Not long after the news broke that Lisa Marie Presley had died, I watched an old interview she did with David Letterman.
It was from the time her first album came out 20 years ago. The lyrics of the song that made the splash on that album, “Lights Out,” were loaded with references to the ongoing grief she felt about the loss of her famous father, Elvis Presley, and with her struggles to live with his legacy:
“Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis
Ooh, that’s where my family’s buried and gone (gone)
Last time I was there I noticed a space left
Oh, next to them there in Memphis, yeah
In the damn back lawn. ...”
In the interview, Letterman tried to get Lisa Marie to talk about her dad. She gave short, evasive answers and covered her mouth with her hand as she did so, almost as if she wanted to hide.
Finally, she told Letterman she generally refused to answer such questions.
“Something has got to be left mine somewhere,” she said.
That short answer encapsulated her haunted life.
She was born to a fame the world had not seen before. When her father exploded onto the world’s stage in the middle 1950s, mass media worked to unify culture in ways that hadn’t happened before.
Today, everyone is his or her own programmer, choosing which songs to download and which shows or movies to stream at any time, with no constraints other than the limitations of one’s digital wallets.
Then, though, there were only three television networks and, while Top 40 was king, radio programming was rigidly formatted, even segregated. Listeners could choose among pop, country or blues, but they had to move around the dial if they wanted to listen to an assortment.
Elvis’ genius involved erasing those lines. Critics say he was the white boy who sang the blues.
His achievement was more complicated than that. He introduced the blues into country music and country into the blues — and somehow transformed all of it into pop music.
His success was stunning.
In 1956, one of every nine records sold in the world was by Elvis. In the 1960s, when his star was supposed to have been eclipsed by the British invasion, he still outsold everyone but the Beatles, outstripping the Rolling Stones and other rock legends from the era. Even in the 1970s, when popular mythology had his career headed to a tragic sunset, he was the biggest concert draw on the planet, selling out hall after hall, coliseum after coliseum, as his health disintegrated.
Fame on that scale is corrosive. It eats away at those things — privacy, trust, intimacy — that make the maintenance of sanity possible.
Elvis came to that level of fame when he was 21 and spent the rest of his life trying to come to terms with what his success would cost him. He surrounded himself with guys he’d known from youth because, one sensed, he needed reminders that he was a human being like everyone else.
His daughter didn’t have a childhood or adolescence isolated from the spotlight. She emerged, infant-small, into the glare.
She struggled her whole life dealing with the intense attention, little of which seemed concerned with understanding who she really was.
Something has got to be left mine somewhere.
She wed Michael Jackson, one of the few people who could appreciate the fame that defined her existence. That union ended after two years. Three other marriages also came and went.
She lost a son to suicide, a young man who bore a resemblance to his grandfather and stumbled under the weight of expectations. She lived out her private griefs on a public stage, always trying to figure out what could be hers and what couldn’t.
When she came of age, she first worked for perhaps her father’s most devoted friend, Jerry Schilling, who became a trusted protector, even a surrogate dad. Just before she died, when she attended the Golden Globes to celebrate the triumph of the film about her father’s life she had helped will into being, she walked, unsteadily, into the gala on Schilling’s arm.
A long time ago, when her father had his first monster hit, he sang, almost prophetically, about a soul who came to a sad end.
“It was down at the end of lonely street. At a place called heartbreak hotel.”