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.

God Save the King: A Song I Love

ELVIS IS ALIVE!

That headline sold a lot of copies of my all-time favorite supermarket tabloid Weekly World News back in the day—no matter how many times they ran it on the cover. I should know. I bought just about all of them.

And that’s saying something, because Weekly World News turned to “Elvis Is Alive” almost as often as Men’s Health magazine recycled “Six-Pack Abs.”

What I loved most about the paper was that it took Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” to an illogical extreme, embracing fully and with absolute conviction a foolish inconsistency.  So over the years, Elvis would be alive, and then dead, then alive, and then dead again … and in 2005, the tabloid took it to a whole new level, screaming: ELVIS IS ALIVE—AND RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT!

Only Kenny on South Park died and came back more often than the King. “Oh my God, they killed Elvis!”

When Weekly World News ceased publication in 2007, the headlines disappeared, and the little fun that once could be derived from trips to the grocery store disappeared with it.

But just as Weekly World News found some semblance of an afterlife online, Elvis sightings continued unabated.  In fact, I contributed to them with an article I wrote for Runner’s World magazine, of all publications, on the annual Elvis 5K race held at Graceland in conjunction with Elvis Week back in 1996.

What’s Bubba Ho-Tep Got to Do With It?

Which brings me, on this solemn night when thousands will descend on Graceland for the Candlelight Vigil commemorating the King’s death 42 years ago, to a Song I Love by Texas singer Phil Pritchett and the Full Band.

In fact, there is nothing I don’t love about God Save the King, from the pounding-drums-and-wailing-harmonica opening to the gratuitously funny trolling of the Volunteer State in the chorus. And I loved it from the very first moment I heard it played on Boot Liquor Radio not long after it was released on Pritchett’s outstanding Tougher Than the Rest album in 2002.

That first listen compelled me to immediately search out Phil Pritchett and order the CD online. Ever since, when Elvis’ birthday and death week roll around in January and August each year, God Save the King has become what Blue Christmas is to Christmas for me. A holiday tradition.

Forget the sparkling jumpsuits and capes of the Vegas years. The song posits that Elvis faked his own death so he could play smoky honky tonks, “wearing a Stubb’s BBQ T-shirt and a faded pair of jeans.” Oh, and he’s an opening act. Even though he’s easily recognizable as Elvis Presley.

Yes, it’s as believable as Bubba Ho-Tep. And just as great.

If you haven’t seen the brilliant horror-comedy-drama, check it out now. It stars Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as President John F. Kennedy, who just happen to reside in an East Texas nursing home. The duo join forces to thwart an evil Egyptian mummy who’s sucking the souls out of their fellow residents there. It’s worth noting that Bubba Ho-Tep also came out in 2002, so there was clearly some kind of cosmic creative connection linking Elvis and the Longhorn State that year.

Back to God Save the King. One of the reasons it strikes a chord with me is because, as silly as the premise may be, it creates an alternative Elvis—one who rebels against the increasingly ridiculous movies and embarrassing songs he was contractually obligated to pump out by his carny huckster manager Colonel Tom Parker and chose instead to change his identity and sing roots music in dive bars.

In this alternate universe, the singer who now calls himself Jackson tells Pritchett:

The smell of a bar at midnight, man, this is what it’s all about

I tried to get back here for years, but the Colonel sold me out

If only …

And even though I love Memphis and Nashville, and have had more fun than should be legal in the state of Tennessee, I can’t help myself—I laugh every time Pritchett sings the chorus:

God save the King

He said it’s not as easy as it looks, to live as royalty

God save the King

He said I never died, I was just tired of livin’ in Tennessee

So spend three glorious minutes in the alternate universe where Elvis Aaron Presley didn’t die slumped in his bathroom at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977—“with a whole lotta trouble running through his veins,” as Bruce Springsteen sang in Johnny Bye Bye—but instead turned his back on fame and fortune and the Colonel and Doctor Nick and the drugs and the sycophants and went back to playing the music that stirred his soul in the first place.

Let Phil Pritchett take you there with God Save the King.

It’s proof positive that there’s still good rockin’ tonight …

Phil Pritchett performs God Save the King live at Bostocks Billiards & Bar in Stephenville, Texas in 2012.

Note: A Song I Love will be an occasional feature on From a Pawned Smith Corona.

Are You Running with Me, Elvis?

 

Jack_and_Jumpsuit_Elvis_600p

The author, right, talking with Jumpsuit Elvis at the finish of the 1996 Elvis International 5-K, in front of the wall surrounding Graceland. Photo by Roark Johnson.

