Elvis was the Michael Jackson of his day. Or, rather, Michael Jackson was the Elvis of his day. The similarity of their worldwide fame is obvious, and so are the simultaneous power and inadequacy of their respective personae. Really, their rises and falls are common among those who achieve extraordinary success; the template of each human life itself seems to be an arc which ultimately amounts to a rags to rags story, provided the person lives long enough for the process of natural bloom and entropy to play out. Premature deaths, especially at relatively young ages, slice through those arcs of fate. Both Elvis and Michael were on the downside of their careers, not plummeting but sliding steadily down their arcs: their finances in ruin, their mental health in ruin, their bodies in ruin, their sleep agonizingly evasive, and their loneliness at unbearable levels.
I think we tend to half-disbelieve that a celebrity who is worshiped by millions of people and whose image appears everywhere can feel lonely – and actually be lonely. As I always say, loneliness seems to be an existential state, something given, something that happens whether you deserve it or not; it rises from a person, like smoke from a fire. (For more on the loneliness topic, go here.) Regardless of wealth, luxury, recognition and around-the-clock sycophants, Elvis and Michael were crippled by isolation, and their very popular identities imprisoned them in solitary confinement.
One of the most harrowing books on the dissolution of a star is Matt Richards’ 83 Minutes: The Doctor, the Damage, and the Shocking Death of Michael Jackson, which, besides detailing monumental pressure and exploitation by promotion colossus AEG Live, exposes a Dr. Conrad Murray’s complicity in Michael Jackson’s drug abuse and reliance on the anesthetic propofol, and provides a minute-by-minute analysis of what probably went on in the final 83 minutes of Michael Jackson’s life. Disturbing, to say the least, the book crushed me and added to my basic pity for the man. (It also helped to strengthen my cynicism about the popular assumption that his alleged sex crimes were true, a public-opinion/legal onslaught which Corey Feldman called “a witch hunt” and journalist Aphrodite Jones assailed in her Michael Jackson Conspiracy book.) Most strikingly, when compared to the ignoble demise of Elvis, it showed one of many examples of quack or unethical doctors who sustain destructive lifestyles and, ultimately, deaths. Both Elvis’ and Michael’s deaths were untimely and expected consequences of chemical excess, but, fundamentally, they both died of shattered hearts, of emotional confusion, of sleeplessness and loneliness.
Being Elvis: A Lonely Life is a splendid biography that reveals the fundamental loneliness in the life of Elvis. The title itself says it all. Author Ray Connolly, who interviewed Elvis back in the 1970s and is a regular writer for the Daily Mail, emphasizes the inextricable link between Elvis and loneliness with the perfect epigraph, Jackie Gleason’s advice to Elvis in 1956: “Don’t hide…Because if you do, you’re going to be the loneliest guy in the world.”
What makes anxiety and depression so much worse is the disruption of crucial sleep and the absence of its recuperative effects. Connolly returns to sleep’s elusion of Elvis several times, emphasizing the pitiful fact that “he couldn’t bear to be alone, to sleep alone…The sleep he always craved, but which, so often, was so hard for him to find.” This is why Elvis liked to hold hands with someone as the Placidyl pills and/or whatever other medications he took brought drowsiness – or failed to. When someone is addicted to both Demerol and amphetamines, such chemical “mixed messages” are bound to cause and increase such disruption. And, since Elvis “craved sleep, no matter how it was achieved,” a perpetual cycle of relying on abused prescriptions to speed up and slow down was created. Being Elvis doesn’t get into much detail about the enabling, fatal trinity of Doctors George Nichopoulos, Elias Ghanem and Tom Newman, but it does address their professional culpability, which is another major parallel with the co-dependence between Michael Jackson and Dr. Murray.
One sleepless night in his hotel suite, not long after his thralls cheered and groped for him, Elvis wrote this note of pure despair: “I feel so alone now…I would love to be able to sleep…I will probably not rest tonight. I have no need for all of this. Help me, Lord.” Two other such notes also contained appeals for divine aid. As a John Lennon epigraph puts it, “Elvis was on his own.”
If the public had been asked, his private suffering and dissatisfaction would seem absurd. The King feels lonely? How? Connolly sums up the vast gulf between the Elvis Presley brand and the actual man:
To everyone around him, and to the world at large, he was fabulously wealthy, the unique, archetypal, powerful rock star, who was in a position to do anything he wanted, and go anywhere he wanted. But that wasn’t how he saw it.
