Sex is just a distraction from what was really going on, from what he was really about. By distraction I don’t mean for him on the ground, in his real life dealings with lovers and girlfriends, although I suppose a case could be made for that as well. It is a case I am not interested in making. I am not so much interested in biography or psychology. I am interested in art and myth, and how an inchoate longing for communication could somehow have transformed itself into the biggest star of the 20th century. You won’t find the answers in the biography. The details will always elude. Because of that, and because it is still somewhat taboo, the sex continues to act as a magnet, drawing all conclusions and theories towards it. And it is true that “the sex thing”, as I call it, was quite acute, shall we say, with this particular individual. Not all sex drives are created equal, and it cannot be denied that “the sex thing” was the powerful basis from which he operated.
Critics and followers continue to be drawn into the sex, because sex is something we all understand, long for, love, and it’s cathartic to see someone who obviously loved sex so much be so damn open about it. It also crossed the all-important and ever-elusive gender line. Women wanted to fuck him, men wanted to fuck like him, and while there were certainly some bumps along the way, with angry boyfriends and husbands punching him in the face after shows because of what he was doing to “their women”, girls and boys loved him from the start. Martin Sheen remembers it being the first time in his life that boys and girls really went for the same music. Keith Richards says that Elvis “turned everybody into everybody” (blacks, whites, teenagers, middle-aged people, girls, boys …) Sex is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, no matter how celibate, repressed, or disapproving, we are all human and sex is part of being human. This young man, a minor when he got started, and most probably a virgin when he did his first major show in Memphis at the Overton Park Shell in 1954, reducing the crowd to a quivering pulp with his nervously wiggling leg, understood that, somehow.
What is interesting is that he wasn’t coming from a particularly knowing sexual place at the beginning of his career. He was only 18. He wasn’t an emissary from the world of hot loose women and tons of sex and breaking the rules although that was what he symbolized almost instantly. But he wasn’t that at all. Not then, and not ever, really. His rebellion as a teenager manifested itself in sideburns, ducktail, and pink pants, which certainly got him attention, but it wasn’t on the level of racing hot rod cars and drinking moonshine and taking his girlfriend to have an abortion in a back alley or having knife fights at Griffith Observatory. His rebellion was a surface rebellion. He lived with his parents and was dating a nice Christian girl, and the two of them had pledged to be pure until they got married. That was where he was at in his life at the time of his first show in 1954 in Memphis. That makes him even more unusual. A lot of the other musicians around him at that time cutting records for Sam Phillips were wild men, who were really “walking the walk” of their songs. This young man wasn’t. He had never had a drop of alcohol. He thought about being a preacher. He went roller skating with his girlfriend and attended church with her.
But beneath all of that was an understanding on a cellular level that something needed to be released in him, in the culture itself, and that the only proper time to release all of it was when he was up in front of a crowd. This would continue to be true for the rest of his life. His personal life was often quite boring. Read Elvis Day By Day to get a glimpse of the monotony. Except for the gold records and being a huge superstar, the day-to-day reality is almost numbing in its sameness. He was spending his time as a 40-year-old man doing the same stuff he had liked doing as a 20-year-old man. He wasn’t jetting off to Monaco. He vacationed solely in Hawaii, Vegas, and Vail. Once he went to Bermuda. He wasn’t particularly adventurous socially. He wasn’t attending art openings and going to Andy Warhol’s silver-lined factory and trying new things. He did the same things for pleasure, receptively, obsessively, for years. He ate the same thing every day. He was having touch football games and dangerous firecracker wars on his lawn for twenty years. He was going to the movies, and throwing water balloons. It’s all rather boring, when you read it all out, although I’d rather have a water balloon fight with Elvis than jet off to Monaco with anyone else. It makes sense, his career was so intense, of course he would find comfort in doing the things that gave him peace, that he found fun. He was adventurous in his music and in how he spent his money, but other than that, it was pretty much same ol’ same ol’ for 20 years.
