I was watching TV—Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein—on a quiet, August afternoon in 1977 when the phone rang. My mom lifted the phone’s heavy, black receiver and received the heavy, black news; you had passed away. I remember clearly my first thought; “Forever young.” Admittedly an odd thought for a thirteen-year-old. I directed my eyes to the TV a few minutes more and then I went to my room to play your music. You and I had spent many hours together before that day, and have spent many more hours together since. You have been—and I wrote this on your wall at Graceland—the only constant in my life.
I find it startling that you confided to those close to you your fear of being forgotten. Granted, your movies were mostly forgettable despite being the highest paid actor in Hollywood for the better part of the 1960s but that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? Colonel Parker measured your success in dollars while you vomited breakfast at the thought of having to record “Old MacDonald,” “Do the Clam,” and "Song of the Shrimp" for movie soundtracks.
Each year the anniversaries of your birth and death spawn a steady stream of books and articles about your life including silly “what if” scenarios. One book dedicates page after page to a bizarre vignette of you performing a raunchy 'Vegas act that includes sex toys and dark music. The need to fill the internet with click-attracting content has reduced journalism to provocative headlines and hastily-written, single-sentence paragraphs. But then you were used to empty articles written at your expense—and for other’s profit—weren’t you?
It would be easy, if assigned the task to write an essay to mark this anniversary, to write that you had it all and you threw it away. But that focuses on Elvis the entertainer, the icon, the “King,” and discounts Elvis the person. Maybe you had nothing of what you needed, nothing of meaning. Maybe the things you needed were out of your grasp. Yes, even out of the grasp of "Elvis."
In the quiet moments of your days you were probably no different than so many other people who reached their forties and asked themselves, “What is this about?" But most forty-somethings don't have every weight fluctuation, health issue, failed relationship and impulsive action documented for the sake of selling next week’s fifty-cent tabloid. Most people can eat a peanut butter and banana sandwich unnoticed. Most forty-somethings with a drug addiction are visible only to a handful of people, usually other addicts. But most forty-somethings didn’t change the world as twenty-somethings and have to bear the weight of those accomplishments for the remainder of their life.
Where do you go after summitting Mount Everest? How long can you remain there with limited oxygen? What do you do when things don't work out the way you'd hoped? Launch another grueling concert tour? Record another album? Buy another jet? Give away more Cadillacs? That may have provided short-lived enthusiasm but then, I wonder, did life return to an unfulfilling emptiness?
Behind the low, stone wall fronting Graceland you were susceptible to the same human emotions, weaknesses, and thoughts as the rest of us. But no one else ever had to be “Elvis.” I know you asked yourself why you were chosen to be "Elvis." I can tell you why; because no one could have performed the job better. Have you heard of Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, or Britney Spears? Enough said.
Maybe your purpose was not to live to be eighty-, or seventy-, or ninety-years-old, recording a contractually ridiculous number of albums per year and sustaining a grueling touring schedule while struggling to keep the crown you were given shiny and on display. Maybe your purpose was to shred the speakers in our transistor radios, sneer through our black and white screens with over-saturated movements, change everything, inspire everyone, and then beat a hasty exit the way you dashed off stage after each performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
For you, I feel, it wasn’t about the money. If it were you wouldn’t have given so much of it away. It wasn’t about the gold records; if it were the frames around those gold records would not be as damaged as they are. It wasn’t about industry awards; if it were you would have accepted your Grammys in person. It is clear what you were giving but what were you receiving? You never struck me as selfish but we all need something, we can’t thrive in a vacuum. You once said we need three things to be happy: Someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. Which one(s?) were you craving?
I’ve included a photo taken from your movie Elvis On Tour. Do you recall this moment? You had just jumped into a limousine after a concert. Your dad was with you as were Red West, Joe Esposito, and another member of the Memphis Mafia. You asked if the sound was good and the ‘Mafia said it was "Good. Very, very good." Did they ever say it wasn't? Joe told you—repeatedly—“Good show.” Did he ever tell you a show was bad? You talked some, joked some, wiped your face with a towel and sang a little bit of "For the Good Times." Then your smile faded, your hand moved to your lips, and your eyes led your thoughts to some distant place. Where did you go in that moment? I think it is a place you visited often.
On a more personal note…
Your gospel music is my church. I turn to it when I need to get out of a certain place or get to a certain place. It lifts me up, pulls me through, and rocks my soul. The song that always gets to me—and I’ll confess to you it tears me apart—is “Where No One Stands Alone.” I can’t help but think the following verse must have struck a chord in you:
With great riches to call my own
But I don’t know a thing in this whole wide world
That’s worse than being alone."
Your gospel performances in the studio, in concert, and in the wee hours of the morning are far more inspiring than an old minister mumbling his way through another labored sermon, or an overly-dramatic preacher turning the three letters G-O-D into a four syllable word and adding the promise of damnation; “Ga-aaawwww-da-ah will strike you dow-en-ah!” Thank you for sharing your love of gospel music with us.
Before I close, I must apologize. In 1979 I left Graceland with a blade of grass from your yard. It was only one blade but I get that if everyone did that you wouldn’t have a lawn. My sister took one, too. I also took a piece of the Jungle Room home with me a few years ago—a strand of the green carpet. I didn’t forcefully remove it, it was lying loose against the partial wall between the Jungle Room and the hallway. It would have been vacuumed up anyway. I know the carpet isn’t original and never felt your step or resonated to the Jungle Room recording sessions that produced your final album but, none-the-less, I took it. I feel better getting that off my chest.
There are only two things I can predict about my future with complete certainty: I will pass away, and you will keep me company until the moment I do. And for that I say….
Thank you. Thank you very much!