Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
TIME visits the Fourth Annual Conference On Elvis Presley with conference director Vernon Chadwick
Transcript from August 11, 1998
Timehost: Welcome to the TIME room tonight. We're going to be talking about Elvis Presley. As we speak, cultural critics, psychologist, experts and fans are participating in Memphis in the Fourth Annual International Conference on Elvis Presley. This year's conference is titled: Are You Lonesome Tonight? Elvis and the Dysfunctional Family. In addition to Elvis music, they're looking at look at Elvis's self-destructive tendencies, his drug addiction, violence, and obesity. And right now, we're joined by the director of the conference, Vernon Chadwick, director of the Institute for the Living South, and the author of the book "In Search of Elvis: Music Race, Art, Religion. Thanks, Mr. Chadwick for joining us this evening.
I'm very happy to be here.
Timehost: You're right in the middle of the conference...can you tell us how the conference is going?
Vernon Chadwick: It's going extremely well. We have attracted close to 100 attendees, and we were excited to have one of our speakers fly in from Berlin to give a talk on the Cold War, which was one of the highlights of the conference so far. He talked about the role that Elvis played in the rhetoric of the Cold War in the 1950s. We've been burning the candle at both ends, attending the conference by day and listening to music and partying on Beale Street by night -- the historic music street where Elvis heard the blues in the late 40s in Memphis.
Timehost: Let's take a question from the audience...
dmjon_79 asks: Mr. Chadwick, Elvis Presley's death was and still is somewhat of a mystery. We the public have been told many different and sometimes controversial stories. Exactly how did he die and under what circumstances?
Vernon Chadwick: That's a very good question, and we do not have all the information for a definitive answer. The technical answer is that Elvis died of not only cardiac arrhythmia but also from the mixing of incompatible drugs. Obviously, Elvis was a very ill man in the last years of his life. And we are now in the position to know that Elvis' heart disease, enlarged colon and other ailments were in part due to chronic substance abuse over several years, probably most of the 1970s. But our conference is unique in that we are exploring the larger psychological issues surrounding Elvis' death., and finally breaking out of the simplistic explanation of drug addiction and looking at the larger picture of Elvis' mental health throughout his life, particularly in the last downward spiraling years. This morning one of our speakers, a therapist from Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, advanced the thesis that Elvis suffered bipolar disorder, which is a more technical name for manic depression. And that Elvis' substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic depression should be placed in the larger context of a personality disorder. We think that this will shed new light on the issue of Elvis' death and will take it out of the narrow context of suspected overdose and addiction to the larger and more fundamental issues of Elvis' childhood, family history, the cultural influences of the times in which he lived and other factors which contributed to a possible personality disorder.
Timehost: How did you choose the topic of this year's conference?
Vernon Chadwick: That's a good question. As you know, the celebrity Elvis is the Elvis the public knows best. It is the stage performer, the recording artist, the Hollywood actor. When Elvis' personal problems are raised, unfortunately, they are dismissed in jokes, which do not aid us in helping us understand this complicated man, who should be given credit for introducing dramatic changes in the second half of the 20th century, changes which forever altered the cultural landscape of America and the world. But this is no simple heroic story. Elvis paid a price for his creativity. His achievement of the American dream was not an unqualified success. And we feel that the dark side of his celebrity, of his historic achievements, is also of pressing interest for the understanding of American culture at the end of the 20th century. I'd like to dispel a possible misunderstanding. By dysfunctional family, we do not mean merely the Presley-Smith family of North Mississippi. We are speaking of all of the dysfunctional families that play a role in the Elvis story. Number one, the larger extended family that Elvis' socio-economic group represents. The poor white Southerners, often derided as "white trash." which in our national demonology is believed to be the nation's number one dysfunctional family. Beyond this, though, the national family of America, if one can term it this way, that national extended family that Elvis wrought in the mid 1950s, not only with a new popular musical sound, but also with challenges to the cultural establishment on the grounds of race, class and sexuality. This is another dysfunctional family. As I mentioned before, the dysfunctional family in question can be expanded to include the stalemate between the two superpowers of the Cold War, and in, remarkable fashion, how Elvis Presley played a role in the political rhetoric of that era.
elvis_found_my_g_spot asks: Is there any evidence of Elvis being abused as a child?
Vernon Chadwick: No. Quite to the contrary. Elvis was an overprotected, oversheltered child. Spoiled by a neurotic, doting mother. Your question requires the professional expertise of a family therapist, which I am not, but I will, with qualifications, attempt to answer the question further. When Elvis was three years old, in 1938, his father was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for altering a check. I believe that developmental psychologists would agree that the age of three is a critical time for the bonding of the child to the father and mother. This traumatic event in Elvis' early life surely played a role in his development. He, as a consequence of his absent father, perhaps developed an over-charged relationship with his mother. Which made him vulnerable to the loss of his mother in 1959, when Elvis was 24 years old.
country_girl_atheart asks: Did Elvis have a lot of love affairs, and were any of them serious?
