EIN - Thanks for talking with EIN today. How did you get involved in an Elvis biography? He seems very unlike your previous subjects of Jackie O’ & Audrey Hepburn?
EIN - How did this biography become the first one with authorisation by EPE?
PK – When I first wrote to EPE and suggested it, they said ‘No’. But once they saw my Audrey and Jackie books, they realized that I was serious -- that I thoroughly researched everything and that I used quality printing and gorgeous photographs. But honestly, if I hadn’t done the previous books I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. I wanted to shoot for a really high level and place Elvis in a cultural context. To show how he came from nothing and without anyone ahead of him to provide him with advice. (Laughing) I mean nowadays, the band U2 is a corporation! I also didn’t want the legend of Elvis to get stuck in the past and & I tried to explain to people who might not “get” Elvis why he is so relevant to today.
EIN - Did you get to spend time with Priscilla?
PK – I did -- I did phone interviews with her and she read the manuscript. I was a little uncertain about speaking with her as I had seen her in interviews in the past, and she seems very ‘contained’. So I just did not know what she would be like to interview. However, when I spoke with her, she was very girlish and loose and happy. She ws really very charming. When we spoke, we were like two old pals chatting. So I thought, maybe she gets intimidated by television.
EIN - Of all your interviewees whom did you find the most interesting & who gave you new insights into Elvis?
PK – I really liked Jerry Schilling. He was interesting. He spoke of Elvis’ power and the ability to help people or bring them down. Because really, the world revolved around him -- he was Louis X!V and they were his Court. It has to affect his ego. To be able to enter a room and say ‘Jump’ and everyone says "How High?" – this was something that the other guys didn’t touch. And Jerry’s new book is very good, if different than mine.
What actually stuck me, or surprised me about Elvis was his intelligence. You don’t get to operate at that level without being really, really smart. You might get 15 minutes of fame but you don’t get to be a legend without an innate intelligence. I think a lot of people under-cut Elvis’ intelligence and his spirituality. When I was writing the book, I felt the weight of what was asked of him -- his power, his loneliness. It was extraordinary...
EIN- How many photos did you look through? Did you have any help with the photos?
PK – I was really lucky as I spent an entire week going through the archives at EPE. I was driven to the super-duper top-secret archives. It’s like a giant airplane hanger – it’s gigantic! And apparently, there’s one for Elvis, one for The Colonel and one (I think) for Priscilla. It was the wildest thing -- it was like being at The Smithsonian all by yourself! It was just me, trailed by 3 archivists. And I would just point at what I wanted to see, and they would pull it out for me.
Can I tell you something really moving that I saw? And I had no way of getting it in the book, unfortunately. But on a giant, long table, there was a gold lamp, very groovy, late 1960’s with a telephone at its base. Very sort of Vegas, cool. And next to it, on the same table was a battered trunk. Not very large, just a few feet across, wooden, maybe two feet high. So, of course, I asked, “could you open it?” And the archivist did. And inside, was a cardboard, sort of a simple children’s game, like tic tac toe printed on it, and a box of crayons. And wow, god, that was amazing. Because it was Elvis’ obviously, these very simple little, just little games a child would play. And his mother (like most mother’s who love their son’s) kept everything of his, thank goodness.
And I was so moved by it, these simple little children’s games, nothing fancy at all. At the bottom of a trunk. From looking at it, I figured out that it was a trunk that you get when you go in the army… but it was an older box, like WWII, or something. And Vernon was never in the army, so then I thought, maybe a relative or friend loaned it to Vernon when they had to pack up their stuff to move from Tupelo to Memphis.
And the thing that struck me – other than the fact that probably no one would ever get a chance to see something like this except, maybe, Peter Guralnick, was the arc of Elvis’ life. His simple, very humble beginnings – that very few Americans of this age can even imagine – and how far he went. From that simple box to the glitzy gold lamp/phone thing.
So when I meet fans, or I read that people judge him, I just think – you have no idea what was asked of him. How far he was asked to go… and largely by himself! It’s not like he had his twin brother around to help him, or he was part of a band…
And I went back home that night, back to my goofy room where I was staying at the Heartbreak Hotel, and I thought, man, am I lucky – I have a pretty cool life.
And the archives – can I just say one more thing before I forget? I just had a flash of what they were like – they were like that scene – what was it, in Rosebud? Where they are packing up Hearst’s castle? Like that – there was so much stuff! I don’t think anyone threw anything out – ever. I mean, they have the entire living room set – it’s red velvet, sort of Victorian looking – way up high in the rafters. They have everything – which is great for future historians, of course.
It was pretty wild, now that I think about it.
EIN - How long did your research take you?
