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ELVIS AND ME by Priscilla Beaulieu Presley with Sandra Harmon (Putnam's:$16.95; 256 pp.)

September 22, 1985|Robert Hilburn | Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

This tale of Elvis and Priscilla Presley's years together should be subtitled "The Big Tease." More than half the book is coyly devoted to keeping us guessing as to when the couple first--how do we say?-- consummated their love affair.

This might not appear to be a significant issue these days, but "Elvis and Me" focuses so heavily on "it" that you'd think the moment was akin to the signing of the Magna Charta. Alas, the date (or more crucially Priscilla's age at the time) does carry a certain fascination as pulp gossip--a level that this book seldom transcends.

The daughter of an Air Force career officer, Priscilla was just 14 years old when she met a 24-year-old Elvis during his Army stint in West Germany in 1959. Though Elvis is now regarded as the most important figure in the development of rock, the hip-swinging sex symbol was generally viewed by parents of the '50s as a no-talent threat to teen-age morality.

So you can imagine the concern of Priscilla's parents when she was invited to a gathering at Elvis' house. Still, they allowed her to attend the party, and she got along so well with Elvis that she was soon spending most of her evenings with him--evenings supposedly chaperoned by Elvis' father.

The relationship developed into a romance which according to Priscilla was filled with "long, deep, passionate kisses . . . (that left her) weak with desire." After a few months of courting, Elvis returned home to Memphis but the lovebirds kept in touch by phone.

Two years later Priscilla, then 16, spent two weeks with Elvis in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. With her parents still in West Germany, she was looking forward to their first chance to spend an entire night together. As they climbed into bed, however, she noticed that Elvis was beginning to slur his words.

He was in the midst of telling her how glad he was to see her when . . . he fell asleep! She writes, "I looked over at the bottle of pills near the bed and realized I . . . had competition."

So, the "mystery" continues--page after page--in "Elvis and Me."

Elvis and Priscilla were intimate physically during this period and during the years she lived with him in Memphis where she finished high school, but they always stopped short of the final deed. This was especially frustrating for Priscilla because she suspected Elvis of seeing other women during his movie-making trips to Hollywood.

Yet Elvis kept demanding that his future wife remain chaste, insisting that their relationship should only be consummated in marriage. That moment finally arrived in 1967 when Priscilla--at age 21--married Elvis in Las Vegas. About the night, she recalls in the most flowery, romantic-novel terms, "The intensity of emotion I was experiencing was electrifying. The desire and lust that had built up in me throughout the years exploded in a passion of frenzy."

"Elvis and Me" continues beyond that wedding night, but the remainder of the book is a rehash of what we already know about his life: his boredom with Hollywood films, his worries about being accepted by a new generation of rock fans, his increasing dependency on drugs, his lingering sadness over the loss of his mother, and his eventual divorce from Priscilla.

Elvis' rise and fall is a true American tragedy, one of the most fascinating stories of our time. As his ex-wife, Priscilla is uniquely qualified to shed some insight on this confused and complex figure. About the only thing we learn here, however, is that many of the problems that we associate with his '70s downfall--notably drugs and social isolation--were chipping away at him throughout the '60s.

Elvis, whose celebrity and wealth enabled him to control many of the people and events in his life, tried to mold Priscilla from their earliest days together. He selected her wardrobe, makeup and hair style, then left her at home to wait for his return. She finally rebelled against his rule and frequent absences and left him--though she insists that they remained friends and talked about getting back together.

Priscilla's intent here no doubt was to share her love for her late husband, but the book is little more than a carnival curio in what sadly has become the sideshow called Elvis. The larger question raised by the book is the obligation survivors have to famous loved ones. One rule of thumb may be this paraphrase on the old saw: "If you can't say anything significant, don't say anything at all."

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