A Doped Up Elvis and My 30th Birthday
What I learned watching one of the King's final live performances
I wasn’t planning on writing a reflection for my birthday. I was hoping good company and some chocolate cake will put my soul where it’s supposed to be.
Then I landed on a grainy video of one of Elvis’ last live performances, which changed my mind.
First, some context.
By 1977, Elvis was in trouble. While his 1968 comeback tour revitalized his career, it sent his health on a downward spiral. He was administered the entertainment world’s favorite concoction: prescription drugs, a terrible diet and an unrelenting, grueling schedule of touring and recording. He gained a lot of weight, and was usually high off his face when preforming. He was still heartbroken over his divorce from Priscilla a couple years earlier, which also lost him custody over his only child.
On top of that, he had an avaricious old skeleton for a manager, one who gave Lou Pearlman a run for his money. The manager, “Colonel”1 Tom Parker, took a 50% cut (vs. the usual ~15%) and overlooked his spiraling prescription drug habit so that Elvis can stay on top of his punishing — and lucrative — touring schedule. His last show, just five days after the video was recorded, was his 55th in 180 days.
I read somewhere that all behavior makes sense given enough information. So after all that, it’s hardly surprising that here, at the grand old age of 42, Elvis looks tired, disheveled, sweaty. His famous hair is a mess. He’s overweight. On the rare occasions when his eyes are open, they’re usually squinting like he doesn’t want to face the outside world. He slurs his words, stumbles about, loses his train of thought.
But by god, when he sits down at that fucking piano…
I get goosebumps.
Let’s take a closer look.
His preamble to the performance is a mess. And I love it. *Heavy breathing* I don’t know all the chords, so if you, uh, hear my fingers caught in, in, uh, keys back here, y’all know what it is. *Heavy breathing*. It’s the least eloquent, most understated introduction you can give to one of the most electrifying moments in live music2.
Also, he lied. He knew the chords perfectly. His singing is light and easy, but his soul sounds heavy, like it’s been holding its pain in for decades. When he sings I need your love, I believe him. He needed our love, then and there — and always. When the drums kick in at 2:51, and he reaches his first crescendo, we really believe he’s coming home, and feel his ache when he begs: wait for me.
He looks angelic in his white and gold. But also, so human. You can see the sweat glimmering on his face as his vocals undulate. At 2:35, just as your heart is gripped most intently by his sorrow, he looks up at somebody and smiles, a flash of Elvis of the Ed Sullivan days3, of Jailhouse Rock, of vibrancy and optimism, before returning to the task at hand, which could best be described as making the audience feel their senses throb, heart-like.
As the camera zooms in on his face for his final crescendo around the 3:50 mark, it’s hard to tell what’s sweat and what’s tears. In that moment I caught myself thinking: if humans need justification for our existence on this planet, might this suffice?
And when he gets up from the piano, wiping his smiling face with his famous scarf, I like to imagine that he feels complete, like his mission here is done, that he is ready for whatever comes next.
What does this have to do with my 30th birthday?
What I learned from this video is that although I’m now entering my fourth decade and it’s mostly downhill from here, I still have a couple of redeeming moments ahead of me before I call it quits.
Just kidding. Many of the 40+ year olds in my life have made it abundantly clear how many of their children they’d exchange for the chance to feel the youth of 30 again.
Instead, what struck me about this video is how, in the midst of a chemical delirium, with little grasp of his senses, his words, his eyelids even, Elvis fucking lived this song.
It left me wondering: how did do that?
The role of muscle memory
Reading through the Reddit comments on that video, someone explained how Elvis’ muscle memory was the driving force behind that performance: a potent force that powers through even the hardest drugs, with a long track record of saving countless doped up performers from embarrassment and oblivion on stage.
It is built on years — decades! — of habitual, intentional practice. The body remembers what to do even, or especially, when the control room doesn’t.
As I enter my 30s, I want to develop the kind of muscle memory that allowed Elvis to clear through the chemical fog and show up the way he did that warm June night in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Except instead of learning to perform like Elvis, there are a few behaviors I want to build powerful muscle memory for, and show up with, regardless of the personal fogs of circumstance I may be dealing with. This will allow me to default to constructive behaviors and skills — my own personal Unchained Melody to resort to, regardless of what life throws my way.
In my relationship, and in my relationships, the chords I want to default to are patience, compassion and gratitude. That means continuing to look inward and working through my stuff. Meditating, journaling daily, building self-compassion through emotional work with my men’s group. Getting comfortable with vulnerability. The stuff instagram influencer pages are made of, except for real.
I also want do more listening than yapping, which means developing the muscle memory to respond to others with curiosity rather than my personal story or perspective. These are split-second decisions, and it’s nearly impossible to consciously override decade-old patterns without training (or retraining) my muscle memory.
In my work, I want to be able to consistently make high quality decisions, be able to intrinsically motivate and coach people, and bring creative solutions to hard problems. This means putting myself in situations where I get to make the greatest number of high impact decisions per unit time. Or where my team’s success depends on my ability to motivate. Continuing to get up on stage is the only way to get better.
And in my writing, it means writing from the heart, but also prolifically. That includes doing it when I don’t feel like it, but not robotically. Connecting with why I am writing, so that it remains authentic. On the outside, let fire trucks scream, or babies leave me sleep deprived; on the inside, let ennui rule, or let me wake up feeling deficient, uncertain, weak, as long as my muscle memory walks me to my desk, opens my laptop and has me write, day after day after day.
Muscle memory bypasses the distractions that we come across in our lives, internal or external. My intention for my 30s is to develop more of it, intentionally, and cement it as part of who I am and how I show up with others in my life.
The other thing it made me think of…
Intellectually, this video made me want to internalize the concept of muscle memory and apply it to my life in a systematic way.
Emotionally, though, it made me think of — and aspire to — this George Bernard Shaw quote, which I will leave you with today:
This is the true rule in life: being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy… I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I've got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before passing it on to future generations.
Have a great Sunday.
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He wasn’t a colonel.
The preamble reminds me of how David Foster Wallace talks about why so many post-game athlete interviews sound the same. What professional athletes do is so out of the ordinary, so hard to put into words, that the best they can do is give vague platitudes trying to capture its general essence and finding words failing them (“I went out there and, uh, gave it my best I guess and, uh, I was able to find the right opportunities to take advantage of the, uh, situation, you know…” etc. etc.)
A fun fact about that famous 1956 performance: his hip gyrations were so globally scandalous in his first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show that his next performance there, a few months later, had to be filmed from the waist up in fear of offending the audience’s sexual sensibilities and, apparently, unleashing spontaneous bacchanalias that would destroy civilization as we know it.