Ultimately I think that those rare souls who not only capture the hearts/imaginations of audiences in their day but go on to basically take their place in the firmament as a permanent blazing star in our culture are those who, yes, give their all to their chosen profession, hold nothing back, save nothing for a rainy day. They are here on this earth for a brief time, and they seem to know it, and act accordingly. This is the rarest of qualities. The human condition is such that we try not to think about death, we try not to think about mortality, we always want to have the illusion that we have more time. Death bed regrets, I am sure, are more often than not about the time wasted here on earth, the worrying about stupid stuff, the putting-off of dreams, big and small, for a better time, when there is no better time than now.
But I think there is another element that these rare souls all have, and it is more difficult to talk about and define. At the same time that they give their all as though there is no tomorrow, as though they will never get another chance to express themselves, they also withhold something. And that something is usually the key to their character, the driving force, the soul-light, the Rosebud. It’s different for each one. But there is a mystery at the heart of the greatest stars, and it is that mystery, that mystery of withholding, that keeps us going back to them, again and again and again, trying to plumb the depths of them, trying to understand what they are doing, and how they are doing it. Cary Grant is a perfect example.
His body of work is extraordinary, the depth and length of it, the display of talent breathtaking, it seems there was no genre he could not enter into believably. And yet there is still something in Grant, something essential, that he will never give us, at least not fully. We get glimpses of it. You can see it flash across his face sometimes, even in his sillier movies, but there it is, practically full frontal, keening through the entire performance in Notorious. His heart as a performer was open, generous, unselfconscious. But his heart as a man was closed. He kept himself safe and hidden. He CHOSE what to show us. He chose very carefully. And you might think that his work, then, would seem calculated or cagey. And of course, it doesn’t come across that way at all. That’s the magic trick.
Dean Martin is another one.
It is not surprising that Dean Martin would inspire one of the oddest and most contemplative biographies ever written, a biography that is really a meditation on Dean Martin’s soul, a soul that even his dearest friends couldn’t get close to. But there are glimpses. He left himself behind, there he is, in his songs, in some of his movie roles, in moments during his television show. But you always get the sense that Dean Martin was withholding the essential thing, the mystery at the heart of his personality. Whatever it was, it was not to be shared. These people who become those shining eternal stars do not feel the need to explain themselves, because everything we need to know about them is there in the work.
Elvis Presley is the ultimate example of this duality. Ultimate because he is arguably the biggest star of the 20th century. But also ultimate because his work as a performer was so blasted open and available, even as a kid, that he could tap into the vacuum in the culture, and he did it like he was born to the role. On the flip side, however, there are few stars who are as withheld from their own audience as Elvis Presley was. There were many reasons for this, good and bad, but I am not interested in hashing all of that out. The fact remains that a decision was made early on to limit Elvis’ exposure, and so after his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in January 1957, that was it, for Elvis, in terms of television appearances. He rarely gave interviews. He did not make public appearances. He went into the Army for two years at the height of his newfound popularity and vanished from view, except for the photos that came back via the teen mags of him driving tanks and wearing his uniform. The withholding of Elvis was a risky move, and one that paid off (in terms of the audience interest in him), although I think it impacted Elvis negatively and isolated him too much. Jackie Gleason had said to Elvis, early on, “You’re gonna be huge, kid. Make sure you still go out in public – don’t hide – don’t hide.” But Elvis hid. For his own reasons, and because that was the advice he was given.
I don’t particularly want to discuss that decision. I want to deal with the RESULT of that decision. There are already too many “what ifs” that float around Elvis’ career and they get tiresome. Yeah, what if, what if, what if. I get it, but the career is so extraordinary already can’t we deal with what ACTUALLY happened? Otherwise we get bogged down in alternate realities where Elvis was happier, more at peace, less isolated, etc. Of course I have affection for Elvis – it’s very difficult to spend any time researching him and not feel your heart reach out to him – that’s another one of the ways in which he is special. Often you get obsessed with a star, and the closer you get to the star, the more repellent they seem and you realize: “Thank GOD he was withheld from audiences – because no one would love him if they knew THIS about him.” That is not true for Elvis. The closer you try to get, the sweeter he seems. The Bodyguard Character Assassination, embodied in Elvis: What Happened? certainly did some damage and there are uncorroborated stories in there that still get bandied about as though they are true. (I have my doubts that Red West ever “saved” Elvis from the high school bullies in the bathroom, a story that is now legendary among Elvis writers, and is treated as though it were an undeniable fact written in stone. I have no proof to back up my theory, but the only proof that we have that it happened is Red West’s word for it, and I think we need to take that with a grain of salt. It’s an extremely self-serving story. Just my two cents.)
