“Boscutti’s Elvis Presley” (Novel)
Step into the soul of a legend.
Increasingly anxious Elvis breaks free from the confines of Graceland on a crazy mission to meet President Nixon and score a Federal Drug Agent’s badge. For the first time in his, life Elvis leaves his entourage behind as he hits the road on his own. Will he find what he’s looking for?
“Boscutti’s Elvis Presley” is a true rock’n’roll novel. It’s based on an award-winning screenplay that’s based on a true story. You’ve never seen the king like this.
Will Elvis Presley find himself?
‘Fat, bloated, lost American dreamer. It’s too easy to dismiss Elvis as a has-been or a hack. Truth is the man made rock’n’roll in his spirit. I wrote this novel to find out more about Elvis than the typical biographies and hagiographies. I was looking for the soul of the man. The soul of rock’n’roll.’ Stefano Boscutti
‘Strikingly cinematic storytelling that cuts just the right way. Fine writing, sparkling dialogue. Sleek, fast-paced and exciting.’ Henry Alson
‘Everything that’s great about rock’n’roll wrapped up in an impossibly true story.’ Juliet Hadsell
‘Stylish and addictive, plenty of intrigue and drama from Memphis to Los Angeles to Washington and into the heartland of America.’ Brent Stine
‘Exceptionally intelligent and thought provoking account of the life of Elvis Presley.’ Hugh Ransford
‘Exuberantly outrageous telling of one of rock’n’roll’s finest moments.’ Jane Hansen
“Boscutti’s Elvis Presley” is based on Stefano Boscutti’s award-winning screenplay of the same name.
Rated NC-17 / ISBN 9780987446510 / 59,000 words / 236 minutes of high-spirited reading pleasure / Buy Barnes & Noble / Buy Smashwords
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‘Elvis transcends his talent to the point of dispensing with it altogether.’ Greil Marcus
BOSCUTTI’S ELVIS PRESLEY
BASED ON THE SCREENPLAY BY STEFANO BOSCUTTI
Copyright 2011 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved ISBN 9780987446510
Discover new stories, screenplays, novels and more by Stefano Boscutti at boscutti.com
CHAPTER 1: ‘YOU ARE THE CHOSEN ONE’
Voices sing out Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s two-beat gospel hymn “Up Above My Head.”
Strong, black voices roll out the gospel hymn over the thrum and hum of high summer of ’37.
Glowing white tufts float down like clouds over a blue-eyed baby lying in a bed of fresh cotton balls.
Gladys Presley swoops along the rows of cotton in the endless fields outside East Tupelo, her hands darting in and out of the plants, emerging laden with cotton balls that she tosses into a large denim sack she drags behind her. Inside this sack lies Elvis, gazing up at the endlessly blue sky and shimmering sun.
She kneels next to him, and strokes his shining golden hair. She coos at her infant son and speaks softly. So softly.
‘You got the destiny to do great things. You are living for two people. You got the power of two people inside you.’
The young mother gazes adoringly at her baby boy and lingers, feeling a warm breeze sift through the parched air. Cotton pickers are swaying, singing out through the heat.
She rises slowly from her knees and continues along the rows of cotton plants that taper to the horizon, plucking the white cotton balls from the tips of the branches and dropping them back into the sack.
The baby boy rests on top, swaddled in a white cloud. He clutches a soft cotton ball and squeezes it with his tiny fingers. His eyes return often to the woman working above him.
‘Elvis, you are real, real special, ‘cause when God took your twin brother into heaven, you took over. You took over his soul and you took over his spirit.’
She looks from the baby boy up to the sky, pushing her jet black hair aside with the back of her hand and shielding her eyes from the blinding sun.
‘One day we’ll all be back together again. But on this earth, you are real, real special ‘cause you are special as two people not just one.’
The baby boy follows her gaze and looks into the sky. He squirms with pleasure, burrowing into the soft cotton. He squints into the dazzling sun and smiles and smiles.
‘God chose you.’
The brilliant sun flares in.
‘You are the chosen one, Elvis.’
His mother smiles down at him.
‘You remember that always, you are the chosen one.’
The sun seems to grow brighter and brighter. Until it eclipses the face of his mother and he can no longer see her.
All he can see are the sparkling rays of the sun.
CHAPTER 2: ‘DON’T YOU “ELVIS” ME!’
Elvis Presley’s voice on a vinyl record sings “Blue Christmas” quietly in the distance.
A dark, gray sky deepens behind the famous Graceland mansion. A white dove flaps away. The estate has been festooned for the season with too many Santas and reindeers and festive wreaths and strings of blinking Christmas lights all dusted with the snow of Tennessee in December ’70.
Georgian Colonial columns and portico loom over the cars parked in the drive under the towering oaks. Two white marble lions sit guarding either side of the worn stone steps that lead to the white front double doors.
A light wind shifts the two interlocking wreathes of gold holly hanging off the doors.
Inside the carpets are white, the drapes are light blue and the highlights are a gold. Just like the gold Christmas tree floating on a sea of glossily wrapped and ribboned boxes. More jolly Santas, high flying reindeers, snowy miniature villas, and flickering red and green candles with electric globes shaped like flames on every available surface. The record player in the music room spins on.
A gold-framed portrait of Elvis as a young man wearing an effusive pink shirt and that sultry smile hangs in the stairway. His hair is swept back high above his forehead. It’s the natural sandy brown before he starting dyeing it jet black, before he started wearing mascara. Gold tinsel hangs down one side of the frame.
‘Christ, boy, $38,000 in one month! $38,000 for guns!!’
Vernon Presley’s loud, increasingly frustrated voice rings out from upstairs.
He stands outside the closed double bathroom doors in his son’s bedroom, clutching a sheaf of receipts. His shoulders are stooped, his hair gray and kinked-back hair.
Elvis shouts back from behind the doors.
‘Daddy, you know I got damn death threats hanging over my head.’
‘You let the guys worry about that.’
‘Daddy, get off my damn case!’
‘Jesus, that’s what they are paid for!! That’s what you pay them all your hard-earned money for.’
Vernon paces the bedroom, looking up at the television set Elvis has just had embedded in the soundproofed ceiling above the huge white king-size bed. Elvis’ voice drops an octave from behind the doors.
‘Daddy, I damn well mean it’
‘That’s why they are your damn bodyguards!’
‘Daddy, I ain’t going to tell you again, goddamnit!’
‘Not to mention you bought a bunch of guns you ain’t even allowed to have!’
Vernon shakes his head, flicking over the recriminating receipts.
‘You could get in trouble with these guns, boy. You got too many illegal ones. And what if someone got hurt by accident? They’re your guns, it’d be your fault.’
‘I only got one or two of the big ones.’
Elvis lies, unaware that his father is holding the evidence.
‘And I keep ‘em in my room. No one else but you’s allowed in my room.’
Vernon steps up to the doors.
‘Seven! Elvis, you bought seven machine guns. Seven damn illegal machine guns!!’
Vernon hears Elvis twist on a tap and water gush into the basin. Elvis shouts out.
‘So? So what? I got a badge. I got plenty of badges!’
Vernon almost laughs.
‘Son, you ain’t got no police badge for no machine guns.’
Vernon hears the tap twist off slowly, the water swirling away. Then the sound of a metal click as Elvis unlocks the doors. He takes a step back just as both doors suddenly burst open and slam into the wall.
Elvis storms into the bedroom, a pout on his lips, hurt in his eyes. Hair swept back, solid sideburns.
At thirty-five years of age, he’s never looked better.
He’s clad in tight, black velvet pants and a white shirt buttoned only halfway up. The enormous collar reaches his ears. Several gold chains sparkle around his neck and an elaborate gold belt buckle, the size of a small dinner plate, encircles his waist.
‘Goddamnit daddy, who’s side are you on anyway?’
Vernon throws his hands up over his head, defeated. Vernon’s life has been one defeat after the other. He’s never been good with money. In 1938 he was jailed for forging an eight-dollar check. While he was away, Gladys lost the two-room shotgun shack that passed for the family home.
‘Just you wait until the Colonel hears ‘bout this.’
This is not what Elvis wants to hear. He bites his bottom lip, and slowly turns to face his father. His face reddens and Vernon starts backing towards the hallway. Elvis spits out his words.
‘Fuck The Colonel! Fuck it! Tear up the goddamned contract for all I care! Rip it to kingdom come! I don’t need no one telling me what I can and cannot do!! I don’t need no one telling me nothing no more!’
He jabs his jeweled index finger into his father’s chest, again and again. Vernon keeps backing away to avoid Elvis’ rage and almost stumbles into the hallway. Elvis glares at him as he slams both padded bedroom doors shut.
Vernon drops his head, and lowers his voice. You can almost hear his heart break.
‘Jesus Christ, why you got to be such a goddamn selfish sumbitch?’
He wishes his wife were still alive. She seemed to be the only person Elvis ever trusted or would listen to.
Both doors fly open.
‘What’d you call me!?’
‘Jesus, Elvis, calm down I --’
‘I swear. And you bad mouth mama one more time, I am going to outright kill you. I don’t care how illegal it is.’
He slams the soundproofed doors again and then swings them open before the latch can catch. His tall, black head of hair, combed carefully back sways forward. One lock falls across his forehead, covering one blue eye.
‘Cancel the damn shows! I had it! It’s over!’
‘Don’t you “Elvis” me!’
He slams the doors so hard a sparkling miniature gold wreath flies off and lands at Vernon’s feet.
Alone in his bedroom, Elvis is biting his bottom lip and trying like hell not to curse. Soft white curtains are drawn over the windows covered in brown leatherette to keep out the sun and stares of the outside world. The air is chilled to a constant 68 degrees fahrenheit by three industrial-grade air conditioning systems mounted on the back roof. There’s a back-up system in case one of them fails. Elvis would rather die than lose his cool.
In one corner stands an almost life-size plaster Jesus on a pedestal, pointing to his heart. A small black Sphinx lies prone on the floor. Above a bank of gray television monitors a ceramic tiger is caught in mid-stride, glistening in the soft light.
The monitors flick between security cameras around the estate - empty racquetball building - empty stables - locked smoke house - covered pool - locked pool house - frozen water well - humming mobile homes - bodyguards eating in the kitchen - fieldstone walls lining the property - open wrought iron music gates.
On one of the security monitors, Vernon skulks back to Elvis’ office. Past the custom made desk with the built-in radio and television.
Elvis strides back into the bathroom. Glances at his reflection in the gold-tinted mirror tinted gold. Mirror, mirror on the wall who has the healthiest glow of all. No matter how pasty you look, how sick you feel.
The vanity is littered with bottles of Brut cologne, Crest toothpaste, hair dye, deodorant, enema and constipation medication, pill bottles, cotton balls, combs, brushes, hair spray, lotions, make-up vials and brushes and a couple of books open and face down on top of a white portable television.
A light blue towel hangs damp from a gold ring.
Beyond the gold tiled semi-circular shower recess lies the dressing room where a bodyguard sometimes spends the night to make sure Elvis doesn’t double up on his medication, doesn’t accidentally wake up and take more pills.
For the past few years he couldn’t perform without them. Without the uppers. He couldn’t get the energy up onstage, he couldn’t be who they wanted him to be. He couldn’t be Elvis Presley.
And then after the show he couldn’t climb back down without the sedatives and the sleeping tablets and the painkillers. It took more and more pills just to feel normal.
He’d always loved amphetamines. Loved them like candy. Sergeant Wilcox had first given him a handful when he’d been stationed in Germany as part of his military service. He’d lived on them them ever since.
The tightening of the pulse, the quickening of the heart, the instant smile, the rasping thoughts. Up above the world. So high, like a diamond in the sky.
Elvis rifles around under rows of clothes, cursing and throwing out anything in the way of what he’s looking for. Shoes, belt, crucifix. Finally he emerges satisfied, with his favorite Max Factor black makeup case in both hands. The one with his name stamped on the front. He walks it to the bed, unclips the gold claps, flips it open and upends it, spilling all the contents over the white comforter.
He goes to his lacquered white dresser, opens and empties several drawers onto the bed. He surveys the pile of guns and police badges and prescription drugs and jewelry and spiritual books. He chews his fingernails on one hand while the other hand rests on his hip, contemplating what to toss in and what to toss out.
Elvis picks out a dozen police badges and tosses them into his makeup case. Tosses in one, two, three, four, five, six, seven vials of pills. Tosses in a bunch of ammo. Tosses in a handful of necklaces. Tosses in two books.
He closes the lid and tries to latch it. But the clasps won’t catch and in pushing the lid down further, he sees that it isn’t going to budge.
He sighs in exasperation and opens the case again. He throws the books back on the bed and is about to clasp the box shut, when he notices the gold plated telephone on the bedside table.
A golden phone for a golden voice.
The handset was a little worn from all his calls, the dial a little tarnished. There was a red light in the bottom left corner that was supposed to flash whenever a call came through. But it never worked.
Beside the phone stands the gold framed black and white photo of his dead mother. She gazes at him from the top of the bedside table. Her long black hair cascades over one shoulder and her youthful face seems alive with possibility, alive with hope.
Everyone used to say Gladys was the one that did the raising. She was voluble, lively, full of spunk. Would do anything for her only son, her only child. They were close. Some said too close.
Elvis gently picks up the picture up and lovingly places it inside his makeup case, and carefully snaps the lid closed.
He locks it up, grabs his favorite gold-plated Colt .45 handgun, wedges it into the back of his pants, takes another look around his bedroom, and walks towards the padded double doors.
Elvis is about to open the door when he stops and lowers his head. He turns back, and spots his worn bible on the nightstand. He picks it up and then storms out of the room and down the stairs.
Vernon comes out of Elvis’ office on the second floor and leans over the landing. He sees Elvis and calls out.
‘Where in the hell do you think you’re going?’
Elvis doesn’t so much as look back. He stops in front of the music room, where his “Blue Christmas” record continues to play next to the gold grand piano.
This room, as in the rest of the house, is brimming with Christmas. It glimmers in gold, silver, and white tinsel.
He sneers at the piano and record player. He looks down at the bible in his hand and then hurls it across the room at the record player as hard as he can. It’s a perfect hit, slamming into the record with such force it gouges the needle across the vinyl and dislodges the disc.
Elvis whips open the front doors and rushes out. One of the interlocking wreaths slips and dangles from the other.
He strides to his brand new black Pantera. He takes one last look at his home, shakes his head in disgust and digs the car keys out of his tight pant’s pocket.
Elvis snaps open the driver’s door, flings his makeup case onto the passenger seat, jumps into the driver’s seat and jabs a key into the ignition.
He turns the key quickly. The sportscar whirrs. He slams his hand against the steering wheel and turns the key harder. The engine whirrs, and sputters.
Elvis looks up to heaven and turns the key again. The engine whirrs and sputters, and then dies.
Elvis leaps out the car and walks to the back where the 351-C rear engine sits. He sniffs and whisks out his gold-plated handgun from the back of his pants and slams three rounds straight through the screaming black metal.
Blam! Blam! Blam!
The engine whines and coughs and sputters and roars to life. Elvis smacks the roof with delight, hops back in and screeches down the drive. The tires squeal as he shifts forward and takes off through the music gates and onto Elvis Presley Boulevard.
A lost wind blows over the estate as the growl of the Pantera echos away.
Blundering footsteps tumble and crash down the hallway as two overweight bodyguards stumble out the front doors. Red West and Lardass trip and slip down the steps. Lardass loses the hamburger he was munching on.
More startled bodyguards pour out of the front doors. One brushing the crumbs off of his untucked shirt and trying to run at the same time. Another is squinting at the dead winter light. Lardasss is licking the ketchup off his fingers.
Red whistles and a black Lincoln limousines pulls up. The bodyguards lumber round and squeeze in, the doors slam shut. The limo starts to take off but suddenly brakes.
Rear door swings open as a skinny Cousin Peewee shuffles out the front doors holding his superman comic in one hand and an undercooked hotdog in the other. Stupid grin slapped on his young face as he takes in the view.
Red shouts at him to hurry the fuck up. He ambles down to the limo and Red yanks the kid in and slams the door shut.
The limo takes off and snakes off down the drive.
Vernon leans out, watching the car disappear. He shakes his head and notices the interlocking wreath hanging off the door. He carefully hangs it back up on the nail and then wanders back inside.
CHAPTER 3: ‘SHIT!’
At the Memphis Airport departure terminal, the black Pantera sits askew with one front wheel on the sidewalk and the other hanging over the gutter, spinning slowly.
The engine is wheezing and the driver’s door is open, a red scarf oozes out of the driver’s seat and down onto the metal skin.
A gathering crowd cautiously approaches the lopsided car, shoving and trying to peer in. Smoke pours out of the engine.
The black limo screeches to a stop behind the crowd. Red is the first out and lurches towards the onlookers. Other bodyguards clamber out and follow him, fearing the worst.
Peewee has ketchup smeared across his face. Lardass turns to Red.
‘Maybe E’s dead?’
‘Shut up, Lardass.’
‘I’m just saying --’
‘I’m just saying shut up. Why you got to open your mouth all the time. I’m trying to think here.’
It’s been a bad summer for Red. Probably the worst ever. Where had all the fun gone? He’d been with E since the beginning. He’d been like a brother to him. Loved him like a brother. Given his life to him. Been through all the highs, been through everything. All the girls, all the pills, all the guns.
Peewee starts sniggering to himself.
‘Maybe E’s brains is mashed up all over the windscreen!’
‘Cousin Peewee, shut the fuck up.’
‘Maybe the kryptonite got him. Kryptonite can do that, Red!’
‘Cousin Peewee, how come you got to be the fucking family retard all the time?’
Cousin Peewee blinks.
‘What’s a retard, Red?’
‘Cousin Peewee, when the good lord was handing out brains you weren’t even standing in line, were you?’
Cousin Peewee blinks again.
‘What line, Red?’
Red shakes his head, takes a deep breath and moves through the crowd and smoke. He approaches the sportscar and leans in to look into the driver’s seat, and sees that it’s empty. He slams his fist on the roof.
He wipes his mouth on his hand. E sure had been acting strange lately. Well, more strange than usual. Red put it down to that fag hairdresser filling E’s head with all kinds of crazy shit. Making him read all those spiritual books about new eras and secret gardens and heavens on earth and, well, it made no damn sense to Red.
Red hears the rumble and roar of an American Airlines 707 taking off. He looks up as it lifts and rises overhead.
CHAPTER 4: ‘WHAT’D I DO WRONG?’
Elvis sits in the first seat of the first row in first class as the plane ascends above the clouds.
He hides his face behind a copy of the day’s Washington Post as the plane takes off. The headline reads NIXON BLAMES DRUGS FOR ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT RIOTS.
He hasn’t flown commercial in a long time. Hasn’t flown without the whole entourage. Hasn’t flown alone.
A slender, attractive flight hostess, with a short, strawberry blond bob approaches and leans over the top of his paper. She holds her position for almost thirty seconds before Elvis finally lifts his gaze to meet hers.
‘Pardon me, Mr. Presley, but is there anything I can get you before our stopover in Dallas?’
Elvis lowers his newspaper and looks over his dark trademark sunglasses into her brown eyes. He smiles, but says nothing. She beams.
‘Anything at all?’
Elvis glances out the window and sees the clouds passing by below the plane. Sees the rays of the sun dance across the white air. Remembers how he once saw the face of Jesus in the clouds. How every fiber in his being felt the love. Felt it till the tears streamed down his face.
He turns his face back to her, momentarily confused. He rewinds her question and finds an answer.
‘Oh, uh -- Diet Pepsi, please.’
‘I’m so sorry, Mr. Presley, we don’t serve Pepsi products.’
His smiles vanishes.
‘Can I offer you a fresh orange juice?’
She leans forward even further and he leans off to the side.
‘No, thank you, miss. I’m on a diet.’
She leans back and points at herself.
‘At your age?’
‘We all have to start some time.’
She leans her arm on the seat in front of him. Elvis looks at her closely. Takes her in with his eyes.
‘Miss, can I ask you a personal question?’
The hostess nods a smile as she move in closer. She can feel his breath on her skin.
‘How can I get to speak to the captain, you know, personally?’
She blinks for a moment.
‘One moment, please, Mr. Presley.’
She sashays towards the flight deck. She glances back, ready with a smile, but Elvis has already buried his face in his newspaper.
He squirms in his seat, trying to find a comfortable position. Newspaper rustles.
He lowers the newspaper and tries to adjust the handgun in the back of his pants so it’s not digging into his back. He slides it out and places it on top of the makeup case sitting in the seat next to him. He folds the newspaper over the gun and restlessly drums his fingers on the arm rest.
The hostess opens the door to the flight deck and beckons him forward with a curled finger and a sweet smile.
Elvis lifts himself up from his seat and ambles toward the door, adjusting his collar and colossal belt along the way. He steps inside just as the captain triggers the autopilot function. Both the captain and the copilot stand up to greet Elvis.
The captain, an anxious man no older than thirty-five with thick brown hair and a sweaty palms juts out his right hand towards Elvis. He blinks rapidly and awaits the appropriate response.
Elvis looks at it strangely until he realizes the captain wants to shake hands. He heartily shakes the man’s hand. The captain is so excited his voice breaks.
‘Mr. Presley, it is indeed an honor. I have always wanted to meet you.’
The copilot follows suit and leans out his hand as well. He is taller than the captain, slender and gray haired. He appears much more confident and at ease than the captain.
‘Heck, I’ve always wanted to be you.’
‘Hell, everyone wants to be Elvis Presley. Even I want to be Elvis Presley.’
Elvis laughs shyly. The captain’s voice cracks.
‘Let me assure you, Mr. Presley, I have listened to everyone of your records.’
‘And I’ve bought every one of your records.’
The copilot claps his coworker on the back. The smaller man stumbles forward a bit at this and glares back at the copilot as he straightens his jacket. Elvis blushes.
‘Thank you, thankyouvery --’
Elvis cocks his head as he notices the yokes moving by themselves. He pushes his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose, looks to the pilot and copilot, then back at the controls shifting in mid-air.
‘Excuse me, sir, I don’t want to be rude or nothing here, but who’s actually flying this damn plane?’
‘Relax, Mr. Presley. It’s on autopilot. It’s flying itself.’
Elvis shakes his head, cracks a smile.
‘Well, be damned if that ain’t the story of my life.’
The captain gestures toward his seat. He looks at Elvis a little uncertain.
‘Would you like to fly, Mr. Presley?’
His smile widens.
‘Call me Elvis, sir.’
Elvis takes off his sunglasses and tucks them into his open shirt. He slides into the captain’s seat and then looks back at him questioningly.
The captain jumps to Elvis’ side and acts out the motions necessary to fly the plane.
‘Soon as you grab her, she’s in your hands.’
Elvis gently grips the controls with both hands and looks ahead of the plane. All he can see is a sea of white, misty, clouds and the glowing red haze of the sun setting in front of him. Light of the setting sun streams in. The aircraft rises gently as he pulls back on the yoke. The captain tells him quietly.
‘She’s all yours now.’
The plane lifts higher and higher. The three men are all silent.
The captain and copilot are unsure how long Elvis will want to sit at the controls. Elvis is looking straight ahead, lost in thought. Looking out to the point where the future becomes the present.
‘Anyway I can get her to go any faster?’
The captain glances at the copilot.
‘Well, we’re making excellent time, Mr. Presley.’
The captain rubs his hands together, taking one step closer to Elvis.
Elvis leans forward in the seat, seeming to concentrate on his new job.
‘Sir, I am in a real hurry to get to Los Angeles. Official police business, you understand. And I’m wondering whether there’s any way to make even better time.’
Elvis scratches his chin in thought and lifts one hand from the controls.
‘Maybe we could skip the stopover in Dallas and fly straight through?’
He looks at the captain and copilot, then quickly returns his concentration to the sky. The captain looks a little confused.
‘But Mr. Presley, what about the passengers who need to get off in Dallas?’
Elvis shrugs it off.
‘Oh I’ll pay for any connecting flights for those folk.’
‘Mr. Presley, really -- we can’t possibly --’
The captain stutters, blinking nervously. The copilot smirks. Elvis looks wounded.
‘What’d I do wrong?’
‘You haven’t done anything wrong, Mr. Presley, it’s just that --’
‘Then why don’t we fly straight through?’
The captain tries again, looking to the copilot for help.
Elvis asks again, beginning to sound impatient. The copilot leans over him and taps one of the fuel gauges. His voice firm and confident.
‘Because we need to refuel, Mr. Presley, or else we’re going to fall out of the sky.’
He laughs in an attempt to lighten the newly soured mood in the cabin.
Elvis looks out the window, out to the clouds again. With no warning or goodbye, he gets up from the captain’s seat and retreats back to his first class seat.
The captain jumps and catches the yoke before the plane can lurch. The copilot resumes his seat, buckles himself in and looks pointedly at the captain. The captain sighs and shrugs.
CHAPTER 5: ‘PICK ME UP AT LAX IN TWO HOURS’
The wallpaper in the first class lounge at the Dallas Fort Worth airport is sky blue and dappled with clouds, meant to mimic the view from a plane.
Elvis sits in front of the clouds, holding a beige plastic telephone handset against his head. It rings softly in his ear. His right leg is shaking on the spot to it’s own nervous rhythm.
He looks around while waiting for an answer. Two pretty, dark-haired receptionists stand at the desk and gawk at him. He waves and smiles. They smile and wave back in unison.
Elvis reaches into his makeup case and fingers one of his police badges. His Memphis deputy badge is heavy and jewel encrusted.
Clatter of 35mm film reels on metals as a small window flickers the rough cut of a gunfight between cowboys on a Steenbeck. In a Los Angeles film editing suite, a wiry man is hard as he answers into the phone, hunched, tired.
‘Yeah, it’s Jerry.’
Elvis’ voice booms down the line.
‘Working on the Sabbath, boy?’
‘Who the hell is this?’
‘It’s E, you sonofabitch!’
‘You calling me a liar, boy?’
‘Rex, if those other reels aren’t here in two minutes, I swear to God I’m --’
‘It’s E, I tell you. Don’t you recognize my own damn voice? What’s the matter with you?’
Elvis pulls out his Memphis badge and runs his fingers over the rubies and diamonds, feeling the sharp, cold texture. His hand grips it tightly, anger rising in his face.
‘When your cousin was sheriff of Memphis, I got him to put me on the force and give me a police badge. The real thing.’
Jerry stops editing and starts listening.
‘’Cept it looked like shit, so I had to get it jeweled up some.’
‘Oh, Jesus, it is you!!’
‘One in the same, Jerry.’
Jerry brakes the film. The window freezes on a frame of a gunfighter firing his gun.
‘Hey what’s up, E?’
‘Some business I got to take care of. Police business. Can’t talk about it over the phone. But I need your help, Jerry.’
‘Gotta have it, Jerry.’
‘Name it, man.’
‘Pick me up at LAX in two hours.’
Jerry looks at the frozen frame.
‘Sure thing, E. See you in two.’
Jerry hangs up the phone, rolls his shoulders, cracks his neck and stares at the frozen image on the Steenbeck.
CHAPTER 6: ‘DISEMBARK MY ASS!’
Elvis hangs up the phone.
He tosses his police badge back in the case, snaps it shut, picks up his handgun and strides confidently out of the lounge like some gunslinger from hell.
He ignores the receptionists, whose heads snap over in unison as they watch him leave. As soon as he is out of sight, they turn to each other and start to giggle uncontrollably.
Elvis strides down the ramp towards the waiting airplane. He swings his makeup case in one hand and his gun in the other.
The senior flight steward, a golden-haired gay man waits at the door to the plane to greet the passengers. He looks trim and his hair is immaculate. When he spots Elvis, his eyes travel immediately to the shining, golden gun. He puts up his hand to stop Elvis and ends up with his hand flat against his chest.
Elvis looks down at the steward’s hand over his heart and then up at the man’s face.
‘Would you kindly take your damn hand off me, sir?’
‘Mr. Presley, I’m afraid you cannot board this airplane with that gun.’
The steward swallows hard. Elvis smiles that smiles.
‘It’s cool. It’s loaded.’
‘Mr. Presley, Federal Airline Regulations absolutely forbid the carrying of any weapon, loaded or unloaded, on any commercial flight.’
He tries to force a smile. Elvis looks confused.
‘But it’s mine.’
‘Mr. Presley, please consider the safety of the other passengers.’
‘I am traveling on official police business, goddamnit!’
Elvis’ voice begins to rise in anger. He snaps open his makeup case, the gun dangling from his hand, and pulls out a police badge to show the steward.
The steward shakes his head, still looking baffled and unconvinced by the situation.
Elvis tries another badge. The steward shakes his head more insistently.
‘Mr. Presley, I’m afraid --’
‘But I flew the first leg with it. So why we got a problem now?’
‘Mr. Presley, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave the walkway.’
They stand there staring at each other, a kind of old west showdown.
‘You will have to disembark, Mr. Presley.’
‘Disembark my ass!’
Elvis turns on his heels and storms back down the walkway. The captain emerges from the plane, worried about the commotion. Sees Elvis hurtling away and quickly chases after him.
‘Mr. Presley! Mr. Presley!’
He sprints down the walkway and disappears around a corner.
The steward stands at the doorway to the plane in silence once again. He can hear the sound of the air conditioning blowing cool air down the walkway. He sighs and pats the sweat beading on his forehead with the tips of his fingers, and anxiously pats his hair in place.
He hears footsteps returning down the walkway toward the plane. Elvis strides forward, his arm around the captain’s shoulders, engulfing the man. He is jovial and charming once again. The captain is blushing.
‘No, no, no, it’s fine, Mr. Presley. You don’t need to show me any police badges.’
They push past the astonished steward.
Elvis looks him as he breezes by, gun held aloft.
‘But I’ll cock the safety if it makes you feel any better.’
The captain heads towards the flight deck.
Elvis nods as he returns to his first class seat.
‘Yeah, let’s fly.’
The plane taxis to the runway and roars to life. It rumbles ahead, going faster and faster and then lifts off into the shimmering stars.
CHAPTER 7: ‘I PACKED LIGHT’
The brakes of the 707 screech and squeal as it lands on the runway at Los Angeles Airport.
The roaring of aircrafts reverb around Jerry Schilling waiting just outside an arrival gate.
His hands in his jeans’ pockets, he looks around anxiously. His short, curly dark hair is thinning in the back and his narrow face is creased beyond his years. He looks like man who has lived hard.
Elvis is the first off and strides over to Jerry. He drops his makeup case and enfolds his friend in a giant, enthusiastic bear hug. He lifts Jerry a few feet off of the ground in his excitement, beaming from ear to ear.
‘What’s happening, man?’
Jerry peers behind Elvis, looking confused.
‘Where’s the Colonel, E?’
‘Who the hell cares?’
Elvis tries to sound light. Jerry continues looking around, somewhat in disbelief.
‘Where are the guys at?’
‘Probably back in Memphis, Jerry.’
Elvis runs one hand through his thick black hair. Jerry is completely confused.
‘What do you mean E?’
‘I mean, I can’t say for sure ‘cause they ain’t with me now is they?’
Jerry keeps looking over his shoulder.
‘Shit, E, I’ve never seen you without the guys. I mean I just have never ever seen you without them.’
‘No one’s ever seen me like this.’
Elvis takes in his surroundings. He catches a glimpse of himself in a mirrored pillar, and smiles weakly.
‘Hell, I ain’t even seen me like this before.’
Jerry is relieved the Colonel and the bodyguards ain’t around. He first met Elvis on the set of, god, what Elvis film had it been? There’d been so many. Jerry started as an assistant editor. After the third film he was doing all the cutting.
He’d seen every Elvis flub, blooper and glitch. He’d seen Elvis fluff a line, break a take. He’d seen every side there was to see of Elvis.
But he’d never seen Elvis like this.
‘So, how you doing, E?’
‘I need your help, Jerry.’
Jerry looks around again.
‘Where’s your luggage, E?’
Elvis picks up his makeup case and shows it to Jerry.
‘I packed light.’
Jerry shrugs okay and leads Elvis off towards the exits as other passengers start streaming off the plane.
‘Jerry, man, I can’t do it without you. You got to help me?’
‘Can’t do what?’
They reach Jerry’s car left at the arrivals curb and stop. Elvis looks around, as if he is being overheard. A car behind them waits to pull up the curb and honks in impatience. A car creeps behind them. Elvis whispers.
‘Can’t tell you here, man.’
‘Where you want to go?’
‘You on my side, Jerry?’
The car honks again, louder. Both men ignore it.
Elvis opens the back door and throws in his makeup case and handgun. They pile into the small car and Jerry pulls away from the curb and heads into the swirling night traffic, glistening and gleaming into the night.
CHAPTER 8: ‘I’M TALKING ABOUT THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’
Elvis roams anxiously around his Hillcrest Drive home in Beverly Hills with an open bottle of Diet Pepsi in one hand and a head full of worry.
He opens and closes several kitchen cupboards, frantically searching for something.
He comes out to the plush, white living room and glances out the huge window that looks out to the night lights sprinkled over Los Angles. On the right is what is to become Lisa Marie Presley’s circular bedroom. Elvis has had the building work torn down twice because he wasn’t happy with the quality. Even the scaffolding had to be replaced. Nothing but the best of the best for his daughter. His only child was spoilt from the start. He bought his only child little baby minks and diamonds the day she was born.
Her fourth birthday is only a few weeks away. He loves her, that’s for sure. Loves her more than the sun. Calls her Injun and Yisa and Buttonhead. And prays that she grows up happy and at peace.
Elvis starts opening and closing more cupboards. Jerry is perched nervously on the edge of the lengthy sofa. He claps his hands together, and then rubs them vigorously.
‘Look, E, I love you, man, but I cannot go to Washington with you right now.’
Elvis seems not to have heard him. He continues wandering around, searching high and low, cursing under his breath.
‘Man, if I don’t finish cutting this film by the twenty-fifth, Paramount’s going to have my nuts for Christmas dinner.’
Jerry rubs the back of his neck. Another cupboard door slams. Jerry jumps each time they bang shut.
‘Man, Paramount’s gonna have my goddamned gonads for eggnog, E.’
Jerry needs Elvis to understand his situation. Finally, Elvis stops his search and turns toward Jerry. He waves his hand dismissively.
‘I’ll fly you back by private jet. You can get back quicker that way.’
Elvis makes his way back to the large kitchen, rattling through cupboards. Jerry is confused.
‘How’s a private jet going to get me back any faster, E? A jet’s a jet, private or public. They go the same speed.’
Elvis shouts out from the kitchen.
‘You’ve just got to do this with me, Jerry. I tell you, I can’t do it without you.’
Another cupboard door slams. Jerry winces, takes a deep breath and tries to keep his cool. Tries to clamber out of the plush sofa.
‘What can’t you do without me?’
Jerry is having difficulty getting to his feet. He has to kneel his way out of the sofa. He stands, and brushes his knees with the back of his hand. He hears Elvis’ voice leap in from the kitchen, excited.
‘Hah! My lucky goddamned glass!’
Jerry looks in and see Elvis holding a glass up triumphantly. He pours his Diet Pepsi into the rather ordinary looking glass and takes a sip. He looks content at last.
‘Elvis, why do you want me to go with you to fucking Washington?’
‘All right, all right, calm down, man. You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.’
Jerry is shaking his head. Elvis is smiling at him with charm to spare.
‘You know, you really need to learn how to relax.’
Jerry takes a deep deep breath. Elvis leans towards him and whispers.
‘Swear you won’t tell anyone?’
Jerry sighs and slumps back onto the sofa.
‘Swear on your honor?’
‘Swear on your life?’
‘Shit, E! Yes, I swear, now just tell me why and I might just consider going with you to Washington.’
Elvis takes a huge swig of soda, swirls some around in his mouth, considering his next words carefully. Swallows hard. Looks Jerry straight in the eye.
