It's Now or Never
Sounding as excited as someone stuck in traffic, Lisa Marie Presley settles in for yet another goddamn media probe. Immortalized by enough tabloid clippings to sink a garbage barge, the Princess of Graceland knows the drill of being drilled all too well. After all, she's lived in a publicity bubble since birth.
"No, I don't collect what's written about me," says Presley, 35, via cell phone from her rehearsal space in Los Angeles. "I just wait for the Wednesday call from the publicist, and it's like, 'Here we go again. Blah, blah, blah, blah.'"
Answering each question curtly but graciously, the much-badgered heiress of the twentieth century's most fabled entertainer and ex-wife of Michael Jackson is used to life under the microscope -- on Wednesday or any other day of the week. Our fifteen-minute "phoner" (rescheduled five agonizing times) happens to fall on a Friday afternoon -- just as news of Johnny Cash's passing is rolling across America like a blackout. It also marks the national premiere of Matchstick Men, the latest flick starring ex-husband Nicolas Cage. But after being briefed by Presley's publicist, who will monitor the line for the entirety of the call ("You're not gonna ask any questions about anything bad, about her marriages and all that stuff, right? They're about her music, right?"), I've had to rearrange my batting order somewhat. Armed with softballs or not, though, the prospect of meeting Presley is still a bit daunting and surreal: It's not every day a commoner gets to jack the jaw with royalty.
After acknowledging the death of her dad's longtime chum from the legendary days at Sun Studio ("Yeah, I'm really upset about that, actually. Not good," she says haltingly), the subject of the Man in Black turns to Presley's own poor health. She's been asthmatic and hypoglycemic; she's endured a gall bladder removal, had a physical breakdown and has had the mercury fillings in her teeth removed, convinced they were poisoning her body. Now it's a bout with gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach that has hounded Presley like the paparazzi since mid-summer.
"It's been a problem, because singing aggravates it," she says. "And I can't really move much on stage."
With the help of antibiotics and a sound diet devoid of jelly doughnuts, Elvis's famed progeny is gearing up for her second national tour -- this time as a headliner. Following last summer's stint opening for Chris Isaak on several cross-country dates, Presley has gradually been finding her sea legs as a live performer. But unlike the majority of working musicians, she's never had to slug it out in empty bars to get where she is. Then again, that was never an option.
"I can't do it like anybody else, because I'm constantly being scrutinized, you know? I'm constantly paying my dues. I'm still paying them. I'm not gonna ever stop," Presley says. "The only thing easy about being who I am is that I don't have to make that big of an effort to get in [the music business].
"However, going on the first tour ever, and having never done it before, there were more critics there every night than any opening act should ever have. They're all over me, you know? That kind of stuff is like constantly being in a frying pan and under a lot of pressure. So I don't know what's worse, you know?
"I mean, I don't want to complain, but it's a double-edged sword either way. And when you're up in the spotlight and you're trying to be subtle, and you're on national TV and it's like your second or third performance? I just want to go out and sing quietly on the road, and that's not gonna happen."
Denied an identity other than that of the King's only daughter, Presley has a right to be defensive, if not depressed. On public display since her birth in Memphis, she accompanied her mother to Los Angeles at age four when her parents split. Her father's death, in 1977 -- Lisa Marie was nine at the time -- launched a never-ending, international parade of blurred open-casket photos, grotesque headlines and ridiculous conspiracy theories. Five years later, when Graceland opened its doors to tourists -- becoming the most heavily visited home in America after the White House -- the reclusive teen escaped the world's prying eyes by disconnecting from her senses with drugs and alcohol. At eighteen she joined the Church of Scientology, an outfit she credits not only for getting her sober, but also for showing her how to be a better person. At 21, Presley dived into music and wrote her first song, "Give Me Strength," which addressed the fear of dying she had developed since becoming a mother. She considered signing a record deal with Sony, then got pregnant for the second time.
"There was a window of time there where I thought I'd try it," Presley says. "But I wasn't ready."
On August 16, 1997, to mark the twentieth anniversary of her father's death, Presley hired David Foster (the studio wizard behind Natalie Cole's posthumous tribute to her late father, "Unforgettable") to produce a duet of Elvis's '70s-era hit "Don't Cry Daddy." Premiered in Memphis during the encore of Virtual Elvis -- the multimedia extravaganza uniting thirty of the King's old bandmates, backup singers and a 55-piece orchestra -- the song accompanied giant split-screen footage of Lisa Marie and her father reunited in matching white from beyond the grave. It was the first time in American musical history that a dead entertainer (accompanied by his virtual daughter) sold out an 8,500-seat arena.
With a taste for the spotlight partially realized, Presley soon hooked up with Glen Ballard (best known for producing Alanis Morisette's 1997 Grammy-winning Jagged Little Pill) and delivered To Whom It May Concern. Four years in the making, Presley's musical debut serves as an open letter to the world.
"It's more or less sarcasm," she says, referring to the album's title. "I was up against a lot, you know. People already judged me or whatever. So I just wanted to kind of break through to those people who weren't necessarily listening with an open heart and head."
A seething autobiographical work of free-associative, angst-ridden poetry, the twelve-song cycle blends Presley's deep, sexy voice with overloaded production gloss and fairly mainstream sensibilities. Avoiding Southern gentility, the singer mates persistently dark melodies with layers of guitars, electronic drum loops, Hammond organs and the occasional F-bomb. Compositionally generic, the album is neither a masterpiece nor an embarrassment. It's assured, world-weary and gutsier than anything put out by Sheryl Crow, Cher and Jewel combined -- for what it's worth.