Twenty years ago this past weekend, I flew out to Memphis for Elvis Week on Runner’s World magazine’s dime to do a story on the annual Elvis International 5-K race. I toured Graceland and Sun Studio and drove down to Tupelo, Mississippi, to visit the shotgun shack where Elvis was born. I hit Beale Street and saw the Memphis Horns playing in a bar after getting their star on the walk of fame, and caught a set by the legendary Rufus Thomas in a small hall at the end of Beale Street with maybe a dozen other fans.

And yeah, I ran the Elvis 5-K race that finishes at the gates of Graceland. It remains the best assignment of my life, one that allowed me to indulge three of my obsessions at the time: music (and more specifically the cult of Elvis), running, and writing. It also was the story that showed me that Kerouac really was onto something with his idea of spontaneous prose. Running with either a notebook or tape recorder on a hot, sweaty, August morning in Memphis were never options I considered. So I stashed a notebook in my car before the race and, once I wrapped up running and reporting, headed straight to the parking lot and started writing. Not just notes, but the story.

As true and accurately as I could, I wrote what I saw, heard, felt, and thought before, during, and after the race. Runner’s World had agreed to send me to the 1996 race, on the 19th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, so it could publish the story a few months before the huge 20th anniversary Elvis Week extravaganza in case runners wanted to make it a destination race. That meant I had a few months to turn in the article. I typed out my hand-scrawled version after I got home, and then over the weeks and months that followed, tried several different approaches.

As the deadline approached, I went back to my original version and realized it was much better than any of the more polished, later rewrites. With a minimum of editing, that’s the version I turned in. And that’s the version that Runner’s World printed.

Normally, in this age of wonders, I would just link to the Runner’s World archive of the article online. But like a lot of publications, RW doesn’t have issues from before the current century available online, so the article only exists in print copies of the magazine.

So here it is, exactly as it was published in the May 1997 issue of Runner’s World magazine. I am eternally indebted to then-Executive Editor Amby Burfoot for allowing me to do this one.

And in case you’re wondering, the race is still going strong. The 34th annual race (it started five years after Elvis’s death) was held this past weekend on Saturday, Aug. 13. For more info, or to start planning if you want to run the race to be held during the events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the King’s death in 2017, visit http://elvispresleyrunandwalk.com/ .

Elvis_Lives_Opener_400p

 

The sun begins its slow ascent through the early morning Memphis haze, heralding the start of another sultry summer day. Once, within the walls of his beloved Graceland, Elvis Presley would have begun his own slow climb up the stairs to bed after another sleepless night of racquetball, private movie screenings, fireworks or gospel singing. But not this morning.

Looking resplendent in a white jumpsuit with gold embroidery, accented with a bright red scarf, the King strides purposefully through the race registration area, which has been set up in the shadow of his beloved Lisa Marie—the jet plane, not the daughter. He picks up his race packet—“Thank you. Thank you very much”—and joins the sea of more traditionally attired runners parading slowly up Elvis Presley Boulevard to the starting line of the Elvis Presley International 5-K.

It’s his race. The rest of us are just running in it.

*****

Walking the quarter-mile from Graceland to the starting line on Timothy Drive, it all seems more than a little surreal. And it’s not just Jumpsuit Elvis. Speakers mounted on the lead truck blare the soul-stirring strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which once let the faithful know that Elvis was not only in the building, but was also about to take the stage. The soaring theme song segues into “That’s All Right, Mama,” the song a 19-year-old Elvis recorded just a few miles away at Sun Recording Studio back in 1954—the song that started a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, on the road to Graceland.

At most summer races these days, wraparound shades (the kind sported by Lynn Jennings and Steve Scott) are all the rage. But not here. At the starting line of the Elvis 5-K, aviator sunglasses—the kind favored by the King in the ‘70s—are the defining fashion statement. Many runners—women as well as men—also sport bushy black fake sideburns, tacky even by Elvis souvenir standards.

The prerace nervous tension is broken by the starting gun. Slowly and fitfully, some 4,300 runners and walkers—the largest field yet—surge up the slight hill toward Graceland Drive, where the race course turns right just before Graceland Elementary School. The streets in the neighborhood are lined by red-brick ranch houses and other neatly kept middle-class dwellings. It looks like any other southern suburban neighborhood, until you remember that these were Elvis’s neighbors.

They live close enough to have been scared silly the night Elvis and the boys got carried away shooting off fireworks in the backyard and accidentally set off the entire stockpile of explosives. They could have heard the gunshots ringing through the night as Elvis and his buddies took turns target-shooting on the makeshift firing range that had been his old smokehouse. And maybe, just maybe, on a soft, still summer night, they might have been able to hear Elvis and friends gather around the grand piano off the living room, singing gospel standards into the wee hours of the morning.