PK – Well. I wasn’t a real “fan' to begin with, so it took me about two years, including a year and a half of research. I think that was a positive as I wasn’t a typical fan and so I think I investigated more as an outsider looking in – I mean, I obviously knew who Elvis was, but my parents were more Beatles fans. And I come from New York City, I went to Vassar – my world is so different to Elvis’ and yet on some level we connected.
EIN - Was investigating Elvis an enlightening experience - & what was your happiest moment in researching the book?
PK – It was a complete blast! Elvis’ story is the story of America. Coming out of poverty, being a Southerner and coming out of the Depression. So many people nowadays live middle-class lives and have no idea of that kind of real poverty. No one really had any sort of an education, and they were just scrapping for a living. I really tried to get that sense in the book, so that when people judge him they can understand where his family came from. I think some of his fans judge him too simplistically and they don’t realize that Elvis was to singing what Picasso was to painting. He IS history - and when he’s onstage, you really can’t take your eyes off him.
My happiest moment was going down to Graceland for the first time & then I knew that I had a book to write. I really didn’t write it for the fans who need to know what Elvis did every day of his life – I think Peter Guralnick already did that admirably -- but for the regular people who don’t understand why Elvis mattered or understand his passion. I tried to give a sense of what it was like to “be” Elvis – his journey, his talent. All that was asked of him. But I’ve got to say – men are nuts! It wasn’t like writing about Audrey Hepburn or Jacqueline Onassis – you know, these very elegant, ordered lives. In my head, I felt I was on the road with Elvis and the boys, his life… I felt the way an actor must feel when he takes on a role, by the end of it, I lost 15 lbs. But it was worth it, that book was the best writing of my life. And I have to say, I had a total blast writing it.
I also pushed for a quality look – I wanted the best paper, the best photographs. Fortunately, I had a great publisher and a great designer, so I think we got it.
EIN - How long did you spend at Graceland itself? Did you go upstairs?
PK - No, I didn’t even ask. (laughing) That would be too cheesy! No, god no, I wouldn’t even want to do something like that! They were totally open about giving me complete access to the archives, so I didn’t care. But I thought Graceland was really beautiful. The first time I visited, we went up there at about 11:00am on a Sunday morning, a friend and I, and we were out in the backyard and there was no one around, and the trees were so beautiful, and it was so quiet and peaceful. I knew why Elvis loved it so much, it was like a sanctuary.
EIN - Your opinion on Elvis' mid-sixties movies? Was The Colonel making a big mistake going for the easy buck over creativity? You said the Movies were. . "a nightmare.. it was shit, all of it, just shit."
PK – (laughing) Did I say that? No way – I don’t speak that way…okay,.. I have to explain – I do not speak that way. At all. I do not curse in my private life. But that wasn’t me, that was the narrator, this sort of tough, masculine guy. When I wrote the book, I just heard the narrative voice in my head, and that’s the way he spoke… believe me, the tone was completely different for Audrey or Jackie.
Besides, have you every been to Memphis? That’s how guys talk down in Memphis… and I remember reading something from one of Elvis’ former girlfriends’ and they said “Elvis spoke like a truck driver…” I’m not saying he necessarily spoke like that, but you get the idea. Seriously – have you ever been to Memphis? It’s a rough town! I remember, after the book came out, Mr. Lansky said to me, “Baby, you wrote the shit out of that book.” And I was practically blushing, and I said, “um, thank you Mr. Lansky.” But I thought that was pretty fabulous, too.
But you know what? It’s not for me to judge people. My job, as the author is to get it down. And that’s what I think I did. It is all one piece.
EIN - What about Elvis' doctors & their unending supply of prescriptions? Dr Nick good or bad?
PK – You have to understand that from the time he was 20 years old, whatever Elvis wanted, he got. If one Doctor didn’t give it to him, believe me, another one would. And I really don’t believe in this "Oh, The Colonel did this, or Dr Nick did that". At the end of the day, Elvis was a grown man – he wasn’t a four year old – he was a very powerful, grown man, and we are all responsible for our own lives. So you have to accept responsibility for your choices. But of course nowadays we know so much more about drugs and their effects. There was no Betty Ford Clinic at the time and I think Elvis felt a tremendous stigma about his addiction. And he wanted to be a good person, he was a good person, he was just a good person with a terrible, raging drug problem. There just wasn’t anyone who could help him.
I talked with Larry Geller & I liked him - and I wish that Elvis had listened to him a bit more. Elvis should have eaten some brown rice & done yoga & cleaned out his system a little bit. That would have helped him find peace in his life.
