Assortments of Thought

In Appreciation of the King

Posted on: April 23rd, 2010

Mention the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll to anyone at all, and chances are they’ll know right away who you’re talking about. For of all the popular musical performers we’ve seen over the decades, perhaps Elvis Presley was and remains the most famous and beloved of them all. He absolutely captivated young audiences back then with his provocative performing style and amazing voice, and even now, thirty plus years after his death, people still visit his old home as if expecting to catch a glimpse of him there, while Elvis impersonators abound in both number and popularity. Yet alongside this public phenomenon was once a very different and personal one in the life of someone who was simply a man before he was a famous singer, a man who likely never imagined the unprecedented status he would achieve, or the prices that would accompany it. For all the obsessive fame and that which sustained it took Elvis from humble and simple beginnings through nothing less, ultimately, than substantially declining health and prescription drug abuse, culminating in his untimely death long before his time. Such is the other side of the Elvis phenomenon, the personal one concerning all the hardship he had to endure in his famous lifetime, and one people might think about just a little more if they’re to truly appreciate all that the King left behind.

It’s certainly doubtful that Elvis ever had any inkling of the status he was to obtain before it happened. Indeed, he grew up relatively poor but with all the love of a close family, and so always had a humility about him that he apparently never lost. Even at the height of his fame, for instance, he was never rude or arrogant in how he treated his fans or other performers. In fact it was quite the opposite, as he was apt to give away things like cars and jewelry even to people he didn’t know so well, and always ready to acknowledge the talent of other artists. (Just listen to the various clips and snippets interspersed between songs on Elvis Radio, for instance, to hear occasional examples). Thus when he set foot in a recording studio for the first time in the mid-fifties, he may very well have had some interest in becoming a star, but he certainly didn’t want immense fame, particularly if it would’ve become detrimental to his character or family life. He probably hoped to earn some money from his recordings as well, if only to better his own life a bit and to provide more for his parents, but not for the sake of becoming rich in its own right. His ambitions simply weren’t so large, it seems, as to change him from who he had always been, or even make him want to. And so from such a humble and simple beginning, with no intention of attaining the fame he ultimately did, his rise from simple man to legendary performer began.

It wouldn’t be long at all before he did become famous, with his career being developed for profit along with it. For Elvis held considerable sex appeal as everyone who knows anything about him knows, and in the counterculture of the late fifties and sixties, this was enough, I believe, to secure him a following unlike any other. Just imagine how it must’ve all happened back then. As part of the counterculture, young women were just beginning to feel empowered in their sexuality, unlike their mothers and grandmothers before them, and yet to express as much was as rebellious as, indeed, rock ‘n’ roll itself. Then this sexy young man turned up on various TV shows, not only singing this rebellious music, but swinging his body and hips all around to it to boot. He may’ve only done it for feeling the music he was singing, but the many young women who saw it certainly felt otherwise, and suddenly, Elvis had an intense following unlike any other before or since. It was an immediate consequence then that people like Col. Tom Parker noticed the financial potential in this potent, one-of-a-kind mixture between attractive singer and cultural revolution, and so Elvis’s career was soon developed to such aims as a result. Throughout the sixties, for instance, he starred in numerous films, nearly all of which were designed to showcase his moves to all his smitten fans, thus sustaining his passionate fan base while keeping the money flowing in. Once his rise to fame had begun then, for Elvis, it seems, there was no turning back, no matter how he felt about it all.

Of course, it’s not hard to see why he became increasingly unhappy in his career and life. Being a celebrity or any other prominent public figure is seldom easy, but in Elvis’s case, it was all the harder, for his unprecedented following meant too many interests to be pursued that were contrary to his own. Consider Col. Parker’s management of his career, for instance, and in particular, all the movies he had Elvis star in throughout the sixties. Because they were profitable and sustained Elvis’s fan base, Parker was fairly insistent on their format, of keeping their plots simple and with abundant singing so that Elvis himself was showcased. Yet Elvis always wanted to be a serious actor, much more than just a singer in the movies, with roles like any other star would’ve played. Such roles weren’t so profitable though, as demonstrated by the very few serious movies he did make, so Parker effectively put a stop to them. (See the Wikipedia article “Elvis Presley,” sec. 1.5, para. 4). But if that’s what Elvis really wanted, why did Parker or anyone else insist otherwise? Clearly, because their own profit and future profit was more important to them than Elvis’s happiness in his career, no matter that they already had plenty of money coming in. And indeed, Elvis surely knew his movies weren’t outstanding, that they were amicable and even pleasant, but not outstanding. He probably knew as well that many of their songs were just okay as well. To be sure, some of Elvis’s best songs originated on his soundtracks, but many others, while okay, were just too specific to the movie at hand to really stand alone. Surely Elvis realized all this, wishing to play serious acting roles as he did, yet he would just have to forget it, ultimately, and leave his true acting ambitions behind. At the hands of people like Parker then, even with all is fame, Elvis still couldn’t pursue the career he truly wanted, not even the serious acting roles he’d always wanted.

