Elvis – alone in despair

Elvis and Vegas – the ultimate match.

It was too soon in the 1950’s for Elvis to play there and it was one of his few early career setbacks. His two week booking was reduced to a week. The adult gamblers weren’t interested in any atomic powered singer with the cornpone jokes.

with Liberace

Elvis played in Vegas over the years, having one of his biggest hit records a love song to the city – Viva Las Vegas – as well as filming one of his best and certainly most steamy movies there.

Elvis got married in Vegas and changed Vegas weddings from low brow tacky to classier.

And when the movies stopped serving his career, Vegas was where Elvis returned to a stage for all the world to see him – as Elvis had grown and matured, so had Vegas – from a gambler/mob scene to classier Rat Pack entertainers. The entertainments in Vegas were secondary to the gambling. Elvis changed that.

return to the stage Vegas 1969

When Elvis hit the stage, the casinos emptied. Hotels filled up and all of Vegas benefited economically from the surge in tourism with one destination in mind – Elvis.

The early 70’s tours were dynamic. Elvis did new arrangements of familiar songs and introduced his new American Studio sound into the mix. Two concert theatrical documentaries were made. Elvis was the first performer to do a concert at the Houston Astrodome in 1971 and he sold out 6 shows – in 1972, it was 4 shows at Madison Square Garden, New York.  This concert phase peaked with the 1973 Aloha Via Satellite TV special – certainly one of the highest rated programs of all time.

But like the movies, the concerts became routine. The set list fossilized, Elvis grew bored and unchallenged by the material. Bored and unchallenged by his career, but still committed to it because of all the people depending on him for a living – as well as his own spending sprees threatening to make the money go faster than he could make it.

Well, if he’d had a proper management deal with Parker – 15 instead of 50 for example, it probably wouldn’t have been any different. Elvis just would have spent more or Vernon would have made more bad investments for Elvis.

Vegas 1956, Frontier Hotel

In early 1950’s  interviews, Elvis often focused on what he could do with this success for his parents. It surprised reporters, since the expected answers would have been artistic goals – not establishing a middle class standard of living.

But in 1975, Elvis was 40 and had done everything and more that he had set out to do and along the way, had lost most of the people he had done it all for.

His mother died young at 46, after experiencing a mere 2 years of Elvis provided prosperity.

Several of the Smith cousins also had early deaths (suicide/alcohol related);  Elvis had drawn his earliest circle of protectors from the young men he’d known pre-fame and relatives figured high in those ranks.

Elvis had never really settled on one woman, and there were several serious contenders who, if he had married them, may well have made a difference. June, Anita, Ann-Margaret, later on, Linda – strong women who challenged him.

It has always struck me a little odd, Elvis’ apparent insistence on the stay at home child-bride thing, since the partners he most sparked with were closer to equals to him. But also because his own mother was the centre of his childhood home, his father was never the head of the household.

In the late 70’s, Vernon’s health was worsening and Elvis would be facing a future without his last family. Priscilla had come into her own and moved out, leaving the world’s biggest sex symbol for another man. Lisa gone with her.

on the steps of the divorce court

His career in a concert rut, his family life in tatters and there being no one around him with leverage, Elvis escaped his grief and pain with drugs.

While Elvis was never a nostalgia act, like many of his 50 and early 60’s comrades were by the 1970’s; Elvis’ shows were getting stagnant. No new songs, rote delivery, rambling mono logs, extended karate demonstrations and a huge middle part of the show being band solos.

The early 70’s concerts were songs from start to finish with a brief introduction of the band. The later 70’s were a few songs, a monologue, a band intro, their solo, another intro, another solo – sometimes Elvis would have the Sweets or JD or someone else do a song and then it was I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You and then left the building.

Elvis had conquered every entertainment media.

He had more gold records than anyone – in fact, he sold so many that they had to set up the RIAA.

He made movies, the first actor to receive a part of the box office, now a standard contract clause. His 33 movies never lost money and underwrote many more artistic films and in one cast, saved United Artists from going bankrupt mid 60’s.

He owned tv – from his Dorsey appearances, to the controversial Milton Berle, to the regrettable Steven Allen to the Ed Sullivan stamp of approval for the “decent, fine boy”. Elvis was the only performer to ever do a gospel number on the Sullivan show. Peace in the Valley, sung as a promise for his mother.

The 68 special was one of the first to have a single performer on the show – no guest stars like other specials – it was at once a long form rock opera, telling the tale of a guitar man trying to find his place in the world, but also foreshadowing  music videos for the choreographed numbers that told the guitar man story – and of course, the unplugged portion that was pure Elvis, reunited with 2 of his original band mates, raw and needing to prove himself to himself and by doing so, to all of us.