At first glance, even at fourteenth glance, Elvis seemed enviable. His looks and moves weakened women’s knees, his music plucked the erotic strings of people never knew existed, the spotlight adored him. Band members took care to act as quasi-bodyguards, lest “some overexcited girlfriend or wife” drove her man to desire a duel. One time a husband assaulted Elvis in a club and then, after he calmed down, explained, “While you were singing, my wife got too excited. I’ve never seen her like that before. No one’s allowed to do that to my wife.” Imagine that, guys. You can’t even imagine that. And the pitiful thing is that imagination was the biggest factor in Elvis’ attractiveness, for he certainly wasn’t as suave and self-confident as spectators imagined him to be – and he was far from a Lothario.
On the contrary, according to Connolly, “some girls said that being with Elvis was like dating a teenage boy, even though he was in his forties.” Perhaps it’s telling that he nicknamed his much younger girlfriend, former Miss Tennessee Linda Thompson, “Mommy” and that he avoided women who seemed smarter than him, distrusting intellectuals in general for causing “dissent and envy and jealousy.” Relatively soon after wooing and marring the sylphic Priscilla Wagner, he lost interest in sex, and he “was ever suspicious, vigilant and jealous” (which, according to him, were intellectual symptoms). Far from being heaven on Earth, life at Graceland fluctuated between tense and dull. “For Priscilla it was a steep learning curve,” writes Connolly, “going from bobby socks to a beehive and mascara, from history and algebra to uppers and downers, in a house just filled with people day after day.” Priscilla left him in 1971, and they were divorced by 1972. All they share after that was their daughter Lisa Marie, after whom Elvis named his $250,000 plane.
In the words of Ray Connolly, his “charming bravura…was a mask behind which he hid his fears and weaknesses.” Some masks are more literal than others. Though Elvis’ handsomeness was real from an early age, he suffered from bad acne and resorted to wearing makeup, and in the earlier days of fame he had his hair done at Blake’s Coiffures, a ladies’ salon during after-hours. Having dyed his hair black for his role in Loving You, because the Technicolor would have revealed a head of dark-brown instead of black, dyeing became a regular necessity. The familiar icon needed indefinite maintenance to prevent the subterfuge from fizzling:
Because he didn’t want to disappoint people, his image would become frozen in time until he was almost an impersonation of himself. One aspect of Elvis Presley meant that he had to look the way Elvis Presley fans expected him to look.
This Wizard of Oz construct is symbolized by Elvis’ total lack of songwriting ability, something he regularly admitted and called “a big hoax.” What can’t be denied is how he packaged and presented the songs he didn’t write. The book tells how things really started to roll after publicist Mae Axton set him up with his first hit single for RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and he did a cover of “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles. Elvis also won over Chet Atkins, who
was so astonished, not to say amused, by the way Elvis performed and moved when he recorded, he called his wife during a break and told her to come down to the studio immediately, because she would ‘never see anything like this again’ during a recording session.
Elvis had that “it” that eludes the majority of the hoi polloi; he had those moves – though he insisted that his legs, not the rest of his body, did all the movement. Because of his physicality, as much as he delighted fans he also shocked and offended puritanical folks who ignited bad press and accusations of lewdness, obscenity and vulgarity. Fed up, Elvis unloaded on a reporter:
The colored folks have been singing and playing it just like I do now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and juke joints and nobody paid it no mind, until I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup banging his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever get to the place where I could feel all that old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.
Elvis’ Christmas Album, which ended up becoming his bestselling LP, came out before Elvis answered the Draft’s call and became a soldier in the U.S. Army; and the Elvis Is Back! album was produced and released after he returned. Kept busy by starring in movie after movie, none of them really satisfying his desire to be taken seriously as an actor, not to mention touring and promoting, Elvis found himself caught in a constant state of bolstering his image and maintaining relevance in a society of quickened evolution, which reached a historical pop-culture peak when the Beatles premiered in the U.S. on the The Ed Sullivan Show. “Elvis didn’t wish the Beatles success,” Connolly writes. “How could he? They’d become serious rivals. He was jealous of them.” Ignorant of the living legend’s private resentment, the Beatles arranged a meeting with Elvis at his house in Bel Air. Instead of an epic encounter of rock colossi, the visit was one of awkward, if not strained, small talk, punctuated only by a sham jam session – sans Ringo. Like the photo-op unreality of heads of state, they met for show:
The problem was the sheer phoniness of the meeting…In some ways it was as though Elvis and the Beatles were two sets of children being forced together by their parents in the shape of the colonel and [Brian] Epstein, so all were on their best behavior.
Perhaps a big part of why he resented the Fab Four, Elvis felt perplexion and patriotic intimidation by the “long-haired, druggy decadents” of the 1960s hippie movement, and his own odd brand of conservatism surfaced. He had been collecting police badges from different cities in which he played, so his desire of a federal agent’s badge inspired him to reach out to President Nixon. In a letter Elvis lumped in “the hippie elements” with the Black Panther Party and the Students for a Democratic Society, and requested the credentials of “a Federal Agent at Large” to conduct a sort of infiltration: “I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.” His basic aim, of course, was obtainment of a Narcotics Bureau badge for his collection. After a meeting in the Oval Office Nixon granted it to him, along with some trinkets for his entourage.
