“There’s no reason to be careful anymore,” explains Lisa Marie Presley, “Because everything is in that record. It’s frustrating, sitting with all this for years and years, not having said a word. I want it understood where I’m coming from.” Thirty-five years in a world that has bombarded her with its views of who she is, who she was and who she should be; thirty-five years of a scrutiny that began before her eyes even opened for the first time; thirty-five years as the daughter of the first and most famous rock star of them all; thirty-five years trying to navigate the gilded but treacherous path life has offered her … and now Lisa Marie Presley is about to release her first album, To Whom It May Concern. “You want to know who I am, and what I am, it’s in here,” she says. “This is how either fucked up I am, or crazy or deranged or stupid or whatever you want to call it. This is me, and it’s from me, and that’s the only reason I did it.”
For most of these years she has avoided talking in public. (There was, of course, the very surreal live TV interview with Diane Sawyer alongside her second husband, Michael Jackson, but we will get to all of that.) Now, having found a reason to speak, Lisa Marie Presley turns out to be the kind of woman who doesn’t mince words or glide evasively over the tricky areas. After thirty-five years of biting her tongue, if she’s going to talk, then she’d rather convey her truth as it really is, not some carefully sanitized version of it. But first …
“No, no, no! Out! Out!” she cries, breaking off our handshake as we are introduced at her house in a gated community north of Los Angeles, just before Christmas. There is a peacock crisis. She moves toward the back door, crouched, with her hands in front of her, ushering the Presleys’ pet peacock back outside. “Peacock in the house,” she announces, unnecessarily, then makes us both tea.
She is wearing a 1982 Blue Oyster Cult tour T-shirt over a long-sleeve undershirt. In the background, Beck’s Sea Change plays; as dusk draws in, the Verve’s Urban Hymns will follow. I haven’t expected to be disconcerted by the way she looks, but just for the first few minutes, I am. Her resemblance to her father is more striking and extreme in the flesh than in photos. There is something confounding about seeing these over-familiar but unanchored, iconic features hovering above real shoulders, alive and in motion.
I am also somewhat surprised to learn that, as we talk, her first husband, Danny Keough, is in the next room, home-schooling their two kids, Danielle, 13, and Ben, 10. (The children are currently in between schools.) Soon, Keough and the children wander in. The kids are still giggling in the wake of their lesson about the pharaohs, which seems to have deteriorated toward its end due to the semi-homophonous nature of the words sphinx and sphincter. Keough shrugs. “I’m competing with videos, man, and video games,” he points out. He seems down-to-earth and friendly, and we compare notes about favorite British sitcoms. (“He’s my absolute best friend in the world,” Lisa Marie will tell me later. “The smartest thing I’ve ever done is have children with this man, because I knew this is the one man I could be connected to for the rest of my life.”)
After a while we move outside, even though it is cold and windy, so that Presley can smoke. She won’t smoke indoors. “Just because I’ve got a disgusting habit, it doesn’t mean I need to inundate my children with it.” She’s smoked since she was fifteen; she was addicted before anyone told her that cigarettes were bad for you. “I haven’t taken drugs since I was eighteen, but this is the one thing that got me and bit me in the ass that I can’t shake,” she says. The longest she has ever stopped has been three weeks. “I’m ready to quit, but I don’t know how, yet.”
Keough takes Ben to the dentist, and so Danielle comes outside to join us. She curls up next to her mother. Presley doesn’t avoid difficult subjects in front of her daughter. In fact, her daughter frequently chips in, often to tease her mother. The peacock comes by, and Lisa Marie explains that it is a female named Honky. They also have three dogs.
Presley mentions that she used to have peacocks at Graceland. “But I was terrible,” she adds. “I used to chase them around on my golf cart.”
“Like the frogs?” says Danielle, giggling.
“Shhh,” chides Presley, genuinely put out. I press for an explanation.
“No,” she says. “Nothing. I was a demented child.”
“Can I tell?” asks Danielle.
“Go ahead,” sighs Presley, resigned.
“She ran over the frogs with the golf cart. On purpose.”
“It was an absolute accident,” insists Presley. “My friends would place them there. I didn’t know it. It was terrible.”
“What is wrong with you?” teases her daughter.
“A lot,” she sighs.
Young kids do that stuff, I say.
Danielle giggles. “She was a different kind of young kid,” says Danielle.
LISA MARIE PRESLEY WAS BORN on February 1st, 1968. Her parents, Elvis and Priscilla, were together until she was four; after that, she lived with her mother in Los Angeles but would regularly visit her father, usually at Graceland. Her first single, “Lights Out,” reflects on this heritage: “I was crying every time I’d leave you, and then I didn’t want to see you.… I still keep my watch two hours behind.” That’s what she did; leave her watch set to time in Tennessee, a habit that stuck for years after her father’s death.
