THE DEATH AND FUNERAL OF ELVIS AARON PRESLEY
“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”
A few days before Elvis’ death, he had asked me to find a book for him, about the holy shroud in which Jesus’ body was wrapped: the Shroud of Turin. As always, I went to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in Los Angeles and found what I thought would be the perfect book: The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus. When they found his body, Elvis was clutching this book to his chest, close to his heart.
August 17, 8 am, 1977 – Memphis Funeral Home. The only sound I hear is a pounding “ba-bam, ba-bam,” with the counterpoint of “click-clack, click-clack,” as if someone has turned the bass up so loud that I can’t hear anything but the rhythm section. The beauty of the song, the melody, the lyrics, they’re nowhere to be heard. But I know where they are: they’re waiting in the cold silence in the room at the end of this dark corridor, under the stark white sheet that covers the earthly remains of Elvis Presley. The sounds that echo in the long passageway are my furiously beating heart and my heavy footsteps reverberating against the stone walls as I prepare to get him ready for his final public appearance.
I enter the grim, sterile room, the foul odor of chemicals assaulting my nostrils with their ungodly smell. All I can see is Elvis’ lifeless body lying under the sheet on the autopsy table. I slowly make my way to stand at his side, my aching eyes staring into his face as I choke back a wave of chaotic emotions. I suddenly feel dazed, clutching the table to maintain my balance. The reality of his lifeless presence forces me to accept the inevitable, and yet…how is this possible, and my own heart goes on beating?
As I look at that perfect aquiline nose, those famous curled lips—the visage of an Adonis—the unnatural stillness of his face reminds me of the unthinkable: that his voice will never sing again. Now, my friend, you have passed through the gates of the immortality of the soul, whose inviolable secret only death itself possesses. No, this is not possible, this is not happening, this can’t be real.
* * *
Late in 1976, with less than a year to live, Elvis’ physical condition and deteriorating health didn’t dampen his optimism about his life and future. Nor did it diminish his love affair with the idea of perfect love.
Elvis was in love with love. Over the years, while the names of the women in his life changed, the emotional charge was always the same in the beginning. Yet he was never really sure of his feelings for any woman but his mother. Elvis and I were standing on the balcony of his Las Vegas suite, watching the grandeur of daybreak over the distant desert mountains. With our topsy-turvy schedule, sunrise was not the beginning but the end of our day, and we hadn’t yet been to bed.
After a few minutes of drinking in the cool air and the magnificent view, Elvis turned to me, continuing our earlier conversation about his personal life. “Lawrence, I have feelings flowing through my veins just like everyone else. I’m human. I’d love to get married again and have more children. Don’t ya think that I’d love to find my soul mate?” His voice and the look on his face reflected a heart full of sadness and passion. “I want you to put yourself in my shoes, and think about it. How could I ever know if a woman is in love with me…or Elvis Presley? Think about it. How could I ever really know for sure?”
His point was well taken. I studied his face for a moment. The hood of his blue robe framed his face, as the early morning light danced across his classic features.
“Elvis, as far as I’m concerned, you’ve only had one, real lasting love affair in your whole life.”
“Who, who is that Lawrence?”
“Your fans, Elvis, the public. That’s your great, lasting love affair.”
A smile slowly stole over his face. “You’re right, you’re right. And I’ve paid a heavy price for it. But I wouldn’t change anything in my life.” Then, with a big grin, “You know, Lawrence, they say that it’s lonely at the top. But I’ll tell you what…I love that lonesome feeling. But man, I do still want to find my soul mate.”
* * *
My heart is overflowing with unbearable pain but no matter what, I have to prepare Elvis’ hair for his funeral. I’m struck by the intimacy of the attendant cosmeticians as they apply a pasty makeup to his hands. Suddenly he has no entourage, no management to keep strangers at bay.
I do my best to appear calm and professional, as I prepare to do the job his father asked me to do. My quiet exterior belies the confluence of emotions within. I hear my own angry voice in my head, but no sound emerges as I scream, “Damn it, Elvis! Why didn’t we just stay in Hawaii? You knew exactly what you had to do: just call the Colonel and tell him to cancel the next two tours, tell him what you’ve decided about the future. Damn! You were so concerned about disappointing your fans. Now it’s too late; they’ll be disappointed forever. They’ll never see you again!”
