I'd like to talk a little bit about Elvis and what he meant to me in my life.
It was really quite amazing and I don't expect younger people (which probably means everyone reading this) to really understand the impact Elvis had on society when he came out; but it was really huge. It was really an amazing, shocking thing. Especially to people like me, living in suburbia. You've probably seen movies of suburbia in the 50's-in the Eisenhower years--and what was happening was people were really quite repressed. People were all watching the same TV shows. It was like cookie cutter houses in suburbia; and America was threatening to be a pretty dull place in many respects. Especially where the arts and music and creativity were concerned.
The hit songs on the radio were the only source of music for most people. They were very bland and people were singing pop songs in very bland ways. There wasn't much creativity going on in the world of music and entertainment in those years. And all of a sudden, out of Nashville (actually out of Tupelo, Mississippi) comes this wild young man, this wild boy who was unlike anybody else. He wasn't like some rock stars of today trying to be deliberately outrageous or trying to shock or to bite the head off a chicken or something. He was actually just obviously doing something that even he didn't know what he was doing. I mean he was singing so much from the spirit and the heart; and when you see those early clips of him in black and white on TV and in the live performances in black and white, you can get a feeling for what he was doing.
Now the thing you have to remember is that nobody was doing that. Not in the mainstream. So in later years when my kids saw videos of Elvis they were sort of impressed, like "yeah, wow, he's cool" and all that, but they couldn't quite get the impact he had. Because after Elvis so many people did Elvis. I mean he just sort of showed them the way to really express yourself in rock and roll. So when Mick Jagger came along and Aerosmith and all kinds of people followed, they were expressives too-they were creative too-and Michael Jackson-they would dance and sing really to the fullest....but they all acknowledged Elvis as having given them the idea.
Prior to Elvis singers would just stand like a military person at attention, they would square up their shoulders and only their mouths would move. They would sing a sweet saccharine-bland melody to an orchestra. I mean it was really night and day from what Elvis did.
So here I am sitting in the suburbs myself, kind of secretly realizing I didn't fit in. So I was watching the way people were growing up. I was watching the way people were going from childhood to college, to becoming businessmen and all that and I knew it wasn't going to work for me. I didn't feel right. It felt off kilter-----it felt like I didn't have what it took and I had a lot of fantasy life. I was an outsider.
I would read all kinds of books about the Knights of the Round Table and there were things that I loved, but they didn't seem to really make any sense given the world I was living in. Plastic suburban conformity. It didn't look like I could ever follow any of that. How do I become Lancelot or Prince Valiant or King Arthur in this age where everybody was wearing a grey flannel suit and carrying a briefcase and marching off to work, retiring with a gold watch. I mean, it just looked like a nightmare.
And then, all of a sudden, this wonderful young boy-this man-this 20 (19) year old appears on the TV and he's not like anyone else in the whole world and he connects when he sings---Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog--- in such a way that I'm sitting there looking over my shoulder, like is anybody watching me watch this?? And later, after he had come out, all of a sudden, parents are upset, grown-ups are upset, the world is upset-they shouldn't film him, they shouldn't allow him, there's something really wrong here, let's not let him back on TV unless we have the camera shoot him from the waist up. And there was outrage. So that confirmed for me and a lot of other people who loved Elvis, that we really had a hero now because there's nothing better than to rebel against the existing generation in some way. So he was that.
Now, also, Elvis was an amazing singer. If you listen back to his first five or six albums and you listen to the range and the power in his voice and the two full octaves he sang from, no two songs sounded the same. So other rock singers had a very limited vocal range so you would hear one record and you would always recognize who that was. But Elvis was so different on each song. He just had the widest, wildest range. He would come from a different place in each song and it was just remarkable.
It was stunning. And nobody could really quite explain what it was. How unexpected he always was. He represented to a lot of people..... like me ...... liberation; freedom of the spirit; fearlessness. He was absolutely fearless. He had no desire to win the approval of anybody. There was no attempt to win people over. That was just the way he did it and he followed his heart and he sang the way he wanted and he got up and felt the music and moved to the music while he was singing, even though no one else was doing that. And he didn't do it for effect; he did it simply because he was moved to do it. So there was no real approval-seeking in what he was doing. It was simply pure, free, wild, energetic expression and love of the music being expressed. He was totally surprised at how popular he was. People would scream and he was shocked.
It was such a lesson---such a really liberating lesson in fearless creativity that anyone could do it, that is what was beautiful, that is what was powerful, and if you really followed your heart everything would work out in your favor which happened for Elvis.
Or so we thought.
