Steven Church | Ultrasonic: Essays | 2014 | 15 minutes (3,655 words)
Imagine this: It’s early in the morning at the Graceland estate, well before dawn on August 16, 1977, just a few hours before the end, and the crickets and cicadas are thrumming in the Memphis heat. The sun is on the rise somewhere in the east, but the light hasn’t yet reached this place. In the distance a small dog barks sharp, rhythmically, and steady. A siren wails and fades. All else is quiet, all except for the strange noise emanating from an outbuilding behind the main house. It’s a cacophonous noise. Unexpected. So you creep up closer. Tiptoeing now like a trespasser, a voyeur into the past. You shouldn’t be here at all. Yet in this lucid dream you press your ear against the locked door and listen, straining to catch the strands of a voice. The voice. His voice. Perhaps you’re hoping that he might be playing a guitar, jamming with his band. But instead you hear unexpected but familiar noise. You hear the sound of a different kind of playing. It’s the squeaking of shoes on hardwood, the pop and twang of a blue rubber ball rocketing off simulated catgut, followed by the resonant crack of it against a wall; and a different sort of music, that telltale pop and pong ringing out as the ball smacks off the back glass. You linger a while, listening to the high-pitched slap of a well-hit shot, and a short volley of forehand smashes going off like firecrackers. Boom, boom, boom. And laughter. Lots of laughter. Because Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is playing racquetball. And the King loves racquetball. You know this game but not this side of Elvis, not this part of the story. This is your game, your father’s game, a game of noise and speed. And more than anything you wish you could push the door open on that night and join the play.
* * *
Early that August morning, just hours before he died, Elvis Aaron Presley played his last game of racquetball. Wracked with insomnia once again he’d summoned his friends for a game. He’d asked for his favorite racquet, Red Guitar (named such because of the red guitar silhouette painted on the strings); and he asked his best friend, cousin Billy Smith and Billy’s wife to join him and his girlfriend, Ginger for a game.
It’s hard to say for sure what exactly drew Elvis to the court that fateful night or what drew him to the game in the first place. Perhaps like me in my late thirties and early forties when I took up the game again, Elvis was seeking an escape. I like to think he too craved the smash and slam of a simple blue ball, and the way it lets you forget the sludge of life. It is addictive. This leaving. This racquet play. This sideways step into music and sport. Because when the game is good like a hit song, the court takes all the competing noise of the world, all the pressures and pain, and it absorbs them, shatters them and drowns them out in a cleansing blue noise. Every game is a dither, a rattle to your gauges.
Maybe Elvis appreciated such shaking, or maybe he just wanted a good laugh or a good rush before he died. Maybe he just figured all that exercise would help him sleep finally. Elvis had taken up the game after his wife Priscilla left him for her Tae Kwon Do instructor. My own therapist suggested that I take up some regular exercise to help with anxiety and depression. Racquetball, she assured me, would make me happier; and I have to admit that she may have been on to something.
Regardless of the reasons behind Elvis’s final request, it was hard to say no to the King, even at such an ungodly hour. His friends indulged him in a few games and afterward lounged around in the adjacent piano bar for a while. Elvis is said to have sang the last two songs of his life at this piano. Most experts seem to agree that those songs were “Unchained Melody” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” After he finished, Elvis said goodnight to his friends. Feeling tired, he showered and changed out of his workout clothes, choosing a pair of comfortable pajamas. He crawled into bed next to Ginger and sat up reading a book titled A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank O Adams.
When Ginger rolled over in bed a while later and cracked an eye, reaching a hand out to Elvis, he was still awake, still reading the Adams book. He told her he was going to the bathroom. Then Elvis got up, the book still clutched in his hand, and Ginger went back to sleep. She would never see Elvis alive again. They found the book on the floor of the bathroom next to his body.
Elvis died reading on the toilet—or at least he died very near the toilet. But according to most sources he died not from the 14 different drugs found in his system but from a fatal arrhythmia, a heart attack; and when I’ve told people that Elvis played racquetball just a short time before he died, many have wondered if racquetball killed Elvis. They wondered if the activity was too much for his addled heart. Mostly I think his death sounds so normal, so ordinary in many ways. He died of a heart attack while reading on the toilet. It could happen to any one of us.