When she was young, she lived through her eight or so Barbies. “They’d have their lives concurrently with mine and I somehow lost myself,” she says. “I loved being in that world. I mean, I was a very forlorn child. I don’t know why. I know that I was deep and kind of heavy and people thought I was really sad. I think I was just a little too deep for my own pants at a young age.”
As well as the Barbies, she had a Snoopy that she’d dress up and take to school. “I didn’t really have any friends, so I would have him be my friend,” she says. “He lasted for years. His nose fell off, and I sewed it back on. He was so dirty, and somebody finally threw him away.” (Presley still has three Snoopys in her bedroom and likes to sleep with one of them in the absence of a child or a partner.)
Then there was music. Always music. In the few weeks before we first speak, Presley has been putting her first-ever band together: for TV appearances, maybe live concerts, and simply to make sure that she can do this, because until now she never has. Her mother came down to one rehearsal. “She was getting really emotional,” says Lisa Marie. “She said, ‘I’m getting this flashback of you when you were three or four. You wouldn’t play with anybody. You wouldn’t go out. You would just sit in your room with a little record player and all your 45s stacked up.'” Lisa Marie remembers it all: hiding away, listening to music or singing to herself in front of the mirror with a microphone. “My dad would catch me,” she says. “I’m sure he got a kick out of it. He’d put me up on the coffee table in front of everybody and make me sing.”
Presumably everyone clapped?
“I think so.”
Did that mean a lot to you?
“I don’t know. I think I was more into making him proud. I was doing it for him.”
She loved her father’s music. “I was always excited if I was on tour with him,” she remembers. “When he’d come on, I would just lose it … you know.”
But there were others fighting for her affection as a fan. She favored David and Shaun Cassidy, as well as Elton John. “One Christmas I asked for Elton John albums,” she says, “And my dad was sitting there when I opened them up and was, ‘Who the hell is this son of a bitch?’ and walked out. And then he got some of the records — ‘Who is my daughter interested in besides me?’ — and I think he went to see him live, to check out who he was.”
Presley plays her father’s records sometimes. “I get in certain moods and I will,” she says. “I’m more prone to the Seventies stuff, because I was around then. They bring back more memories. The sad ones, I get into — the dark ones that weren’t particularly a hit on the radio. ‘Mary in the Morning’. ‘In the Ghetto’. ‘Just Pretend.’ ‘Solitaire.’ Those I love.”
As a child, Presley lived two lives: one of discipline around her mother, and one that perhaps echoed the adult undercurrents of loneliness and indulgence at Graceland. “There was nobody looking after me, and everyone was afraid of my dad, and he was sleeping. So if that was the case, I was a tyrant.… If he was sleeping, which he mostly was during the day, I could do whatever until I was ordered to his room if I pushed it too far. I was awful. People would give me cameras to go and take pictures, and I’d take money and I’d say I was going to take a picture of my dad, and then I’d throw the camera somewhere. I was awful. The fans were always in the trees in the woods and getting me to come over to the fence when I’d be in my golf cart, and [I] would do stuff and throw things. It was weird, because sometimes I’d be playing and I’d hear basically a call to arms — ‘someone jumped the fence’ — and they were always jumping the fence, and I was definitely afraid: whether they were coming after me, or they’d say, ‘Hi, I’m Priscilla, and I’m ready to have my dinner,’ and it was a man. There was all kinds of crazy stuff going on.”
As she tells me this, we are sitting outside in the dark and cold, around the back of her house. (“Robert Blake built this house in the Seventies when he was doing Baretta,” she notes.) There is a rustling and a dark flash of motion across the garden.
“That,” she says, “was a rat.”
There is a further rustling above us and, high up there, I can see against the nearly black sky a silhouette of Honky on a branch, directly over us.
“Which means,” she says, “we are a target, and we should probably move.”
IN THE KITCHEN, Danielle asks whether they are going to Rob Zombie’s Christmas party tomorrow. Rob Zombie is one of their friends. “He’s a sweetheart,” Presley says. “He and his wife, Sheri.” They met though one of her closest friends, Johnny Ramone, about whom she says, “I think we’re both pretty no-bullshit, and we don’t put up any fronts.” She laughs and adds, “We’re irritable assholes, really.” She didn’t even know any Ramones records until after they’d met. “I was into the Sex Pistols and Devo and all that stuff when I was a teen, but I didn’t get into the Ramones. I had a huge crush on Sid Vicious.”
Your taste in men …, I sigh.
“I know,” she says. “If you lined up all the men I’ve been with in a row, you’d think that I was completely psychotic.”
