Had Elvis left the drugs alone, he might have celebrated turning 78 today.
Drugs, maybe more than fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, took him away even before he fell off the toilet at Graceland and left that big hole in the heart of American music lovers.
But Elvis was about much more than music.
In a changing time when superstardom meant more than Michael Jackson ever did – Michael, who married and divorced Elvis’ precious daughter Lisa Marie (a relationship that Elvis, had he lived, would have no doubt stopped hard before it started) – Elvis rose above the crowd for several reasons.
The sneer hijacked countless black leather jacket-wearing hoods smoking non-filter cigarettes on street corners and wiping greasy hands on white T-shirts their mothers washed by hand. Elvis’ soft skin and dark eyes easily made teenage girls cry, their lives forever changing because of him, his hair and his heart that they knew held a place for them.
My father even liked Elvis. And Shamus was not easily impressed. He eventually hated the Beatles and anybody else who came from England to play rock and roll. He hated native-born American rockers as well. When I mentioned Jimi Hendrix at the dinner table one night Shamus looked me long in the eye, slowly pushed his chair from the table and silently walked away.
Years passed before I figured out the animosity. Shamus was from another time. But so was Elvis. What made the difference? What sent us regularly to one of our few family outings at the drive-in where “Kid Galahad” played into the early morning hours?
Shamus loved Elvis because Elvis loved his mother. Elvis took care of his mother, bought Graceland for her and did anything and everything to please her. Elvis was a good boy who, like Shamus, knew that your mother matters most.
Shamus loved his mother as well. And when my grandmother died, the loss took so much out of my father than he turned away from a promising career as a professional heavyweight boxer to instead enlist in the state police.
When somebody once spotted me hitchhiking past our town when I was in college and told my father, my father the cop laid down the law.
“Don’t you ever come through here without stopping to see your mother,” he said.
He didn’t have to warn me again.
I once accidently let a foul word slip that my mother heard. Shamus stopped the party, got his coat and took my mother by the arm and, despite my tearful protestations, escorted her from my new apartment.
Yes, Elvis was good to his mother and I doubt that he ever once cursed in front of her.
Yet, had she known what he was up to half the time on the road, she, too, would have likely laid down the law. But Elvis kept his secrets to himself and to the small team of bodyguards known as the Memphis Mafia, a group Elvis eventually disappointed as well.
To Elvis, TCB meant “taking care of business” and said it all. But Elvis eventually did not take care of the deeply personal business that might have kept him alive to celebrate with us today.
Unlike John Lennon, who fell with four bullets in his back, Elvis did it to himself.
“Elvis, What Happened” is a book worth reading that was written by longtime Elvis confidant and bodyguard Red West, a man whose legendary karate skills and mental discipline still could not protect Elvis from himself. West left the failed relationship broken-hearted when Elvis cast him aside. If only Elvis had stayed close to West, he might have lived.
But Elvis was never much the same after his mother died.
Elvis stopped caring.
Elvis needed to hide.
A scared little boy inside, he had no mother to run to. As handsome and talented and downright nice to people as he was, Elvis was insecure, weak, drug-crazy and lost.
Elvis no longer had the will to try.
I stopped at Graceland in 2002 on my way to California. The day was wet and gray and the paint on the private jet named after Lisa Maria was chipping. The last bus tour to the house had left and the grass on the once great lawn had turned brown. Colorful graffiti marred the once perfectly clean wall by the famous sculpted metal musical note double gate that led to the driveway that led to the front door of the mansion.
We had planned to stay the night at the Heartbreak Hotel but the dismal scene helped us decide against it.
When we drove away, I felt bad about Elvis and all that had happened to him and to America.
But I took solace in the young Elvis and what he seemed to be at the time, what he seemed excited to share with a nation that was fast losing innocence and getting more and more complicated every day.