No easy answers on tragic ending: Drugs, deepening depression, heredity, failed relationships and creative dilemma share blame
For the thousands of visitors who’ll make the pilgrimage to Memphis this week to mark the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, the next seven days will be filled with a mix of sightseeing and book-signings, concerts and celebratory events.
But for those who knew Presley best, like his longtime friend Jerry Schilling, the week inevitably serves as a very personal pause to reflect on the King’s life, and regret the reasons for his untimely death.
“I feel in my heart and soul that I lost my friend early because of creative disappointment,” says Schilling. “The prescription medication was certainly the Band-Aid on the problem, but it was not the cause.”
Schilling’s is one of many theories about what happened to Presley during his final years.
For some, like Peter Guralnick, author of the acclaimed two-volume Presley biography, Elvis’ demise is less about creative choices than a deep emotional struggle that was exacerbated by drugs.
“The downfall of Elvis … was really the result of the depression he felt,” says Guralnick. “And you can see it increasing
during the last four or five years of his life. You can see a man who’s in the grip of depression.”
For others, like Alanna Nash, author of an insightful volume on Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker, it was the failure of those around Elvis to help him personally and professionally.
“As great a manager as Parker was, by the ’70s, his vision had finally run out,” says Nash. “He was never a good judge of talent. And yet he lucked into the greatest talent of the 20th century. But he didn’t really know what to do for or with Elvis in the end.”
Despite its sad conclusion in the summer of 1977, the final decade of Elvis’ life had begun with a brilliant burst.
After a decade-long run in Hollywood, turning out lightweight films, Elvis began his “comeback” with a return to serious music and performing. Though his re-emergence is generally thought to have begun with the 1968 television special sponsored by Singer Sewing Machine on NBC, it had its origins as far back as 1966, with the recording of dynamic singles like “Guitar Man,” “Big Boss Man,” “Hi Heel Sneakers,” “U.S. Male” and “Too Much Monkey Business.”
“From that you got into the ‘68 special, to the sessions at American, to the very ambitious musical commitment to Las Vegas, and you see a renaissance,” says Guralnick. “In the beginning (Elvis) saw Vegas as a tremendous opportunity and was enormously enthusiastic about it. The idea was to present to the public his appreciation of the whole spectrum of American music, from the blues to Mario Lanza. And he continued with that into his sessions in Nashville in 1971.”
But after 1971, Presley began to gradually withdraw from the studio and a combination of personal problems began to take over. “The thing that stopped his run — whether you call it clinical depression or not — was a form of depression that wasn’t easily shrugged off,” says Guralnick. “And for which he had no treatment and which was exacerbated by the prescription drugs — which were for the most part depressants — that he took.”
As Guralnick points out, many of Elvis’ problems were, to an extent, heredity. “In his family you can see the prevalence off all kinds of emotional problems. In many ways, Elvis was a rock in that family,” says Guralnick. “The worse aspect of it was that he was not somebody who was inclined to admit to weakness and look for help.
“The abuse of prescription medication … was not so easily solved at the time. There were no superstars turning to rehabilitation centers. People didn’t go on talk shows and announce they had drug problems — and Elvis would’ve been the last person to do that. And in a sense, like so many people, he rationalized that he didn’t have a problem. His response in every instance to anyone’s attempts to give him advice or confront him on that was, ‘You don’t like it? Hey, there’s the door.’ ”
By 1973, Presley’s problems were compounded by a growing dissatisfaction with the direction of his career, dictated by the business machine that had been built around him. It was a network made up of the film studio, the record company, and the booking agent — all of whom got direction from one person, Col. Parker. “He had nobody on his side about what he wanted to do,” says Schilling. “It was a whole old-school different view. You’re the actor; do the role. You’re the singer; here’s the music.”
Presley’s most high-profile late-career successes — the Steve Binder-directed ‘68 Comeback Special and the sessions with producer Chips Moman at American Studio — were ideas that came through the back door rather than via Elvis’ official management channels. “Those are the few times that Elvis’ creative will survived the machinery around him,” says Schilling. “But you have to ask yourself, why wasn’t he with Chips the next session?… The machinery that had been set there for 15 or 20 years kicked right back in and it was back to business as usual.”
Part of the problem, was that his management, essentially the Colonel, never understood Elvis’ desires or appeal. “The Colonel would’ve loved if Elvis could have been Bing Crosby,” says Schilling. “Because then he could’ve done Christmas specials and sung nice songs. But Elvis was James Dean and a rebel. And that was part of the frustration, too.”
More significantly, it’s likely another manager in another era would’ve been more finely attuned to Elvis’ growing personal problems. But the Colonel — who’d gotten his start working on the rough-and-tumble carnival circuit — wasn’t the kind of man to do it.
“Part of me thinks the Colonel’s own distancing (is) involved in that,” says Parker’s biographer Alanna Nash. “He used to boast that he and Elvis never sat down and had a meal together. Which is a very strange thing to boast about in general, but it’s also not true. There are photographs of them together dining. He had a kind of warped psychological view that he should not get too personally close to his clients. And so, the Colonel did not step in as a human being and try to help Elvis. There never seemed to be much empathy to him.”
Instead of confronting Presley’s problems, Parker simply put him on a lucrative but creatively deadening treadmill of tours and unchallenging recording sessions. To Nash, this fit a pattern in Parker’s life. “When he worked at the carnivals, he was the one who would have to wrangle the geeks to come bite the heads off chickens. The geeks were always alcoholic, and they’d run and hide. The Colonel would be the guy to come and wave a big bottle in front of them and get them to do the show. To me, it’s not that big a stretch from what he did there to what he did with Elvis.”
