No entertainer in history has been more celebrated than Elvis Aaron Presley.
You will often run into some clowns who will rail against what they erroneously claim was his appropriation of the black man’s music and others will blather on about his psychological makeup that lead to his appreciation of young girls. But his legacy is intact due mostly to the rabid and effusive core of his fan base. Quentin Tarantino’s script for True Romance taught me that there is a vast difference between “Elvis fans” and what I call “Elvis People”, the perhaps more discerning of us who have studied Presley’s life and career and have discovered many things to appreciate. But it is this former group that always makes me chuckle.
Trying to discuss Elvis lucidly across social media, you will often run into those who cannot discourse in a calm and honest fashion. Many people in most of these groups will use ALL CAPS in declaring ALL of his movies great and EVERY song a classic. I’ve just never thought it was a negative to analyze an aspect of a performer’s career and to declare some things relatively substandard. I always maintain that knowing something is not of the highest quality does not reduce your enjoyment of it. Then there’s the others I have run across on one particular social network who are obsessed with the man romantically and sexually; the fan fiction I have read beggars description.
I say all that to say all this; it’s about love. It’s about joy. It’s about happiness. So many of us are so grateful to Elvis Presley for all he gave us, even simply for all he was. But it’s about our joy. One of the many striking parts of Elvis’ story is the distinct lack of happiness he was able to achieve for himself. I’ve often said that reading a biography of Frank Sinatra is wonderful because his story – though he has his detractors, too – is one of victory. Reading other works on the likes of Sharon Tate or Edie Sedgwick, well, you know you are in for some sadness. A feeling of trepidation will often come over me whenever I dig into the ballad of Elvis Presley. Because I know how it ends.
More than that though I know that at so many points in his story I will be gritting my teeth, wishing this or that hadn’t happened. I will half-jokingly say to myself that maybe this time I will read that he stopped making movies in ’64 or he finally cut ties with Col. Parker in ’67 or he retired in ’77 and focused on his health and well-being. But each biography ends the same. I never read that he came back healthy in 1981 with a brilliant country album. For all the joy that he gave to so many, Elvis Presley’s story is a sad one. It’s a tale of missed opportunities and it’s a tale of roads not taken. When his only child, Lisa Marie Presley, died in January of 2023 at age 54, I was overcome with a feeling of sadness. Not only for the death of this woman, mother and daughter – a girl who, when I was a child, I thought I might someday marry – but for what her death said to me about the whole of the Presley family. Call it their fate or destiny. The story of the Presleys is – at its core – a tragic one. Never was there a more poignant story of riches and fame not being able to provide contentment.
Gladys Love Presley was a simple country woman every one of her scant years on earth. The birth of her son had a monumental effect on her, her husband, that child and much of American society. The psychological effect on Gladys of losing one of her two twin boys cannot be overstated. This also applies to how it affected the surviving boy, little Elvis Aaron. In fact, just about every single thing that came after this birth needs to be assessed and understood in the light of the fact that Elvis was a “twinless twin”. Because this was the only child she was ever going to have, Gladys bonded with her son to an almost unhealthy extreme.
Perhaps this is all understandable. But it also resulted in Gladys Presley struggling to ever maintain contentment in her life. Little Elvis going to school caused her consternation and she would follow him as he walked. In the evenings, she insisted he stay close to home, not climb trees and not engage in many of the fun and semi-dangerous things young boys get up to. The fear of anything bad happening to her son ruled her life and she wore it like a cloak. The bond was strengthened when her husband Vernon went to prison for a short stretch and it became mother and son against the world. Their union was fortified to the extent that upon his return Vernon was often on the outside looking in on his family. Maybe one day, Elvis could grow up to be a famous singer. Maybe one day he would be able to take his folks out of the abject poverty they had always known and give them a fine home, fine cars and fine clothes. Surely that would bring contentment.
As soon as Elvis became popular in the south in 1954 and 1955, this necessitated him leaving home to perform. While this meant at least something of an income, Gladys almost couldn’t bear it. She feared for her boys’ safety wherever he went. The night EP’s car burst into flames only heightened her anxiety. The knowledge that he was out there sowing oats, not attending church and getting involved with girls grieved her all the more. When real stardom came, Mrs. Presley’s fears only grew. Now mobs were surrounding her baby. Now he was travelling even further away and consorting with even more worldly people.
