First a list:
1935: Jesse Garon Presley (twin brother–stillborn–Tupelo, Mississippi)
1953: Hank Williams, Sr. (29) (role model–”insufficiency of the right ventricle of the heart” likely resulting from acute alcohol and drug abuse–Oak Hill, West Virginia)
1954: R.W. Blackwood (32), Bill Lyles (33) (role models–plane crash–Clanton, Alabama)
1955: James Dean (24) (role model–car crash–Cholame, California)
1958: Gladys Presley (46) (mother–heart failure–Memphis, Tennessee)
1959: Buddy Holly (22), Ritchie Valens (17), J.P. Richardson, Jr. (28) (contemporaries–plane crash–Clear Lake, Iowa)
1959: Mario Lanza (38) (role model–cause unknown [probably heart attack or pulmonary embolism while undergoing “weight loss” treatment]–Rome, Italy)
1960: Eddie Cochran (21) (contemporary–car crash–Chippenham, England)
1960: Johnny Horton (35) (contemporary–car crash–Milano, Texas)
1962: Marilyn Monroe (36) (contemporary–probable suicide by “acute barbiturate poisoning”–Los Angeles, California)
1963: John F. Kennedy (46) (U.S. president–assassination by gunshot–Dallas, Texas)
1964: Johnny Burnette (30) (contemporary–boat accident–Clear Lake, California)
1964: Sam Cooke (33) (contemporary–”justifiable homicide” by gunshot–Los Angeles, California)
1965: Bill Black (39) (original Elvis band member–brain tumor, likely resulting from alcohol abuse–Memphis, Tennessee)
1966: Bobby Fuller (23) (contemporary–found dead in car, “accident” and “suicide” both checked as cause of death by coroner–Los Angeles, California)
1967: Otis Redding (26) (contemporary–plane crash–Madison, Wisconsin)
1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. (39) (civil rights leader–assassination by gunshot–Memphis, Tennessee)
1968: Little Willie John (30) (contemporary–heart attack while imprisoned for manslaughter–cause disputed–Walla Walla, Washington)
1968: Robert Kennedy (42) (U.S. presidential candidate–assassination by gunshot–Los Angeles, California)
1969: Wynonie Harris (53) (role model–esophageal cancer–Los Angeles, California)
1970: Janis Joplin (27) (contemporary–heroin overdose–Los Angeles, California)
1970: Jimi Hendrix (27) (contemporary–”asphyxiation”–London, England)
1971: Jim Morrison (27) (contemporary–”cause undetermined”–Paris, France)
1971: Gene Vincent (36) (contemporary–ruptured ulcer, likely resulting from alcohol and drug abuse–Los Angeles, California)
1972: Clyde McPhatter (39) (contemporary–heart, liver and kidney disease, likely resulting from alcohol abuse –Teaneck, New Jersey)
1973: Bobby Darin (37) (contemporary–complications from heart surgery–Los Angeles, California)
1973: Gram Parsons (26) (contemporary–morphine and alcohol overdose–Joshua Tree, California)
1975: Al Jackson, Jr. (39) (contemporary–shot at home by intruders–Memphis, Tennessee)
1975: Jackie Wilson (contemporary–entered coma after heart attack on stage–died 1984 at age 49 without ever fully recovering–Mt. Holly, New Jersey)
1975: Lefty Frizzell (47) (role model–stroke, likely resulting from alcohol abuse–Goodlettsville, Tennessee)
1976: Sal Mineo (37) (contemporary–murdered by stabbing–Los Angeles, California)
1977: Elvis Presley (42) (heart failure, officially caused by “polypharmacy”–Memphis, Tennessee)
Then a question:
How exactly does an existential loner get so….connected?
Patterns observable–messages received:
Speed kills. Drugs kill. Alcohol kills. Guns kill. Loneliness kills.
The road kills. Clear Lake, Iowa. Madison, Wisconsin. Chippenham, England. Clanton, Alabama. Anywhere you go–the reaper’s waiting.
