Two weeks ago I was in Memphis. My last time there was in 2018, when I was a juror for the Indie Memphis Film Festival, and gave a talk on Elvis’ movie career at the Circuit theatre (once the Memphian, a movie theatre Elvis used to rent out so he and 100 of his closest friends could watch Dr. Strangelove 5 times in a row, and/or etc.) I decided to return, my trip ending just before January 8th, Elvis’ birthday. I spent most of my time wandering the streets, walking miles a day, visiting my favorite spots, Overton Park, Main Street, the bluffs. I read. I wrote. I had dinner with Robert Gordon (who so kindly introduced my Elvis talk back in 2018). And I went to Graceland. This was my third trip to the house. To be honest, I really just wanted to go and “visit” Elvis’ cars, housed in a brand new exhibit facility. The cars are my favorite. But I figured, while I was there, might as well do the tour.
It was a grey windy day. The Presley horses stood out on the lawn, munching the dry wintry grass. There weren’t many people on the tour, so everything was pretty quiet. No thronging crowds.
In the family gallery, located in the little building next to Graceland itself, there was a new portrait on the wall, one that hadn’t been there before.
I looked at this just before I walked outside into the pool/meditation garden area, and saw Benjamin’s big stone grave, placed there with the other graves, that of Elvis, his parents, his grandmother, and a place-marker stone for Elvis’ twin brother Jessie.
I don’t know why, because I should have anticipated it (I knew Benjamin’s grave was now at Graceland), but I was somehow not prepared to see it. I had forgotten. The grave was directly across the little pool from his grandfather’s. There were fresh flowers on top, blazing bright in the cold grey morning. The sight stopped me in my tracks.
Growing Up Among Ghosts
It's not my grief - it's not my family - but grief was palpable in the air, like ozone.
It’s not my grief - it’s not my family - but grief was palpable in the air, like ozone. The garden is already an eerie place, especially when there’s almost no one there, like on that chilly grey morning. The feeling I got, standing there looking at Benjamin’s grave, opposite from Elvis’, the grandson Elvis never knew, was a reminder that Graceland may be a destination tour for people from around the world, but it is, after all, a private home. Still.
I guess it might be hard to explain what's going on to people who don’t get it. My feelings are wrapped up in a lot of other things, what it was like to grow up when I did, and what things meant, almost by osmosis and collective absorption, without any internet to spread the news or set the agenda. I am going to speak in generalizations, always a hazardous activity on the internet, and something I avoid whenever possible.
But when you’re talking about something big - or momentous-feeling - it’s sometimes important to try to take a huge step back, to get a look at the larger picture. This is what I have been trying to do in the days following Lisa Marie Presley’s untimely death. She was imbued with meaning for me, meaning far beyond her famous father. I am not alone. And so I have been trying to put it into words.
Lisa Marie existed in her own in-between territory, replete with the past, with eyes looking ahead, cracking open a space for us, her contemporaries. Speaking for my generation: She grew up alongside us, and she had an importance not easy to describe. I love Elvis but I have no nostalgia for him. I wasn't there at the time of his rise. My parents didn’t have Elvis records in their collection. I came to him through watching Blue Hawaii on television when I was 10 or 11. I mean, I have no memory of it, it might have been Jailhouse Rock, but I'm sure it was something like that. He was just always there. Lisa Marie, though, was different.
The only comparison I can think of to Lisa Marie's place in the generational psyche is John F. Kennedy, Jr. To repeat myself: I have no nostalgia for President Kennedy or Camelot or any of it. I didn’t experience it and I grew up in a cynical era. But John Jr. was a connection to something massive in American life, in a way that, say, Robert Downey Jr. isn't, although his father was important. There's important and then there's world-changing importance. The children of Mythical Men were out there among us.
My first boyfriend grew up in Newport and can actually be seen in Kennedy home movie footage cavorting on the green lawn at one of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s birthdays. I'm from Rhode Island. I saw JFK, Jr. once in Newport. I saw him a bunch of times in New York during the period where I was spending a lot of time in Tribeca and Soho. I felt a stunned shock when he died. There had been something weirdly comforting about knowing he was out there doing his thing and making his way. This was different from nostalgia.