Elvis was thrilled the day he could realize a dream and buy his folks a fine home. Graceland was several steps up from their quaint house on Audubon Drive. At their previous home, teenagers would gather on the lawn and Gladys would often invite them in, feeding them and chatting. There was a certain amount of excitement. In trying to achieve some privacy behind the gates of their new mansion, the Presleys also cut themselves off from any human contact. In isolation, Gladys turned to drink and pills. Now also for her there was her son’s new manager to fear. Gladys knew instinctively that Col. Parker was not to be trusted but his plans for “his boy” took precedence. Now Elvis was in trouble with the media over morality issues. Now he was having his clothes torn off by overzealous fans. Why couldn’t he just marry a nice girl – Gladys put forth many of Elvis’ girlfriends as potential wives – and settle down. But this was never going to happen.
Elvis’ induction into the Army in 1958 was the final nail in Gladys Presley’s coffin. Her sorrow and fear knew no bounds. Her drinking increased and her health deteriorated. He hadn’t even left the country for Germany when she went into the hospital. Her death would dictate the course of the rest of her son’s life. Did Elvis’ success improve Gladys Presley’s life? It did not. In fact, it made it worse. The polar opposite of a stage mother, Gladys Presley was ill-equipped to handle her son’s fame. She died at 46.
Some adventurous men will work to earn themselves a fortune. They will play fast and loose and lose everything. Then they will roll up their sleeves and get to work making another fortune. Vernon Presley was not cast in this mold. He avoided work all of the time Elvis spent as a child and gained a reputation for this avoidance and as one who was always claiming a “bad back”. It suited him down to the ground when is son began to make money and when Col. Parker seemed the man to keep the money rolling in, Vernon championed him and gave him a free hand. Vernon was probably quite content with his son as a multi-millionaire with no end of the paydays in sight. You would think so but Vernon spent the rest of his life worrying that the money would run out. He feared returning to poverty as this may mean he would have to go to work. Because of this fear, Vernon insisted on paying Elvis’ staff of friends next to nothing, he fretted whenever Elvis bought a Cadillac or a ranch or a diamond ring. And he was complicit in being the main reason that Elvis had to continue being chained to Parker, the supposed only person who could make the deals and keep the family solvent. Did Vernon Presley, father of one of the world’s wealthiest entertainers, sit back and enjoy life? Seems not. Vernon Presley worried. He would outlive his famous son and kept Col. Parker at the helm after Elvis’ death. Vernon died in 1979, making it to only 63.
Elvis and Priscilla Presley conceived their only child on their wedding night in 1967. It was a girl. Lisa Marie Presley has always been my favourite. As a young man, I always imagined myself dating her; she was the perfect girl for an Elvis Guy to date, I figured. When still a child, Lisa had to contend with her parents’ divorce in 1973 and all it’s attendant pain and hurt. It just so happens that she was at Graceland visiting her father when he passed away in 1977 when she was 9 years old. She was there without a parent when all the mayhem ensued. A rebellious teenager, she struggled with drug addiction between the ages of 13 and 17. After three years sober, she seemed to right the ship when she married Danny Keough. A year later, Lisa became a mother to a son, Benjamin – a man to the House of Presley – and daughter Danielle Riley. This seemingly sedate and functional union lasted but six years and somehow, a year later, Lisa found herself married to Michael Jackson. She said that she hoped to cure him of his own addiction to narcotics but Mike chose the drugs over Lisa Marie; marriage lasted 19 months. Her third marriage was to Nicholas Cage – that one lasted three months.
Through all this, Lisa Marie managed to have a music career of her own. Endowed with a sneering, whispering, half-moaning voice, she found some success with two pop-rock albums in the first half of the 2000’s and then returned in 2012 with a mellower, rootsier record called Storm and Grace. Her music for me is marked by her spleen-venting in such songs as “S.O.B.” – “I lost my trust in you. You were dangerous and scary and you poisoned me with the fruits everyone was intrigued by”, “Idiot” – “I’m gonna tell you what I think about you in that unforgivable way I do. You’re an idiot and I hate your guts” and a cover of Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry”, a song noted for its lyrics about sensationalism, the intrusive nature of the media and the “tabloidization of all news”. Most notably for me was always “Lights Out” from her first record, 2003’s To Whom It May Concern: “Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis. That’s where my family’s buried and gone. Last time I was there I noticed a space left next to them there in Memphis in the damn back lawn.” This always made me think she disdained the fact that her family home was a tourist attraction and it was her music and many of her interviews that seemed to make it clear that she resented a lot of the scrutiny she was subjected to. She was always loathe to make much of being Elvis Presley’s daughter though she did much to carry on her father’s charitable works in his name.