‘I got to meet me the President.’
Jerry leans back on the sofa and scratches his stomach.
‘What the fuck is the president of RCA Records doing in Washington?’
‘RCA’s got nothing to do with it. I’m talking about the President of the United States of America.’
Jerry can’t believe what he’s just heard. Elvis stares off into the distance.
‘Got to get me a badge.’
Jerry looks Elvis up and down, slowly.
‘Are you sassing me, E?’
‘I ain’t sassing anybody. I’m dead serious.’
‘Elvis, you got police badges coming out your ass. What the hell you need another badge for?’
‘I need to get me the real, real thing. I need me a federal badge, man.’
Jerry is at a loss for words. Elvis is happy to explain.
‘Thinking of touring Europe on my own. Can’t leave home without one, you know?’
Elvis opens the sliding glass door and steps out into the backyard. The California air is abnormally cold and crisp. The Santa Ana winds race through and ruffle his hair. He puts his hands on his hips and stares up into the night sky. He seems lost in soft thought.
Jerry follows him outside and shuts the door behind him.
‘Man, you got to be crazy.’
‘Man, I was born crazy.’
‘No, I mean it. You should be locked up. Federal badge? You need a federal fucking facility, man!’
Elvis walks over to his large, empty swimming pool. He stands at the edge of the deep end and peers down towards the concrete bottom.
‘Come on Jerry, You helped me get the deputy badge from your cousin.’
‘Yeah, but in case you didn’t know, I’m not actually related to Richard Nixon. Shit, I didn’t even vote for the Trickster.’
‘That ain’t no problem. I ain’t never voted, for no one.’
‘But, Elvis, it’s the President of America.’
‘It’s cool, I’ll do the talking.’
Elvis steps up to the diving board. Jerry lowers his head.
‘But, E, the President?’
Elvis walks out to the tip of the diving board and begins to sways up and down.
‘You only pass through this life once, Jerry. You don’t come back for no encore. You got to go for what you want.’
‘The President of America?’
Elvis sways and nods and smiles. Jerry rolls his head, looks out to the stars and then back to Elvis.
‘I’m on your side always, you know that, but Elvis, it’s just got to be impossible to get yourself a meeting with the President of --’
‘Nothing’s impossible, Jerry. Only thinking makes it so.’
Jerry looks up to the stars again.
‘You really want me to come?’
Elvis turns to look at Jerry. He stops swaying.
‘Man, what are friends for? I can’t do it alone. And I ain’t gonna be here much longer.’
Jerry eyes him up and down with concern.
‘What did you say?’
‘Jerry, I been doing this almost half my life and I feel a million years old already. I am scared I’ll go out soon just like a light. Just like I came on 36 years ago in Tupelo.’
He stares straight up into the stars. He notices the white smudge of the Milky Way trailing across the night sky, and lifts his finger as if to trace its path. Jerry laughs.
‘Shit, Elvis, you really should have been an actor.’
‘Hell, I’ve been acting my whole life, Jerry.’
He turns away from the stars and looks at Jerry.
‘But I always wanted to direct my own movies.’
‘Everybody wants to direct.’
‘It’s about time I started, don’t you think?’
His lip twitches into a smirk. He starts bouncing the diving board, higher and higher. Jerry asks wearily.
Elvis leaps from the board to the concrete pool deck.
‘President Richard Milhous Nixon.’
‘What kind of a name is ‘Milhous’ anyway?’
Elvis begins to grin. Jerry starts to snigger, and giggle. Pretty soon he’s laughing his head off, howling in laughter. Elvis is laughing along. Jerry is crying with laughter.
Elvis heads for the glass sliding door. Jerry follows him, knowing he could never had said no.
‘So, are we going to catch the next flight out of here or just keep on rehearsing?’
Elvis reaches into the back pocket of his tight pants, and fishes around. His hand emerges with his American Express platinum card held up between thumb and forefinger. He waves it at Jerry and smiles triumphant.
CHAPTER 9: ‘DEAR DICK ...’
Elvis and Jerry are onboard the first class cabin of 707 for a nonstop American Airlines flight to Washington D.C.
Elvis sits next to the window and stares out at the clear starry sky. He hums and murmurs quietly to himself.
‘Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky ...’
Elvis closes his eyes.
‘How I wonder, how I wonder who you are ...’
Elvis glances over at Jerry. He face is buried in today’s issue of the New York Times. The front page story is headlined NIXON DECLARES WAR ON DRUGS. He checks on his makeup case, which sits on the seat between the two men.
He opens it and finds his mother’s picture, his gun, his pills and all his sparkling badges. Everything is where it should be and he clasps the case shut again, reassured.
He looks around the first class cabin. Most seats are occupied and the overhead compartments have been festively hung with gold tinsel and fake evergreen boughs. Elvis coughs, clears his throat, taps his feet, and finally out of boredom, gets up to take a walk.
He drifts down the aisle and notices that one of the few awake passengers is a soldier in uniform. He looks very young, barely out of his teenage years. He holds two large, wrapped Christmas presents very carefully on his lap and stares, wide-eyed up at Elvis.
‘Hell, you don’t need to call me ‘sir’.’
‘I’m goin’ back home for Christmas, sir.’
‘I got me a second cousin in Vietnam. Helicopter pilot. Good lookin’ boy. Damn ugly war.’
‘Yes, sir. It is, sir.’
Elvis reaches back to tap Jerry on the shoulder, all the while keeping his eyes on the boy. He gets no response, so he turns around and tugs on Jerry’s shirt.
‘Jerry, man, give me some money.’
Elvis rolls his eyes at Jerry and snaps his fingers impatiently.
‘Quick, just give me whatever money you have.’
Jerry leans forward to get out his wallet and comes up with $500 in cash.
‘That’s all I got, E.’
Elvis reaches down and takes all the notes from Jerry with a smile.
‘That’s all I need.’
He steps back toward the young soldier and hands the kid the cash.
‘Merry Christmas, son.’
The soldier reaches out for the money, but hesitates.
‘Go on, it’s a Christmas present, that’s all.’
The kid awkwardly takes the money and Elvis continues ambling down the aisle. Jerry gets up and follows him. Elvis pulls aside the curtains that separates first class from the coach cabin. Jerry taps Elvis on the shoulder.
‘You going to be all right?’
‘What am I going to do? Jump out of the damn plane? Of course I’m all right. I feel great.’
Elvis steps through and disappears behind the curtain. Jerry sits back, trying to relax.
In the coach cabin, the overhead compartments are strewn with tinsel but lack the evergreen of first class. Silver and gold strands float down occasionally towards the floor. A few have gotten caught in the passengers’ hair, some have landed on their laps and in the remains of dinner.
Elvis looks down the aisle and sees all the passengers are sleeping except one in the rear of the plane lit by an overhead cone of light. He wanders toward the light.
Senator George Murphy is busy proofreading a letter. Large, bluish bags sag under his eyes and he keeps lifting his left hand to his face to pinch the bridge of his nose. His weariness, hair graying at the temples and his tired eyes make him appear older than his middle age.
The man rests the letter on top of his briefcase that sits in his lap. His red pen scribbles hasty notes in the margins. A shadow blocks his light and he looks up.
He sees Elvis and beams up at him, suddenly more awake.
‘Why, Mr. Presley, allow me to introduce myself.’
He grabs Elvis’ right hand in both of his and shakes and shakes and shakes.
‘I am California Senator George Murphy. It is a supreme pleasure to meet you, Mr. Presley.’
‘Oh, no, sir, pleasure’s all mine.’
‘You are too kind.’
‘Senator Murphy --’
‘Oh, please, call me G.O.’
Elvis looks down at his hand still grasped firmly between the Senator’s two warm, sweaty palms. The Senator immediately releases them, looks up at Elvis.
‘It has been my privilege to serve the good people of California for almost a decade now.’
Elvis wipes his hand on his pants, making no attempt to conceal this action. The Senator rolls on.
‘Good people like you Mr. Presley. Did you know that the entertainment industry is now the third biggest contributor to the economy, after defense and aerospace?’
‘No, Senator, I did not know that.’
‘It is my job, hell it is my duty, to look after that interest, to make that interest grow, to secure that interest in the eyes of our great government.’
Elvis nods and begins to tap his left foot. He looks back toward the first class cabin, already a little bored.
‘In fact, you know what I tell them in Washington? I tell them ‘Listen, we make enough bombs in Hollywood to put the defense budget to shame. You handing out any checks for national security, you hand them down our way.’’
The Senator chuckles at his own well-worn line, at his own perceived cleverness. Elvis gives him a half-hearted laugh in return.
‘Man, you don’t miss a beat, do you?’
Elvis shifts his weight from his left foot to his right and jostles the seat behind him. A little old lady snorts and shifts in her sleep. The Senator chuckles some more.
‘I miss a beat, I miss a vote.’
Elvis nods a crippled grin. He leans and whispers.
‘Say, Senator, maybe you can help me.’
Elvis looks over both his shoulders before turning back to gauge the Senator’s response.
‘I need to meet the President.’
‘Mr. President Nixon?’
Elvis leans closer and lowers his voice.
The Senator’s broad smile flinches for a moment.
‘Mr. Presley, Mr. Nixon is a very, very busy man. Particularly in the week before Christmas.
‘It won’t take long, I promise.’
Elvis argues his point as if the Senator himself were in charge of the President’s appointments. The Senator chuckles anxiously.
‘I mean, you can’t just walk up to the President in the White House. There’s protocol to consider. Rules that have to be followed. Security issues.’
Elvis holds up his hands and takes a step back.
‘Don’t get me wrong, Senator, I ain’t looking for no protocol.’
‘Well, Mr. Presley, really, I was thinking of the President’s protocols and security needs.’
Elvis nods as if he understands completely and knows that they are on the same page. The Senator makes an admission.
‘To tell you the truth, I have yet to have a private audience with the President myself, even after a lifetime of public service.’
‘He’s pretty busy, huh?’
The Senator puts his right hand over his heart as if prepared to swear an oath.
‘Busiest man in the free world.’
Elvis shakes his head and turns to walk back down the aisle. He neglects to say goodbye to the Senator or to thank him for his time.
The Senator reaches out to get his attention before he leaves. His hand just grazes the oversized cuff of his white shirt. Elvis turns back, looking down at his cuff and frowning.
‘May I be so bold, Mr. Presley, as to enquire why you wish to meet the President?’
Elvis is till looking at his shirt cuff.
‘Like to, but I am kind of busy myself.’
Elvis walks back to first class without another glance back at the Senator. He pulls the curtain aside and takes his seat next to his makeup case. Jerry has fallen asleep with the New York Times spread across his face.
Elvis glances around the cabin and sees that everyone is asleep. The young soldier hasn’t moved, but his head nods over his Christmas packages, his arms still wrapped tightly around them like a protective mother.
Elvis leans over Jerry, grabs his makeup case and heads towards the galley. He squeezes into the small bathroom. He puts the case on the counter and turns on the cold water. He opens the case and rummages inside until he finds the pills he needs.
He pops the lid off of three different vials and swallows some from each bottle with a slurp of water from the tap. He wipes the water from his face and looks at his reflection in the mirror. He begins to hum and sing softly to himself. His own tired blue eyes stare back. He sees a cold man, all alone.
He hums and sings along to J.B. Coats’ gospel classic “Where Could I Go But to the Lord?”
He sings about sin and temptation. Thinks for a second, then fishes out another vial, pops off the lid and swallows two yellow pills. Slugs back a mouthful of water and sings some more.
He sings about refuge and souls. Cups his hands under the cold water and splashes it onto his face.
He sings about the lord as he smiles at his reflection in the mirror.
He closes up his makeup case and heads back into the cabin. He continues to hum the tune to himself and not paying attention, nearly collides with a luscious stewardess entering the kitchen.
She looks Elvis up and down. He shoots back an amphetamine smile.
‘Miss, can I ask a question?’
She beams at him, her teeth blazing white.
‘Certainly, Mr. Presley, anything.’
He looks deeply into her eyes.
‘Do you have a pen and some paper?’
She pulls a scrap of paper and a pen out of her jacket pocket and hastily scribbles something. She hands Elvis the piece of paper.
‘It’s the Hotel Washington, Mr. Presley, that’s my room number.’
She points at the number she has written and smiles at Elvis, fluttering her eyelashes subtly. He shifts away from her.
‘That’s great, honey, but I still need that pen and some writing paper.’
She looks confused, her brow folds into a frown as she hands him the pen. She steps back towards the kitchen and returns a minute later with several pages of American Airlines letterhead.
Elvis has already returned to his seat. The stewardess leans over him slowly, opens the armrest and pulls out the tray table. She switches on his light, and gently drops the sheets of paper in front of him. They fall like soft leaves.
‘If there’s anything else, Mr. Presley, you be sure to let me know.’
Elvis looks up and gives her his most charming smile.
‘Anything at all.’
‘Any chance of some more paper?’
He’s still smiling. Her smiles weakens and she says no more. She retreats back to the kitchen.
Elvis steadies a page. Printed on the top is the American Airlines logo next to the words FLIGHT: ALTITUDE: LOCATION:
He scratches his head and murmurs to himself as he begins to write in a shaky scrawl.
‘Dear Dick ...’
He scratches out his first words, scrunches the paper into a ball and tosses it into the aisle. He straightens out a new page and begins again.
‘Dear Mr. Nixon ...’
He scratches out the words again, a bit more violently and screws up the paper. He hurls it into the aisle and prepares a third page. He looks out the window to gather his thoughts, but all he can make out beyond the sheen of his reflection is darkness. He writes again.
‘Dear Mr. President.’
Elvis contemplates the ceiling while muttering to himself. He sits up straight and clears his throat.
‘First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office. I talked to Vice President --’
Elvis raps the pen against his teeth as he tries to remember the name of the Vice President. He remembers and continues writing.
‘ -- Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concern for our country.’
He taps the pen against his forehead. Still muttering, he writes on.
‘The Drug Culture, the Hippie Elements, the SDS, the Black Panthers, etc ... do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it the establishment. I call it America and --’
He pulls out another piece of paper and continues.
‘I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out. I have no concern or motives other than helping the country out. So I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages.’
Elvis is lost in concentration, still muttering and writing. He has failed to notice it is morning in Washington D.C. and the plane has landed and everyone has exited. He and Jerry are the last passengers on board.
‘First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials. I am on this plane with --’
He grabs the next piece of paper and continues.
‘ -- Sen. George Murphy and we have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with.’
Jerry bends down next to Elvis and touches his shoulder gently. He whispers ever so softly.
‘Elvis, we’ve landed.’
Elvis puts the pen down and looks over his shoulder at Jerry. He says nothing.
‘Elvis, we’ve got to get off the plane.’
‘But I ain’t finished my letter.’
Elvis gets up and stretches his legs. He sees that everyone else has indeed left. He notices the soldier with his presents is gone,.
‘They’ve got a car waiting for us. Why don’t you finish your letter at the hotel, E?’
Elvis looks around the deserted plane. He picks up his unfinished letter and pen in one hand, along with some spare letterhead.
‘So what are we waiting for?’
He picks up his makeup case in the other hand and strides out.
CHAPTER 10: ‘ALL RIGHT, HERE’S THE DRILL’
Elvis and Jerry stand in front of the main reception desk in the lobby of the Hotel Washington.
The lobby is decorated for Christmas with an air of understated elegance. A tall tree adorned in white lights stands in one corner, a white star glittering on the top branch. The sweet and tangy smell of fresh pine drifts through the room.
Jerry grips his black duffel bag tightly and Elvis drops his makeup case onto the marble counter of the desk.
An older gentleman waits on them behind the counter. He is short and white haired, with a neatly trimmed white beard. The presence of the world’s biggest rock’n’roll star that changed music for ever leaves him entirely unfazed.
‘Which Presidential suite, sir? Republican, or Democrat?’
‘Certainly, sir, and will there be anything else, sir?’
‘I’m going to need me a limo in about thirty minutes. Black. Lincoln.’
‘Yes, sir, for how long, sir?’
‘Gee, I don’t know.’
Elvis scratches his chin thoughtfully.
‘About thirty, forty feet. I guess.’
The desk clerk hides a smiles and steps away to a phone to make the call.
A flustered young man steps up to the desk. He is the new manager of the hotel and Elvis is clearly his first important guest. He appears to be around twenty-five years old and his suit is cut a little too close to the bone. He has spent all his money on this suit. It’s sharp, maybe too sharp. Pressed so sharp it could cut meat.
He stares at Elvis for a moment, who hasn’t moved yet. Then he slaps his forehead as if he has just remembered. He snaps his fingers for the bellboys. Two boys in tight red jackets run over. One grabs Jerry’s duffel and the other reaches for Elvis’ makeup case.
Elvis snatches it out of the boy’s reach, snarls.
‘Back off, freak boy.’
The bellboy looks down quickly and slinks away.
Elvis turns to the new manager.
‘You’re new here, ain’t you?’
‘Yes sir, Mr. Pres --’
‘All right, here’s the drill.’
Elvis rolls his eyes. He can’t believe he has to tell this young man how to do his job.
‘Anybody asks, I ain’t here. You ain’t seen me. You ain’t heard me. And not just the press. Anybody and everybody, you got that?’
The manager nods fervently and fingers two blank check in cards nervously.
‘Sir, I’m not sure how to ask this, but --’
Elvis’ cold blue eyes stare him down, impatient.
‘But you want an autograph, right?’
The manager blushes, smiles sheepishly, shrugs his shoulders.
‘All you got to do is ask.’
Elvis grabs the cards. He signs each one quickly and without another word follows Jerry and the bellboy to the elevator.
As soon as the elevator doors are shut, the manager looks eagerly down at his autographed cards. He turns them over and frowns in disappointment.
One is signed ‘Liberace’ and the other ‘Sammy Davis Jr.’
CHAPTER 11: ‘I HAVE A PERSONAL GIFT FOR YOU’
The long ride up to the Presidential suites is silent.
The bellboy awkwardly shifts the duffel bag from one hand to the other trying not to touch either Elvis or Jerry as he does it. When the doors finally slide open on the top floor, the bellboy starts to breathe again and walks down the hall to two suites.
He stops outside the double doors facing each other. Elvis and Jerry stand behind him. Jerry turns to Elvis.
‘You want the Republican Presidential suite or the Democrat Presidential suite?’
‘Which side is Nixon on?’
‘He’s a republican, E.’
‘Good enough for the President of America, good enough for me.’
The bellboy immediately throws open the double doors to the Republican suite for Elvis and dashes in. He turns on every television set. He tunes each one to a football game and then leaves, shutting the doors behind him.
Elvis sits down at the desk and pulls out his letter for Nixon. He reads through what he has already written, murmuring to himself. He continues where he left off on the plane.
‘Sir, I am staying at the Hotel Washington, Rooms 505-506. I have a man who works with me by the name of Jerry Schilling. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent.’
He puts the pen down and walks over to the window. He watches the snow fall down in great, fat flakes. The city appears silenced from the top of the hotel. The tall, white Washington Monument points to the sky.
Elvis continues to mutter his thoughts to himself and after a few minutes take his seat and resumes the letter.
‘I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist Brainwashing --’
He pulls out a fourth piece of paper, taps the desk several times and continues.
‘ -- Techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.’
He gets up again and saunters over to the mini bar. He finds a chilled glass and holds it under the cold water tap. He drinks it all in one long, slow motion. He runs his hands through his hair, slaps his cheek and sits back down.
‘I am glad to help just so long as it is kept very private. You can have your staff or whomever call me any time, today, tonight, or tomorrow. I was nominated this coming year as one of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Young Men. That will be in January 18 in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.’
He grabs a fifth piece of paper and weighs up his thoughts out loud before putting them down in ink.
‘I would like to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy.’
He twirls the pen several times and then signs off.
‘Respectfully, Elvis Presley’
He folds the letter into thirds and slides it into a Hotel Washington envelope. Then removes it and spreads it out flat on the desk to add a post script.
‘P.S. I believe that you sir, were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America too.’
He refolds the letter and slips it into the envelope. He is about to lick the edge of the flap when he remembers one more thing. He pulls it out, flattens it again and adds his last words.
‘I have a personal gift for you also which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.’
He smiles, satisfied at last, and folds it for the last time. He stuffs the thick letter back into the envelope and licks the gum, wincing at the bitter taste before pressing the flap closed.
CHAPTER 12: ‘NO, NO, NO, NO!’
Colonel Tom Parker’s rambling Orlando villa is drenched in damp, thick heat.
Elvis’ longtime manager spills over the sides of his small desk chair and over the top of his diminutive desk. The desk is drowning in clutter. Papers scattered over the surface completely obscure the color and finish.
The fat old man is wearing an open-necked polyester sports shirt, sweat pooling under the arm pits. He’s always been too cheap to get air conditioning. Never saw the sense in paying for air. No matter how cool.
He’s a tough, controlling man with a passion for miniature ponies. He feeds one now. The pony sits between his legs on the floor and sucks from a bottle of milk he holds in his left hand. His right hand grapples with the telephone receiver, an unlit cigar hangs out of the right corner of his mouth. He doesn’t so much speak as yell.
‘Haven’t seen him since yesterday, you say? You telling me you haven’t any idea where my boy is at? No idea at all?’
He drops the receiver on top of the mess on his desk and pets the tiny pony’s soft mane. He booms into the plastic receiver.
‘Vernon, you’re a disappointment, you know that?’
Vernon’s feeble voice stutters down the line. Colonel Parker puts down the empty milk bottle and snatches up the receiver.
‘Well, he’s your son. I don’t know why you haven’t had him committed. I mean how many times I given you those forms?’
Vernon can’t get a word in edgewise.
‘No, that’s not the point! No, no, no, no!’
Colonel Parker holds the phone away from his ear and considers hurling it across the room. He stops mid-swing, and screams down the line.
He slams the receiver back into its cradle. He picks it up again immediately and dials a number that is instantly answered.
‘Hello? American Express?’
He doesn’t wait for an answer.
‘I want to report a stolen card, a stolen platinum card.’
He looks down at the tiny pony shivering between his legs, and smiles.
‘A real famous platinum card.’
Colonel Parker has been Elvis’ manager for ever. Of course he’s not a real Colonel. He was never in the army, never even an American citizen. Never had a passport. That’s why Elvis has never toured internationally. Colonel Parker never lets him out of his sight. The way he sees it Elvis is the money. You never take your eyes off the money.
He was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the Netherlands on June 26, 1909. He actually ran away from home to join the circus and ended up in America running traveling carnival shows along the south west.
One of his most popular side shows was ‘Colonel Tom Parker and His Dancing Chickens’. Once you paid your nickel and stepped into the old, worn tent you couldn’t believe what you saw. Live chickens in a small cage frantically dancing to live country music. The air singed with the smell of burnt straw.
Only if you got close enough could you see that Colonel Parker had concealed electric hot plates under the straw. Turned them up just so.
That was before he signed up Elvis for life.
CHAPTER 13: ‘IN GOLD WE TRUST?’
Elvis leans over the desk in his suite, addressing the front of the Hotel Washington envelope when Jerry saunters in wearing a new black velvet shirt, tucked into a pair of tight dark blue jeans.
The shirt hangs rather large on his thin frame. Jerry is looking around at all the television sets.
‘You sure you got enough TV sets on?’
Elvis doesn’t look up.
‘They keep me company.’
‘But, E, I’m here.’
Elvis keeps writing.
‘Not forever you ain’t.’
He finally looks up at Jerry. Drops a smile.
‘Nice shirt, man.’
‘You like it?’
‘I love it.’
Elvis walks over for a closer look. He pinches the velvet between his thumb and forefinger, rubbing the soft material back and forth, watching the light shred the surface.
‘Where could I get me a shirt like that?’
‘It’s all yours.’
Jerry starts unbuttoning it.
‘I brought another one with me.’
He tries to hand the shirt to Elvis. His skinny bare chest is nearly concave. Elvis waves his hand dismissively.
‘No, man, I can’t take the shirt off your back.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a shirt.’
He reaches it out towards Elvis.
‘Go on, take it.’
Elvis doesn’t move, doesn’t take it. Jerry looks at him.
‘It’s just a shirt.’
‘Man, I’m touched. It’s been a while since anybody gave me anything.’
‘It’s just a shirt, E.’
Elvis looks at the shirt dangling from Jerry’s hand. Jerry drops it on a lounge chair, and heads back to his suite.
Elvis saunters over to the chair and carefully picks up the shirt. He holds it out at arm’s length, inspecting it from various angles. He takes it with him into the bathroom.
He takes off his own shirt and puts on the new black velvet shirt, trying not to let it touch his skin. He sucks in his stomach and tucks it into his matching black velvet pants. He checks his reflection in the mirror.
He munches down a few pills and looks into his own eyes.
‘All right, Elvis, don’t you be letting me down now. Don’t be getting all nervy on me. Don’t be getting no doubts.’
He jumps lightly up and down, shaking out his shoulders and arms. Pulls a karate stance.
He snakes out a thick gold chain with a gaudy gold crucifix dangling from a thick gold chain from his makeup case and hangs it over his head. Looks at his reflection.
‘Who is the king?’
He points at his reflection.
‘You is the king!’
Next he takes out a simple gold Star of David on a chain and throws that around his neck.
‘You is the one, Elvis. You is the chosen one, you remember that.’
Finally, he drags out a golden Ankh on a golden chain. He adds that to the other two dangling on his chest.
‘You is the real thing.’
Elvis reaches for one of his pill bottles and spills two small blue capsules into his hand. He throws them back and swallows hard.
He shakes his head like a wet dog, checks his reflection in the mirror again and sneers.
‘A dangerous man of notorious charisma.’
He smooths back his slightly ruffled hair.
Jerry stands on the other side of the door, listening to the muffled voice.
‘Hey, E, you all right in there?’
‘Course I am all right! What the hell can happen to a man in his own damn bathroom?’
He steps out of the bathroom, grinning from ear to ear, feeling his best. His crucifix, ankh and star glimmer as they catch the sunlight streaming in from the windows.
Jerry mockingly shades his eyes from the glare.
‘In gold we trust?’
‘I ain’t about to be kept out of heaven on no technicality.’
Elvis answers with a shake of the head, for a moment looking quite thoughtful. Jerry nods his head towards the window.
‘You stay here and work the phone, all right? Ring the White House till you get through.’
Elvis karate chops Jerry playfully in the side of his neck. Jerry rolls his eyes, and sighs.
‘E, it’s Sunday.’
Elvis shrugs his shoulders, confused.
‘What!? You don’t work Sundays now?’
‘It’s not that. It’s just, well, who’s going to be at the White House on Sunday?’
Elvis is a little impatient, as if explaining something very simple to a small child. He stares Jerry down and raises one eyebrow in challenge. Jerry rubs his neck, giving in.
‘Okay, I’ll give it a try.’
‘Try my ass. Either do it or don’t.’
‘I said I’ll try.’
‘Ain’t no trying about it. Trying ain’t going to get you nowhere. Either do it or don’t.’
‘Hell then you might as well give up before you even start.’
Elvis throws up his hands. Jerry rolls his eyes. How can he say no to Elvis Presley.
‘Okay, okay, I’ll do it.’
Elvis picks up his envelope and strides confidently from the room. His gold chains jangling as he walks. Jerry can hear them even after he has slammed the door shut and walks down the hallway.
Jerry sighs, and for the briefest of moments thinks about leaving. He looks at the light streaming from the empty bathroom. Then picks up the phone book and starts flipping through the pages.
CHAPTER 14: ‘ATTN: PRESIDENT NIXON’
Elvis sits up in the back of the black Lincoln limousine driving down Pennsylvania Avenue.
His back is stick straight, his gaze clear and focused straight ahead. He mumbles to himself and then shouts at the driver to close the mirrored window between them.
The limousine approaches the White House. Elvis can see it looming up ahead, stately and regal. He feels a sudden pang of doubt, grips the armrest as the limousine makes the turn toward the back entrance. He swallows his fear.
The limousine screeches to a stop 50 yards in front of the Northwest gatehouse. An armed guard in dark uniform looks out the gatehouse towards the idling limousine, engine growling in the cold air.
A second guard steps out of the guardhouse, rifle at his side. The back door of the limousine swings open and both guards raise their weapons and stand ready.
Elvis’ black boot-clad foot steps out of the limousine and crunches the cold dry snow underneath it. The second guard raises his rifle higher and aims tight, finger on the trigger. Elvis’ other foot steps out and he heaves himself up from the back seat. He is a little taken aback to see a rifle aimed at his head, and another at his heart.
The smell of the cold is fresh and races through his nostrils. He takes several deep breaths, and watches his breath swirl and curl outward.
Elvis approaches the second guard, who has lowered the tip of his rifle. He salutes the guard and the guard responds automatically with a salute.
Elvis hands the guard the envelope he has been toying with for the whole ride. It is by now, slightly rumpled and worn around the edges. The guard takes the envelope and without a word, Elvis returns to the limousine, jumps in, and slams the door shut. The driver swiftly speeds away.
The guard, still somewhat stunned by the encounter, stares at the disappearing limousine before looking down at the envelope.
It reads in Elvis’ scratchy hand PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL - Attn: President Nixon via Sen. George Murphy from Elvis Presley.
CHAPTER 15: ‘SWEET JESUS, STOP!’
In the back of the limousine, Elvis stretches out his legs and arms and feels good about the letter.
Fresh pure snow begins to fall. He feels confident he will soon have his coveted badge. His foot taps the floor and his fingers drum on the armrest to some unheard melody in his head.
The glass divider slides down half an inch, enough for the driver’s voice to slip through.
‘Back to the hotel, sir?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
‘Right away, sir!’
Elvis glances out the window to admire the fine white snow, when he spots a something only he can see on the road up ahead.
‘Sweet Jesus, stop!’
‘Stop the damn car! Stop the car, stop the car now!’
Panic shivers through his body, leaps out his throat. The driver keeps looking back through the divider to see what is wrong.
‘Sir, I don’t --’
‘Slam the damn brakes on, man!!’
Elvis is now gripping the seat so hard his knuckles have gone white. A sweat has broken out along his brow.
‘Sir, I --’
The driver finally hits the brakes and slides to a stop across the the middle of the deserted intersection, fishtailing wildly on the ice.
A sleek black cat crosses the intersection. Calm seeps back into Elvis’ voice.
‘Turn back around.’
‘But, we just --’
‘I don’t care. Get us back to the hotel some other damn way.’
Elvis sulks into the seat.
The driver turns the limousine around, scraping snow off the side of the road. Two oncoming Ford taxis approaching either side of the intersection brake and slide on the thin ice.
Sleek black cat slinks away.
Limousine drives off in the direction it just came from.
Two Ford taxis crash head-on in the middle of the intersection. Harsh sound of metal scraping metal rings through the cold air. Elvis either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.
He never looks back.
CHAPTER 16: ‘HELLO?’
In his Orlando villa, Colonel Parker is still behind his too-small desk, nursing his baby pony.
He wipes away the sweat under his double chin with the back of his hand. He is on the phone to again.
‘Vernon, I don’t give a shit about the guns.’
Colonel Parker never had much time for Vernon. Had even less respect.
He organized for Vernon to have an office at Graceland as far away from Elvis as possible. Past the racquetball court, past the stables. It was more a storage room than a proper office.
It had some broken down brown filing cabinets, brown metal desks, and brown fake timber walls. And about a dozen Elvis portraits. Either hanging off the walls or leaning back on the floor resting against the desks. A low, low ceiling and an air-conditioner that Colonel Parker made sure never work.
There was a small, crude wooden sign on the office door that Vernon had carefully painted in his own hand. It made Colonel Parker laugh just to think about it.
PLEASE READ AND OBSERVE
NO LOAFING IN OFFICE STRICTLY FOR EMPLOYEES ONLY! IF YOU HAVE BUSINESS HERE PLEASE TAKE CARE OF IT AND LEAVE.
There was never any business. Never anything to take care of.
Colonel Parker had been more of a father to Elvis than Vernon ever had. He tried to sleep with Gladys once, but that was back when he was still drinking. Back in the early days when no one knew how long Elvis would last.
Some folks said he wouldn’t last the summer. How wrong they were.
Colonel Parker tries to light his cigar. No luck.
‘Vernon, my boy’s been living with death threats his whole life, nearly. Don’t make one lick of difference.’
He can’t even get a flame from his lighter. He rummages through piles of overflowing paper in front of him. It looks like he’s dumped the entire contents of three office trash bins onto the desk.
‘No, no, no, no.’
The Colonel shakes his head while he listens to Vernon.
‘Listen, if I know my boy he’s going to call Red before long and when he does you call me straight up, you hear?’
The Colonel doesn’t wait for Vernon’s response. He slams the receiver down. He picks it up again and dials a number that is promptly answered.
He flicks the lighter again. Still no luck.
‘FBI? I need to report me a kidnapping.’
He rolls the unlit cigar between his fingers.
‘A rock and roll celebrity kidnapping that’s out of control.’
CHAPTER 17: ‘I HEAR HIS VOICE ALL THE TIME’
Elvis and Jerry are sitting down to dinner at the Hotel Washington’s Two Continents Restaurant.
They both wear the same velvet black shirts. The upscale restaurant is nearly deserted. The two men would look more conspicuous if it weren’t so late in the hour.
A lonely business man sits at the bar nursing a whiskey, and a young couple sit at a table in the opposite corner from Jerry and Elvis. They are too engrossed in themselves to notice anything around them. Occasionally, the girl giggles with delight.
Elvis inspects his silverware, holding it up to the light and turning it over several times. He sets the fork and spoon down, satisfied. He wipes compulsively at the knife with his cloth napkin. He finally looks at it with pleasure, grimaces into his reflection in the blade and sets it down beside the spoon.
Then he looks up at Jerry, and shakes his head slowly.
‘I don’t know, I got a bad feeling about this.’
‘E, it was just a cat.’
‘A black cat, man. Black.’
‘You got something against black cats?’
‘Only when they cross my path.’
A waiter places a plate of chicken and vegetables drenched in some type of sauce in front of Elvis and Jerry. Elvis pushes the carrots to one side with his newly shining knife.
‘And I got to tell you, I’m superstitious of anyone who ain’t superstitious.’
Jerry looks around for the salt. Elvis points to a dark corner of the restaurant.
‘There’s two salt shakers on that table over there.’
Jerry squints into the distance, but can’t even remotely make out the salt shakers. He wonders how Elvis can see them. He looks down at his meal.
‘I kind of lost my appetite.’
Elvis continues pushing his food around and doesn’t eat anything.
‘How many times you call the White House?’
‘I told you already.’
‘Tell me again.’
‘About ten thousand times, E. And I left a message every time. And no, no one called back.’
Elvis looks up from his destroyed meal to glare at Jerry. Jerry throws his hands up in surrender.
‘So shoot me.’
‘You sassing me?’
‘E, you need to learn to relax.’
The skinny, nervous waiter approaches with a tray balancing two steaming cups of coffee. After setting them on the table, he takes the silver bowl of sugar cubes and tongs a cube over Elvis’ cup.
Elvis takes two cubes and pops them directly into his mouth. Jerry doesn’t take sugar. The waiter leaves the silver sugar bowl on the table and backs quickly away.
‘And you got to learn to keep your big mouth shut, Jerry.’
‘Christ, E, what’s eating you?’
‘None of your fucking business.’
Jerry slaps his hands on the table. The silver sugar tongs rattle, coffee sloshes out of both cups.
Elvis remains sullen and glaring.
‘Back the fuck off. I don’t like people getting into my brain.’
Jerry pushes back from the table with a violent thrust.
‘Well, thanks for sharing.’
He starts to walk away from the table. Elvis’ face falls, he looks completely dejected.
‘Wait up! Don’t leave!’
‘Why the fuck shouldn’t I leave?’
‘I just got too much on my mind, Jerry.’