There is something the Bodyguards did not realize, however. Elvis’ impact as a performer was indestructible. You can cackle about his idiosyncracies all you want (“tee hee, he had so many guns, tee hee, he was embarrassed by his uncircumcised penis, tee hee, he ate five sundaes in one sitting, tee hee, he wasn’t ALL THAT”) but still, still, he remains. Walking into the racquet ball court at Graceland is one of the most overwhelming displays of personal success that I have ever seen in my life. It’s up there with touring the Breakers in Newport, and without the feeling of disgust that accompanies the Breakers tour. The sheer scope of his accomplishments, seen in that Hall of Gold Records which then leads into the racquet ball court, made the big crowd on tour with me fall into a hushed silence.
We were in the presence of something entirely “other” when in that space. It was like being in a cathedral. It is otherworldly. It is a level of success that cannot be matched, reached, or approximated. It is a force of nature, a fact of nature, like the Grand Canyon or the Milky Way, and yet it all came from …. just a guy. A human being. One man, who grew up poor and isolated, to then become rich and isolated. But not isolated enough to stop the flow of his talent, blasted across those walls in shining gold and platinum, blinding to the naked eye.
The key to Elvis will never be found in the words he left behind, although those are often eloquent and evidence that he understood, as well as he could, what had happened to him, and why. At 21, he said to an interviewer, “I happened to come along at a time in music when there was no trend.” That’s a smart man talking, that’s a man who understood the vast-ness of what he had tapped into. He didn’t just understand himself. He understood America, he understood the needs of regular people, and that was his role: to put himself out there, again and again, to make them happy, to express FOR them what they needed. But we can pore over his interviews all we want. And we do. However, the truth is not there. We can read the tell-all books, benevolent and malevolent, and get a closer glimpse of the man and who he was when no one but his friends were looking. George Klein’s book is excellent. Jerry Schilling’s book is excellent. June Juanico’s book is excellent. But still, these are only pieces to the puzzle. You will never get the full picture. Back to the Nature Metaphor, it’s like trying to comprehend the Milky Way, or trying to see it fully in one glimpse. It’s not possible.
Elvis put himself out there as though there was no tomorrow, and he did it from the start. And yet, at the same time, his essence, his truth, was somehow withheld, and so we come back to him, endlessly, looking for him, grasping for him, trying to hold him close so that we can understand better who he was. My main question is: Elvis … darling … WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE YOU? That is what I want to know. I want to be inside him for 5 minutes to understand what it was like.
The best and most frustrating part is: he was so humble he never really spoke about that. As he said in one of those rare interviews in the mid-60s: “Through all of this, I have tried to remain the same.” And he did, bless his heart, he did. He couldn’t. I mean, none of us can. Life changes you, whether you are a superstar or not. But superstars have their own challenges, and my main impression of Elvis is that, unlike a lot of people, famous or no, he was mostly always trying his best. Not just in his career, but in how he treated people, and how he operated. Yes, he messed up, but we all do. No need to cackle over his flaws, because in doing so you forget that you are flawed, too, and you don’t have the challenge of being a superstar who can never go outside. Try experiencing that for one day and see how hard it would be to not let it change you. Very few people in general are always “trying their best”, in terms of interpersonal relationships. Elvis was well-raised and conscientious and tried to treat people well. If Elvis thought you were mad at him, he’d buy you a Cadillac. I suppose you could get cynical about that, but I choose to see it as a benign part of his personality, the generosity that he is still known for.
So I will never know what it was like for Elvis, what life looked like to him from his perspective, and what it felt like to be him. But I will never stop trying to understand, I will never stop reaching out to him in my heart and trying to enter into that experience. And like I said, any evidence he left behind of what it was like will not be in his words. It’s in his work. Listen to him wail “My Baby Left Me”, and you know what it was like to be Elvis. Listen to him howl “Tomorrow Never Comes”, and there should be zero question left about what it was like to be Elvis. There he is, fully revealed, in “Just Pretend” and “Mystery Train” and “Blue Moon” and “Polk Salad Annie” and “How Great Thou Art”. Elvis was a simple country boy who enjoyed simple pleasures but his spirit was highly evolved, evolved enough to seek out the opportunity he needed, and to pour himself into that vacuum ferociously when it was revealed to him. He needed no permission. Only evolved people realize that they don’t need permission, that the whole point of our time here on this planet is to be ourselves, fully, in every moment. It is what regular people strive for every day. You can see it in the life of any pioneer, those who ask, “Well, why ISN’T this possible?” This is what our multi-million-dollar self-help industry tries to capitalize on: the desire people have to be themselves in a more real and immediate way, to not second-guess, to be “actualized”, to have no boundary between desire and action. Elvis was already there. He was there at 16. Most of the stars of which I speak, the ones who become important to the culture in some eternal fashion, are evolved like this. They may have personal foibles, and problems, and psychological issues. But in terms of their talent, they are way beyond the rest of us. Many people have talent. But those who don’t even realize that there is any way to be other than fully-expressed … those are the ones we can learn from.