Her fourth marriage came in 2006 to musician Michael Lockwood – first husband, Danny, still close with Lisa, served as best man. With Lockwood, Lisa had twin girls in 2008 and things looked stable. After the Caesarean birth of the girls, a doctor in the hospital gave Lisa Marie a prescription for opioid painkillers; in just a short time, she felt “the need to keep taking them”. Through 2016 and 2017, she struggled through a horrendous divorce from Lockwood. In part of her deposition, she admitted to abusing alcohol and using cocaine. Just as she seemed to be emerging from this nightmare, she suffered the horror of losing her son to suicide. Lisa Marie was seen in public often during promotion for the 2022 biopic of her father’s life. Her and her mother seemed really to bond with Austin Butler, who portrayed Elvis in the film, and the Presley women – with Jerry Schilling – accompanied Butler to the Golden Globes in January of ’23 where he was rewarded for his uncanny portrayal. Lisa, to me, looked unhealthy that night. Once, while just standing still giving an interview, she had to pause and make a point of taking Jerry’s arm. She was dead two days later.
She meant something to me. She was Elvis Presley’s only child. All I wanted was for her to be happy and healthy and to live to be some little girl’s old grandmama. Not much to ask for. But as soon as I say that, I realize I am complicit in part of what she struggled with. I wanted all this because she is Elvis’ child. I need something from you, Lisa, because of who you are. Because of who your dad is. While she herself likely often thought that she just wanted to be a woman and a daughter and a mom without having to bear the weight of being the king’s only heir and carrying some kind of torch. See, she could never be just your friendly neighbour and packing her kids’ lunches and getting them off to school. That sort of normality was not for her – just like it wasn’t for her father. Or her grandmother. Or her son. And that I’m sure was a heavy, heavy burden. Poor Lisa could no longer carry it. She was only 54 when she died. I don’t remember when I had been more shocked and saddened by the death of someone I did not know.
While we are talking about carrying burdens, what must Benjamin Keough’s life have been like? Sure, Elvis had no boy children but here is a grandson! And with his grandad’s nose! What a thrill for us fans. And here again – no way we could have just left him alone to grow and figure things out and be a teenager and a young adult. He needed to be the heir apparent. I know I would have liked him to have been a certain type of person, to carry the legacy in a certain way. Who knows how he suffered. What leads a young man with no end of financial resources to clear life’s debris from his path to take his own life with a gun? Lisa was there that day when Elvis died, struggled through drug addiction and four marriages. She cited her four children as inspiration to clean herself up. And then her only son kills himself. He was only 27. And what did that do to Lisa Marie? What state was she in when she died?
Elvis Presley had fame and riches known to only a few in his business. And few had this fame and these riches before he did. He blazed a trail and walked where no one had walked before. There had been no one to make mistakes before him so he could know what to avoid. He had to be the one to go before all others and make the mistakes that performers know not to make today. The pain of being a twin without a sibling, abject poverty as a youth and realizing that wealth and popularity were a prison sealing him just as tightly as poverty had. Despite maybe hundreds of romantic relationships, it seems no one woman could really satisfy. The fact that he could have anything at anytime must have provided some kicks but for how long? Maybe even having everything you want gets old after a while. Where’s the joy in attainment when it comes so easily? It seems he spent his entire life searching and suffering. Sadly, this suffering was also the fate of his mother, his child and his grandson. The generational pain has been unceasing to this point in history. And now something seems to be over. Priscilla has earned a bit of sympathy by this point and she has proved a survivor. Riley Keough seems to have carved out a career as an actress and that is pleasing, too. Stop a minute and think of poor Danny Keough, Lisa’s first husband. A regular joe and seemingly a good guy. He stayed best friends with his first wife and they even contemplated remarrying. Then he lost his son and Lisa was gone. Danny could be seen as an innocent victim, caught up in the Presley’s orbit.
Elvis Presley was onto something when he returned to the gospel music of his youth, studied his Bible and sought the Lord. It is my opinion, based on my personal beliefs, that Jesus is the only way that people can find peace and contentment. At the very least, living a life of faith can constantly remind you that there is something bigger than you at work. Following Christ is nowhere near a guarantee of an easy life nor does it mean that the follower has attained anything resembling perfection. Usually, the exact opposite is true. All of us are broken in some way and need a Saviour.
This is what I consider to be the hard truth about the Presleys. Theirs is a tale of such sorrow. Of being given the chance to attain happiness and ease but of falling so miserably short of that. Lisa Marie Presley’s death just seemed like the end of something. As is often the case in life, we all need to build a bridge and move on. Though they had so little themselves, thankfully, the family has given us so much joy. Thankfully, we will always have Elvis Presley’s incredible body of work to sustain us through the valleys and to heighten the thrill of the mountaintops.
- Alexander, Harriet. Drug abuse and rehab. DailyMail.com. (2023)
- Bushby, Helen. Lisa Marie Presley: How she turned personal tragedy into hope. Elvis Australia. (2023)