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.
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.