Perhaps Elvis was taken down by the rhythm of racquetball, by a messed up beat or thump or bang in his heart brought on by the noisy ruckus of the game, or by the physical exertion of chasing that blue ball around the court. But I don’t know about any of that, don’t know the medical probabilities and don’t really care. I don’t care if racquetball killed Elvis. Because I’m pretty sure the game also let him live a little longer and a little fuller, if only for a couple of hours.
* * *
By most accounts, Elvis wasn’t terribly good at racquetball. This did not, however, stop him from having his own court built at Graceland shortly after learning the game from the son of his trusted physician, Dr. Nick (George Nichopoulos), a figure just as controversial in many ways as Michael Jackson’s notorious drug-dispensing doctor. But in addition to feeding him a steady diet of prescription narcotics, Dr. Nick was also, paradoxically, someone who’d been able to get Elvis to exercise.
Just as he was contributing to Elvis’s decline he was also undoubtedly prolonging his life. You can’t help getting exercise when you play racquetball, and it’s so fun you hardly notice. The game, even played somewhat halfheartedly, is an incredible workout, combining both cardiovascular and strength training; and probably thanks in large part to Dr. Nick’s prescribed activity, Elvis lost over 20 pounds and may have staved off all-out organ failure for at least a few months near the end of his life. If others are right about the ameliorative effects of regular exercise, it seems clear that the game probably also made the King a little happier.
Racquetball was also social for Elvis, something he shared with his most trusted friends, his posse of family and others known to many as the Memphis Mafia. Along with a love of fireworks and booze, guns, and nice cars, the group also apparently bonded over an appreciation for racquetball. Though the stories seem apocryphal, The King and his crew apparently played regularly around Memphis in the late ’70s. Stories tell of the whole gang showing up en masse at a racquetball club for some fun, followed shortly thereafter by a crush of nearly hysterical fans; and at least part of Elvis’s desire to build his own court at Graceland was due to the public spectacle he and the Mafia caused at such racquetball outings.
Elvis was also said to harbor dreams of building racquetball complexes across the country; and though the Elvis Presley Racquetball and Swim Club, the King’s Courts, or any other Elvis-inspired fitness center that I can dream up never actually materialized, the vision of private, urban, “everyman’s” fitness centers was a dream that would eventually come to fruition in many ways, much of it centered around music city, Memphis, Tennessee, where until 2010, the U.S. National Racquetball championships were held for fourteen consecutive years.
* * *
The truth is I’m more interested in Elvis’s interest in racquetball than I am in the sensational details of his death. I want to take a scalpel to all the details of the Elvis legend that don’t matter so much to me. I want to cut away his troubled personal life, his rocky relationship with Priscilla and other women, or his rumored impotence and paranoia at the end, even his supposed tiff with his girlfriend, Ginger on the night he died. I can appreciate the stories of him giving away Cadillacs and playing with fireworks, but I have to admit that I’m only mildly interested in his music, appreciative of the early work and the occasional sing-along to “Viva Las Vegas” on a road trip. But I want to ignore the long list of drugs in his system when he died. I don’t care whether he died on the toilet or next to the toilet or in front of the toilet, or whether his pajama pants were down or not, in part because I find such discussions humiliating and rather pointless, but also because in death we are all humiliated. Metaphorically speaking, every death is an intimate experience and many of us die with our pants down, vulnerable, face first on the floor in front of the toilet. Hopefully we’re reading better books than Elvis.
What I really care about is Elvis’s decision, just hours before his death, to play racquetball, a game that I love for many reasons, a game I can’t stop thinking about. This means something, I’m sure. This small slice of shared experience. This common space between us, a racquetball court, was the last place Elvis played and, thus, perhaps the last place he was truly alive in his body. Or at least that’s what I like to believe. Though it’s often overlooked, a side note to the more the salacious stories of that evening—such as Elvis going out at midnight for a dentist appointment, wearing a DEA jumpsuit, downing pre-packaged baggies of pills—the King’s choice to play racquetball with his friends intrigues me more than just about any other detail of his life or death.