Lisa Marie occupied a similar space. The children of Tragic Men. Growing up among ghosts. Doing the best they could. Acting recklessly. Who can blame them. Getting lost. I mean, wouldn't you? They were not in touch with normalcy, in the way we understand normalcy. They came from another world, but they were staunchly in our world.
My generation was very close to the pull of the 60s. We were born into it. We couldn’t help it. The Boomers - our parents - were a force to be reckoned with numbers-wise, as well as politically and culturally. I did not grow up with parents who waxed nostalgic about Woodstock, who thought their generation invented politics, good sex, good music, viewing everything we did as 1. a pale reflection of their experience or 2. copycat behavior. My parents didn’t pull that trip on me. But this kind of thing was the air we breathed. We were a forgotten weird generation, forgotten even as we were growing up. We grew up in the glow of the Recent Past. It took us a while to find our own way and when we did, we did it boldly, we did it with a "Fuck you," we opted out, we were called slackers - hell yeah, we were "slackers," who could look at the rat race and want to be a part of it? Besides, we were born into a recession, we were born into turmoil. We experienced a plague just as we came of age sexually, and the plague ignited many of us politically. We did not trust grown-ups. This is true of all generations, but our generation is weird because we are such a small group and we came of age right before the internet. So there just isn't as much EVIDENCE of us. But we are there in our art, our music, our books, the authors who emerged from US, the bands and actors who emerged from US. And so people like Lisa Marie and John F. Kennedy Jr. carried a glow, the glow of the past - inspiring protective feelings in the nostalgic Boomers, but the glow of the future, too - for us, extricating ourselves FROM that stifling nostalgia. They carried with them the glow of NOW. They were not nostalgia acts. They too were breaking free as best they could.
I realize these are generalizations and not everyone felt that way. But I did, and enough of us did, and so it is worth noting.
Lisa Marie wasn't royalty: she was too prickly for that. She did not always behave well. In this, she is - for me - a role model. It's chilling to me that "read the room" - with all its implications of self-censorship and peer-pressure-driven behavior patterns - has become such an agreed-upon statement. Sometimes the room SUCKS, and you HAVE read the room, and you decide the HELL with the room. I applaud independence like this. Lisa Marie gave weird answers to straightfoward questions. They seemed weird because they were honest. Real honesty. She was wild. She was unfiltered. She didn’t “read the room”. Good. She made mistakes, but this just made her human.
I was excited when she started making music. I didn’t interrogate myself about it. How exciting to actually hear from her, in her own words, not just speculation and rumor. She wasn't trying to compete with her father. She had stuff she wanted to say. What was it like to BE her? Only she could tell us because there are no comparisons.
What Scientology Did
When the thing with Michael Jackson broke up (and honestly, the whole thing made perfect sense to me at the time, even though it was treated like a freak show by the tabloids. I was like ".... huh. that kinda checks out, tbh.") ... she emerged from it with almost a "what the hell was THAT" vibe, something I found extremely endearing. She gave a famous interview in Rolling Stone where she was basically like "what the hell was THAT."
She was immersed in a controlling religion, something she paid a price for emotionally (she was recently called to testify for the prosecution in the Danny Masterston trial, before being taken off the list). She had a lot to lose. The group is notoriously litigious. She quietly extricated herself. She made no public statements. But the gorgeous album she released around that time (2012’s beautifully titled Storm and Grace, produced by T. Bone Burnett) shivers with honesty like broken glass, with a declaration of independence barely distinguishable from a threat:
You can think that I'm evil and I'm off the rails
You ain't seen nothin' yet
I'm a bit transgressive and suppressive as well
Well you ain't seen nothin' yet
Am I a disruption to your corruption?
You ain't seen nothin' yet
The inclusion of “suppressive” “unethical” and “clear” made her message unambiguous to those who know the lingo. She was free, free enough to taunt them: Come at me, I beg of you to come at me. I was proud of her.