Over the years, communication between Elvis and the Colonel began to erode, and there were serious blowups between the two in the early ’70s. “In the beginning they had a warm relationship,” says Nash. “But once it started to get tense and bitter, it started to get very tense and bitter.”
One such row in Vegas ended with Elvis actually firing the Colonel, before a fearful Presley — facing threats from the Colonel about money he was owed — relented and patched things up. “Ultimately, I don’t think the Colonel would have let him go,” says Nash. “Short of knocking the Colonel off, I think it would’ve been impossible to get rid of him.”
One of the issues that had created the wedge between the two men was Elvis’ desire to tour internationally, something Parker had long resisted.
“Elvis had always wanted to go overseas,” says Schilling. “But mainly he wanted to go while he was still relatively young, while he was still capable of living up to the image that people had in their minds about him. He talked about that for years.”
The idea of Presley going overseas did present legitimate “security” concerns. In the U.S., Presley traveled with his own doctor in tow, and had a ready supply of the pills he’d come to rely on. But the risk of going overseas with a traveling pharmacy presented real problems. In the early ’70s, several rockers, including ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, had been busted in foreign countries with illegal drugs. The Colonel saw the potential for disaster looming there.
However, Nash suggests that Parker — a Dutch citizen who was in the U.S. illegally and could not accompany Elvis overseas — was more worried about someone poaching Presley, or poisoning him against the Colonel. “Into the ’70s, when their relationship was extremely strained after Las Vegas,” says Nash, “Parker could not have taken the chance of letting some young agent be alone with him for an extended period of time off in a foreign country telling him, ‘You know, Elvis, not everybody takes 50 percent.’ ”
Why Parker never applied for U.S. citizenship is still a mystery. He certainly would’ve gotten it, as he had served in the U.S. Army, married an American woman and was powerful enough to call Lyndon B. Johnson a friend.
“It appears there was some horrible secret there that precluded people looking into his past too closely,” says Nash, whose book suggests that Parker may have originally fled The Netherlands after murdering a woman in 1929. “It’s what kept him from returning to Europe in a visible way. And so, Elvis never made it over either.”
With Presley’s desires for touring stymied, the last creative gasp for Elvis came from an unlikely source, Barbara Streisand. The singer and actress was contemplating a remake of “A Star is Born” and wanted Elvis for the demanding role of washed-up alcoholic rocker John Norman Howard.
“That’s the last time I saw a twinkle in his eye about a creative project,” says Schilling, who believes that the challenge of preparing for his role in “Star” would’ve gotten Elvis out of his funk.
But at the same time, Presley and Parker were beset by doubts about the project. There was distance over the fee Presley would be paid, but also Streisand was insisting that she get top billing, and that her hairdresser/ boyfriend Jon Peters serve as producer of the film. Ultimately, the Colonel objected and negotiations broke down.
“The deal was never satisfactory from a business point of view,” says Guralnick. “You had the first-time producer who was the boyfriend of the star, and that led to a certain amount of concern. But mainly, I don’t think Elvis could have done it at that point.”
“Elvis was concerned about his ballooning weight and about his ability to handle that kind of a dramatic role — though he yearned desperately to do so,” says Nash. “I think the Colonel came up with his objections to the project — about money and billing — but mainly he was fearful that Elvis could not pull it off.”
Nash believes the Colonel had resigned himself to the fact that Presley’s future was not going to be as bright as his past. In 1973, Parker set up a corporation called Boxcar Enterprises “to exploit, and commercialize Elvis’ name, image pictures and likeness.”
“By that time, the Colonel’s health was failing, and he thought he was not going to be around much longer — and he certainly felt that Elvis wasn’t going to be around much longer,” says Nash. “So instead of helping him find projects that really fit him and would rejuvenate him, he simply put together Boxcar, which allowed the Colonel and Vernon (Presley) to take a much larger piece of the merchandising when Elvis finally died. So the Colonel could ultimately say, quite rightly, ‘Elvis isn’t dead, just the body is gone.’ ”
To those around him, the last two years of Elvis’ life were like watching a man whose fires had burned out. “After ‘A Star is Born’ and not touring overseas, I think Elvis gave up,” says Schilling. “There are a lot of other things that happened, too, like the divorce. After all that, he truly wanted his family back. Also, he never liked the idea of being 40. He could’ve probably worked out each one of those things, but with all of them happening at the same time … it was too much.
“Elvis was always a guy who looked to the future and had an excitement about life,” adds Schilling. “But when you start talking ‘75, ‘76, it’s not quite the same person.”
For Guralnick the questions about career choices and business decisions ultimately are dwarfed by the bigger issues of Presley’s mental, emotional and physical states, all of which continued to worsen as August 1977 approached. “To wonder if Elvis had taken a different course, whether he would’ve had a more satisfying career is certainly a legitimate perspective,” says Guralnick. “But at that point, I just don’t see how any (career move) would have solved all his problems. If you’ve ever witnessed a person suffering, there generally isn’t a single trigger for that depression, or a single way out of it.”
Schilling, a natural diplomat when it comes to Elvis-related matters, says there isn’t an easy answer to explain what happened to his friend. “It’s a very complicated story,” says Schilling. “Everybody wants to look at things in black and white, but life is usually gray.
“But the bottom line, for me, is that Elvis should be here. He should be here spending time with his grandchildren and enjoying this part of his life and his career. And that’s the really heartbreaking part.”
–Bob Mehr: 529-2517