(originally published in Observer Music Monthly in 2007)
Several of Nik Cohn's critically acclaimed rock music books:
Elvis Presley died 30+ years ago on 16 August 1977 - or so the legend goes. But maybe the story is not so simple. When the call finally came, Nik Cohn went in search of the real King. The ailing figure he has tracked down for this unique interview looks and even sounds different, but the truth of the man is laid bare as never quite before ...
Elvis is dying. The prostate cancer he's held at bay for years has metastasised, and he expects to be gone within a few months. His wife Claudette wants him to start more chemo, but he feels it's time to let go. I died once before,' he reminds me. 'This is just the remix.
Though the disease has whittled him down, he looks surprisingly strong. In fact, the man who sits in a trailer home beside a Louisiana bayou, dressed in sweatpants and a football shirt, seems in better shape than the bloated, drug-addled wreck who ran away from the world 30 years ago. Even before his illness, he'd lost almost five stone.
He steers clear of peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and is so wary of addiction that Claudette has to bully him into taking his medications. The new face he acquired after his disappearance retains an ageless, waxy sheen. Only the faded blue eyes, sometimes clouded by pain, show damage.
He no longer sings, even in the shower. The same surgeon who worked on his face also fixed his vocal cords, and his speaking voice today is low-pitched and scratchy, without resonance. I ask if he misses making music.
He shrugs. 'It's not an option. Music brung me everything I had, but what I had was killing me. The only way I could survive, I had to let it all go.'I got his summons two nights ago, bang in the middle of American Idol. 'This is, uh, Elvis Presley,' said the voice on the phone. 'I need you to get on a plane.'Claudette meets me at Baton Rouge airport. Stylish, with spiky, raven-black hair and a no-nonsense manner, she refers to her husband as Jake. 'Force of habit,' she says, but doesn't elaborate. I'd guess her age at 40. Elvis is 72.
It's mid-afternoon when we turn off the Interstate and hit a rutted back road that leads us deep into the swamps. At one point, a herd of wild hogs rushes out of the bayou and almost crashes into us. A few miles on, we come to a small clearing in the scrub pines. A catahoula hunting hound with one blue eye and one brown rushes up to the car, barking furiously; I also note a goat and assorted cats.
Elvis stands waiting at the door of the trailer, looking antsy. 'What took you so long?' he demands. Before I can answer, he goes inside and plops down at the kitchen table, where his daughter Belle, who's 14 and a dead ringer for Elvis at the same age, is playing with a tabby kitten. Her spinal injury keeps her in a wheelchair for much of the time, though she can walk short distances with crutches. She says she wants to be a vet.
The trailer is pretty basic - living area, kitchen, two small bedrooms. Pride of place belongs to a framed picture of Elvis's mother as a young woman, slim and pretty in a polka-dot dress. There's also a picture of Claudette as Miss Plaquemines Parish 1984, radiant in bathing dress and tiara, and several studio portraits of Belle with her older brother, Jake Jr, but not a single image of Elvis himself, past or present.
Claudette pours us big glasses of iced tea, so loaded with sugar that the sweetness puckers my mouth, then leaves us alone to talk while she drives Belle to a physical therapy session. In the fading afternoon light, Elvis looks tired but undefeated. Though his remade face is as expressionless as a mask, I sense he's on edge - anxious to talk but unsure of where to begin, and primed to blow if I push the wrong button.
Once, when I ask about Jake Jr, he shoots me a look that would fell a charging rhino. For an instant, I glimpse the man who shot and killed the TVs in Graceland with a handgun because he didn't care for the programming.There is an awkward silence while Elvis gazes distractedly at a courtroom drama on the miniature TV next to the toaster oven. The reception is poor and the set outdated, but not, as far I can see, bullet-scarred. 'Court TV is most all I watch now. Crime, and football,' Elvis says, intercepting my gaze. He's fanatical about LSU (LouisianaStateUniversity), who play in Baton Rouge, and drinks his tea from a Bayou Bengals team glass.