Presley knows that the world has never thought about her in quite the same way since her second marriage, her 1994 union with Michael Jackson. She is infuriated by this and by the notion that she wanted anything else out of it other than those things most people hope for in a marriage. “All I did get out of it was a shit storm,” she says. “And I got out of it. Now people go, ‘You seem somewhat sane, you seem pretty together — what the hell was that all about?’ It put a stigma on me. A ‘What the hell was she thinking?’ stigma.”
She says that Jackson first tried to get in touch with her when she was a teenager. She got a message through her lawyer — “He wants to meet you; he thinks you’re very pretty” — but she blew it off: “I was completely in love with Danny, and I thought he was weird, and I had no interest in meeting him.”
A few years later a friend called and said that Jackson wanted to hear a demo she had made. She wasn’t interested in being on his label but was persuaded it would at least be good manners to take the meeting. They were introduced at the friend’s house, and that is how it started.
“He was very real with me off the bat. He immediately went into this whole explanation of what he knew people thought of him and what the truth was.”
Which was persuasive?
“Yeah. You get sucked into the ‘you poor, misunderstood person, you’. I’m a sucker for that. Then we sat down to talk, and he was so not what I thought he was. He was very real — he was cursing, he was funny, and I was like, ‘Wow.…’ I fell into that ‘You have this whole Howard Hughes thing that goes on in the press, and you’re not anything like that.'”
But why wouldn’t he want people to know that?
“I don’t know. I think it worked for him to manipulate that image for a little while. The hyperbaric chamber thing and all that monkey shit and the elephant shit. It made him mysterious, and I think he thought that was cool. But then it backfired, like it always does.
“I was always saying, ‘People wouldn’t think I was so crazy if they saw who the hell you really are: that you sit around and you drink and you curse and you’re fucking funny, and you have a bad mouth, and you don’t have that high voice all the time. I don’t know why you think that works for you, because it doesn’t anymore.'”
After that first conversation, they were friends who talked. Then the child-abuse accusations surfaced, and Michael Jackson’s world exploded. “That whole shit hit the fan,” Presley recalls, “And he was quick to call me and tell me what his side of the story was, so it looked like an extortion situation. I believed him, because he was so convincing.” She frowns wryly. “I don’t know.… I just believed everything he said, for some reason. It’s very strange, because there’s not a lot of people who he’ll allow to see who he really is — there’s probably only five or six people, not including kids, who have seen who he really is. But when you do …” She smiles. “He didn’t get where he is because he’s an idiot. You see a real person who’s very much the opposite of what he was presenting.” Jackson was under attack, and it brought out Presley’s protectiveness. “I got into this whole ‘I’m going to save you’ thing,” she says. “I thought all that stuff he was doing — philanthropy and the children thing and all this stuff — was awesome, and maybe we could save the world together.” She pauses. “OK. Hello. I was delusionary. I got some romantic idea in my head that I could save him and we could save the world.”
At this point she was still married, and they were yet to become girlfriend and boyfriend. “He called me a lot,” she says. “Confided in me a lot. Which could be very manipulative — I don’t know. I hung out with him more, and I made the mistake of saying I was not happy in my marriage, and the courting started. And I left [my marriage] probably quicker than I would have, and that was probably one of the bigger mistakes of my whole life.”
When you say “courting,” do you mean as between any boy and girl?
“Yeah. Flowers. Calls. Candies. You name it … everything started coming.”
I think people are still pretty incredulous at the idea that you had any kind of normal married relationship with him.
But I presume that is the case.
“That is the case. Like I said, I got caught up in this thing of ‘it was all a show.’ That was my first experience with being accused of that, which was shocking for me.”
But, to be clear, is it fair to say that in private you were doing all the things that married people do: kissing, going to bed together, having sex?
“Yeah. That was part of it, for a while. And then it became the Def Con 2. It just got really ugly at the end.”
Before that, when it was good, was it your understanding that that was what he wanted?
A pause. “I don’t know what he wanted anymore. I know that it looks very timely for him, in retrospect — the record was coming out, that other shit was happening, and I was too caught up in … ” She stops, and recasts the thought. “I can tell you my intentions; I can’t tell you what his were.”
News of their union leaked out slowly — of a marriage in the Dominican Republic in May 1994, first denied, then confirmed. Their first surreal public appearance was opening the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, during which — as they stood center stage — Jackson kissed her fully on the lips.
“That was not my idea, by the way,” she says. “I was terrified. It was his manager’s idea. I thought it was stupid. All of a sudden I became part of a PR machine.”
It seemed like a blatant gimmick to prove — to start with — that he was straight.
“Yeah, but again, I wasn’t looking at it like that. See, if I had been, that wouldn’t have ever happened.”
Even stranger and more astonishing was the interview the married couple gave to Diane Sawyer in 1995, in which Presley steadfastly defended her husband, the genuineness of their relationship and his character.
