Picks and Pans Review: Book of the Dead

updated 04/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Herb Greene

There are no stunning pictures in these photo books, nothing of Presley sneaking off to a corner of the set to read Kierkegaard or of the Grateful Dead studying Robert's Rules of Order. But there are enough emblematic, fresh-seeming shots to slake the thirst of hard-core fans and give a pause or two to the curious.

The 100 black-and-white photographs in the Elvis book center on the filming of Love Me Tender, his first movie, in the summer of 1956. Presley was 21, slender, a little baffled looking but possessed of great instincts for the camera. The pictures that archivist Michael Ochs dug up were no doubt heavily edited by Twentieth Century-Fox to select out anything that made their new young star look bad. But even so, Presley seems remarkably good-looking and good-humored, merely a hot young singer, not yet the industrial-strength pop myth that he would become.

Many shots show him with actress Debra Paget, whom he at least pretended to lust after. (He had told Milton Berle on TV, "Really, Mr. Berle, I'll tell you...the type I dig is someone like that Debra Paget...She's real gone.") The romance didn't get very far, however, and Paget, whose career peaked in 1950 with Broken Arrow, was hardly heard from again.

The Presley book's text, by Washington Post columnist Pond, is uncharacteristically cynical for this kind of work. Pond even quotes TIME'S review of Love Me Tender, which began: "Is it a sausage? It is certainly smooth and damp looking, but who ever heard of a 172-pound sausage 6 feet tall?" Pond also notes that Presley made movies "that were embarrassing and unwatchable."

Book of the Dead offers no such perspective on the remarkable success of the Dead. The photos by San Franciscan Greene do show the band over the years (1965-87), illustrating the Dead's transition from scruffy-looking young guys to scruffy-looking middle-aged guys, the only big change being the decrease in the number of naked young women they are shown romping with. There is an incomprehensible foreword by the band's lyricist, Robert Hunter, who discusses how crucial the group's name is and adds, "This point of view subtracts nothing from the credit due the talents instrumental in the arousal and implementation of the phenomenon. It just tones down the insupportable shine resulting from identification of human agency with the transformational capacity of a potent symbol, with results often incapacitating to the agent, and puts the onus on the logos." We may not know exactly where you're coming from, Bob, but we know it's someplace heavy. (Elvis: NAL, paper, $12.95; The Dead: Delta, paper, $15.95 or Delacorte, $29.95)

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