'Claudette says I piss gold and purple,' he confides, which reminds him he needs a leak. As he moves toward the bathroom, his walk is stiff-kneed, each step a visible effort, and his shirt flaps loose, too big for his frame. 'I'm losing my stuffing,' he says. By the time he returns, the news is on. There's been another round of car bombs in Baghdad, dozens dead, hundreds maimed. George Bush assures us things are looking up. 'I don't care for that man,' Elvis says. 'How I was raised up, my mama taught me never to judge anyone till you walked a mile in their shoes. I always believed in that, but Bush might change my mind. I knew guys like him back at Humes High, playground bullies, all huff and puff, then you'd see 'em in the showers, no manhood on 'em whatever.'
Distaste for bullies is as political as he gets.
'I don't follow parties, policies, it's all words to me, but killing your fellow man just doesn't set right with me, I don't care what he's done.' He's equally dubious about the war on terror. 'They sell us fear, same way they sell cars or electric blankets. Well, we're all afraid; that's the condition of being alive. I was frightened most of my life, and I'll tell you this: fear will eat your soul, son. Sure as hell ate mine.'
Before I have time to follow this up, he hauls himself to his feet. 'I need to start dinner,' he says, and makes noise with the pots and pans.
As Claudette works, Elvis does most of the household chores, and cooking has become a form of therapy. His speciality is jambalaya - yellow rice with hot sausage, shrimp, okra and Cajun spices. As he sets the pots to simmering, and the trailer fills with rich aromas, he starts to unwind, and fills me in on what he's been up to.
Until Hurricane Katrina, he was living in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, as Jake Smith. The name wasn't chosen at random - Jake Hess, the histrionic lead singer of the gospel group the Statesmen, was Elvis's childhood idol, and Smith was his mother's maiden name. 'The two most important people in my life, coming up. I felt, having them in my name, they'd always stay with me, kinda look out for me.'In Metairie , he owned Jake Smith's Pawn & Gun and a three-bedroom, ranch-style bungalow in a quiet cul-de-sac. He drove an old Taurus, was a deacon at the Wayside Calvary Pentecostal church, played a little golf, occasionally went duck hunting. He and Claudette had a strong marriage and two children they cherished.
'I felt blessed,' he says. But Katrina destroyed both his business and his home, and cast the family adrift. Though he'd moved them to safety in Baton Rouge the day before the storm made land, they lost everything. 'Not just possessions, those can be replaced. I'm talking peace of mind.
'When Elvis returned to New Orleans, a few weeks later, to see what survived of Jake Smith's life, he realised that Jake himself had washed away. 'When I saw the city in ruins, and what had happened to all the people, the way they were treated, lower than dirt, it was like something broke in me. I'd stayed to myself, locked away, for so many years. After I stopped being Elvis, I just wanted the opposite. To be a nobody, I guess. Man, I'll tell you, when you've been where I was, being nobody feels real sweet. 'Somehow, after Katrina, that was no longer possible. 'Family, business, church - that used to be my whole world. It was like I'd been in a bubble, and the bubble burst. I saw there's no safe harbour; life will track you down. Pitch you in the water, just like it done those people down there, God's children, everyone.
'His family were holed up in a Baton Rouge motel room, paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). The night he got back, he told Claudette his true identity. 'Wasn't easy, son. Let's just say she didn't take it kindly.' He smiles ruefully. 'Claudette, of course, she's a good few years younger 'n me, grew up on Prince.' A flicker of amusement lights the tired eyes. 'Don't tell her this, I'll flat out deny it, but I kinda like Prince. Little man can play him some guitar.'Life among the evacuees at the Thunderbird Motel was no picnic. 'Lotof anger going round, a whole lot of guns. I feared for my family.
'He thinks the stress brought on the resurgence of his cancer. Yet he doesn't regret the months spent there. 'Can you understand this? That place was living hell, but I felt connected. Every man Jack of us was in the same boat. Not a one had more than the clothes we stood up in. Didn't matter what all we'd been before, we was nothing now.'