* * *
Much like rock ‘n’ roll, racquetball is a hybrid invention created and marketed in the ’50s in the United States by a few visionary individuals. Though he didn’t give it its current name, Joe Sobek in Greenwich, Connecticut is widely credited as the inventor and marketer of the game as we know it. Sobek’s goal was to create a faster, easier sport that combined elements of both handball and squash. Handball was hard on the body and squash was hard to master. Racquetball, a uniquely American amalgam of the two, became an instant hit in the YMCA where Sobek worked and at JCC’s (Jewish Community Centers) and other urban gyms across the country.
Racquetball and squash, though related, have very different personalities. In squash there are rules about where on the wall you can hit a shot, what walls you have to hit first, and what walls you can’t hit first. My dad, who had taken up squash later in life, tried to explain the rules to me once and I became as confused as I did when he tried to teach me how to play cribbage.
Racquetball is different. The rules are easy to master because there are relatively few of them. In racquetball every wall is in play. Everything’s fair game. More significantly, however, is the existence in racquetball of the “kill shot.” This shot is the ultimate expression of power and skill. The “kill shot” is an un-returnable shot that hits low on the wall, sometimes right at the crack where wall meets floor, and then dribbles out, impossible to return, effectively “killing” the ball’s momentum and the opponents chances. Racquetball racquets are rated according to their “kill shot power,” and much of the game strategy is focused on setting oneself up for the shot.
In squash there is no kill shot. They are forbidden by the rules of the game. This difference alone defines much of the difference between the two games. To put it in other terms, squash is a strategic dance, a game of finesse and strength, like a waltz competition with a partner. Racquetball is more like competitive slam dancing to speed metal with your opponent. It’s a game that emphasizes individualism, power and force, speed and aggression. The sport is as quintessentially American as rock ‘n’ roll, apple pie, monster trucks . . . and Elvis.
* * *
Elvis played racquetball with his friends, but it’s not clear if his posse really enjoyed the game or just enjoyed being around Elvis. Sport, even causally enjoyed amongst friends can be a test, a tug at the bonds that define your relationship and your identity. We’ve all had those experiences where fun suddenly turns competitive, where one guy takes a game too seriously and the whole dynamic shifts. That guy was usually me.
Elvis was 42 when he started playing the game in the wake of a separation and divorce. I was in my early 40’s when I started playing racquetball again, perhaps as a kind of escape or therapeutic response to my own issues. I played in spurts of activity when I had the time or when I could find someone who would play with me. I wasn’t far from being the crafty old guy at the gym. I have bad knees, at least one messed up shoulder, and I’m Sasquatch-slow. But if there’s a positive, it’s that I’m blessed with simian-like arms and a decent understanding of how that frantic blue ball bounces and moves through space.
I’ve also come to understand the importance of patience. In racquetball, you have to let the ball come to you. You have to watch the ball and not crowd it. You can’t impose your will upon the ball because it will not bounce to your wishes. You can spend all game chasing that thing into corners and it will always move faster than you, always bounce in ways you can’t predict.
If we’re to trust the stories, Elvis’s final game of racquetball wasn’t the display of physical artistry I like to imagine, but instead quickly deteriorated into a free-for-all game of dodgeball where Elvis hit balls at his friends and girlfriend, Ginger, laughing at their discomfort like some kind of bully. It’s possible tempers flared and a racket or two was thrown.
This troubles me. It suggests to me that the game didn’t mean to Elvis what I want it to mean, that racquetball was just something to do, something to help him sleep, or worse a way for him to feel powerful again. Fans and biographers seem, however, to worry more over what songs he sung at the piano bar or what he said to Billy or Ginger or anyone else that night; or they worry about the list of drugs he ingested, the clothes he wore, the book he was reading. Few people seem to worry as much about the King and his racquetball court, this temple of noise and energy, and how he played his last game. Part of me wants to rescue the King from that image of a bully or buffoon on the court. I want to believe he was better than the stories.
