A rock 'n' royal wedding: Call it a publicity stunt, or even the hoax, but the marriage of Lisa Marie Presley to Michael Jackson is loaded with cultural resonance, linking two of the century's most potent icons
Sunday 21 August 1994
Not Michael Jackson. He wanted Elvis Presley's baby. And now he's got her.
For as long as it lasts, the fantastical marriage of Michael Jackson to Lisa Marie Presley - allegedly solemnised during a secret 15-minute ceremony in the Dominican Republic last May, and revealed to the public during a visit to Budapest this month - will attract attention and speculation. On the surface we see an ill-assorted pair: a uncomfortable-looking man in the black military uniform and aviator shades of a tinpot Caribbean dictator, accompanied by a young woman in the soft beige silk trouser-suit and two-strand pearl necklace of a Dallas wife. With them, in some of the Bud-apest photographs, is a dwarf in a circus costume; in others, the woman pushes a pram while the man strides ahead.
But underneath the tabloid coverage, and the inevitable speculation that the whole thing may have been concocted by the couple's press agents, the event hums with a unique cultural resonance; their dollars 45 marriage licence might just as well have been written in pink neon on a billboard high above Sunset Strip, so loudly does it speak in the language of America's influence on post-war popular culture.
This is not just the marriage of two individuals, of a former Jehovah's Witness and a practising Scientologist, of the master of Neverland and the mistress of Graceland. It is the union of the most popular solo entertainer the world has ever known (measured in unit sales) and the daughter of the man who invented the whole rock 'n' roll culture (measured any way you want).
More intimately, it is the marriage of a girl uncannily resembling the father who became probably the century's most famous face to a boy who took the painful and protracted course of removing his own face and replacing it with another. Most weirdly of all, it is the linking of the daughter of the man who taught white people to sing black music with the black singer who turned white while the world looked on.
Nothing in the history of 20th-century show business can match this, in its bizarre magnitude, for a merger of individual images. Or of individual fortunes: hers (about pounds 100m, inherited a year ago, on her 25th birthday) and his (an estimated pounds 150m, all his own work).
What do they have in common, the boy in the fancy-dress uniform and the girl in daytime silk? Money, of course. But also the salient feature of an early life grotesquely distorted by celebrity.
As we know from the detailed investigation of his history since he became the subject of lurid rumours concerning his friendships with children, Michael Jackson's own boyhood ended almost before it began. Born in 1958, he was five when his mother found him practising dance steps in front of the bedroom mirror. At six he joined his four older brothers in the Jackson Five, at nine his talent was spotted by the singer Gladys Knight, at 10 his ambitious father, a former car-plant worker and semi-professional guitarist called Joe Jackson, signed a deal with Motown Records and moved the family from their home in Indiana to Los Angeles. At 11 'I Want You Back' sold a million copies, topping the US charts for a month, and at 13 his solo career began. After the 'revelations' of Michael's curious friendships with young boys began a couple of years ago, his younger sister LaToya published a memoir in which she alleged that Joe regularly abused his children. In interviews, Michael later added his own allegations of his father's physical cruelty.
Any amateur psychologist worth his Penguin Freud could see the problems of childhood reflected in Jackson's preoccupations during his twenties and thirties: the close friendships with animals, children and much older women, the infantile eroticism of his onstage crotch-grabbing, the retreat into the million-dollar playpen of his Santa Ynez ranch, which he calls Neverland.
By comparison with that of Lisa Marie Presley, however, Michael Jackson's childhood was straight out of the textbook. Did the little Presley girl ever ask herself how many children grow up on a boulevard named after their father? Or how many travel in a full-sized dollars 2m airliner with their own name written on the side?
On the day Lisa Marie was born in February 1968, the fourth volume of Elvis's Golden Records was released. A blue Cadillac took the prospective parents from Graceland to Memphis's Baptist Memorial Hospital, where the baby girl was delivered after an eight-hour labour. It was nine months to the day since Elvis had married Priscilla Beaulieu. She, an air force officer's daughter, had met the king of rock 'n' roll while he was on military service in Germany in 1959, when she was aged 14; three years later, she moved in with him. Their daughter's birth also came two months after Priscilla had rebuffed Elvis's sudden and, she said, unexpected request for a trial separation. After the delivery, Elvis's first telephone call was to Nancy Sinatra, Frank's daughter, with whom he had been filming Speedway, his 27th movie, that summer; during the shooting he had jumped out of his co-star's dressing-room closet while she was wearing only a pair of jeans, and had embraced her warmly.