She had her father's sneer. She came by it honestly. She grew up in a confusing swirl of needy, protective, self-absorbed yet kind adults. She never doubted she was loved. But her childhood featured wild swings between discipline (Priscilla) and softie over-indulgence (Elvis). She took advantage of the situation, as kids do. She is open about being a terror as a kid, riding on her tricycle around the lawn, throwing things at the fans gathered at the gate. She lost her way, found it again, lost it again, found it again. This type of journey is inspiring to me, way more inspiring than your typical self-empowerment narrative, which treats “finding your light” as the end goal, as opposed to a temporary and welcome respite before shit hits the fan again.
The Shit Hits the Fan Again
Her children were the center of her world. Her divorces were famously stormy. She headed up her father's gigantic estate with panache, helping to keep it in operation, while creating jobs, committed to giving back to Memphis, in whatever way she could. She took her role seriously. Graceland was her safe place. Elvis' is a living legacy (even more so now, with so many younger people discovering him and his music through Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie. Just yesterday, his 30 #1 Greatest Hits album was in the Top 10 albums of the week. This is insane.)
Lisa Marie's 40s were tempestuous behind the scenes - divorce, the break with the “religion” - but she did not court attention. In fact, as time went on, she shrank from it. She was busy raising children. Her daughter Riley began to pursue acting, and at first there were many who did not seem to know the Elvis connection (although Riley’s face should have clued people in). Lisa Marie did not hog the spotlight, or even "show up" in a visible way for her kids (posing on red carpets, making statements). Nothing was for show with her. She was there for her family in the everyday and that's what mattered. Her relationship to being famous is different from other people's. She didn’t decide to become famous. Fame was a reality thrust upon her. Crowds of people gathered to greet her as a newborn outside the hospital.
Her father did the best he could to create a moat of safety around him. Not surprisingly, the moat also isolated him. Lisa Marie did the best she could.
"One had only to look at Lisa Marie’s face - and its transformation over the last two years - to see what had happened to her."
The death of her son shattered her. No parent "recovers" from the death of a child. Any family who has gone through the anxiety of watching a child struggle with their demons - and so mightily - can understand what it must have been like. She retreated almost entirely. In August of 2022, for National Grief Awareness Day, she wrote a gorgeous and important piece for People magazine.
I have written often about grief, and how unprepared I was for the disorientation aspect of it. I just thought it would mean I was sad. I was shocked at how decimated my resilience was, how destroyed my concentration. It felt like I was driving with the emergency brake on. I learned later from a mood disorder doctor that grief is actually physical: it's brain damage, essentially, akin to a concussion. Your brain knows it has received a mortal blow, and rallies the troops to protect you. Nothing is left over for regular life. People in the 18th/19th century understood this. They wore black armbands for a year. Let’s bring back that tradition. Black armbands signal to the world something has happened, the person needs a little extra care, if they’re not 100% there’s a reason. One had only to look at Lisa Marie’s face - and its transformation over the last two years - to see what had happened to her.
This made her "coming out" for the Elvis movie - interviews, events, promotional tours - so remarkable. All in the wake of her son’s death. Imagine the strength it took to gather her forces, to get out of bed, to get dressed up, to do what is necessary. She did not do it out of any obligation other than the one she felt for her father’s legacy. Nobody pressured her to join the promotional tour. If you think Lisa Marie Presley would buckle to pressure, would do anything unwillingly, you’re cracked. One thing grief does is it decimates your stamina. It took enormous stamina to promote the movie about her dad.
Her grandmother had a heart attack at 46. Her father had a heart attack at 42. Their hearts were weakened by drugs, poor diet, yes, but bad hearts run in the family.
Grief is physical. It is an assault on the heart.
Her final week of life was jam-packed. She showed up at Graceland to talk to the fans, an almost unprecedented event, particularly in recent years. She was there just days after I flew home. She spoke on the front lawn, her father's grave - and now her son's grave - literally right behind her. She said the love of Elvis fans was sometimes the only motivating factor helping her leave the house. Think about that. That night, Baz Luhrmann threw a birthday party for Elvis. Lisa Marie was there. Riley was there. Priscilla. The whole family. Austin Butler. What was all this like for Lisa Marie? An entire life composed of out-of-body experiences?