Los Angeles? Memphis?
The reaper’s still waiting. Check the list.
Surrounded by all of the above. Within and without. Always. From 1954 onward–the nightmare was in permanent lock-step with the dream.
Just like the preacher said it would be.
Then go on….to another pattern….but of course:
Sure, why not. Since we’re going all modernist.
I’ll start here:
In 1971, Vincent Eugene Craddock died in Southern California from a ruptured stomach ulcer at the age of 36. His general health had deteriorated over the previous decade due to several factors, including, most prominently, alcoholism and complications from an automobile accident he had suffered in 1960, which, along with broken ribs and collarbone, had further damaged a leg weakened by a motorcycle accident he had suffered in 1955–the same year Indiana native James Dean died in a car crash a couple of California counties up the road from where Virginia native Craddock would be buried.
Now follow the lines outward….and backward….and then forward again:
The motorcycle accident turned Craddock away from a planned career in the Navy (he had joined at 17, been deployed to Korea, and later named his legendary band the Blue Caps in homage to the sailors around the Norfolk Naval Station where he played his early gigs)–and toward the new music.
In 1956, as Gene Vincent, he wrote and recorded “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”
It was enough of a straight Elvis-rip that Presley’s band members at first angrily assumed he had recorded it behind their backs and Vincent himself felt a need to apologize the first time he met Elvis–who, not surprisingly, required no apology. He had loved the record.
It was also enough of a stone cold classic that when John Fogerty gave Vincent’s induction speech for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1998) he simply walked up to the mike and started singing it a cappella, thus instantly rendering the rest of his lovely speech–not to mention Steve Allen’s long ago attempt to mock the song by reading it as poetry (his other great claim to rock and roll villainy had, of course, been having Elvis sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound) –superfluous.
And keep following them:
Problems with the taxman and the musicians’ union, eventually led Vincent to a stretch of touring in England. There, in 1960, he was riding in a taxi through Chippenham, with fellow rockabilly star Eddie Cochran and Cochran’s girlfriend Sharon Sheeley, when the speeding taxi blew a tire, spun out of control and crashed into a lamp post.
Vincent’s subsequent fate you know.
So follow another line:
Cochran suffered massive brain injuries and died in a hospital in nearby Bath the following day.
According to some reports, Cochran–the first artist to record a Buddy Holly tribute–had thrown himself over Sheeley to protect her, and was subsequently flung clear when the car door flew open.
Sheeley–who had previously been the youngest (and by some accounts first solo) woman to write a number one hit for the Billboard pop charts (Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool”–she sold it to him by stalling her car in front of his house and then fooling him into thinking it had been written specifically for Elvis)–suffered a broken pelvis but eventually recovered and returned to her home in California. There she was ultimately brought out of a period of reclusive hibernation by her future husband, Los Angeles radio and TV personality Jimmy O’Neil (later the host of Shindig!), when he hooked her up with another singer-songwriter named Jackie DeShannon. Sheeley and DeShannon went on to become the first major all-female songwriting team in American music. DeShannon also became very likely the first rock and roll performer to champion Bob Dylan (she tried to record an entire album of his songs in 1963, when it would have been novel even for a folk act–her record company scotched the idea) and, in 1964, she became a key behind-the-scenes champion of a new band playing the Sunset Strip who eventually called themselves the Byrds.
The Byrds–who would very specifically repay DeShannon by recording a shine-forever version of her “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe” for their epic first album (the album that kick-started the most important American response to the British Invasion and sealed Bob Dylan’s decision to go electric)–were led by a young man named Jim (later Roger) McGuinn–himself a long-ago Elvis fan who had turned to folk because he thought rock and roll had lost its vitality.
Before coming to Los Angeles, McGuinn’s major gig had been playing backup for Bobby Darin, who had been signed to the New York-based R&B giant Atlantic Records because they were looking for a white boy after they lost out on their bid to sign….Elvis Presley.