So at the start, this sweet polite innocent teenage boy becoming a symbol of the degeneracy of rock ‘n roll was ironic in the truest sense, an irony not lost on the young man himself. Despite the rabid criticism, he continued to insist that there was nothing evil about what he was doing. He had seen the ecstasies in church, he had seen the egalitarian acts of healing and worship in service. He had experienced that oneness at a very young age, with his mother, sitting in the pews, and it gave him a peculiar and individual outlook. In that context, it was only a short leap from God to Sex. This is a topic that is still resisted, and in that way, as in so many other ways, he was ahead of not only his own time, but ahead of ours. Given the right circumstances, there is nothing more Divine than sex. He always insisted he wasn’t trying to be vulgar. He spoke the truth. While he cannot have been innocent about what he was “doing” onstage, and while some of his comments defending himself may be a tad disingenuous, I think a deeper comment is there underneath his spoken denials, one that showed him as a true radical, then and now. Those calling him vulgar were missing his unspoken and yet implied point. It’s not that what he was doing wasn’t sexual, it’s that vulgarity and sex do not necessarily have to go hand in hand, and it was sex as freedom and release and fun that he was handing to his audience in the package of himself. Now that’s radical. That’s a revolution. Those who see any sexuality as vulgar will always miss that point. How could what he was doing be vulgar when sex came from God? How could anything made by God be vulgar? He didn’t waste time with such intellectualizations, however. He just continued to insist that what happened between him and his audience was innocent, and “no one was getting hurt”. Sex is pleasurable and for a couple of moments you release yourself from being a regular everyday person with troubles and struggles. So before he even knew what he was doing, before he even knew the vast possibilities that sex would end up providing him and how easy it would be for him to get laid in a mere matter of months (his friend Red West recalls that Elvis was such an innocent at the time that it was actually a revelation to Elvis when he discovered that women loved sex as much as men did – like, this was a surprise to Elvis, he had had no idea), he started providing that release. And once he knew what he was doing, once he understood the doorway that he had wrenched open for other people, well, he kept on opening it. Sex was how he did that. He made it seem friendly and fun. He made it seem like we could have that for ourselves, too. And of course we can.
It was the sex that got him notoriety. It was his movements onstage, and those baggy trousers that made it seem like, in the words of his guitarist Scotty Moore, “all hell was breaking loose under there”. He allowed people to feel things, to live vicariously, to project onto him what they wanted to see. He was seen as a corruptible influence. He made girls melt. If girls start melting willy-nilly without pre-approval from the establishment, then where will we be? It was a matter of great national concern.
As you can see, the sex is a distraction for me as well.
But if there’s one theme I detect in his work, if there’s one underlying thing that was really driving him, it’s not sex. Sex was how he got a lot out, that’s true. Sex was how he expressed himself. Shy people are often exhibitionists. His girlfriends report that he was very shy one on one, and many of them never even saw him naked, even though they were sleeping with him. He was modest. Shy. This has been spun by people who wish him ill as a calculated move on his part, that his deferential manner and shyness was a way for him to get what he wanted. I don’t think that is entirely untrue, although there is certainly no need to be cynical about it. His mother had instilled in him good manners, knowing that her son, growing up in poverty as he was, was going to need every leg up he could get, and having good manners is a way to get respect from others by showing respect. Having good manners opens doors for a person, no matter what lowly station one comes from. The fact that everyone who ever met him (this is not an exaggeration, and the few exceptions to this only prove the rule) remarks upon Elvis’ good manners shows that it was a deeply engrained way of being in him.
Those who see this overwhelming gracious automatic Southern politeness as contradictory, or somehow incompatible with his bad-ass leather-clad self, again miss the point, and in so doing miss the enormous appeal of the man. One of the things he brought to the table, over and over again, was that yes, there are contradictions, but no, these contradictions are not incompatible. Contradictions are part of the human fabric. His sweetness as a man is what allowed the leather-clad bad-ass to operate onstage. He would be nothing without those contradictions. The divine and the earthy, God and the Devil, the aspirational and the guttural, both were given equal sway within him. He needed no segue from one to the other. A great example of this is: He performed “Peace in the Valley” during his third Ed Sullivan appearance in January of 1957. That performance was at the height of the controversy surrounding him, a controversy which raged in the pulpits and on the op-ed columns across the land, and it got so hot that he was filmed from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan Show, just to keep that damn pelvis out of view because who knows what it would do. In the middle of all of that, Elvis, 21 years old, chose to end his appearance with a heartfelt earnest gospel song. And that song went to #1, which just goes to show you that from the get-go his fans always accepted the contradictions. Critics and parents and preachers blustered: “The bad-boy rock ‘n roller singing gospel now?? This is outrageous!” But the fans just poured into record shops across the land to buy the single, en masse.