* * *
Now imagine this possibility: It’s late at night and the moon is so fat it might croak. You’re back again at the Graceland of your imagination. Listening. Trespassing in the past because such journeys are relatively easy for you, perhaps because up to this point you’ve engaged with Elvis mostly as a pop-culture construct, a caricature only amplified by the other sensation details of the night he died; and because such constructs are malleable as clay, you know you can shape them into your own solipsistic idea, can make them better or at least make them your own in some way. So let’s pretend it’s maybe a day or two before the King kicks the bucket, well outside the penumbra of the spotlight on August 16. Elvis is up again, unable to sleep, and he’s playing to relax and playing for fun. Perhaps this time you’ve found your way inside the court. Perhaps you’ve moved beyond the glass that separates the two of you. Elvis swings at a bouncing blue ball. He’s wearing a white tracksuit with yellow piping and blue stripes stretching down the sleeves and legs. He’s wearing a headband and swinging his Red Guitar racquet. He’s laughing at you in your baggy shorts and your wristbands. You’re playing racquetball with the King, if only for a serve or two.
Though it’s hard for him to hit them with any regularity, Elvis clearly appreciates the focus and precision of a kill shot, hit low to the floor, and the music and geometry of the long, looping shots that strike high and pinball around the upper walls. Sometimes when he can’t get to a shot to return it, he’ll just watch the ball bounce, tracking it like a bird-dog, listening to the sound of it. This is something the two of you can share, this appreciation for the noise and movement of the game.
Elvis smiles a lot when he’s on the court, clearly soothed by the squeak, squeak lullaby of shoes on the hardwood, a slam of soles, even the visceral grunts and barks, the hip crashes against the walls. You can see that Elvis loves the noise of the game just like you do, loves the bwong-snap of a forehand smash, the artillery-like racket of sound, and that special trick of physics that lets you hear the ball hit the wall a split second after you see it.
He’s big enough to seem like a bully but that’s not how Elvis carries himself in his court, not on this night. You don’t want to infantilize him but there is something distinctly childlike and unselfconscious about Elvis in this space. He’s playing, really playing, and perhaps he enjoys your failures a bit too much. Perhaps he laughs when you swing and miss. Maybe he tries to hit you with the ball a couple of times just for kicks. But he’s jamming right along, making some noise with you. He’s not great and wouldn’t have lasted long in a real game with your dad or even with you if you were playing hard; and part of you wants to give him some tips, to teach Elvis a couple of things about the game. You want to talk about patience and focus. You want to talk about discipline and kill shots. You want to save him through the game. And still he’s out there, alive and running around, swinging his Red Guitar and having fun. You can hear his shoes squeaking on the wood. You can hear it all, especially the way the acoustics of the court seem to rescue his voice from the excesses of his life; it booms deep and resonant and new again, and you think you could listen to him play all night long.
* * *
I don’t want to believe that racquetball matters to his legacy simply because it was the King’s last game, just something he did, and important only because it preceded the last songs he sang.
For the sake of argument let’s suppose that in the hours before he died, Elvis choose to play hard and play fair, to compete and try to win, or at least to enjoy a good jam session on the court amongst friends. Let’s assume he chose to surrender some part of himself to the game of racquetball, to let go of his inhibitions and really just play; and let’s imagine that Elvis was at least capable of hitting the ball really hard, if not equally capable of a decent serve. Even if that last game didn’t work out perfectly, does such an image of Elvis change the story of that night? Does his last game, however it was played, make the King’s last breath more or less tragic?
I don’t know. But I do know that for me this fact, his choice, makes the story of that night much more interesting, much deeper and more complicated. The simple fact—Elvis played racquetball shortly before he died—somehow makes him less of a caricature, less pop culture construct, and more real, more honest and human. The choice to play is perhaps more noble and humble than at first it seems, and more complicated than many other choices Elvis made that night. The choice to play is a choice to survive, to thrive and feel the noise of the game.
Though I’ve never visited Graceland and must admit to not feeling a great desire to do so, I would like to see the racquetball court—or what’s left of it. Apparently the King’s court was long ago converted into a museum display of his gold and platinum records. You can’t rent a racquet and ball and hit some shots on the King’s Court. But I suppose a display case could be considered a fitting use for the space. In my imagination it is a kind of temple to the playful creative King, to the inventive, imaginative, and improvisational Elvis, and I like to think I could stand there, surrounded by his records, and hear the ghost noise of his last game still echoing off the walls.
* * *
From the book Ultrasonic: Essays, by Steven Church.