Of course, McGuinn’s band would become famous for being the progenitors of “folk-rock” and their signature sound was touted as a cross between Dylan and the Beatles.
A cross, that is, between the music of Robert Zimmerman, former Elvis-wannabe of Hibbing, Minnesota and the music of a band led by former Elvis-wannabes Paul McCartney and John “Before-Elvis-there-was-nothing” Lennon of Liverpool, England.
I could take nearly any person on the list above and draw some similar set of patterns. I could take every single person on that list and write a fairly long essay on why Elvis Presley may have felt–very justifiably–some intensely personal connection even to those he never met.
From 1954 until he died in 1977, nearly every rock and roll road–and quite a few others–led back to Elvis, usually several times over.
And right from the beginning, those roads were paved with corpses.
Elvis was not born into a world where the destruction of celebrities–by fate, themselves or others–was counted ordinary.
He died in one where such wreckage was so common and complete that it could hardly have failed to affect him even if he had been as persistently wasted and “out of it” as various self-interested narratives have always insisted–and even if he could have made himself believe he had no responsibility for having wrought some vital part of the change himself.
It could hardly have failed to affect him even if he hadn’t been raised a Pentecostal in the American South–the place where Calvinism has left its deepest stamp anywhere in the modern world and a place where doom and release are in a constant state of palpable, mind-altering tension which the believer can actually make peace with somewhat more readily than the half-believer.
From the outside it surely looks like pure craziness. I can perceive this–and I’m sure I’ve transcended my usual paranoia in this matter–in everything from super-serious lit-mag reviews of Faulkner and Williams to the way the Village Voice tends to cover country music to the expressions on the faces of beltway reporters whenever some fresh madness forces their attention southward.
To which I can only say: Brother, you should see it from the inside.
Never fear. I haven’t forgotten that this is a pop culture blog. I’m not going to wander off into some sort of cost-benefit analysis of the differences and similarities between Old Testament Pentecostalism and New Testament Evangelicalism.
I’m not going to preach at you. Really I’m not.
But you may want to remember all this whenever I write about Elvis Presley or his music.
You may even want to remember some of it when you listen to that music yourself.
Now that doesn’t mean you should worry any.
We’re gonna have fun.
We’re gonna have lots of fun.
But just…remember this list. Remember those patterns.
Try to think about the man at the center of this particular web of what he would have been bound to suspect–because he could certainly never truly avoid such suspicion–were unbreakable strands of pre-destined fate, as a fellow human being.
Remember what it must be like to get the news, year after year–that, whilst you yet live, those who died clearing the path for you, are being followed in an increasingly headlong rush by those who are now chasing you.
That guy in your band whose funeral you couldn’t even attend because of the craziness your presence would unleash.
That kid you met once backstage in the early days and didn’t remember meeting when you wrote a condolence letter to his parents a few years later–didn’t remember because although you were already “Elvis Presley” he wasn’t yet “Buddy Holly.”
That guy who stopped by your house to borrow gas money so he could make it to the recording session that would make him a star.
That guy you will end up sharing a biographer with.
That other guy who you will share a biographer with because he told the guy who would end up writing his biography that the book he really wanted to read was the one about you.
That chum you swiped a move or two from in Vegas and whose medical bills you ended up footing when he beat you to a coma but not a grave.
That projects-neighbor from Lauderdale Courts who never could quite believe you made it bigger than he did.
That guitar player who may or may not have been conjuring up the memory of watching you have everyone rise for the national anthem before tearing into “Hound Dog” when it came time for him to reinvent the actual national anthem at Woodstock.
That home-town drummer whose backbeat kept the juke-box grooving at Graceland.
That boy-no-longer whose “Rebel Without A Cause”-dialogue you had memorized (along with everyone else’s) back when you–and everyone else–were safe in assuming that being a movie star would always be the coolest thing in the world.
That young woman who was nobody’s idea of a star in any world except the one you made possible–the one where rock stars were the coolest thing in the world–and who said “Elvis is my man.”