The 73 special was a straight forward concert, but a technological feat – Elvis live around the world. Well, except in the US where it was broadcast months later.

So, what did he have left?

  • massive selling records, done
  • sold out concerts and tours, done
  • hit movies, done
  • TV appearances and specials, done

Like a lot of entertainers, Elvis tried his hand at the other side of the camera – coming up with an idea for a karate documentary/movie that he would narrate and perform in.

But, lacking the business skills and oddly enough, industry connections – Elvis  never really trusted Hollywood after they used him and never took him seriously. That ran out of steam too.

As charitable as Elvis was – in donating money to charities, benefit concerts, publicly participating in charity campaigns like the March of Dimes and Blood Donation – he never set up a formal foundation to manage his donations and receive tax benefits from it – and perhaps if he had a foundation, this would have be a source of much pride and satisfaction for him, instead of the ad hoc way he supported charities and gave to individuals.

Sort of like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet now.

March of Dimes

By the late 70’s, Elvis had conquered all there was to conquer. Would touring the world really been anything but a short lived boost before falling back into routine?

Elvis was trapped by his inability to challenge authority (funny thing to say about the man who so shook up the 50s), trapped by his inability to stand up for himself and what he wanted despite the evidence that every time he did, it paid off for him.

Elvis was content to coast, Elvis was tormented by the thought of why him, what was he “Elvis” above all others,  Elvis had lost so many loved ones and had no more challenges ahead of him. Just more of the same.

Going from hotel to stage to plane to hotel to stage to plane – no wonder he began to not see the world as the fun and amazing place that it is – he wasn’t part of the world anymore.

His army experience may well have been the most broadening of his world – seeing parts of Europe, interacting with a diversity of people, having clear goals and tasks and the closest he got to as an adult to ever being a normal average person.

In the 50’s when he went, it was controversial because of the fans being so upset and the adults gloating how it would set him to rights – by the 70’s his acceptance of army service was made to be something traitorous in left wing media – how could the King of Rock n Roll, the soundtrack of rebellion have allowed himself to be a GI?

Everyone wanted Elvis to be what they wanted him to be and it seems like no one ever considered what he wanted to be as important. Eventually, he just gave up and followed orders. Parker’s, Vernon’s, RCA’s, Hollywood’s, the demands of his employees and other dependents.

Thinking about the Holly Hunter movie, The Piano – a period movie in which the only aspect of her life Hunter’s character has control over is her voice – her power is removed by her father, her husband, and so she chooses to be silent.

Elvis was just as powerless, trapped between all the demanding forces, his only escape and comfort was excess. Extreme spending, extreme food and extreme drugs.

In 1976, Elvis wrote a note and left it crumpled in the Las Vegas Hilton hotel room garbage. It is unclear who retrieved it or put it up for auction, but Wayne Newton bought the note and wrote a song about it.

The note  was written during his last set of shows in Vegas, when Elvis also remarked on stage  “I hate Vegas.” The Elvis note reads:

I feel so alone sometimes
The night is quiet for me
I’d love to be able to sleep
I am glad that everyone is gone now
I’ll probably not rest tonight
I have no need for all of this
Help me Lord

It seems unimaginable to us regular not famous and not rich folks how anyone who is rich and famous could be unhappy.

But there really isn’t anyone with a problem free life and anything we have for the good, seems to have a counter balanced responsibility, obligation or cost associated with it.

It seems that the problem with having a lot of money is that no amount is ever actually enough. There’s always someone with a bigger mansion, more cars, fancier clothes or whatever.

Having a lot seems to also increase the terror of losing it – after all, it’s a lot farther to fall from a great social height to the bottom than it is from the middle levels. Or the bottom.

It seems for much of Elvis’ life that everyone wanted to be Elvis but Elvis himself.

At age 42, after years of excess and abuse – not only the food and drugs, but the grueling concert tours – Elvis performed over 1000 concerts between 1969 and 1977 – often doing 2 and sometime 3 shows a day.

And that after a decade of 3 movies a year and before that, 2 years of army and the early building concert tours all based on a childhood of grinding poverty and not the best nutrition then, either.

Elvis died of a broken heart, of boredom and propelled by the drugs and lifestyle of excess. Elvis’ mid-life crisis was bound to set a new bar – after all, he’d already had all the fancy cars, rock star status and endless younger girlfriends. Graceland was a man-cave decades before the phrase was coined. Elvis was also a metrosexual back in the 50’s, fancy clothes and wearing mascara, dying his hair.

On his way to the dentist appointment, where Elvis was given codeine.  A drug he had an allergy to according to Linda Thompson.

