Like the Ancient Greeks, we prefer our heroes to fall tragically, undone by Fate, character or both. Elvis's story, 25 years after his death, apparently fits the bill. But don't be fooled by the standard tale of the "white trash" kid who becomes a fabulously wealthy superstar and stumbles to a grotesque and tragic denouement. There's a new, more uplifting Elvis epic -- one that notes the spirit and strength of a man who struggled against the genetic odds.
In the accepted version, the King is killed by his own appetite and weakness. He's made obese by junk foods, poisoned by his courtiers, caught in a crossfire of antagonistic pharmaceuticals. Stuffed, bloated, depersonalized, zombie-like he gives some last performances that are clearly pathetic and then is found face down in the shitter, dead of a heart attack. There he lies, utterly betrayed -- by himself, by his entourage, by his lovers, by his doctors and ultimately by his public, for whom he becomes the butt of jokes, routines and cautionary tales.
But consider the more favourable narrative. Long-known medical facts about Elvis's family suggest that there is one. The official cause of Elvis's death is listed as heart arrhythmia -- a heart attack. Elvis had severe arterial disease. In fact, when he died it was widely broadcast that he had the arteries of an 80-year-old man.
We also know that Elvis died very close to the anniversary of his mother's death. And what was the cause of Gladys Presley's death at the young age of 44? The truth is none too startling. Gladys Presley died of a heart attack. When we see pictures of Gladys at the end of her life, we see an obese, depressed-looking woman. A glance back at a famous photo of Elvis as a toddler with his parents shows us a quite different, much more handsome and thinner woman.
So Gladys shared more than a death date and cause of death with Elvis -- she suffered from the onset of obesity in her 40s. Is it possible that mother and son suffered the same genetic illness, an inborn tendency toward arteriosclerosis? This is in fact the truth.
The man who had been dealt such great talent was also dealt a distinctly deadly genetic inheritance. A further example of this is offered in the spurious Albert Goldman biography, Elvis: The Last 24 Hours. Here we're presented with an image of Elvis with uncontrollable bowels, forced to wear diapers in his final days. Again, this is attributed to misapplied pharmaceuticals and over-eating, but Elvis's autopsy reveals that he had an enlarged colon. In fact, it's reported that he was born with an abnormal colon and suffered agonizing intestinal difficulties.
Elvis's whole family is reported to have endured insomnia and sleep-walking. This is why, when he died, there was Valium in his system. He was plagued with insomnia all his life. He also had a history of cluster migraines. Any one of these ailments -- all of which were quite likely to have hit him whether he was a truck driver or a pop star -- would have been enough to severely disable any man. Yet Elvis carried these burdens while keeping up an exacting regimen of live performances and extensive travel.
It is obvious, then, that room must be made in the common consciousness for a reconstructed Elvis myth: the story of a man who rose to superstardom, and there, despite inherited ill health, managed to remain and contribute until his painful dying day. This is the story of an Elvis who, despite his ravaged body, gathers the strength to continue performing.
Despite the mass shame coming at him for his obvious obesity, he still manages to shake and dance the agonized body and deliver with trembling vocal cords vestiges of the music that changed not just a generation but the world forever. What kind of willpower and courage and desire must it have taken for the corpulent, scared Elvis Presley to place himself centre stage and still deliver the voice?
It's time to see Presley not as the flabby, fallen icon who's been presented to us but as the wounded healer, the courageous battler of a life-long ailment that, alas, got him in the end.
None of which can change the very essential truth and impact of his voice. In the preserved growling shout of the first few seconds of Jailhouse Rock you hear Lennon, you hear Janis, you hear heavy metal, you hear a jet plane taking off, you hear the great turbine thrust of a 50s car, you hear the space shuttle -- you hear the raging, raucous movement of eternity. Freedom. Robert Priest's new book, Blue Pyramids, will be published in September by ECW Press. It contains many Elvis poems.