Jewish World Review August 19, 2002 / 11 Elul, 5762
But none of that is important. What happened to Elvis Presley is.
Presley's appeal to working-class Americans was easy to figure out. He was basically a shy, polite southern man who loved his momma and his country. He was generous and high-spirited in his youth. Elvis had little interest in academics and actually drove a truck before he was discovered.
In short, Elvis was non-threatening and totally acceptable to young people in the 1950s who were looking for excitement and role models. James Dean and Marlon Brando were fascinating but dark. Elvis was the rock singer next door.
But then fame got a hold of Presley and stalked him like a hound dog. Elvis was totally unprepared for the god-like stature his fans thrust upon him. All The King wanted to do was have fun and eat rich food. But the crowd wanted much more. The crowd wanted to know everything about him.
Presley was gifted with a natural charisma and the ability to sell his act in a unique and stimulating way. He was an exciting showman who understood the theatre of rock-and-roll long before anybody else. The other teen idols of his day -- Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Ricky Nelson -- pale beside him on stage. Elvis had all the right moves until the curtain went down. Then he was lost.
He married a teenager and took advice from a manipulative manager. No one in the singer's life had a clue as to the stress that descended upon him. Presley found himself in a forest of emotional chaos and could find no way out.
Losing one's anonymity is perhaps the most stressful thing a human being can endure. Your humble correspondent has experienced this, albeit on a scale far less intense than what Elvis Presley faced. There is something about being constantly watched and measured that raises tension in a person. It is impossible to relax knowing that every move you make and every word you say is the subject of scrutiny and comment. Sleep abandoned Presley early on as it does many famous people.
That's why so many stars numb themselves with intoxicants, and that is what Elvis eventually did. He also, according to eyewitness accounts, became paranoid. Constantly dealing with people that want something from you takes perception and skill. Elvis was completely lost, and the joy of wealth and fame quickly became a burden to him.
Many of us look at successful people and can't figure out why they are so screwed up. And that is understandable. Most people would love to live in a mansion and have every material comfort. But the pressure of living up to the expectations of millions of strangers is like a hammer banging into the back of your neck. Every failure is magnified, every mistake a headline. Once a person becomes famous, there is little relief from the public. Elvis Presley had to literally hide inside his Graceland home or whatever hotel suite he happened upon.
I have always felt sorry for Elvis, and when he died at age 42, I was sad. He was fun to watch on stage, and he had great style. Only a few Americans have managed to capture the nation's attention and hold onto to it. Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth and John Wayne are really the only ones that rival Elvis as far as pop culture is concerned.
The unfairness of it is that Presley was destroyed by a demon he never understood. There are no classes in how to handle superstardom. There are no books on the constant stress of the spotlight. And Presley probably wouldn't have read them anyway.
Thus Elvis was completely defenseless against a power he couldn't see, didn't understand and could not confront. The demon Fame beat him down and wore him out. And while millions of us would have helped him if we could have -- in the end, nobody could do anything. Elvis died alone, his heart simply stopped functioning. It had been broken beyond compare.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
08/12/02: A friendly reminder