From the Thunderbird, they moved to a rented apartment behind a Chinese takeaway, and then, when the Fema money ran out, to this trailer in Cajun country, not far from the AtchafalayaSwamp. They have a new identity (which, for obvious reasons, I'm sworn not to reveal) and a new existence. Claudette works as a dispatcher for the local police department, and Elvis, when health allows, earns a little extra customising cars. Paying the bills isn't easy, even now that Jake Jr has left home and is living in Brooklyn, but the family's wants aren't great. Elvis grows snap beans, yams, and heirloom tomatoes in the yard, and neighbours sometimes bring fresh fish. 'I have what the Lord intends me to have,' he says. 'No man should crave more.'
Noting that the 30th anniversary of his fake death may also be the date of his real death, he seems to relish the irony. 'I read in a book once, some French guy, that all reality is illusion. Didn't make much sense to me at the time, but now I see what he was getting at. Only he got it ass backwards. All illusion is reality, leastways it's fixing to be. Just give it time.
This taste for metaphysics goes back to his Hollywood years in the Sixties, when he became obsessed with spiritual inquiry. 'I needed answers bad. Everything had happened so fast, man, I didn't know what hit me. I mean, I never intended ...' He pauses, struggling to find the right words. 'All I ever did was open my mouth to sing, because music, uh, that was my way letting things out, as natural as talking, more natural in fact. I never was much at putting myself into words, but singing was like breathing. Just flew out of me, I couldn't hold it in.
And then, out of nowhere, the world blew up on me - bang, bang, bang - and suddenly I was, I guess you'd have to say, the biggest star on earth. One day I wasn't shit, the next I had people talking 'bout me like I was a devil, or even like I was God.' He stares out of the trailer window at his vegetable patch and the bayou beyond, where a snowy egret has perched on the stump of a bald cypress. 'God,' he says again, and shakes his head. 'I even heard they started up a church, the Church of Elvis in Christ or some, uh, crud, when they thought I'd died. That wasn't right, man. I know it was meant kindly, but ...'I ask what he regrets.
'Lisa Marie,' he says. 'I never should have left without telling her, little as she was. But then, if I told her, I couldn't have left. I heard she was running all around the house, crying "My daddy's gone."' He swipes at his eyes. 'It was the drugs, I couldn't think clear. And after, it was too late.'Elvis turns his back, stirring the pots. 'In life, there's one moment when it's your time. All the rest is too damn late.'What was his moment? 'I'd have to say Sun Records. Lasted about a year, from "That's All Right (Mama)" to "Mystery Train".
After that, I made a lot of good records, great records even, but I was performing. At Sun, it was purely instinct.'Does he listen to today's music? 'Not too much. Belle and Claudette, they both have iPods, sometimes they'll play me a song I like. "Cry Me a River", that was one. I seen Justin Tingaling on TV; the boy has moves. But I don't really follow who's new. I favour songs, more so than artists. Artists don't age too good.'What about the Stones? 'I rest my case.'Bob Dylan? 'Voice like a dentist's drill. But he was an able tunesmith; he could fashion a hit.'Sinatra?
'Frank was smart. He learned how to make damage work for him. I never did.
'Well, then, what about Elvis Presley? 'Like I said, I made some records. A few of 'em I can still listen to today. Not so much the early stuff - "Hound Dog", "Heartbreak Hotel" - the ones critics rave about, but after I got out of the army. "Little Sister", I still like that. "Suspicious Minds", "In the Ghetto", two, three more. I don't seek them out, though.'Does he hold any grudges? 'The Colonel, you mean? Why would I? The man made me a whole ton of money. Any problems came down the road are on me.'
It's started to rain, and the catahoula wanders in, sopping wet, to be fed a few nuggets of sausage. 'Ol' Jerry Lee,' says Elvis, tickling the hound behind the ears. 'He's getting up there in years, same as me, got some mileage on him, fleas too, but he still knows his way round a duck-blind, you best believe he does.
'After Claudette and Belle return, the four of us sit down to dinner. Elvis says grace - 'Dear Lord, we have a stranger with us tonight. Look kindly upon him, as we beseech You to look upon us, and bless this, our humble repast.' The jambalaya is world-class, but he has a small appetite these days and toys with his food, rarely taking his eyes off Belle. With her, he shows a gentleness and warmth that makes me realise, by contrast, just how intimidating I found him while we were alone.