Until reading this biography I hadn’t realized how many movies in which Elvis starred and appeared, and how unsuccessful many of them were. Regardless of which were hits and which were bombs, the fact that Elvis fit them into a schedule of wall-to-wall activity is mind-boggling.
As time went on, Elvis became more curious about mystical, esoteric writings and Eastern religions (besides his fundamental Christian faith, which was given a voice in his 1967 How Great Thou Art album), developed a fascination with corpses at funeral homes, fell deeper into drug dependence and became increasingly unpredictably hostile toward the people around him. The women in his life already knew his frightening tantrums and capricious mood swings. Once, he lashed out violently when one fan tried to give him a hug onstage at a Las Vegas Hilton show, revealing to strangers what his intimates were familiar with behind closed doors. “He could be dangerous, too,” writes Connolly. “He was already a danger to himself.”
And his pocketbook suffered great danger, from both himself and his manager, “Colonel Tom” Parker, who was central to Elvis’ folly and demise. For instance, aside from always discouraging Elvis from taking overseas opportunities (for hidden legal reasons, it’s been speculated), the Colonel convinced him to take a foolish royalty-sale deal with RCA, a deal in which the Colonel stood to benefit, not to mention defray his extensive debts. When Barbra Streisand offered Elvis the lead role in a remake of A Star is Born in 1975, the Colonel screwed up the deal by making unreasonable demands, including top billing. Of course, the deal fell through and Kris Kristofferson took the lead instead. Elvis’ bandmates had thought he’d finally be able to reform himself with that golden opportunity, but they, like Elvis, were still stuck with the Colonel.
Elvis almost escaped his duplicitous manager’s destructive clutches when he fired him after a spat, but the two resolved their conflict and the Colonel remained in management. Ray Connolly expresses his own regret that Elvis hadn’t broken the cycle of the Colonel’s old-fashioned, counterproductive ways. So, Elvis kept an expensive leech by his side on top of his own habitual spending sprees. He’d bought Graceland for $102,500 in 1957, the Lisa Marie plane in the 1970s, he collected things, he lavished friends and lovers with gifts – never saving, never establishing a financial safety net. “Caught in a cycle of extravagance of his own making…he just had to carry on touring in order to keep earning so that he could go on spending and giving,” writes Connolly.
Giving indeed. His extravagance wasn’t completely selfish. In fact, Elvis was quite charitable, often to an unwarranted level. For instance, singer Kathy Westmoreland became insomniac Elvis’ nightly companion in the 1970s, and for her efforts in that capacity while they toured, he bought her a car. Connolly’s line about this chokes me up every time I read it: “He was so used to giving he couldn’t comprehend that kindness and affection didn’t demand a gift in return.” Pitifully enough, though praised and envied by strangers, Elvis funded his relentless tours and bailed out his profligate manager via bank loans while he spent for himself and others like a doomed man – which he was.
Despite the success of Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii in 1973 (1.4 billion viewers!), Elvis slid rapidly down the other side of his career arc and used chemical to prop himself with the futility of trying to repair bridges with fire. The night before his death he ordered six Dilaudid pills from Dr. Nichopoulos in his usual desperation for sleep, but wakefulness wouldn’t relent and multiple kinds of meds (codeine, Quaaludes, etc.) didn’t help. Elvis asked for more and more – and more – pills. Leaving his girlfriend Ginger Alden in bed, he retired to his bathroom for some reading, and he was found dead by her later that afternoon. Ginger claims that the last song he sang was “Blue Eyes in the Rain” by Willie Nelson. Dr. Nichopoulos went on to do the same unethical things for multiple patients until exposure and revocation of his medical license finally came eighteen years later, two tears before his own death.
Ray Connolly’s biography seems to have been conceived with great affection and care, and it’s affecting, informative and, perhaps above all, perceptive. I think the book also relates unflattering facts and incisive speculation without the exploitative vibe of, say, Steve Dunleavy’s blockbuster Elvis: What Happened? My one complaint is that the book features many choppy chronological leaps forward and backward, which are usually enjoyable but seem interruptive in this case.
Way more important than sequential flow, Being Elvis shows an epitaphic reverence for the King, and near the end it perfectly expresses his unfortunate, mournful essence by sharing the heartbreaking front-page headline of the Memphis Press-Scimitar’s August 17, 1977 special edition: “A Lonely Life Ends on Elvis Presley Boulevard.”
– David Herrle
Visit the Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation at the official Graceland website.