To quote Dave Marsh:
There is no explanation. And if one listens closely to songs like “Hurt” and “I Can Help” and “If I Can Dream” – if one listens clear back to “Mystery Train” and “Blue Moon” – that’s what is truly heard: A voice, high and thrilled in the early days, lower and perplexed in the final months, seeking answers where there are none, clarity where there is none, cause where is only effect.
Somewhere, out of all this, Elvis began to seem like a man who had reached some conclusions. And so he was made into a god and a king. He was neither – he was something more American and, I think, something more heroic. Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s conceptions.
This is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every prospective American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men are the only maps we can trust.
“Elvis made so much of the journey on his own.”
So let’s talk about that.
This is the real reason for this post today. The stress of fame is intense. George Harrison said that the only way the Fab Four kept their wits about them in the midst of that mayhem is that the stress could be distributed amongst the four of them. They had each other as allies. They could commiserate, giggle, make fun of, complain … it was happening to all four of them. Elvis was by himself. Fame, on any level, is an assault to the ego. It seems like it would be awesome, everyone loving you, and I’m sure on some level it is. But so much else comes with it, and Elvis was the pioneer of that kind of fame, and he had no one to talk with about it. Who could he commiserate with who would understand? Ann-Margret understood, and she wasn’t nearly the star that he was, although she burned hella bright herself. Elvis kept to himself. He wasn’t a complainer. It would be poor form to complain about being famous, he understood that intuitively. Whatever his private thoughts may have been about never being able to go outside, you never ever would catch him bitching. He was sweet to autograph-hunters, and would even set a time at his house (whereever he lived – in Memphis, Germany, or Beverly Hills) where he would walk down the drive to greet the fans in person. Who would do that now?
His girlfriend in 1956, June Juanico, describes visiting him in Memphis in the late summer, early fall of 1956, when the fame had really hit, and was like a locomotive careening out of control. They realized they couldn’t go anywhere. They were trapped in the Audobon Drive house. Elvis’ car was demolished by fans. He had to hide. He and June would escape on his motorcycle but for the most part, they were house-bound. June helped Gladys in the kitchen. Elvis wandered around the house aimlessly. Elvis and June made out in his bedroom with the door open (at June’s insistence: “What will your mother think??”). June was just happy to be with him, but Elvis was restless. He wanted to get out, to get away, be free. The two of them swam in the pool, boxing each other (Elvis put one arm behind his back so the fight would be fair), but June Juanico sensed an almost existential restlessness in him, a vibrant animal in a cage.
He had Scotty and Bill and DJ, for sure, and he had his entourage. But all of these people, as talented and loyal as they were, were just along for the ride, the ride that he was responsible for providing. He felt that deeply. His shows were extravaganzas of self-expression, with Elvis sometimes collapsing afterwards, from exhaustion, dehydration. He would lose up to 7 pounds a show, from sweat. That’s insane. And when he comes offstage, when he is hustled into the waiting limo by his police escort, when Elvis has indeed “left the building” … what is he to do with all the leftover emotions and adrenaline buzzing through him? Who can he talk to about it?
No one, that’s who.
The footage of his touring in the 70s, captured so beautifully in the two documentaries Elvis On Tour and Elvis: That’s The Way It Is gets to the heart of what I am trying to express here. The rules put down by the Colonel, in order to allow filming, were draconian. No interviews, no personal one-on-one time with Elvis, no glimpses into his personal life. These would be tour diaries only. While it would be awesome to have footage of Elvis horsing around at home, and being a talking-head, talking about what it was like to be him, at some point that becomes irrelevant, because the work itself is so powerful, so entertaining, so fully ITSELF.
I mean, what else is there to say?
Who gives a shit about peanut butter and banana sandwiches and an arsenal of guns and Polaroids of girls in white underwear when you watch his work? I sure don’t, although it is all rather interesting, I suppose.
What you see in these two documentaries is Elvis at work, and, ultimately, that is the only Elvis that matters. You see him singing gospel after shows and before shows with The Stamps, you see him having small conferences with the Sweet Inspirations, you see him basically conducting the giant orchestra. Jerry Schilling, watching Elvis’ gospel sessions for the How Great Thou Art album in the 60s, always said that Elvis doesn’t get enough credit for being an awesome and talented producer. He arranged all of those songs, he came up with the backup vocal arrangements, he knew exactly what he wanted, he knew how he heard it in his head. You can see him in that space during the rehearsals in these two documentaries. He’s brilliant. Tireless. He is always striving to get to that sound that he already has in his head.
All of this is fantastic and certainly adds to our understanding of Elvis, especially if we have a conception of him as a puppet of the Colonel, or a hick who just had a lot of charisma, or a buffoon who cleaned up nice when he was onstage. People constantly undersell Elvis. They need to watch these documentaries.
