He was found around 2:15 p.m. Aug. 16, 1977, face down on the red shag carpet in the bathroom adjacent to his bedroom on the second floor of Graceland. Cause of death was a heart attack, brought on by an addiction to prescription drugs.
The coroner reported that the 260-pound man had died about five hours before he was found, but the Elvis Presley who single-handedly changed modern music and left an indelible stamp on popular culture, actually had been dead for years. Popping pills like Milk Duds at a double feature, as many as 200 a day, Presley had long been looking for a way out, if only for hours at a time. In most cases, death at age 42 might be considered too soon, but the way Elvis lived, 42 was ancient.
Coming out of Memphis in 1954, Presley sang and shook those hips because he just had to, man. Like the gospel singers he idolized, Elvis had no control over himself and just went where the spirit took him. Later in life, he also sang because he had to, and couldn’t control himself, but the definitions had changed.
Shows and albums had become obligations: In the end, Presley wasn’t singing so much for pleasure as he was to fulfill his responsibilities to a money-mad manager and a passel of hangers-on. Then there were the fans, who loved him so much that they’d rip his heart out for a souvenir, if given the chance.
The whole empire revolved around the guy from Tupelo, Miss., whose mother walked him to school every day, hand in hand, until the kids started teasing him about it. “A man is just a little boy wearin’ a man’s body,” Elvis once said. But this little boy, the one they called “The King,” had what must’ve felt like the entire universe on his shoulders. That’s the weight that contributed most to his death.
They say that you develop most of your character and personality traits before 3 or 4, and the life of Elvis provides strong testimony to that theory. His birth, on Jan. 8, 1935, followed the stillborn death of his twin brother, Jesse Garon. It was a loss never forgotten, either by Elvis, the guilt survivor, who often went through devastating periods of detachment, or by his mother, Gladys, who became excessively protective and doting in the wake of losing a son. She wasn’t going to let the “chosen one” out of her sight.
When Elvis was 2, his father, Vernon, was sentenced to three years at the infamous Parchman’s Farm for check forgery. After serving less than a year, Vernon returned to his family to find that he’d been virtually supplanted by Elvis as the dominant male of the family. The little boy was the man, just as the man would be the little boy so many years later. Elvis never grew up, and as his ever present cronies catered to his every appetite, it reminded us that “pamper” is a fitting name for a brand of diapers.
To extend this dime-store psychoanalysis, Elvis was a lifelong resident of the Madonna-whore complex. His mother was the only woman this sex symbol ever truly loved (and that would ever truly love him, he believed), and most other women were seemingly viewed as merely life support systems for their private parts.
Then, when he met the virginal princess Priscilla Beaulieu soon after the 1958 death of his momma, Presley went right to work on building a pedestal. When Priscilla was old enough to avoid a Jerry Lee Lewis-like scandal, Elvis moved his future wife, Rapunzel-like, into a wing at Graceland. Meanwhile, the train of “tramps” kept chuggin’ through the master bedroom. Elvis, always careful to keep sex and love separate, couldn’t stand being alone.
The highs soared like a hundred white doves, but the lows were deeper and colder than well water. You have more money than you could ever spend, and yet you can’t go anywhere without it becoming a major deal. Even worse are the constant expectations.
If someone calls your name, you’re supposed to wave or otherwise acknowledge them. If someone buys a ticket to your concert, you’re expected to play their favorite song. You’re required, by the rules of media disgrace, to live as a suitable role model. Humility is expected of the worshipped, and if a group of fans, these people who made you rich, come up to you with cameras, you’re supposed to put your arm around them and smile with a stiffness that approaches rigor mortis.
Responsibilities and expectations — those are a couple of cold-blooded killers, especially if you don’t have the inner circuit to handle the incredible shifts of emotion that come with superstardom. But who does? You can’t really blame Elvis Presley for becoming a drug-addled self-parody unless you’ve been there. He had no models for behavior because what happened to him is something that had never occurred before. He was the first rock star, as his unapologetic fan Eddie Murphy said, “the first guy women just wanted to fuck.”
Elvis helped usher in an era of promiscuity, drugs and groupiedom only to find that unbridled hedonism eventually catches up to you. To him, the game of life was a baseball contest that he was leading 8-0 in the fifth inning, and so he eased up and lost his focus, his intensity. By the ninth inning, he had watched the game slip away.
Perhaps Little Richard said it best after a visit to Graceland during the early ’70s. “He got what he wanted,” Richard said, “but he lost what he had.”
But he also left what he had. There’s the music that will live forever. Ask people if they remember where they were when they heard that Elvis Presley died and you won’t get many answers. It wasn’t a numbing shock, like when Kennedy was shot, but rather news that wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Now ask the same people where they were when they first heard “That’s All Right” or “Mystery Train” or “Heartbreak Hotel” or whatever song was their introduction to Elvis, and you’ll find those remembrances are much more vivid. Every rock ‘n’ roll fan recalls where they were when they first heard that voice that made the blood rush to their head.