I think sometimes people miss the fact that men like J.F.K. were groomed for power and success their entire lives. For John F. Kennedy to grow up and become President – even though he was an Irish Catholic – was not that big of a deal. Whereas for Elvis, it was as if he was shot to the moon with absolutely nothing in his background to prepare him for his tremendous success. And as much as he loved his success, and wanted it, I am sure it was also a challenge.
EIN - You jump from the glory of 'Aloha' to Elvis' death in just 7 pages? Didn't you feel the need to investigate the finals years a bit more in depth? As you know Elvis fans often need to know more about what happened & why.
PK – Ahhh -- You know, I think everyone knows what happened in the final years. I think a lot of Elvis fans are almost mawkish in their obsession about his last years. I feel that Guralnick’s second book covered the long slow decline of Elvis and I just didn’t want to go there. I was much more interested in Elvis’ life. To me, it was a long, slow hard road. I had a hard enough time writing the scene where he died. When I wrote that scene, it was about 11:00pm at night, and I felt his loneliness, his depression at the end of his life, it was just hanging around me like this chill. I was depressed for about two weeks after that, I really felt the loss of him. I felt, in a weird way, that I was him. So to spend twenty or thirty pages in that place – why would I do that to myself?
EIN - So did EPE push you to gloss over the final years?
PK – Absolutely not. No way. I wrote exactly the book that I wanted to write – because it’s just too hard, you know? It’s like building a brick wall. You take out one word, one phrase, and the whole paragraph falls apart. But there was one line that they wanted me to take out – “Like Buddha, like Jesus, like George Clooney, Elvis was love…” Because of the religious thing, I suppose.
But the only person I feel I owe anything to, frankly, is Elvis. He was the person in my head.
EIN - Linda Thompson spent a hard 4 years with Elvis. Doesn't she deserve more space in the book?
PK – I sent her a letter and & tried to contact her but she didn’t get back to me. I would loved to have spoken with her but it just didn’t happen. She was a saint - & extremely intelligent. Elvis was extremely fortunate to have had her in his life – I think he was a real handful at times!
EIN - There are several disappointing factual errors in the book - For instance the unforgivable error saying that Elvis’ birthday is Jan 30th! How did that happen?
PK – (laughs) Please, please tell everyone that I DO know when Elvis’ birthday is! I promise! The manuscript was also read by a committee of people - Six people as well as Todd Morgan, from EPE read it! There were no mistakes in the manuscript when it was shipped off to the printer. I don’t know how that slipped through. I really did the best I could and checked everything I could – and there were fact checkers at S&S (publishers) as well as the team from EPE. But look at it this way -- the first edition of The Great Gatsby has mistakes and it is worth thousands of dollars more! Besides, it just goes to show that it was written by a human being and not by a machine.
EIN - Do you have a favourite story that has happened to you because of becoming involved in the Elvis Legend?
EIN - What can you say to fans that still think that Elvis is alive?
PK – Let it go. Elvis is in heaven with his Mother & his twin brother. It’s very touching that people need to have heroes but.. . At the end Elvis was in bad shape. At the end of the book I realised that most Rock Stars do not live long lives. When he died at just 42 I still felt, "what more could Elvis have done?" He lived a hard, fast life. Similarly look at Jim Morrison, Hank Williams.
EIN - Did you feel Elvis’ presence in the Meditation Garden?
PK - I was really lucky to spend time in the Meditation Garden by myself during Spirit Week, you know, when all the fans are down by the street with the candles? Before they let everyone up, they let a few of Elvis’ friends up at the house, so I ended up at the Meditation Garden when the sun was just setting, and there was no one there but me… it was very cool, I felt extremely fortunate that it happened to turn out like that. And then Larry Geller and I sat on the stone steps in front of the house and watched all the fans, all the candles, make their way up the driveway. And that was really memorable.
(sighing) You know, he’s definitely around somewhere. It’s too bad because we could all use a little bit of Elvis these days. We need that faith and hope sometimes. We could always use a little uplift. It’s funny, I was in NYC during 9/11, those was some hard, dark days, just so full of death, and the whole town smelled like smoke. And I remember thinking – this is sort of an odd thought – too bad Elvis couldn’t come and sing to us, to lift our spirits a bit. I am sure he would have.
Interview by Piers Beagley.
"Elvis Presley is the supreme socio-cultural icon in the history of pop culture"
(Dr. Gary Enders)
"Elvis is the 'glue' which holds our society together....which subconciously gives our world meaning"
"Eventually everybody has to die, except Elvis"
(humorist Dave Barry)
"He is the "Big Bang", and the universe he detonated is still expanding, the pieces are still flying"
(Greil Marcus, "Dead Elvis")