I realize I am projecting. Lisa Marie was never an open book. Good for her. She read most rooms and deemed they sucked. Best to make her own private room where she could move around and think and be. Anyone who worked with her said she was sweet, kind, but nobody's fool. Pink collaborated with Lisa Marie, and I loved her comment on Instagram: "[Lisa Marie] could be very judgmental but she was also always right." lol Sounds like the attitude necessary to be a film critic.
After Elvis' birthday, she attended a series of public events, culminating in the Golden Globes. She seemed a little shaky on her feet. She was visibly emotional during Austin's beautiful speech. Austin was being celebrated, but it was really her father being celebrated. The resurgence of positive interest in him is a miracle in a way, and one of the few blessings in this sad story is that Lisa Marie lived to see it. She gave a brief interview at the Globes, with Austin Butler at her side, protective of her, attentive. She said it took her about 5 days to process the movie after seeing it for the first time. She was overwhelmed by it. She recognized her father up there (an extraordinary compliment, all things considered). She leaned on Austin, and it took strength to speak - you could tell - but her expression was - to the very end - authentic.
Only Lisa Marie can know what it was like to be Lisa Marie.
And you know what? That's true for all of us. 9 times out of 10, you don't know what is going on with other people, and if you presume to know what life is like for another person, based on their circumstances, identity, parents, or even their public persona, you’re committing yourself to life on the surface of things.
Within her private world, she lived among echoes and under pressures flat-out unheard-of for the rest of us. John F. Kennedy Jr. would get it, but not many others.
Lisa Marie was part of a very lonely club. Just like her father.
The shock and sadness many of us feel about her death is real. This hits different.
Over the last couple of days, I have been listening to her three albums on repeat, giving her the space to speak to me. To tell me what it was like to be her.
from “Lights Out” by Lisa Marie Presley
You were a million miles behind
And I was crying every time I’d leave you
Then I didn’t want to see you
I still keep my watch two hours behind.
Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis
Ooh, 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
“I still keep my watch two hours behind” is such a good line.
There’s always been a space in the Graceland family plot for Lisa Marie. A patch of grass beside the others. I just can’t believe she would need it so soon.
Sheila O'Malley is a regular film critic for Rogerebert.com. Her work also appears regularly in Film Comment. She has written for The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Criterion Collection, Sight & Sound, and others. Follow her cultural commentary on Substack: The Sheila Variations 2.0
I was never a pop person, I was a singer-songwriter...So I got rid of everybody and everything from before and went to England and wrote.
Lisa Marie Presley: I spent eight months in England and wrote about 30 or 32 songs. I told [manager] Simon [Fuller] that working with T Bone would be an ideal dream for me.
T Bone Burnett: A demo showed up at my house, and it was incredibly good. So I called back, and she came over a couple of days later. There was an immediate connection. I just heard her, you know? And I dug it.
How much were you aware of each other’s work beforehand?
Burnett:I was always intrigued that she was making records. I thought it was a gutsy thing to do — being in the family business is complicated.
Presley: I don’t know that there was an album he did that I wasn’t a fan of, from Counting Crows to O Brother, Where Art Thou? to [Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’] Raising Sand.
Burnett: I’m just learning this now! I’m glad you liked the Counting Crows.
Lisa, it’s been seven years since your last record. Why did you choose to take so much time off?
Presley: I think I had been through such torrential experiences in my past records, being promoted and pushed in certain ways. It was never really fun for me. I was never a pop person, I was a singer-songwriter. I’m not going to knock it all, but I was a little tapped out. So I got rid of everybody and everything from before and went to England and wrote.
"As an 11-year-old, Presley was dropped off by her mother at the church's celebrity center for hours, months on end, for 'obedience therapy', as her behavior went off the rails, De La Carriere says."