Elvis - A Lesson In Celebrity
The thirtieth anniversary this week of the death of Elvis Presley gives the world again an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and dangers of celebrity.
The son of poor parents in America's segregated South, Elvis began to experiment with new forms of musical expression - new, at least, for a white boy - at a time when a global phenomenon was being born. For the first time in history, teenagers, particularly those in America, had disposable income to spend as they wished. Weary of war and upheaval, their parents wanted for them a quality of life they themselves had not enjoyed as young people.
Wherever there is money, there are creative marketers to help people spend it. In the fifties, young people were invited to spend their money on 'teenage' movies, passtimes and all manner of new toys, such as the roller skate, the surfboard and so on.
Above all else, the teenage boom was impacted by new forms of music, which allowed young people to express themselves in ways that broke with the 'family friendly' forms of earlier generations. Their new music was borrowed, in the main, from black rhythm and blues and gospel, and was considered dangerous and even antisocial, which made it all the more attractive.
Elvis was seen as the embodiment of that edgeiness and danger. He was good-looking, talented and not afraid to step on other peoples' blue suede shoes in the quest for self-expression.
At the height of his musical creativity, in the late 50s, he inspired an entire generation of younger creative artists, who themselves made a mark on the planet; people like the Beatles, Bob Dylan and a host of others.
Given the enormous attention he attracted throughout his life, and the high expectations people always had of him, it is perhaps not surprising that Elvis found adulation hard to deal with later in his life. Nothing could have prepared him for the rigours of celebrity on the scale to which he experienced it.
Today, we often read about the trials and tribulations of Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse and other postmodern pop celebrities, all of whom have at least grown up with the opportunity to learn from Elvis' experience. You could argue that he had no such role models, given that he was the first of the great pop-culture 'teen kings'.
We do well to remember the youthful Elvis with all his energy and positivity. But we should also remember the middle-aged Elivs who struggled so much with addiction and, perhaps moreso, self-image.
At one point Elvis said, 'I am so tired of being Elvis Presley.' After his death, at the age of just 42, LIFE magazine featured a major piece on his life. Toward the end, the writer spoke about Elvis' struggle to live up to the image of his youth. 'Perhaps not even Elvis could be Elvis any more,' he wrote.
Friends have said that facing his first tour in a long time, Elvis was struggling with his self-esteem. When he looked in the mirror, he saw a bloated middle-aged man, who had trouble singing his own songs. He looked and sounded nothing like the young rebel of 20 years previous; or even the young man who made all those B-quality movies he so disliked.
Friends have said that Elvis never considered himself a drug addict, because the pills he was taking were prescribed by various doctors. (Sadly, his celebrity wouldn't allow him even the benefits of unbiased medical attention - even his doctors were in thrall to him and would do whatever they thought pleased him.)
I think it's unlikely, though, that Elvis couldn't see the links between his obesity and the cocktail of drugs he was pumping into his system. He was, after all, something of a student of chemicals by the end, always wanting to find more that might help him.
Like any one of us, Elvis faced his own inner struggles and questions about life; not the least of which might have been why he had been allowed to live when his twin brother had died at birth.
Sadly, celebrity has a way of separating people from their struggles. For a while, this might seem attractive. In the long run, however, it prevents us from facing up to issues and challenges that could very well be overcome with the right help.
The deaths of Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and others all bear testimony to the fact that celebrity simply covers up our inner traumas. The very insecurities which drive very creative people to succeed need to be understood and managed, or they will take over. But, surrounded as they are so often by 'yes' people who tell them only what they want to hear, celebrities are often inured against facing personal weaknesses.
When I think of Elvis Presley, I feel sorry for a young man - even in death, he was relatively young - who still had so much more he could have given the world. I feel sad that, having left behind the truth he sang about in his much loved gospel songs, he was unable to find the support he needed to face himself and the road before him.