While the sex he provided as a performer was tremendously appealing, it wasn’t the only thing he offered. The fans didn’t want him to do only one thing. They would follow him wherever he wanted to go. Gospel? Why not. If they had only wanted him for the Sex Thing, they would have rejected “Peace in the Valley”, but they did not.
All of this, though, again, eludes the main point.
What I feel, underneath all of his work, is not the sex drive. Nor is it the love of God, although you can feel both of those things, sometimes in the same moment.
What is really there, underneath it all, and what it is really about, is loneliness.
The loneliness is almost existential in its vastness, and he reaches about, graspingly, for relief from that state of being through connection with others. You can see it in the flickering of his eyes, going up, down, out, in his live performances. He does not look straight out at an imaginary single audience member. He always seems to be searching, searching for someone in particular, looking for a face, a glimpse, a look, something to latch onto. This is one of the reasons why girls in the audience always felt that he was singing to them and them alone. He was looking for them. He needed them. They sensed it.
His entire career could be seen as a giant exercise in staving off loneliness, a loneliness that had to be so huge it was at times unbearable. The loneliness was so huge that the fame had to be huge enough to combat it.
I am not solely talking about biography here when I talk about loneliness, although there were certainly events in his life that dug him in deeper into his natural state of loneliness.
It is true that his divorce in 1972 left him shaken. He missed his wife, and he missed his daughter.
It is true that his mother’s death in 1958 was a blow from which he never recovered.
It is also true that the death of his twin brother marked him. While Elvis obviously wouldn’t remember the circumstances of his birth, and while he obviously wouldn’t remember his time in the womb, it cannot be denied that he was there, that he lived through it, that he spent nine months curled up next to his dead sibling. As gruesome as that might sound, that was the context of his entry into the world. There have been studies done about twinless twins, especially those who have lost their twin before birth, and these people often report feeling an ache for something that should be there, like something is missing from their lives, although they can have no conscious memory of their sibling. Elvis’ mother obviously fostered in him a love and respect for his dead twin. The death of Jessie was not an event that was pushed under the carpet in the Presley family. They talked about him all the time, they honored him, they prayed to him. Elvis had conversations with his dead brother. He was a presence in Elvis’ life.
Elvis himself was open about that missing place in his life. He had some feelings of guilt. Why did he survive? Did he somehow receive the strength of his dead brother? Is that why he was “chosen” to be who he was, is that why he was plucked out of obscurity? He felt that he had the power of two men, and so his twin haunted him.
But again, one cannot rely on biographical details alone to “explain” Elvis Presley. The truth of the matter is not there.
What does a 19-year-old boy, surrounded by his mother’s loving embrace, and a busy social world with a girlfriend, and a couple of good friends, and supportive bosses, know about existential loneliness? I have always sensed that the loneliness at the heart of who he was was not pinned on a specific event, although circumstances exacerbated the loneliness that was already there, that was always there. Fame exacerbated it. He wasn’t a member of a band, like the Beatles, where the stress of fame could be distributed equally between the members. He was by himself. But that’s not the loneliness I am talking about, either. That came after. The loneliness he had was something he was born with, I believe, and it is that that keens through every one of his songs, even the hardest rocking ones. There is no other way to explain how he could tap into the eerie loneliness of a suicidal man in “Heartbreak Hotel”, or his swoon of transcendent emotion that sounds like the beginning of the end in “Blue Moon”. The interesting thing is to hear the alternate takes of those songs, to hear him laughing or giggling before going into “Blue Moon” again, a perfect example of the artistic process. He wasn’t a gloomy boy. He wasn’t a tormented intellectual. He was actually kind of sunshiny, to be honest, a nice kid, with an exuberant laugh.
But there he is, in “Blue Moon”, wailing and cooing in a creepy wandering falsetto that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I hear it.