* * *
March of 1977, Elvis and I were sitting on his balcony on the twentieth floor at the Rainbow Towers Hawaiian Village Hotel in Honolulu. He loved this hotel’s spectacular view of Diamond Head and the clear aquamarine water of the Pacific Ocean below.
Elvis was relaxed, enjoying the rare break from his grueling schedule; more importantly, the seeds were being planted for something even more significant. “I’m going to get off all those damn pills they give me. I know I can. Especially if we’re here. This place is paradise, and this is where we’re comin’ back to. Maybe we can get that house again in Kailua Bay; it’s the perfect place, only this time we’ll come over here for a lot longer, maybe even a year. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, all I know is that my damn life is on the line, I have to rejuvenate myself from the inside out. I want to get on your diet, an’ exercise, get in the water; man we’ll have a good time on this island, laying back. Hey Larry, look; I’m not kidding myself. I know it won’t be easy, but I know I can do whatever I put my mind to. An’ believe me man, I know exactly what I have to do.”
The year before, several longstanding members of Elvis’ group had been dismissed. He spoke of reducing the entourage even more, mentioning a few names that surprised me.
“When we come back here I only want to have four, maybe five guys at the most with me, that’s all I need. It’ll make my daddy happy, that’s for sure; he’s been tellin’ me for years to cut back.”
There were more dramatic changes in Elvis’ mind. During the last year of his life he spoke to me often about his desire to find his soul mate and have more children, and how much having a family meant to him. From changing management to sweeping changes in his career, Elvis was adamant about a complete turnaround, a new beginning. The stakes were higher than ever, and Elvis was painfully aware of it.
Elvis’ deepest desires concerning his life and career rose to the surface. “The only thing I regret in my career is that I haven’t shown the public the actor that I know I really am. I know for a fact that I can do so much better. I owe that to my fans; hell, I owe it to myself. The Colonel and Hal Wallis both promised me that they’d find me some real dramatic roles, movies that I could really act in. And I went along with them, waiting for them to give me a chance. An’ all they really wanted to do was package my ass; it’s all about the almighty dollar.”
Speaking with a heightened sensitivity he seemed so determined, so excited and optimistic about his future that I really felt he would act upon his convictions.
“All I know is that I’ve got to get back and make movies again, only this time it’s gonna be different. Lawrence, I have to stop touring, that’s all I’ve been doing, and I’m plain bored; it’s the same damn ol’ routine for years now. I need to recharge my batteries. When I’m ready, I’m going back to Hollywood an’ act in real, dramatic movies. Who knows, maybe we can even produce our own movies someday, movies that matter and that help people. I’ve always wanted to have my own production company, you know like Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood have. Lawrence, we’re goin’ to do this. Just keep this to yourself for now; I’m going to wait until sometime in September to make the big change. I have contracts until then, and a lot of fans have already planned to come out and see me. I can’t disappoint them.
“And it’s not just my career where I’m gonna make changes. I have so much more inside of me than what people see up there on that stage or on the screen. I know I’m just an entertainer, an’ I give them everything I have, everything. But there’s a whole lot more to who I am, and Larry, I know I can help people, that’s what I’m supposed to do. One thing I know for sure, we gotta start a foundation, our own charity. I’d love to do something for kids who are suffering and have incurable diseases; I just can’t handle that. I want to use my name and my influence in ways that go way beyond anything I’ve ever done before. This is what I’m really all about.”
* * *
Reality intrudes harshly as I focus on the job at hand. I’m shocked to realize that Elvis has a half-inch growth of white all around his hairline! We’ve been on hiatus for six weeks, so I haven’t been dyeing his hair. What to do? I had brought my bag with its brushes, combs, scissors, and spray—but no dye. I’m at a loss until I notice a female mortician in the room. I ask her if she has some mascara; luckily, she has exactly what I was hoping for: a little plastic container with a cake of black mascara and a tiny brush. She kindly lets me use it; I spit onto the cake to moisten it and color Elvis’ roots with it. I’ve never done anything like this before, but it does the trick and that’s the only thing that matters right now.
“I can’t imagine the pain and the pressure you had to prepare Elvis before his funeral.”