Just finished a bio of Elvis Presley I picked up a few years back and had sitting on my shelf by novelist Bobbie Ann Mason. Elvis is one of those figures whose presence is culturally ubiquitous, so the danger is greater that we think we “know” him, only to discover that we do not know this person at all.
I felt the sadness that so many musical biographies have evoked in me in recent years—bios of Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, the Carter family, Eric Clapton, the great blues singers and Hank Williams. One common thread in this tapestry is the lonely road of fame. No one knew this more than the King.
If Hank Williams was the first true country superstar, Elvis rocketed down a road no one had ever seen before. Mason’s telling is masterful, even if the story is familiar. What was new to me was all the dabbling in Christianity and Eastern religion Elvis did, even as he descended into the world of drugs. If he was the true king of Rock and Roll, he was also the archetype of addictive splitting off into separate selves, isolation from loved ones, and disconnection from life.
At the same time I was reading the Elvis bio, I was also working through The Addictive Personality by Craig Nakken. He quotes a plaque on a friend’s wall that says, “Fooling people is serious business, but when you fool yourself, it is fatal.” Elvis’ story is one of a young man whose musical genius could not be suppressed, but whose spiritual and emotional life and growth were assaulted from every angle in the process. He lived in a prison of impossible expectations, wealth and adoration. He made the great mistake of addiction: confusing intensity of experience with emotional intimacy.
I love Elvis. He met the Beatles on my eleventh birthday, August 27, 1965, for the first time, a symbolic joining of the two great musical rivers of my boyhood. It was a disastrous meeting, one that was filled with misunderstanding and misinterpretation. They came to offer him homage and he became threatened by it. Rather than the joyful intersectionElvis between “Colonel” Parker and Ed Sullivanthat might have happened the two roads diverged instead. Elvis spiraled deeper into isolation in the coming years, into paranoia and bizarre behavior, drugs, control by the manipulative Colonel Parker, the succession of vapid and empty movies, and the banality of Vegas. But ultimately it is Elvis himself who sat so uneasy on the throne he was handed so early in life. He once described himself as “hanging on my own cross.”
Another book I have read in recent months, is Elaine Heath’s The Mystic Way of Evangelism. In it, she describes the three classical stages of the life of prayer—Purgation, Illumination, and Union with God. Purgation is a dark and terrible place, but also a holy one. It is a time in which the pilgrim often falls into dryness, spiritual uselessness, and darkness. Yet it is also the very place out of which great newness comes. When Elvis came to his darkest times, they were also the moments that offered the possibility of new and different life, had he somehow been able to turn away from the monstrosity of fame.
I was struck by the interesting intersection of these three books—Elvis, the secular child of the South, disconnected from all real relationship and the people who would love him by the fame and fortune that came with his talent, the addict who destroyed himself in the process of expressing the passion in his soul, and the seeker who sought, if only now and then, to cry out against the commercialization and worship that ultimately pulled him into chaos. He read books on religion, seeking to discover some deeper place in his life, and to draw the spiritual core of his early life into his music and thought.
Finally, the forces who made money from him and rode the train of fortune on his back were too great for Elvis. Even worse, Elvis’ own craving for acceptance and love from the world without was greater than the fragile quest for peace could withstand. Yet in his comebacks the “voice” that was authentically emerged again and again. A cry, “Listen. I have something to say.”
Tragic hero, addict, mystic. What burst through that boy in Sun studios when he sang, that voice and passion that connected so deeply and bridged segregated musical worlds, still reminds us—finding our own voice is a painful, intense, risky business. It is life and death, and best undertaken with spiritual roots and a few dependable guides along with us. I kept wishing that someone close to the King had been able to tell him the truth and that he had listened. We lost him too soon.
2 thoughts on “Elvis–tragic hero, addict, mystic”
I’ve been an admiring reader of this blog of yours for a while now, having been introduced to it by your daughter, Katie, and I have found your writings on Elvis (this one, and the piece you wrote on his death) to be particularly moving. I love Elvis, too, and can distinctly remember being on a visit to my grandparents home in Monroe, Michigan when he died. My Uncle Mickey, all of 29 that summer and a Vietnam Vet-motorcycling-GM auto line worker, shaved off his looooooooong sideburns when the King passed.
I’m curious if you’ve ever read “Hellfire” by Nick Tosches about Jerry Lee Lewis, and if so, what your thoughts on that book might be. Ditto for Johnny Cash’s autibiography, “Cash”. Both men were also addicts and seekers, and one need go no further than the acetates of Sun Studio’s Million Dollar Quartet Sessions to know they were also men of deep (if sometimes conflicted) faith. I also read the first volume of Peter Guralnick’s bio of Elvis, and while I found it full of facts, it was almost entirely devoid of soul and music. When I think of Elvis, I always find myself considering his lost twin, and how much that absence shaped the way he lived his life, too.
At any rate, I find your writing to be inspiring and thought-provoking, and I’m glad that you share it.
All my best,
First, thank you for taking the time to write so thoughtfully. I have read “Cash”, but not Hellfire. It is indeed striking how consistently addiction goes with the fame culture of music. People get there with something so personal and urgent that they have to do it, but all that comes with it was rarely in their minds. I’ll pick up “Hellfire,” because Jerry Lee had to be the most inevitably conflicted of them all, given his family.
I think it must be this same reality that Flannery O’Connor pointed to in calling the South “Christ-haunted.” Music, to me, is inevitably spiritual and writers who don’t get that miss a huge part of the story. I think for Elvis at least, neither world–music or faith–was adequate to the quest he was on and the world of the religion he grew up with, while rich in giving roots was inadequate for the life that would follow.
I especially like your Uncle Mickey. Now THAT is a true Elvis fan.
I enjoy blogging. I started it in July merely to provoke myself to write regularly. Writing, like music, is deeply spiritual in and of itself to me. I still wonder at the miracle that words and thoughts emerge merely by beginning the process, and as I enter the act, the thoughts and expressions somehow come together. The act of typing slows my thoughts enough to permit free play. I still find it astounding to enjoy such a treasure. I decided not to care how many people read it (as much as anyone actually CAN not care about that!).
Now, on a personal note, you are a friend, mentor and figure of enormous respect and impact on Katie’s life. I have known about you from her days at the school with you. You inspired and encouraged her toward her vocation as a teacher. Thank you for that. I fully intend to meet you on a trip to New York. Katie and I are planning for me to come and do a presentation that I did in her class in the Heights on Songwriting and Writing, and when I do we’ll see if we can meet.
All the best, and thanks for honoring me with the gift of your time. The post was a mess when I first put it in. I’ve edited and fixed it if you read it last night.
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