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.