Lights Out: Of Death, Grief, Loss and Lisa Marie Presley

Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis

That’s where my family’s buried and gone

Last time I was there

I noticed a space left

Next to them there in Memphis

In the damn back lawn

–“Lights Out” by Lisa Marie Presley

Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And so it has come to pass that Lisa Marie Presley will indeed find her final resting place in that space next to her father and other family members, buried and gone in Memphis, in the damn back lawn.

Similar to my experience when I finally visited the Meditation Garden behind Graceland in 1996 where Elvis and his kin are buried, Lisa Marie’s death hit me much harder than I would have anticipated. Don’t get me wrong. I was a Lisa Marie fan. Which is odd for me, since with rare exceptions, I usually don’t have much interest in the children of celebrities who go into the family business.

But the first time I heard her 2003 debut single, Lights Out, it knocked me out. It was raw, with touches of dark humor and vulnerability contending with defiance. And it featured a beautiful repeating grace note: “I still keep my watch two hours behind”—a reference to the difference in time zones between California, where she lived with her mom after Priscilla divorced Elvis in 1973, and Memphis, where her father died in 1977, when Lisa Marie was just 9 years old.

The album, titled To Whom It May Concern, was savaged by some critics who couldn’t get past the nepotism thing. In one particularly mean-spirited review, The Guardian critic wrote at the time: “Of course, criticising the music on To Whom It May Concern seems largely beside the point. No one is going to buy the album for its winning way with a melody. They’re going to buy it for the same reasons they buy Hello! or Heat magazine: out of a prurient interest in celebrity.”

It was, however, praised by others, including the estimable Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times, who wrote that the album “has a stark, uncompromising tone. Her lyrics speak about disillusionment and regrets, sometimes blaming others for the failure of relationships, sometimes herself.”

The album debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200, and went gold. Her two follow-up albums, including one produced by T-Bone Burnett, were less successful sales-wise, but showed growth and maturity. Burnett referred to her music as “honest, raw, unaffected and soulful. I thought her father would be proud of her. The more I listened to the songs, the deeper an artist I found her to be. Listening beyond the media static, Lisa Marie Presley is a Southern American folk music artist of great value”

The media static proved impossible for a lot of people to get past.

And as I read multiple accounts of Lisa Marie’s death in recent days, I saw how prescient Hilburn was when he interviewed Lisa Marie 20 years ago as she stepped boldly into a new career in the family business, as a recording artist:

Presley knows that every story written about her — even her obituary — will probably include the names Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. So the daughter of rock’s greatest star is out to claim a piece of that obituary for herself. After years of being intimidated by the legacy of her father, she is hoping to have a recording career — and her goal is to prove that there is more to her than her birthright and ex-marriage partners.

“I’m not doing this to be a pop star,” says Presley, pausing to reflect the week before the performance. “I’ve had plenty of money and attention. I’m doing it for credibility.”

This week, as Hilburn predicted, every obituary mentioned the names of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, as well as Nicolas Cage and her other ex-husbands, her problems with drugs as a teenager, her lifelong involvement with Scientology and issues with money, and other tabloid fodder.

She may never have fully realized that credibility as a singer-songwriter, but she did manage to claim a piece of that obituary for herself.

Storm and Grace

In addition to her talent, one of the reasons I found news of her death so heartbreaking was deeply personal. In 2013, a year after her album with Burnett, Storm and Grace, was released, I finally saw Lisa Marie live at the Sellersville Theater in the town of Sellersville, Pennsylvania. For my wife Cathy and I, it was a night to celebrate the 50th birthday of Paul Sutton, her youngest brother.

Paul was born with Down syndrome in 1963, and early serious health issues made it questionable whether he would survive childhood. He did, and went on to live a loving, full, and in many ways extraordinary life. Paul’s love of music may have exceeded even mine, and he loved nothing more than a good cup of coffee. The more I spent time with him, the more I realized how much I could learn from him.

He became my Zen master. When I used to mention that to people, I usually prefaced it by saying I was just joking. But I wasn’t.

The dude abides. Paul Sutton, enjoying his coffee while sitting in his chair.

When we would bring him up to stay with us to go to a concert or sporting event or just hang around the house, I would look over at Paul, sitting in the blue chair in our living room that was, is, and always will be Paul’s chair, with a cup of coffee in his hands, music on the stereo, with family he loved and who loved him, and I saw perfect contentment and joy and peace.

Sometimes, life really is that simple.

That night in Sellersville, in 2013, on the eve of his 50th birthday, Paul sat there rocking out to Lisa Marie Presley with a big smile on his face from start to finish. It’s one of my fondest memories, although there are many of those when it comes to Paul.

Cathy with brother Paul, waiting for Lisa Marie Presley to come on stage at the Sellersville Theater, November 2013.

Two years ago, in January 2021, after three months of illness and hospitalizations and ventilators and finally recovering just enough to be moved to a nursing home with the hope of recovery, Paul suffered cardiac arrest and died.

It was beyond devastating. It still is.

I think that has something to do with how painful it was to learn that Lisa Marie had suffered cardiac arrest and died on Thursday.

Because while all of the obituaries mentioned Elvis and Michael and other messy details of a life lived entirely in public, many also quoted from a soul-baring essay she wrote in August 2022 for People magazine about the loss of her son, Benjamin Keough, who committed suicide in 2020.

“Death is part of life whether we like it or not — and so is grieving. There is so much to learn and understand on the subject, but here’s what I know so far: One is that grief does not stop or go away in any sense, a year, or years after the loss. Grief is something you will have to carry with you for the rest of your life, in spite of what certain people or our culture wants us to believe. You do not “get over it,” you do not “move on,” period.”

Lisa Marie concluded her essay with these words that will burn deep into the soul of anyone who has lost a loved one long before their time:

I’ve dealt with death, grief and loss since the age of 9 years old. I’ve had more than anyone’s fair share of it in my lifetime and somehow, I’ve made it this far. But this one, the death of my beautiful, beautiful son? The sweetest and most incredible being that I have ever had the privilege of knowing, who made me feel so honored every single day to be his mother? Who was so much like his grandfather on so many levels that he actually scared me? Which made me worry about him even more than I naturally would have? No. Just no … no no no no …

Storm and Grace was the title of what turned out to be Lisa Marie’s final album, and it, too, proved prescient. As she noted, Lisa Marie Presley endured more than her fair share of storms in her too-short life, and often found that, as the great singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves reminded us, “grace ain’t so easily found.”

Lisa Marie may be buried in the damn back lawn at Graceland where her famous father and other family members are buried and gone. But she will be buried next to her “beautiful, beautiful son,” Benjamin Keough.

May she truly rest in peace.

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