Vernon Chadwick: Well, getting into the love life of people you never met is always tricky business. Elvis certainly did deserve his reputation as the Pelvis, and he seemed to have had trouble controlling his sexual appetites in his later 20's and 30's. And certainly this did contribute to the break-up of his marriage because Elvis continued to have many affairs after his marriage to Priscilla Presley. Although Elvis claimed that Priscilla was the only true love of his life, he was contemplating remarrying to a former Miss Tennessee beauty queen, Linda Thomson. But getting back to the earlier question about bipolar disorder, another symptom of this disorder is compulsive sexual behavior. This would complicate any answer to a question about Elvis' love life.
Sandy_542 asks: Was it Elvis's fame that caused his demise or would his personality have taken the path to self-destruction no matter what he was in life?
Vernon Chadwick:That's a very good question and one that has been raised at our conference. I can only offer several answers to that question based upon comments that have been made by other professionals at our conference. Dr. John Baucom, a psychotherapist from Chattanooga, Tennessee, said that Elvis lacked a road map for managing his success. Given Elvis' poor background and family history, where all of Elvis's relatives held common laboring jobs, Elvis had no family background, or no precedent for dealing with his enormous success, and success that came to him at a very early age. He was 20 when he made it big. Our therapist from Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital gave a talk entitled "Elvis and Substance Abuse: Was It Inevitable?" She placed this question in the context of the available knowledge during Elvis's lifetime on bipolar disorder and substance abuse. And argued in effect that Elvis was a victim of our primitive understanding of these difficult mental health issues. It is likely that had Elvis lived at a different and later historical time that his health destruction would not have been inevitable and that Elvis could have sough professional help and perhaps have overcome all of the factors which contributed to his demise. But then we have to ask the more disturbing question: Would Elvis then still be Elvis? The question is a good one, but it also lends itself to "rescue fantasies. To the speculation of what might have been. I believe the greatest value in asking this question is what can we learn from Elvis's story so that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes that Elvis made. And that we can get a better grasp on how much progress has been made in the last 20 years in the treatment of mental disorders that could be easily dismissed, misdiagnosed or subject to bad proverbial wisdom. It is still not common knowledge that obesity, substance abuse, depression, and violent behavior have deep-seeded sources that require careful analysis and are hardly served by dismissive jokes and other forms of denial.
Timehost: Here's a follow-up from someone else about your comment that Elvis had no precedent for dealing with his success...
airborne_daddy asks: but isn't that true of anyone with the "so-called" overnight success?
Vernon Chadwick: No, I don't think it is as general as that. Elvis had no doctors, lawyers or Ph.D.s in his family. And he also belonged to a group of people with notoriously low self-esteem. Also, Elvis suffered unique obstacles through his Southern character which was ridiculed as hillbilly -- and even a matter of disease. Also, Southern historians have attempted to formulate what they call "the burdens of Southern history," which distinguishes Southerners from other Americans. Whereas most Americans have experienced victory, optimism, and a greater sense of mobility, Southerners have experienced defeat, as in the Civil War, pessimism, depression, economic and psychological, and by and large, an inferiority complex vis-a-vis main stream America. These certainly are special factors that must be considered in the evaluation of the burden of fame which Elvis Presley bore. And also, referring to my earlier answer, Elvis at 19 and 20 years old was not a well-adjusted young man, but the product of an insular and often neurotic family. For example, Elvis suffered episodes of sleepwalking as a young man and shared this disorder with his parents. And Peter Guaralnik speculates in his great biography, "Last Train to Memphis", that the entire Presley family occasionally experienced collective episodes of sleepwalking. We now know that sleepwalking often indicates inner turmoil in the psychological development of adolescence.
babypac_4 asks: did Elvis really have a twin that died at birth
Vernon Chadwick: Yes, he did. And that is absolutely crucial to the psychological interpretation of Elvis's dysfunctions. And I'm glad that you asked that question. The research on the effect of twins, and especially single twins, is still in its infancy. But we do know that single twins, and by this I mean twins whether identical or fraternal, who lose their partner, often suffer many problems and disorders in later life. The subject of Elvis's twin can help us understand both the great power that Elvis had to connect with an audience as if he were reaching out to connect with his absent brother, as well as the emptiness of the so-called "black hole" which single twins and others suffering from severe mental disorders often experience. Relatives and friends of Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis's birthplace, have stated that Elvis felt guilty about the death of his twin brother, Jesse Garon. It's very likely that this guilt played a role in Elvis's later dysfunctional behavior.
