This week’s reads…part 2

From Lancashire of the the 1600’s to Memphis in the 1950’s, I am swapping one kind of hysteria for another with my second review of the week. Enter Elvis!

Cards on the table, before we go any further,I may have to confess to having a minor Elvis obsession, cultivated in my childhood, nurtured through my teenage years and hopefully matured in adulthood. The early music I find incredible, mainly in contrast to that which went before. I defy anyone to listen to the earliest Elvis recordings and not to be moved by the sheer energy and raw power, a sound which white American teenagers had never heard before.

I do, therefore, have more than a passing interest in the subject matter contained within this novel. I discovered it whilst listening to the fabulous, and for me recently unearthed Backlisted Podcast.Discussing the impeccably researched and unbelievably detailed ‘Last Train to Memphis’ and ‘Careless Love’ by music journalist Peter Guranlick, was the author of ‘Graceland’ , Bethan Roberts. Describing her own fascination with a the man who shaped a generation Roberts explains the premise of the novel.

This is not just another Elvis rehash, not just another retelling of the myth. It doesn’t focus on the parody Elvis of the Vegas years, the excesses, the drugs, the women, instead it focuses on the relationship between Elvis and his much adored mother Gladys.

Of course this relationship is well documented. The closeness of mother and son has it roots with Elvis’ still born twin, cemented by years spent together dealing with crippling poverty and a father in jail. By her own admission Roberts is not telling a new story, but yet by making this the focus of a novel Roberts is giving herself licence to look beyond the facts. This format allows her to examine the emotions and motivation of both Gladys and Elvis. The result is devastating.

The Gladys we see her is not the one dimensional, suffocating matriarch portrayed through the years. Whilst Elvis is the very heart of her hopes, her reason for existing, Gladys continually fights her own maternal impulses to let him grow and develop. Like most mothers she is seen fighting the pangs of fear as he takes one more step away from her into the world. Even from the earliest of ages Gladys understands her son’s incredible talent. She, through a mother’s adoring eyes, can see that this is something special. And whilst it thrills her, it also terrifies her.

It is difficult to make herself sit there, listening, because she knows he has talent, and she also knows that when he sings he goes someplace else, someplace beyond her reach. And in that place she cannot rescue him from failure.

Page 89, Graceland by Bethan Roberts

Gladys wants success for her son, but she is also reluctant to share him with the world. She is worried that this closeness they share, almost a symbiotic relationship which sustains and guides them both will be destroyed. She is right to worry.

As Roberts guides us through the early years of Elvis’ success, the Sun Record sessions, tours, TV appearances, we get a sense of a family in free fall. Suddenly the dirt poor are hugely wealthy. Gladys describes jewellery boxes over flowing with diamonds, pink cadillacs she can’t even drive parked outside, a mansion to live in. And yet the essence of Gladys is gone. Her son won’t let her cook and clean for him anymore; they have maids. He doesn’t need shirts making; he has so many he is throwing them away. Her one final pleasure, the anchor to the life she knew before is removed, when Elvis tells her she is forbidden from feeding her own chickens. It’s bad for his image.

At this something in her snaps, and she slings a handful of corn at her son’s chest.

‘I am not part of your image!’ She is close to tears, but she won’t let them break. ‘I’m your mother! I’m a person!’

Pg 378, Graceland – Bethan Roberts

The heart of her relationship with her son is being slowly eroded. Elvis, in his misplaced desire to protect and preserve his mother, is slowly killing her, in doing so he destroying the bedrock, the very thing his own success and moral compass is built upon.

Success for Elvis, and therefore by default his family, was on a scale never seen before. Driven forward to new and dizzying heights by his ruthless manager Colonel Tom Parker, no one, less of all Elvis had any idea how to ride this Roller Coaster or how to make it stop. And the fear for a family who had come from nothing was always, if it stops, how do we start it again? Vernon, Elvis’s father embodies the very essence of this fear within the novel. Inflated and emboldened by the success of his son, we see him blindly buying into all Parker’s schemes, closing down yet another escape route for Elvis and opening up the culture of unquestioning loyalty that was ultimately his son’s death knell.

Presley’s own reliance of prescription drugs is certainly not news, but what this novel shows, in heartbreaking clarity, is that his fame’s first casualty was Gladys. As fame took her son further and further away from her own humble dreams for him, those of a good steady job, respect and a family, she began to fill the Elvis sized hole in her life with something else. Alcohol.

At the time of Gladys death from acute liver failure Elvis has just entered his US army basic training. Her death shatters him. Unable to cope in any sense, he allows himself to be railroaded into a public funeral by Tom Parker, a pattern that will continue now for the rest of his life. After the funeral paralysed by grief, Elvis is sedated.

…his father and Colonel Parker are coming for him with Dr Evans, who is carrying a pouchy brown medicine bag.

Elvis’s legs go liquid, but Vernon catches him by the elbow. ‘The doc’s gonna give you a shot, son,’ he says.

Pg 417, Graceland – Bethan Roberts.

Roberts is clear, without Gladys other support is needed and the drugs, already hinted at within the novel, become the ultimate crutch. Nothing else can fill the void. Drugs offer a simple obliteration in the face or unshakeable loss.

Often Elvis’s career is defined in two halves; ‘Before the Army’ verses ‘After the Army.’ Roberts takes that view and turns it on its head, shaking it by the ankles for good measure. Elvis’s career and, more importantly, his life wasn’t defined by the Army, it was defined by the loss of Gladys.

In losing her he lost unconditional love and support. He lost the one person who remembered him for what he truly was, the one person who even in his wildest moments could look him in the eye and make him take stock. Without Gladys all the brakes were off. There was no one to worry about getting home to, no one to right his moral compass. Add to the mix the unbearable guilt he felt and his sudden lack of purpose and we are left wondering just how he survived for so long.

Bethan Roberts has taken a well told tale and looked beyond the surface. I repeat, making this a novel is a master stroke. By doing so she has granted herself permission to look beyond the myths and preconceptions and bring to life one of the great, overlooked tragedies of Rock and Roll.

Books mentioned in this blog:

  • Last Train to Memphis – Peter Guralnick
  • Careless Love – Peter Guralnick
  • Graceland – Bethan Roberts
Elvis and Vernon on the steps of Graceland the morning after Gladys’s death.

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