The Beat Goes On: What Four Days in Memphis Taught Me About Recovery
“After going to his concert without me, she promised me she would take me to the next one. The next day, he died. I had a complete meltdown and didn’t speak to my mother for nearly a month. I was 11 years old.”
It was my first night in the Blues Capital of the World, Memphis, Tennessee, when I decided to take a walk down Beale St. in search of some high end barbecue, as well as some low end souvenirs. It was my first time in the deep south, and I quickly found that everything I had heard and seen in movies were true. The tea was sweet, the people were sweeter, and the accents were nearly as thick as the blanket of humidity causing my hair to triple in size. As I continued along, I decided to stop in an overly lit and abundantly stocked gift shop, where I met the shop manager behind the counter.
“So you didn’t speak to your mom for a whole month? What did she do?” I asked, juggling about $90 worth of merchandise.
“There wasn’t much she could do, I would just lock myself in my room and listen to his records. I forgave her eventually, but I never let her forget it.” She replied.
“Ha, that’s quite a story,” I chuckled to myself, “Is Beale St. usually this busy?”
“Well hon, it’s the 40th anniversary of his passing. People are making their once in a lifetime trips out here; it’s usually busy, but never quite like this.”
I too was one of those people making their once in a lifetime trips to Memphis, as 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. It had been a bucket list item of mine to visit the city he loved so dearly, take a tour of Graceland, and partake in the candlelight vigil nearly hundreds of thousands migrate to each year. Within just a few hours of landing, I had been exposed to nearly a dozen different languages, signifying “The King’s” great impact on a significantly global scale.
On my final night, I decided to attend the candlelight vigil despite the overwhelmingly large amount of people crowding outside the Graceland gates, igniting my claustrophobia in full form. “The beat goes on”, “Gone but not forgotten”, I continued to hear throughout the night, a few encouraging statements to remind fans that while he may no longer be with us in physical form, his legacy and iconic showmanship remains. As the long walk began down the Graceland driveway with a lit candlestick in hand, the remaining crowd began to sing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in perfect unison, sending absolute chills down my spine. With my eyes beginning to feel hot with tears, I couldn’t help but think: How would the world be different if Elvis had utilized drug addiction treatment? Is his everlasting legacy true to his musicianship, or is he simply famous in tragedy?
As a true symbol of the “American Dream”, Presley began recording at Sun Studio in Memphis at just 18 years old. Working as a truck driver for a Tennessee electric company, his rags to riches niche catapulted his music career with the recording of his first hit single, “That’s All Right”. Alongside his ability to coalesce the twang of classic country and the soulfulness of 12-bar blues, his humble upbringing resonated with listeners. “Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine,” he would often say, “Ain’t nowhere else in the world where you can go from driving a truck to a Cadillac overnight.”
Since his passing in 1977, there have been many misconceptions regarding the death of The King of Rock and Roll. While varying factors played several key roles regarding his inevitable fate, the largest determinants were undoubtedly his poor eating habits, abuse of prescription medication, and surrounding stresses concerning his career. Nonetheless, Elvis’ addiction to prescription pain killers would eventually lead him to inescapable fatality. In the last 7 months of his life, his personal physician, George “Dr. Nick” Nichopoulos, wrote him prescriptions for at least 8,805 pills, tablets, vials, and injectables. On the day of his death in August of 1977, Baptist Memorial Hospital of Memphis held a press conference determining his cause of death to be heart failure and severe constipation, while physical evidence heavily indicated an extended history of drug abuse.
For those that are unfamiliar with some of the severe side effects that accompany opioid abuse, a few include chronic constipation, shortness of breath and uncontrollable physical dependence, all symptoms which Elvis displayed in the last few years of his life. At the time of his death, many fans were shocked to find the man they so idolized would die of health complications at such a young age, just 42. What we would later find out was that Elvis’ unfortunate condition was indeed not a shock to those in his close circle, and was nearly 17 years in the making.
