While August 16, 1977 was a sad, terrible and altogether bad day, we can take this day to celebrate the life of Elvis Aaron Presley and remind ourselves of the changes he brought to not only North American culture, but globally.
Elvis impacted so many areas of society that it’s easy to forget how much more divided and stratified American was – how black and white (or rather, black vs white) the thinking of the day was – Elvis was authentic and he can represent anything to everyone.
Elvis embodied the American Dream of being a poor sharecropper’s son who became the highest paid entertainer and globally famous.
Elvis embodied the rebellion of youth, the rising up of the oppressed, the original mash up artist who combined country with blues and pounded rock n roll into the libido and brains of a generation.
Elvis was always humble and never forgot his roots and gave to charities and needy individuals without publicity or claiming tax credits.
Elvis was the boy who couldn’t get a girl who grew up to be the man who couldn’t shake the women off with a stick – he loved women and we loved him.
Elvis was a story of success and excess, a cautionary tale and a dream turned nightmare of embodying a success that took on a life of it’s own, costing him his artistic cred and family.
Elvis: a rebel, a soldier, a fantasy, a dreamer.
Elvis: something for everyone.
Published in 1991, this book remains the definitive account of Elvis’ last year and the aftermath of his death.
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 the basis for future religion.
I think that we are seeing a new religion emerging. Elvisism, Elvites, Presletarianism – something based around Elvis Presley.
The reason that I believe this is the many religious aspects of the Elvis story.
- born in humble circumstances and poverty.
- sole survivor of a twin birth that his father later claimed to recalling a strange light in the sky on the night of his birth
- escaped death again at age 5 from a tornado that ripped through Tupelo.
- He lived in Memphis along a mighty river and became known as The King, giving Pharaoh associations.
- He recorded his first music on Sun Records – and most religions have sun gods, gods of light
- He ushered in a great cultural change – broke racial barriers while heightening the generational gap and put overt sex at the cultural forefront
- His personal image was one of racial tolerance, generosity/charity
- The kisses, scarves and other items given out to the crowds during concerts is like having a blessing bestowed upon you
- He was surrounded by a core group of disciples (Memphis Mafia) who have split into camps and written conflicting books after Elvis’ death
- there are stories of him having visions, laying on hands healing,
- there’s been after death sightings of him in person, or just his image appearing as people see Jesus, Virgin Mary, and other religious figures in wood grain or mineral patterns, or on toasted bread products….
- Elvis’ image is reproduced in religious type paintings
- Impersonators or Tribute Artists are priests – even having special garments – Elvis’ stage wear and movie costumes.
- people make pilgrimages to Graceland – especially for the winter holiday (Jan 8) and the end of summer (Aug 16) holidays – which is already a weeklong festival
- The annual candlelight vigil are exhibiting a form of worship and ritual. As is the annual lighting of the Graceland holiday lights.
- people have special areas in their homes of their Elvis collections, serving as altar areas or even rooms in their homes which act as temples.
what other religious elements do you see in the Elvis story, that future generations will reinterpret?
Addition: April 24, 2010:
Addition: September 14, 2011: