Amy Winehouse is the latest dead too soon celebrity, as an Elvis fan, I can feel for Amy’s fans, wondering how a person so talented, famous and loved could be so pointlessly and wastefully dead at only 27.
My initial reaction was not quite the, aren’t they already dead response that I get to the tabloids at the supermarket check out line when they feature photos of elderly celebs who had last passed out of the public eye, but who were apparently not actually dead, just forgotten.
Amy Winehouse seems to have been determined to overdose, so in many respects, it was just a matter of when. My response was more to wonder, why with her money, didn’t she hire someone to be sober and watching over her?
But then, that didn’t work out too well for Michael Jackson.
So, the lesson seems more to not using drugs above your ability to remain a functional person – thus one should avoid physically addictive drugs – and to know your limit and toke within it.
What’s incomprehensible to us mere unfamous mortals is how can a person who is famous – and famous for actual talent who worked hard to become famous – as opposed to insta-fame of infamous for anti-social actions or behaviours or reality program famous. People becoming famous for stunts or crimes makes more sense than unreality programs – which are a bizarre form of escapism that makes little sense to me – certainly, far less sense than drugs or alcohol – at least they can be entertaining and thought provoking.
But what we mere mortal fans can’t understand is our fave celeb being unhappy while at the same time, being that celebrity.
Being famous doesn’t solve any of the problems that you had before – it makes money problems less, but not family dynamics, it lessens your ability to trust people, it puts you in unfamiliar territory with precarious staying power – if anything, being famous – especially if at a young age or too fast, will destabilize you and becomes almost a gateway addition of it’s own – unless you maintain a level head (assuming you had one to start with) and a supportive family structure to keep you grounded.
The love of fans does simply not compare to the love of family and friends, which is for you the actual person, before the fame and money, to the best and despite the worst.
Fan love is blind to faults, while being fickle and often unforgiving – it is not dependable – and perhaps drugs are the easiest way to simulate that sense of being cared for, protected and a well being of knowing you’re the centre of the universe.
We love our celebrities to death, yet we seem constantly surprised by that same death.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve recently read a couple of books that focus on Elvis’ army days – and I’ve really had my thoughts that the army was a bad thing for him changed. I am not inclined to think it was a good personal move, mixed for the career and still bad for the drug use.
Reading these books, Elvis seemed to really thrive there: he’d always wanted to be included, but his shyness and appearance always made him separate, even before the fame.
Elvis went from trying to make enough money singing to support his parents to being the most famous or infamous celebrity around. He was unprecedented and pretty much, no other celebrity has caught up to him for frenzy and staying power.
Rudolph Valentino – the first headline of The King is Dead – without needing a name for the public to know who was being talked about – caused a massive public outpouring of grief and people lining the train rails as his body was transported. But, 30+ years after his death – he was largely remembered by film buffs and a vague public recollection of him in sheik movies – the desert lover.
The army provided Elvis a haven to get away somewhat from the frenzy, a chance to reinvent himself.
I think that the worst thing the army did was make Elvis more likely to obey authority, which lead him to abandoning his responsiblity for his career and leaving it to Parker who was into money, not art.
Parker was a brilliant promoter, but competent manager, he was not. He locked Elvis into long term contracts that locked Elvis into ruts of movies or concerts – without considering that variety was needed to keep Elvis interested, challenged and creative.
Parker was in charge of the business, and theoretically, Elvis was in charge of the creative side – but too often, the creative side was second to the business of making money.
Parker seems to have thought of himself as a long term thinker – he liked the army time to put Elvis back in his place because Elvis was getting too big and very fast – but more than tha, Parker saw that the army, and doing regular service would make Elvis acceptable to a larger audience and be a more lasting artist than a teen idol.
And the problem with that, is that it’s not just the image or perception that creates longevity, but the quality of the products and art put out there.
If Elvis had continued with movies like Flaming Star, Follow That Dream and even Wild in the Country – he might be thought of today as a decent actor instead of the parody of one. It doesn’t matter that Elvis was the first actor to get a box office share, that he was lead in all but one of his movies and no Elvis movie ever lost money – those were important to business, but not to artistic output and integrity.
I have always thought that the army had been bad for him in terms of the drugs but more recent evidence suggests it was his Mom who started him on her diet pills – speed. Galdy was taking the pills to try to slim down because she wanted to be pretty for Elvis and publicity.
Speed was a diet pill until well into the late 60’s, so coming from a doctor, they must be okay. The army and doctors over his life just reinforced that the drugs were okay because they were more authority figures.
Sadly, the military still today issues drugs to personnel – remember the US pilot who dropped a bomb on Canadian soldiers? So called “Go pills”.
Given to Elvis in the 50’s and still given to soldiers today.
The the one thing the army did was make him from a teen idol into a respectable performer more tolerable to a mainstream audience. And that did ensure a lasting power for Elvis, but sadly, the mainstream tends to the middle of the road entertainments – so while it was artist longevity, it also meant artistic death.
If he hadn’t been drafted or done the entertainment route as others did without penalty before him – Elvis would have been penalized for it – he’d probably faded out and been a nostalgia act during his life and not done the 68 special or concert comeback.
And isn’t it funny that many Hollywood actors during WWII were able to join up and do troop entertainment or selling war bonds during war time, but Elvis would have paid a heavy price for doing entertainment duty during a time when war wasn’t happening, but could have started again?
In a way, it was no wonder that Elvis took drugs to escape – the regular rules of society stopped applying to him but the celebrity rules also didn’t apply to him.
Elvis couldn’t complain or vent about anything, not to other soldiers, not to other actors or celebs, could be seen to lose too much control at home.
Funny to think that the temper tantrums and contract demands that celebs get away with as a matter of course now – and Elvis rarely failed to show up on set, he always new his lines and was personable to cast and crew, his only contract demand for concert tours was a case of a particular brand of water in the dressing room – but concerts in the last years were ended because of drug related health problems – he still managed to do over 1000 concerts between 1969 and 1977 – he packed more shows in those 8 years than most performers do over a 20 year career.
It’s a wonder that he didn’t explode.