Throughout his childhood, Elvis had experienced periods of night terrors, insomnia, and severe sleepwalking. His inability to sleep soundly intensified after being drafted into the army and the passing of his mother, Gladys, in 1958. Stationed in Germany, the military is where Elvis was quickly introduced to highly addictive stimulants gifted from his sergeant. In a 1977 issue of Rolling Stone, Elvis’ friend and bodyguard, Sonny West, highlights his introduction to “uppers”, “Well, he told us a sergeant started him on Benzedrine or Dexedrine when he was on maneuvers out in the snow and everything. This sergeant said he didn’t want the guys falling asleep or freezing to death. This wasn’t Army policy, it was just this sergeant, and Elvis started using ‘em.” (Fong-Torres, 1977)
As a true pioneer of embodying the term, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll”, Elvis’ lifestyle not only encouraged drug use, but nearly demanded it. “He had his sleeping pills and his downers, he took coke for the time he was onstage to perform, but then immediately afterward he went to the hotel room,” stated West. “Man, you gotta picture this guy for two weeks at a time only going from the plane to the hotel to the show.” (1977) As his career lulls and triumphs continued to fluctuate and progress, Elvis found himself unhappy with his standing within Hollywood and often expressed how displeased he was with his career. What began as a revolutionary rock and roll icon in the 1950’s, found itself in a subpar movie career which continued to spiral out of control.
While Elvis had always wished to pursue acting, his lack of obtaining more serious roles throughout his 14 studio contracts between 1956-1969, negotiated by his manager, Colonel Parker, ultimately drove him to disappointment. During his time in Hollywood, pop culture and modern America as he knew it would begin to change. The Beatles began to emerge with their youthful boy band appeal, The Rolling Stones had brought their British bad boy persona across the pond, and Elvis had yet to perform in front of a live audience since 1961. In other words, he had lost his charisma.
After nearly a decade of disinterest in his career, Elvis and Colonel Parker concocted a revival so immaculate, it would alter his career indefinitely. Originally declared as a “Christmas Special”, this a one hour performance of Elvis reciting his favorite christmas songs idea was quickly scrapped by producers Steve Binder and Bones Howe. Emphasizing the urgency of Elvis’ return to the stage, his iconic “ELVIS: 1968 Comeback Special” aired on NBC on December 3rd, 1968, and reached nearly 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the number one program of the season. This raw, story telling performance lit a fire in Elvis’ career, and ultimately negotiated him a deal with the Las Vegas International Hotel, a residency which would guarantee him a four-week, 57-show engagement. Within his month-long showmanship at the newly built hotel, Elvis performed for over 100,000 guests and accumulated over $1.5 million in ticket sales.
With a sold out arena tour and a Top 10 album, Elvis’ successes began to translate into forfeits within other aspects of his life despite his longed return to the spotlight. The King had regained his throne, yet his marriage to Priscilla Presley began to crumble as his drug dependency continued to intensify. In the final years of his life, Elvis was touring nearly all over the country, but fell particularly in love with a few cities, such as Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas. Upon visiting these cities, Elvis would receive prescriptions from varying doctors, eager to assist the wealthy icon. “When he visited a doctor (or dentist), Elvis would almost inevitably talk him into a prescription, usually for painkillers. Eventually, Elvis took to carrying around a copy of the The Physician’s Desk Reference,” states Robert Fontenot, entertainment critic and journalist, “He knew just what to ask for and, when necessary, which symptoms to fake.” (Fontenot, 2017) In 1973, Elvis was admitted for drug detoxification, which was later announced to the public as “exhaustion”. His primary physician, Dr. Nick, accompanied him on the road, and is said to have packed “three locked suitcases filled with prescription drugs.” On tour, Elvis received specific “uppers” and “downers” upon waking, before and after the performance, and at bedtime.
His absolute favorite was Dilaudid, an extremely powerful opiate which dilutes pain, slows breathing and presents an overall feeling of calmness. Aware of his perpetual hunger for prescription pills, Dr. Nick found his aid to Elvis’ demanding appetite was justified, as he felt his prescriptions kept Elvis away from more severe “street drugs”. In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Dr. Nick recited his methods of truly encouraging Elvis to lighten his usage, despite his persistence of obtaining a few of his favorites. “On the road, he was so afraid that he wouldn’t get enough sleep to do a good show the next night that he would end up asking you for an extra pill or two,” he stated, “So those extra pill or twos would be placebos.” (Higginbotham, 2002) While on tour, Dr. Nick and Elvis’ fellow crew members would drain capsules and replace them with saline solution. “When Elvis asked for a shot that he didn’t need, Dr. Nick would wait until his back was turned, squirt the liquid on the floor, and then ‘inject’ his patient with the emptied syringe.” (2002) Between 1975 and 1977, Dr. Nick had prescribed 19,000 doses of drugs, and nearly 200 prescriptions alone in the first eight months of 1977, totaling more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines and narcotics. All of these prescriptions under Elvis’ name totaled to nearly 40 doses a day, which inevitably led to Dr. Nick’s suspended medical license for overprescription in 1977.