‘We all got shit to deal with, E.’
The girl, several tables away, giggles as her boyfriend slides his foot up her leg. The restaurant swallows her laugh. Elvis looks over at her and sighs.
‘You think it’s easy being ‘Elvis Presley’? Man, you don’t know the half of it?’
Elvis folds his arms into his chest, a pout plays across his face.
Jerry is not impressed and makes a move to leave again. Elvis stares at the empty seat.
‘Sit down, man. I want to tell you a story.’
Jerry stops again and looks at the empty seat, then down at Elvis.
‘Tell you a story about a brother you didn’t even know I had?’
Jerry steps back and sits slowly down, looking weary and tired of it all. Too tired to not give in.
Elvis drops on, two sugar cubes in his coffee.
‘A twin brother.’
‘You’ve got a twin brother, E?’
Jerry doesn’t really believe what he’s hearing. Elvis slowly stirs his coffee.
‘Jesse Garron Presley. He was born dead. Smothered to death saving me.’
He continues stirring his coffee, a forlorn look passes across his clear blue eyes.
‘Buried the day I was born in an unmarked grave in Tupelo Cemetery ‘cause daddy didn’t have no money for no proper burial. Buried in a shoebox.’
He keeps stirring his coffee and stares into the swirling brown liquid, transfixed.
‘I remember when I was little, couldn’t have been more than two years old, and a tornado ripped through Tupelo on a Sunday when most folk were at church. Tore the town right up, killed hundreds. And I sat in church that day and prayed and prayed and prayed it would take me away, take me up to the mansion in the sky, take me up to Jesse.’
Elvis stops stirring his sugary coffee and looks up at Jerry.
‘He’s my guardian angel, he’s my original bodyguard.’
Jerry swallows hard. Elvis looks like he’s going to cry.
‘I can still hear his voice, Jerry. I hear his voice all the time.’
He bows his head toward the table to hide the tear that slides down his cheek.
‘Why am I the one who’s alive? Why me?’
Elvis speaks softly into the table. He gets up and starts to walk away, forgetting Jerry’s presence entirely. He continues talking to himself as he walks.
‘To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness.’
He shakes his head and slowly ambles towards the elevators. Jerry turns around in his seat and watches Elvis leave, wondering whether he should follow. He decides to stay and finish his coffee first. He needs a coffee.
Elvis committed his first sin when he was just four years old. Stole two empty Coca-Cola bottles from his neighbor’s front porch to cash in for the deposit. His mother only had to ask him once where they’d come, and he told her straight he’d taken them from the Harris’ porch without permission.
Gladys didn’t need to raise her voice. But she wanted to raise her boy up right so she took him by the hand back to the Harris’ house to return the bottles. Guilt and embarrassment tore him up. But he was even more upset when his mother announced to Mrs. Harris that her Elvis was to confess his sin at church the following Sunday. She wanted to teach him a lesson about stealing he would never forget.
When Sunday came, Elvis pretended to be sick. Too sick to go to church. Too sick until Vernon laid the strap on him. He was burning up when Gladys pushed him up to the front of the Church and ordered him to confess in front of the entire Assembly of God congregation. Everyone looking at him. everyone judging.
With pale tears brimming from his blue eyes and his head hanging low, Elvis whispered his wrong doing and then ran out of the Church, crying.
He never again took anything without permission.
CHAPTER 18: ‘EVERYBODY KNOWS WHO ELVIS IS’
It’s late. Low light seeps between two men in a worn out ante room somewhere within the White House.
H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s Chief of Staff stomps up and down the room with Elvis’ five page letter clasped in his fist. His heavy steps on the stale carpet, spill long, oily shadows. He is old and crabby and cynical and tired. He’s seen it all before, angry at life and everyone around him.
Egil ‘Bud’ Krogh, his youthful and more hopeful cohort is calmly perched on the edge of a desk, arms folded across his chest. He is an eager office aide, with a bright future in politics. Haldeman can’t stand him.
Haldeman holds out Elvis’ letter as if it’s contaminated.
‘I think not.’
‘It’s a bullshit letter, it’s absolute crap.’
Bud stretches his arms out in the ever changing direction of the older man, pleading his case.
‘The guards swear it was Elvis Presley.’
‘If it was really Elvis Presley, why wouldn’t his manager, you know, that Colonel guy have contacted us for God’s sake? It’s a crappy joke I tell you.’
‘Both guards swear it was Elvis Presley.’
‘Most likely some impersonator or something.’
Haldeman looks down at the letter. Reads the first line with a shake of his head.
‘Shit, it reads like it was written by a two year old.’
He waves off the letter.
‘Most likely some Democrat prank.’
‘I think you’re wrong.’
Haldeman stops clomping long enough to adjust his glasses. He looks down at Bud.
‘I don’t give a rat’s ass what you think. And even if it is bona fide, what in God’s name do we stand to gain by letting some one trick pony like Presley meet with the boss?’
He resumes his feverish pacing.
‘Shit! He probably doesn’t even know who Elvis Presley is.’
He laughs although he is not amused. Bud rubs at the corners of his eyes, tired.
‘Everybody knows who Elvis is.’
Haldeman stops, and looks at Bud.
‘Well, the boss certainly isn’t everybody, is he now?’
To save money, President Nixon had his wife redecorate the White House. She brought in hundreds of nicknacks to brighten up the place. But they didn’t help much.
There was no getting around the smell. The musty, dusty smell of history that hung in the dead air. The White House has a distinct odor. It smells like lavender and cat’s piss.
The windows are permanently sealed so no air can breeze in. Heavy curtains are often drawn to keep any sunshine at bay. Many of the light fixtures haven’t been updated since the White House was first wired for electricity. The same globes, the same dull light.
At night, the north facade looks just like a larger version of Graceland.
CHAPTER 19: ‘E, GIVE ME THE GUN’
It’s late at the Hotel Washington and Elvis is sitting up in his king-size bed, unable to sleep.
He wears a fluffy white dressing gown, lost in thought. A crystal chandelier twinkles overhead.
The television is on with sound off. An announcer on the screen is trying to sell something. Elvis’ mind is elsewhere.
He picks up a revolver from the bedside table and slowly loads in a round. He closes his eyes and thinks about everything that is wrong with his life. Thinks about how those stupid films ruined his career. Sure the first few had been fun and Elvis had always wanted to be a movie star. But the attraction wore as thin as the plots after the first half dozen. After thirty-three of the damn things he damn near wanted to kill himself.
Never occurred to him to kill Colonel Parker. Even if it was Colonel Parker who signed him up for one dumb movie after the other, one dumb soundtrack after the other. Back to back to back.
When the box office started to falter, it was Colonel Parker who wanted to bring Elvis back to the stage with a television Christmas Special in ’68. All he wanted was a television version of a pre-recorded Christmas radio show Elvis had contributed to the year before. Nothing complicated, nothing fancy.
Steve Binder was the director and he had other ideas. When he met Elvis at his production offices he told him he wanted to salvage the singer’s reputation after years of bad movies and empty songs. Elvis laughed and told him he had the reputation of being the biggest superstar in the world. Told him he couldn’t walk out on the street without being mobbed.
Steve told him that it was 1968 and the world had changed. Promised him nobody would tear his clothes off, nobody would hound him for autographs.
Elvis didn’t believe him. (Didn’t want to believe him.)
So he challenged him. Got Steve to follow him out onto Sunset Boulevard in peak hour, and stood there waiting to be mobbed. Standing nervously in front of the building, Elvis wasn’t even recognized. After a while it got a little embarrassing. No one was paying any attention. Elvis took off his sunglasses and kind of waved to the passing cars. Some teenagers coming out of Tower Records bumped into him and didn’t even lift their heads.
When Elvis went back upstairs with Steve his attitude had changed dramatically. Suddenly he was a lot more open to new ideas, new direction. Suddenly he trusted Steve a whole lot more.
Originally the show was going to feature large sets, multiple dance sequences and big productions of Elvis’ hits.
Elvis hadn’t performed before a live audience since ’61. So there was a lot riding on the show.
There was a lot riding in the country.
Elvis and Steve were busy rehearsing the night Bobby Kennedy was shot in the Ambassador Hotel. They watched it over and over on the television in the piano room. They talked about the wasted lives of great men.
Elvis talked about people being torn apart by hate, about how we’re all created equal, about how we all deserve to walk hand in hand with our brothers.
Steve wanted to hear that philosophy on air. So he called Earl Brown to write a song for Elvis to sing to close the show. To sing what he believed in.
Steve had to coax him out of the dressing room for the live jam session with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. He came out in that tight black leather suit with the collar up high. So scared his left leg wouldn’t stop shaking.
Elvis hadn’t sung live for seven years. Now he’s on a small stage, no more than ten feet square surrounded by an audience. He started jamming and telling jokes to loosen up.
He was a little shaky for the opening number. His throat was dry. But little by little, song by song, you could see the confidence surge through his body, flow through his spirt. You could feel it rise and rise in the music.
You could see Elvis find himself.
It made the show. It also made television history as the highest rating special ever.
“If I Can Dream” was the closing song. It became Elvis first million-selling record in years.
Elvis began recording with big bands and full orchestras at the African American-influenced American Sound Studios. He recorded so many songs that RCA Records needed a year and a half to release them all. Number 1 hits like “Suspicious Minds,’ “In the Ghetto” and “Kentucky Rain.”
It was Colonel Parker’s idea to launch his return to live performances in Vegas. Elvis hated the idea. The only time he’d ever played Vegas was in ’56. He couldn’t forget it because it was the only time he bombed.
Elvis was just twenty-one years old. “Heartbreak Hotel” was Number 1 on the charts and the nation was in the grip of youth fever.
Colonel Parker booked him in the Venus Room of the New Frontier Hotel, billed him as the ‘The Atomic Powered Singer.’ The older audiences hated him. They booed and jeered him off stage. They called him vulgar and uncouth.
Elvis had always hated the gambling mecca.
In ’69 Colonel Parker signed him up for four weeks at the newly built International Hotel for the largest fee ever paid to any singer in history.
Elvis had to do two shows a night to make it pay. Sometimes more if Colonel Parker started losing more than usual on the roulette tables.
Then the touring started with a series of furious one night stands across the country. It was like a traveling carnival show that kept on rolling. The schedule was punishing and kept Elvis away from home for months at a time.
Priscilla knew the marriage was over when he told her one night that he didn’t want her on the road. Truth was he didn’t need her.
The cities and the shows and the song and the pills and the girls blurred into each other. There was never any shortage of girls. Elvis always had the guys go trolling. They’d go downstairs after a show and pick out four or five girls for him to look over. Tall, clean girls.
They’d be led up to his hotel suite to meet him. All smiles and very gracious, he would make them feel wonderful. He would look them over while he talked to them. Then he’d let Rick know which one he wanted to stay. Rick would escort the others to the door, while the one that was chosen would stay behind.
Rick then had to explain the rules to her. 1) Elvis always liked to eat in bed; 2) Elvis always ate and slept in pajamas; 3) Elvis always insisted everybody around him be very clean so she might just want to take a shower before she put on one of his pajama tops left just for her in the bathroom.
Elvis could take or leave the sex. But he couldn’t spend the night alone. He couldn’t sleep alone.
Elvis rolls the barrel on the revolver, and watches it spin slowly to a stop.
He slowly lifts the gun and aims it at one of the bulbs in the chandelier. He takes a deep breath, squints, and fires off a round. The hit bulb explodes into a million points of light.
Elvis smirks and aims for a second bulb. He squeezes the trigger and hits his target again, showering glass and shivers of light everywhere. He throws his head back and starts to laugh at the fact the bedroom is getting darker.
He aims for a third bulb. He can hear the suite doors being kicked open. Jerry screams out desperately.
Blam and another chandelier piece explodes. Sparkling light rains down.
Jerry screams into the bedroom doorway, bathrobe flying out behind him. Gasping for breath. Elvis is still laughing.
‘Just hitting out the lights, Jerry.’
Elvis sits up smugly in bed, looking very pleased with himself.
‘Christ, E, haven’t you heard of a fucking light switch?’
Jerry rests one hand on the door frame, catching his breath.
Elvis blinks and stares at Jerry. He aims his gun at Jerry and blasts out the light switch under his hand. The room collapses into darkness. Shadows pulse from the television screen. Elvis slip under the covers, and turns over.
Jerry tries desperately to reign in his anger, fingers tightening into a fist. He step carefully through the broken shards and slivers of glass to Elvis’ bed. His lips are tight.
‘E, give me the gun.’
Elvis rolls back over, shrugs an open palm to the ceiling.
‘What’d I do wrong?’
Jerry’s shoulders rise up to his ears. He unclenches his fist, holds out his hand and speaks very slowly.
‘Elvis, please give me the gun.’
‘Man, it’s cool. We’re on the top floor. I couldn’t hit nobody even if I wanted to.’
Jerry keeps his open right hand outstretched.
Elvis looks at the television for answers, but finds none. He gently places the gun in Jerry’s palm.
‘I’m only doing this because I love you, Jerry.’
Jerry stalks out of the room, the gun dangling loosely from one hand.
Elvis sits on the edge of the bed listlessly until Jerry leaves. He hears Jerry slam shut the doors to his suite.
He sighs and opens the drawer in the bedside table. Inside rests the hotel bible, some vials of pills, and his gold-plated handgun. He takes out a vial of pink pills. He glances at the television screen as he pops the lid, pops a few pills into his palm and tosses them into his mouth.
He wanders over to the lounge chair in front of the television. He slumps down in it and watches.
‘Thank you, and good night,’ says the TV announcer majestically as the national anthem rises in the background. The regal man’s face fades until it gives way entirely to a waving American flag.
Elvis finally falls asleep in the big armchair as the screen turns to snow and soft hissing.
He hears the sounds of thousands of female fans stomping and cheering and calling out his name. They scream and yell and tear at their hair and clothes.
Elvis is on stage, wearing a black jewel encrusted jumpsuit, black cape and large black belt. His signature sunglasses hide his eyes from view. Stage lights glare in his face as he sings out the opening lines of “That’s All Right, Mama.”
He peels off his sunglasses and realizes with confusion that the thousands of screaming women look like different variations of his mama. He sings on.
His voice doubles up as if multi-tracked. It sounds like two people singing their heart out.
Elvis turns around in surprise and sees himself in a white jeweled jumpsuit and white cape. In a wave of joy he realizes that this is his twin brother. This is Jesse singing with him, joining him onstage.
The closing chords reverb out into the excited audience. Jesse smiles at Elvis. Elvis reaches out to him. He extends his hand towards his brother’s. Jesse takes a step back, still smiling, cape swirling.
CHAPTER 20: ‘I DON’T SOUND LIKE NOBODY, M’AM’
Daylight creeps into the shattered room and wakes Elvis.
He looks around confused, and dimly remembers where he is. He shuffles into the bathroom, barely avoiding the shard-strewn floor. Sadness weighs him down and he wants to cry.
How did it come to this? All he ever wanted to be was a great movie actor, a serious movie actor. He never wanted to be the “King of rock’n’roll.” He always thought rock’n’roll had no future. Everyone said it’d be lucky if it lasted a summer or two.
When he first started singing and playing the guitar, it didn’t even have a name. It was just rhythm’n’blues. Elvis laid in some bluegrass and gospel and hopped it up some. He kept stumbling over the words because he got so excited singing and playing that he couldn’t remember the damn lyrics.
In ’53 he walked into the Memphis Recording Service on his lunch break and paid $3.98 to cut two songs on a double-sided acetate disk. He used the money he’d saved ushering at Loew’s State Theater on the corner of South Main and Peabody Place.
He loved his part-time job at Lowe’s. Meant he could watch as many movies as many times as he wanted. Must have seen “High Noon” a thousand times. Knew the dialogue by heart. Could sing “Do Not Forsake Me (Oh, My Darlin’)” at the drop of a hat.
Vernon knew quite a few guitar players. And they were always broke. Told his son he’d be better off having a real job driving trucks.
Elvis didn’t much like driving trucks. But he liked the way truck drivers wore their hair long, slicked back into a ducktail. Liked all the pomade that made his brown hair all dark and shiny. Just like his mama’s.
The hair made him feel special, one of a kind. He liked wearing flashy clothes too, loved to stand out in pink and black. Made him feel just fine. (Even if it did make him look like some nigger pimp sliding down Beale Street.)
For a shy boy he sure loved people looking at him. Guys threatened to beat him up, girls couldn’t take their eyes off him.
Teenagers all over Memphis were listening to rhythm’n’blues on the sly. Everyone called it race music because that’s what it was. Negro music. Black music.
Black musicians had taken swing and laced it with urban blues. Served it with lyrics of love and longing. It proved an intoxicating blend.
When Elvis first walked into the recording booth as a shy eighteen-year old, Marion Keisker was running the controls. She asked him what kind of music he sang, who he sang like?
‘Oh, I don’t sound like nobody, m’am.’
He wobbled his way through “My Happiness” by the Ink Spots on one side and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” on the other. Marion promised Sam Phillips who owned the recording studio would be in touch. He wasn’t.
So Elvis tried a second time a year later. Laid his money down and recorded “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way” on the A-side and “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You” on the flipside.
It was six months before Phillips called local Western swing musicians Winfield ‘Scotty’ Moore and Bill Black to audition Presley over a song or two.
They got together at Moore’s house on July 4, ’54. It was a Sunday. Elvis turned up with his rhythm guitar wearing a pink shirt, pink pants with white stripes down the legs, and bright white shoes. Scotty thought his wife was going to run out the back door when he walked in.
They stumbled through a few songs. Scotty playing lead on his Gibson ES-295, Bill pumping on his upright slap bass and Elvis trying to keep rhythm.
None of them were much impressed with each other. But Phillips offered to record them for free the next day. Monday was a slow day at the recording studio.
They played through some classics that Phillips didn’t even bother recording. Elvis was trying too hard to sound good to impress the man. It was only during a break that he let loose. He started acting the fool with Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right (Mama).” Ripped it right up, tore a new hole in it.
Scotty and Bill joined in, laughing all the way. Be-bopping up and down with it.
That’s when Phillips yelled at them to stop and do it again so he could tape it. They did.
And rock and roll was born.
Phillips cut some acetates that night and rushed them to radio station WHBQ’s “Red, Hot and Blue” show. Told them it was a brand new sound. Told them to play it. They did.
And Elvis Presley was born.
The station had never had such a reaction to a song before. By the end of the night, hundreds of requests had been called in to play it again and again.
By the end of the week, it was released with an uptempo version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the B-side. It roared up the southern charts and set the pattern for hit single after hit single.
Elvis started touring the country-western circuit, swiveling his hips whenever he got onstage. No other country singer took him seriously. Most of his fans were teenage girls. The younger they were the louder they yelled.
During a summer performance in Jacksonville, Florida, Elvis jokingly invited all the girls in the audience to meet him backstage. But the joke was on him. A swarm of screaming girls chased him all the way to his car, literally ripping the clothes off his body.
His mother was in the car, terrified. The press was in the wings, stunned. And there was one man in the audience more intrigued than anything.
His name was Colonel Parker. He’d seen everything but he’d never seen anything like this before.
CHAPTER 21: ‘VERNON, DO I PAY YOU TO THINK?’
In his office, Colonel Parker sits at his desk and looks down admiringly at his sleeping baby pony.
He grapples the phone and chews his shredded, unlit cigar. He barks down the phone.
‘Vernon, do I pay you to think?’
He blows his nose loudly.
‘Well, Vernon, he will before long. Why? What do you mean ‘why’? Because I know, Vernon. Because I am The Colonel.’
Vernon is sick with worry. He hasn’t slept since Elvis fled Graceland. He can’t remember a day when Elvis hasn’t been with the guys, with the bodyguards.
‘Well, he will call. No, no!! You tell Red to call me soon as he calls him.’
He slams the phone down. Then swoops it up again and dials another number, which is hastily answered.
‘Hello? Associated Press? I want the East Coast editor’s desk. Got me a horrible, terrible plane crash to report.’
He muffles a belch out the side of his mouth.
A smile leers across his face.
‘Well, you will when I tell you who was on board.’
Colonel Parker chuckles to himself as he waits on hold for the editor. He strokes his sleeping pony and laughs and laughs.
CHAPTER 22: ‘THE DAY ROCK’N’ROLL DIED’
Colonel Parker had been Hank Snow’s manager when he first got a taste of Elvis. He initially signed on as a ‘special adviser’ in ’55. Within a few months he became Elvis’ full time manager.
He loved rolling him through the country-western circuit. Loved stacking up each show with merchandise. Had “I Love Elvis” tin buttons printed up to sell to the girls. And “I Hate Elvis” buttons to sell to the boys. Hats, caps, flags, trinkets emblazoned with his name sold like hot cakes. Used to make more money selling the crap on the side than Elvis would get for singing onstage.
Easy money. Colonel Parker loved easy money.
But he knew it was just loose change. Knew he had to get Elvis wider exposure to broaden his appeal and start earning serious money.
He started looking for a record company that could assure Elvis national and international promotion and distribution. Columbia and Atlantic had shown some interest but felt Elvis was strictly a country singer.
Colonel Parker had a friend at RCA Victor who owed him a favor. Introduced him to legendary A&R man Steve Sholes, a record producer who a decade earlier had brought jazz to the masses.
Sholes met Elvis at a DJ Convention in Nashville and felt the singer had a gold record in him. Colonel Parker put the hard word on him. Kept telling him about all the girls, all the screaming girls.
Talked him into buying out Elvis’ recording contract from Sun Records for the unheard sum of $35,000 with a $5,000 bonus for his boy.
The bonus check came from Colonel Parker. Wrote out under the sum that it was an advance payment on future earnings before he signed it.
In ’56 Elvis walked into the new RCA Victor recording studio in McGavock Street, Nashville. Entered from a door on the side of the building via an alleyway next to Washcannons coffee shop. The building was owned and operated by the United Methodist Television, Radio & Film Commission. RCA Victor had a studio and an office in the building, the Methodists had everything else.
Elvis recorded with his hair up and his shoes off. Thought recording in his lucky socks made all the differences. Also meant you couldn’t hear his feet stomping along to the song.
Sholes was a little worried by Elvis’ off-handed approach. He sang a take, played it back, discarded it, and then sang another. And kept repeating the process until he felt he’d nailed the tune. Elvis never learnt to read music. He was all instinct.
The studio had a curved ceiling which looked great but created low frequency problems with bass notes booming out and rolling around all over the place. Scotty Moore must have moved his slap bass a thousand times to find the right spot.
Long red curtains hung down the walls to keep instruments from bouncing on top of each other. Movable screens isolated the drums, the guitars and the piano to stop them bleeding into other mics.
Chet Atkins was behind the mixing desk with engineer Bob Farris. Atkins was a consummate professional. Farris preferred to look down at the dials and meters of his mixing panel than up at the musicians.
Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana had been playing with Elvis on the road. They were used to the laid back atmosphere at Sun Records. They found the detached, professional air at RCA Victor more than a little intimidating.
Everyone was nervous except Elvis who attacked his first number, Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” with everything he had. Atkins had never seen anything like it.
Then Elvis got in to the swing of things with “Heartbreak Hotel.” It was written by Gainesville songwriters Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden. Elvis had come across the song at the same DJ Convention where he’d first been spotted by Sholes.
Durden had penned the ballad after reading a newspaper article about the suicide of a well-dressed young man who left behind a note a Florida hotel suite with just one line that read “I walk a lonely street.”
It was a simple verse based on eight-bar blues progression.
Axton asked her friend singer Glen Reeves to record a demo in Elvis’ loose style. When Elvis first heard it he realised he was listening to someone trying to sing like him. He sure got a kick out of that.
When it came time to record his own version, he copied Reeves vocal intonations note for note. He copied a copy of himself.
Sholes and Atkins and Farris and more than few suits at RCA Victor were anxious to recreate the signature slapback effect on Elvis’ vocals that Phillips had created at Sun Records. They all thought the unique echo was key to Elvis’ musical appeal.
They tried every trick in the book. They ended up creating a makeshift echo chamber by setting up a single speaker to play each take at one end of the long hallway that ran down the side of the studio and a microphone at the other end to record the echo live.
You can hear still hear it. The effect is eerie, downright ghostly, especially during the opening lines to each verse when Elvis sings without accompaniment. His voice is penetrating, and the sound is despondent, lost.
It wasn’t what the RCA Victor executives back in New York were expecting. To be honest they didn’t know what to expect. But they all knew it wasn’t this.
They quickly released ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ as the first single. Mainly to buy some time and hurriedly arranged a second recording session in New York to capture that explosive rock’n’roll sound they were hearing so much about. That explosive rock’n’roll sound they paid so much for.
“Heartbreak Hotel” was supposed to be quickly forgotten. Instead it became Elvis’ first gold record, topping the pop singles chart for eight weeks and the topping the country chart for 17 weeks. It even climbed to number three on the rhythm and blues chart.
It crossed over to be the best selling single of the year.
It became a classic.
Elvis’ second recording session in New York was a blur. RCA Victor were keen to capitalize on the success of their latest investment.
In New York, Elvis covered Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” This time there were no backing singers. Just Shorty Long banging away on an upright piano.
Executives bundled the songs with some tracks left over from Nashville and five unreleased songs previously recorded at Sun Records for Elvis’ first long-playing album.
Just to keep things simple they called the album “Elvis Presley.” It was out in the shops within weeks.
Within a month it sold a massive 360,000 copies.
At $3.98 per album, it became RCA Victor’s first million-dollar album by a single artist. It went on to become the first album in music history to sell over a million copies. It rocketed to number one on the top lps chart, and stayed there.
When the serious money started rolling in, Colonel Parker decided to do something about it. Mainly to keep more of it than ever before. He cut a side deal with music publisher Hill and Range with two new music publishing companies - Elvis Presley Music and Gladys Music. Both companies were responsible for obtaining the rights to all the songs Elvis recorded.
It meant Elvis and Colonel Parker not only received a performer’s royalty every time he recorded a song but also a publishing royalty. Every songwriter also had to give Elvis a co-writing credit, even though he never wrote a song in his life.
In July of ’56, Elvis jumped back into RCA Victor’s New York studios and pumped out two signature singles - “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”
He’d been shifting his style from rockabilly to a more rock and pop sound. A bigger sound. But with ‘Hound Dog’ he tried something different again.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote “Hound Dog” a few years earlier for blues singer Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton.
Took them ten minutes to pen the nasty little song about a two-timing gigolo. Thornton growled the saucy lyrics to a hard-driving twelve-bar blues beat, and the tune went on to sell over a half million copies.
Elvis rock’n’rolled it in the studio. Took him more than thirty takes to finally get it right. When released it soared to number one and held the position for eleven weeks, longer than any other single. It also reached number one on the country and western as well as the rhythm and blues charts. It was the first record ever to top all three charts.
Elvis was a bona fide hit machine.
Now all he needed to do was get on television. Not just two-bit variety programs like Jimmy Dorsey’s weekly “Stage Show.” Something big, something real big.
And Colonel Parker had a plan. Colonel Parker always had a plan.
Elvis sang “Hound Dog” for the first time on television on “The Milton Berle Show,” swiveling his hips a little on the opening verse. The studio audience loved it.
So Elvis swiveled a little more and they screamed for more. So he took it further and further, thrusting his hips to the beat. The audience went wild.
And the ratings went through the roof.
Over forty million people saw the broadcast and the next day the controversy exploded all over America. Television critics lambasted his performance as rude and crude and downright vulgar. Called him a no talent performer. Said he was promoting juvenile delinquency.
Religious groups condemned him to an eternal fiery hell. Parent and Teacher Associations banned his records.
Newspapers nicknamed him “Elvis the Pelvis.” Major television shows lined up to book him.
“The Steve Allen Show” donned him in a tuxedo to tone down any gyrations and had him perform “Hound Dog” to a sad-eyed basset hound wearing a top hat. The only thing that wasn’t completely embarrassing was the boost in the show’s ratings.
Fans were furious. The next morning they picketed NBC-TV studios with placards that read “We want the gyratin’ Elvis.” Colonel Parker had them painted up specially for the occasion.
A few nights later Colonel Parker had him booked into the “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS, America’s most highly rated, prime-time variety program. Colonel Parker had been pressing Sullivan’s people to book Elvis for weeks.
He’d been offering his boy at $5000 a pop. But Sullivan had rejected one offer after the other, publicly stating he’d never allow Elvis to appear on his show because it was a family program with family values.
That was until the night he lost the ratings. When it came time to negotiate Elvis’ appearance, Colonel Parker had lifted the fee to an unprecedented $50,000.
When it came time for Elvis to sing “Hound Dog,” Sullivan ordered the cameras to shoot him only from the waist up. But the live studio audience could see what he was up to, and screamed along.
The record sixty million viewers that tuned in that night had to use their imagination.
In it’s first release, “Hound Dog” sold more than four million copies across America. It was his best selling single until it was replaced by his own “Love Me Tender.”
What do you do after you top yourself? Why you go into the movie business, of course.
Hal Wallis was a noted independent movie producer with a long string of hit films. He’d first seen Elvis on television, electrifying the women in the live studio audience. After a screen test he signed him up for a three-picture deal.
For Elvis it was a dream come true. Singers come and go, but if you’re a good actor you can last a long time.
Wallis had no suitable script for Elvis so he immediately loaned him to Twentieth Century-Fox for a Civil War drama called “The Reno Brothers.”
Elvis plays the youngest son, Clint Reno, who marries his eldest brother’s girl after everyone presumes his brother has been killed in the war. But when he returns unexpectedly, the family is torn apart and in the end, Clint is shot and killed.
Colonel Parker hit the roof when he saw the ending. Who in their right mind would kill Elvis? What sort of fan would pay to see Elvis die? He swore they’d stay away in droves.
So the producers reshot an ending where Elvis survives. But it made no sense and robbed the final scenes of any drama. They settled on a compromise where Elvis still dies but his face is superimposed over the final scene as he sings “Love Me Tender.”
Colonel Parker could live with that. The movie’s theme song was taken from a Civil War ballad called “Aura Lee” and reworked as “Love Me Tender.”
To capitalize on the success of the song, Colonel Parker convinced the producers to change the movie title to “Love Me Tender.”
The movie opened wide with a record number of prints. Fans were screaming so loudly you couldn’t hear any of Elvis’ lines. Couldn’t even hear the last words he says before he dies.
Elvis was billed third, after Richard Egan and Debra Paget. But his image was plastered everywhere. Swaggering with his guitar held high, hair swept back, hips loose.
It grossed over a million dollars in its opening weekend.
And a movie star was born.
In one short year, Colonel Parker had managed to make Elvis bigger than Jesus. He was with the biggest record label, the biggest studio, the biggest talent agency and making more money than any other entertainer in the world.
Elvis was the biggest name in show business. Colonel Parker wanted to make him even bigger.
He threatened to break the contract if Wallis didn’t put in more Elvis songs in the next movie. Wallis did more than that. He put in more Elvis.
He developed “Loving You” with writer and director Hal Kanter to make the most of Elvis, basing the storyline on his life.
Elvis stars as an unknown but talented singer with a totally new sound. His character, Deke Rivers, hails from the south. A ruthless music promoter recognizes his unique talent and exploits him as a fresh face who appeals to teenage audiences. The media misrepresents his appeal and brands him a dangerous hothead until he proves he has simply been misunderstood.
To get the script as close as possible to real-life events, Wallis flew Kanter to Memphis to watch Elvis in action. Kanter wanted the film to be a real as possible.
He captured all of it. The almost unbearable tension that built up before Elvis appeared onstage, the hysterical screaming of the audience, the constant popping of flashbulbs.
Even caught the unpleasant side of Elvis’ fame. Fans swarm around Deke Rivers in the film, just as Elvis was often followed and mobbed. Fans infringe on Deke’s personal life, making demands on his time and badgering him with selfish requests. Deke’s fancy new automobile is covered with lipstick messages and phone numbers.
Elvis got to play himself. Just in a different outfit. With better lighting.
Gladys and Vernon and some friends of the family made cameos as members of a concert audience. Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana, appeared as members of a country-western band. Even The Jordanaires popped up in the movie.
The soundtrack for “Loving You” quickly reached number one. It set the pattern for the next ten years where songs from Elvis’ latest film would be combined with tracks from recording sessions to pump out an album. This way the films served as elaborate promotions for the albums and vice versa.
Colonel Parker wanted to get as much out of the movies as possible. This way he could get the best of both worlds.
“Jailhouse Rock” became another number one record for Elvis. It even entered the British charts at number one, the first single ever to do so. The simple verse song was penned by the legendary Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Elvis had already recorded a handful of songs from these masters.
The pair wrote more tracks for the movie and took over the recording sessions. They wanted Elvis to rock out. They wanted the band to rock hard. They told drummer DJ Fontana to smash the drums like he was in a chain gang smashing rocks.
Elvis hit the songs with all he had. In the movie he got to play himself again. His character, Vince Everett, is an ex-convict when he meets Peggy Van Alden, a record company talent scout. She lets him record a song and they start their own label to bring his records to the public, and fame, riches, and a film career ensue. Throughout it all, Everett is the epitome of the spoiled star, surly, uncommunicative, bellicose, and treating all around him with either cruelty or diffidence. Until a final fight at the end of the movie where his vocal chords are damaged and he learns his lesson in humility.
The character embodies the rebellious spirit and sexuality of rock’n’roll. It’s pure Elvis.
When he spends time in a recording studio, listening to himself croon “Don’t Leave Me Now,” he realizes he lacks a personal style.
After rocking the tune just a bit, he discovers how to make the song fit him. Which is what Elvis did with all his songs. To make the connection even stronger, the musicians are his own band. With Stoller riffing away on the piano.
He didn’t even have to make a costume change. With his baggy black pants held up by a thin belt and his tight-fitting shirt with turned-up collar and rolled-up sleeves, the character sports the ultrahip attire Elvis purchased at Mr. Lansky’s clothing store on Beale Street in Memphis.
Even the character’s hairstyle is a cleaned-up version of Elvis’ notorious ducktail and sideburns.
What audiences saw on the silver screen was a more polished version of Elvis. Even his swagger and prowl and sneering charisma was larger than life.
Alex Romero worked day and night with Elvis to choreograph the “Jailhouse Rock” dance sequence with a chorus of convicts. The film budget had been cut twice. All they had to work with in the studio was some prison outfits, a few mock jail cell doors, a spiral staircase and pole.
It was all they needed.
When it came time to film, Elvis gave it all for take after take. He didn’t know he was making history.
The producers thought they were saving money. What they saved was rock’n’roll. It’s the music that rang true.
“Jailhouse Rock” spawned a slew of hit singles and another chart topping album.
Colonel Parker was more than happy with the royalties but was more than a little worried about the influence Leiber and Stoller had over Elvis.
They were constantly in Elvis’ ear. Guiding him one way, then another. Pushing him to experiment with new styles, new beats, new songs.
Elvis would drop whatever he was doing whenever they walked in with a new idea. They didn’t knock. Even worse they didn’t go through the proper channels.
When Colonel Parker found out the duo were pitching Elvis’ a gritty film adaptation of Nelson Algren’s recent scandalous novel, “A Walk on the Wild Side,” with Elia Kazan directing, he hit the roof. Banned them from the set, banned them from the recording studio. Banned them from ever having anything to do with Elvis again.
Elvis told him he could win an Oscar if he played the naive young man. He was serious. What did Colonel Parker care. Could you eat an Oscar? Could you sell an Oscar?
What he worried about was messing with the formula.
Plus he’d already signed off on Elvis’ next movie with Wallis. It was to be “King Creole.” A musical drama based on Harold Robbins’s novel, “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” about a troubled teenager who falls for a mobster’s girl.
In the novel, Danny is an aspiring Jewish boxer. In the script, he’s an exciting young Southern singer with a new sound. Wallis changed everything in the story to suit Elvis’ rock’n’roll image.