Sadly enough, his most obsessive fans weren’t much better to him either, if not worse, even if it wasn’t their intention. For if people like Col. Parker made Elvis unhappy in his career, some of his fans made him unhappy in his very life. Consider, for instance, how people were always hanging around his house, trying to catch whatever small glimpse of him they might’ve gotten. It must’ve been terrible, realizing every time he looked out the window that he couldn’t even go outside without being watched, always seeing that strangers were encircling his property. Or, consider how difficult it was for him to go out to public places even, for fear of what his fans might do to him in their excitement at seeing him. It was as though he didn’t even have complete freedom, that he couldn’t go to public places without special arrangements, and he had to live with that on a daily basis. Finally, consider how he had to stay protected at his concerts behind security and be whisked away at the end of his shows unbeknownst to everyone, after a few false exits to throw everyone off. He probably would’ve liked to interact more with his fans, beyond simply throwing sweaty scarves and such down to them, yet many were so fanatical that it just wasn’t safe. In short then, while many of his fans were respectful and nonintrusive, some were nothing less than downright rude, and superficial. Had they seen past their obsessive sexual interests in Elvis to the poor man behind the legend, the person wanting a normal life like anyone else, maybe they would’ve been different. Certainly they didn’t intend to cause Elvis trouble. Yet they did, and apparently couldn’t or wouldn’t stop, and so on top of developing unhappiness in his career, soon Elvis was becoming unhappy with his whole life as well.

By the seventies, in fact, it seems he was so disheartened by it all that he simply began to accept it, which is to say, he gave up on thinking it would ever be any different. Indeed, to help cope with the situation he found himself in, Elvis became increasingly addicted to various prescription drugs, developing a dependency on them that he would carry until the end. And he certainly didn’t develop that dependency for fun or recreation, given that he’d always detested the drug culture of the sixties as something he didn’t want anything to do with. Rather, he honestly felt he needed his drugs for medicinal purposes, and certainly his doctor didn’t otherwise insist, seeing as he kept on prescribing them. And in any event, his drug dependency ultimately became one of his last sources of solace, for even though he took to giving live performances throughout the seventies with seemingly great vigor, he must’ve simply been immersing himself in the little he had left, for his health had become anything but vigorous. Indeed, he had become vastly overweight, and ill to the point that he was barely able to stand on stage and sing at times, much less with any of the energy or body movements that had characterized his earlier performances (see the Wikipedia article “Elvis Presley,” sec. 1.7, para. 2). In effect, he had lost nearly everything by then, including his privacy, his freedom, his health, and the very happiness that had characterized his early family life and entrance into the world of stardom. Then of course, in the late seventies, he finally lost his very life. And so the greatest performer the world has ever known, and a humble, caring man who had deserved so much better, who had always given so much to his fans, had finally been driven to death, with only a few left behind, perhaps, to truly appreciate all that he had suffered through.

Now, decades later, there still isn’t much acknowledgment given to the darker side of Elvis’s life. Perhaps it’s something people just don’t want to think about, given all the enjoyment they still get from his music, and the legendary, larger-than-life status he has long since attained. Certainly, the marketing since his death hasn’t focused on anything except the good and the profitable, and that was probably the case all along. Yet it seems to me, that while no one need dwell on the harsher realities of his life and death, they still should acknowledge everything Elvis went through in producing all his great music and such. For while he was still alive, so many people overlooked his best interests that, in part, considering all he went through now is simply a matter of tribute and respect. But even if it’s far too late for that, no matter what the people who were close to him might say, there’s another reason as well. Simply put, Elvis indeed lived a hard life in his fame, yet he still produced outstanding music, and exhibited astounding talent, even in the end. When you come to realize that–when you listen to his music in the context of all he went through to make it–then you begin to see just how much talent he really had. The level of artistry becomes clear, and for the first time, you truly gain an appreciation for all he left behind, one you’ll simply never get without considering the harsher realities of his life. For Elvis was indeed the King, not only because of all his fame and talent, but because of all he went through to share it.

References:

en.Wikipedia.org: “Elvis Presley,” at Wikipedia as of Apr. 23rd, 2010
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elvis_Presley].

Various: Interview and other program clips and snippets, on Elvis Radio, Sirius 13 / XM 18.

©2010, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.

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