“I don’t recognize who I was then, now, watching it,” she says. “I was really in this lioness thing with him — I wanted to protect him. Naive as all hell. I never thought for a moment that someone like him could actually use me for any reason like that. It never crossed my mind, and I don’t know why — I’m sure it crossed everybody else’s.”
People are still confused by Michael Jackson’s love of a certain kind of relationship with young kids, whether it’s totally innocent or not. And you made a huge defense in the Diane Sawyer interview of how you watched him with kids and how it was all totally innocent. Is that what you think on reflection?
“The only thing I can say is that I didn’t see anything that would ever allude to that ever. Otherwise I would have been the first one out there going, ‘You motherfucker.’ I’ve got children. But I never saw anything like that. I meant what I said when I said it, because I didn’t see anything weird or bizarre like that ever. And I did notice that he had an amazing connection to kids, whether it be a small baby or a two-year-old girl or a four-year-old — children really responded to him.”
Back then did you ever worry or even think whether there could be any truth in what he was accused of?
“Did I ever worry? Of course I fucking worried. Yeah. I did. But I could only come up with what he told me. The only two people that were in the room was him and that kid, so how the hell was I going to know? I could only go off what he told me.”
And what do you think now?
She purses her lips. “I don’t know. I still don’t know. I wasn’t there. I never saw anything else that could possibly lead to that. And there’s two sides of it. There’s the side of the dad. Why would the dad take the fucking money? If I had a kid and he was molested, I would fucking take that guy and hang him by his balls off a tree and let him sit there and die like that. Nobody could buy me, ever, if my child were molested. Fuck that. I don’t care if I didn’t have a penny — I would take his ass down in front of everybody.”
She says, by way of recap, this: “I understand it did affect people’s perception of me. That’s fine; I understand why. But I did fall in love with him. I can’t say what his intentions were, but I can tell you mine was that I absolutely fell in love with him and fell into this whole thing which I’m not proud of now.”
Do you rule out that he fell in love with you?
“As much as he can, possibly. I don’t know how much he can access love, really. I think as much as he can love somebody he might have loved me. It was always like a mind that was constantly working. It was a scary thing — somebody who’s constantly at work, calculating, calculating, manipulating. And he scared me like that.”
LISA MARIE PRESLEY HAS BEEN EDGING toward making a record for a very long time. She has had a recording studio in every house she has lived in as an adult. When she was about eighteen, she took her first steps. Until then she would sing in the car, but that was it. She was nervous about what she had every reason to be nervous about. “The comparison,” she says. “That.”
But at about twenty-one, she started writing songs; the first, “Give Me Strength,” was about the fear of dying she had developed since becoming a young mother. Her music then was dark, old-school R&B. She was about to sign a record deal with Sony when she got pregnant again. “I freaked out,” she recalls. “I wasn’t ready for it.” So she put music to one side.
Two circumstances led her back to the microphone. First was what she matter-of-factly refers to as “my father’s twentieth death anniversary” in 1997. As her father’s sole heir, and head of Elvis Presley Enterprises, it was her duty to be part of memorial events but, she says, “I was sick of just walking around, going ‘hi’ and smiling.” She was in the bathroom of a jet flying from New York to Florida when the idea hit her: She would record a vocal to be interpolated with her father’s on one of his Seventies hits, “Don’t Cry Daddy,” and she would get producer David Foster (who had masterminded Natalie Cole’s duet with her deceased father) to put it together.
It was never intended for release. Instead, on August 16th, 1997, it was played in front of 9,000 people as the soundtrack to a quickly made video in which she and her father were superimposed. Foster was impressed enough to tell her she should start making records. She had started writing songs again, anyway, as she emerged from an extended period of ill health and depression following her split from Jackson. “Probably the worst, most stressful time in my fucking life,” she says. “I started writing again to get rid of that one. It was me trying to untangle from this shit storm that I’d got myself into.” To begin with, every song was about what she had just been through; slowly her scope broadened, though not her dark take on the world.
Foster’s lawyer introduced her to Glen Ballard, best known for his work with Alanis Morissette; Presley played him “these very dark, wretched, treacherous, melancholic demos,” and he signed her to his label with Capitol. She nearly completed an album with him three years ago, but then Ballard left and she decided to stay on Capitol. But she worried that the songs were not edgy enough, and some were recorded over and over again until they satisfied her. “I’m sick of these songs,” she says, but she’s also quite obviously very proud that she has created something that really addresses her life. “I respond to people when they’re honest,” she says. “I don’t respond to the bullshit, and I don’t want to put bullshit out there. The album is me raw and who I am.”