In his compendious but generally detestable biography of Presley, published when Lisa Marie was barely into her teens, the late Albert Goldman observed that 'Elvis and Priscilla hold diametrically opposed views on child-rearing. She is a great believer in discipline and character-building. He feels that the primary value of success lies in being able to do exactly as you please and granting the same privilege to those you love. Lisa is being reared, therefore, in a totally schizophrenic manner . . .'
Of her daughter's infancy, Priscilla Presley later wrote: 'She would sit between Elvis and me at the dinner table, squeezing spinach through her hands and smearing it on her face. Elvis tried to convince himself that he found all this adorable . . . By the time Lisa was four, she realised she could manipulate the help. Whenever one of them refused to do something for her, she'd threaten, 'I'm gonna tell my daddy and you're gonna get fired.' Used to seeing people jump at her father's command, Lisa took years to overcome this habit.'
Lisa Marie left home with her mother on the day in February 1972 that Priscilla ran away to join her lover, Mike Stone, a karate champion whose part-Hawaiian ancestry led the outraged Elvis's circle of Memphis redneck friends to refer to him as 'the half-nigger'. Just over a year later, the divorce settlement gave Priscilla joint custody of their daughter plus a settlement of dollars 750,000 cash and dollars 6,000 a month up to a maximum of dollars 1.25m, along with alimony of dollars 1,200 a month for one year, child support of dollars 4,000 a month, the proceeds of a house sale, and an interest in Presley's publishing royalties. At this point in his career, Elvis was earning about dollars 7m a year.
Just before the divorce came through, Priscilla took Lisa Marie to Las Vegas, to celebrate her fifth birthday with a party in Elvis's suite at the International Hotel, where he was appearing. Also present was his new girlfriend, Linda Thompson, 'Miss Tennessee 1972', who was to be his companion for the next four years. When Elvis bought a blue and white Convair 880 jet with a dollars 14,000 queen-sized bed, four televisions, a conference room and a lightning bolt painted over the American flag on the tail, he named it the Lisa Marie. Next to it on the parking runway at Memphis International Airport sat its smaller sister, a Jetstar called Little Lisa Marie.
Lisa Marie stayed with her father in Memphis during the weeks before his death in August 1977; during the day the nine-year-old toured the Presley acres in her custom-built electric golf cart. Her last outing with Elvis was a night-time visit to one of his favourite haunts, the old Memphis fairgrounds, renamed Libertylands; he rented it from 1.15am until dawn, at a cost of dollars 2,500. She was in the house when he died, the day before he was to go off on tour. He weighed 18st 3lb, and was found face down on the bathroom floor. He was declared dead at Baptist Memorial Hospital, where Priscilla had been delivered of Lisa Marie. His pallbearers included Dr George Nichopoulos, who had prescribed Elvis a total of 5,684 pills between January and August. The autopsy report subsequently disappeared, along with the contents of Presley's stomach.
'The pure products of America go crazy,' William Carlos Williams once wrote, and his useful remark has been applied to everyone from Charlie Parker to Travis Bickle. It's hard to avoid now, while grasping for the metaphysical content of the Presley-Jackson liaison and running up against strange parallels and coincidences, great and small. The careers of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson form the bookends of 40 years of pop music, from the raw impact of the original home-made motor- bike-and-blue-jeans rock 'n' roll to the uptown dance-floor ecstasy of factory-tooled soul music, from covert miscegenation in small-town Tennessee to corporate-sponsored integration in the new global village. If you were touched by any of it, then the new relationship between the sullen 19-year-old truckdriver of 'That's All Right Mama' and the brown-
eyed, round-cheeked 11-year-old boy of 'I Want You Back' will mean something rather more than the link between a dead man and his eccentric son-in-law. ]
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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