In the early morning of August 16th, 1977, Elvis reportedly retreated to his master bedroom on the top floor of Graceland, his Memphis mansion. At roughly 5 a.m., Elvis eagerly opened the conveniently pre-packaged packet of pills constructed by Dr. Nick. Just a few hours later, Elvis consumes a second packet of pills, as well as a third upon his inability to sleep at 8 in the morning. By 1:30 p.m., Elvis’ fiancé, Ginger Alden, awakens to see him missing from the bed. She soon knocks on the bathroom door repeatedly to find no reply, and eventually bursts through the door to find him lifeless on the floor. By 4 p.m., Elvis, The King of Rock and Roll, is pronounced dead at the Graceland gates by his father, Vernon Presley.
By the time I completed the hike through Graceland’s iconic gates, the evening had become morning, and our time left in Tennessee was dwindling. With nearly 60,000 people in attendance, the crowd had engulfed Elvis Presley boulevard, making the flee to a nearby convenient store a nearly impossible feat. As I waited for my Uber under an neon pink sign advertising “Fresh, Fried Chicken”, I could feel my skin consuming the cloak of excessive moisture in the air. Exhausted, thirsty, and in desperate need of a cold shower, I felt overwhelmingly numb. While the remaining 59,999 fans in assemblage seemed to be overcome with contentment to have experienced this grand opportunity, I did not. I felt anger, frustration, and overall impotence. On the way back to our Beale St. hotel, I reflected upon how much Elvis changed society, the impact he implanted not just music, but American culture as we know it, and what could’ve been done to encourage his sobriety.
Forty years after his death, we have discovered so much regarding recovering, as well as some of the harmful stigmas that may accompany the word. In the early 1960’s, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, criminalized many drugs recognizable today, which earned him the title, “America’s First Drug Czar”. Due to this prohibition, many drug users distributing, utilizing, or simply carrying drugs were imprisoned. This altered the outsiders’ view of addiction on many levels, as it caused society to perceive addicts as not just one struggling with addiction, but an overall criminal as well. This forced those who ultimately required detoxification to receive jail time, an environment where violence and drug use are continuously inescapable. This shame that escorted the term “addict” throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s undoubtably loomed over those struggling with recovery, making it almost inevitable for a global phenomenon such as Elvis Presley to be afraid of confessing his fondness for prescription drugs.
At the 2016 premier of the movie, “Elvis & Nixon”, executive producer and longtime friend of the Presley’s, Jerry Schilling, highlighted to New York Daily News what a difference a drug treatment program would have made in the preservation of Elvis’ life. As a recovery worker, I am entirely aware of the patients’ need for willingness regarding this process, and what an impact the encouragement from those closest to you makes. At the time of his death, those in Elvis’ tight circle were so afraid of rejecting the powerful star that they simply continued to abet his unhealthy habits, as he continued to battle his inner demons as well.
In an interview with CNN, Linda Thompson, Elvis’ girlfriend of 4 years, highlights some of the inner challenges Elvis faced. “He surrounded himself with people whom he loved and trusted, because he was so secluded from the world, and so sheltered,” she stated, “I think that’s one reason Elvis felt lonely at times, he realized that even if they cared about him, they still lost sight of him as a human being. He would get depressed because he felt people didn’t love him for being the simple person he was.” (CNN, 2002) It is clear that Elvis experienced internal pressures to uphold his iconic persona on and off stage, and the anxieties accompanying these demands flourished. So often in the realm of recovery do you find addicts that are utilizing drugs to saturate a void within, whether it be depression, anxiety, or to simply escape. His ongoing cycle of mental weight brewed the perfect elixir of a traditional addict, yet the inability to perceive these components as a threat to his survival outweighed the fundamentals of sobriety.
So, the question still remains, would the world be different if Elvis had received treatment? And quite frankly, I don’t know. What we know is Elvis’ impact on society expanding far past music, as his humility, love of family, and undeniable devotion to his craft echoed amongst those that admire him. While one can undoubtably learn from the misfortunes of this great icon, we can elevate the successes that have allowed his showmanship to amplify decades after his passing. In the words of longtime friend and broadcaster, George Klein, “If you’re an Elvis fan, no explanation necessary. If you’re not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible.”