I REMEMBER EXACTLY WHERE I WAS the first time I heard Elvis Presley. But I heard about Elvis before I heard him. It would have been around 1957, when I was 5, and the word filtered down to my midget level from the tough older brothers of my little friends. They had the motorcycle jackets and the duck's ass haircuts, and in Elvis they had an idol who, they made it plain, was not to be trifled with. They made his music sound dangerous and, eavesdropping on the arguments they had with their parents, I gathered that this music not only offended but threatened right-living people. I had never heard people talk this way about music, and I figured it must be the scariest stuff imaginable. I couldn't imagine what it sounded like, but I couldn't wait to hear it.
One night, riding in someone else's car, I was sitting in the back seat watching the rain roll down the window when somebody turned up the radio and said, "That's Elvis." I perked right up and got the surprise of my life. He was singing "Love Me Tender," that syrupy ballad with its melody stolen from a Civil War song. "That's Elvis?" I remember thinking. "Why, that's nothing. That's not a bit scary." What did I know? I was 5.
It would be years before I was savvy enough to realize that you'd have to hear "Don't Be Cruel" and "Heartbreak Hotel," rougher hits that preceded "Love Me Tender," and only then would you have an inkling of just how dangerous a singer might sound who cross-wired the plaintiveness of white gospel and country to the jump boogie of black blues. But 5 years old or not, I was wiser than I knew. Forty years after he waxed "That's All Right," his first hit single for Sun Records, 17 years after his death at 42, Elvis remains the most elusive, problematic figure in American pop culture. Cuddly mama's boy crooner, pouty libidinous rocker, Vegas lounge lizard, gospel singer, star of cheesy movies--in death as in life, Elvis won't stand still and he won't add up. Each of us has his own version of Elvis.
There is still no end to the flood tide of books, documentaries, music-retrospective anthologies or concert tributes that seek to understand Elvis, explain Elvis, celebrate Elvis or just tell what Elvis ate (my favorite title of Elvisiana is a cookbook called "Are You Hungry Tonight?"). Right now there are six new books, including the first in' stallment of a proposed two-volume biography. There is a 3-CD box set of the music of Sun Records, the Memphis studio that launched Presley's career. And last weekend saw the "Tribute to Elvis Aaron Presley" concert in Memphis, not only sanctioned by the Presley estate but hostessed by his ex, Priscilla. Broadcast over Pay-Per-View ("suggested" price $24.95), it featured a lineup of stars ranging from CarlPerkins to Iggy Pop to Melissa Etheridge.
Wading through this latest barrage of Elvis product, I met not one but several Elvises. From longtime Elvis handler Joe Esposito's "Good Rockin' Tonight" (268 pages. Simon & Schuster. $22), I learned that "there was no harm in Elvis, but there was an awful lot of love." From Joyce Bova, Elvis's only lover who was also a staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, I learned in "Don't Ask Forever, My Love Affair With Elvis" (386 pages. Kensington. $20) that he had a Messiah complex: "I'm not just 'good old boy' Elvis ... the hillbilly cat with his wild bunch of Memphis Mafia. I'm a serious man. And I have a serious message for the world." This oracular quote follows hard on the heels of my favorite deadpan line in any Elvis book: "He handed me my Placidyl and I took them automatically." In fairness, if someone harangued me that way at bedtime, I'd gobble Placidyl, too. And from Patricia Jobe Pierce's "The Ultimate Elvis" (560 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30), a day-by-day chronology, I learned that Elvis defended his fondness for overcooked meat by saying, "I like it well done. I ain't orderin' a pet."
I never learned anything that funny from Peter Guralnick's "Last Train to Memphis" (560 pages. Little, Brown. $24.95), an exhaustive look at the first half of Elvis's life. I did learn that Elvis was smart but not intellectual, a natural musician and entertainer who made everything up as he went along, and whose true genius was knowing what his audiences wanted before they did. Guralnick, author of numerous books about pop music, knocks off at 1958, just when Elvis entered the army and his mother died, sparing us the dumpling Elvis, the drug addict, the mumbling recluse.
Presumably Guralnick will cover the cheeseburger-in-Valhalla period in his second installment, but by the last third of "Last Train" the handwriting is already on the black velvet wall hanging. Creatively, Elvis was coasting. Hobbled by erratic taste--he adored Dean Martin--he put his faith in his business manager, Col. Tom Parker, a former carny operator who insisted that Elvis never change the formula. The colonel was just protecting his investment, but it was artistic suicide.
In his introduction, Guralnick says that he aims to rescue his subject from "the dreary bondage of myth," to set out the facts of the life without worrying too much about "cultural significance." True to his word, Guralnick never oversells his subject; conjuring the unprepossessing Elvis growing up in Tupelo, Miss., he writes, "If you picture him, picture someone you might have missed." And he has an eye for telling detail: chickens in the yard at Graceland. But while Guralnick is fair-minded, his tucked-in narrative is fundamentally at odds with his subject's ethos of excess--Elvis would buy a car just to cheer himself up, and why buy just one Cadillac when you can buy a dozen?
Worse, Guralnick slights the context of Elvis's early life. The King and I don't share much except the same birthday, but as a fellow Southerner, even I recognize that you can't tell much about Elvis without dragging in the sheer weirdness of the tragi-comic South. Listen to the Rhino 3-CD set "The Sun Records Collection," including four early Elvis hits, while you're reading "Last Train." It's like trying to live in two worlds at once. The problem, to put it harshly, is that Guralnick is simply too nice--he's not greasy enough--for this music or the region that bred it. He knows his rockabilly, but he cannot bring himself to truly partake of its spirited chaos, its raucous bad taste and, most of all, its louche, death-drenched humor. In "Baby Let's Play House," Elvis sings, "I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man," and suddenly this frolic-some song sounds like something by Flannery O'Connor.
The best explanation of Elvis I ever heard came from Memphis photographer William Egglesion: "He fits that hole that there never was a hero for." The first rock superstar, the first man to make the music of poor people palatble--nay, respectable--to the middle class, Elvis found his true calling in confounding our expectations. Not even Sam Phillips, the man who coaxed Elvis's first hits out of him at Sun Records and who probably understood him better than anyone else, foresaw the future king. In 1955 he sold Elvis's contract to RCA for $35,000. A man with platinum instincts, Phillips had the wit to second-guess himself, so he ran the decision by his friend Kemmons Wilson, founder of the Holiday Inn motel chain. "I wouldn't hesitate," Wilson said reassuringly. "That boy isn't even a professional."
PHOTO: Native son: Returning triumphant to his birthplace, Tupelo, Miss., 1956