I have written before about Elvis’ “suggestibility”, and in his case I mean that as a great compliment. It was his suggestibility that allowed him to tap into whatever emotion a song required, with something that always sounds like ease. It was his suggestibility that allowed him to be a quick learner on a movie set, and to never make the amateurish mistake of trying too hard. It was his suggestibility that, to go back to the Sex Thing, allowed him to tap into that energy force before he had even had sex himself. (Of course, any adolescent understands the sex drive. You don’t need to have had sex to know what it feels like to want to have sex. But the songs themselves, those early songs, “I Got a Woman”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, “Money Honey”, “Baby Let’s Play House”, come from a knowing sexual place. Men live with their women in the songs, men bitch about how their women are unfaithful, one man sneaks off with his girl for some “good rockin”, one man sings about his fuck buddy “way across town” who’s good to him, one man sings about his money woes and hiding from his landlord, one song is about shacking up with someone without getting married. This was not Elvis’ actual world. He was a teenager. He lived at home. He drank milk shakes. He did his best to not worry his mother. The songs were a couple steps ahead of Elvis in terms of his literal experience. He had no literal experience! But his suggestibility makes all of that irrelevant. The songs suggested to him how to sing them, where to come from, what to draw on, and while that transfer may be a mysterious one, there is no doubt that it took place.)
His suggestibility is what separates him from some of the other artists at Sun at that time, guys who were equally as hungry, guys on the same track, but guys who were a bit more limited in their ability to go wherever a song needed them to go. Plenty of guys can sing “I Got a Woman”, but fewer guys can pull off “I Got a Woman” and “I Was the One” in the same show, and be equally as convincing in both. It was Elvis’ suggestibility (not to mention his vocal gift) that allowed him to go where he went, musically. His sensibility was flexible, he could pour himself into the container of a song. He could modify himself, transform himself, he could be “any way you want me”, like the song says.
There is nothing on earth like “Heartbreak Hotel”, and the song still barely makes sense, at least in context of what was going on with Elvis musically at that time. The song is so well-known now, that you have to squint through the mists of time to see what a huge risk it was, how odd it was and still is (remember that Elvis was rocking out in his other songs, or singing pleading ballads – nothing prepares you for “Heartbreak Hotel” in anything he was doing at that time). The song is terrifying, the images bleak and surreal, there’s a soft burlesque quality to the beat, there’s minimal orchestration, and his echoing voice moaning the lyrics above it all. He is only 20 years old. It makes no sense. It makes perfect sense.
His loneliness would become more explicit in his later years, and then he began to devote himself to the ballads. They are cries of pain. His sex drive plunged underground. You can hear it in the music. And, as my friend Kent pointed out, you can see it in the cars he bought in the mid-70s. The disappearance of his sex drive was due to the drug addiction, of course, but also the disorientation following the breakup of his marriage, and his knowledge that somewhere, along the way, he had fucked it all up. He was self-pitying, sure, and there is some self-pity in the 70s songs, but I hear more the legitimate cries of pain and loss, the loneliness that is now an affliction, an ongoing condition, something he can neither run from, nor escape.
Loneliness had dogged him from the beginning. He was born into it. Maybe it was the ghost of his twin, embedded in his DNA, maybe it was something else, the yearning to connect, to be a part of something, to belong, to speak, to be heard. Who knows. Loneliness had always been something he feared, and did whatever he could to fight against. He hired his friends, so they could be together all the time. He spent hours on the phone with his girlfriends, every night. He wanted everyone to be together. Always. He couldn’t stand people leaving him. His girlfriends say that they would get up to go to the bathroom and he would say, “Where are you going??” You had to ease into any separation with Elvis, even one that would last only five minutes. Walking away from him, no matter for what reason, was abandonment to him.
These things were in him before the trauma of his mother’s death, which certainly changed him irrevocably. But this sort of inability to be alone, and nervousness about people leaving him, was there in his earliest relationships, both platonic and romantic.