"I don't particularly want to be compared. I don't really think it's comparable to anything," Presley says, without a trace of modesty. "But I guess that's the nature of the beast. I know that people have to find a need to do that, but I don't think it's adult-contemporary, either. The only thing I would compare it to -- because I want it general enough to the genre -- would be rock."
Citing Pink Floyd as her biggest musical influence, Presley offers a radio-friendly slew of mid-tempo ballads presumably directed toward herself ("S.O.B."), her father ("Nobody Noticed It") and at least two out of three former husbands. Pinpointing who's who, though, isn't easy. While a tune like "Indifferent" includes the line "All the pretty roses wilted up and paled themselves away today," there's no overt mention of little boys, plastic surgery or the stench of chimp. So who can say?
But with so many veiled references, does Presley ever worry that her lyrical intent might get lost on the casual listener?
"No. Never. Not for one second. Not on my end," Presley says. "I don't even go into that department. I think people should just be open to different interpretations. It's all kind of in there, you know? It's all me, and it's raw. There's no other mission here."
Fortunately, not all of her compositions need a decoder ring. On the Isaak-flavored cut "So Lovely," she quietly thanks both of her kids for saving her life, adding simple but heartfelt advice: "Don't do as I do." Presley says her children -- Danielle, thirteen, and Ben, ten, sired by first husband, Danny Keough -- are both musically inclined. In fact, she includes them as backing vocalists on the title track.
The self-examination reaches a boiling point during the album's single, "Lights Out," a steady rocker as propulsive as the mighty Cuyahoga. A death-obsessed Presley, who's kept her watch set to Memphis time since her father died, belts out a haunting chorus while coming to grips with her own heritage and mortality: "Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis/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." By song's end, when Presley's leather-lunged wailing turns to near-primal grunting, the question isn't whether or not all roads lead to Memphis (that's always been a given), but whether the fabled Graceland boneyard also includes a plot for Priscilla. Either way, Elvis's widow supports the chosen path of her headstrong charge, even if it stressed her out in the beginning.
"I think she [worried] initially," Presley says of her mother's reaction to her stab at the spotlight. "Now she's proud of it, that I actually pulled it off."
With Mama's blessing, To Whom reached number five on the Billboard charts upon release, making it one of the year's highest debuts. (For bean counters and trivia buffs: Elvis Presley's 1956 self-titled debut entered the charts at number eleven but went on to spend ten weeks at number one, while Lisa Marie's dropped out of the Top 20 within a month.)
"I really tried to put something credible out there of substance," Presley says.
Given the high expectations that come with her overwhelming genetic legacy, it's a decent start. But whether or not Presley can quiet accusations of being a rock-and-roll hobbyist, a novelty act or a Lisa-Come-Lately remains to be seen. Developing as a critically viable artist in the shadow of an icon can't be easy -- just ask Hank Williams Jr., Julian Lennon or that guy in the Wallflowers.
"I admire how Jakob [Dylan] has done," Presley says. "He just does his thing, you know? He's got his family, and he's out there touring. I really admire that."
For her part, Presley remains committed to a similar fate. She admits that at this stage in her budding career she feels most comfortable playing in smaller venues, where it's more personal and she can cling to the audience. Away from the road, however, she prefers a quiet domestic life, doting on her children, dogs and peacocks and relaxing in a house built by Robert Blake during his Baretta days.
"I'm really a homebody," Presley says. "I kind of stay home a lot. Hang out with friends, you know.
"Act normal," she adds with a chuckle.
Presley has developed a sixth sense for camera-wielding freaks and lookie-loos. "There's certain places that you have to avoid," she admits. "But I live in a pretty barricaded area with security. So they don't really get near me."
With anonymity ruled out, at least wealth is a certainty: When Presley turned thirty, in 1998, she inherited her father's fortune, an estimated sum of $300 million. Elvis Presley Enterprises, of which she is the sole owner, earned $37 million last year, according to Forbes magazine. But don't paint the princess as a rich, black-hearted recluse. Among her favorite charities is Presley Place, a housing program she financed for homeless families in Memphis; she also co-founded LEAP, a free literacy program for children and adults in that city, with friend and fellow Scientologist Isaac Hayes. And as the international spokesperson for children's rights under the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, Presley has testified before a congressional hearing against psychiatric abuse and Ritalin pedaling.
Such philanthropy hardly makes headlines. Away from a scandal-hungry culture, Presley still finds sanity where she can -- including her father's old movies. Declaring the '50s-era Love Me Tender and Jailhouse Rock as her favorites, she defends her father's crossover talents as a matinee idol.
"You could see his actual ability to act in those, you know?" she says. "And they precede the Colonel coming in and making him what he didn't want to be later on. The later movies that he made -- I don't think he was very thrilled about any of those -- he got contracted into. They were so much about singing all the time and jumping around, which he hated."
Presley's publicist suddenly cuts in, turning a quarter of an hour into a blink of an eye. With Jacko and Nic thankfully off limits, the final burning question, local and legendary in nature, requires context. One night in 1975, so the story goes, Elvis flew some twenty law-enforcement friends to Denver on his personal jet, the Lisa Marie, for a round of sandwiches called the "Fool's Gold Loaf." Created by the now-defunct, Glendale-based Colorado Mine Company, each ridiculously priced monstrosity ($49.95 apiece) consisted of an entire buttered loaf of Italian bread that was baked, then hollowed out and slathered helm to stern with mounds of peanut butter and grape jelly. Each was then packed with a pound of crisp bacon.
"Oh, good lord," Presley says, hearing about this Front Range delicacy for the first time. "No, I've never tried it. But I might just do that. It sounds really good. It sounds like a Southern thing."
Given all that Presley has had to stomach over the course of her life, a little Fool's Gold may just be what the doctor ordered. But then again, there's that whole gastritis thing.
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