It is possible that this shot as well as some codeine tablets mixed in with his usual excessive amount of drugs was the tipping point.

The Last Farewell

In a funny way, maybe we needed Elvis to die so we could catch up to him.

It’s hard to be so far ahead of your time period.

Schoolyard Code

Kids and Teens murdering other Kids and Teens. It’s not only a parent’s worst nightmare, but society’s.

A young person with everything ahead of them, all possibility and potential. Dead. Gone. Ended.

It’s terrible enough when it’s an illness that takes their life, worse if it’s accidental – bad judgment or decisions by themselves or another person.

While the grief is the same, that loss is compounded when the death is as a result of someone else’s carelessness, lack of consideration or plain reckless disregard.A speeding and or drunk driver, for example.

Far worse when it’s an intentional action by someone and the fuzzy idea of premeditation is no comfort at all.

Is it worse that your teen is dead because someone wanted to kill them specifically or because someone wanted to kill anyone and your teen was handy or if they wanted to kill a specific someone, but your teen was in the cross fired or trying to stop the killing?

When reverse engineering, from the murder and back through the day – at what point does the circumstance change from random to pre-meditated intent?

If at the beginning of my evening, I add a knife to my accessories and at the end of the evening, someone else is wearing that knife internally.

Why does it matter if I had a history and negative feelings towards that dead and bleeding person or if it was the first time that I met them?

What if I had actually planned to kill my intended target in two nights, but came across them alone sooner and I pressed my advantage – does that mean that it’s not premeditated because it was opportunistic and not planned?

I think that we need to not entirely do away with premeditated as a criteria for determining charges and sentences, but maintain it as an aggravating factor.

If a person decides to carry a weapon, consume a lot of substances that impair judgment and then sets out to put themselves in a situation where there is a reasonable expectation of fighting or conflict – maybe a bar, maybe near a building or park where groups of people that they don’t like tend to congregate. And someone ends up dead – that’s premeditated by any meaningful measure.

The choices of weapons, substances that inflame emotions and impair judgment further and going out in public where there’s every reason to expect either a vehicle crash or a violent conflict with other people are all choices made well in advance of locating the victim.

In those circumstances, who the victim is, is practically an afterthought.

It doesn’t matter if the victims are a car with a family in it, or members of a religious, ethnic or sexual minority or just vulnerable people like street involved or sex workers.

Worse than the idea of premeditated is the after math.

Your teen is dead and many others know what happened and who did it. And no one is talking, but everyone knows either because they witnessed it, were told it by witnesses, or knew the players enough to make a reasonable and accurate guess.

In just two examples from Surrey, in the late 80’s a new boy, 12, moved to town with his father. He wanted the kids in the school to think he was cool and sophisticated and promised some kids that he could get them drugs. Money was exchanged, and the drugs were not.

The boy didn’t have the money to return, and so was clubbed to death with rocks, in front of several witnesses, and the bully and his toadies covered over the body with leaves.

There were a dozen witnesses and by the end of the day, 400 elementary school children all knew what happened to the 12 year old boy and many where his body was. No one told. Not one.

His mother arrived from Ontario and for 6 weeks, the estranged parents reunited to plead for their son’s return.

Joggers in a park near the school discovered the remains, then, and only then, did the story start to be told.

And nothing has changed. This week, two teen-aged girls from Surrey found themselves at a house party in Vancouver with 40 or so other teens.

Police attended around 1 pm, probably because someone nearby called in a noise complaint. They found a 17 year old girl bleeding to death on the lawn.

A 16 year old inside was non-fatally stabbed, and the teens partying didn’t stop the stabbings, didn’t call for help after the stabbings – didn’t even apparently stop the party – and basically attempted to flee so as to not be identified as witnesses.

The police gleaned enough to know to look for an 18 year girl, and surprisingly, she’s turned herself in once the story hit the press.

Witnesses do not tell, partly for fear of being targeted next, but mostly because of the school yard code – Thou Shall Not Fink.

Tattle tale, fink, teacher’s pet, goody goody, ratfink, informer, snitch, rat, squealer, stoolie, stool pigeon.

The terribly named movie “Scent of a Woman” with Al Pacino chewing the scenery as a curmudgeonly retired general who’s blind being the unlikely champion of a young man hired to be a companion while family is away. The young man is wrestling with the problem of having witnessed rich kids at school destroy private property – should he accept the bribe of business connections from the kids to not tell or should he obey his morals, the law, the rules of the school and identify the perpetrators.

Be rewarded by the guilty for being an accomplice after the fact and punished with expulsion for breaking school rules or, does he reject being an accomplice, give up the promised job, tell the truth and remain in school – but be penalized by the other students for breaking the school yard code.