Entelechy is one of my favorite words and concepts.
n. pl. en·tel·e·chies
1. In the philosophy of Aristotle, the condition of a thing whose essence is fully realized; actuality.
2. In some philosophical systems, a vital force that directs an organism toward self-fulfillment.
The entelechy of an acorn is a giant oak. There is something here that relates to Elvis. Within him, he knew how bad loneliness could get. He knew it intuitively. As a child, he saw his mother’s drive to make good, he saw his mother’s courage in the face of her husband’s brief imprisonment. He experienced the abyss poverty created. He understood shame. He understood fear. He understood the need to protect. He understood that it was him and his mother against a cruel world. He understood all of this young. Despite his later devotion to esoteric topics, Elvis didn’t think in abstractions. The full-blown scope of his loneliness was there, in the pit of him, early, he knew it like he knew the back of his own hand. Where did it come from? Why had he been given it? What was he to do with it? He worked hard to keep loneliness at bay.
His whole drive to become a star could be seen, then, as the determined erecting of the ultimate barrier against the void inside of him, beckoning to him already.
The loneliness made him an odd and eccentric young man, shy, with a stutter, yet somehow bold enough to dress in kelly-green bolero jackets in high school, for God’s sake. Dave Marsh says that one of the main drives in this man was to be “unignorable” and there is a lot of truth in that. If you are unignorable, maybe you will never be lonely.
When he first walked into Sun Records in 1953, he could have no way of knowing where he was going to go. He just knew he wanted to communicate. He knew he had to communicate. What it was he needed to ‘say’ may not have been clear, but that didn’t stop him. Whatever was inside of him was so imperative that I can imagine him lying awake in bed at night, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, aching to be heard, to connect, to get ….. there. It had to happen for him. He had no Plan B.
While he couldn’t have known how famous he would become, I do believe that he had the entelechy of it in him from the start. And I believe he sensed it. He sensed the oak in the acorn.
Perhaps we all do, but we dismiss these things as pipe dreams, fantasies, or pleasant ways to pass the time in daydreams. But to Elvis, they were real, grasp-able, something to reach for, a brass ring in the sky above him. In those beginning couple of years, he would say, on occasion, that he wanted to be a country and western star like Ernest Tubb, or he wanted to be an actor like Marlon Brando, or he wanted to be part of a gospel quartet. All of these were true dreams for him. But there was more. He wanted to be all of those things. He wanted to rise to a level of universal belovedness, he wanted to entertain the world, not just the folks in honky-tonks in his area, not just the folks on the C&W circuit. I am only guessing here, because there’s no real way of knowing. He says that he walked into Sun records to cut a song to give to his mother as a gift.
That’s the official story.
Well, of course that’s what you would say if you actually had dreams inside of you, at age 18, of being the biggest star the world has ever known. And of course that’s what you would say if you were Elvis, growing up in a staunch matriarchy. Of course it was for his mother. Of course that would be the official line. Why would you openly express what you could see in your mind’s eye if worldwide eternal fame is what you saw? Why would you say, “I have visions of screaming millions of people who love me”? You can’t let people in on something like that. You must hold it close, close, close. Because it’s sacred. And because it is sacred, it is fragile. Best to just say he wanted his Mama to hear him sing. That keeps us all safe from the implications.
To quote my sister Jean, when I was talking to her about all of this: “That’s a hell of a secret to keep from people.”
Isn’t it though?
A secret like that, burning inside him, forcing him to overcome his shyness and to keep “dropping by” Sun Records until they gave him a chance, is a lonely place to be. Having dreams is lonely. Having a dream like that is even lonelier. That is why I say that Elvis’ loneliness is separate from biographical details that may “explain” his loneliness. His loneliness was actually alone-ness, a true solitary nature, intensified by his superstar status and the isolation that that necessarily created. But on that other level, the level of art and myth, it was something he was born with, something he played with and expressed, even in songs that weren’t about loneliness. He didn’t have to grow into anything. He was one of those rare artists who emerged already in full bloom. He was the pampered son of a loving mother who kept his plates separate from the rest of the family’s because he was finicky that way, and washed his underwear for him, and made his bed, and hovered around him listening to him, loving him, touching him, supporting him. He loved her. He called her every day. But even his mother couldn’t touch that core of alone-ness, that private and fiercely guarded secret of where he wanted to go, and what he saw for himself. Once his dreams started coming true, his loneliness intensified and you can sense it in the sometimes disoriented interviews he gave during those early years of 1955, 1956, before the Colonel Clamp-down was in full effect. He talks about everything being like a dream, he talks about being afraid to wake up, he talks about not being able to understand what has happened because “it all happened so fast”.
