On August 16th, 1977, Elvis Presley passed away at the age of 42. He died as he lived; high on prescription medication with an enlarged colon. To my musical palette Elvis has become less of an easy target. Maybe it’s time to lay off the drug-use jokes, too. In an attempt to say “no hard feelings” to the Elvis estate, here are five of my favorites Elvis tracks, along with five personal run-ins with drugs. Let’s rock!
1) “Loving You”(1957)/Valium
The big hit from the album, Loving You, was “Teddy Bear”, but the title track is my favorite. Super crooning sounds, but having the guitar play the doo-wap arpeggios usually left to the piano leaves room for jazzier chords at the keyboard. The Jordanaires gently harmonize in the background; Elvis’ mouth seems extra wide open, with super smooth articulation. So cool. Loving You wasn’t Elvis’ first movie, but it was the first one that he was the star in. Also of note: this Technicolor debut made him decide to dye his hair black.
I accidentally took one or two Valium, shaking them into my mouth in the dark from a bottle of ibuprofen, thinking that they were, well, ibuprofen. It made me feel exactly like when Bugs Bunny, running away from the mad scientist, breaks the bottle of ether and tries to run down the stairs. A great drug if you have debilitating waking terrors, but not for me. Let’s not confuse being sedentary with being non-productive. . .
2)”Now Or Never”(1960)/”Are You Lonesome Tonight?”(1960)/Marijuana
I could wax on and on about the music(perhaps his best singing) or the trivia(the highest trivium: “Now Or Never” inspired an imprisoned Barry White, doing time for petty theft, to sing his was into thousands of panties), but the most romantic thing about these tunes is that he heard versions of them oversees in the Army and fell in love with them there, and they were recorded, as singles, before Elvis entered the circus that Colonel Parker had set up for him while he was away. Listening to these tunes while he was removed from the “scene” must have been valuable; he felt a little paranoid about being relevant when he returned from the Army, and he pounced on “Now Or Never” as soon as he got back(“pounced”=”take fellow RCA Victor recording artist Tony Martin’s version and write new lyrics to it for me”). “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was recorded as a favor for Colonel Parker, giving me a great opportunity to fill my obligation to remind you that Parker was an ass. Done.
(Note: I’ve been listening to the ’69 Vegas recordings, mainly because Elvis was my age when he recorded them. Of all the moments of levity/maniacal wanderings, hearing him lose it during “Are You Lonesome Tonight” is second only to him making a piss joke about Gatorade.)
Imagine that, long ago, some guy bought a twenty-dollar bag of weed for no good reason. Imagine that it took him and a friend an entire year to smoke it. Imagine if it really didn’t do anything for him except make his fish tank more interesting, make every moment more prolonged and slow, and make sex a tad more intense (mainly because he is a fan of prolonged and slow sex).
And imagine if, in that year, this guy made an album on the anniversary of 9/11. . .
3) “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”(1954)/Nicotine
Let’s have a quick primer about Bill Monroe:
— If you’re not a deep fan of folk/bluegrass music, then it’s safe to say that Bill Monroe invented all you know about bluegrass. The music is relatively new, developed in the forties, and serves as a counterpoint to the country music sounds of post-WWII Nashville.
— Nobody believed that Bill Monroe invented bluegrass more than Bill Monroe did. He was in the Frank Zappa camp of being demanding of his musicians. Anyone who tried to emulate the sounds that Monroe was making were quickly derided by him. Musicians who left his band were shunned. He was universally loved and respected, but he was also protective of both his music and his style.
Knowing these facts, I was sure that Bill Monroe would have gone on some sort of public derision of Elvis. When Elvis played his one and only gig at the Grand O’l Opry, his big feature was “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” and the crowd thought it was a dud; Bill Monroe’s original version is a 3/4 time lament of a waltz; Elvis punctuates his dong thrusts with a dirty 4/4. Monroe? Lithe, reverent mandolin. Elvis? Bass player slapping a whore’s thigh. The crowd reacted tepidly because Bill Monroe didn’t like his style messed with, and, per Opry membership, they all probably knew that Monroe was somewhere backstage(Opry members used to be required to be there every Saturday night, no matter what).
I admit, I was a bit disappointed to find out that Bill Monroe liked Elvis’ version. He especially liked what the song did for him. Financially, since Monroe wrote the tune, it was making him a ton of money(this was before Colonel Parker demanded insane shares of writer’s money. Ass.). Musically, Elvis having a hit with Monroe’s name on it kept him relevant; this was the period when the surge of bluegrass was being overtaken by both rock-n-roll and the slick-and-safe “Nashville Sound” country was nurturing(pot-smoking college students would bring bluegrass back in the 60’s). Socially, his problem was with The Stanley Brothers 4/4 version they recorded to cash in on Elvis’ popularity. Bill Monroe would eventually record a version that was half his, half similar to The Stanley Brothers version(I only have the late 40’s recording, so I didn’t know he did this until recently. . . ).
There was a time in my life when I smoked menthol cigarettes, just like my mother did for a time in her life, and I drank a ton of Mountain Dew. During this time I also visited a friend in Lexington, KY. If you didn’t know, cigarettes and Mountain Dew in Kentucky is pretty much like Elijah and Mohammed are in Iran. Pretty much exactly.