After dinner, we watch 24. Elvis thinks the show's absurd, a waste of space. 'That could never happen, not in a million years,' he complains.'Daddy,' says Belle, 'don't be a worm.'
At the end of the evening, Claudette beds me down on a Barcalounger, which I'm forced to share with Jerry Lee. Elvis is right about his fleas, and I pass a restless night, rising at dawn to find the rain has passed and there isn't a cloud in the sky. I make myself a cup of Maxwell House and the smell lures Claudette, who can't sleep either.
Barefoot and tousled in striped pyjamas, she spikes her coffee with a shot of Wild Turkey. Without make-up, she looks years younger. Sensing me watching her, lusting, she seems amused and dismissive. 'What am I doing with an old dying man?' she says, reading my mind. She takes a glug, grimacing at the burn. 'Jake gets me. He always has.
'They've been together 21 years. When they met, Claudette was 20, a part-time model who paid the bills by waitressing at a waffle house. 'Why lie? I was a runaway.' Growing up in Plaquemines, down river from New Orleans, she'd been hog-wild, got herself in a heap of trouble. 'I had real bad taste in men,' she says. But Jake was different. He came in for his breakfast same time each morning, always had the same order, extra syrup on his waffles, a poached egg on the side. He seemed gentle and old-fashioned, a true Southern gentleman, but she sensed he was lonely. 'We were both lost,' she says, 'so why not be lost together?'
They married in nine weeks. Their union hasn't always run smoothly. 'I was young, I had needs,' Claudette says, daring me to disapprove. Once, in the early years, she ran off with the drummer in a punk group. When the drummer dumped her in Tulsa, Jake took her back without a word. 'Never even asked where I'd been.' She was safe with him. If he'd ever had a need to punish and destroy, like other men, life had burned it out of him. Of course, between his face and the fact he never spoke of his past, she knew he harboured a secret, but one thing she learned from him was not to ask questions you don't want answered, so she didn't pry.
Besides, their life has had enough upheavals - spitballs, she calls them - without looking for extra drama. The time she was swinging Belle, aged five, and the swing broke and Belle broke her back, she thought she'd never get over the guilt. Then Jake Jr goes off to fashion school in New York, and one day, out of the blue, he calls to say he's having an operation and they're going to have to call him Jacqui from now on. Throw in Katrina, and Jake's cancer, and starting over in this trailer, barely surviving day to day: 'You might say our dance-card is full.'How does she feel about being married to Elvis? 'I ain't married to no Elvis. Jake Smith's the one I wed, and he's the one I'll bury.'
Doesn't knowing the truth change anything? Claudette looks exasperated. 'Truth? I'll tell you what's true.' She gestures towards the bedroom. 'That's a man in there.'
By the time Elvis surfaces, the sun is high and hot, and the trailer, lacking air conditioning, feels like an oven.
Claudette has left for work, Belle is at school and Jerry Lee is busy treeing possums in the yard. Elvis, still heavy-headed from the pills he needs to sleep through pain, moves like a sleepwalker. He seems more fragile today; closer to the end. I offer to leave, but he doesn't respond. Clearly, he still needs to talk.
We climb in a pirogue (a Cajun canoe, hollowed from a cypress trunk), and Elvis poles us along the bayou, through a carpet of lime-green duckweed, all very Discovery channel. Beards of Spanish moss trail overhead, blue herons and baby alligators sun themselves on the mud banks.
When we reach open marshland, Elvis stops paddling and lets us drift, blistered by the heat. A wild duck flies low, coming in to land. In the
Metairie days, when Jake Smith went on hunting trips with his pastor at Wayside Calvary, it would have made for an easy kill. Not now. 'I can't shoot a rat no more, just can't seem to make myself squeeze the trigger.'For some minutes, we float in silence while the pirogue floats in futile circles, tangled in water hyacinth. 'Why me?' says Elvis at last. 'I wasn't nothing special. Not too smart, not too dumb, had acne, couldn't get laid. After I hit, my teachers were interviewed, they all said the same. Average. So how come it was me changed the world? Which I did. No point mealy-mouthing; Little Richard didn't do it, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, none of those. Elvis Presley did.'
