(So Elvis is alive. There’s a lot of talk about that new Baz Luhrmann movie with Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, and an uproar in Las Vegas now that the licensor for the Presley estate is suddenly demanding licensing agreements (meaning thousands of dollars) from wedding chapels and tribute artists using Elvis’s image. Elvis’s reincarnation brought to mind an interview I did back in 1988, when there first was talk of proof that Elvis had faked his death on August 16, 1977. What follows is an edited version of a piece I wrote in June 1988, I think for Spin magazine when Legs was an editor there, but was never published. Thanks, Legs.)
To quote The King himself: “Hot damn tamale!” Just when it seems this “Elvis is alive” talk makes about as much sense as a diet of bacon, mashed potatoes and Dilaudid, along comes this article about a barmaid from Atlanta who says she lived with E after he supposedly rolled onto his toilet carpet and into eternity. Not only that, but she even traveled with him as he played the Deep South Holiday Inn circuit! And not only does she go public with the amazing story –but she goes and passes a lie detector test and proves her story is true!
And to think I was having my doubts, even after talking to Gail Brewer-Giorgio, author of the new book, Is Elvis Alive?, the one that comes with the sixty-minute audio cassette recording of Elvis talking on the telephone in 1981 — four years after he faked his death with mind control and a casket stuffed with a wax dummy and 900-pound air conditioning unit. It’s not that the story is all so hard to swallow once you ease into a paranoid conspiracy mindset that makes Lyndon LaRouche come off like Earl Warren — it’s just that the voice on the tape sounds too much like Devin, my bad seed cousin from Arizona who keeps a picture of Lisa Marie on his desk at work and recites classic Elvis lines so dead-on that if you close your eyes you’d think at least Andy Kaufman was in the room.
Dev and I hooked up at Graceland a couple of months back. His flight got delayed, so it was close to midnight when he stood on Elvis Presley Boulevard and first laid eyes on the mansion on the hill. The house was quite a mystical sight at night, all lit up and Christmasy behind a lawn full of big oak trees and colored lights. My Elvis-infatuated cousin was awestruck, chugging from a Michelob bottle and remarking that he couldn’t believe how big the place was. We took some pictures at the wall, boosted ourselves up and leaned against the famous gates, stamped with the figure of the guitar man and musical notes, as much a symbol of the American rock ‘n’ roll dream as Elvis’s mansion on the hill.
The place had closed for tourists about eight hours earlier and the next buses wouldn’t begin rolling up the driveway for another nine hours — so what else to do? Pretty soon, Devin got antsy and decided we ought to climb over the wall and pay a visit to the King’s grave in the Meditation Garden alongside the swimming pool next to the house. It didn’t seem that hard when you thought about it. Out on the sidewalk by the gates, the graffiti-covered wall was low enough to peek over and see the guardhouse, but gradually rose until, about fifty yards down, at the far southwest corner of the property, it was higher than your head. Then the wall took a left along the southern boundary, separating the estate from the backyards of neat ranch-style houses in a neighborhood built right up against and around Graceland. This side of the wall was topped with a nice tangle of barbed wire. Dev boosted himself up. I was carrying a small microcassette recorder I’d brought along to surreptitiously record the Graceland house tour. I hit “record,” stuffed the recorder into the pocket of my leather jacket and followed. Dev figured we’d follow the wall until it was parallel with the Meditation Garden, hop down and stroll onto the Graceland property just like Bruce Springsteen did back in ’76. Only we wouldn’t be strutting up the driveway like the entitled rock ‘n’ roll future. We were more like a couple of wrong-way escaped convicts the way we stayed low, hugged the wall and moved closer to the mansion and guard at the top of the driveway. Twenty yards away, Dev hopped off the wall, ducked behind a tree and gestured toward the guardhouse. There was movement inside. The guard was onto us. That wasn’t a surprise. The surprise was the dog, a big German shepherd dog, all of a sudden barking and snarling and heading right for us. Dev ran for the wall and like a redneck Rafer Johnson dived over it, into the darkness and somebody’s backyard. I scrambled up and over and on the run through another yard toward Dolan Drive and on to Elvis Presley Boulevard. As soon as I hit the sidewalk, I realized I’d dropped my expensive little microcassette recorder.