Timehost: Here is someone who strongly disagrees with your comment about Southerners and the Civil War.
airborne_daddy asks: More excuses, I have known many southerners throughout my life and I know of not a single one that suffers defeatism because of the civil war......pretty much all psycho-babble from what I am reading
Vernon Chadwick: That's fair enough. But Southerners do not have to have a conscious awareness of the Civil War for historians and cultural critics to give ample evidence of the devastating consequences of the Civil War on the South, consequences that have radically altered the quality of life, character and psychological disposition of Southerners. Anyone who has read Faulkner, and perhaps the Nobel Committee that awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature also recognized this, that Faulkner seemed to have a keen insight into the psychology of the deep pessimism and failure which his characters display in abundance. In my home state of Mississippi, which went from a state with the largest number of millionaires per capita to the poorest state in the Union in a matter of four short years. Mississippi has never as a state fully recovered from the devastating consequences of the Civil War. And for all of the contemporary good times and political success that the South is currently enjoying, older Southerners remain cautious and mindful of the former days of depression, poverty and extreme want. I think Elvis's family was representative of the South still suffering what I called "the burdens of Southern history." Our psychological interpretation of Elvis can serve at the same time as a psychological analysis of the regional character in general. I would like to add another point. The South before Elvis Presley was a belated, closed society. Elvis was an instrument of dramatic social change and modernization. By this I mean the way in which Elvis introduced mass media and popular culture to the region. And he played a role in the major emancipatory movements, such as civil rights, and sexual revolution -- both of which introduced dramatic social changes which certainly put pressure on Southerners dealing with this change. I have argued that Elvis Presley at the end of his life was a stranded hillbilly cat in Graceland.
Stamm444 asks: It is strange that two of the more enigmatic American characters of the 20th century, Richard Nixon and Elvis, met and had some sort of disjointed conversation, as I recall. What was that all about?
I'm glad that you asked that because that will be the subject of our fifth international conference, next year, in 1999. I can only give a preliminary answer at this point. Elvis visited Nixon in the White House in December 1970. According to what has been presented at our conference this year, 1970 perhaps represented the beginning of the end for Presley, and the mad jaunt to visit the President in Washington may be a symptom of the bipolar or manic behavior that I alluded to earlier. Elvis went to Washington ostensibly to request a Drug Enforcement Agency badge from Nixon for his badge collection. But I believe that Elvis saw this DEA badge as a bizarre means to arrest himself for his drug abuse. This was a bizarre encounter. Between a very conservative President and a man who should be given credit for the liberalization of American society via the agency of rock 'n roll. Apparently, Elvis discussed the nation's drug problem, anti-war protests, and the British invasion spearheaded by the Beatles.
Donine_38 asks: How was Elvis able to remain so apparently high energy and well adjusted in public? Thanks.
Vernon Chadwick: That is a very good question. Elvis did conceal many of his problems up until the 1970s. He managed his weight problem off-camera and apparently kept his substance abuse within limits. We must recall, however, that the 60's and 70's were a period without the investigation into the private lives of celebrities and politicians. Elvis also carefully managed his image by refusing to give interviews and by presenting himself only in public through his stage performances. But Elvis's concerts in the 1970s , when his apparent drug abuse became more pronounced, increasingly displayed erratic and aberrant behavior. Sometimes Elvis appeared stoned on stage and mechanically sang. Other times, Elvis forgot lyrics, seemed unaware of where he was, surprised his band with new songs, and engaged in other antic behavior. One participant in our conference today said that if Elvis did not commit suicide , he should have -- before ever allowing himself to go back on stage, the condition that he was in at the time of his death.
Sandy_542 asks: What if Elvis's "Memphis Mafia" walked out on him. Would he have changed in time to save his life?
Vernon Chadwick: Well, in fact, members of his Memphis Mafia did walk out. In an attempt to save his life by writing the book, "Elvis: What Happened?", which they claimed was an appeal to their friend, Elvis, to seek professional help. But by then it was too late. Elvis was in no shape to correct his chronic problems and, in fact, the publication of this book most likely hastened his demise. Elvis's last concert in Indianapolis would have been his first public appearance since the publication of this damaging expose of his private life.
Timehost: We're going to have to wrap up now...but let's take one closing question about Elvis's longevity as a cultural icon...
luckyonebillion asks: Will there be an Elvis conference next century? Will you still be looking at the world through aviator sunglasses?
Vernon Chadwick: Well, this conference requires individuals who are committed to thinking about the real America. beyond all stereotypes and propaganda and disinformation. I believe that Elvis Presley, the individual and the symbol, will be inseparable from American cultural history so long as we have the courage to tell the truth about ourselves and the age in which we live. For this reason, as an educator and scholar, I am committed to doing this work in the future, but I need help. Does anyone want to volunteer to help me organize the fifth annual conference? And insure the longevity of the study of Elvis and American popular culture into the 21st century?
Timehost: I'm sure that a number of people out there would be very interested!
Vernon Chadwick: My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our web site, for the Institute for the Living South, at http://members.xoom.com/livingsouth
Timehost: Thanks very much, Vernon Chadwick, for being with us this evening, live from the site of the Fourth International Conference on Elvis Presley.
Vernon Chadwick: This is the most intelligent online interview I have ever done. And I wish to thank TIME Online for giving me the opportunity to answer America's questions. Good night!
Timehost: Thanks for those high words of praise. And good luck with the rest of the conference!