Heady stuff. Sort of.  Without Pacino, more a movie of the week than a feature.

The school yard code is not doing the right thing. It only serves to protect those who cannot or will not or chose not to function in a society that is dependent on cooperation.

The person who needs the protect is the one at the leading edge of the knife, not holding the handle.

The person who needs the protection is the one on the business end of the gun, under the grill of the car, you know – the victim.

Not the perpetrator.

Going back to movies, in the late 1980’s, a movie was released that had a greater impact than any horror movie could ever hope for – and it’s never been surpassed. It had a largely unknown cast, a dramatic plot and it’s very ordinariness, that it could be any town with any kids, is why it was so horrifying.

The River’s Edge.

A teen-aged boy kills his girlfriend and leaves her body by the edge of the river. The group of teens that are friends, paraphrasing the words of the leader “We can’t help her now, he’s alive and our friend and needs our help”

Well, turning in your friend may not help the dead girl, but it does help the girl’s family. It helps them know why their daughter died, who killed her and know that the killer will go to jail where they won’t be free to kill anyone else.

The dead teen is the direct victim, but not the only victim. That’s the parents, sibling, family, friends, school acquaintances – there are hundreds, even thousands of victims for any person who dies – and that’s even if they aren’t a celebrity.

When I was in school in the 1980’s in Chilliwack, I recall three boys died in an accidental house fire that they were likely responsible for – cigarettes keep burning after you fall asleep. There was a girl who died of leukemia. And one boy committed suicide over his parent’s divorce.

I graduated high school in Surrey, and the school had a track record of one dead grad owing to drinking and drive 1 every two years – and apparently, ours was the year. No one died from my grad year, sorry to push pressure on the next class.

The boy who was killed by the rock and left to be found by joggers died the year I went to university. It was within 5 blocks of my parent’s house when it happened.

The 17 year old girl stabbed at the Vancouver party, was in my niece’s acting class. I probably took her photo at the Christmas play.

My niece was not at this party, it may well have turned out differently if she had. At school, when the girl’s name was released, a boy in my niece’s hearing said something astonishing. “She probably deserved it.”

There’s just not a lot that a person can do at any age that is deserving of being stabbed multiple times, left to stagger outside and bleed to death.

My niece said something along the lines of “No, but you deserve this.” Then punched him in the face. She was sent to the office, the circumstances reviewed and she is without fallout.

Well, I should frame that as punishment. There is fallout – one boy learned a lesson that you can’t be callous about senseless murder. Sometimes, that lesson needs to be forcefully taught.

And more than that, the witness to the punch learned that you can stand up to ignorance and challenge the support of bullies and murderers.

What happened to the 16 and 17 year olds at a party was not acceptable. Condoning it was not acceptable. Communicating with people in a way that they are going to understand is acceptable, for now, until such time as we can learn better methods of communication.

We are in a tipping point where the number of seniors exceed the number of children and teens – we cannot afford to lose teens on a society level, but also on a very personal and family level.

Thou Shall Not Fink covers a myriad of bad behaviours from bullying to murders.

The pressure to not tell what you know is overwhelming – don’t tell what you saw, don’t tell what you suspect from your fellow students and from the adults, it’s the opposite tell tell tell.

The risk of telling adults though is that you may not be believed, and then you’re a fink anyway.

So the way to tackle this is to make the school code the bad thing. Who does it serve exactly? the murderers and bullies.

Do you really want your child and teen supporting and protecting murderers and bullies?

And the teachers need to listen when they get information, there are indicator signs when people are going to do schoolyard or workplace violence.

Even if the information is premature, it’s early intervention that is key to breaking the bully and murder spree cycles.

Working as a group and then achieving critical mass, the Province of BC has gone from a population where the majority of people smoked to smokers being a small minority. We went from the 70’s attitude of if you recycled, you were a hippy freak to now that if you don’t recycle you are an earth hating jerk who needs to move outta town.

Why can we not rid ourselves of the scourge of the school yard code?

As a final thought, Thou Shall Not Fink is also the code that adult criminals live by – jailhouse rats added to the list.

So, worry less about pot being a gateway drug to harder drugs – because that’s a myth.

But it’s not so much of a stretch to reason that a kid steeped in thou shalt not fink at school, makes it very easy to transition into a teen-gang with that same code – after all why not – no one is telling and no one is stopping you.

(Hmmm, clearly this is the secret commandment of the Catholic Church too)

Thou Shall Not Fink is a gateway mentality to teen gangs to crime gangs.

Thou Shall Not Fink protects the perp and ensures witnesses are future victims – after all, you can’t stop at just one victim.

Criminals, be they bullies on up to murderers, can only do what we let them do.