ONE EVENING, WE GO FOR DINNER at a modern Chinese restaurant she favors on her occasional evenings out and where Micky Dolenz is dining at the next table. We are joined by Paige Dorian, her assistant and friend of eight years, and another friend, Luke Watson, whom she has known since she was twenty and who has been documenting her recent life on film. Both seem smart, funny and normal. “They live my life with me,” Presley says, taking the wine list. When she drinks, she likes to drink well. She chooses a 1982 Château Haut Brion. She chats about Fear Factor, favorite comedians (Eddie Izzard, George Carlin), the time she sang a karaoke version of “Hotel California,” her most recent CD purchases (old ones by Journey and Alice in Chains; the new Tori Amos), her teenage adventures exploring Europe by train on a Eurail pass and her recurring nightmares that she is choking. She takes a call from her son, who wants to know why she isn’t home yet, and she reassures him.
It is during dessert that she mentions her crush on Darth Vader. “I was obsessed with him,” she says. This was only about five years ago, when her son got into Star Wars. Instead of hogging his toys, she got her own. She had a Darth Vader watch and a small Vader on her office desk that, upon the press of a button, would gesticulate with his light saber and tell her, “Impressive, most impressive — but you’re not a Jedi yet.” She also dressed up as Vader one Halloween. When I quiz her in further detail about all this, the conversation takes several strange turns.
He didn’t even have a proper mouth!
“Well, I wasn’t thinking that deep into it. That whole black dark thing I liked: the cape, the voice, the breathing, the whole thing.”
The voice? The breathing? You imagined the two of you running away together?
“God, I wish. I just wished he was real.”
Have you now moved away from the dark side?
“No. Never. God, I hope not.” She considers a moment: “You know, I’m sure it’s connected in some weird way to the grandness and the bigness of an earlier loss in my life. Some sort of representation of this grand, powerful … not dark and evil … but this thing in my life that went away. And maybe it’s some twisted fucking way to try and replace that.” She shrugs. “If you want to get down to the psychology of it.”
What is the grand, powerful thing? Your father?
So do you think Darth Vader is? …
“No. I’m talking about somebody in my eyes that was, to me, so overwhelmingly grand and powerful — and sometimes dark, depending on mood. And there was that for the first nine years of my life. Maybe I have been in search of something like that. It’s very hard to compete with that in my mind. That’s what he was to me as a child — this huge, electrifyingly powerful, grand, beautiful presence. It’s like a lost duckling who walks around looking for that; I’m not really doing that, but I guess in some weird kind of psychological bullshit, that could be what’s going on.”
THE UNFOLDING STORY of Lisa Marie Presley’s life has been told — albeit in what its subject would regard as a contorted, distant, sensationalized, trivialized and often fictional way — in America’s tabloids since before she could read. “I’m a tabloid queen … princess … whatever you want to call me,” she says. And, though she wishes she could say otherwise, she usually does look at what they have to say about her.
“Unfortunately. Because I want to know what people are thinking when they see me.” Taking the few facts they know and others they imagine to be true, the tabloids picture her life as following the narrative they expect for, and impose upon, those they consider the aimless children of the famous: rampant drug addiction, weird religious faith, ludicrous eccentricity and catastrophic relationships.
That, quite obviously, is not a life she recognizes as hers. Take, for example, her — as they would have it — wild and desperate drug years. “I did drugs for four years of my life, from thirteen to seventeen,” she says, “And they like to make it like I had this big drug-addiction problem. I was never addicted to anything. I was just on self-destructo mode. It was very simple and not abnormal for what a teenager does. I just went on a rampage.” (To be specific: “I did everything but mushrooms and heroin. Those were two things I didn’t take. Thank God. Or crack. That wasn’t really happening then.”)
I ask her whether, when she did drugs herself, she related it in any way to what had happened to her father.
“No,” she says. “I was a teenager. I didn’t think like that. Maybe it was to scare the hell out of my mother, if anything. You know, I was trying to be dramatic — ‘I’m a tortured teenager.’ I was really into showing her how not happy I was.”
The same tabloids would also have you believe that Presley was rescued from drugs — in what they frame as an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire kind of way — by Scientology. She says that she actually took to her religion at the end of her teens in a far more gradual way, based on seeds sown when she was ten and she and her mother visited her crush-of-the-moment John Travolta on the set of Welcome Back, Kotter. She talks of her religion at length, easily and openly, neither proselytizing nor being defensive, and scoffs at the notion that she could ever be manipulated by it. “If you know anything about my personality” — she laughs — “you’ll know that’s not possible.” She says that she recently went to the Scientology center in Los Angeles for the first time in months; her first visit since her third marriage publicly disintegrated. “I said, ‘See what happens? You’ve got to keep me on a leash — I’ll embarrass you and everybody else.'”