What?'Himself. What all was in him.'Was it fear that ...?
'Drove him? Some, maybe. But he's not the only freaky kid who ever walked the earth, and none of the others done like him, not close.'Talent?'Talent's nothing. Eddie Cochran had talent.'Right time, right place?'That helped.'Act of God?'Watch your lip, son.'Then what?Another silence. Far across the marsh, I can see a bank of thunderheads coming our way. By now the pirogue is so snarled, we'll need a hoist to lift us clear. 'What I think, the writers got it wrong. They all followed Sam Phillips and said I was a white kid who sounded black, like that explained everything. But I never did sound black; I didn't even try to. What I really sounded was church. That's the first place I sung, First Assembly of God Pentecostal, back in Tupelo, when I wasn't but two years old. And then, in Memphis, gospel singers were always my idols. White church, coloured church, it didn't matter. Meet them offstage and they were just regular folks, but when the spirit hit them, they were lifted up. Transported.
'As Elvis talks, his weariness lifts and he's borne back, reconnected to himself as that strange boy. 'Same happened to me,' he says. 'I'd get up on that stage and something entered me. People who didn't know what I came out of said I was crazy or dirty, a crying shame, but anyone who rose up in a Southern church, they knew it was possession. I was an empty vessel; the Lord chose to fill me up with sound. Gave me the power of, uh, rapture, and sent it forth around the world.'
You're saying rock'n'roll was God's work?'Don't take it lightly, son.' The blue eyes, all that's still alive in that mask-like face, stare me down. 'I know the people today, they've lost their belief, prob'ly think I'm an old crazy fool. Well, maybe I am, but I know this: them first records I cut, they're nothing but holiness music with jive-ass lyrics. That's what swept the world, not white music, not black, but church. And all those kids rioting, screaming, fainting, making an idol of me, they didn't know it, but they were giving praise.'Suddenly, he's done in. The surge of memory and passion has drained him; it's all he can do to sit up. 'The Lord picked me out; I know it in my heart. But why? Like I said, I was nothin' special.'Perhaps that's the reason, I suggest.
Elvis looks startled. Obviously, the thought is new to him. 'Average?' he says, after a long pause. 'Might just be that's it.
The thunderheads have rolled in, whipping up the waters and turning the sky inky. The first fat drops of rain spatter us, and the pirogue starts to rock. Elvis makes one last attempt to steer us out of the hyacinths, but we're stuck fast.What now, I ask.
'We sit tight,' says Elvis, 'and we wait for Claudette.'
Where is the King? The other sightings: Since 1977 there have been several sightings of Elvis and as with so many aspects of his life, a lucrative cottage industry has grown up to service fans' interest. The online Elvis Sighting Bulletin Board chronicles numerous encounters ('Elvis is my PE/health teacher ... He is really fit and healthy and gives us lots of advice on drugs') as does honorelvis.com ('Oscar J. Peterson, an insurance salesman from Morton, Ohio, reported he saw Elvis relieving himself at a urinal in the men's room at Fuddrucker's in Coconut Grove'). Gail Brewer-Giorgio is the author of several books on the subject, including Is Elvis Alive?. She invited fans to phone a premium-rate number to listen to proof of his existence.
Rock critic Greil Marcus published Dead Elvis in 1991, in which he wrote: 'the enormity of his impact on culture, on millions of people, was never really clear when he was alive.'
Elvis: An American life8 January 1935: Elvis Aaron Presley is born in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi. His father, Vernon, is a truck driver and his mother, Gladys Love Smith, a sewing machine operator. Twin brother Jesse Garon is stillborn
1945: Aged 10, Elvis makes his first public performance in a singing contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show.
5 July 1954: At his first recording session for producer Sam Phillips at Sun Studios, Elvis sings Arthur Crudup's 'That's All Right'.
August 1955: Colonel Tom Parker becomes Elvis's manager, replacing Bob Neal.
