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« DVD Journal: "Enigma" | Main | Department of Male and Female Relations »

March 13, 2003

Bipolar Elvis


As you know, I’m both a big Elvis fan and a depressive personality. I always thought these were unrelated phenomena, but I’m beginning to wonder.

This line of speculation derives from driving around in my car, listening to a CD of Elvis’ number one hits that I received at my company’s Christmas party (my musical tastes are no secret, obviously). As a result of repeat listening, I’ve begun to appreciate the Elvis song released at the same time as his death, “Way on Down.”

It’s impossible—for me anyway—to avoid thinking about Elvis’ death when listening to the song. The title, with its double (triple?) entendre reference to dying, is only the start. The song also includes lyrics about “lying on the floor” and something about what the doctor could prescribe. One could go on in this vein.

Is the final result morbid? Oddly enough, no. Apparently Elvis had stared into the abyss long enough that he could derive a certain entertainment value out of it. I recall seeing some extreme close up shots of “fat” Elvis performing in a film documentary, and being struck by (1) the cosmic extent of Elvis’ alienation and (2) the way he seemed to find his own alienation amusing. All his life, Elvis seemed to be enjoying a private joke, which he was willing to let the world about halfway in on. Apparently his impending death struck him the same way his ridiculous stardom had struck him two decades before—as a goofy joke. If it turned out to be a joke on him, well, that was okay too.

The King's Sense of Humor in Action

However, listening to the song, it did suddenly dawn on me that the way Elvis’ periods of extremely high energy—creatively, career-wise, in his personal life—alternated with periods of extreme passivity, secrecy and “ah, screw it”-ism suggested attacks of depression or, possibly, manic depression. So I did a google search to see if anyone else had voiced thoughts along these lines. As it turns out, within a minute or two I found a conversation between Time Magazine and Vernon Chadwick, the chairman of the fourth annual “Conference on Elvis Presley” which occurred in 1998. It included the following quote:

This morning one of our speakers, a therapist from Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, advanced the thesis that Elvis suffered bipolar disorder, which is a more technical name for manic depression. And that Elvis' substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic depression should be placed in the larger context of a personality disorder.

I guess all this should get filed in preparation for my ultimate tract, “Mental Health and Creativity: Is It Possible to Have Both?”

A hunk a hunk of burning cheers,


posted by Friedrich at March 13, 2003


FvB, a depressive? Well, if so, then certainly the most jolly depressive I've ever known.

How seriously is the "Elvis as manic-depressive" thesis taken by Elvisdom generally? It would supply a bit of an explanation for the shape his life took. But does it need an explanation? I mean, isn't just "being Elvis" enough? What a bizarre life for some uneducated kid from the sticks to have led. Immense highs, incredible humiliations, an all-pervasive dream-sense of unreality ... Stardom does a lot of people in, and he wasn't just any old star, he was Elvis.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 14, 2003 1:02 AM

Possible to have both? There are times when it seems compulsory to have both...

Posted by: James Russell on March 14, 2003 5:36 AM

Mr. Russell:

I can see where it would be highly desirable to have both, but I'm not sure I get the context in which it is compulsory. Who is doing the compelling, and what is the penalty for failure to comply? Or are we dealing with a categorical imperative here?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 14, 2003 12:14 PM

Guess he never got over Old Shep.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 14, 2003 12:57 PM

when we look at all the geniuses (Mozart --possible manic depressive, Poe, definitely depressive, drug-user, etc., Van Gogh, aboslutely depressive, Pollack, just to name a few) I doubt that mental health contributes to any form of creativity. sometimes it's the gifts we have that drive us to crativity or madness....

Posted by: iris on March 14, 2003 7:41 PM

Very interesting. My mother was a manic depressive and in her later years succumbed to the disease/disorder I witnessed and studied her decline over a period of ten years.

During her "healthy" life she was always high and tireless. I am the same so is my sister.

Elvis we are told had this tremendous energy level too. By the way I have met and spoken at length with Dr Vernon Chadwick (above) of the famous Elvis Conference. See the link for a very surprising story.

Posted by: Maurice Colgan on July 25, 2003 4:08 PM

There is little doubt that Elvis suffered from bipolar disorder. Though poorly educated he was widely read and a very intelligent man. Many would credit his voice as being the root of his success - while it was brilliant, his genius as a musical arranger and his choice of material is often overlooked.
Those close to him, such as Linda Thomson, Joe Espisito and Charlie Hodge, report his deep depressions, while his highs were obvious to the world.
He was not just a singer or performer but a creative genius, with a self-destructive bent that cost him his life.
Rather than launching a thesis on bipolar disorder, the short response is that you don't really know what it is unless you have it - and if you do you can see it in others a mile away. It really does take one to know one - which is why I can assure you Elvis suffered from this condition.

Posted by: Joel Reubenstein on November 3, 2003 6:48 PM

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