But there's the second lesson in Elvis' life (at least that I've gotten). The first lesson was follow your heart into fearless creativity and be devoted to your work and your music-whatever your music is.
The second lesson though, was be careful about "comfort." Be careful about what is hidden inside of comforts, approval-seeking, fitting in, blending in with the wallpaper because there is real danger there. And pleasure seeking, more pleasure, more comfort-and that was the second lesson in Elvis' life.
After he had done a number of albums which were an incredible sensation throughout the world, he went into the Army. Now, he didn't have to go into the regular Army because he could have done some kind of entertainment thing which they offered him. They offered him a tour--if he would tour the bases and sing to the soldiers that would fulfill his military obligation but he refused that. He said "I want to be a soldier like anyone else. I want to go in and do what they do and I don't want some special deal. I'm just a poor boy from Mississippi and I don't need any special treatment." Even though his bank account told him that he was the King of the World.
So, he goes in, serves his time in the Army but while he's in there he is prescribed certain drugs. Now I was in the Army for four years. I'm very familiar with how often we were prescribed drugs back in the day when I was there. If you had guard duty or if you had something that required you to be alert for long stretches of time without sleep, they would prescribe Ritalin or amphetamines-all kinds of things that would keep you alert. So Elvis, first on guard duty, would be prescribed these drugs; and he got really hooked. That was the start of his downfall. Because of that kind of addiction to drugs and pills.
He had so many people around him, because of all of his money, who were trying to win his favor, that they would do anything he wanted. So if he felt a little nervous they would go out and get some drugs and he'd take those drugs. If he would get tired, they would get some more drugs and pretty soon he had every drug in the world at his disposal. And anything he wanted (like a baby in a crib) people would rush (oh the baby's crying) and they would bring him food and bring him anything. And they would isolate him from the world, so he lost that connection to his fans and to his audiences that he loved so much.
Once he was isolated from that, he almost lived life in reverse. He went from really being out in the world, connecting, causing a stir, interacting with fans in huge, powerful ways to reverting back into a womb-like, crib-like existence in his later years. Those years were filled with comfort, but no challenge.
And because of that his whole life crashed down around him.
He was addicted to drugs, he gained a tremendous amount of weight, he was terrified, paranoid, and would stay up for nights at a time imagining all kinds of conspiracies against him. I mean it was really---anyone on drugs or alcohol knows what that life was like. I wish I didn't know what that life was like, but I do.
So, here's Elvis in nothing but a nightmare, trying to break out of that nightmare. A few times in his later years-in his late 30's and early 40's-he broke out. He would start to tour again, he would make a good album, he would get out in front of crowds again and he was trying so hard to break out of that fatal comfort zone---the nightmare of comfort---the horrible nightmare of passivity where we go when we're not vibrant and active and interacting with the world. This is like a living retirement! This is like being handed your retirement in your late 20's--here you are, here's your retirement. Welcome to the nightmare of no challenge.
This second lesson ---where comfort leads, where pleasure leads---I'm not talking about happiness or joy, I'm talking about cheap pleasure, pleasure-seeking, comfort-seeking, the avoidance of discomfort, the avoidance of challenge. It leads to absolute hell and nightmare. And that's the second lesson in Elvis' life that I think was so powerful.
It is to watch the decline and see how far down he went and see how pitiful it looked. All the bad movies he made. I mean some of his early movies were really good and enjoyable and you could feel his vitality. In the movies even though he wasn't an accomplished actor, you could feel the raw energy and the passion he had that he brought to each role; and then as the movies went on he was just phoning it in; he barely knew the script and used the same character in each one. He had gained weight and the songs were really bad and his voice had closed to just a tiny portion of the range that it once was and he had very little breath in him. Horrible to listen to.
It was an illustration for all of us about where life can go.
It has a lot to do with my lines with the whole owner-victim distinction and it has a lot to do with not seeking approval which was the first half of his life and then the weird collapse, kind of sad and pathetic approval seeking life which was the last part of his life. And then there were all of the people around him seeking his approval and wanting him to be dependent on them for the drugs and the isolation and all that stuff.
So it was an amazing life. He was larger than life. He lived in front of all of us and he died at the age of only 44, but he was amazing. I still love talking about Elvis. I love singing his songs. I've got my guitar at the ready at all times and I love singing his songs and remembering how much he moved me. He woke my whole life up, and how many people do that? Not many.
Let me do a final disclaimer before all the PC police launch their attacks on me as they love to do....I do realize and get it that there were African-American singers who came before Elvis and influenced Elvis tremendously...he himself was always the first to acknowledge that...people like Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton and many others. I get it and he got it. I love those singers too, and discovered them much later.
Especially Jackie Wilson.