley Cookbook by Elizabeth McKeon, which includes a recipe for that heart-smart favorite, butterscotch pinwheels).
All the books on this far-from-exhaustive list share one thing, and it’s not literary merit: they’re all predicated on the reasonable assumption that there is a market for any morsel of first-hand information about Elvis Presley — what he said, did, sang, ate, wore, read, thought, loved, feared, and loathed. In ElvisLit, no morsel is unworthy. To write this off to our culture’s voyeurism and obsession with celebrity is, I think, to miss the point. In death Elvis became whatever anyone wanted to see in him. Which is another way of saying he is now free to become whatever we want to see in ourselves. No wonder the river will never run dry.
The latest addition to the I-Knew-Elvis section of the chorus is a new book called Conversations with the King: Journals of a Young Apprentice by David Stanley, who, as the above bibliography shows, is a repeat contributor to the ever-expanding universe of ElvisLit. Stanley’s mother, Dee, married Elvis’s father less than two years after Elvis’s mother died. Stanley arrived at Graceland in 1960 as a wide-eyed 4 year old, and over the next 17 years he claims Elvis became his “father figure, mentor, spiritual advisor.” Stanley started accompanying Elvis on the road in 1972 as a “full-time personal aide,” and he had his last conversation with his step-brother/boss on Aug. 14, 1977. On that night a fat, scared and lonely Elvis asked him, “David, who am I?” Then he added prophetically, “The next time you see me I’m going to be in a different place, on a higher plane.” The next time Stanley saw him, two days later, Elvis was lying on the floor of Graceland’s master bathroom in the fetal position, tongue black, face turning blue, graveyard dead.
Anyone (like me) who was hoping for more along these lines — details of Elvis’s drug intake and long decline, or the Memphis Mafia’s shenanigans in Vegas and Hollywood — will be disappointed by Conversations with the King. Stanley, according to the book’s biographical note, is “a speaker in the field of self-development & authenticity,” and he claims that Elvis possessed mystical powers. Elvis could, according to Stanley, command clouds to move, stop rainstorms, and cure headaches. He also conversed regularly with the spirit of his twin brother, Jesse, who was delivered stillborn. But these anecdotes are merely a peg for Stanley to hang the story of his own “hero’s journey” from awestruck boy to hard-partying wildman to sobered-up evangelist to motivational smoothie. He urges us to read Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer while delivering mumbo-jumbo paragraphs like this:
My spiritual surrender made it possible for me to complete my hero’s journey. This led to my epiphany, which opened me up to having my transformative labyrinth experience. This freed me to shed my isolation and enabled me to at last shed my self-destructive habits, which gave me access to the courage I had needed to fully embody the greatness of my authentic self.
Such are the vagaries of ElvisLit, an uneven corpus that makes no promises other than inviting us to pay our money and take our chances. It’s a grand crapshoot. Sometimes the results are sublime, as in Guralnick’s and Marcus’s books. Sometimes the results are icky, as in those recipe books. And sometimes, as in Conversations with the King, they’re a reminder that certain morsels are, in fact, much more worthy than others.
So the King is 35 years dead. Long live the King.
Image courtesy of the author.