The New York setting became New Orleans. The fight club became a nightclub. The young Italian Catholic girl became a call girl.
The death of their first born child didn’t even make the first draft.
Something had to go to fit in all the songs.
Elvis didn’t want to do it. Didn’t want to sing his way through another movie. He wanted to act, damnit.
So Colonel Parker told him James Dean had been offered the part, and had promised Wallis it would be his next film before he died. Of course it wasn’t true. But then again being truthful wasn’t exactly Colonel Parker’s strong suit.
Elvis changed his mind.
Elvis wanted to wear a black leather jacket in honor of Dean. Colonel Parker promised him he could. Promised him the highest production values ever, high class all the way. Top flight cast, top notch talent.
Nothing but the best for Elvis.
Told him he’d have a table set aside at the legendary Antoine’s for a taste of New Orlean’s most famous cuisine.
Even told him he could let Leiber and Stoller pen a couple of numbers if that’s what Elvis really wanted. Just as long as they went through the proper channels. Just as long as they went through Colonel Parker.
Wallis got Michael Curtiz to direct. Curtiz cast Academy Award winner Dean Jagger along with the rising stars Walter Matthau and Carolyn Jones.
Curtiz had directed such classics as “Angels with Dirty Faces” and “Casablanca.” It was the closest Elvis would get to an Oscar.
For “King Creole,” Curtiz decided to shoot much of it on location in New Orleans in the French Quarter and around Lake Pontchartrain. During shooting, Elvis was constantly mobbed by fans. Colonel Parker convinced Wallis to pay for armed Pinkerton security guards around-the-clock for his boy.
More policemen had to be hired for crowd control when shooting in the city’s streets. The fans that made Elvis a star were also turning him into a recluse.
Wallis booked out the entire top floor of the Roosevelt Hotel for Elvis and his retinue. Security guards patrolled the hallways, the elevators, and even the fire escapes to keep troublesome fans away.
When Elvis returned to the hotel in the evening, he had to climb to the top of an adjacent building, cross over the roof, and enter by a hidden fire escape.
He never dined at Antonie’s because no one could guarantee crowd control. During his time in New Orleans, he lived on room service.
Leiber and Stoller managed to get three tunes onto the soundtrack, including the title track and “Trouble.” They were easily the movie’s best songs.
They were stacked up with another eight songs and recorded in three days in time for the movie’s release.
Everything was in a rush because Elvis had made a decision that would change his life. Elvis had made a decision that would change everything.
Elvis had been served with his draft notice on Christmas of ’57. Frank Freeman, Paramount studio chief petitioned the army to defer his induction to allow Elvis time to finish the movie.
Lawyers had drawn up the paperwork to secure limited military service so Elvis cold get back to work. There was even talk of him failing his medical because of a bad heart. But Colonel Parker had other ideas.
His boy had risen faster and higher than even he had dreamed possible. He’d also been hit with a bevy of paternity suits and law suits. Then there were all the underage girls. Statutory rape never played well in the press.
What better way to avoid any legal wrangles than to take his boy out of public circulation for a year or two. Just long enough for statute of limitations to void any legal proceedings.
In March of ’58, Elvis and the band played two sellout concerts at Russwood Park in Memphis to showcase his new chart topping single, “Don’t.” They were to be his last shows for three years.
Later that month Elvis was sworn in as US Private 53310761 at the Memphis Draft Office, then bussed to Fort Chaffee, Arizona for full induction. Fans lined the road and cried. Reporters were everywhere.
The next day Elvis sat down in his Army uniform in a barber’s chair as photographers packed in to snap shot after shot.
James ‘Pete’ Peterson whipped out his clippers, switched them on and got to work. Lock after lock of Elvis’ hair drifted to the floor.
It was the day rock’n’roll died.
CHAPTER 23: ‘BUT IT’S ELVIS PRESLEY’
In a forgotten White House meeting room, Haldeman and Bud stand at opposite ends of a long mahogany table.
Haldeman is flipping through a pile of memos and reports in his arms. Bud holds Elvis’ letter in an open folder.
Haldeman starts his way slowly around the table, laying out memos and reports at each seat. The air in the room is still.
Bud tries another suggestion.
‘I think we could get Elvis to entertain the troops, that would be useful.’
‘It’d be good press for him.’
‘And for us?’
‘Popular support, patriotic duty, you know, the usual stuff. Great copy, great photo ops.’
Bud stamps out the newspaper headline with his hands.
‘Elvis ‘Vietnam’ Presley.’
Haldeman throws down the last report onto the table.
‘You think for one minute I need Elvis ‘Shithead’ Presley to win this war?’
‘Personally, I think we need all the help we can get.’
Haldeman straightens the report on the table.
‘Egil, leave the territorial disputes and wars to me.’
Bud clenches his fist, quietly.
‘Don’t call me Egil.’
Haldeman dismisses Bud with a wave of his hand, nearly slapping him in the face.
‘Just take care of whatever domestic issue you’re supposed to.’
‘But it’s Elvis Presley.’
Haldeman walks away.
‘According to who, Egil?’
CHAPTER 24: ‘HOW COULD SOMETHING SO GOOD BE SO BAD’
Shots of Elvis’ military short-back-and-sides ricocheted around the world. It made front page news on hundreds of newspapers.
The local paper offered locks of his hair a photographer had scooped up off the barbershop floor as prizes for readers. Officials at Fort Chaffe were inundated with letters requesting locks of his hair. The more ingenious among them took to selling any locks of hair they could lay their hands on. Even their own.
Never before had an entertainer’s hair gotten so much press. Before he entered the military it was criticized for being too long, too greasy. Just too damn rebellious.
When teenagers started copying the style, all hell broke loose. School leaders called for bans on pomade, politicians warned it would lead to youth riots.
Colonel Parker had always been careful to balance bad Elvis stories with good Elvis stories. For every negative rumor that Elvis smoked marijuana to hop himself up before a show, there were stories that he never drank or smoked. For every wild tale that he’d once shot his mother, there were stories after stories of the devoted son who was loved his parents.
He was excruciatingly polite during interviews. Reporters thought he was putting it on. But he wasn’t. It was the way his mama raised him. He respected his elders.
He didn’t know any better.
He never understood why the press criticized his music, never understood why they called him a bad influence.
How could something so good be so bad.
CHAPTER 25: ‘BACK IN AN HOUR OR SO’
Jerry enters the Republican suite cautiously, and steps to the open bedroom doors. Shattered glass is still glistening on the carpet.
Elvis is opening all the windows and making a show of fanning himself.
‘Man, I am burning up.’
Jerry looks at the slivers of glass.
‘E, you sure it’s a good idea to keep phoning the White House?’
Elvis paces around the room, unable to stay still in one spot.
‘Got to keep the pressure up, Jerry.’
He heads for the door and glides past Jerry.
‘Back in an hour or so.’
‘E, you sure you’re going to be all right?’
Elvis doesn’t answer. He just slips on his sunglasses, smiles weakly, and strides out to the hallway.
He gets in the elevator and presses his forehead against the cool metal trim. He closes his eyes all the way down.
The doors part onto the parking garage beneath the hotel. The black Lincoln limousine waits for him to one side, engine idling.
He climbs into the back seat and the driver looks back at him expectantly.
‘Justice Department. Bureau of Dangerous and Narcotic Drugs.’
The driver nods and squeals off.
Elvis taps his feet in nervous anticipation. He talks to himself the entire way, muttering and sighing and occasionally singing. He cannot sit still.
The limousine rolls to a stop just outside of the imposing government building. Elvis steps out of the car and looks up into the sky. Dark clouds shroud over the building.
Elvis straightens his shoulders, adjusts his sunglasses and bounds determinedly up the steps to the main doors.
CHAPTER 26: ‘ELVIS WAS BESIDE HIMSELF’
Colonel Parker is still hunched behind his desk.
He flicks his lighter, and the spark suddenly catches. A flame licks higher and higher.
He smiles as he torches his cigar and puffs triumphantly. His tiny pony sleeps and twitches fitfully at his feet.
The smoke from the cigar curls around his head and he starts to laugh to himself. He shakes his head in disbelief and laughs even harder.
When he’d started out with Elvis, he couldn’t put a foot wrong. Made it up as he went along. All he ever thought about was how to get Elvis’ name out there.
Records were a good way. Television and movies were even better. But the press was still the best.
One outrageous story on the wire would saturate newspapers across the country and around the world.
But try as he might, he couldn’t make much cash from it. Sure some newspapers or magazines would sling him a few thousand for an exclusive spread.
But Colonel Parker wanted money for getting the Elvis name out there. Real money.
So he signed a deal with the next best man to the devil. A merchandiser extraordinaire called Hank Saperstein.
Saperstein had put The Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, and Lassie on the lid of pretty much every American child’s lunch box. Together with Colonel Parker he signed up dozens of licensees to produce hundreds of products.
Elvis Presley Lipsticks were among the first. Shades like Hound Dog Orange, Heartbreak Pink, Cruel Red, Tender Pink, Tutti Frutti Red, and Love-ya Fuschia.
Then came the Elvis Presley Sneakers, Elvis Presley Record Players, Elvis Presley Love Me Tender Necklaces, Elvis Presley Scarves. Even Elvis Presley Perfumes.
Perhaps the most popular was the Elvis Presley Pink Collection. The autograph book, diary, scrapbook, photo album, and record case was a set of must-have accessories for every teenage girl. All in dusty pink leatherette.
To make the most of Elvis’ induction into the army, Colonel Parker issued a commemorative Elvis Presley Dog Tag Jewelry range with two styles of bracelets, sweater holders, anklets, necklaces, and key chains.
Colonel Parker would stop at nothing to exploit Elvis. But he knew that overexposure was the kiss of death. Every carny knew you had to move on before the locals got bored. Because once they got bored, they’d lose interest. And once they’d lost interest it was damn near impossible to pry any more money out of them.
You had to move on before they moved on you. You had to keep the mystique rolling.
Colonel Parker convinced Elvis to serve his time in the Army as a regular soldier. Told him it would be good for publicity. Elvis had wanted to enter Special Services to entertain the troops.
But Colonel Parker forbade it. Even told Elvis he couldn’t sing a note while in the military. Told him to keep his head low and do his duty.
The press lapped it up. After all the negative publicity about his destabilizing influence on American youth, Elvis was now seen as a young man keen to serve his country. Keen to do his duty.
Colonel Parker figured the barracks would keep the jail bait at bay.
Elvis was assigned to the Second Armored Division’s “Hell On Wheels” unit in Fort Hood, Texas. In the Second World War it had been led by General George Patton.
Elvis was desperately homesick and took to calling his mother at least twice a day. Many times they’d both be in tears with Gladys pleading with him to take proper care of himself.
In June of ’58 he took two weeks leave with family and friends in Nashville. He also recorded several new tracks to satisfy his RCA Victor contract.
When he returned to Fort Hood he was granted permission to live off base with his family. Gladys and Vernon were thrilled. Elvis bought a three-bedroom trailer home and moved in with his parents, grandma Minnie Mae and good friend Lamar Pike.
The situation got a little too tight when cousins Gene and Junior Smith arrived. So he simply rented a house where he could stay with his family at weekends. Friends from all over would drop by and his mama would cook up for everyone.
Gladys also started drinking on the sly again. She was always a bundle of nerves but the drinking made it worse. Nearly had a heart attack whenever her son turned up late. Worried about the smallest thing.
She took ill a few months later and Vernon took her back to Memphis. A few days later she was admitted to Memphis Methodist Hospital with acute hepatitis. Elvis was beside himself.
He was granted emergency leave and flew to be by her side. She died of a massive heart attack. She was just 46.
Her death was his greatest tragedy.
CHAPTER 27: ‘EVERYTHING HE HAD WAS GONE’
Elvis shuffles out of the federal building, shoulders slumped, sunglasses slipping down his nose.
He barely lifts his feet as he slowly makes his way over to the limousine, idling on the street. He opens the back door and tosses his sunglasses onto the seat.
He rubs his temples. He drops into the car and takes off.
All he ever wanted, all he ever dreamed came true. A hundred times more than he ever imagined.
Now his life was turning into a nightmare. Nothing was going his way. He hadn’t felt this bad since his mama left him. When she died, his heart had a broken. He couldn’t sing. Hell, he couldn’t breath.
He broke down more than once in the days leading to his funeral. Colonel Parker had to call his doctor to sedate his boy.
He sobbed hysterically while Gladys’ favorite gospel group, the Blackwood Brothers, performed at the service in the Memphis Funeral Home.
He cried out as her coffin was lowered into the ground at Forest Hill Cemetery. Everything he had was gone.
She was more than a mother. She was his best friend, his one love.
Within a month he was shipped out to join the 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32nd Armor, 3rd Armored Division in Germany.
Colonel Parker arranged for a press conference with Elvis in dress uniform before he boarded the troop ship U.S.S. General Randall along with 6000 other soldiers.
As Elvis stepped up the ramp, the Army Band broke out into a medley of his hits. Colonel Parker had printed up the sheet music to the songs and distributed it among the band members earlier. Told them to play it loud. Real loud.
During the transatlantic trip, Elvis bonded with a fellow singer named Charlie Hodge. He didn’t know Colonel Parker was paying Charlie sixty-four dollars a week to keep tabs on him.
Without a passport, Colonel Parker could never leave America. Germany was a long way away. He needed someone looking out for his boy.
He made sure Vernon and grandmother Minnie Mae weren’t far behind. Red West and Lamar Fike also followed. Pretty soon he had Elvis’ family and friends dotted in hotels around the barracks.
He even lined up a local girl to work as his secretary. There was still a ton of fan mail to attend to.
It was in Germany that Sergeant Wilcox had given Elvis his first handful of amphetamines during a late-night training maneuver. Said they’d keep him awake, keep him on his toes.
Man, the pills kept him awake for the next three days. He couldn’t stop dancing in his head. He’d had plenty of uppers back in America. When he was on the road with the band, they practically lived on them. Everyone did.
But these were different. These lit up his mind. They made his heart sing.
He couldn’t get enough of them. Used to buy them wholesale so there’d always be enough on hand for all his buddies.
Could fool around all night on the pills. Gobble a few more at dawn and keep on rocking.
You could go and go and go. Frenzied road trips between nightclubs across Germany and Paris were all part of the fun.
You could go higher and higher. Until you flamed out and came crashing back to earth. Sometimes Elvis would sleep for 24 hours straight after jazzing out on pills. Sleep like a baby.
At the start of ’59 the Elvis clan moved to a rambling three-story, five-bedroom white stucco house close to the army base. Elvis would come home every day for lunch.
Anita Wood was still technically his girlfriend back in America. He called her at least once a week, and the press was happy to report on this long distance relationship.
But that didn’t stop him fooling around every chance he got. He loved German girls. They were forthright. They didn’t hold anything back. Not even the young ones.
Elvis first met Priscilla Beaulieu on a Sunday evening. It was the start of an eight year courtship that would outlast their eventual marriage.
She was just fourteen years old and an Army brat. She convinced a friend she met on base to take her to Elvis’ house. She wore a short blue and white sailor suit dress with white socks and white shoes.
She was pert, five foot three inch high, and had always gotten whatever she wanted.
Elvis wore tan slacks and a bright red sweater. Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s” was spinning on the record player. He was smitten the first time he laid eyes on her.
He told her she was the only girl for him. And he meant it.
Colonel Parker was on the phone the next day. What the hell was his boy thinking? How could he be dating a child? Did he have any idea what the press would say?
Elvis told Colonel Parker he loved her.
Colonel Parker told him she was only fourteen.
Elvis said she’d be fifteen soon.
Rumors started flying around within days. Colonel Parker warned his boy such a relationship would ruin his image and poison his appeal. That dampened things for a while.
He celebrated his 24th birthday on January 8, ’60, with a phone interview with Dick Clark for American Bandstand. He couldn’t wait to get back home, get back to making music.
By the time Elvis was scheduled to be discharged from the Army, Colonel Parker had lined up a bevy of starlets to welcome him back to America.
When Elvis flew out of Germany, Colonel Parker sold pics of a forlorn Priscilla waving goodbye on the runway to Life magazine. She was captioned the girl he left behind.
His plane landed in the middle of snowstorm in New Jersey. More than three hundred reporters and photographers were there for the press conference. Colonel Parker brought his boy a gift. Nancy Sinatra.
When he arrived in Memphis, Elvis went straight to his mama’s grave at Forest Hill Cemetery. It was raining and he wouldn’t leave.
Finally Vernon went out there and brought him back to Graceland. Brought him back home.
CHAPTER 28: ‘MORE THAN ENOUGH SORROWS TO GO AROUND’
Elvis opens the door to his suite and stumbles in.
He wanders through to the bedroom and drops onto the bed. He stares dismally up at the ceiling. Jerry is sitting by the telephone in the main room.
‘Hey, E, how’d it go?’
Elvis doesn’t bother to look out at Jerry.
‘What do you mean?’
Elvis throws his arms out wide in outraged disbelief.
‘Justice Department outright refused to make me an officer of the Bureau of Dangerous and Narcotic Drugs. Said it couldn’t be done.
‘Said it couldn’t be done?’
‘Said it couldn’t be done, not under no circumstances.’
‘No goddamn circumstances.’
Elvis shouts, punches the soft pillow next to him.
‘No badge, then, E?’
‘Not yet, Jerry. How’d you do?’
‘No answer, Elvis. White House says if I kept calling they’d have to call out the National Guard to take care of me.’
‘The National Guard?’
Elvis asks again, this time craning his neck upwards to look out at Jerry.
Elvis drops his head back down on the bed. Then, he slowly sits up and shakes his head, disbelieving his situation.
‘What we going to do now?’
‘I say we take our sorrows downstairs and drown the fuckers before they learn how to swim.’
‘But I don’t drink.’
Jerry stands up.
‘I promise I’ll drink more than enough for the both of us.’
‘Good ‘cause I got more than enough sorrows to go around.’
Elvis throws his head back in despair.
Jerry leaves for his own room.
‘See you downstairs in ten?’
Elvis nods almost imperceptibly.
After Jerry has left, Elvis sulks off to the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror.
He tries to straighten up and look confident, but he ends up hanging his head in defeat.
He walks out, head down, shoulders slumped and heads for the elevator.
CHAPTER 29: ‘ELVIS IS BACK!’
If he was songwriter he’d write a song, a sad song that could sell a million copies.
But Elvis is no songwriter. Never has been. He’s an entertainer. That’s what it says on his passport.
He knows it’s not about him. It’s about the fans. That’s all that matters. They made him, they made Elvis Presley. They wanted a piece of him and that was fine by him. That was the deal.
They put the shirt on his back. They were welcome to it.
At some concerts they shredded his clothes, tore out his hair. If you look closely at concert footage you can see bandaids over his hands to cover the scratches and welts from everyone trying to grab him.
One time in Reno a women tore at his face with her outstretched nails. She kept screaming how she got his skin, how she got Elvis’ skin.
It wasn’t really about the music. At most of the concerts the fans screamed so loudly you couldn’t hear the music anyway, couldn’t hear Elvis sing.
It wasn’t about rock’n’roll. In the two years Elvis had been away in the Army, rock’n’roll was claiming one victim after another. Little Richard was in trouble with the IRS, Chuck Berry was up on prostitution charges, Jerry Lee Lewis was ostracized for running away with and marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin. The fact he was married to another woman at the time didn’t help matters.
Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Eddie Cochran were all dead. rock’n’roll was more notorious and dangerous than ever. Which just served to limit its mainstream appeal.
As more rock’n’roll singers ended up in jail or in a hole in the ground, record companies started promoting ballad singers into the charts. Pat Boone was topping the hit parade.
Colonel Parker saw all the positive publicity over Elvis’ tour of duty as a way to reinvent Elvis as a more mature, more mellow performer. A performer who could attract a larger audience.
Elvis’ long ducktail haircut was never grown back.
Colonel Parker had Elvis in the Nashville recording studio within weeks of landing back in America. RCA Victor was desperate for product. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it can make record companies salivate.
Elvis cut a quick single featuring “Stuck on You” with “Fame and Fortune” on the flip side. It was rushed out.
A month later the brand-new “Elvis is Back!” album hit the record stores and started climbing up the charts. It was a mix of musical genres, from a sentimental duet with Charlie Hodge called “I Will Be Home Again” to the gritty “Reconsider Baby” with a bluesy sax solo by Boots Randolph. Elvis moved beyond his standard rock’n’roll to combine doo-wop, gospel, blues, and even jazz tones.
Once again Elvis’ had shown he could bring together different musical styles beautifully. He could bring together the best of both worlds to create a unique sound. It was Elvis’ first album released in true stereo.
It rose past innocent teen angels like Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon. Past some dance craze called the twist.
His first television appearance when was as a guest on Frank Sinatra’s variety show. He wore a tuxedo and sang “Fame and Fortune” and “Stuck on You.” As well as a short duet with the Chairman of the Board. Colonel Parker managed to score a staggering $125,000 performance fee for the six minutes Elvis appeared on air.
Colonel Parker packed the studio audience with 400 members from one of Elvis’ biggest fan clubs. He wasn’t about to take any chances on live television.
The program received phenomenal ratings, giving ABC-TV a 41.5 share for that evening.
With the album still charting, RCA Victor released “It’s Now or Never.” The reworked version of the Italian opera-style classic “O Sole Mio” was an odd choice.
Elvis had asked his music publisher Hill and Range to find someone to write new lyrics for the song written at the turn of the century. Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold scribbled down the new lyrics in less than 30 minutes. David Hill recorded the demo with a cha-cha arrangement. Elvis loved it. Loved the drama.
So did conservative radio stations who played Elvis for the first time and exposed him to a wider, older audience.
“It’s Now or Never” charted for 20 weeks, holding the number one spot across the world. It ended up selling more than 20 million copies. It was his biggest-selling single.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was released next. Blue Barron, Al Jolson and Jaye P. Morgan had all released versions of the song. It was Colonel Parker’s favorite tune. Although he never remembered the lyrics. He went on and on about recording it.
Elvis recorded it mainly to shut him up. Though he liked the words spoken at the heart of the song. It was loosely based on Jaques’ speech in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
‘All the world’s a stage
And all men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts ...’
Elvis could easily bring it to life. That was the deal. That’s how it worked.
He used to listen to all the songs he was thinking of recording on vinyl. That way he could skip to the chorus, and see whether he could bring it to life. Elvis would give his life to the song to make it real.
CHAPTER 30: ‘DO YOU HAVE A HEARING IMPAIRMENT?’
Haldeman sticks his head out of his office and shouts for his secretary.
‘Lucy, are you there? Lucy?!’
Bud appears at the door, clutching two handfuls of telephone messages. Haldeman doesn’t bother looking at him as he steps back behind his desk.
‘I don’t have time for this.’
‘But I don’t care if the boss wants to talk about it.’
Haldeman unlocks a drawer and takes out the Presidential Appointment Book. He opens the stippled cover stamped with the Presidential Seal in gold and flips through the pages.
‘But look, even if it’s Jesus H. Christ himself I can’t fit him in.’
Haldeman stabs his finger across the page.
‘The boss is double booked for the rest of the week. There’s no way I can schedule a meeting.’
Bud jumps in before Haldeman can cut him off again.
‘But what about ‘Open Hour’?’
Haldeman mocks him.
‘ --’Open Hour’ is triple booked this week.’
He slams the book shut. Bud holds up the telephone messages.
‘But I don’t give a flying shit how many phone messages you have.’
‘But do you have a hearing impairment?’
Haldeman slips the appointment book back into a drawer.
Haldeman slams the drawer shut.
He storms out of his office and down the hall.
‘Lucy! Lucy, where the hell are you?’
Bud looks down at the drawer. He raises one eyebrow as a thought occurs to him. He leans out the doorway, and looks up and down the hall. It appears completely deserted.
The Vietnam War was making President Nixon one of the most despised men in the world.
He’d come to power a year earlier on the narrowest of margins with the promise of peace with honor. He appealed to what he called the silent majority of socially conservative Americans who disliked the hippie counterculture and the anti-war demonstrators.
Nixon didn’t bring peace. What be brought was a campaign of secret bombings that escalated hostilities at home and abroad. By abusing his executive powers he extended the unpopular war and breached Cambodia’s neutrality.
Americans took to the streets to protest when he invaded Cambodia. At Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen aimed their M1 Garand semi-automatic military rifles and opened fire on protesting students. Four students were killed on the campus grounds and nine others wounded.
Within days of the shootings, 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, D.C. against the war and the killing of unarmed student protesters.
The military roamed the streets, mobs smashed windows, slashed tires, dragged parked cars into intersections. This wasn’t student protests. This was civil war.
Nixon fled to Camp David for two days for his own protection. The military was called in to protect the administration. Soldiers guarded the executive office building, rifles cocked. America had become a nation at war with itself.
A week later, two protesting black students were killed by police at Jackson State University.
Protests rolled across the country. A strike by eight million students closed down hundreds of universities, colleges, and high schools. Students at New York University hung a banner out a window that read “They Can’t Kill Us All.”
Nixon thought they were all pawns of foreign communists. He wanted to use illegal procedures to gather information on the leaders of the anti-war movement. J. Edgar Hoover talked him out of it for his own good.
J. Edgar Hoover was about the only friend he ever had.
CHAPTER 31: ‘LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT LOVE ME TENDER’
The Sky Terrace bar atop the Hotel Washington rustles with scattered patrons in various stages of inebriation.
Jerry and Elvis avoid everyone by sitting at a table in a dark corner. They are both still wearing matching black velvet shirts, cloaked in darkness. Elvis keeps his back to the bar. He rests his head in his hands and stares down at the pristine white tablecloth.
‘Man, I get so lonely.’
Jerry shakes his head.
‘I got to tell you, E, for someone who doesn’t drink, you sure sound like someone who has a drinking problem.’
‘So, lonely, I could die.’
Jerry has at least twenty bourbon shot glasses lined up in front of him. Half are empty, half are full. He picks one up and throws it back. Elvis sighs.
‘I’ve been all alone since my mama left me.’
Elvis looks up at Jerry.
‘I had the world at my feet, but no one at my side. Nobody loves me, man, nobody.’
Jerry rolls his eyes and throws back another shot.
‘Elvis, you are loved by millions.’
‘How can they love me? They don’t know me. They just look at me. They love what I do, that I can sing, that I move the way I do.’
Jerry throws back another bourbon. A wry smile creases his face. Elvis shakes his head.
‘But they don’t know my heart.’
Jerry takes another shot.
‘And they don’t know my soul, they don’t really love me.’
Jerry throws back yet another shot and winces.
‘What about ‘Cilla?’
Elvis drops his head, low.
‘She don’t love me no more.’
A tall, leggy blond squeezed into a tight red dress and teetering in towering heels crashes into their table. A white gossamer scarf floats around her long neck.
‘I love you. Always have, always will.’
Her hair is piled high and she carries a sloshingly full martini glass. She makes most Penthouse models look chaste.
‘I love you. Always have, always will.’
She hiccups and tips her glass precariously while trying to take a demure sip.
She winks her deep blue eyes at Elvis, and looks him up and down. Then glances at Jerry before she smirks back at Elvis.
‘Well, if it ain’t the Bobbsey twins.’
Elvis plays along.
‘He’s the ugly one. I’m the good looking one.’
The woman looks back and forth between the two men and nearly loses her balance again.
‘I’m Brenda. Nice shirts, boys.’
‘We love ‘em.’
Jerry’s mouth hangs open as he stares somewhere south of Brenda’s face. Brenda touches Elvis’ arm. She coos.
‘Let me tell you about love me tender.’
She stands up straight, throws back her shoulders and offers her best Tuesday Weld impersonation.
‘I’m a lover girl.’
She leans forward.
‘And I want a good time out of life. If it takes a man to go to hell with, that’s what I want. Hours and hours of heaven that just slide on down to hell.’
She smiles a crooked smile.
Elvis looks over at Jerry, who still appears to be enthralled by Brenda and her performance.
Elvis isn’t that impressed. Tuesday Weld was a little smaller, a lot cuter. Sweeter too. She had her problems though. He remembers how once during a scene she whispered in his ear how she’d tried to commit suicide when she was twelve years old.
All the actresses he knew were a little crazy. And he was always a little crazy for them.
Brenda kind of reminds him of Jennifer Holden in ‘Jailhouse Rock’. She was the kind of girl who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He remembers how much he loved Judy Tyler from that movie.
Sad to think she was killed in a car accident only days after they finished shooting. Life just slips through your fingers.
Brenda’s perfume washes over him. She flutters her lashes at Elvis.
‘Hours and hours of love that just slide on down to heeellll.’
Elvis looks away.
‘’Love’ was my mama’s middle name.’
He looks back at Brenda.
‘And my mama always told me to beware of the blue-eyed woman.’
Brenda leans in a little closer. Elvis can smell the alcohol on her lips. She asks, feigning hurt feelings.
‘You don’t like my eyes?’
She keeps leaning closer until she topples and sloshes her martini into Elvis’ black velvet lap. Elvis yelps and Jerry, the Brenda spell finally broken, reaches for the glass.
Brenda giggles and sniggles, and draws out the scarf from around her neck. She bunches it together and moves to dab Elvis’ lap.
‘We don’t want to drown Little Elvis, now do we?’
Elvis jumps to his feet, brushing down the front of his pants with the back of his hand.
She holds her hand in front of her mouth as if shocked by her own audacity. Elvis pushes her arm away and rises from his seat.
Brenda winks at Jerry, still not ready to give up.
‘Maybe I should give him a little mouth to mouth.’
‘Maybe some other time, honey.’
Elvis walks away from the table. Brenda shouts after him.
‘Maybe you’d like my sister better. She’s much sweeter.’
He doesn’t look back. Brenda drains whatever is left in her martini glass. She turns to Jerry.
‘You like my eyes, don’t you?’
She collapses into Elvis’ abandoned chair, her head swimming. She smiles at Jerry, who grins back. What’s not to like?
How many girls had there been?
When Elvis’ came back from Germany in ’60 it was just one after the other after the other. Wherever he turned, there was another. And another.
Elvis returned to Hollywood to make ‘G.I. Blues’ for Hal Wallis. The musical romantic comedy follows a singer serving in the Army in Germany. Wallis wasn’t going to take any risks. He borrowed as much as he could from Elvis’ life.
Colonel Parker was keen to broaden his boy’s appeal. So Elvis’ style was deliberately turned down, his image softened. In one scene, he sings a Bavarian-sounding folk tune during a children’s puppet show. In another he baby-sits an adorable infant.
Hal Wallis and Colonel Parker argued over the tagline on the poster. Colonel Parker wanted it to read ‘See and Hear the New Elvis: The Idol of the Teenagers is the Idol of the Family’. Wallis thought it was overkill. Colonel Parker wouldn’t even budge on the capital letters.
As always a smiling Elvis is pictured strumming a guitar strapped around his neck. With a girl dangling off his arm.
After a two-year absence, fans queued overnight and round the block at movie theaters across America. In Mexico City a riot broke out in a theater and prompted the Mexican government to ban Elvis movies.
The publicity was worth more than the pesos.
Critics applauded the new image and predicted Elvis would find plenty of new fans in older women. Elvis didn’t share their enthusiasm for ‘G.I. Blues’. Felt there were too many musical numbers. Felt the quality wasn’t up to scratch. Felt they made next to no sense.
In his next movie Elvis wanted to drop the music and prove himself as an actor. But the western ‘Flaming Star’ made no money at the box office.
So in the film after that, extra songs were lined up and played throughout. Even the ending was reshot after it tested badly with preview audiences. “Wild In The Country” made money.
“Blue Hawaii” grossed out at the box office. It made so much money that Colonel Parker was able to convince Elvis that his fans preferred him in musical comedies. The soundtrack was jammed with 14 songs. There was hardly any room for a film.
It set the mold for all the Elvis movies to come. Back-to-back movies for the next decade with the same plot just different girls. He got real good and used to sitting in the back of Cadillac with he’s feet up and his sunglasses on. Thought he was a real movie star. A real som’bitch.
Colonel Parker locked him into one three-picture deal after the other.
They were set in exotic locations but shot on Hollywood backlots to speed up production and save money. They usually involved bikinis and nightclubs. Whenever the story came up short, producers threw more girls in the movie and in the tile.
“Girls! Girls! Girls!” had exclamation points in case you missed the point. On the poster Elvis wasn’t strumming a guitar. He was strumming a girl on either arm.
Colonel Parker once explained to a scriptwriter that the key to the success of an Elvis movie was the million die hard fans who would pay to watch each one three times. They weren’t coming for the story. They weren’t coming for the direction. They were coming for Elvis.
The point wasn’t to make art. The point was to make money.
There was no sense in sending Colonel Parker a script because he couldn’t read. Elvis read scripts, his entourage read scripts, everyone down at William Morris read scripts.
The only thing Colonel Parker was interested in was how much money Elvis was going to get paid. He was the highest paid movie star in the world. But the more money he made, the more disillusioned he got.
All Elvis ever wanted to be was a serious actor, a great actor.
Colonel Parker and Hal Wallis would have none of it. They knew the only sure thing in Hollywood was an Elvis movie with a whole lot of singing and dancing and kissing.
Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole had starred in Wallis’ Academy Award winning “Becket.” Wallis told the press that financing such quality productions was only possible by making a series of profitable B-movies starring Elvis.
Elvis wouldn’t come to the set for a week.
Colonel Parker told everyone if his boy wanted an Oscar so badly he’d buy him one.
Elvis could have demanded better, more substantial scripts. But he didn’t.
He was making three movies a year and a soundtrack album for each one. Most of the songs were pumped out by hacks working for Hill and Range. Usually they were recorded in two or three all-night sessions in Hollywood recording studios.
For the first few movies, Elvis would have fun with the songs. Sometimes he couldn’t stop laughing while recording them. Sure they were stupid, but so was the movie.
In ’64, Colonel Parker insisted Elvis record only soundtrack albums. No more singles, no more side tunes. If the song wasn’t in a movie it wasn’t to be recorded.
At the recording session for “Girl Happy,” Elvis had trouble finishing the last song. One frustrating take after another until he left the studio in disgust at dawn. He wouldn’t record again for almost a year.
The only thing worse than watching a bad movie is singing in one.
But audiences had no choice. For almost ten years, Colonel Parker made sure the only way anyone could see Elvis was to buy a movie ticket.
There was no live appearances, no television specials. There was just one damn movie after another.
Elvis got tired of playing a guy who gets into a fight to get the girl, and then starts singing to the guy he’s just beaten up. So did the fans.
He hadn’t sung in front of a live audience in almost a decade. He’d lost his touch. He’d lost his music.
He could still remember how amazing it felt to be singing onstage. Too letting it all go.
It felt like a surge of electricity ripping right through him. Like an orgasm that wouldn’t stop.
Like his heart was about to explode.
CHAPTER 32: ‘IT’S ALWAYS THE SAME DREAM’
Elvis has again fallen asleep, slumped awkwardly in the armchair in his hotel suite. The television set hisses with static.
It’s always the same dream.
He hears the sounds of thousands of female fans stomping and cheering and calling out his name. They scream and yell and tear at their hair and clothes.
Elvis is on stage, wearing a black jewel encrusted jumpsuit, black cape and large black belt. His signature sunglasses hide his eyes from view. Stage lights glare in his face as he sings out the opening lines of “That’s All Right, Mama.”
He peels off his sunglasses and realizes with confusion that the thousands of screaming women look like different variations of his mama. He sings on.
His voice doubles up as if multi-tracked. It sounds like two people singing their heart out.
Elvis turns around in surprise and sees himself in a white jeweled jumpsuit and white cape. In a wave of joy he realizes that this is his twin brother. This is Jesse singing with him, joining him onstage.
Elvis and his twin brother sing their hearts out.
They smile into each other as they sing on.
