(Elvis Presley would’ve been 83 on August 16, and that’s hard to fathom. Thirteen years ago I wrote a story below on his 70th birthday.)
I can’t imagine I would’ve been seventy today. And it’s hard to believe I’ve been gone more than twenty-seven years. Of course, I’m not really gone. Through my music and photos – but not my movies – I’m still here in ways almost no other person has ever been. I know my fans all over the world are celebrating. It’s incredible knowing so many people love me. I’m overwhelmed by all the fan clubs and impersonators and record and souvenir sales and concert films and Elvis websites and visitors to Graceland, and probably more than anything I’m humbled by my image. During my lifetime, my image did more than humble me. It was terrifying. Imagine – you’re expected all the time to be the handsomest, coolest, best-singing cat who ever lived. I’m not saying I was exactly all of those things but, damn, I was close.
I don’t mean to brag, especially not now. I admit I got carried away and acted like I believed the myth that Elvis was superhuman. I wasn’t prepared. I’d been pretty shy and awkward most of my teenage years. Then, at about age seventeen or eighteen, I started looking like Elvis, and by the time I was nineteen I was making records and unconsciously shaking my hips and changing the world. I wish I’d known I didn’t have to pretend to be Elvis offstage. That’s when trouble started.
My closest buddies, guys I’d grown up with, became my employees, then my servants, and ultimately they became my apologists and coconspirators. I paid them to be the Memphis Mafia, and they helped me trick the world into believing I was a clean-living, God-fearing, and humble Southern boy who always called people sir and ma’am. I almost believed that myth a very long time, and I couldn’t have done so without taking drugs. A lot of that started in my Hollywood days when I was churning out movies. It’s crazy, isn’t it? There I was in my twenties, my prime, when I should’ve being singing live onstage – and think how good that would’ve been – but I was instead saying dumb things in stinking movies that smothered my talent.
Why’d I do it? Some people blame Colonel Parker, my manager, who they claim controlled me like a puppet. Come on. I could’ve fired that carnival-barking thief any time I wanted. I wanted to keep him. I needed someone strong to tell me what to do with my career. You might think it would’ve been easy for me to make professional decisions since I was so popular. It was the opposite. I was worried sick about losing my fans if I couldn’t continue to be Elvis. I thought it would be less stressful to be Elvis the movie star. That made sense. Movies are made slowly over weeks and months. Bad scenes are thrown out and unflattering images discarded. I thought I could control what the public saw and heard in ways I couldn’t in concerts. Everything happens so fast there.
Really, I got to be like a champion boxer who stays out of the ring so long he’s afraid to go back. Do you think any of my fans knew I was petrified about returning to the stage after about a decade away? I doubt it. They believed I was a star twenty-four hours a day and enjoying myself more than anyone on earth. They didn’t know I’d gotten used to taking uppers for energy and downers to relax and sleep. There really was no doubt, though. I was coming back. Before going absolutely live, the Colonel and I decided to do a television special in 1968. I was tight, and at times almost hysterical, during rehearsals. The production people decided to shoot my “live” scenes twice. That saved me. My nervousness was snipped and what you see, frankly, is a thirty-three year old superstar glowing in black leather. And except for a few moments when I stumble trying to be funny, you hear a voice as pure and moving as ever. I was back. Even many of the Hollywood jerks, who’d sneered at my movies, were impressed.
Everything from the outside must’ve looked good. The year before I’d married my beautiful, long-time girlfriend, Priscilla, the luckiest woman in the world, and now we had a gorgeous little girl, Lisa Marie. And I was headed back to the stage for real live performances. I was far more motivated than I’d ever been for movies. This was what I’d been created for. I practiced. I dieted. I focused. I was ready. I marched on stage and discovered, thank God, that I could still do it. I was Elvis again, The King. But I didn’t feel like it. I felt bad. I was spaced out. And it wasn’t just the drugs. I’d felt that way before them. That’s really why I’d gotten into uppers and downers, to take me away from the pain that came with my natural state of mind.
I wish now that I’d gone to a psychiatrist, but at the time I wouldn’t have considered it. I had numerous starstruck doctors writing as many prescriptions as I demanded. The King sure as hell wasn’t going to risk feeling bad. I took enough drugs to ensure I frequently felt nothing. That was better. I didn’t want intimacy with my wife anymore but expected her to be faithful while I toured the harems of American concert halls and fairgrounds. She eventually stopped putting up with it and did the unimaginable – she dumped Elvis Presley. Then I wanted her more than when I had her. But I didn’t need her. I had plenty of other women just as pretty and even more attentive. And I had more medications than anyone. As my weight shot above two-fifty, on what had been a pretty slight five-foot-eleven frame, I ate enough food for an elephant and, eventually, three times a day took an envelope of pills that, individually, carried enough narcotic firepower to kill anyone not already addicted.
My heart and other organs were ruined by the time I was forty. If you were alive then, you must’ve wondered what’s up with Elvis being in the hospital so much. I saw the same scenes you did on TV: there’s the window of the room where Elvis is resting because of exhaustion. It was all a lie. I was dying and anxious for it to happen. There were plenty of signs. Twice I’d shot out TV screens, and Robert Goulet’s image was not the real issue. I won’t list any of the other outrages or indignities. If you know, you don’t need to hear them again. If you don’t, use your imagination. Use your heart to imagine what it must have been like to be Elvis Presley.
That’s what I’m thinking about most on my seventieth birthday. I’m thinking about you and your hearts. I’m thinking about why nature gave me a magical mixture of looks, voice, and charisma that enabled me to enchant you so. I’m amazed how many of you are still so interested in me, and I’m thankful you are. I always needed you so very much more than you really needed me. And don’t worry. I’m not really seventy. I’ll never get past forty-two, you know that. And I promise, for you I’ll never even be forty-two. I’ll always be nineteen or twenty-two or thirty-three or perhaps a tad more for some of you. But the most important thing is I’ll always be young and slim and dynamic and you’ll always swoon when Elvis shakes his hips and begins to sing.