This most recent marriage, to Nicolas Cage, is the one subject Presley is reluctant to discuss. “It’s still hanging on a thread, and I’m not sure what’s going on, and I’d rather not talk about it just because of that,” she says. They dated through most of 2001, then split in January 2002. After reuniting, they were quickly married on August 10th, 2002. On November 23rd, they went to the premiere of Cage’s film Adaptation; on November 25th, Cage filed papers to end the marriage, citing “irreconcilable differences” and issuing a statement that said, “I did not talk about the marriage and I am not going to talk about the divorce. But I loved her.” Almost immediately, Presley issued her own statement: “I’m sad about this, but we shouldn’t have been married in the first place. It was a big mistake.”
There are songs on her album that may well relate to Cage. “Gone,” for instance, is a song that she wrote around a year ago about what she was going through at the time “and nothing beyond that point I will confirm or deny.” It is a song about a man (emphatically not her father) whose female partners call him “Daddy” and who has just been left by the singer of the song: “And what’s that I hear now, Daddy, you’re blaming it all on me/Another she did you wrong and of course you had to leave/And the yes men will agree/You gave it everything.” (I ask what the person it was written about thought of it. “That it was a great song,” she says, “but that obviously it was an annihilation, a direct attack, and that it wasn’t very nice.” I further ask what she thinks now of the opinions she expresses in the song. “It’s absolutely accurate on all fronts,” she says.)
She does tolerate some nosiness:
How can two people be at a premiere one night and be announcing a split barely twenty-four hours later?
She raises her eyebrows. “Temper tantrum?”
On whose part?
“Whose do you think? Who filed for divorce? Hothead. He did.”
You’re aware that the favored over-arching tabloid belief about the whole union is that, as most tastelessly expressed in a Scottish newspaper, “for the avid Elvis fan, Lisa Marie Presley is the ultimate limited edition.” Hence his desire to marry you. That’s pretty offensive, isn’t it?
“Yeah, it’s offensive. I hate that stuff. I guess if you don’t fill the vacuum up with your own information, people will fill it, and that’s the scary part. I know he did the movies and stuff like that in the past — I never saw one Elvis artifact or anything in any of his homes ever, aside from maybe having a couple of records, just like anybody else.”
And presumably the good things and the bad things that happened between you were the good things and the bad things that just happen between two people?
“Yes, except that we’re both so dramatic and dynamic that when it was good it was unbelievably good, and when it was bad it was just a fucking bloody nightmare for everybody. It was just Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”
WHEN I AM SENT THE LYRICS to her new album, there’s one more lyric than there are songs on the advance CD. It is called “Disciple,” and its remarkable first verse is:
You will flourish in your disciples bringing you pleasure
In so many masturbative ways
Until you’ve simply no use for them anymore
And then they will remain and suffer in your concentrated haze
The first seven songs that spilled out of her in the aftermath of her split with Jackson were all about the same thing, and “Disciple” was the one that summed it all up the best.
Everyone around you, they’re sick, they’re on medication or they will
Finally lose their minds
But they will always defend you and justify your insanity like I did
Because you make them blind
“I’m not into Michael-bashing at all,” she says, when I discuss the song with her. “I have no interest in doing that. He is who he is. I know people want to know what that was about, and I’m trying to say it without making him a bad guy, you know.… It’s hard to do, because it was such a bad situation and it was so fucked up.”
It wasn’t too long after the Diane Sawyer interview that things started going wrong. “We were really on shaky ground,” she says. “There would be periods of time where I had no idea where he was — only by the press. He would just disappear.” The final media spectacle documenting their union’s disintegration was the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards. She was in the audience; he was singing a medley of his greatest moments onstage.
“I was glaring at him,” she says. “That was a pretty infamous moment.”
Why were you glaring at him?
“Because I hadn’t seen him, or heard from him, in six weeks. He got upset and he would just disappear.” She says that after about a month without any contact, his people started calling, saying that it was important that she show up at the MTV Video Music Awards. She agreed to show up if she didn’t have to go down the red carpet; they consented, then led her down it anyway. “I was pissed. I just felt like I was being used at that point.” She was then told that he was going to sing to her and that he had a surprise for her. “I remember my whole look was: ‘Don’t you come anywhere fucking near me — we haven’t spoken in a month.’ And he got it. He didn’t come over. I talked to him later and he said, ‘I saw the look on your face, and I knew that if I walked up to you, I didn’t know what you were going to do me.'” (Weirdly, this performance — glare and all — would later be included on Michael Jackson’s video collection History on Film.)
There were other fault lines opening. Jackson had asked her never to speak about him, and she felt he was taking liberties, particularly in a TV Guide story at the time. “He was quoting me, ‘Lisa Marie told me Elvis had a nose job,’ which is absolute bullshit,” she says. “I think it justified something in his mind — they were asking him about his plastic surgery. I read that, and I threw it across the kitchen. ‘I told you what?'”
