This book makes for a valuable addition to the innumerable stream of books to follow Presley's death 34 years ago.
Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel:His Life, Our Times
len Jeansonne, David Luhrssen and Dan Sokolovic
In the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that one of the authors of Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life, Our Times is a long-time editor and friend of mine.
That divulged, this book makes for a valuable addition to the innumerable stream of books to follow Presley's death 34 years ago. The authors' focus on the rock'n'roll king's relationship to U.S. cultural history and his role as a change agent in that culture makes Rebel an absorbing work that sheds fresh light on a subject who has been flogged for everything from cheeky philosophical theses and scurrilous vendettas to multiple cookbooks.
The music that Presley began making commercially in the mid-1950s had been around in one form or another several years before his first Sun Records single. The blessing/curse of having Colonel Tom Parker for his manager made for limitations on Presley's career options, especially in the 1970s, as his white jumpsuits, self-medication and dubious diet led him to becoming a caricature of his former glories; Parker's media savvy, however, allowed his most famous client to be at the center of the mid-20th century zeitgeist that would irrevocably shake up youth culture. And since youth are the future, the reverberations of Presley's cataclysmic rise to fame and influence have been felt since his unparalleled streak of hit records (and largely middling movies).
Jeansonne, Luhrssen and Sokolovic don't only seek to place Presley in historical context, however. Best as space allows, they also seek to rehabilitate his image. The singer's '70s fall from apparent relevance has lent him a posthumous reputation as a buffoon. His one-time Sun contemporary, Johnny Cash, comes off with much more gravitas to current 20-and 30-somethings than the former Tupelo truck driver whose wanting to make a custom 45 for his mom morphed into a uniquely American tale of Gatsby-esque, tragic proportions.
As the book's title rightly indicates, Presley may have been reluctant, but he wasn't an entirely unwitting player in his own drama. His position as a musical omnivore, comfortable in his absorption of the popular and sacred musics of the European- and African-American side of the tracks in his eventual home town of Memphis prepped him for his pivotal artistic position. When he would exert his force of personality and taste over Parker's manipulative hand, such as the direction of his 1968 "comeback" TV special, great things could come of it.
As for Presley's taking in white Southern gospel and black soul gospel, the faith extolled in those genres would become a more tenuous commitment for him. Though his flirtations with Eastern religions became more commonly known after his death in 1977, they began early as his late '50s Army stint, where he encountered some of those faiths' literature. From a strictly Christian viewpoint, the authors' suggestion that their subject was enlightened by his spiritual journeying couldn't be more wrong. Presley may well have been in a better frame of mind to avoid the chemical, caloric and other excesses of his waning years had he hewed closer to the biblical beliefs of his youth.
But, in that way, Preseley provided an unfortunate template for teen idols to follow. Britney Spears, Hillary Duff, Miley Cyrus, The Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber would claim Christianity early on in their careers as well, only to sully their pubic images with involvements in trendy heresies, immodest behavior and other manners by which their role model status became tarnished in their growing up in public as they seemingly abandon firm scriptural footing.
The above is neither a conclusion nor parallel Rebel's writers draw. Though relevant to a believer's understanding of the text, it's at least a bit outside the scope of their work. Insofar as making the connections between growing up poor and white south of the Mason-Dixon, the upheaval of post-WWII mores and the the position of one young adult positioned to change the world, however, Rebel succinctly tells Presely's saga in relation to world he inhabited.
-Jamie Lee Rake