4. “Patch It Up”(1970)/Phenergan
This is my fave post-1968 Elvis tune, delivered up as an afterthought b side to the dreadful cover of “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”. I’m a budding Elvis fan, so I really like the high-energy tunes of late, and I really don’t like the slow ballads. Maybe because the slow, uninteresting tunes are a kinda-sorta portent to his death.
At the end of “Patch It Up” in concert? He rises from the dead. Like a sumbitch.
I got the flu once, bad enough to have to go to the emergency room; imagine waking up on the bathroom floor, covered in vomit, then going to the living room to sit in the La-z-boy until someone else woke up to take you to the ER. That kind of flu.
The kind lady at the ER gave me some Phenergan while I was being intravenously rehydrated. She told me that it was in suppository form, in the same voice that you might tell someone that 1) their cat died and 2) there’s no heaven for cats. I had left my dignity on the bathroom floor with some chymed-out chicken strips, so I could care less; my stomach had did me wrong, not my rectum.
She also said that it would make me sleepy. I told her that medicine really didn’t effect me this way. She smiled. Six hours later I woke up, feeling much better. That little waxy bullet went up my ass and shot my stomach in the face. I got four for the road and used them wisely, even giving one to a sick friend. It worked wonders for him, too.
Fast forward a fer years: I got food poisoning and ended up in the intensive-care unit of Five Rivers Medical Center in Pocahontas, AR. They kept giving me Zofran(used for chemotherapy patients) for my nausea and flat-out refused to give me Phenergan without telling me why. It wasn’t working. When I finally got permission from the attending doc to switch drugs, I found out why they were holding out; people in the rice flatlands are abusing it for it’s narcotic effects. I mean, this medicine puts me full out. Who’s abusing this? Insomniacs? Later the nurses showed me that the city of Pocahontas had also fallen for the internet Jenkem rumor. They were convinced that it was rampant in their town. Fair enough.
Fast forward to about an hour ago; Phenergan is a brand name for promethazine, the cough syrup secret ingredient in Purple Drank. I had no idea that my butthole was totally grippin‘ and sippin‘. I’ll know to stick a green apple-flavored Jolly Rancher up there with it next time. Mike Jones!
5) “Hey Jude” (1972)/Hydrocodone
In the end it still an issue of drugs for Elvis. Like I mentioned in the beginning, a strange part of the Elvis mythology is the reflex of some to immediately fill in the blank provided in “Elvis Presley was ____________ ” with “a drug addict”. Good Lord, that is a viable answer for any rock musician in the 70’s. The crime is how obvious it was that he had a problem; there doesn’t to be chapter in Elvis’ history called “The Time Elvis Kicked Barbiturates In 1973” or “The Time Elvis Turned To A High-Fiber Diet And Exercise Instead Of Blindly Taking An Eighth Prescription Pill”.
Or so I can imagine. I have been as careful as I can to get Elvis info only as an endeavor of learning more about the music; I haven’t read any Elvis biographies biased positively or negatively. I am trying to glean information sonically first. Elvis’ problems, however, exist in the aural record. And not just the symptoms of drug addiction which is a whole other comedy/tragedy. It became obvious with the movie soundtracks that Elvis was not surrounded by people interested in making lasting music. If Elvis did have an epiphany after the ’68 Comeback Special to only make music he cared about, that vision didn’t make it’s way out of the American Studios in 1970.
“Hey Jude” should have been the call for intervention. This was recorded during the great American Studio sessions but was wisely shelved; it is terrible. The instrumental parts were recorded first, a change-up from the “live” way Elvis liked to record. This might have been because Elvis didn’t know the words, a good guess seeing as how he still didn’t know the fucking words when they recorded it. He misses notes. The band is hesitant, with I-guess-I’ll-play-a-backbeat-or-somethin’ drums and whatever horn arrangement. The hesitation could be to make the silly ending more exciting, where Elvis scats “Judy” over and over like Goober’s Cary Grant impression. It’s so anemic, it would make you think it was filler, but the entire album is filler. Maybe Elvis didn’t know better, but someone should have. He put out a gospel album after this one, and it was great. It would have probably been better to not have put out Elvis Now at all, but the same people that let Elvis wallow in drug addiction weren’t going to go a year without some money-making product. It was a poor choice. Both of them.
There’s someone close to me that seems to be abusing some prescription drugs. It’s obvious. Some drugs are addictive even if you take them as prescribed. But again: it is totally obvious, if not to this person then definitely to the people who love this person. There won’t be a tragic ending even if it means calling the cops(again). Hydrocodone doesn’t do anything for my pain, but it makes me woozy enough to forget I’m hurting. I’m at an age where I no longer confuse “woozy” with “high”. Yes, caffeine and the occasional gin ricky, but especially now, really getting a feel in my mind for the music of Elvis and how horrible the music got when the drugs took over. I took a moment in the past making music in front of the tv with planes smashing into the Twin Towers; I like the results, but thinking I wasn’t sober doing it makes it feel tainted. Too bad Elvis couldn’t feel the same way.