Book Review: Death of Elvis

Published in 1991, this book remains the definitive account of Elvis’ last year and the aftermath of his death.

Written by Charles C., II Thompson and James P. Cole, who produced  the 20/20 news program that exposed Dr. Nick and other doctor’s  excessive prescription writing.

This book is not for the faint of heart, as it contains very graphic autopsy descriptions, which can be disturbing on their own – but are more distressing when it’s about a person for whom you have strong feelings. Even when it’s a celebrity rather than a family member.

With the exception of Peter Gurlanick’s two volume masterpiece, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis – this book may have the widest range of interviews than most Elvis books.

The usual suspects – Memphis Mafia members, Linda Thompson and Ginger Alden are interviewed – but also Dr. Nick and other health care providers, Memphis Baptist Memorial Hospital staff, Medical Examiner’s office staff and the autopsy team.

For me, the most shocking aspect was the Pharmacist who filled Elvis’ final prescriptions – he participated in the 20/20 investigation and initially expressed concerns that he deflected onto Dr. Nick.  So it was a bit of an about face when the 20/20 team discovers that this man had concerns about the drugs and failed to make any report to the State medical board. He even said that knowing what happened to Elvis – he wouldn’t see himself doing anything different.

Several theories of the specific causes and contributing factors are considered in the book from the obscure to the sensational. The most likely cause was not genetic heart problems or straining to go to the bathroom or regular heart attack; but the drugs.

Elvis had long been addicted to prescription drugs which resulted in a variety of health problems which increased the stress load on his body and it’s ability to function.

There are many claims about illnesses that Elvis had, yet, the drugs he used were not used to treat illnesses. The pills were for symptoms of illnesses – pain, insomnia and uppers for energy.

Elvis’ drug use was not on display like other musicians of the era who developed their public image around recreational drug use.

Elvis, keeping to the prescription drugs, could justify his using as medication and probably obtained a far better high with pure pharmaceuticals than the so called street drugs of the 1970’s and earlier.

While it’s only been 30 some odd years, the public attitudes towards drugs, understanding of drug use is very different now than in the pre-Betty Ford Centre, Celebrities revealing their own drugs use, childhood abuse and other matters that were previously kept on the down low as a rite of passage or a badge of credibility.

Elvis had been using drugs for a long time – possibly starting with Gladys’ amphetamines that was prescribe for weight loss well into the 60’s – and then the drugs supplied to him in the army.

Elvis received the stamp of approval for drug use from three authority sources – his Mother, the Army and Medical Doctors.

That Elvis doctor shopped and knew the pharmaceutical reference manual inside and out was beside the point.

Elvis died with a cocktail of drugs, many at toxic and even lethal levels – however, as a long time user, likely had a higher tolerance than a person just starting out.

What the most likely culprit that Aug 15th and leading into Aug 16th was a drug that Elvis didn’t take often – as Linda Thompson tells the authors, Elvis appears to have had an allergy to codeine.

The dentist Elvis saw that night gave him codeine and some additional pills. Mixing this drug into multiple so called “attack” packs of his more usual drugs stressed his breathing and his body too much.

Elvis took three sets of drugs, which likely began to work all at once and when combined with the codeine that caused respiratory distress, he couldn’t breath, tossed the book he was reading and fell to the floor.

He landed face down, but not flat – his knees were bent, meaning his weight was pushed onto his head, shoulders and chest – compressing and making his breathing even more difficult. He also threw up, making breathing near impossible.

A body in distress from multiple sources – drugs, body position –  combined with restricted breathing – the unattended Elvis had no chance of rescue.

That there was no coroner’s inquest also supports the death by drugs, as Memphis was very aware of it’s tourist status being directly related to Elvis. Further, Elvis’ image was not yet tarnished – the body guard book had been released a scant 6 week prior and most fans were resistant to the book.

Elvis’ death ensured it would be a best seller through multiple printings.

The 1980’s became a bad decade for Elvis – punished by the public for the drug use and then the various people claiming to be a secret offspring.

With thirty plus years passed and a far more drug/addition sophisticated public has lowered the scorn that has been heaped on Elvis. Even Elvis’ weight issues seem fairly minor compared to the obesity problems faced by most North Americans today.

It’s taken those 30 years for Elvis – who electrified the world, who topped the music, movie and television charts – to be taken as a serious artist. Perhaps he was just too exciting a performer during his life for the focus to be on the work rather than on the man.

This book reveals that man in trouble and unwilling to accept help.

I recommend the book to the full range of Elvis fans and general readers – who aren’t squeamish about autopsy level details.

Perhaps not for the fans who are in denial about the drugs, though.

Elvis clowning with Parker - click to see 1957 home film, 41 seconds in

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