That other about-to-be-no-longer-young woman who was everybody’s idea of a star and provided the death scene that was bound to have made you think, “That’s the one. That’s the demon that will be coming for me.” Unless of course it made you extra careful not to think at all.
Those political leaders who started dropping like flies and kept right on dropping until you couldn’t quite escape the notion you might be next. (Note to reader: See December 8, 1980, for affirmation of just how crazy and paranoid that particular delusion of messianic grandeur actually was.)
All those and more. All those people. Gone to ghosts.
Like your mother.
Like your twin.
On and on.
There’s no call to even start on the bodies up at Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon–where your hairdresser/guru’s old boss (who had been recommended to you as well, albeit only as a hairdresser, not as a guru) was found lying on the floor of Sharon Tate’s house–tied at the neck to her body which had been stabbed sixteen times–with seven bullets in him and a face full of broken bones courtesy of Tex Watson’s boot, delivered prior to Tate’s own murder because your hairdresser/guru’s old boss had the temerity to plead for her life.
Whose house again?
That would be Sharon Tate–doubtless prevented from being one of your co-stars only by her chance appeal to a famous film director who could take her away from all that and by whom she was subsequently eight-months pregnant when she died, and who, when he finally did have a son oh-so-many years later, would name him after you….
As I say. No call to even start.
I meant it when I said we’ll have fun.
Elvis may have suffered a tragic death but he didn’t lead a pathetic life. Not by a long shot. Hey, he lived! He let the good times roll. He got through the best he could–Calvinist predestination or no Calvinist predestination.
No reason we shouldn’t do the same.
We really don’t need to get to where he didn’t, a decade further along, into “The Valley in the Shadow of Elvis Presley…”–where Ronnie Van Zant, Dorsey Burnette, John Lennon, Bill Haley, Natalie Wood, Marvin Gaye, Rick Nelson and Roy Orbison fetched up. (That’s “plane crash,” “heart attack,” “assassination by gunshot,” “heart attack,” “accidental drowning,” “justifiable homicide by gunshot,” “plane crash,” “heart attack”–in case anyone might be inclined to keep stats or wonder if anything sounds vaguely familiar. No need for fully cataloging the rest. Let’s just say the locations are mostly familiar, too, and Haley–who made 55–was the senior citizen of the bunch.)
And we certainly don’t need to get all the way down the road apiece where his daughter’s ex (52) and his backup singer’s little girl (48) followed suit, with headlines almost as big–and death causes almost as mysteriously banal–as his own.
Let’s leave any additional gruesome details for the tabloids and CNN, if anyone can still tell the difference.
Oh, we might get philosophical for a moment. Might speculate on how fame broadens the circle. How other famous people might have a similar list. (“They might be your fucking icons,” Pete Townshend says in a film clip that, for all I know, may still be running in a continuous loop at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “But they’re my fucking friends! And they’re dead!”)
Yes, others might have very definitely had it as bad–existentially speaking.
Personally speaking, some had it far, far worse.
Hell, Jackie Wilson lost four children and his heart attack left him crippled, trapped in his own once-glorious shell for nine years, after which it took three more years to mark his grave with a headstone because you weren’t there to buy it. At least the heart attack that came for you while he was waiting in limbo had the decency to kill you straight–and with money in the bank.
Yes, personally speaking, some had it worse.
But as far as combining the existential and the personal?
Well, that’s another story.
None of those others had to look at their list–a list like the one that I’ve kept to a conservative minimum above–and ask themselves:
“Did I do this?”
So if anyone wants to go down that path, have at it.
That sort of thing can be its own sort of fun no doubt.
But we’re gonna have some real fun, too.
Life’s a bowl of cherries, even for us New Testament Evangelicals with our brows only semi-permanently furrowed by concern for our fellow sinners–and we’re gonna keep it light-hearted.
None of that all-the-way gloomy Old Testament stuff.
All I ask you to bear in mind is that you might have to risk finding out how crazy it is in here.
While we’re making lists and having fun.