Elvis died of medicine

Well, there’s cheerful, eh?

But I’ve written a new song, and that’s its title.

Yes, you read that right. It’s a song, and its title is Elvis Died of Medicine.

How do I explain? Well, here’s a starting point: there are drug addicts and drug addicts.

One of my favourite images – a perfectly staged piece of post-modern irony – is of Elvis with Richard Nixon.

In 1970 Presley wrote to Nixon, in his own hand, and persuaded the President to appoint him an honorary federal drug enforcement agent. Nixon even had a special Bureau of Narcotics badge struck for the singer.

Which one is The King? Elvis making the President look like a bank clerk.

Which one is The King? Elvis making the President look like a bank clerk.

Elvis, of course, had been taking a cocktail of drugs throughout his adult life, starting during his army service. By the time he met Nixon, he’d already had a full 12 years of increasing dependency on a whole cocktail of medicines.

But because these drugs were initially given to him by his superiors in the army, and later prescribed by doctors, he never thought of himself as a junkie.

When he wrote to Nixon, it was in a spirit of being anti drug-use of the illegal kind. It was the pot smokers, LSD gurus and heroin addicts Presley and Nixon had in their sights. These people were fomenting an anti-American revolution. (Mainly, they just wanted the Vietnam War to end, and their sons and brothers brought home safe. But in the fevered paranoid universe that inhabited Richard Nixon’s head they were all enemies of the state).

The Beatles were top of Elvis’s list. According to him, they had “come to America, made their money, and then gone back to England to promote anti-Americanism”.

Elvis was never the brightest bulb in the chandelier. The Beatles, of course, loved America. In John’s case, so much so that he made his home in New York, even outliving and defeating Nixon’s attempts – with the FBI’s help – to deport him.

As an artist, I bow to no-one in my admiration for Elvis (which I’ll write about in a later post). But he was an emotionally stunted individual for whom his manager Tom Parker, his Memphis Mafia (effectively just a bunch of freeloading hangers-on) and his doctors provided a support system that negated the need for him to grow up.

He wasn’t the first, and he most certainly wasn’t the last to fall prey to this kind of life.

It was common practice in Hollywood to hand out amphetamine pills so that actors could keep working beyond their natural cycle. This is what lead to Judy Garland’s dependence on a variety of drugs, and on the doctors who would prescribe them. Once you’ve taken amphetamine for prolonged periods, the only way you’ll get a good night’s sleep is by using heavy barbiturates. A side effect of all that will be constipation or its opposite, so now you’re going to need another drug to regulate your toilet habits….

All of this came to my mind a couple of weeks ago when I was listening to Joni Mitchell in the car. One of the songs – Sex Kills – has a line about “pills that give you ills”. Straight away, the songwriter part of my brain went into overdrive. The phrase “My mother died of medicine” lodged in my frontal lobe.

The last time I saw my mother functioning on any level at all, was watching her count her pill boxes, 15 in all. More than half of these pills were to counteract the side effects of the ones she really needed. Some of them were to counteract the side effects of the side effects. Even a self-confessed hypochondriac (moi!) should understand when enough is enough.

Within a few weeks, my mother was dead. At the end, it was a close run possibility that she was going to drown in her own bodily fluids. Fortunately, her heart gave out first. She literally died of medicine.

Now there’s a cheerful subject for a song. But let’s face it – legal drugs take their toll just as effectively as illegal ones. Michael Jackson, Elvis, Judy, Marilyn Monroe, Margaux Hemingway, Nick Drake, Brittany Murphy – these are the famous victims.

But I bet you all know someone who never thought of doubting their doctor. We’re hopefully a little wiser now.

So here we go with Elvis Died Of Medicine. It’s not a finished recording; two weeks from start to finish is way too fast a process for The Driver. But I hope it’s in good enough shape that no-one feels the need to prescribe further treatment.


  1. Really like the production on this, Paul, great guitar sound, very Joni ‘Hejira’ period. I knew the guy who took Judy Garland’s body away, lifting her off the toilet bless her. Elvis was also found on the loo. I guess some of that dependency on drugs is our – the fans’ – fault, as we expect our idols to look like idols, act like idols, and some of the weaker idols do as we expect and destroy themselves in the process. Macca always refused to do as we expected and is still sane and operating creatively and happily. Who knows with Lennon? If Chapman hadn’t ended John’s life before his ‘time’, he may have gone on to live into old age and he and Yoko could have grown old together…or maybe not. Were the rumours of his real life behind the Happy Couple Getting Older In New York he and Yoko were peddling just before his death true or for the cameras? John wrote great songs when he was unhappy, one of the few writers who fitted the stereotype who needs to be pissed off to write brilliantly, his truly great stuff was written before ’68 when he met Yoko and was happy for the first time in his life. McCartney wrote great stuff regardless of his state of mind. Elvis was great in the ’50s and then had a blip of greatness in the late ’60s and that’s it as far as I can see. The awful Las Vegas period inspired every Elvis tribute act here on the Costas and I can never forgive him for that!


    • That’s definitely contra to the general received wisdom that McCartney needed Lennon to write truly great songs. And I think you’re right. I do, however, think that John was, immediately post-Beatles, more interesting than Paul, possibly because of his heroin-induced navel-gazing. The ‘slogan singles’ (written and recorded in record time) Instant Karma, Power To The People etc, had more impact than Macca’s early singles, and the first two albums were blistering in their intensity. Still, having put the case for the defines, I absolutely loved McCartney and Ram.


      • I did love Instant Karma, but things like Power To The People and the New York City album were pretty dire, but that’s only my opinion. Didn’t like Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (though I know it’s now considered A Classic) or Imagine which was terribly produced and contained John’s worst ever song, Imagine. “Imagine no possessions…” Really, John? Mind Games was a duff album but the title track was great, Walls & Bridges was better, some good songs on that, including the amazing Nobody Loves You and No.9 Dream, but that’s about it really in terms of Lennon brilliance. His last great song was Woman, a lovely track and Beautiful Boy now has a poignant resonance. I’m not saying McCartney was constantly wonderful, he could be dire too, but overall there were more Macca gems than Lennon sparkles ’70 – ’75. Another Day is an overlooked Macca classic single and that was his first 45 as a solo artist, recorded during the Ram sessions. Even when he wasn’t totally fabulous, as with Red Rose Speedway, somehow he intrigued with what he offered, (Little Lamb Dragonfly still sends shivers down my spine), Lennon lost his way once he thought he was the voice of a generation (he was, but he didn’t realise it till Yoko told him, and sadly she didn’t mention George, Paul or Ringo at the same time).


  2. *looks at Elvis and Marilyn* Oh look, more people dying from pharmaceutical drugs. Why am I not surprised??? >:-( >:-( >:-( giving them drugs so they can work longer is disgusting! All fans everywhere should be outraged but nooooo anyone on Big Pharma’s side is always right(!) *raeg*


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