The closing chords reverb out into the excited audience. Jesse smiles at Elvis. Elvis reaches out to him. He extends his hand towards his brother’s. Jesse takes a step back, still smiling, as the cape swirls into pair of angel wings. They beat and flutter, carrying Jesse up and away from his brother. Elvis begins to weep as he reaches for Jesse.
He wakes up as dawn approaches, static churning from the television. His hand held aloft, he reaches into the air, softly weeping.
‘Oh Jesse, Jesse. Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me here.’
Elvis had never understood why he lived and Jesse died. Never understood why he was the chosen one.
Didn’t even know if it had been God doing the choosing. Maybe it was the work of the devil.
Lord knows Elvis didn’t always follow the straight and the true. He tried. He knew he was put on this earth for a reason. He prayed for an answer that never came.
He hadn’t been in a church for a long time. The last time had been in Memphis for Easter when it all started in ’57. Fans caused such an uproar that the pastor told him to stay away.
Thanks to his mama, he found some solace in gospel music. She used to play records by the Louvin Brothers whenever she was down. Their simple, uplifting tunes would pick her right up. Put her on top of the world again.
Sometimes before a show, Elvis would gather the band and sing his favorite gospel songs. He could worship in the way he knew best. It put his mind at rest, eased his soul.
He searched for God everywhere. When he started reading metaphysical books, most everyone ridiculed him. The guys never understood. His father thought him downright foolish tampering with the lord’s work.
As far as Vernon was concerned there was only one book.
But Elvis could never stop at one. “The Prophet” by Kahilil Gibran, “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Yogananda, “The Mystical Christ” by Manley Palmer, “The Life and Teachings of the Master of the Far East” by Baird Spalding, “A Search for a Soul” by Jess Stearn, “The Light To See” by JF DeVries, “The First and Last Freedom” by Jiddu Krishnamurti, “The Voice of Silence” by Madame Blavatsky.
That was just the start. Elvis began turning up on set with trunks loaded with books.
Colonel Parker thought Elvis was losing his mind. Thought they were all mumbo jumbo. Tried to talk Priscilla into gathering them into a huge pile out back of Graceland and setting the whole lot on fire.
She used to hide them. Thinking he’d misplaced them, he’d just buy more copies. More books.
Elvis would never read a contract but he would read his books over and over and over.
“The Impersonal Life” by Joseph Brenner was his favorite. He handed out hundreds of copies to his friends over the years. Told them they had to read it.
Brenner wrote it as the voice of God Himself. Elvis told everyone how it explained everything. How it explained that every thing, every condition, every event that ever transpired was first an idea in the mind. It was by desiring, by thinking, and by speaking forth the word, that these ideas manifested into reality. Your thoughts become your truth, your life.
Elvis always underlined the quote on page 122 that read “I may be expressing through you beautiful symphonies of sound that manifest as music, and which so affects others as to cause them to acclaim you as one of the great ones of the day.”
Sometime he’d underline it twice. Scrawl some indecipherable note in the margin. Solemnly press the book into people’s hands.
The guys started calling him the evangelist. He’d call them the disciples. They knew it had gone too far when Elvis started giving impromptu bible studies to the groupies.
“Book of Genesis,” Chapter Four, Cain and Abel.
The firstborn slays his brother, sheds his brother’s blood, buries his brother’s naked corpse in a shallow grave. And God marks him for his sin and vows that no man will kill him, that he has to suffer vengeance seven times over by never finding peace.
God cursed him to wander the earth for forever.
CHAPTER 33: ‘AND HE WANTS TO MEET WITH ME, EH?’
In the Lincoln room at the White House, in the early hours of the morning, a worn down man sits hunched behind a large stately desk, staring out the window at the cold gray sky.
He has his back to Haldeman and Bud.
President Nixon looks to be lost in his thoughts, the other two men look on expectantly. The soft sounds of Bach’s “5th Brandenburg Concerto” waft from the reel to reel player in the corner. A smudge of red appears on the horizon outside as the sun creeps over the edge of the earth.
Nixon barks gruffly, as if someone has rudely interrupted his reverie.
‘Presley, Mr. President, Elvis Presley.’
‘Yes, I remember, the Pelvic Epileptic, or something or other?’
Nixon muses to himself.
‘Did Ed’s show a while back. Rated through the motherfucking roof, am I right?’
Nixon spins his desk chair around to face the two men. Bud answers almost proudly.
‘Sixty-four million tuned in, Mr. President.’
‘Unfuckingbelievable! And he’s been voted America’s most famous young man?’
Nixon seems mightily impressed. Haldeman rolls his eyes. Bud corrects him gently.
‘Nominated, Mr. President. As one of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Young Men.’
Bud shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other. He is not used to having an audience directly with the President. He can feel sweat dampen the back of his neck.
Haldeman, on the other hand, is completely ramrod no matter what the situation.
‘We’re not sure of the validity of --’
‘Actually, Mr. President, your own press secretary has also had the distinction of being nominated as one of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Young Men.’
‘No fucking kidding?’
‘God’s honor, Mr. President.’
Bud starts to relax. Nixon rubs his chin. Haldeman looks grim, worried.
‘We’re not sure it’s ‘the’ Elvis Presley, Mr. President.’
‘What the fuck to you mean, H.R.? There’s more than one of these fuckers?’
Haldeman shakes his head.
‘We’ve yet to attain a security clearance, Mr. President.’
He approaches Nixon’s desk in an attempt to exclude Bud from the conversation. Nixon looks up at Bud.
‘And he wants to meet with me, eh?’
Nixon turns to watch the sunrise out the window again.
‘Says he’s got something for me, am I right?’
Haldeman answers reluctantly, voice loaded with doubt.
‘Apparently so, Mr. President.’
Nixon spins around and stares down Bud.
‘Why the fuck would he want to meet me?’
‘Well, he seems very concerned about the drug issue, Mr. President.’
Haldeman rolls his eyes, attempting to make a silent point to the President, but Nixon ignores him.
‘Rightly so. Rightly fucking so. It’s fucking killing young people, you know that don’t you?’
Nixon points at Bud to make his point.
‘They try the drugs and they lose the will to live. They try the drugs and before they know it they’re voting fucking democrat.’
Nixon frowns and scratches his chin. Bud has no choice but to agree.
‘Yes, Mr. President.’
‘Rots their fucking brains.
‘Yes, Mr. President.’
‘Turns them into fucking zombies.’
‘Yes, Mr. President.’
‘Scourge of the land. Like some fucking plague we can’t control. We have to put a fucking end to it.’
Nixon emphasizes his point with a stamp of his foot as if he’s putting out a small fire.
‘Yes, Mr. President.’
Haldeman rolls his eyes at Bud, and begins pacing back and forth. Gathering his thought to convince President Nixon not to meet with Elvis. Nixon ignores Haldeman and asks Bud.
‘You think this Presley could help us in our war against the drugs?’
Bud has never sounded so eager.
‘I believe so, Mr. President.’
‘Then you better handle a preliminary and let me know whether it’s worth a meet and greet.’
Light shines in Bud’s eyes. Haldeman steps back into the conversation. He triumphantly holds the appointment book up in the air.
‘Mr. President, your time is not really your own. Plus we really require a clearance first with the FBI to --’
‘I tried telephoning, Mr. President, but most everyone at the Bureau has already left for their Christmas break.’
Nixon spins back to the sunset, crosses one leg over the other, leans back and says.
‘Just like those fucking fairies to leave early. Fuck them, you go ahead and make the clearance decision.’
Haldeman glares at Bud.
‘Mr. President, perhaps he had better check your availability with me after he’s had a chance to confer with the said Mr. Presley.’
Nixon waves his hand dismissively, already done with the conversation. Barks at Haldeman.
‘Meanwhile you want to get me the morning’s fucking newspapers?’
‘Certainly, Mr. President.’
‘Let’s see whose side they’re fucking on today. Let’s see whether they’re telling the fucking truth for a fucking change.’
Nixon slumps into his desk chair, pressing the tips of his right fingers against his left. A handful of worry.
‘Yes, Mr. President.’
Haldeman has the appointment book firmly and securely in his grasp. Nixon sighs.
‘And let’s hope they’ve kept the fucking melodramatics down to a fucking minimum.’
Nixon never trusted the press. And the press never trusted him.
When he finally became President, the last people he wanted to be accountable to was the press. He didn’t like to be accessible to the press. Didn’t like them getting too close. Didn’t like to be kicked around.
Thought they were all left-wing trouble makers looking to stir up trouble. Time and Newsweek had printed to so many rumors about him, he’d lost count.
Elvis didn’t pay no mind to no rumors. Didn’t look at movie magazines anymore because he thought they were all junk.
When he got sick in hospital, the rumors started flying around that he was strung out. Elvis told everyone that he ain’t never been strung out in his life. Except on music.
In one show in Vegas, he stopped in the middle of a song and told the audience how he felt. How he really felt.
How hotel employees, bellboys, freaks who carry the luggage up to your room, maids are always talking. Whispering to reporters that he was strung out on heroin.
The band was getting nervous. Elvis stepped to the edge of the stage, got down on one knee and told the audience not to get offended but if he ever found the individual who had said that about him, he was going to break the sonofabitch’s neck.
He was raving. Screaming out that it was damaging to him, to his little daughter, to his father, to his family, to his friends, to his band, to his doctors, to everyone.
Even to his relationship with the audience.
The entire auditorium fell silent. Elvis kept on screaming that he was going to rip out the sonofabtich’s tongue by the goddamn roots. Thankyouverymuch.
Then it was back into the song. Back into the show.
The stunned audience exploded into applause.
CHAPTER 34: ‘SO, WHAT TIME?’
Elvis stands on the ledge of an open window in his hotel suite bedroom.
He wears his white bathrobe, barely tied on, flapping loosely in the cold breeze. He shakes violently in the winter air, sobbing wildly. Tears streaming down his face.
‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it! One more step and I swear I’ll do it!!’
Jerry freezes mid-step, his left foot hovering over the destroyed carpet.
‘Look at me, Elvis.’
Elvis looks at Jerry through his blurred tears.
‘Man, nothing’s going right.’
Elvis leans into the wind.
‘Everything’s going wrong. I’ve had it with this life. I’ve had it with being ‘Elvis Presley’.’
‘Elvis, think of ‘Cilla.’
Elvis takes a step into the thin air.
‘No, no, no, don’t think of ‘Cilla. Think of Lisa Marie. Think of your little girl.’
The world’s most famous daughter. Daddy’s girl.
She was the sweetest thing. She always made him smile on the inside. She loved to sing.
He’d stand her on the dining table at Graceland and she’d sing her heart out. He’d join right in. Look into her eyes and see perfect trust, perfect love.
Jerry takes a step towards Elvis, and reaches out his hand. Elvis looks at him just as the phone in the main room rings to life. Elvis puts his foot down on the ledge.
‘Better answer it, man. Might just be you know who.’
Jerry backs toward the phone, not taking his eyes off of Elvis. He reaches for the receiver and puts it to his ear.
‘From the White House? Yes, please put him through.’
Elvis starts to smile and thinks about jumping back into the room. Jerry continues talking into the phone.
‘Yes. Yes, yes. Yes, yes -- yes.’
Jerry puts down the receiver with a slight click. Elvis jumps down onto the floor, landing like a cat. Grinning from ear to ear.
‘So, what time?’
‘Soon as we like. It’s a preliminary meeting, with a Bud Krogh at the Executive Office Building.’
‘Better get changed, man. You want to look your best.’
Whatever thoughts Elvis had of suicide have leapt from his mind.
‘Executive Office Building, huh?’
Elvis nods, impressed.
‘Man, I’ve got a good feeling about this.’
He walks into the bathroom, then pokes his head out.
‘You order the limo. I’ll call Red. Get him to fly straight up from Memphis with some new gear and all.’
Jerry nods and starts to move. Elvis is grinning and shaking his head.
‘Man, is Red ever going to be surprised to see me here.’
Elvis pulls himself back into the bathroom and shuts the door.
When he opened the door and stepped into the recording studio at American Sound in early ’69, Elvis walked into history.
He hadn’t scored a hit record in years. His movie receipts were dwindling. His songs had become a joke. The times, they were a changing.
His cloistered life in Hollywood was wearing thin. About as thin as the plots of the movies he was making. He hadn’t sung in front of a live audience for almost a decade.
The day after his 34th birthday he sat down with his RCA Victor producer, Felton Jarvis, to figure out how to climb back up the charts. Talked to him man to man in the Jungleroom at Graceland.
Elvis had always liked Jarvis. The man kept a pet boa constrictor in a burlap bag. What was not to like.
He’d produced hits for the likes of Fats Domino and Gladys Knight. When he sat down with Elvis he had a pile of songs from Hill and Range ready to go. The plan was to record in Nashville. They were setting up dates when one of the guys suggested recording with Chips Moman at American Sound right there in Memphis.
They’d been lots of talk about recording closer to home. American Sound had been making a lot of noise.
Chips Moman set up the studio at 827 Thomas Street in a dilapidated, black slice of Elvis’ hometown. He always had the hottest session musicians on hand. Bobby Wood, John Hughey, Tommy Cogbill, Mike Leech, Reggie Young, Gene Chrisman, Ed Kollis, Bobby Emmons.
He’d been spinning wax into gold for the past year. Artists were flying in from everywhere for a taste of his Memphis sound.
Elvis decided not to go to Nashville. Instead he wanted to begin cutting his next album at American Sound on Monday night. But Neil Diamond had been scheduled into that slot.
Moman told Diamond to fuck himself. Elvis was on.
For the first time Elvis had made a decision that didn’t involve Colonel Parker. So the old man called in a bunch of RCA Victor executives and cronies to supervise the recording sessions. He was worried. But not that worried. The songs were still from Hill and Range. So it wasn’t as if he was going to lose any money.
Colonel Parker never understood the recording process. Paid it no mind as long as RCA Victor paid for it.
Elvis turned up on the first night trailed by all the guys and all the RCA Victor boys. When he placed a thin cigar between his lips, seven hands flipped out with flaming cigarette lighters. The session musicians cringed.
Even Chips Moman wondered what he’d gotten himself into.
They started rolling through the demos from Hill and Range. Burning one track after the other to find a hit. But the songs were crap. And Elvis knew it.
Everybody was trying to talk everything up. The phone was ringing off the hook every two minutes. More people in suits started arriving.
Moman grabbed George Klein and asked what the hell was wrong with all the songs? Asked him why Elvis was cutting all this shit?
Klein told Moman not to rush him, told him how to handle Elvis. Told him you never tell Elvis things in front of people. If you want to talk to Elvis, you do it one on one.
Moman asked Elvis into his office. Told him he had a surprise for him. There were two stacks of records piled up on Moman’s desk.
Moman pointed to the first stack and told Elvis they were the records brought in by his publishers at Hill and Range. Told him not one of them was a hit. Then he pointed the other stack of records that Elvis didn’t own the publishing rights on and told him they were all hits.
Asked him which stack he wanted to do.
Elvis told him he wanted to go back on the road, needed hit records.
Moman pushed the first pile into the trash and went back into the recording studio. Elvis told everybody to bring in songs. If they had the publishing rights, well, okay. But if not, and they were good songs, then to hell with it. He was going to cut them anyway.
The suits were furious. Everyone started hollering, yelling at the same time. Everything was getting out of hand.
That’s when Moman laid down the law.
The only people allowed in the recording studio were the musicians. And Elvis. If you weren’t playing an instrument, or singing into a microphone, you could fuck off.
The executives, the bodyguards, the hangers on. Everyone was outta there except those making the music.
It was Moman’s studio. It was Moman’s call.
The next night Elvis turned up on his motorbike. No entourage. Just Elvis. Everyone felt his presence before he walked in. It was weird. He was shy and confident at the same time. Keen to get rolling.
It wasn’t like recording at Nashville where Elvis would kick a song around with the band until he had a take he liked. Moman had carved his distinct soul sound from years at Stax Records.
He would cut a rough vocal track with the rhythm section, setting the structure and tone of a song. Later he would sweeten or orchestrate, adding horns or strings. Then the singer would be called back in to lay down the main vocal tracks again.
Moman could really get inside a song. Most engineers worked with huge speakers and solid state amplifiers. The bigger and the more expensive the better. All Moman had on his mixing desk was a shitty six-inch car speaker.
Played the music through the car speaker because that’s how people were going to hear it. That’s all he wanted to know. How would the song sound on a car radio.
Elvis got into it. Really got into it.
Working in a studio so close to home put Elvis in touch with his true heart. He loved cutting songs in Memphis.
Loved the supercharged spontaneity of the young musicians. Loved the soul sound. Loved the groove.
When he swapped the camera for a microphone, it was as if God had given him a new lease on life. As if God had resurrected him.
He had found his voice again.
Listen to hits like ‘Suspicion Minds’ and you can hear the excitement in his voice. Listen closely and you can even hear guitarist Reggie Young playing Scotty Moore’s old guitar.
Elvis cut what was in his heart. You can hear it in hits like ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ and ‘Kentucky Rain’.
Moman wanted Elvis to record ‘In The Ghetto’. Told him it would be a massive hit.
Elvis wasn’t so sure. He liked the song. But Colonel Parker had always told him that politics and music didn’t mix. Told him no Elvis fan was going to pay good money to hear a bad song about a poor black child.
Elvis decided to cut it that night.
It was probably one of the most important records of his life.
Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis. Shot to death just a few miles down the road from Graceland.
Over at American Sound in the black part of town they had dogs. Sometimes there would be a guy on the roof with a shotgun just watching over the parking lot. It was tense. They were in the ghetto recording a song about growing up and dying in the ghetto.
Every musician felt the chills when Elvis sang the words. Every musician knew that was the one. Even Elvis knew.
He felt great, really great. Kept telling Moman how good he felt.
Colonel Parker thought Elvis had lost it. Called back all his people. Told them to let Elvis fall on his ass.
In twelve days, Elvis cut thirty-six sides. Four of them were singles that exploded into massive hits. And the two albums that came out of the prolific recording sessions “From Elvis in Memphis” and “From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis” went double platinum. Man, that’s some falling on your ass.
The recording sessions created a new Elvis. The new material, the new sound primed him for his return to the stage in Vegas that summer.
When he stepped out of American Sound, he turned his back on his greatest work. He would never take such chances again. Never push himself musically.
When the studio door closed behind him, so did the best years of his life.
CHAPTER 35: ‘I AIN’T DEAD YET’
A heavy office door opens to reveal Elvis standing there in his black velvet shirt and trademark sunglasses, smiling wide.
Elvis steps into Bud Krogh’s office in the Executive Office Building while a guard pats down Jerry behind him.
Bud stands up behind his desk and hurries over to Elvis. His young face ashen white, his voice falters.
‘I -— I -— I --’
‘I am Elvis Presley. And you, sir, look like you’ve just seen a ghost.’
‘Have -- have you seen today’s newspapers?’
‘Hell no. No time, I came over as soon as you called.’
Bud ushers Elvis into his office, closing the door behind them. He hands Elvis a folded copy of The Washington Post, pointing out a story on page three. It’s been circled in red. Bud’s hands shake and the paper shivers. Elvis takes the paper and scans the article.
Elvis reads the story of his mystery disappearance, of his death.
Elvis is more disappointed he didn’t make the front page. He scratches his head. The fact that he is apparently dead doesn’t faze him in the least. Bud is breathing quickly.
‘I only just read it myself. The wire story here says you were kidnapped and died in a plane crash over the desert.’
‘Those newspapers have written some strange things about me, but that has got to be about the strangest story I’ve ever read.’
Elvis chuckles, waves off the newspaper. Bud looks worried.
‘You aren’t dead then?’
Bud eyes Elvis up and down. Maybe Haldeman is right. Maybe he is an impostor.
Elvis laughs gently and removes his sunglasses, rubbing at his tired eyes.
‘No, sir. I mean, I haven’t slept much and I haven’t had a solid hit for a year or two, but I ain’t dead yet.’
‘Well, that’s certainly a relief.’
Elvis claps Bud affectionately on the shoulder.
‘For you and me both, Mr. Krog.’
‘Oh, Bud, please, call me Bud. Everyone calls me Bud, it’s my nickname.’
Elvis drops the newspaper on the desk.
‘What’s your real name?’
Bud looks down at his feet, murmurs his name inaudibly. Elvis leans in, can’t really believe his ears.
Bud clears his throat, looks Elvis directly in the eyes and says it louder.
Elvis asks with a chuckle.
‘Now that is one helluva name. That is something to be proud of. I don’t believe I ever met anyone by that name before.’
Elvis grabs his shoulder again, and wags his index finger at him.
‘You ought never shy away from your given name, Egil. You got to stand up for who you are and what you believe in.’
Bud offers up a half smile. Elvis looks at him.
‘Your mama must have given you that name for a reason.’
Bud smiles to himself.
‘You know, I have to admit I’m a big, big fan. Since ’56. I grew up listening to you. Never thought I’d be meeting you here, though. That’s for sure.’
He laughs and shakes his head in disbelief at his good fortune.
‘You look great, by the way. Nice shirt.’
Elvis smooths down the front of his black velvet shirt and admires himself.
‘Yeah? You like it? Fan gave it to me.’
‘Certainly don’t see many shirts like that in the White House.’
‘My clothes are the tools of my trade. They give me a rapport with the anti-establishment elements.’
Bud cocks his head to one side. Elvis cocks his arms, glances at his outfit.
‘Dressed like this I can point out the errors of their ways in an informal manner. Keep it real friendly like.’
Elvis leans in conspiratorially, looks around the tiny office and let’s Bud in on a secret.
‘There are people in the entertainment industry who’s motives and goals are not in the best interest of this country.’
‘Why some people in the entertainment business are just plain anti-American.’
Elvis nods his head sadly. Bud nods his head too.
‘Like Jane Fonda --‘
Elvis nods his head vigorously in agreement.
‘ -- and the Beatles.’
‘The Beatles, really?’
Elvis nods more.
‘The Beatles have laid the groundwork for many of America’s worst social problems with their unkempt appearance and suggestive music.’
Elvis leans forward again.
‘They use drugs, you know.’
‘They do not love America.’
Bud looks more and more serious. Elvis looks out into the distance, chin forward.
‘I love America more than life itself. I am living proof that America is the land of opportunity. I am living proof that the American dream does come true. I was born real poor, you know. Now look at me.’
Elvis stands there with his arms aloft. What more proof could you need?
‘I am America.’
Bud is in awe. Elvis leans in closer.
‘Egil, can I talk to you private and confidential like?’
‘Shoot, Mr. Presley!’
Elvis darts his eyes around to office.
‘Egil, I’d like to personally pay back the country for all that’s been given to me.’
Bud nods and leans in as Elvis lowers his voice to a whisper, despite the fact that no one else is in the room.
‘I’d like to help the President in any way I can.’
Bud keeps nodding.
‘I’m not sure whether you’re aware that I am, among other things of course, responsible for national drug-control policy development.’
Elvis smiles and nods.
‘That’s one heavy responsibility, man.’
‘And, the President is very, very concerned about the drug problem we have in this country.’
‘That makes two of us. You know, I’ve done an in-depth study of drug abuse in America. I am talking real in-depth.’
Bud asks looking mildly confused.
‘And the drug culture too. I try to help the guys in law enforcement around the country. They’re on the front lines. I drop in on police departments, help out however I can.’
The telephone on Bud’s desk starts to ring. Bud doesn’t answer it, but keeps staring at Elvis, startled at what he’s hearing.
‘I got a lot of badges from police and sheriffs around the country, you know.’
Elvis stands tall, pulling at his giant, jeweled belt buckle and clearing his throat. Bud is not quite sure how to proceed.
‘So, how do you believe you can be of assistance to the government, Mr. Presley?’
‘Call me ‘Elvis’.’
‘So, how do you believe you can help the government, Elvis?’
‘By doing it my way.’
Elvis chops at the air with his right hand. Bud is taken aback.
‘Doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages.’
‘We certainly need all the help we can get, Elvis.’
‘Then I am your man, Egil!’
Bud nods. Elvis nods too.
‘So do I get to meet the President now?’
Bud nearly chokes on the word. He shakes his head and takes a tentative step back from Elvis.
‘It’s a question of scheduling, Elvis.’
He scratches his ear uncomfortably and looks away from Elvis’ gaze.
‘And the President is all scheduled up right now.’
Elvis looks crestfallen. His face drops and his eyes implore Bud.
‘What’d I do wrong?’
‘You haven’t done anything wrong, Mr. Presley. It’s just a question of time, I’m sure you understand. The President’s time is not really his own.’
‘There ain’t nothing you can do to get me a meeting?’
‘I’ve already done everything I can.’
Elvis stares him down doubtfully and somewhat intimidatingly.
Bud looks away from Elvis’ face. He doesn’t know what else to say.
A flash of rage crosses Elvis’ face. He clenches both his fists, then almost as quickly relaxes again. He sighs and moves to leave.
Bud has picked up two empty White House envelopes from his desk and holds them limply in his hands.
‘Mr. Presley -- before you go --’
He blushes and looks down at the carpet.
Elvis looks back and sees the two envelopes. He looks dejected.
‘You want an autograph, right?’
Bud blushes even more and says nothing. Elvis takes both envelopes, grabs a pen from Bud’s desk and hastily scribbles on each one as he turns to leave.
‘Never be afraid to ask for what you want, man.’
Elvis tosses the envelopes at Bud.
‘Never be afraid to take your future into your own hands, son. ‘Cause if you don’t, somebody else will.’
He leaves, slamming the door behind him.
Bud remains standing in the same spot and jumps at the sound of the reverberating door. He looks down to inspect the envelopes. He sighs.
One is signed ‘Dean Martin’ and the other ‘Jerry Lewis’.
Elvis never got over stage fright. No matter how big or small the show, he was never comfortable with it. Never let his people get comfortable with it.
No matter how many pills, how many distractions, he’d be a bundle of nerves.
It started out with his first show. He was scared he couldn’t keep his body from shaking. He didn’t know what all the yelling and screaming was about. Didn’t realize his body was moving.
When he got backstage he asked the manager what the hell happened, what the hell did he do? Manager told him whatever it was, go back and do it again.
He hadn’t done it for a long time. Hadn’t performed in front of a live audience for almost a decade.
Colonel Parker had chosen Vegas for Elvis’ return to the stage. Booked him in for a four-week, fifty-seven show engagement at the just built International Hotel. Two shows a night back-to-back.
Colonel Parker was going to work him hard. Real hard.
It was the newest and biggest showroom in Vegas. 2,000 seats. Elvis thought he’d never fill it.
Colonel Parker thought Elvis’ return to the stage should be the biggest show-business event of the year. He rented every available billboard and took out full-page ads in local and trade papers.
He crammed Elvis merchandise throughout the hotel. You couldn’t walk through the lobby for all the Elvis tee shirts, straw boaters, posters, calendars, records, stuffed animals.
He took to wearing a white lab coat with the slogan ELVIS INTERNATIONAL IN PERSON printed every which way all over in every color imaginable. Took to telling everyone he met that Elvis was the greatest entertainer on earth and to miss a show would leave the world a lesser place.
He arranged for a slew of celebrities to make it to opening night. Even convinced Cary Grant not to miss it.
RCA Victor brought in people from all over the world. Hotel International flew in the rock press.
But Elvis was still worried no one was going to show up. So he had the guys fly in two planes loaded with everyone he knew from Memphis.
There was no need. On the opening night, the line snaked all the way from the parking lot and across the entire hotel and into the lobby.
Colonel Parker was out front proudly selling the color show program at a three-thousand percent mark up to one excited fan after the other.
Out back, Elvis was freaking out.
He wanted a big show. He didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
It wasn’t like the old days with Scotty and the boys slapping it out. For Vegas, Elvis wanted a big sound. So he kept adding musicians.
By opening night, he’d put together a rock band with keyboards and a male gospel quartet and his favorite female backup singers and a thirty-five piece orchestra.
While they were warming up onstage, he was backstage trying to breathe. Pacing back and forth like a panther in black mohair. Bill Belew had fashioned his outfit from a karate suit.
Elvis thought the back belt was too thin so had Belew sew two of them together to make a sash. He couldn’t stop fidgeting with it. Tying it one way, untying it. Tying it another.
Trying to calm himself.
Elvis heard the hard-pounding strains of ‘Baby, I Don’t Care’ from the stage. It was his cue. Showtime.
Elvis walked onto the black stage without an introduction. Walked right up to the microphone, grabbed it, dropped his head, lent forward on one leg, punched the air.
Snapped his legs back and forth.
And the crowd erupted, jumped from their chairs and gave him a standing ovation before he sang one note. The overflowing crowd began to whistle, applaud furiously, and pound on the tables. Some stood on their chairs, screaming.
When the ovation began to subside, Elvis grabbed his favorite guitar and tore into “Blue Suede Shoes” with such fury it blew everyone away.
And then it started.
It was like a tidal wave from the back of the showroom that rolled up, and up, and over him. It filled him with love.
And he knew he was going to be alright. For the next ninety minutes he played his heart out.
Elvis was a hit, he was on fire. He cranked it right up. Powerpacked performance. Totally dynamite.
No one had seen anything like it. No one had heard anything like it. No one had felt anything like it. It was just pandemonium.
People were screaming and yelling, passing out, fainting. He didn’t sing to the crowd. He sang to every single person there. He connected with everyone.
Even the band and the crew were uplifted, unified. He put all his feelings into the song. He was more alive than anybody they’d ever known. He was more of everything.
He could feel the love flowing over him, flowing through him. It lifted him out of his fears. He loved the love. Loved the feeling.
He sang his life, his dreams, his hopes. Everything that was inside him came pouring out.
All that was left was his soul. So pure, so right.
Elvis could barely hear himself sing, could hardly hear the ringing applause.
He came back for an encore and sang “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” tears of joy spilling down his face. As the last note echoed into the night, he stood onstage with his hand hanging down. Sweat dripped off his fingers. He gave them all he had.
And they took it all.
They thought they loved him. But they loved the idea of him. They loved how he made them feel.
The opening show attracted rave reviews from fans and critics alike. It was a massive triumph.
Rolling Stone magazine declared Elvis to be supernatural. Variety called him the first superstar.
The next morning, Colonel Parker sat down for breakfast with the general manager of the International Hotel to discuss the enormous success of Elvis’ performance. He negotiated a five-year contract on the spot for Elvis to play two months a year - February and August - at an annual salary of one million dollars. Took out a pen and began scribbling specific terms on the tablecloth. Then made the man sign the cloth to seal the deal.
Colonel Parker feared the opening might have been a one night wonder. Instead the string of shows broke all attendance records and led to a series of tours that set the pace for the years to come.
When Elvis went on tour, dedicated fans started journeying with him. They followed him through city after city, never missing a single show.
All that mattered was the moment when he came onstage and began to burn. No one who could match his energy, or his sheer magnetic power. All that counted was the moment when he caught fire, when something suddenly stirred him and he really started moving. Then he was superhuman.
It was no longer a concert. It was a religious experience.
Audiences could ever forget the feeling, the electric energy that flowed back and forth. The energy that connected them.
Uniting opposites is the essence of religion. That’s what he did. He obliterated distinctions between musical forms, between races, between class.
He brought everyone together, made everyone whole.
Even if only for a brief, fleeting moment.
CHAPTER 36: ‘PILLS AND PILLS’
Red West, Elvis’ longest serving bodyguard leans forward on the edge of the first class seat as the American Airlines 727 backs away from the gate.
Another day, another frigging disaster.
What was Elvis thinking? Flying off on his own without the guys, without him.
Red had been by his side since the beginning. Shit, even before it all started. He was his only friend at Memphis Hume High School.
He started driving Elvis and Scotty Moore and Bill Black and DJ Fontana from gig to gig. All crammed into a car held together with wire and hope. Always had to pay for the gas out of his own pocket.
Red settles in the seat, snaps his gum and cracks his knuckles as the plane starts rolling down the runaway.
He’d given his life to Elvis. Married one of Elvis’ secretaries in ’61 but had spent more of his life with Elvis than with his own family. Always there to solve any problems.
And lately there was no shortage of those.
Red pulls out his Playboy magazine and begins to flip through the pages. He wonders why he hasn’t had a pay rise in two years.
Maybe he’d write a book, a tell-all-expose. Get it serialized. Be a best seller.
Man, the shit he’d seen. The shit he had to cover up.
Graceland was getting to be like a nest of vipers. He didn’t know who to trust anymore. All the back stabbing, and back sliding.
He missed Hollywood. But most of the guys hated the place.
Elvis was never fond of it. Didn’t like the mind games, didn’t like the false smiles. Never liked celebrities.
Red liked to party. Elvis liked to stay home and read.
Hollywood was champagne and cocaine. Memphis was liquor and pills.
And since Elvis didn’t drink, it was pills and pills.
Elvis had always loved pills. His mama had given him some of her diet pills when he was a teenager. Told him they’d help keep him slim.
They did more than that. They cheered him up. Made him smile.
Made him feel more confident too. Helped a lot when he first started playing gigs. They gave him that extra boost he was looking for.
Made him shake, rattle and roll like there was no tomorrow.
When he was drafted into the army he discovered real amphetamines. Man, they blew his head off. He couldn’t get enough of them. Used to buy them in bulk and hand them out to his army buddies.
By the time he got back to America to make movies he couldn’t live without them. They kept his weight down and kept him going.
They also destroyed his sleep, his dreams.
His insomnia got worse. So doctors wrote out prescriptions for sleeping pills, lots of sleeping pills. Which meant he needed more uppers when he woke up. And even more downers when he needed to sleep.
There was no such thing as saying no to Elvis. If one doctor wouldn’t give him what he wanted, another would. Dr. Elias. Dr. Harry. Dr. Frank. Dr. Flash. Dr. Speed.
Dr. Nick was his personal favorite. The good doctor wrote out literally thousands and thousands of prescriptions for anything and everything.
The way Elvis saw it, if one pill worked then two or three pills would work two or three times better. Hell, it was only medicine.
Shots were even better. He had a phobia about going onstage and his voice cracking. So he had Dr. Nick inject decongestants straight into his neck. Felt that somehow the shot would protect him from something bad happening.
Elvis could never let down the fans.
Sometimes he’d be hurting so bad he didn’t know how he’d make it through a show. Never told anyone how he could feel the pain and hurt of others. How all the times he’d gone to a doctor thinking he was ill or dying only to find out there was nothing wrong with him.
There’d be times he felt he was passing on his symptoms to family and friends, to the guys. Felt bad about it too.
Started hypnotizing himself and others so he could keep them from feeling what he was feeling. He could take the pain. They couldn’t.
Started hypnotizing himself so he could get through a show. It kept the pain from bothering him onstage. Kept away the chills and hurt in his chest.
The pills were messing him up, messing everybody up. All the guys were popping them all the time. All for one, one for all.
When you were with Elvis, you were with him twenty-four seven. You did everything together, meals, vacation, shopping, travel.
New guys would sometimes worry about how many pills Elvis was taking. But if they ever tried to raise the subject with the other guys they’d be told to mind their own damn business.
Elvis knew what was best for him.
Rumors had been flying around for years about Elvis’ drug use. Wild talk about Elvis being strung out. Trash talk.
Elvis would laugh it off. Man, he was an eight-degree black belt in karate. They don’t give you that if you’re strung out.
Elvis knew what he was doing. Always had a copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference next to his bible.
By the time Dr. Nick came on board, Elvis already had his favorites picked out. Tiunal. Desbutal. Escatrol. Placidyl. Dilaudid. Percodan. Dexedrine. Biphetamine. Escatrol. Amytal. Quaaludes. Carbrital. Seconal. Ritalin. Demerol.
And he was going to increasing lengths to get hold of them.
If Elvis couldn’t find a doctor at a moment’s notice, he’d pack the guys in the plane and send them off to Vegas on prescription shopping trips.
