Elvis Presley: A Penguin Life

Author: Bobbie Ann Mason

Publisher: Viking Penguin

ISBN: 0-670-03174-7 (hardback, 178 pp.)


Into the long line of seemingly ever-thicker books about Elvis comes this slim volume, simply titled "Elvis Presley." At just 169 pages (plus a few more for acknowledgements and a list of sources, though no index), and with no illustrations, just what can author Bobbie Ann Mason hope to provide?

As part of the "Penguin Lives" series, the book puts Elvis alongside such names as Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci, Abraham Lincoln, and Oliver Cromwell -- and that's a very abbreviated list! Yes, indeed, Elvis gains genuine recognition as a cultural and social icon, building on earlier moves in that direction made by books such as Michael T. Bertrand's "Race, Rock and Elvis." As such, it is aimed at a much broader audience that that of the usual Elvis book, whose readership is expected to be within the realms of Elvis fans. But even if "Elvis Presley" offers little new to long-time fans, it undoubtedly provides its information in a well-written, highly readable format that gets its message across without unnecessary padding or diversion.

Mason seems at first to dwell rather too much on Gladys, but she makes the closeness of the relationship between Elvis and his mother so clear that it is equally clear that no examination of Elvis can be made without a great deal of attention being paid to Gladys. Similarly, excessive space appears to be provided to Elvis's brief relationship with June Juanico, but the reader soon comes to realise that this was an important phase in Elvis's life -- far more important than has previously been indicated -- when Elvis was precariously balanced between a normal life and that of the superstar he was about to become.

Of course, in a work of this limited size much has to be left out when describing the career of someone like Elvis Presley. Nevertheless, Mason has charted the sine curve of Elvis's life and career with remarkable succinctness and the book therefore offers an excellent potted history for the long-time fan, as well as an eye-opening introduction to the man for the more casual reader: Elvis's basic shyness and reticence, his eagerness to improve himself, his personal investigation into many of the religions of the world, his delving into yoga and meditation (before the Beatles made such things popular and without their fanfare). She also provides excellent comment on the machinations of Tom Parker and Elvis's submission to his dealings ("Elvis was sharecropping his own talent") and the attempts by the establishment to "control" Elvis.

Mason's descriptions of Elvis concerts, both in the early days and from 1969 to 1973 will make anyone who thinks of Elvis as an overweight lounge artist, stuffed into a white jumpsuit think again. I especially like her analysis of the contradictions that made Elvis so fascinating -- his many inhibitions offstage and his total lack of inhibitions onstage, for example -- and her treatment of the final few years of his life, when nobody seemed capable or willing to change Elvis's crash-course with destiny that he was shaping for himself.

"Elvis Presley" is as much a look at the person that was Elvis as at the entertainer. Don't expect significant details of recording sessions, films, musicians, and so on. This is a book that will make you consider the inner conflicts of Elvis, brought on because of his poor background, the environment in which he lived and the various other influences exerted on him through family circumstance.

In her acknowledgements, Mason writes that she relied heavily on Gurlanick's two-volumes, "Last Train To Memphis" and "Careless Love." This may well be, but "Elvis Presley" still manages to come across as a refreshing look at the man and as such is as much a complement to, rather than merely a condensed version of these two studies.

I assume that the "Penguin Lives" series is intended to give its readers a better understanding of its subjects and to make them think more about their achievements. Certainly Bobbie Ann Mason has achieved this in "Elvis Presley"


David Neale

copyright April 2003

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