How did it come to a head?
“I’d had enough. That’s all.”
You pulled the plug?
“Yes. I told him I wanted a divorce. Then he didn’t talk to me for a couple of weeks.”
In the period following her split from Jackson, her health collapsed: “My body started to deteriorate. I started to have panic attacks. I went through two years of baffling every doctor from East to West Coast. One week it was asthma … hypoglycemia … candida … reflux … I had everything. My gall bladder just fucking stopped working, and I had to get it taken out. This was when the tabloids said I tried to kill myself or something like that. We settled out of court. But anyway, I wound up in the hospital. I had everything happening; my body completely fell apart. And nobody knew what the hell was wrong with me.” She was allergic to everything. “I had to eat chicken and broccoli for a year,” she remembers. “I was absolutely falling apart, physically and emotionally, for a two-year period.” At times she thought of death. “It was the constant physical breakdowns that were going on that I didn’t understand.”
You really thought you might not make it?
“I really thought it. It was just non-stop.” Then she went to a homeopathic doctor, told him all her symptoms, and he asked her to open her mouth. He told her to get her fillings removed. “But once I started to get it out, it all stopped.” (She now thinks her problems were caused by a mixture of mercury fillings and extreme stress.) “Mercury can make you go fucking crazy. That term ‘mad as a hatter’ comes from mercury: people working in felt factories and going crazy. They try to say mercury is safe, but it’s the second-deadliest poison known to man, underneath plutonium, and it’s in people’s fucking teeth.”
IN THE CAPITOL RECORDS recording studio, Lisa Marie Presley is filming a performance of “Lights Out” for an EPK — the electronic press kit that is sent out to promote new albums. She has never performed in public; in fact, she has barely performed in front of anyone. Two days earlier, I watched her play with her band in a dark, cramped Los Angeles rehearsal studio, where she looked nervous and uncertain. Today she has to perform over and over in front of the cameras, and it is weird observing her develop as the day passes, watching her way of delivering a song evolve over a few hours in all the ways that other musicians discover themselves and their style over years of teenage preparation.
Andrew Slater, president of Capitol and the producer of “Lights Out,” looks on. He and Presley seem to have developed a friendly but somewhat spiky rapport. He specifically asked her not to go out last night in preparation for this shoot; when he finds out that she stayed at Beck’s Christmas party until three in the morning, he sighs and tells her, “Your blood type’s R for rebel.” But you can tell that he’s thrilled — and maybe even a little shocked — by the way she is coming into herself today.
“What are you on?” he asks after one take.
“What do you mean?” she asks, guarded.
“It’s like the Star Trek episode where the cells mature,” he says. “Two days ago …”
She looks uncomfortable with both the compliment and the scrutiny. “I’m going to use the restroom, Slater,” she responds. When her manager, Scooter Weintraub (who also manages Sheryl Crow), tells her how natural she looks, she retorts, “I don’t care,” and then adds, “I want to tell everybody to fuck off when they tell me it looks good.”
There are also moments, when she relaxes into her performance, where it’s impossible not to notice something else going on. She will be singing, and then you will suddenly see how she is: The microphone is in her right hand; the cord is in her left, held out at her side, her finger reaching round the cord to beckon; her head is slightly tilted and then — even though she’ll tell me it’s entirely unintentional and something she tries to stop herself doing when she catches the muscles moving that way — one side of her upper lip rises defiantly, a triumph of genetics over gravity.
ONE DAY WHEN SHE WAS seven or eight, Lisa Marie Presley told her father, “I don’t want you to die.”
“Don’t worry about me,” she remembers he told her. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“I just had a feeling,” she says now. “He wasn’t doing well.” A feeling. “All I know is that I had it, and it happened. I was obsessed with death at a very early age.”
Elvis Presley died when Lisa Marie was nine. She was at Graceland at the time, and there are a variety of painful published accounts of her realizing what had happened and telephoning one of his long-term girlfriends to tell her, then circling outside on her golf cart, over and over. One afternoon, several days after we first meet, I mention that day.
“I was there,” she says, and nods.
Does she have clear memories of that night? I ask.
“Very,” she says. “Yeah.” She looks right at me, and I can see the upset rising within her, and I feel all the more guilty for the way she doesn’t even seem angry that I have pressed the point about something so painful — as though that is the very least of indignities the world has taught her to expect. “Let’s just drop it,” she mutters.
SHE WOULD RATHER “Lights Out” not have been the first single from her album. Her reservations are partly due to its commercial nature but also because of its subject matter. It is one of two songs on her album that very obviously address her family history. The chorus revolves around her observation, on a visit to Graceland, that there is a large space next to her father’s grave. “How many people can walk around knowing that there’s a plot waiting for them?” she says, and laughs. “It looks pretty morbid to me. Morbidly inviting.”