He loved the powerful tranquilizer Placidyl. The red ones were 500mg. The slightly bigger green ones were 750mg. Loved the knee-buckling rush that came once the outer capsule dissolved. And then the wave of calm that seemed to stretch forever.
He’d accidentally overdosed twice on barbiturates. Spent three days in a coma in his suite at the Hilton, and later on tour in St Louis. He was admitted semi-comatose to the Baptist Hospital in Memphis. He’d been secretly seeing a doctor in Los Angeles who was injecting him with cortisone mixed with high-grade Demerol.
Dr. Nick had to detox Elvis with methadone.
Then he began trying to stop the flow of contraband pills from other doctors. While Elvis was recovering in hospital, Dr. Nick and the road manager raided Elvis’ bedroom at Graceland and found three giant pharmacy-sized jars, each containing a thousand high-dose Seconal, Dexedrine and Placidyl. There were even vials of Placidyl hidden in the seams of the curtains.
Dr. Nick found it easier to manage all the drugs on the road.
But not just for Elvis. For the whole shebang. He had to take care of around 150 people every time. The band. The quartet. The songbirds. The orchestra. The sound crew. The lighting crew. The stagehands. Dr. Nick began each tour with three large locked suitcases of prescription drugs.
On any given night, Elvis would need more amphetamines to wake up, more pain killers to get moving, more amphetamines before the first show, more tranquilizers after the first show, more amphetamines before the second show, more tranquilizers after the second show, more sedatives to calm down, more sleeping pills to sleep during the day.
He was so afraid he wouldn’t get enough sleep to do a good show the next night that he would end up asking for an extra pill or two. If Dr. Nick didn’t hand them over, Elvis got the guys to get another doctor.
He’d rather die than let down his fans.
Once Elvis was so exhausted before a show that not even the hotel doctor could wake him. Elvis was unconscious, groaning in pain.
It was Colonel Parker who stormed into Elvis’ suite that night with a doctor no one had ever seen before. This doctor had two black medical bags.
Colonel Parker told everyone in that room to listen up.
Told them the only important thing was that his boy was on stage that night.
Nothing else mattered.
CHAPTER 37: ‘DOUBLE STANDARDS?’
In the Republican suite of the Hotel Washington, Jerry and Elvis sit down to another deluxe room service lunch.
They each have a plate piled high with gravy-smothered French fries and an enormous cheeseburger lying to one side.
Elvis sniffs the top of his fries.
‘They ain’t going to let me see the President.’
The smell of greasy meat is thick in the air. Jerry swallows hard.
‘E, whatever happened to the power of positive thinking?’
Jerry picks up his cheeseburger and forces a bite.
‘Pass the ketchup, please.’
Elvis is in his own world. Jerry spies the ketchup bottle and tries to chew. Elvis doesn’t look up.
‘Did you look at it?’
Jerry almost chokes.
‘Look at what, E?’
‘My deluxe cheeseburger!’
‘What the hell are you talking about!?’
‘Don’t look at my food, Jerry. I don’t want you looking at my food.’
Elvis’ favorite food was meatloaf. With mash potatoes and peas an gravy, lots of gravy. Red-eye gravy.
But Hotel Washington didn’t serve meatloaf. So hamburgers it was, every meal.
Jerry half stands and reaches over his plate to grab the ketchup.
Elvis glares at him.
‘Did you just breathe on my cheeseburger?’
‘No, I did not just breathe on your cheeseburger.’
Jerry sits back down with the ketchup bottle in hand. Shaking his head as he looks over his plate.
‘Did you just crap on my fries?’
‘Well, it looks like somebody did.’
‘Think positive, it’s good for you.’
‘Got to be better for you than this fucking food, that’s for sure.’
‘What? What are you talking about? These are deluxe cheeseburgers.’
Elvis picks at his fries. Jerry shakes his head.
‘E, I’ve been living on deluxe cheeseburgers for days now, and I don’t feel too hot anymore.’
Elvis starts chewing on some fries.
‘They ain’t killed you.’
Jerry holds his stomach and swallows a burp.
Elvis picks up his deluxe cheeseburger in both hands and rips into it.
‘Hell, I’d like to help you out, give you a little something to perk you up. But I’m running kind of low myself.’
‘Well, thanks for thinking of me, E.’
Elvis shrugs his shoulders. Jerry rubs his stomach.
‘Nothing like living with double standards, is there E?’
Elvis smothers a laugh.
‘Shit, I got double standards piled up on triple standards. I got so many standards I don’t know where to draw the line no more.’
Elvis lowers his deluxe cheeseburger. Wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘But I swear I need to meet the President and get me that federal badge.’
‘And if you don’t?’
Elvis looks up at the ceiling in despair.
‘Hell, then what’s the point of living?’
Jerry looks up at the ceiling too. Then looks across the table.
‘You don’t think you might be overdoing it just a tad, Elvis?’
Elvis looks at Jerry.
‘That’s the point of living ain’t it? All or nothing, right?’
‘Whatever you say, E.’
Elvis leaps to his feet, toppling his chair behind him. He points across the room.
‘Hey, you don’t like it, there’s the goddamn door.’
Jerry bites his lip. Elvis dares him to leave.
‘I ain’t holding you back.’
Jerry pushes his plate to one side, stands up slowly and heads for the door.
‘Live it up, E.’
Elvis lowers his head. Jerry opens the door and steps out into the hallway.
Panic rises in Elvis’ throat. Swirls up higher.
‘No, no, don’t go Jerry! Don’t leave me.’
Elvis starts pleading.
‘My head’s kind of messed up right now. I ain’t been sleeping too good, Jerry. I got a million things to worry about.’
Jerry is gone and Elvis is crying at the closed door.
‘I got nobody, nobody to help me. Jerry? Jerry!!’
He lowers his voice and whispers to himself, voice broken with tears.
‘I’m running, stumbling, crawling for a friend.’
Elvis feels the temperature rise in the suite, feels the sweat on his upper lip. He picks up his plate, still piled high with fries and a half-eaten deluxe cheeseburger.
Elvis weighs the plate in his hand. Then screams and hurls it at the window. The plate and the window both shatter, spraying bits of glass and fries and deluxe cheeseburger everywhere.
Elvis holds his head and breaks out into a heaving sob.
He was lost, trying to find a way out of the wilderness. It was the most terrible loneliness.
He felt too deeply. He always had.
All he ever wanted to be was a kind man, a noble man.
Some people were put on this earth to help carry the load, the strain. Some were here to help others do what they must do.
Elvis felt he was here to bring as much joy, happiness and comfort to people as he could. And if that caused him some strife, some personal heartaches, that’s alright.
It evens out - he gets the privilege of seeing the happiness and joy he brings to others. He used to tell himself that his problems were but tiny thorns on a rose.
He felt he wasn’t going to be here much longer.
He could see the light coming.
Once he saw the light spreading in his room. It became brighter and brighter. So brilliant he could hardly open his eyes. Then he saw a man appearing by his bedside, standing in the air, floating above the floor.
The man was wearing a loose robe of the most exquisite whiteness. Glorious beyond words.
Elvis had seen his promised land in his dreams. He knew he wasn’t long for this world. Didn’t think he could make it much past forty.
He couldn’t. He was burning up inside.
He was starting to loose it onstage. Bumbling through some shows in a stupor, forgetting the words to old hits. Sometimes breaking off in the middle of a song to launch into some wild tirade about gangs chasing him with guns.
The king was dying.
CHAPTER 38: ‘DON’T LET THE SIZE FOOL YOU’
A door bell jingles as Jerry walks into a Washington drug store on the corner of 15th street.
He shivers, rubbing his hands together to warm them as he looks around.
Muzak plays through worn speakers. So antiseptic he can’t even make out the tune. A uniformed policeman puts a can of hair spray back on the shelf and barely gives him a second look.
Jerry makes his way to the weary looking pharmacist behind the counter.
The policeman picks up another can of hair spray, reads the instructions and then places it back on the shelf. He leaves without saying goodbye.
At the counter, Jerry nods to the pharmacist and reaches into both pants pockets digging for change. He slaps two quarters, two dimes and a nickel onto the counter.
‘So how many can I get for seventy-five cents?’
The pharmacist coughs.
‘I’d have to break a pack.’
The pharmacist is struggling with the flu. His hands curl under the edge of the counter. Jerry looks around. Nods.
‘Okay, then, give me what you got.’
The pharmacist sneezes into his arm, eyes watering. Jerry clears his throat. The pharmacist pushes off the counter and steps back into the rows of metal shelving stacked with medications. He reaches for a packer bottle filled with yellow pills, opens the lid and pours some into a plastic dispenser.
He separates two dozen pills and slides the them into an empty, unmarked vial. They look like tiny sleeping pills.
He snaps the white cap on top and places the vial on the counter.
‘Do you require a label?’
‘No, thanks. But I could use a glass of water.’
The druggist sneezes again and shuffles back to a sink. He fills up a paper cup and hands it over to Jerry.
Jerry cracks open the new vial and shakes out two pills. He throws them in his mouth and follows with a mouthful of water. He swallows hard, and leaves the cup on the counter. The druggist swipes the coins into his hand.
‘Sorry about the price.’
Jerry snaps the cap down and holds the vial up to the light. The pharmacists can see he’s concerned.
‘Don’t let the size fool you.’
Jerry shakes the vial and smiles. The pharmacist sniffs.
‘They’re the purest money can buy.’
CHAPTER 39: ‘ALL THAT WAS LEFT WAS THE PAIN’
In the bathroom of the Republican suite, empty pill bottles and vials litter the floor and sink. A cold wind gusting through the open window chills the air.
Elvis leans his elbows on the cold marble counter, holds his head in his hands and sobs at his reflection in the mirror. His body shivers in a cold sweat.
‘You can’t leave me here. You can’t leave me here like this.’
Elvis is having trouble breathing. His chest hurts, his lungs are plugged up. He can feel his heart flutter.
Sometimes he thinks his heart will just plain stop.
He’s almost forty years old. He can’t keep going. Who in the hell wants to see some old man singing rock’n’roll.
When he was starting out, no one thought he’d last more than a summer. RCA Victor refused to pay for color headshots. Said he was just a one hit wonder.
It was a barrel of laughs when he was starting out. He used to love being Elvis Presley. Everything speeding up. It was like his life was a record, spinning faster and faster.
But now the song had gone out of his heart. All that was left was the pain. His body ached, his mind ached.
The edge of his vision was darkening, he was losing his sight.
He had been diagnosed with onset glaucoma earlier in the year. The increased pressure on his eyes was damaging the optic nerve and retina.
Doctors told him it was causing all the migraines, all the pain crashing through his brain. Sometimes it got so bad he’d be throwing up for days on end.
He had to have fluid drained to relieve the pressure. It helped some. But the pain was still there.
Glare and bright lights made it worse. Flash bulbs felt like needles in his eyes.
He got prescription sunglasses made up with specially tinted lenses. Ordered twenty pairs at a time in varying strengths. Liked to have a different outlook on the world.
Some days it was just a blur. From the moment the doctors woke him to when he collapsed, all he saw was a wash of color.
He took pills for the eye condition, for the swelling, for the pressure, for the pain. But lately the pills just made him feel worse. No matter how many he took.
Sometimes he felt like he had pills running through his veins. His heart had turned cold.
What sort of man had he become? Was he a kind man? A good man?
He didn’t deserve the fame, the fortune. He didn’t deserve the love.
He gave them what they wanted, what they wanted to see. He gave them everything he had. He had nothing left to give.
It was time to go home.
CHAPTER 40: ‘GOOD FOR ANOTHER TEN-THOUSAND MILES’
Jerry walks away from the drug store, away from the Hotel Washington.
He shoves his cold hands into his pockets and thinks about the past few days.
Jesus, what a right holy fuck up.
What the hell was he doing in Washington freezing his nuts off? Why wasn’t he back in Los Angeles where the sun actually shone? Maybe if got back by the morning he’d still have his job?
How did he let Elvis talk him into this?
Jerry thought he’d left all this behind. Sure he used to work for Elvis, work with the guys. But that was a lifetime ago.
The guys were still stuck in the ‘50s. All they knew was Elvis. At least he’d tried to make a new life for himself, cut himself loose from all that Memphis madness.
All that bickering and bitching. Jealous spats every second day. Rumors flying all over the place. Accusations, counter accusations.
Elvis walking around Graceland in his pajamas wearing a football helmet for three days straight.
Whenever you got down he could pat you on the back and you’d be good another ten-thousand miles. Even if it was his fault.
Elvis could never bring himself to say sorry to anybody. If he raged at the guys or did something that he knew he shouldn’t have, he’d get over it in thirty seconds and then give them a Cadillac.
Instead of saying he was sorry, he’d buy you something. Couldn’t walk into a jewelry shop without buying something for all the guys.
If he got a motorcycle, all the guys got a motorcycle. If he got a car, all the guys got a car. Loved to see the look on their faces when he handed them the keys.
Jerry walks to the pedestrian crossing and looks at the cars shooting past. He thinks about Elvis.
He looks left and right. He sees a stop sign, a yield sign and a u-turn sign.
He sighs and shakes his head and turns around.
And starts walking back to the hotel.
CHAPTER 41: ‘THERE WAS NO TURNING BACK’
All the lights are off in the Republican suite.
Only the dim light from the setting sun offers any illumination. Elvis sits on the bathroom floor, slumped against the wall, drowning in pain.
He holds his golden handgun in one hand and listlessly spins the barrel with the other. His white bathrobe hangs off his shoulder and he shivers with cold.
Damp sweat sheens his skin. His teeth chatter and his hands tremble. He stares at the wall in front of him and thumbs back the hammer of the gun.
He spins the barrel and thumbs back the hammer.
Spins the barrel and thumbs back the hammer.
Elvis had everything in the world but he had nothing. He’d given them what he thought they wanted. He’d given them all he had.
The family, the friends, the fans. They took everything he had.
Except his love. That’s the one thing he tried to keep for himself.
How many times had Elvis sung about love, crooned about love, rocked about love? How many love songs?
But they couldn’t hear what was in his heart. They couldn’t hear what was missing.
Maybe it was the devil’s music after all.
You can’t love anyone when you hate yourself. And if there’s no love, what’s the point of living.
Elvis thought he’d leave nothing behind. He’d never be remembered. Felt he’d never done anything of lasting quality, never done a classic film.
In a strange way, he was looking forward to death.
When he was younger he used to think it would be better to pass away unexpectedly in your sleep. To go softly into the night.
But now he wants to enjoy every sensation, every feeling.
Wants to feel his soul leaving his worn out body, pulling away and leaving it all behind, traveling down that white path of light into the love of God.
There was no turning back.
The end was coming.
CHAPTER 42: ‘WELCOME TO ELVISLAND, HUH?’
Red West stands downstairs at the reception desk of the Hotel Washington.
His gut presses against the counter keeping him a fair distance from the frightened clerk.
Two large suitcases stand next to him and he argues loudly with the clerk. Too loudly.
Jerry walks in from the cold and spots him.
‘Red West! Man, I never thought I’d be glad to see you!’
He walks up to the big man and claps him on the back, then offers his hand. Red turns from the clerk.
‘What in the good lord’s name is you doing here?’
‘I’ve been with Elvis.’
Jerry heads for the elevator. Red picks up the suitcases and follows.
‘He didn’t tell me nothing about you, that’s for sure.’
‘I’ve been with him since Saturday.’
‘It’s been kind of crazy.’
‘So what’s new?’
‘I’m mean really crazy.’
Red looks around the lobby.
‘So where’s fag pants?’
‘Geller? Larry Geller.’
Jerry smiles strangely.
‘Larry’s not a homosexual. He’s a hairstylist.’
‘Hairstylist my ass.’
‘To a woman.’
‘So’s Tony Curtis.’
Jerry pushes the elevator button. Red shakes his head, disappointed.
‘You’ve gone soft, boy.’
Jerry rolls his eyes. Red shakes his head.
Jerry tries to pay him no mind. But Red keeps digging.
‘You need a hair cut, son.’
The elevator doors slides open. They step in and Jerry waits for the doors to slide shut.
‘Well, if I see Larry back in Los Angles I’ll be sure to make an appointment.’
‘But if Larry’s ain’t here then who in the hell is doing his hair.’
‘Shit, then we got us a problem.’
Jerry breathes in deep. Real deep.
‘He’s -- he’s kind of messed up.’
Red snorts because he knows better
‘He’s always messed up.’
Jerry doesn’t know how to say it. He sort of whistles it out the side of his mouth.
‘He’s -- he’s been trying to meet the President.’
‘Yeah, he mentioned something about that. Wants another badge for his stupid ass collection, right?’
Jerry is a little startled. Red sniffs.
‘How’s his medication holding out?’
The elevator doors slide open and Red is out first, marching down the hallway towards the Republican suite. Jerry hurries to catch up with him.
Red shakes nevermind, puts the suitcases down outside the suite, takes a deep breath and opens the double doors.
The double doors swing open onto the apocalypse. The entire suite looks like it’s been hit by a tornado or an Exocet missile or both.
Upturned furniture is sprawled all over the place. Mangled televisions have their screens smashed out. The biggest one still sparks and smokes. An overwhelming smell of burning electricity pervades the cold air in the room. The curtains have been torn down and the windows broken. Glass litters every inch of carpeting.
Red picks up both suitcases and steps in.
‘Welcome to Elvisland, huh?’
He puts down the suitcases, claps his hands and rolls up his sleeves. He calls out, smiling.
‘El, you sunofagun, where is you at?’
The bathroom door shuts with a sharp bang, like a gunshot. Red heads in that direction at a run, calling out.
‘El, it’s Red. I brought all the gear you asked for. Got it here with me right now.’
He leans into the bathroom door, and tries again.
‘You want me to come in and get you, El? That what you want?’
Still no answer.
‘All right. I’m busting in. You better step away from the door, El. Don’t want to hurt you, eh?’
Red cracks his neck and pushes his sleeves of his shirt up his arms. He squares his shoulders and prepares to charge. Before he can take off, he hears a frail voice.
‘Get me doc ... ‘
Red relaxes his stance.
‘Why, doc ain’t here, El. He’s back in Memphis with the rest of the guys. You want me to get him to fly up?’
‘I am tired. So goddamn tired.’
‘It’s alright El, I’m here.’
‘Everyone’s gone and left me.’
Red moves a little closer to the door.
‘I got Jerry here with me, El.’
Elvis’ voice is weak but hopeful.
Jerry steps over to the door.
‘I’m here, E.’
The door flies open and Elvis runs out tightening sash of his robe. He throws his arms around Jerry, sobbing on his shoulder. Shouting, hollering.
‘You came back, man! You came back!!’
Elvis clings onto Jerry. Tears streaming down his face. Jerry looks at him shyly.
‘Hey, what are friends for?’
Elvis hangs off Jerry who carefully leads him over to his Democrat suite. Red picks up the suitcases and follows.
Elvis never had many friends when he was at school. Moving from Tupelo where he knew everyone to Memphis Hume High School where eh knew no one was hard.
He got shy. He was afraid everyone would laugh at him. Worried about not having any money, not fitting in. Still reading Capt. Marvel Jr comics when he was old enough to know better.
Most everyone teased him for being different. Used to point him out in class as the strange one.
If that’s what they wanted, that’s what he’d give them.
Elvis started turning up to school wearing black - black shirts, black trousers, black socks, black shoes. Then he grew out his hair and those long sideburns.
The rest of the boys wore crew cuts, white tee shirts and blue jeans. Wasn’t long before the bullies ganged up on him.
One afternoon, a teenage Red walked into the boys’ bathroom where three of them had Elvis pinned to the ground. The biggest one has a pair of scissors in his hand, ready to cut his hair.
Red leapt in and pulled them off. Told them to ass off and leave the lanky kid alone. Red would become his friend for life.
Couple of months before Elvis graduated, he performed in the school’s annual minstrel show. Sixteenth on a twenty-two-act bill, and listed in the program as ‘Elvis Prestly’. They couldn’t even spell his name right.
But that hardly mattered because his performance of Teresa Brewer’s ‘Till I Waltz Again with You’ brought the house down.
Soon he had more friends that he knew what do with.
When his records started taking off and the touring began, he started hiring them.
Marty Lacker, Gene Smith, Junior Smith, Billy Smith, George Klein, Lamar Fike, Red West, Joe Esposito, Charlie Hodge, Sonny West, Richard Davis. Add in Larry Geller and you have yourself the twelve disciples.
Sure other guys came and went. But these guys were more family than just friends. Used to do everything together.
Elvis loved going to the movies. Right from the beginning he’d always wanted to be a movie actor, a real actor. That’s all he wanted to be. He never really wanted to be a singer. But no one would take him seriously.
Used to hire out the entire Memphian Theater so his could watch movies in peace. Used to sit by himself in a row up front. With the guys in a row behind him.
Wouldn’t watch his own movies. You couldn’t pay him enough to do that.
But he’d watch other films over and over on the same night. Studying the actors’ every move. That long speech at the opening of the movie Patton, he could recite that whole speech. He loved it.
Sometimes he’d act along with the movie from start to finish, acting out every character. The guys used to love that.
Used to love how he’d give you that smile that gave you that feeling that everything was alright.
But there was something else behind that smile, something distant and unseen.
CHAPTER 43: ‘ELVIS TWENTY-FOUR SEVEN’
Colonel Parker is wedged tight into his fat, plush first class seat on an American Airlines flight to Washington. No space breathes between himself and the armrests.
He cuds an unlit cigar that hangs out of one corner of his mouth. Occasionally, he removes the cigar with his left hand and spits bits of tobacco out the right side of his mouth in to the aisle.
He picks up his copy of Miniature Pony World magazine, and flips through the pages without looking.
Colonel Parker was Elvis twenty-four seven. Elvis all the way.
Elvis was all he ever thought about. Elvis was the son he never had. Elvis became the man he never was.
Thought about him day and night. Never gave up. Relentless.
Colonel Parker was always selling his boy. When he was first starting out on the road, he had ‘I Love Elvis’ buttons printed for all the girls to buy. And ‘I Hate Elvis’ buttons printed for their boyfriends to buy.
Never missed a trick.
Sure he took more than any other manager. The way he saw it Elvis was taking fifty per cent of what he earned.
He devoted himself to Elvis. Never wanted a stable of stars. Not that they didn’t want Colonel Parker managing their affairs.
Natalie Wood wouldn’t let up. Whispered in his ear that she’d do anything, just anything for his expertise. Blow him morning, noon and night. But she was just an actress. She sounded like Elvis’ niece in Scarsdale.
Colonel Parker loved Elvis’ niece in Scarsdale, but he wasn’t about to buy tickets to see her act.
Not when he had his boy.
But lately his boy he’d been giving him trouble. Canceling shows, missing recording sessions, turning up in hospital. Sure he was still earning. But for how long, and for how much.
RCA Victor had already put in a sizable bid to buy all the rights to all of Elvis’ songs. It was a lot of songs. A lot of money.
It could probably see him out as long as he stayed away from the tables at Vegas. One night he lost one-point-five million dollars when one-point-five million dollars actually meant something.
Colonel Parker loved gambling but hated losing. Elvis was the only sure thing he’d ever known.
And now his boy was in Washington without the crew, without the team, without the doctors.
Elvis was in Washington ahead of Colonel Parker. Elvis never arrived first, never had. That’s not how it worked.
Colonel Parker was always the advance man. He flew into the city the day before Elvis was to arrive and perform. Flew in with the road manager and the tour manager and made sure security was cleared, venue was tight, bookings were done, cash in the bag.
He’d set everything up and the roll onto the next city. Always one step ahead of his boy.
Elvis had pulled some stupid ass shit in the past. But what in lord’s name did he think he was doing in Washington.
Washington wasn’t any place for an entertainer. Wasn’t like Hollywood or Vegas.
Washington was a whole other world.
CHAPTER 44: ‘AND THE DARK NIGHTS RETURNED’
A low flashlight beam sweeps through the darkness of Haldeman’s office in the White House.
Feet shuffle in the darkness, crashing into furniture. The edge of the flashlight arcs and knocks over several Christmas cards lining the edge of Haldeman’s desk.
Bud carries the flashlight, hopping in pain on one foot as he stoops to pick up the toppled cards. He notices they are blank on the inside and smothers his mouth trying not to burst out laughing. Then shakes his head and carefully replaces the cards on the desk.
He turns and stumbles and knocks over Haldeman’s flower vase. Bites his tongue hard under his breath.
Bud anticipates a wet mess. But laughs when he realizes the flowers are plastic, the vase empty.
He makes it to the desk and opens several drawers. When he finds the large appointment book, he smiles and lifts it out.
Then reaches deeper and pulls out Haldeman’s fountain pen.
Secrets upon secrets. President Nixon trusted no one. Least of all those closest to him.
It was his privilege. His executive privilege. His absolute right. Nixon needed everything to be secret, to be hidden.
He wanted each and every conversation between him and his aides protected. Briefed his lawyers to argue in the Supreme Court that in order for aides to give honest advice and to truly explore various alternatives, they had to be able to be candid. If there was going to be frank discussion, they had to know that what was said would be kept confidential.
The closer Nixon kept the secrets the safer he felt. He had so many secret files there was no more room to store them in the White House.
Plus he feared the secrets others had on him. He ordered the break in to the Brookings Institute to retrieve files his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had on him over the thwarted Vietnam peace negotiations.
President Nixon felt everyone was out to get him.
Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker diagnosed a good many neurotic symptoms including anxiety and sleeplessness. He referred him to a New York psychotherapist, Dr. Jack Dreyfus, who immediately recommended Dilantin.
Dr. Dreyfus told Nixon of the antiepileptic drug’s remarkable ability to combat depression, worry, fear, guilt, panic, anger, irritability, rage, violent behaviour. Told Nixon to find a doctor to prescribe the drug.
Nixon said to hell with a doctor and had Dr. Dreyfus give him a thousand capsules.
Dr. Dreyfus advised Nixon to have one or two whenever his mood wasn’t too good. Nixon was soon calling Dr. Dreyfus for more.
Found his mood really lifted when he downed the pills with his bourbon and water. The nights didn’t seem so dark anymore. Everything seemed better for a while. He even stopped taking it out on his wife.
But then the drinking got worse and the pills didn’t seem to help anymore. He was getting smashed night after night. Ordered Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to bomb Damascus for god knows what reason. Certainly couldn’t remember why in the morning.
The days became blacker, and the dark nights returned. Nixon knew everyone was out to get him.
When they weren’t kicking him around, they were waiting for the chance to stick the knife in deep.
Stick the knife in real deep and twist it.
His dark nights were turning even darker.
CHAPTER 45: ‘TIME FOR ONE LAST GOODBYE, BOYS’
That night in the Hotel Washington, Jerry is gently snoring on the sofa bed in the living room of the Democrat suite. Sprawled out under the covers, lost in a forgotten dream.
His unlabeled vial of expensive pills sits on the coffee table next to him.
Red is also snoring, sleeping upright in an armchair next to the closed door that leads to the main bedroom. His head is slumped on his chest.
Soft whooshing of the heating vents breathes into the room. Gentle rain falls outside. The only light comes from the moonbeams caught on the white curtains.
The doorknob to the bedroom turns slowly and silently in the dark. The door opens slowly and the light from the television set pulses through the night air.
Elvis tiptoes out, wearing a fresh, clean white bathrobe. It’s tied up tight. His hair is wet, freshly clean and slicked back.
His eyes are wet with tears.
He makes his way over to the coffee table and carefully picks up the vial of pills. Jerry catches his breath and rolls over, his face wedged into the couch cushions.
Elvis quietly peels off the cap and starts emptying the vial into the palm of his hand. He whispers to himself.
‘Time for one last goodbye, boys.’
Tiny yellow pills slide out.
‘Time for the big sleep.’
He empties all the pills into his hand.
‘A heart without love cannot live.’
He looks at the pills, and closes his hand.
‘Without love, I have nothing. Without love, I have nothing at all.’
He silently puts the empty vial back on the coffee table.
‘I have conquered the world, but what do I have, for without love I have nothing at all.’
Elvis silently tiptoes back to the bedroom, and carefully shuts the door behind him.
CHAPTER 46: ‘GODSPEED YOUR LOVE’
In the bedroom, Elvis turns off the throbbing television and climbs onto the fully made bed.
He lies down and rests his head on top of the pillows, hoping the lord can show him the way.
He opens his palm and looks at the pills. He places one on his tongue, and swallows.
He doesn’t know who talk to, who to turn to. He only has himself and the lord.
He swallows two more pills and starts to hum the bass line from “Unchained Melody,” then sings softly along. Sings of flowing rivers.
He swallows more pills. Sings of lonely love.
He swallows the rest of the pills. Sings of coming home at last.
He folds himself into a fetal position and gathers both hands together in prayer.
He gently closes his eyes, feeling at peace.
Elvis was no stranger to suicide. More than one of his cousins had died by their own hand. In ’67 his first suicide attempt left him in a coma for two days.
It ain’t hard. It’s the easiest thing in the world. You’re leaving one life for another.
How better to repent for your sins, and the sins of the world. Judas took his own life to be reborn in God’s love.
Elvis wasn’t afraid of death. Felt people like him weren’t here for a long time before they had to go home. Didn’t want to get old and decay. Didn’t want to lose his looks, lose his voice.
We’re all going to die. Ain’t no sense dragging it out.
He’d even chosen the suit he wanted to be buried in. The white suit his daddy had bought him, with his favorite blue silk shirt. Even had the casket picked out. Copper-lined just like the one he bought for his mama.
Elvis liked to take care of everything, liked to take care of business. Things had to be done right. Leave nothing to chance.
Maybe that was the problem. He was always up, always on the go, always the man. You ever had any problems, you took them to him. He took care of you.
But who took care of him? Took care of his soul?
Slipping away, pulling away and leaving it all behind, traveling down that white path of light into the love. It chilled him just thinking about it.
Elvis had dreamt of his place in heaven, his mansion in the sky. Rainbows for windows, blue sky for ceilings, stars for lights.
His mama had always told him to listen to his dreams. Before he fled Graceland, his father had told him about a dream that had left him sweating in fright.
His father said he was walking in the yard at Graceland, and looked up to see mama coming up the driveway. She came right up to him, smiling, and handed him a piece of string.
The next thing Elvis was there with them. Mama never said anything, just handed him the string. And when he took it, she took hold of Elvis. They turned around and walked off, leaving him standing there with the string.
His father was upset with Elvis for leaving. Called out to him to come back but he just kept walking with his mama until he couldn’t see them any more. When he looked back at the string he saw that it had become a vine that was tangling up and around itself. Growing and weaving into everything. He got scared because he couldn’t stop it slithering over him, taking over everything.
He woke crying and calling out for help.
To live is to die. Elvis knew his twin died to save him. If Elvis was born first, he would have died. Instead his twin brother sacrificed himself so he could live.
It’s a transition from one world to the next, to a better world. No more pain, no more troubles, no more worries. To be at rest, to be at peace.
It’s always the same dream.
Elvis hears the sounds of thousands of female fans stomping and cheering and calling out his name. They scream and yell and tear at their hair and clothes.
He is on stage, wearing a black jewel encrusted jumpsuit, black cape and large black belt. His signature sunglasses hide his eyes from view. Stage lights glare in his face as he sings out the last opening lines of “That’s All Right, Mama.”
He peels off his sunglasses and realizes with confusion that the thousands of screaming women look like different variations of his mama. He sings on.
His voice doubles up as if multi-tracked. It sounds like two people singing their heart out.
Elvis turns around in surprise and sees himself in a white jeweled jumpsuit and white cape. In a wave of joy he realizes that this is his twin brother. This is Jesse singing with him, joining him onstage.
Elvis and his twin brother sing their hearts out.
They smile into each other as they sing on.
They roll on, louder and louder.
They sing out the last line.
The closing chords reverb out into the excited audience. Jesse smiles at Elvis. Elvis reaches out to him. He extends his hand towards his twin brother. Jesse takes a step back, still smiling, as the cape swirls into pair of angel wings. They beat and flutter, carrying Jesse up and away from him.
Elvis reaches higher, and rises up towards his brother, rises into Jesse’s body until the two become one. Until the two become whole.
Elvis looks down at his hands as joy floods through him.
CHAPTER 47: ‘YOU’RE ON, MAN’
Elvis wakes up smiling like an angel.
He feels every ray of the early dawn light on his body. It illuminates the bedroom. His clean white bathrobe almost glows.
He feels better than ever. Fully alive, healthy and strong. Righteous.
His heart is clear and bright.
Elvis hears the phone ring in the other room. It rings several times before a sleepy Jerry manages to pick up the receiver. A short, muffled conversation follows.
Jerry rushes over to the bedroom door and swings it open.
‘E! E! Great fucking news!’
Red stands up, rubbing his eyes awake. Jerry’s hands are waving around in the air like a manic preacher.
‘That was that Krogh guy from the White House. They found some time today. You’re on, man. You’re on. You’re going to meet the President!!’
Elvis rolls into to a sitting position in one move. No stretching or yawning. Fully awake, fully relaxed. Like a mahatma. He looks up at Jerry.
‘At ten past ten, right?’
Jerry is astonished.
‘How the fuck did you know that?’
Elvis looks as if he slept for a week straight. He’s never looked healthier, or more vibrant. He doesn’t look at Red leaning sleepily in the doorway.
‘Red, it’s cool. I forgive you.’
Jerry glances at Red. Then looks at Elvis cautiously.
‘E, are you alright?’
Elvis wants to tell them how he’s been saved, how the lord has saved him from a fate worse than death. But he can’t find the words. All he can do is smile.
‘E, are you sure you’re alright?’
‘I’m fine, now.’
Jerry looks him up and down. Elvis nods a smile.
‘I just got to get changed.’
Jerry nods slowly, and steps back into the living room. Red stumbles out of the way. Jerry moves to close the bedroom door. Elvis calls out from the bedroom.
‘You don’t need to close the door.’
Jerry is a little startled by Elvis’ calm demeanor. He hisses at Red.
‘How did he know you ate all my vitamins?’
Red shakes his head, a little bewildered by the circumstances. Hisses back under his breath.
‘I didn’t eat your damn vitamins, you Los Angeles freakball?’
Red looks him up and down as if he’s diseased. Jerry’s smile tightens, jeers.
‘Must have been the damn vitamin fairy.’
‘Who you calling a ‘fairy’?’
Elvis’ voice rings out from the bedroom. Strong, sure.
‘Jerry, I need you do something for me?’
Red is fuming. Jerry looks up.
‘Name it, E!’
‘Need you to call the men to attention.’
Jerry looks around the suite, baffled. He has no idea what Elvis is talking about.
Red sighs, shakes his head. He’s heard it before. Jerry looks at the open bedroom doorway streaked with morning light. He can’t see Elvis but he can hear his voice giving him direction.
‘Need you to call out ‘ten-hut!’’
Jerry looks around, shrugs his shoulders. Still confused. Calls out in a feeble voice.
Red immediately stands at attention. Jerry looks at him, then stands at attention too. Both staring straight ahead into the open doorway.
‘Red, get ready to blow, son.’
‘El, we don’t have enough time.’
Morning light fills the bedroom doorway.
‘Red, don’t fight me on this.’
Red holds his fist to his lips like a bugle and starts blowing “To The Color.” Light pours in through the doorway as Elvis staunchly strides through as the infamous general stepping up to the podium in the opening scene of “Patton.” Clad only in his hotel bathrobe, he has transformed into the imperious military commander. A mirror image of the bastard actor. His face craggy, his presence unflinching.
Elvis looks out at a thousand troops only he can see, snaps his heels together and sweeps his right hand into a hard salute. Head back, chin out, lips tight.
Elvis holds the salute, blinks once. His left hand clenches tight. The Hotel Washington insignia is embroidered in gold above his heart.
