When Elvis Presley died at the age of 42, he was an obese, drug addicted lounge act who had not been relevant musically for almost a decade. Blessed with a rich baritone voice and a cocky swagger, Presley had captured the public's imagination way back in 1956 and for the next two decades generated a level of fame that earned him the sobriquet "King of Rock n Roll." But his ignominious death in 1977, slumped over the toilet, his colon so impacted from years of prescription drug abuse he could no longer properly move his bowels, was simply the exclamation point on a lengthy downward spiral. Presley's escapades included a spur-of-the-moment jaunt from Memphis to Washington, D.C. to jawbone President Nixon about the dangers of drugs (irony) and his weird fixations on karate, the occult, and racquetball were of a piece with his vampiric lifestyle, sleeping all day, up all night, shooting out television sets and stumbling around in a sedative-fueled haze until showtime.
No wonder I love Fat Elvis.
The Skinny Elvis/Fat Elvis comparison probably predates the U.S. Postal Service's decision to let people vote on which "version" of the late singer would adorn a 29 cent stamp back in 1993, but the singer's girth is a useful marker for his career. Presley's meteoric rise through songs like "Jailhouse Rock" and appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show lasted just a few years before a stint in the U.S. Army and years of successively treacly Hollywood movies made Elvis appear dated as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and others heralded the musical revolution of the 1960s. Elvis shimmied into a black leather suit for a 1968 comeback special, but the singer's music was no match for the ever evolving psychedelic sound and his waistline continued to expand as he ensconced himself in Las Vegas for weeks at a time, consuming ever greater quantities of uppers to perform and downers to rest. As the years went on, his sequined jumpsuits and meandering stage announcements turned this once shining light of entertainment into a laughingstock.
But like the Grateful Dead's dark 84 sound, I find Fat Elvis irresistible precisely because of the messiness of his final years. In a time before celebrities publicly acknowledged their addictions and sought treatment for them, Presley lived in a hermetically sealed bubble of sycophants and yes men who did his bidding when he wanted to ride roller coasters all night or comp his "Memphis Mafia" with a fleet of Mercedes Benz. He also had compliant doctors who wore out their prescription pads helping the King navigate his day-to-day life and a paid staff that funneled him boxes of popsicles and stacks of bacon without comment or criticism. That one human being could live a lifestyle this out of control, this hedonistic, and this reckless is truly amazing.
But in all this sloth, there is a pathos to Elvis's music as he neared his demise. The mournful tone in "My Way," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "Pieces of My Life" shows off the rare interpretative skill Presley had with other people's lyrics. This is a man who may have been diminished physically, spent psychologically, and dead creatively, but was able to muster an emotional peak that feels more impressive knowing how little time he had left on this Earth. It is unsurprising that the last songs Elvis is known to have sung, just hours before his death, were gospel hymnals, a port in the storm for his tumultuous life (and the only recordings for which he ever won a Grammy award). For even as he was burdened with a level of celebrity few could comprehend, inside him was a quiet boy from Tupelo, Mississippi yearning for salvation.
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