There is a lot of death on her record. “It was on my mind a lot there, for a while,” she explains. “I think I just encountered it very early on. It wasn’t just the one — it was like a landslide. He went … grandfather … grandmother … friend when I was thirteen shot himself … sixteen, two more friends died in a car accident.”
The other song explicitly about her father is called “Nobody Noticed It.” It was written after a day when, clicking through the TV channels, she stumbled across the E! True Hollywood Story: The Last Days of Elvis in which many of her father’s associates and hangers-on talked about his downfall. “I couldn’t believe they were trying to take his dignity — Sonny West, Marty Lacker, Red West, all these people that were worse than him.” These were all people she knew from his lifetime: “They scared the hell out of me when I was a kid, too. I remember seeing the Playboys, the drugs, the women — I watched it all, and I watched them. I know the real story behind all of them, and I know what they’re out there doing.”
After seeing the program, she was in shock. She couldn’t sleep, she was so angry. “I just thought, ‘You slithering motherfuckers have no right. None. You were responsible for this just as much as he was. His dignity was one of the most important things to him, and you are trying to take it away.'”
She called one of her co-writers and put her fury and sadness into a song. “All that you had to endure …” she sang, “Nobody noticed it.” “He didn’t have anyone to keep him leveled off. You get into this world where nothing you do is wrong. I don’t think any artist has really done that well with it — they usually end up destroying themselves. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison … he wasn’t the only one. It’s like you have no basis anymore. No foundation. And I think he was one of the first ones to go through it. It was very lonely there, where he was. I know that.”
Occasionally she visits Graceland. Those of Elvis’ cooks who are still alive will come in and prepare the same soul food for her they all used to eat there: fried chicken, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, cornbread. And she’ll go upstairs. “Nothing has been touched,” she says. “It’s exactly the same. There was a whole life in that house. It’s a beautiful sadness. It’s either really painful or it’s very comforting — it goes either way. The carpet is the same. My room is exactly the same. Nothing has been touched. Upstairs, which has never been open to the public, is my room and his room, next to each other, and an attic. It’s pretty creepy. It’s a shrine.” Usually she’ll go up there alone. “It’s very comforting for me,” she says. “The books, the videos, everything is there still. The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Pink Panther, Bruce Lee — all of his videos are still there. All of his records.”
EARLY THIS YEAR, Presley made a video, visited radio stations, rehearsed and absorbed the early reactions to her record. “I’m sure it’s going to be a fifty-fifty thing: ‘She sucks’; ‘She’s great,'” she says after browsing some Internet sites, and laughs. “‘Go back to spending Daddy’s money’ — that’s one I heard.” It’s strange being out in public like this. “My guess,” she says wryly, “is that I’ll do this for a while and then turn into a recluse again at some point.”
Like everybody else, she saw Martin Bashir’s interview with Michael Jackson. “I watched it and cringed,” she says. “I had the same reaction everybody else had — it was like watching a train wreck. It seemed like it was overly cruel — the guy [Bashir] had his agenda and was after him. I don’t make a habit of feeling bad for that guy [Jackson], because he kind of likes to push that sympathy button sometimes, and I don’t really go for it anymore, but that time I did. I was, ‘Oh, no, you really just got screwed.’ It honestly looked to me like, it would be like somebody walking into a convalescent home and just antagonizing someone and having it on film the whole time.”
The last time I visit Lisa Marie Presley in her house, I notice that over the fireplace in the living room is what appears to be a blank black canvas. “Oh,” she says, when I ask about it. “The light’s not on.” She gets up and fiddles with an electric cord by the side of the fireplace so that a light comes on above the picture, which is revealed as a dark, deep red portrait of Lisa Marie Presley done by a friend of hers. “It’s painted in blood,” she says. “Everyone has their thing. That’s his.”
Priscilla Presley Disputes ‘Invalid’ Amendment to Lisa Marie’s Trust
‘I Hope They Stomp His Ass’: Memphis Police Release Video of Fatal Beating of Tyre Nichols
Trump's Killing Spree: The Inside Story of His Race to Execute Every Prisoner He Could
Trump Hits the 2024 Campaign Trail With an Assault on ... Windmills?
I also notice that today she is wearing Daffy Duck slippers. I ask her how she will judge whether her record has been a success. “At this point,” she says, “it’s OK with me whatever happens with it. I don’t give a flying crap about hits. I mean, I do, of course, but as long as people know it’s for real, it’s not BS, it’s me, my spirit, my heart, my head. You bare your ass for everybody and go, ‘What do you think?’ It’s scary, but it’s me.”