The bugles ends and he sweeps his salute away. His voice just as raspy and broken as George C. Scott.
Jerry and Red scramble to sit down. Elvis stands at ease, hands behind his back, gathering his thoughts.
‘Men, this stuff that some sources sling around about America wanting out of this war, not wanting to fight, is a crock of bullshit.’
His words mirror General Patton’s famed speech word for word.
‘Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.’
Elvis strides one way, acting just like the actor but sounding just like the general.
‘When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players. Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser.’
Elvis believes it.
‘Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war, for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.’
Elvis strides back again, pauses as he looks over the imagined crowd of soldiers preparing for battle.
‘Death must not be feared. Death, in time, comes to all men. Yes, every man is scared in his first battle. If he says he’s not, he’s a liar. The real hero is the man who fights even though he is scared. A real man will never let his fear of death overpower his honor, his sense of duty to his country.’
Elvis rolls on.
‘An Army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking!’
Red slaps his leg in glee. Elvis keeps striding.
‘You men are part of a team. Without team effort, the fight is lost. All the links in the chain pull together and the chain becomes unbreakable.’
Jerry and Red are still, silent. Elvis nods.
‘We have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world.’
Elvis cracks a smile as the realization hits him.
‘You know, by God, I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. By God, I do.’
Elvis nods the truth.
‘We’re not going to just shoot the sons-of-bitches, we’re going to rip out their living Goddamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun cocksuckers by the bushel-fucking-basket.’
Jerry and Red roar their approval. Elvis strides on.
‘War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours.’
Elvis raises his voice.
‘Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts.’
Elvis raises his clenched fist.
‘When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!’
Elvis leans back, moves on.
‘I don’t want to get any messages saying, ‘I am holding my position’. We are not ‘holding’ a Goddamned thing. Let the Germans do that.’
Elvis fists the air.
‘We are advancing constantly and we are not interested in holding onto anything, except the enemy’s balls. We are going to twist his balls and kick the living shit out of him all of the time. We are going to go through him like crap through a goose, like shit through a tin horn!’
Elvis stands back, folding his hands. Nodding to everyone.
‘There is one great thing that you men will all be able to say after this war is over and you are home once again. And you may thank God for it.’
Elvis clenches his jaw.
‘Twenty years from now when you are sitting by the fireplace with your grandson on your knee and he asks you, ‘What you did in the great World War Two?. You won’t have to say: ‘Well, I shoveled shit in Louisiana.’’
Elvis nods again.
‘No, Sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say, ‘Son, your Granddaddy rode with the Great Third Army and a Son-of-a-Goddamned-Bitch named George Patton!’’
Jerry and Red burst into applause. Elvis is still in character as he breaks a smile.
‘Ahh, I feel much better!’
Elvis turns and strides back into the bedroom through the doorway, dissolving into the morning light.
Jerry and Red leap to their feet, clapping him on. Red whistles out, hooting and cheering.
It’s not the first time Red has seen this performance. But he’s still impressed. His skin is prickling.
Jerry is dumbfounded. He’s seen a lot of actors, seen a lot of Elvis movies. Never occurred to him that Elvis could act.
That Elvis could really act.
Elvis felt the lord had shown him the way, saved him from death everlasting.
Life ain’t something you are given because it’s owed to you. It’s given because you need to grow, to learn and to expand your soul and spirit. To serve others.
Learn that and everything else comes easy.
CHAPTER 48: ‘OUT OF MY WAY, SHIT FOR BRAINS!’
Colonel Parker rushes off the plane as fast as his fat body will carry him. A heaving, puffing, sweating mess of flesh.
In his hurry, he swats at various airline staff with his wooden cane in his left hand as they get in his way. His soggy cigar slashes the air. His whiny voice barking orders.
‘Out of my way, shit for brains!’
Colonel Parker didn’t like anybody getting in his way, anybody getting the better of him.
He was out to beat the whole world. When those unearthly blue eyes peered at you, you knew you we’re going to come out second best. Cunning was his middle name.
One time he sealed a deal in a steam room after arguing so long the other guy became so dehydrated they had to call a doctor. But not before he signed.
It wasn’t just that he had to get a good deal, he had to wipe the floor with whoever he was dealing with. Making money was fun. Making money and rubbing their noses in it was even more fun.
It wasn’t really about the money. The money was just how you kept score.
Some lawyers had accused him of overreaching in his fiduciary responsibilities to Elvis. What the hell did they know about it? What the hell did they know about how he made Elvis?
The truth was he was nothing more than a carnival barker who lucked out.
He never really liked Elvis. Never told him he loved him.
Always used to tell him to loose weight, usually while shoveling a mountain of pancakes and cream into his mouth and shouting at somebody else.
Elvis had a job to do. Colonel Parker had a job to do. No sense mixing it up.
Didn’t like new ways of doing business, didn’t like new fangled anything. His hearing was bad but he flat out refused to wear his flesh tone hearing aid.
Didn’t like being a cripple. Used to be right-handed until that accident in the RCA Victor building in Hollywood. He had fallen while entering the elevator, and the heavy metal door kept pummeling into him until his right shoulder was virtually frozen.
Since then he signed all the contracts with a left-handed scrawl.
And his loud polyester shirts never quite fitted right.
CHAPTER 49: ‘LET’S ROLL’
Elvis struts out of the bedroom like he’s on a fashion runway, hair coifed and sideburns resplendent.
He swivels, hands on hips, and holds his pose for Jerry and Red. He is dressed in form-fitting black velvet pants, a white silk shirt unbuttoned halfway and with an enormously high collar.
Over his shirt, he wears a tight black velvet vest and a black velvet half-cape swinging down to his lower back. The trim is regal purple. The buttons are rolled gold. The cufflinks are solid gold.
Two huge gold medallions swing around his neck. A gold belt with a massive elaborately designed and jeweled gold buckle the size of a book hangs low round his waist.
It’s hard to make out the design but it looks like a carving of the last supper studded with diamonds.
Elvis slips on his signature glasses. The heavy silver-plated pair with the amber-tinted lenses and ‘EP’ built into the nose bridge.
He twirls around once, arms outstretched. The half-cape breezes through the air.
‘So how do I look?’
Jerry can’t help but laugh.
‘You look like a fucking vampire, E.’
Elvis is a little taken aback. Jerry doesn’t want him to get the wrong idea.
‘A fucking fantastic looking vampire.’
Elvis catches his reflection in a mirror.
‘I am one handsome sonofabitch, ain’t I?’
‘Man, you look better than the real thing.’
Elvis pulls a kenpo karate move.
‘I feel better than the real thing.’
Jerry beams and smiles at Elvis. Red rolls his eyes at Jerry. Elvis looks to the main doors of the suite.
‘Well, what are we waiting for?’
Jerry hurries to the doors and swings them open. Elvis strides out into the hallway, half-cape streaming behind him.
When it came to fashion, Elvis didn’t follow anyone. He cut his own path. Blazed his own trail.
Clothes maketh the man. Elvis was always stunning. Even at home, even on a Sunday he’d wear a beautiful silk shirt and tailored trousers. Nothing but the best for the king.
He loved clothes. Loved fine fabrics. Loved to look sharp.
Always told himself that if he wanted to stand out in a crowd, he had to be a little different.
Even at the beginning he had a taste for high-fashion mohairs, silks and wools, purples and the chartreuse. His gold lame suits by Nudie Cohen were impossible to perform in but they sure looked good.
Elvis didn’t have many clothes from the old days. Soon as he’d wear an outfit, Colonel Parker would have them cut up to sell as souvenirs.
As Elvis’ wealth grew, his tastes evolved. The rebellious rockabilly styles of the ‘50s becoming the tight suits and porkpie hats of the ‘60s. The square clothes Edith Head designed for his film career gave way to flamboyant jumpsuits, cape collars, patchwork leathers and glitter he wore when he came back to the concert stage.
He could wear pretty much anything, pretty well carry anything.
How many men do you know look good in a bolero shirt? Elvis had dozens of them made in every color under the sun, except brown. Hated the color brown. Reminded him of dirt. Reminded him of when he was poor.
Loved slick silk pajamas. Sometimes he wear them for days and nights on end. Wasn’t a big fan of underwear. But as he got older he started buying cotton boxer shorts in bulk from the Sears near Graceland.
It was Bill Belew that got him into cotton briefs. The thinner the better. Tight and thin and close to the skin.
Belew had made the tight black leather outfit for the ’68 Comeback Special. The idea was to fashion a denim outfit out of leather. Elvis loved the idea.
The idea fitted him like a glove, like a second skin.
Like a second coming.
Belew had to peel the outfit off Elvis’ sweat-soaked body after taping the remarkable television special.
For his return to the concert stage, Elvis wanted to work in his Kenpo karate moves. Elvis was into karate. Not as a full contact sport. Elvis stuck with traditional self-defense moves which looked impressive and flashy, but required little if any actual physical contact. Or pain.
In rehearsals he was evolving a stage style that blended his antics from his younger days with his favorite karate techniques. Hand motions and footwork choreographed into the music. Different punches and strikes, as well as a lot of side and roundhouse kicks. Dropping to a single-leg split, shifting from one leg to the other.
Elvis had Belew design a stage outfit similar to the one he wore for karate.
Elvis wanted it tighter and tighter with each fitting till it evolved into a white tall-collared, bell-bottomed jumpsuit slashed almost to the navel.
Colonel Parker wanted to Liberace it up. Dress it up with furs and feathers.
Elvis wanted none of that. He wanted something seductive and masculine, bold and strong. He dressed it with scarves and belts and watched how they played to the fans.
For the first round of return concerts he tried one style after the other. They all had names. The Thin Green Leaf Suit. The White Pearl Suit. The White Sleek Suit. The Apache Suit.
Later that year he started adding fringes to exaggerate his movements. The fringes gave way to white capes.
It looked fantastic under white hot stage lights. It looked like a glowing aura.
Soon the sashes gave way to lose belts buckled with gold.
On stage he looked like a prince from another planet.
CHAPTER 50: ‘WELL, SHITHEAD? WHERE’S MY BOY?’
Downstairs in the lobby of the Hotel Washington, Colonel Parker hobbles up to the reception desk, glaring at the clerk.
He chews a lit cigar, pulls it out of his mouth and blows the smoke into the clerk’s face. Then crushes it out on the marble counter top, rubbing it harder than necessary into the polished white stone.
The clerk’s eyes are locked wide open. His face has gone white and he has nothing to say. Colonel Parker stares him down.
‘Well, shithead? Where’s my boy?’
Colonel Parker had always controlled Elvis’ every move.
The songs, the musicians, the movies, the friends, even the woman he would marry.
Colonel Parker had seen what marrying a minor could do to the career of Jerry Lee Lewis. The fact Myra Gale Brown was his cousin, and the daughter of his bass player had nothing to do with it. The real scandal was she was just thirteen years old. Radio stations refused to play his records and stores refused to sell them. His career never recovered.
Colonel Parker pressured Elvis to wed the pretty Priscilla Beaulieu soon as she turned twenty-one. They’d been playing house in secret at Graceland since she was sixteen. Last thing Colonel Parker needed to deal with was Elvis being exposed in the press for seducing minors.
He sat him down one day and gave it to him straight. Didn’t care if he didn’t love her and didn’t want to marry her.
We do it Colonel Paker’s way and we make money. We do it Elvis’ way and we don’t.
Elvis ended up doing most everything Colonel Parker’s way.
Whether he wanted to or not.
CHAPTER 51: ‘I WANT YOU TO HAVE THIS, MR. PRESIDENT’
Elvis and Jerry stand in the foyer of the Oval Office at the White Office. Elvis is scratching his forearm.
Elvis starts tugging nervously at his vest. He rolls his shoulders back and forth in an attempt to relax. Jerry sounds a little anxious himself.
Elvis cracks a killer smirk.
‘Only when I smile.’
When Elvis stops fidgeting, Jerry hands him a black and white photograph of his two-year old daughter Lisa Marie. Then he piles several of his jeweled police badges into his hands. Elvis dips a bit, keeping the stack steady. Then stands up straight when all is settled.
The door opens and Bud sticks his head out to look around. He holds the large appointment book firmly in his hands.
He spots Elvis, looks him up and down. He can’t seem to take his eyes off Elvis’ mighty bejeweled gold belt buckle.
Elvis looks down, and then looks up to break Bud’s stare. Bud blinks and motions for him to come in.
‘Mr. Presley, please.’
Elvis steps shyly into the Oval Office and Bud gently closes the door.
Nixon is standing apprehensively next to his desk, fidgeting with a pen. He’s wearing a plain gray suit, a dull white shirt and a nondescript tie.
Bud makes a move to bring the two men together. Gestures to each in turn.
‘Mr. Presley, the President of the United States of America. Mr. President, Mr. Elvis Presley.’
Nixon stiffly sticks out his right hand. Elvis struggles to balance his badges in his left hand and reaches out with his right. Nixon takes his hand, places his left hand over the top and shakes it firmly. Bud begins the conversation.
‘Mr. Presley has offered to reach a lot of young people through his music to help them get off drugs, to help them stay off drugs, Mr. President.’
Elvis pulls his hand free and drops the photo and badges with an awkward clatter onto Nixon’s desk while nodding in agreement with what Bud has to say.
‘I’d like to show you some of my official badges, Mr. President.’
Nixon starts to rifle through the fallen badges. He uses one finger and flicks at them until they are all uncovered.
‘Mr. Presley helps out law enforcement agencies from time to time in combating the drug menace, Mr. President.’
Bud swallows hard.
‘At a state and local level.’
Nixon looks up at Elvis.
‘You know who uses these drugs? Protestors use these drugs. The ones caught up in the dissent and the violence.’
Elvis feels his confidence returning, his smile spreading.
‘There are some in the entertainment industry, I think Mr. President, who’s motives ain’t entirely honorable, ain’t entirely American.’
Nixon looks at him blankly, unsure of how to respond. Elvis pays him no mind.
‘But they’ll pay for it in the hereafter, sir.’
Nixon looks at Bud then at Elvis.
‘Well, my government needs a lot of help on this drug problem.’
Nixon flips away the last badges to reveal the photograph of Lisa Marie. He picks it up, studies it closely.
‘That’s my Lisa Marie.’
Elvis pulls up the gold buckle on his belted pants. Nixon inspect the photo again.
‘Lisa Marie Presley, Mr. President. My beautiful daughter.’
‘Good looking girl. Don’t want her getting mixed up with this drug problem, Mr. Presley.’
‘Hell no, Mr. President!’
‘Well, my government needs a lot of help on this drug problem.’
Nixon often repeats statements to test their veracity, to see whether he can turn them into a soundbite. Always polling like a true politician. Elvis leans in and switches to a confidential tone.
‘I want very much to help, sir. I’ve been studying communist brainwashing for ten years now, and the drug culture too.’
Nixon remains silent, waiting for an explanation. Looks to Bud for clarification. Bud answers with a grin from ear to ear. Elvis rolls on.
‘There’s a lot I can do with your personal help, sir.’
He leans in closer, and looks around the room. He lowers his voice and continues.
‘Mr. President, can you personally get me a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs? I been trying and trying to get a federal badge to help on this drug problem and --’
The color drains from Bud’s face as he steps in.
‘Mr. Presley, we didn’t discuss this --’
‘Can I get him a badge?’
‘Mr. President -- of course -- if you want to get him a badge, we can get him a badge.’
‘Well, get him a badge, then. And get my photographer in here too.’
Bud rushes over the Great Seal woven into the carpet to the phone to make the call. Elvis is overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness. He opens his arms wide.
‘Mr. President, there’s only one way I know how to thank you sir.’
He reaches into the back of his pants, under his cape and pulls out his golden handgun. Bud, never having taken his eyes off of Elvis, faints and falls to the floor.
Nixon clutches at his heart with his right hand in shock. His left hand reaches down to steady himself on the edge of the desk.
Elvis steps closer to the president, gun in hand.
‘I want you to have this, Mr. President.’
Nixon doesn’t make a move. Elvis presses on.
‘It’s my favorite. It’s a small token of my gratitude and appreciation, sir.’
Elvis turns the gun sideways and points to the safety.
‘It’s cool, man, the safety’s on.’
Nixon cautiously reaches out for the gun and grabs it from Elvis. He gently places it down on the desk.
‘These are dangerous times, Mr. President. You can never be too safe.’
Elvis crouches down by Bud sprawled over the Great Seal. He feels for a pulse and stands up, satisfied. He laughs.
‘Looks like all the excitement got the better of Egil.’
‘That’s Bud’s real name, Mr. President.’
Nixon is looking down at Bud’s motionless form. Elvis is reading the banner the eagle holds in its beak. The Latin phrase ‘E pluribus unum’ translates as ‘out of many, one.’
‘I think he’s kind of embarrassed by it.’
‘I had an uncle named Egil, nothing wrong with that name. He was a good man, an honest man.’
Elvis points to the man on the floor.
‘Might pay to let him know that.’
Bud begins to stir. He sits up, holding his head and looking around in confusion. He can’t seem to remember what happened or where he is.
Elvis reaches down to help him up. Bud stands, sees Elvis, and stutters.
‘I -- I --’
He stumbles out into the foyer without saying another word. Nixon watches him wobble off.
‘Uncle Egil was a farmer, out Nevada way.’
Nixon turns to Elvis.
‘Ain’t much farming out that way no more, Mr. President. All roads lead to Vegas.’
‘Tough town. Fucking tough town to play, that Las fucking Vegas.’
‘You telling me? Most everyone wants to be either at the tables or feeding slot machines. Real tough town to play.’
Elvis shakes his head. Nixon spits.
‘Did six conventions there. Nothing but fucking trouble.’
‘Did six concerts there myself and all I got to show for them are these damn cufflinks.’
Elvis holds up the cuff of his shirt between his thumb and forefinger. Nixon leans over for a closer look.
Nixon squints closer.
The design etched into the cufflink flashes in the light.
‘No. Mr. President, that’s a bolt of lightning. And the letters T.C.B. Taking Care of Business.’
‘Taking care of what?’
’T.C.B. It stands for ‘Taking Care of Business’. It’s a motto I live by.’
Nixon is intrigued.
‘The lightning bolt means do it quick.’
‘Do it in a flash.’
Bud, having pulled himself together hurries back into the Oval Office with an excited looking Ollie Atkins trailing close behind, camera slung around his neck and frantically loading in a roll of 35mm film. Atkins is Nixon’s chief photographer.
Nixon and Elvis prepare to pose. Suddenly Elvis reaches his left arm over Nixon and hugs him close. He whispers something in his ear.
Atkins furiously winds on the film and just as he holds the camera to his eye to fire off a shot, Nixon and Elvis regain their composure.
Nixon stands camera left and Elvis camera right in front of some free standing flags, eyes sparkling.
Nixon looks at Elvis who blazes a smile down the barrel of the lens as a realization hits him.
They warmly shake hands, freezing in position, waiting for the photographer to snap a picture. He focuses his camera on the pair.
‘Say, Merry Christmas!’
Nixon grins and Elvis starts giggling.
‘Merry Chris --’
The flash pops and freeze frames the image.
CHAPTER 52: ‘GOT TO LET LOVE IN’
The black Lincoln limousine returns triumphantly to the Hotel Washington. Elvis, Jerry, and Red pile out. Elvis walks tall and struts toward the front doors.
He can’t stop giggling.
His new gold badge sparkles in the crisp winter sunlight. It is pinned proudly to his black vest, right above his heart.
The sunburst design is crested with an American eagle and a Department of Justice banner. Bureau of Narcotic Dangerous Drugs is stamped in gold out of a curve of blue enamel that arcs over the initials U.S.
Jerry steps back to speak to the driver.
‘Wait right here. We just need to pick up some things and then we head straight out to the airport.’
The driver nods in assent, and the three men enter the hotel.
Jerry looks at Elvis giggling and tries not to laugh. They rush for the elevators, snickering and cackling and trying to hold back their laughter. Trying not to crack up.
An elevator waits, open for them and they hurry inside. Elvis jabs the door close button and they burst out laughing as Red gets stuck in the closing door. He has to squeeze his belly through and finally emerges on the inside of the elevator.
Red huffs, trying to catch his breath. Trying to hold in his gut.
‘I don’t see what’s so damn funny.’
Elvis and Jerry continue laughing hysterically as the elevator ascends to the suites. Elvis is laughing so hard he’s having trouble breathing.
‘Hell, oh hell! I got me the holy laugh!’
Elvis can’t stop laughing.
‘I’m laughing like a damn fool.
Tears are running down Jerry’s face. Elvis is almost weeping.
‘Who would have thought it would come to me in the damn White House?’
Red stares at the two grown men acting like children and shakes his head. He looks up at the ceiling. Elvis tips his head back.
‘In a blinding flash, clear as light – serve others beyond yourself.’
Elvis lowers his voice and echoes the words.
‘Serve others beyond yourself.’
Red is still shaking his head.
‘You planning on starting up a restaurant, El?’
‘Got to start up a new life. Got to start leading me an impersonal life. Got to start thinking outside myself.’
Red has no idea what he’s talking about.
‘Got to start learning to be a little less selfish, a little more selfless.’
Jerry shouts, tears of laughter in his eyes.
Elvis looks straight into Jerry’s eyes.
‘I read all about it, knew all about it. Just never done it. Never acted on it.’
Elvis can see the truth of his own words.
‘Wanted to be an actor my whole life. Got me a new role now.’
‘Got to open my heart.’
Elevator doors slide open to reveal the top floor hallway.
‘Got to let love in.’
Elvis and Jerry step out of the elevator and walk towards the Democrat suite. Red lags behind. Jerry beams.
‘Man, that Nixon’s a goddamn saint.’
Elvis stops outside the doors.
‘If anybody worked a miracle, you did, Jerry. You did.’
Elvis smiles deeply at his friend and throws his arm over his shoulders. With his other hand, he opens the doors to the democrat suite.
‘And all I need is some airline tickets to fly the hell out of here.’
There was a time when Elvis wouldn’t get on a plane for love or money. Or both.
In ’56 he was touring all over the south hot on the heels of his colossal hit “Heartbreak Hotel.” RCA Victor producer Steve Sholes needed a follow up single as soon as possible.
Colonel Parker promised him he could have his boy and the band for a day. Chartered the smallest, cheapest prop plane he could find to fly them in to Nashville for a recording session.
Flying in from Amarillo, the pilot first lost his way then lost one of the engines. When the plane fell through the sky the first time, Elvis thought he was a dead man.
By the time they landed badly in Nashville, he was a wreck.
The recording session was a disaster. Elvis and the band ruined take after take of “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” Then they had to rush back to Memphis for more shows.
Sholes spliced together the first half of take #14 and the second half of take #17 to come up with a take worthy of release.
Elvis vowed he’d never fly again.
Rock’n’roll stars were falling out of the sky. Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper were all killed in plane crashes.
Took Elvis years to work up the courage to fly again.
Came to him while making “Fun in Acapulco” of all places. Not that he ever went to Acapulco in his life.
It was all Hollywood backlots. It was his thirteenth movie. He played a trapeze artist so traumatized by a high-wire circus accident he caused that he develops a fear of heights.
A rival uncovers his past and it isn’t until he decides to perform a death-defying leap off the ocean cliffs that he overcomes his fear.
He made the decision to overcome his fear, overcome his doubt. Sure he was just acting. But that wasn’t really the point.
The point was if he could do it in a scene, why not do it in his life.
CHAPTER 53: ‘ENGAGED?!’
Down in the Hotel Washington lobby, Colonel Parker waddles out of the men’s room with his cane, zipping up his pants and clinging onto his copy of Miniature Pony World magazine.
The frightened and abused desk clerk sees him approach and frantically reaches for the black house phone. He trembles as he picks up the receiver and dials quickly.
He covers the mouthpiece just as Colonel Parker smacks his cane onto the desk. The clerk’s voice is quivering.
‘I’m afraid the line now appears to be engaged, sir.’
Colonel Parker snaps, lashing out at the clerk with his cane and magazine. Spit flies out of his mouth as he shouts.
‘You better keep trying to get through or I’ll engage my foot so high up your ass, it’ll come out your mouth!!’
Colonel Parker whacks the phone so hard with cane, it almost breaks in two.
He could never stand anyone getting the better of him, second guessing him.
Hs made a habit of having Elvis sign the bottom of blank contracts. All the better for him to fill in later.
His original contract with Elvis gave him independent decision-making authority over every aspect of Elvis’ career. There was no way of dealing with Elvis without dealing with Colonel Parker.
He signed everything, even his Christmas cards, as ‘Elvis and the Colonel’. He negotiated with the film studios as if he and Elvis were collaborators.
All Elvis wanted to do was be a film actor, a good one. Colonel Parker made sure he never had the chance. The studio contracts he negotiated gave him approval over all of Elvis’ prospective movie projects, which he saw strictly as cross-merchandising vehicles for soundtrack records, tie-in singles, and souvenirs.
Elvis didn’t really make thirty-one movies. He made the same movie thirty-one times. They became their own genre.
Colonel Parker was happy to tell everyone the movies would never win any Academy Awards. Said all they were good for was making money.
Robert Mitchum wanted Elvis to play his younger brother in “Thunder Road.” Robert Wise wanted Elvis to play Tony in “West Side Story.” John Schlesinger first offered Elvis the role of Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy.”
Colonel Parker turned them all down.
Told Barbra Streisand to go fuck herself when she offered “A Star is Born” to Elvis. He wasn’t about to let his boy play a burnt out has-been just to make her look good on the screen.
CHAPTER 54: ‘DO UNTO OTHERS, EH?’
Upstairs in the Democrat suite, Elvis sits at the desk on the phone.
He turns his platinum American Express card over in one hand and inspects his signature on the back. He looks at the front of the card again and asks slowly and patiently into the phone.
‘But, Miss, how can it be stolen if I’m holding it right in my hand?’
Elvis looks concerned, his eyes narrow.
‘Is that a fact? Really? Twenty four hours ago?’
Elvis is more distracted than annoyed.
‘But, Miss, we really need to fly out of Washington, like now.’
He listens to her protests, and softens his voice.
‘No, of course I don’t want to get you in any trouble, Miss. No, no --’
She offers a suggestion. Elvis looks confused.
‘Really? Cash you say?’
Elvis mulls it over.
‘Well, Miss, I want to thank you for your honesty. You’ve been most helpful. You have a very nice day now, you hear?’
He hangs up the phone and thinks.
The phone rings, and Elvis calls out for Red without even answering it. Without even looking at it.
‘Red, it’s for you!’
Red enters the room. Elvis looks up at him.
‘By the way, how much cash you got?’
Red looks at Elvis strangely.
‘You know I never travel with any cash, El.’
‘Do unto others, eh?’
Elvis gets up and wanders into the main bedroom. Red shrugs his shoulders, mystified. Then picks up the still ringing phone.
Red hopes it’s Dr. Nick. Prays it Dr. Nick.
He’s running low on supplies, and he knows he has to get Elvis back to Memphis.
And Elvis has been acting real weird all day. He can’t put his finger on it. But something’s different.
Dr. Nick would know what pills to give him. He always knew the right combination, the right dose.
Dr. Nick would put them in an envelope, write the time to be taken on the front. Worked like clockwork.
But it ain’t Dr. Nick on the phone.
It’s Colonel Parker.
CHAPTER 55: ‘TELL HIM GOD’S DOWNSTAIRS, WAITING’
In the lobby downstairs, Colonel Parker snatches the handset from the terrified desk clerk so quickly it yanks and snags his hand in the coiled cord.
Colonel Parker shouts down the line.
‘How’s my boy doing?’
‘Thinks he’s Jesus Christ hisself.’
Colonel Parker looks at the desk clerk too frightened to extricate his hand dangling in midair.
‘Well, you tell him God’s downstairs, waiting.’
Colonel Parker drops the receiver onto the desk. The clerk gathers it up, untangles his hand and carefully places it back onto the cradle. Colonel Parker is staring at him.
‘I’m going to tell you something I want you to remember.’
The clerk swallows hard, too scared to look up.
‘When a baby has to go, you take off its diaper. You don’t want no dirty diaper on no baby.’
The clerk has no idea what Colonel Parker is talking about. He is completely lost for words.
Elvis was always searching for a father. Maybe that’s why he was such a mama’s boy.
Vernon had never been much of a father, much of a provider to Elvis and Gladys.
Couldn’t hold down a job. Couldn’t hold down his liquor.
Told Elvis after he left school to quit with the music and stick to the truck driving. Told him he’d never met any guitar player who was worth a damn.
By the time Elvis was twenty-one he was making more money in one night than his father had made in a lifetime. Must be hard for a man when his son outshines him so.
Vernon knew things would be different when Gladys died. But he never realized that a part of Elvis died too when she left their lives. Graceland was never the same.
When he remarried two years later, Elvis refused to come to the wedding. Refused to have that woman in his mama’s house.
Elvis always said it would end in d-i-v-o-r-c-e.
Colonel Parker was the father Elvis never had. Elvis even told him so.
Sent him a telegram after he signed him to that record-breaking deal with RCA Victor.
‘Believe me when I say I will stick with you through thick and thin and do everything I can to uphold your faith in me ... I love you like a father.’
CHAPTER 56: ‘BE DOWN IN TWO SHAKES’
Upstairs, Red hangs his head and drops the handset back into its cradle. He calls out weakly.
Elvis’ voice rings out.
Red sighs, closes his eyes and forces a smile.
‘The Colonel’s downstairs, waiting. We got to go, El.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
Elvis’ voice wafts out. Red looks around, not sure where Elvis’ voice is coming from.
‘Where is you at, El?’
Elvis calls out from the bathroom.
‘You go on downstairs, Red. I’ll wash up and be down in two shakes.’
‘I’ll wait, El. I’ll wait.’
Red answers, wandering back to the living room and settling into the armchair in front of the TV. The bags are already packed, waiting.
Red stares at the dead screen and crunches the knuckles on both hands.
Elvis was a lot easier to control on tour. As long as you controlled the pills, you controlled the man.
Daytona, Wichita, San Antonio, Abilene, South Bend, St. Paul. The cities rolled on and the pills flowed like wine. Funny thing was that Elvis never drank alcohol. Didn’t like the taste.
But he loved his pills. As a child, he once chewed through a whole bottle of Asprin because he didn’t want to get a headache.
Elvis would do anything to avoid pain.
Got so that sometimes he was hardly able to stand on stage, clinging onto the mic stand for dear life. Hardly remembering the words, dying. Guitarist John Wilkinson was so distraught one night he couldn’t stop crying.
Later backstage he saw Elvis draped over a chair, unable to move. He begged Elvis to cancel the tour, quit the shows.
But Elvis smiled at him and said it would be alright. Told him not to worry about it. Told him he could take it.
He could take a lot.
Codeine. Quaaludes. Valium. Diazepam. Placidyl. Amytal. Nembutal. Carbrital. Demerol. Elavil. Avental. Valmid.
Elvis thought pills were the answer to everything.
But for the first time in a long time he hadn’t had any all day. Tossed all the pills Red had given him down the sink.
And for the first time in a long time everything seemed to make sense.
Everything was coming together.
CHAPTER 57: ‘I WAS BLIND AND NOW I CAN SEE’
Steam clears in the marble bathroom, dissolving into air as Elvis’ reflection comes into focus.
He’s standing tall in front of the mirror, eyes closed. Lost in thought. He cocks his head, listening.
He opens his eyes, and stares at his reflection. He looks beautiful.
‘I was blind and now I can see. I was deaf and now I can hear.’
Elvis takes in a deep breath.
‘I was numb and now I can feel.’
A smile takes him.
It was a strange feeling. He felt higher than high.
In the past there were times when he’d been higher than a mountain, higher than the sky.
Only problem was he always fell back to earth. And the higher he soared, the harder he crashed.
The pills were meant to help him do more, feel more.
In the past few years he’d been taking more and more pills just to feel normal, just to make it through the day. All he had to do was ask.
There were always pills.
Even when he was fucked up he’d just reach for more pills.
When he started missing and messing up recording sessions, RCA Victor decided to set up a recording studio in the jungle room at Graceland.
Engineers moved all the gear in, set everything up. Elvis went through the motions on a couple of songs, slurring through the lyrics.
Complained to the musicians that the huge playback speakers sounded terrible. No one had the heart to tell him the truth.
When they broke for lunch, Elvis went upstairs.
When they came back from lunch, Elvis was standing in front of the speakers, eyes glazed, pointing a shotgun.
Told them the sound coming out of the speakers was no fucking good.
Told them he was going to kill those motherfuckers and put them out of their misery.
He cocked the shotgun and took unsteady aim as musicians scrambled to get the gun away from him.
The sessions were cancelled. Everyone went home.
Elvis went back upstairs.
The pills were a perfect way to disconnect from any problem, any pain.
But now for the first time in his life he feels his problems disappear.
He feels something he’s never felt before. He feels connected to everything, to everybody.
He looks at his hand just as knocking sounds from the front doors of the suite.
CHAPTER 58: ‘NOT THIS TIME, RED’
In the main room of the suite, Red gets up and opens the heavy double doors to two bellboys in tight red jackets, black pants, and caps.
Elvis steps out of the bathroom, sees them and beckons to them inside.
‘How you doing boys? Come in, come in.’
The boys hesitate in embarrassment. Elvis waves them in with a smile. They finally step into the living room, heading towards the bags next to the TV set.
‘Step right up, win a duck.’
Elvis grins at the two timid bellboys.
‘But please don’t pick up those bags just yet.’
Jerry strides out into the living room. Elvis looks at his two companions.
‘Jerry, Red, take a seat.’
Jerry and Red look at each other questioningly. Jerry shrugs his shoulders and sits on the sofa. Red looks around, unsure of where Elvis is heading before he slowly takes his seat.
Elvis nods his head as he thinks.
‘We got us a slight problem here. Seems we got us no way to get us any airline tickets out of Washington without turning to the Colonel downstairs.’
He points down into the carpet. Jerry sits up, surprised.
‘The Colonel’s downstairs?’
‘Now the Colonel and I go back a helluva long way. But these past few days I’ve come some distance myself, with the help of a friend.’
He looks pointedly at Jerry who tries not to blush.
‘And I am thinking that turning to the Colonel now would be like turning back.
The two bellboys stand to one side, looking at each other awkwardly. Elvis continues.
‘And I cannot see the point of that.’
Elvis looks at Jerry, then Red.
Red heaves his body out of the sofa and heads for the bellboys and the open timber doors.
‘Let’s go El, we don’t want to keep the Colonel waiting.’
His hands rest on his hips, starting to look impatient. He taps his foot. Elvis doesn’t move. Red stands by the doors and gestures in the direction of the hallway.
Elvis’ heart sinks. He shoulders drop as he follows Red to the open doors. Head hung low, eyes on the floor.
Red steps out into the hallway. Elvis lifts his eyes.
‘Not this time, Red.’
Elvis shuts the doors on Red and snaps the locks shut.
Red is on the other side, rolling his eyes. He tries to turn the door handles.
‘C’mon, El, open the doors.’
Red twists the door handles violently and pounds loudly. Anger rises in his voice.
‘C’mon, El. We don’t want the Colonel getting all mad and shit now do we?’
Elvis smirks and props a chair under the doorknobs. Red continues his assault on the doors.
‘Stop dicking around, man.’
Red yells and kicks the doors.
‘Open the damn doors!’
The doors shake and vibrate after Red charges them with his shoulder. He screams out.
‘Elvis, open the goddamn motherfucking doors.’
Elvis narrows his gaze, and peers at the two now terrified young bellboys. He claps his hand together, and rubs them a little too gleefully.
‘Right, boys! Strip your gear off.’
Red keeps screaming from the other side of the doors.
The bellboys exchange glances and remain frozen in their spots, stuttering.
‘But -- but --’
‘But nothing! Undress!’
Laughter glints in Elvis’ eyes.