Such reveries are broken by the guy barking splits at the mile marker. A few yards past, there’s a water stop with Elvis singing “Don’t Be Cruel” from a portable cassette player. Even the weather, it seems, listens when the King sings.

*****

As the course winds through the neighborhood behind Graceland, close to the 2-mile mark, I notice a positively ebullient runner ahead of me. He’s running back and forth across the course, high-fiving the sheriff’s deputies who are handling traffic control for the race. As I draw closer, something about him looks familiar. Black hair. Aviator sunglasses. A wide glittering blue belt with sparkling silver stars. Could it be?

Of course. This is Sensible Elvis, wearing a singlet and shorts instead of a jumpsuit. “You’ve got a lot of energy for a guy who usually goes to bed about now,” I remark as I pull up alongside of him.

“I’ve been getting a lot of rest lately. I’ve been sleeping for 19 years,” he replies in that familiar drawl.

I remember how the second floor of Graceland remained closed to visitors when I took the tour the previous day and—calling upon those fine instincts honed by 20 years as a newspaper reporter—decide to take a shot.

“Upstairs? On the second floor?” I ask.

Elvis smiles conspiratorially. “Yeah. But don’t tell anyone.”

“No problem,” I say. (Mental note: Find the first pay phone after the finish line and call the Weekly World News.)

I move by Sensible Elvis, following the course as it turns back onto Graceland Drive, heading toward Timothy Drive. Considering that there are more than 4,000 people tromping through the neighborhood, the course is astonishingly quiet. The runners are the only ones up at this hour. A handful of residents—including a few blessed souls who have turned on their sprinklers to cool the participants—come out to watch, but most remain safely inside, seemingly oblivious to the grand spectacle passing by their closed doors.

Back on Timothy Drive, the course slopes downhill to the starting line, then climbs up to Elvis Presley Boulevard. As I make the turn onto the street of dreams, I think of songwriter Paul Simon’s line, “I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” Simon may have had some deeper metaphysical idea in mind when he penned the line, but on this morning it is quite literally true. And what a reception it is. Three of the street’s four lanes are closed. The road is lined by fans (in town for the Elvis Week celebration), runners who have already finished and their friends and families. And best of all, it’s all downhill for the final two-tenths of a mile to the finish at the gates of Graceland.

The crowd roars as I pick up the pace, and I think, Gosh, this is great. But suddenly I realize the cheers are not for me. They’re for him. As the fans scream louder, I hear—just a few steps behind me now—that familiar drawl, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” No way. Not today. It may be his street—heck, it’s his race—but I’m not going to let Elvis beat me. Imagine explaining to your running buddies that you got outkicked by a guy whose idea of carbo-loading involves deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I unleash what’s left of my kick and hold off Sensible Elvis to the finish. In the chute, I turn around, high-five him and say, “Great race, King.” Gasping for breath, he replied (what else?), “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

I grab a cup of water at the end of the chute and walk back to the finish line. A few minutes later, Jumpsuit Elvis comes across in a scene reminiscent of John Wayne. Elvis is leading the Marines. As they have every year since the race started in 1983, some 150 Leathernecks from Marine Aviation Training Support Squadron 901 run the race in formation, keeping step to the bark of the drill sergeant’s cadences. Afterward, I track down Jumpsuit Elvis (okay, he’s pretty easy to find) and ask him about the race.

“I forgot how hot it gets here in August,” he says. “I’ve been away for a while, you know.”

My heart sinks. “Up on the second floor?” I ask.

“No. Up north,” he says.

Elvis looks at me and grins. “I can’t tell you that,” he says. (Never mind, operator. I guess I won’t be needing the number for Weekly World News after all. Thanks anyway.)

*****

There’s nothing left to do but stroll over to the postrace party, held in the pavilion next to Elvis’s airplane museum. There’s a live band playing country and rock, a clogging demonstration and plenty of food and drink. Some runners even find the energy to hit the dance floor.

I spy Sensible Elvis in the crowd and learn that he is really Seth Zamek, from Jackson, Tennessee. “I’ve been here a couple of times,” Zamek says. “This is the first time I dressed up, though. I had to do it.”

I look around for Jumpsuit Elvis, but he’s left the building. As I dig through my race packet, though, I find a clue to his whereabouts.

It’s a coupon, good for one free Quarter Pounder with Cheese at any Memphis-area McDonald’s. Somewhere under the “golden arches,” a man with black bushy sideburns, aviator sunglasses, a sparkling white jumpsuit and red scarf is taking a bag from the clerk behind the register. And in a soft, slightly slurred drawl, you can hear him say, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

From Runner’s World magazine, May 1997