27 January 1956 : 'Heartbreak Hotel' is released. It will become Elvis's first million-seller.
13 March 1956: Elvis Presley's self-titled debut album is released by RCA. It goes gold.
16 November 1956: Premiere of Elvis's first film, Love Me Tender.
6 January 1957: After his gyrations while performing 'Hound Dog' on Milton Berle's TV show had caused controversy and seen him dubbed 'the pelvis', Elvis appears on the Ed Sullivan Show, filmed from the waist up.
March 1958: Elvis joins the army. Private Presley does his basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, before being stationed for 18 months in West Germany.
5 March 1960: Elvis is discharged from the US army, having reached the rank of sergeant. The album Elvis is Back is recorded by the end of the month and the film GI Blues follows shortly afterwards. Such is the reaction to Elvis's first film for two years that rioting breaks out in Mexico City, leading the government to ban his movies.
1963: Four years after she met him, Priscilla Beaulieu moves from Germany to Memphis to be nearer Elvis.
27 August 1965: The Beatles visit Elvis at his home in Bel Air, California. Although the five of them have an impromptu jam session, unfortunately nobody thinks to record it.
March 1967: Elvis's second gospel album, How Great Thou Art, is released. The following year, it will earn him his first Grammy award for Best Sacred Performance.
1 May 1967: Elvis finally marries Priscilla Beaulieu at the Aladdin Hotel, Las Vegas. A second reception takes place four weeks later at Graceland for friends and relatives unable to attend the Las Vegas ceremony.
1 February 1968: Exactly nine months after getting married, Priscilla Presley gives birth to a daughter, Lisa Marie.
27-30 June 1968: Filming of the NBC TV special that would later became known as the '68 Comeback Special. It was broadcast in December 1968.
1969: Elvis plays his final acting role in a movie, Change of Habit. Meanwhile, 'Suspicious Minds' becomes his first US Number 1 single since 'Good Luck Charm' in 1962.
September 1970: Having previously performed residencies in Las Vegas and Houston, Elvis undertakes his first tour since 1957.
December 1970: Elvis shows up at the White House to meet President Nixon and is made an honorary agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
16 January 1971: The United States Junior Chamber of Commerce name Elvis one of the 10 Outstanding Young Men of the Nation.
Late 1971: Priscilla Presley moves out of Graceland, taking Lisa Marie with her. She files for divorce in July 1972. Elvis starts seeing Linda Thompson.
June 1972: Elvis plays his first ever dates in New York - four shows at MadisonSquareGarden. His audience includes John Lennon, George Harrison, David Bowie and Bob Dylan.
14 January 1973: Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii, which will be seen by almost 1.5bn TV viewers, is filmed at Honolulu International Center Arena.
October 1973: Immediately after his divorce from Priscilla is finalised, Elvis is admitted to hospital in Memphis, where he is treated for health problems caused by his heavy drug use.
29 January - 14 February 1975: Elvis is hospitalised again for a drug-related ailment. He spends further time in hospital in September.
November 1976: Elvis splits from Linda Thompson. His new girlfriend is Ginger Alden, with whom he remains until his death.
26 June 1977: Elvis performs at the Market Square Arena, Indianapolis. It will prove to be his final show.
July 1977: Red West, Sonny West and Dave Hebler, three of Elvis's bodyguards, publish Elvis: What Happened?, which for the first time blows the lid on Presley's drug abuse.
16 August 1977: Elvis 'dies' on the bathroom floor at Graceland from a heart attack.
About the author: In 1969, at the age of 23, Nik Cohn published Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, the first history of rock'n'roll. Seven years later his story for New York magazine - 'Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night' - was used as the basis for the John Travolta film Saturday Night Fever. His most recent book is Triksta : Life and Death and New Orleans Rap (Vintage, 2005). For this special assignment for OMM, he returned to Louisiana. (Article, Source: Nik Cohn, Observer Music Monthly)
About Nik Cohn:Nik Cohn is a noted British rock journalist and author of a number of celebrated music books including Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (aka Rock from the Beginning) and Rock Dreams. Cohn's book was the basis for the hit film, Saturday Night Fever and he was also the inspiration for Pete Townsend writing Pinball Wizard for the rock opera, Tommy.
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