At the very end of Elvis On Tour, Elvis finishes a show and is raced to the waiting limo in the back. The credits begin to roll, as we hear Elvis singing “Memories”, a song that is not my favorite but that Elvis adored. The credits are on one side of the screen, and the remaining footage of the movie is on the other side (the entire movie utilizes split screens, which I think was a brilliant choice). “Memories” is a slow elegiac song (I think it’s a snoozefest, but who asked me), and we see a shot of Elvis’ father Vernon laughing backstage, the crinkle lines spread across his face. We see footage of a bridge, from the perspective of the limo carrying Elvis away from his triumph.
And then …
and then comes the glimpse.
A miraculous 3 seconds of footage that gives us the clearest glimpse of what Elvis normally left out. The missing piece, the mystery, the soul-light, the key. I have talked about the withholding of these great and eternal stars, and it is that withholding that keeps us coming back. Elvis is the ultimate mystery. He is so mysterious that Lester Bangs was reduced to calling him “supernatural”, speculating that he actually came “from outer space”. That is “the only credible explanation” for the organic phenomenon that was Elvis Presley.
Elvis sits in the back of the limo. He is still in his jeweled jumpsuit. He is sweaty. He has a towel around his neck. He was just performing literally 10 minutes earlier. Elvis never lingered. He moved on to the next thing immediately. He took care of business in a flash. He was gone before you could pin him down. He did not linger, he did not dwell. This is another key to his magic.
There he is, surrounded by his band of cackling brothers, all of whom he has known since either his high school days or his Army days. Nice as many of them were (and are), they are his staff, let’s not kid ourselves. They weren’t up there on that stage, bringing the Elvis Presley Thing to the masses. They are along for the ride. Yes, they were important parts of the machinery that helped Elvis do his thing … but at the end of the day, it is only Elvis who can get up on that stage and deliver.
Everyone in the limo is experiencing a contact high. It’s like THEY are all Elvis, it’s like THEY were the ones who were performing.
But they weren’t.
Elvis, in the back of that limo, is alone. It was just another gig, identical to all his other gigs.
And the camera catches a moment.
Elvis, sweaty and hyped up, laughs with the others, looking out the window. In the next second, the smile falls off his face with a swiftness that is arresting. He goes deep, deep inside himself in that moment. And then, with that same deeply interior look, he glances out the window, putting his ringed hand up near his mouth. And then, in the last second of footage, something else comes over his face. The cameraman, who probably has realized that he is capturing an extraordinarily private moment, zooms in on Elvis’ face. And it is the last expression caught by the camera that strikes me, that makes me wonder if there, there, we are looking at the key to who this extraordinary and yet ordinary man really was. The deeply serious and interior look vanishes, or transforms, turns itself inside out. Something rises up in his face, a voracious pleasure in himself and what he has done, and who he is, and what it felt like to be up there on that stage, and the ambition and self-love and need and desire shimmer there, dangerously, for a second, before the screen fades to black. You could see a couple of things in that look, but whatever it is, it is primal. He could either be a lion reveling in a meal he just ate, or … closer to the truth, probably, he could be a lion spotting a gazelle and thinking, “Oh, baby, baby, you are MINE.”
The fact that he doesn’t have anyone to talk to about this just highlights the moment, not to mention the fact that it is not socially acceptable to revel in your SELF, and Elvis, in general, didn’t do that. Of course on some level he did, the obsessive combing of his hair, his immaculate wardrobe, his pride in his appearance. But somehow (and this again speaks to how highly evolved he was as a human) he kept his ego in check, except for when he was onstage, and then he let the panther out.
On a smaller level, I have experienced that adrenaline rush. It is a high unlike any other. I experienced it after each one of the readings of my play. It took me days to come down. The adrenaline kept buzzing through me in aftershocks, and I would just lose myself in the memory of what I had accomplished and how well it had gone.
An adrenaline rush of voracious pleasure in your own accomplishment is awesome but it is also private. Or it should be. Nobody wants to sit around talking about how great you are for three days straight. And if you need that from others, you got problems.
Elvis did not have that problem. And we don’t know how he felt about so much in his life. We can surmise, and even now, I am just guessing, based on those four expressions that come over his face. Elvis was a transparent man, one of the most disarming things about him. His feelings were there, for you to see, to latch onto, to project onto, to live vicariously. He offered himself up like that. It’s why he was a good actor.
Elvis was too huge to revel in his success with anyone else. No one could commiserate because even if you were a big star, you weren’t as big a star as Elvis. The Beatles understood, but again, there is that key difference that there were four of them. And with Elvis, so much of his popularity had to do with his sheer power of personal charisma, the fascination that we had with him personally.
What was that like for him?
We will never know.
But in that final expression caught by the camera, I think I get a glimpse, a brief brief glimpse, of understanding.