“In their expert judgment, they could even tell it was done with a suction cup tape recorder. It’s Elvis. It wasn’t spliced together.” The experts, Gail Brewer-Giorgio insists, say the mystery tape is bona fide. One of her experts is from a place called Stone Mountain, Georgia, and on documents reproduced in her book spells “stutter” with two d’s, but hey, her heaviest evidence is closer to home: the mystery photo taken by a tourist in the Meditation Garden four months after Elvis’s funeral, revealing a shadow in the pool house doorway. Is it the guy who cleans the pool? A tub of chlorine? Huh. Try Elvis, lazin’ back and getting a load of all the paying customers. “When I went on Oprah, when she saw that picture on television she lost it,” Gail Brewer-Giorgio offers as more proof. “Larry King, he said in front of his audience, he said, ‘I can’t believe Elvis pulled this off, but then I look at that picture.’ And he said, ‘I cannot explain it.’” Right, fine. But why in tarnation is the guy going to fake dying and come back to sit by the pool while the place is lousy with tourists? Gail Brewer-Giorgio thinks a second. “That was his home. Why wouldn’t he go back? Why does a murderer go back to the scene of the crime?”
Three times we went back to the scene, scouting for my little tape recorder rolling in the dark somewhere, each time confounded by the hound dog of Hell. Finally, Dev hit the wall again. He boosted himself up and said he’d take the high road, whatever that meant. I took the low road, I suppose, crawling low, watching the trees for the type of security man that dropped to escort Bruce Springsteen back down the driveway in the days before he had muscles. We were midway through the area lit by the spotlight, as close as ever to the open arms of the Jesus statue in the Meditation Garden, when I saw something that stopped me colder than one of Elvis’s fudgsicles: elongated across the yard and up the illuminated facade of the house was the giant creeping shadow of Dev!
“The shadow!” I hissed. “Get down!”
I don’t know if Dev heard me. But we both heard the guard, suddenly shouting from his post and the growling dog barrel-assing toward us. Then there was another dog, and suddenly, from somewhere, an unexplained flash lit the night, and in that phosphorescent instant I could only watch as Devin stood atop the wall, turned, and with an alarmed yet peacefully resigned expression, swung his arms like a doomed Wallenda.
He went like this:
“Whoa. Whoa-oa! Sheeeeeeee-yittttttt!”
Dev fell, arms windmilling, backwards, and disappeared over the wall. Forget the little tape recorder. I jumped off the wall onto the Graceland property and bolted straight down the hill, picturing my ass in the crosshairs of a double-barrel and a night spent tweezing buckshot out of my butt back at the Regal 8 Motel. I ran and ran and vaulted the wall and didn’t stop running until I was across the five lanes of Elvis Presley Boulevard and crouched behind the rental car in the parking lot of the Graceland Plaza shopping center.
Man, it would have been one heck of a lot easier knowing that all we had to do was sneak up on a house in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and wait for Elvis to come home from a night out. Because according to Gail Brewer-Giorgio, when he’s not calling up deejays and friends all over the country, Elvis Presley just might be masquerading as a businessman named John Burroughs in that very town. She says people have seen him, cross her heart. “They say he has shorter hair, with gray in it. The sideburns are shorter. And gray. He wears sunglasses. He’s slimmer than Elvis was in the end, about 200 pounds, wearing a very nice leather jacket, jeans… a motorcycle coverall jumpsuit.” So how come none of these eagle eyes took a picture? “Well, the people that see him are just ordinary people, so they don’t go around with a camera. It’s just one of those things.”
Yeah, right. But Gail Brewer-Giorgio’s book isn’t about sightings, anyway. It’s deeper. It’s a convoluted plug for Orion, a flowery novel she wrote shortly after Elvis’s demise, about a Presley-like star who pulls off a death hoax. Gail Brewer-Giorgio says she was stunned when a singer named Orion showed up on Sun records, sounding a lot like the King and hiding behind a mask. Then her book was picked up by a big publisher and, as they say down in Salvador, was “disappeared,” a victim of a conspiracy among William Morris, Simon & Schuster, and Colonel Tom Parker. “Rod Serling couldn’t write a script like this,” Gail Brewer-Giorgio says cheerily. “It’s so insane that I call it a musical Watergate.”