He had his backup band, Scotty and Bill and DJ. That’s true.
But he was front and center. By himself. Where he had pictured himself, where he knew he had to be. It was what he wanted. It was what he had seen and dreamt of and yearned for and pictured. It happened.
In September of 1956, he recorded something called “The Truth About Me”, which was released as a 45, and included in Teen Parade magazine. He answers the questions about himself, and speaks in an unguarded and seemingly spontaneous manner, with that gentle stutter showing up from time to time, making the whole thing feel strangely intimate and off-the-cuff. While all of this is obviously part of a huge promotional push for Love Me Tender, it doesn’t feel like a canned statement. There are a couple of moments that are startlingly revealing. He is 21 years old.
I guess the first thing people want to know is why I can’t stand still when I’m singing. Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people just sway back and forth. I just sort of do them all together, I guess. Singing rhythm and blues really knocks it out. I watch my audience and listen to them, and, and, I know we’re all getting something out of our system and none of us knows what it is. The important thing is that we’re getting rid of it and nobody’s getting hurt. I suppose you know I’ve got a lot of cars. People have written about it in the papers and a lot of them write and ask me why. When I was driving a truck, every time a big shiny car drove by it started me sort of daydreaming. I always felt that someday somehow something would happen to change everything for me and I’d daydream about how it would be. The first car I ever bought was the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen. It was second-hand but I parked it outside of my hotel the day I got it and set up all night just looking at it. And the next day, well, the thing caught fire and burned up on the road. In a lot of the mail I get, people ask questions about the kind of things I do and all that sort of stuff. Well, I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink, and I love to go to movies. Maybe someday I’m gonna have a home and a family of my own and I’m not gonna budge from it. I was an only child but, uh …. maybe my kids won’t be. I suppose this kind of talk raises another question. Am I in love. No. I thought I’ve been in love but I guess I wasn’t. It just passed over. I guess I haven’t met the girl yet, but I will, and I hope it won’t be too long because I get lonesome sometimes. I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd. I’ve got a feeling that with her … whoever she may be … I won’t be lonesome no matter where I am. Well, thanks for letting me talk to you and sort of get things off of my chest. I sure appreciate you listening to my RCA Victor records and I’d like to thank all the disc jockeys for playing them. Bye-bye.
Almost exactly 20 years later, in December of 1976, when Elvis had less than a year left to live, he lay in his bed in his palatial suite at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. He wrote the following note on a piece of paper which was later found crumpled up in the wastebasket:
I feel so alone sometimes. The night is quiet for me. I’d love to be able to sleep. I am glad that everyone is gone now. I’ll probably not rest. I have no need for all this. Help me, Lord.
As Seal wrote, “It’s the loneliness that’s the killer.”
It was the loneliness that made him want to reach out and communicate with thousands, not just with one or two. Only thousands (and then millions upon millions) would help him feel less alone. He “always felt that someday somehow something would happen to change everything for [him] and [he'd] daydream about how it would be.” The loneliness was in him and made him wise beyond his years (just listen to his “Blue Moon” again to get a sense of that). Perhaps it came from his early striving towards God, his longing for communication with the Creator. Perhaps it came from his lowly economic status, highlighting the isolation of poverty and the “have-nots”. But perhaps it was just part and parcel of his character, a vein of melancholy self-awareness that made him able to tap into loneliness before he had actually experienced it to the degree that he experienced it at the time he wrote that despairing note to God in 1976.
Sex is a great way to feel less alone. We all know and understand that. It can be used as a crutch, sure, but the drive to connect is in all of us, and it’s a good thing. This teenage boy launched himself into that expression, letting out his need to connect, his need to communicate, and his audiences got the message loud and clear. He put it out there, and their screams of release let him know, night after night after night, that he had been heard. That his needs were their needs. That he was not alone. At least for that moment in time, he was not alone.
The sex is still a magnet. It is still what we talk about when we talk about Elvis.
But it’s the loneliness that is the whole shebang. You’ll be so lonely you could die.