‘But -- but --’
‘But take it all off!’
The boys look at Jerry for help. Jerry only smiles and starts unbuttoning his shirt.
‘But -- But --’
Elvis begins to take his clothes off. He unsnaps the cape and flings it onto a chair. He unbuttons the black vest and then his white silk shirt.
Elvis looks at the petrified bellboys and laughs loudly.
‘But we ain’t going to fuck you.’
Elvis takes off his shirt.
‘We just need your damn clothes!’
‘But -- but --’
‘But move your ass!’
No longer able to resist, the bellboys start to quickly take off their caps and red jackets.
In the hallway, Red has ceased his attack on the doors but is pacing up and down like a caged rhino.
‘Elvis, you is starting to shit me right off.’
He is breathing hard and veins are popping out at his temples.
‘I got the Colonel downstairs and he is not going to put up with this fucking around for much fucking longer. Elvis, you got to fucking realize that --’
He sees the doorknobs start to turn. One door opens slowly and Red hurries over to it. He peers in and then steps cautiously inside.
He looks around but can’t see anyone in the suite. No Elvis, no Jerry, no bellboys. He roams through the living room and the main bedroom.
Red is in the empty bathroom in the main bedroom, scratching his head as Elvis, Jerry and the two bellboys tiptoe out of an adjoining room into the living room and out the front door.
Red sees the blur of someone scurrying out of the open front door reflected in the mirror. He turns and dashes to catch them.
In the hallway, Elvis slams the front door shut tight and pulls out a key from the bellboy’s red jacket and hastily double locks the doors.
Red wrenches at the doorknobs from inside the suite. His booming voice is only slightly muffled by the thick doors.
‘Damn it, El! What the hell are you playing at!?’
Jerry and Elvis are squeezed into the boys’ bellboy uniforms, howling with laughter. Whooping it up as the two bellboys squirm uncomfortably.
One bellboy has put on Jerry’s black shirt and jeans and fits into them fairly well.
The second bellboy is swimming in Elvis’ shirt and the cape trails well past his knees. His whole head is nearly engulfed by the large white collar of the shirt. He hitches up the giant belt buckle, the size of his face, in an attempt to keep the pants from falling to the floor.
Inside the suite, Red is straining at the doorknob with all his might. Huffing and puffing until the metal snaps off in his hands.
‘Ah fuck it!’
Red hurls the broken doorknobs at the large mirror that shatters into a thousand reflections.
In the hallway, Elvis urges the bewildered bellboys to make a dash for the elevator as its doors slide open. They hear Red in the background, taking up his attack on the door again. They see the two doors bulge outward with the force of his shoulder. He grunts loudly each time he hits them.
Elvis shoos the bellboys into the waiting elevator. He steps in and presses the button to keep the door from sliding shut.
He speaks to the bellboy dressed in his black velvet outfit. He’s real excited.
‘All right, now when you get to the lobby, you run out and you just keep on running like the devil himself is on your tail.’
He keeps jabbing the door open button to keep the elevator in place. He’s getting carried away with his own mischievous plan.
‘You run right out of the hotel, right onto the street. And you keep running. Don’t you stop for nothing.
His right index finger still pummels the open button and his left hand waves around in front of the bellboy’s face.
His left hand flies up to his head to straighten the too small cap on his head and then turns to the boy dressed as Jerry.
‘And you got to keep chasing him, calling out, ‘Come back Elvis! Come back! All is forgiven, Elvis, All is forgiven!’ All right, you got that?’
Elvis smiles down the second bellboy who nods gravely, gulping loudly, and wiping his sweaty palms on Jerry’s jeans. He takes a deep breath as Elvis turns his gaze away from him.
The first bellboy pulls up on the weighty belt buckle with one hand and adjusts the big, dark sunglasses with the other. His voice croaks out.
‘Mr. Presley, sir, I can’t see a thing in these glasses.’
Elvis ignores the bellboy’s concerns for the moment as he reaches out for his heart.
‘You don’t need to see anything, son.’
He reaches out for the gold Bureau of Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs badge, and unclips it from the black vest.
‘You just need keep running and running and running.’
Elvis steps back into the hallway and stands next to Jerry. He gives the boys a thumb’s up as the elevator door slides shut.
The two men run towards the other end of the hallway in their too tight bellboy uniforms, back past the still bulging door, behind which Red continues to kick and curse and swear.
Jerry swings open the fire escape door to the staircase and let’s Elvis through. He follows right after him, letting the door clap loudly shut.
CHAPTER 59: ‘AIN’T YOU ELVIS PRES --’
The sound of the fire escape door clapping shut reverberates down the cold concrete stairwell of the Hotel Washington.
Elvis and Jerry clatter down the stairs as fast as they can, nearly tripping several times and narrowly missing tumbling the rest of the way down.
Elvis is clutching his gold badge tightly as he giggles to himself and begins to pant, getting out of breath. Jerry wheezes behind him, but manages to keep up.
At the bottom of the five flights of stairs, Elvis slowly inches the door open and peers into the lobby. His bellboy cap has slipped to one side. Jerry sidles up to him and sneaks a peek.
Both men watch as guests and hotel employees rush to the front doors of the hotel, murmuring and craning their necks to see over each others’ heads. People in the back look at each other and shrug, not understanding what happening or what is so captivating. Some run over to the windows in an attempt to get a better view.
Elvis points out a side door. Jerry nods.
The elevator doors open and more guests empty into the lobby, adding to the crowd and wondering what all the fuss is about.
Elvis and Jerry make a dash for a side door, scooting quietly and carefully behind the crowd of onlookers and gawkers. The gold badge shimmers in Elvis’ hand.
He doesn’t take his eyes off the front doors and is blindsided by someone in red. To keep from toppling to the ground he grabs onto whoever hit him and spins around. To his surprise, he sees a familiar blue-eyed face, piled high with blond hair, poured into a red dress.
‘No, I’m Glenda.’
The strikingly good looking woman is trying to keep herself upright on her tall red heels. She’s more confused than annoyed until she realizes who she’s collided with.
Elvis, looking equally confused, looks around and sees Brenda standing nearby, wearing the same red dress, hand cocked on her hip. She waves at him with the tip of her silky white scarf.
Elvis looks back and forth a few times. In his current state of excitement, it takes him too long to figure out that the women are identical twins.
Jerry shakes his head and rests his hands on his knees, still trying to catch his breath. He gawks from one woman to the other.
‘Ain’t that something.’
Elvis is grinning from ear to ear.
‘Ain’t that cool.’
Glenda looks at Brenda, her mouth wide open, excitement growing in her sparkling blue eyes. She stares back at Elvis.
‘Ain’t you Elvis Pres --’
Elvis grabs her arm gently, and lays his finger against her lips. He whispers.
‘Sssh, don’t tell nobody.’
Brenda saunters over to the three, swinging her scarf around her extended index finger.
‘Looks like the Bobbsey Twins have gone into the hospitality business.’
She straightens the cap on Elvis’ head.
‘Nice caps, Elvis. Cute jackets.’
Elvis winks at her.
‘We love ‘em.’
Glenda glances from the uproar at the main entrance and back to Elvis.
‘Hey didn’t you guys just tear out of this place with somebody on your tail?’
She looks him up and down a little suspiciously as he snaps the gold badge onto his jacket. He takes her arm again.
‘We got to get out of here.’
He leads her out the side door. Jerry and Brenda follow.
Out in the hotel driveway, people have spilled out from the lobby as the chaos increases. Everyone jostles each other trying to get a better view. When someone makes it to the front, they point and jump in excitement.
Two boys, one of whom looks an awful lot like Elvis Presley, are racing across the street, oblivious to traffic. They seem to be running as if their lives depend on it. A car swerves to avoid running them over.
They keep running as fast as they can as a white dove takes to the air, flying off to the horizon.
A short, squatty man follows far behind them. He stops abruptly, panting and wheezing. He hurls his Miniature Pony World magazine into the street and screams blue murder at the sky.
In the driveway of the hotel, Jerry jumps into the driver’s seat of the black Lincoln limousine and starts her up. Elvis dives into the back seat and motions eagerly to the hesitant sisters.
They pile in, giggling to each other.
Elvis slams the door shut and the limousine squeals out of the driveway, burning rubber on the concrete.
CHAPTER 60: ‘LET’S GET A LITTLE MUSIC BACK HERE!!’
Black limousine tears past the front of Hotel Washington.
Inside the back seat, Elvis gapes out the rear window at the crowd clamoring outside. No one realizes what they’re so desperately trying to see is passing them by.
It looks like a crowd scene out of a movie. There’s a handsome devoted doctor with black hair and sideburns, with a stethoscope around his neck. A young, sweet nun stands next to him in a traditional habit. An attractive pimp in a sharp white suit and white hat. A laid-back midday cowboy in need of a shower and a shave. A photographer with a clean open-neck shirt and a sports jacket. A stock car racing champion in a blue zipped jacket with a thick white line running down the front. A mixed-blood American Indian rodeo rider. A slim son of a millionaire who has his eyes on a neat little brunette. A musician planning on touring overseas. A young naval officer in uniform. Another race car driver. A helicopter pilot in a sky blue shirt with epaulets. A slick Mississippi gambler. A movie star no one remembers.
Luminous models and actresses and beauty queens seem to float through the spectacle, straining their necks to try and see more.
Jerry peers into the rearview mirror and sees the crowd part as Colonel Parker hurls obscenities at the innocent people. He laughs heartily at the sight.
Glenda raises an eyebrow at Brenda, who smiles and shrugs what the hell as she adjusts her light white scarf around her neck. Glenda smiles back and starts primping and fluffing her hair in front of her reflection in the dark, tinted window.
Elvis settles into his seat and begins to relax as the crowd recedes. Glenda looks out the window.
‘Where we going now?’
‘We’re going all the way.’
Glenda looks at Brenda.
‘All the way?’
Elvis nods with satisfaction.
‘All the way to Memphis, Tennessee.’
The two sisters smile at each other. Glenda glances from Jerry to Elvis in their bellboy jackets and caps, and laughs.
‘Ain’t you just a couple of monkeys.’
Elvis looks at each of the identical twins in turn.
‘And ain’t you just the spitting image.’
He slices the air between them in disbelief.
‘It’s like there’s some mirror there I can’t see. Man, how can anybody tell you two apart?’
Glenda points at Brenda.
‘Brenda, she likes scarves.’
Brenda presses the tip of her scarf to her lips and blows Elvis a kiss. She blushes, and points the tip at Glenda.
‘Glenda, she don’t like scarves.’
Elvis looks back at Glenda.
‘So you’re the sweet one I heard so much about?’
‘Oh, I can be real nice.’
Glenda is giggling, blushing. Brenda squeals with laughter.
‘And I can be real, real naughty.’
Elvis starts laughing too.
‘Jerry! Turn on the radio, man! Let’s get a little music back here!!’
Jerry switches on the radio and starts winding through the tuner. Winding through hissing static and forgotten stations until he lands on one playing a song clear as day.
Elvis’ original recording of “That’s All Right (Mama)” streams through the limousine. Elvis laughs out loud.
‘Turn it up!’
Jerry cranks up the volume.
The radio reception becomes stronger with each note until it’s real clear, real loud. Elvis shouts out.
The sisters giggle and start wriggling to the beat. Jerry flips the switch to roll up the mirrored dividing window.
The limousines rolls on down the road as the song plays on.
CHAPTER 61: ‘WELL, THAT’S ALL RIGHT’
Elvis’ original recording of “That’s All Right (Mama)” surges through the limousine.
Elvis feels like he’s in his own damn movie as the limousine rolls through downtown Washington D.C.
Past a handyman wearing a cropped light-weight beige work jacket, walking through the Constitution Gardens towards the Reflecting Pool mirroring the long blue sky.
Past a clean-cut unemployed musician in an orange long sleeve shirt wandering inside Ford’s Theater where President Lincoln was shot.
A young roustabout from a local carnival tears past on a motorbike, looking back over his shoulder, clad in tight black leather from head to toe.
Outside Max’s neon-spangled restaurant, a smooth race car driver in a black sports jacket steps out of his car.
Two look-alike cousins, one a responsible Air Force officer in uniform and the other a country cousin in a checked shirt argue outside a gray government building about selling their land for a missile site.
At a bus stop, a seasoned flamenco singer in full costume looks south and mourns his loss.
A tough pilot in a bomber jacket hitchhikes by the side of the road, hoping to get to Seattle.
The black limousine keeps on rolling past the Potomac River where a carefree fisherman with a yachting cap is trying to find his boat.
Elvis spent his movie career trying to find the right part. Never realized he was living it.
Never realized that people weren’t paying to see him act. They were paying to see him.
The harder Elvis tried to be someone else, the more he lost himself.
He loved the movies. Always had. They were the perfect escape.
Better than life, larger than life.
Everyone wanted him to play Elvis Presley except him. He prayed to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. What he really wanted was to be taken seriously as a man.
Instead he found himself in one stupid film after another. Singing one stupid song after another.
He tried to make the best of it. But he hated most of the characters he had to play. And he hated himself for hating them.
It’s hard to love anyone when you hate what you’ve become. It’s even harder to love yourself.
You’ve got to let it go. Got to learn to forgive yourself. Got to start over.
Got to take your mind off yourself and look out the window, look out at life. Got to let life in.
The limousine glides past a road sign pointing the way to Columbia Heights.
CHAPTER 62: ‘THAT’S ALL RIGHT NOW MAMA’
Elvis’ original recording of “That’s All Right (Mama)” flows through the limousine.
Elvis feels like he’s watching his past pass him by as the limousine glides into Capitol Heights.
Past a diffident professional boxer in a gray tracksuit outside the old Tivoli Theater, rubbing his right fist and dreaming of another bout in the ring.
Past a sad gas station where an innocent happy-go-lucky young man fills up while his family of bumbling rural Southerners sit in the worn out car.
Outside a vacant shop with boarded up windows, an empty, pretty young man in a tropical shirt is looking to escape his surroundings.
A troubled youth and would-be writer wearing a short brown suede jacket walks into a black record store, thinking about a girlfriend who killed herself.
How many records had Elvis made? Hundreds of the damn things. Had more gold records than walls to hang them on.
“Heartbreak Hotel” was the first record to sell a million copies and go gold. It was framed behind glass and held pride of place in the music room at Graceland until Elvis threw a plaster cast of Nipper at it one night.
Nipper was his record company’s fox terrier mascot. They’d given it to him with the original gold record. When he looked down at the broken glass and shattered plaster dog, he saw they didn’t bother to gold plate the flip side of the hit record.
It wasn’t the gold that mattered, it was the song.
He learned very early in life that without a song the day would never end. Without a song a man ain’t got a friend.
A song had carried him through life. Through the good times, and the bad. Seen him through it all.
He was listening to gospel music in the First Assembly of God Church on McLemore Avenue in Memphis before he learnt to walk. His mama loved to sing along.
By the time he was eighteen, he was sneaking around some of the blues and country clubs on Beale Street. He was starting to become Elvis Presley.
It was the song that kept him going.
Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup was Elvis’ favorite bluesman. Always said if he ever got to the place where he could feel what Crudup felt, he’d be a music man like no one ever saw.
When he sang, he sang with all his heart. He lived every word of it.
When he sang, he sang the truth.
It wasn’t about him any longer. It was about the audience.
It wasn’t about what he wanted, but what they wanted.
When he sang live he knew the audience was trying to get something out of their system. Never knew what it was. Couldn’t put a name to it.
Maybe it was love.
The important thing was to get rid of it without anybody getting hurt.
The limousine slips past a green road sign signaling an exit ahead.
CHAPTER 63: ‘ANYWAY YOU DO’
Elvis’ original recording of “That’s All Right (Mama)” spills through the limousine.
Elvis feels like his life is slipping past as the limousine slips out of the city limits.
Past a young half-breed American Indian striding past an electric power plant, past the humming alternators. Hair slicked up and back like Johnny Cash. Brave and stoic in worn jeans and denim shirt, looking up to the sky.
Past a trustworthy, upstanding American G.I. stepping off a bus. Haircut trim and tidy, uniform crisp and neat as his attitude.
Outside a forgotten nightspot, a surly teenager in a white shirt and red tie licks his fingers and smooths down his hair. He’s looking for trouble, looking to hustle his way in when he spots a call girl with a black bob smile his way.
Elvis loved women. Loved the way they walked, the way they talked. Loved their smell. He could breathe them in all day, and night.
Loved the way they made over him. Loved the feelings of warmth and concern. One look from a beautiful woman could set everything right.
Used to think they were the most expensive hobby a man could have. But could never get enough of them, enough of their love. It somehow made him real, made him true. Filled his heart with something else he didn’t understand.
Maybe it was forgiveness, kindness. Even when they broke his heart he still loved them.
Told himself all he ever wanted was the love a good women. But he wanted and needed more than that.
Sure he had the playboy image going. But that’s all it was. An image projected by his publicists and the press. It’s like everyone wanted him to be a playboy so he played along.
Sure he dated a lot of women. But he didn’t want to fuck all of them.
He wanted to love them. Somehow the more he loved them, the more he loved himself.
The limousine slides past a blue road sign with a small bird pictured in the corner welcoming him to Virginia.
CHAPTER 64: ‘IT’S LOVE THAT BRINGS THE SONG’
Elvis feels his life calming down as the limousine slides through the countryside.
Past a line of prisoners shuffling single file along the edge of the highway, dressed in uniform stitched jackets and pants with striped shirts. Ankles shackled and chained.
The first prisoners looks up as the limousine passes. He looks young and dangerous.
In the distant horizon a long, black train pulls west.
On the side of a winding road, a young easygoing driver leans against the hood of his delivery truck. He’s dressed in dirty denim with a sly smile, humming a song to himself and dreaming of singing live to millions on network television.
Dreaming of everyone falling in love with him.
Elvis had been singing about love his whole life. Been looking for it ever since he was born. Looking for it everywhere.
Never knew he had it inside him all along. All he had to do was look inside himself, instead of looking out at the reflection in the mirror.
He fell in love with the reflection. Everyone fell in love with the reflection.
It sure was strange how everyone wanted to believe the reflection, believe what wasn’t there. They didn’t want to see the truth.
After a while neither did Elvis.
But now he realized that what he had been looking for had been there all along. Never left him at all. Never left his heart.
Strange to think he prided himself on always telling the truth, never uttering a falsehood. Being true to everyone he ever met.
Truth was the only person he’d lied to was himself.
Love is a two way street. It ain’t something to get, but something to give.
No one is going to wait for love. It’s their for the sharing. It’s about caring for each other, loving each other.
People in love always overlook the loved one’s fault. But Elvis felt it was more than that. Felt it was more that they see the faults, and love the person too much to let the faults bother them.
Love ain’t blind. Love is seeing the truth for what it is.
Love is being able to accept each other for what you are, flaws and all.
Elvis realizes that it’s not enough to have an open mind, you got to have an open heart.
Love the faults and they melt away.
A lot of people say love is the answer. But Elvis knows it’s the question too. It’s the whole damn thing.
It’s love that brings the song.
It’s all there is.
Sunlight glints across the window of the limousine, washes over a river that slices through the hills.
The limousine coasts headlong towards an old bridge, towards the sun.
CHAPTER 65: ‘LOVE IS ALL’
At the mouth of the old bridge, a callow farm boy turns to see the limousine approach. Childish face, puffy lips and wild hair.
Just a kid jealous of his older brother. Jealous of a world he’ll never know.
The limousine coasts over the one-lane, wood-decked bridge, over the hulking Rivana River.
Elvis looks down at the swirling water below and feels love flooding through him. Realizes for the first time in his life that he can forgive his own flaws, his own faults.
Realizes that all he has to do is love the things he hates about himself and they melt away.
He feels a stillness inside.
Love is the light inside that lights up the whole world.
If you do not shine, you are in darkness. You got to let the light shine on.
There is no shame, there is no guilt.
There is only love eternal.
Love is all.
Hate anything and you hate yourself. When you hate another, you’re hating that part of yourself.
The fault in them is the fault in you. You just have to open your eyes to see it.
Elvis used to hate narrow mindedness in others. Used to bug him no end until he caught sight of it in himself.
You can’t throw the first stone.
You got to keep an open mind about everything. Open your eyes to love. Open your heart.
One world, one race, one love.
Love everybody. Even those who hate you and want to hurt you. Fight fire with fire and we all burn in hell.
Many are willing to think the worst. They try and put doubts and bad thoughts into your mind. They try to poison your heart.
Don’t let them take away the good that is inside you. Thought gives strength, so think good thoughts. Trust yourself.
The golden key to happiness is confidence in doing what you know is good, what you know is right.
All you got to do is what you believe in.
All you got to do is follow your heart.
Sunlight glimmers over the bridge and its reflection in the river below as the limousine skims onto the road and heads west.
Past a giant radio telescope in the foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains. White, gleaming, pointing to the heavens. Listening to the universe.
Past an old road sign to Zion he does not see.
Past a sign pointing him to Charlottesville.
CHAPTER 66: ‘DOUBLE OR NOTHING’
The limousine skims along the worn road past a metal Rotary Club road sign welcoming him to Charlottesville.
Charlottesville was home to not one, not two, but three presidents. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.
It was one city Elvis never played.
The limousine skims through peaceful tree-lined avenues toward Main Street. Everything glistens with a slick of melted snow.
Relaxed locals gather at a park, university students step into a coffee shop. No one is in a rush.
The limousine finally comes to a stop in the middle of the bus station parking lot. A portly driver is heaving luggage haphazardly into the undercarriage of a Greyhound bus.
The bus door is open and a handful of casual passengers are stepping on board
The back of the limousine opens and Elvis steps out and stretches. He looks down, and tucks in his shirt.
Brenda slides out of the back seat and straightens the bellboy cap on top of her pile of blond hair. Elvis stoops to look into the car.
Glenda glides out in front of him, pulling on the shiny red bellboy jacket and smoothing down her mussed up hair. She nods, and then reaches back into the limo to retrieve her right shoe. Elvis asks.
‘You double sure?’
Glenda nods again and smiles sadly. A frown ripples her brow as she dangles her left arm out to Elvis. She holds a pen in her right hand.
‘We got to go back, Elvis.’
Elvis looks into her eyes and smiles. He takes the pen and signs Glenda’s arm.
Brenda holds out her right arm and says, with a twinkle in her eye.
‘We got to go back, Elvis.’
He signs her arm as well.
The sisters inspect their arms and smile. Both arms are signed ‘Elvis Presley’ in hastily scrawled black ink. They link arms and saunter over to the bus. As they climb the stairs, Elvis shouts out.
‘You ever get out Memphis way, you make sure you look me up now!’
The girls turn around simultaneously and smile sweetly. Glenda looks at Elvis.
‘You talking to me?’
Brenda looks at Elvis.
‘Or are you talking to me?’
Elvis shakes his head softly, smiles awkwardly. Brenda and Glenda call out in unison.
‘Who you talking to Elvis?’
He glances down at his feet, kicks at the dirt.
‘Both of you, of course.’
‘You mean that, Elvis?’
He looks up.
‘Double or nothing.’
He holds his arms out wide, as if to say he couldn’t be lying.
Sounds of train whistle shrieks the air. White doves take to the clear sky.
The girls take their seats on the bus as the driver cranks the door shut. Brenda leans over Glenda by the window, and they both wave.
The bus hisses and lurches forward, revealing the red-brick train station. A long, black train sixteen coaches long idles on the first track.
As the bus rolls out of the parking lot, Glenda slides the window open and shouts out.
‘Bye bye, Elvis!’
Brenda’s white scarf trails out the window.
Elvis watches the bus until he can’t see it anymore. He smiles and chuckles to himself, dragging his toe through the dirt.
He turns and walks back to the open door of the limousine. He leans in and picks up his shiny gold badge from the floor.
Elvis looks at it, turns it over in his hand.
All his life he worried that everyone loved him for who he was, rather than for what he is. Now there’s no need to worry anymore.
Elvis pins his badge on his shirt, over his heart.
Jerry opens the driver’s seat door and steps out. He looks over the roof of the limousine to Elvis.
He’s got something to say.
CHAPTER 67: ‘ADIOS, JERRY’
Elvis looks at his badge pinned to his shirt as Jerry looks over to the train idling at the station.
‘That’s my train.’
‘You bought a train, Jerry.’
Elvis looks up at him. Jerry laughs.
‘I got to get back home.’
Elvis looks over at the long black train.
‘You’re leaving me, Jerry.’
‘You got what you came for, Elvis.’
Elvis looks at his badge. He was always looking for some discipline and order in his life.
‘I couldn’t have done it without you, Jerry.’
Jerry blushes. A soft wind wisps through the parking lot.
‘I’m sorry I dragged you all the way to Washington D.C.’
‘I’m not sorry one bit.’
Elvis looks at Jerry.
‘You going back to cutting movies.’
‘Maybe. Maybe not.’
‘You know you got to follow your heart.’
‘Follow my dreams?’
‘As long as they’re big. You got to dream big.’
Clouds tighten over the sun.
‘What if they don’t come true.’
Clouds pass over each other and let a ray of sunshine light the pair.
‘What if they do?’
Elvis cracks a ‘look at me’ smile.
‘Life ain’t a dress rehearsal. You got to play the hell out of it.’
A truck rumbles past.
‘Play real loud!’
Whatever you put your mind to, it’s going to come true.
Elvis had been lost for a long time. But now he had found himself. He wipes away a tear from his eye.
‘You okay, Elvis?’
‘Never better, Jerry. Never better.’
Elvis strides around the limousine to Jerry and embraces the man.
‘You got a friend in me, Jerry.’
Elvis pulls back, both hands clasped on Jerry’s shoulders.
‘I love you, Jerry.’
Elvis steps towards the driver’s seat.
‘You okay to drive?’
‘It’s a Lincoln, Jerry. It’ll drive itself.’
Elvis steps in and sits down. Jerry pedals the air with an open palm.
‘You know which one’s the accelerator.’
Elvis fires up the engine.
‘Pedal to devil, Jerry.’
‘And you know which one’s the brake, right?’
Elvis looks up at Jerry, smiles.
‘What’d I need brakes for?’
Jerry smiles and waves the air.
‘I’ll be seeing you, Elvis.
Elvis shuts the door and drives out of the parking lot, blasting goodbye on the horn as he goes.
CHAPTER 68: ‘I’D KNOW THAT SONG ANYWHERE ...’
Sounds of the limousine’s horn echo away as Elvis drives off.
He looks up into the rear view mirror and sees Jerry walking across the parking lot to the waiting train.
Sunlight streams into the car as he drives through Charlottesville, passing parks and buildings, cars and people. His golden badge beams.
Elvis twists in his seat, making the badge sprinkle splinters of light over the buttons and controls on the black vinyl dashboard, over the chrome trim. He hums to himself as he glances over the gleaming instrumentation.
He starts prodding and pushing and sliding everything he can get his fingers on. Windshield wipers. Cigarette lighter. Radio button. Volume control. Treble and bass dials.
He leans over and opens the glove compartment. It’s empty. He slaps it shut.
He frowns until he spots the heating controls and slides the chrome lever all the way to cool. And the fan switch all the way to full.
Cold air washes over him. He sighs with pleasure.
‘Chilling, man, chilling.’
Elvis cruises out of town past the cemetery. Past a road sign bidding him goodbye to Charlottesville.
He salutes the sign with a smile.
‘So long Charlottesville.’
He doesn’t know it but he’s heading to Zion.
Elvis hits the gas and picks up speed. Country scenery flies past. Clusters of hardwoods. Rolling open pastures. Bold streams.
Birds flit and skim through the clear sky.
Elvis plows on, lost in thought.
That’s when he first hears it. He can’t quite make it out it’s so faint, so far away. It’s a sound that calls him.
He cocks his head, straining to hear where it’s coming from.
He reaches down to the radio and twists the volume dial all the way up but no sound comes out of the speakers.
He can hear the rush of air over the car. It’s carrying more than the wind.
He closes his eyes to hear more and slowly, gently pushes down the brake.
The limousine comes to a smooth stop at the crossroads of Zion. There’s no main street. There’s just a broken down store that ain’t been open for years.
An old dog limps along a ditch without making a noise. A wind grazes over the roads.
Elvis is in the drivers seat, head down, eyes closed and listening.
He hits the button on the armrest to open the electric window. Fast moving air swirls in wisping his hair. He breathes in the sound.
A sound light and clear, and beautiful.
Elvis opens his eyes and listens more closely. His voice is soft, marveling.
‘I’d know that song anywhere...’
Slowly the faint sounds of a distant gospel choir float into the car, filling his spirit with love and glory.
Elvis stomps down the accelerator and swerves the limousine down the road towards the song. He turns again down a dirt track towards a lonely white, sunbleached timber building as the singing becomes louder and louder, stronger and stronger.
The limousine kicks up a veil of dust as it swerves down to the Way of the Cross Baptist Church.
The church steeple rises from the old roof like a beacon. The small patch of dirt that serves as a parking lot is full of worn cars and trucks.
The limousine pulls up to the church.
The driver’s door open and Elvis steps out, captivated by the voices rising in song.
Rising in unison.
CHAPTER 69: ‘AND THAT’S THE TRUTH’
Elvis makes his way into the small, packed church as the soaring harmonies roll over him like a warm wave.
Elvis stands in awe, staring transfixed at the thirty members of the black gospel choir in full flight.
The choir are dressed in glowing gowns of purple and gold, swaying in time to the music. Church members are joining in the syncopated chorus, praising the everlasting life.
Elvis knows the gospel classic by heart. He first heard Sister Rosetta Tharpe belt out “Up Above My head” on a race record when he was just a boy.
The choir claps faster and faster, higher and higher and slips seamlessly into LaVern Baker’s “Saved.”
The tempo picks up and the church members are now all on their feet, clapping along and swaying with the choir. Raising their spirits, raising their souls.
Some of the congregation sing with their eyes closed, others are looking up, hands raised, shouting out the words. Elvis is swaying along to the song, beating time.
The choir stomps their feet in time to the music. Elvis is swaying and humming, eyes closed. A single tear runs down his cheek.
Everyone in the church is rejoicing, testifying in joyous song.
Everyone is stomping and clapping, the sound roars louder and louder, as if trying to reach heaven above.
Elvis is singing along with all his heart. An older black man with only one arm smiles knowingly at Elvis. He wears a leather vest laden with gold badges. He joins in the singing as well. Singing to be saved.
The choir explodes rapturously. Glorious applause rips through the church.
Some members are shaking, arms up to heaven. Shouts of ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah’ ring out loud.
A spirit flows through the congregation, inspiring and consoling one and all.
Love is redeemed.
The old man’s eyes are wet, glistening with tears. His voice is soft and gentle.
Elvis smiles at him.
‘It’s got to be the most beautiful music I ever heard. It’s out of this world.’
The old man looks closely at Elvis.
‘You ain’t from round here but I seen you somewhere before.’
‘I get around.’
The old man nods.
‘Ain’t you the one they call ‘The King’.’
Elvis tries to bite back his smile.
‘I ain’t no king. I ain’t nothing but a man.’
‘That the truth?’
Elvis nods his assurance. The old man sizes him up.
‘Well, you sure know how to sing. You got a beautiful voice.’
Elvis blushes. The old man points at Elvis’ heart.
‘And that, son, has got to be the most beautiful badge I ever did see.’
Elvis turns from the choir to look at the old man.
‘You like it?’
‘Where could I get me a beautiful badge like that?’
Elvis looks at it closely. Sunlight glimmers off the indented shield.
‘Well, since you like it so much, why don’t you have it?’
Elvis starts to unpin the badge.
The old man doesn’t make a move as Elvis leans down and pins the badge over his heart. He starts to say something, but Elvis stops him.
‘You don’t need to say nothing. It’s yours.’
Elvis smiles like an angel.
‘Looks good on you.’
The old man breaks a smile. Elvis nods appreciatively.
‘Looks real good.’
Elvis sizes up the old man.
‘And that’s the truth.’
The old man looks at the light shining off the badge. It almost glows.
Elvis wipes away a tear with the back of his hand.
‘Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t going away.’
Elvis takes one last look at the choir and steps out of the church. No one aside from the old man had even noticed he was there, and Elvis doesn’t seem to care.
He steps into the black limousine, and drives off.
Down the dirt track, down the empty road, down the line.
It never stops. There is no beginning and no end.
We’re all just moving through this life into the next.
You might push a little harder, drive a little faster, get there a little a sooner. But we’re all in this together.
Talent? Elvis used to think talent was being able to sell what you feel. Know he knows it’s all about being able to share what you feel. Money ain’t got nothing to do with it.
Love is all there is.
Elvis swallows hard as he sniffs.
He’s not sad, or unhappy. The truth has set him free.
He sniffs again, deeper and deeper.
And just when he thinks he can smell something burning, the front of the limousine erupts into flames.
CHAPTER 70: ‘IT GOES ON’
Elvis slams on the brakes and the flaming limousine slides and screeches and skids all over the highway before shuddering to a complete stop.
The driver’s door flies open and Elvis tumbles out onto the asphalt, doubled over in laughter. Flames are flicking out from under the hood.
Elvis picks himself up, brushing down his pants and laughing his ass off as the fire blazes.
He opens the back door and yanks out the red bellboy jacket from the back seat. Flames are rising higher as he carefully approaches the burning engine.
He starts trying to frantically slap out the flames with the jacket, but only succeeds in fueling the fire. Within seconds the jacket is alight, engulfed by angry flames.
Elvis can’t stop laughing as the raging flames leap and dance, like fans at a concert.
Heat sears off the hood, black paint and wax crackle and peel back revealing bare metal skin and burning chrome.
The flames are white closest to the metal, through yellow and orange and red at the tips. Dark gray smoke plumes into the clear sky.
Elvis falls back into the grass on the side of the road, laughing hysterically. There’s nothing he can do.
He breathes in deep to catch his breath.
He looks at the limousine just as the wind picks up and unfurls down the highway. Swirling flames leap even higher and engulf the limousine.
Elvis gets to his feet, still laughing and starts ambling down the middle of the road. He whistles and kicks at loose rocks as flames lash at the limousine behind him.
He looks up into the full white clouds staggering across the azure sky. The sun is just ahead of him, dropping close to the horizon. He shields his eyes with his right hand as he admires the view.
Passing clouds form his face on the horizon for the briefest moment before they shift into the shape of a radiant white dove in flight.
Elvis can hear the sounds of wings fluttering.
He sees a luminous white dove flying towards him from within the distant clouds.
The white dove sweeps towards him. Elvis stands calmly in the road, his eyes following the bird. He raises his right hand.
The bird darts around him twice before it flits and flutters and lands on his outstretched hand.
It tilts its head. Elvis looks into its eyes. He sees more than his reflection. He sees understanding.
We all look for salvation everywhere we can. But you don’t need to search for it. You don’t need to find it.
You carry your own salvation with you.
The dove lifts its wings and beats the air. It flutters up and up and flies back toward the horizon. It shrinks, smaller and smaller, until it becomes just a point of white light on the vanishing point of the road.
The point of light begins to expand, larger and larger.
Elvis squints until he can see a white car approaching from the horizon. It comes closer and closer until he sees it’s a white taxi.
It comes to a stop where Elvis stands.
The old man from the church sits behind the wheel, his gold badge gleaming over his heart.
‘Where to, son?’
Elvis looks down the road. He can’t help but smile.
Elvis and nods quietly.
‘It’s time to go home.’
Elvis climbs into the back and shuts the door.
The taxi turns around drives off into the setting sun.
Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t going away.
There ain’t nothing to be afraid of. There is no ending.
To live on in the hearts of others is not to die.
It never ceases, it goes on.
The song goes on.
And on ...
Stefano Boscutti is a freelance creative director and award-winning writer based in Melbourne, Australia.
© Stefano Boscutti All Rights Reserved