Dev eventually staggered into the Graceland Plaza parking lot. He sat on the curb in front of the Lisa Marie gift shop and pulled up his sweatshirt. His back was streaked with welts and long, bloody cuts from the barbed wire and brambles that tore him up when he fell over the wall and landed flat on his back. He sipped another beer and smiled slightly walking past the Heartbreak Hotel restaurant to the 7-Eleven in search of some Bactine, but it wasn’t long before the Presley penitente developed a powerful headache and started talking in that Elvis slur without realizing. We brought him back to the motel and put him to bed.
No, not Elvis, but Andy Kaufman, who supposedly died in 1984, alive in Albuquerque in 2013.
The whole thing is funny when you think about it. Funny, as Elvis would say, like a case of traveling mumps. Stare at the evidence in that fractured light and you have more than a bloated drug-sodden corpse. You’ve got the King of Rock ’n‘ Roll sporting a beard and hiding in plain sight. “It’s already been said by lots of other people, and it has been written about since Day One,” the author Gail Brewer-Giorgio says. “When you go back and read all the biographies now with a new eye, you’re goin’ to be surprised that what people have said and no one picked up on.” Take the missing and inconsistent death records (always assumed to be part of a drug abuse cover-up), the strange misspelling of Elvis’s middle name on the grave. Figure why the mama’s boy wasn’t buried next to his Mama. Crack open Albert Goldman’s Elvis and read about the paramedics who burst into the King’s john and worked on a body “so disfigured that neither of them recognized the most famous man in Memphis,” or the remains in the coffin whose “sideburns came loose and had to be glued on afresh.”
1988: The morning after, saying a prayer at Elvis’s grave. Photo Courtesy: Tabloid Baby
The next morning, we hopped a neighbor’s fence, outran another dog, and found the microcassette recorder in a yard by the wall, still set to “record,” the tape and battery run out.
Then we took the Graceland tour, where the guides mouthed a script and pushed new groups through the main hall, downstairs, and up and out of the Jungle Room every two-and-a-half minutes. The Elvis Presley of whom they spoke was reduced to a generous Southern gentleman with some eccentric habits and good ole boy taste and decor and guns. Most of the tourists were elderly or families with kids. They were appalled when Dev and I posed for pictures kneeling at Elvis’s “grave.” At least now, they could be taking pictures of every dark window and looking for traces of life, maybe a half-eaten fried peanut butter and banana sandwich that Elvis dropped while making himself scarce. Gail Brewer-Giorgio and her wild-eyed fan network have given the Elvis myth a good goose back into the whacked-out bizarro freak zone where it belongs.
And who knows? If Elvis: What Happened caused Elvis to drop dead, maybe Is Elvis Alive? will flush him out. There’s already a brand-new Elvis Presley record, The Alternate Aloha, a live album that closes with a studio remake of Blue Hawaii. Could the man who ended up a big walrus be dropping another clue for us all? Gail Brewer-Giorgio is still talking. “There is a place, it’s called Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, it’s a Buddhist training center, it’s on the island of Maui. It’s out in practically nowhere and Elvis had gone there because he had studied Buddhism. Now in that area… you drive for some time and the next place you come to is a big estate that is owned right now and has been by Elvis Presley. You can’t get in. It’s very secure and whoever comes and goes, leaves by helicopter.”
Oh, yeah. We went back to the 7-Eleven and put a new battery in the recorder and played back the tape. What did we hear? We heard shouts, the sound of us falling off the wall and running away. And for the rest of the hour-long side of the microcassette, that goddamn dog barking away right into the microphone. What did you expect? Elvis or something?
(More than thirty years later, Gail Brewer-Giorgio is still alive and standing by her story. She told TIME magazine in 2017: “Do I know if Elvis is alive today? No, I don’t know. But I know he didn’t die on August sixteenth.” Dev tells me he “still and always will love the King,” though in the past twenty years, he’s expressed more of an affinity for Keith Richards.)
Burt Kearns produces nonfiction television and documentary films and writes books, including Tabloid Baby, The Show Won’t Go On (written with Jeff Abraham), Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood’s Real-Life Tough Guy (available for pre-sale on Amazon.com), and the recently-announced Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel.