The King Is Dead! Hang the Doctor!
By Stanley Booth
What, you might ask, does a piece about Elvis’s doctor have to do with the blues? In some ways the following piece is the hardest I’ve ever had to write. In March of 1978, I fell off a mountain in North Georgia, breaking my back. I had by then been writing a book about the Rolling Stones for nearly ten years and was well strung out on CNS depressants: muscle relaxers, soporifics, and pain killers. The broken back multiplied the problem; after that I was really in pain. A year later, I had a drug dependence that dwarfed Tennessee. The two people who warned me were Jim Dickinson and Paul Bomarito. I knew they were right, that I was approaching the point where the toxic dose is smaller than the therapeutic dose. Twice I attempted to stop taking drugs, as they say, cold turkey, and twice had grand mal epileptic seizures. Dickinson suggested I see Nichopoulos. My friend Joella Bostick, crazy but shrewd, also knew Nichopoulos well and admired him, and so I made his acquaintance.
That, you might think, would be enough to gain entry for this piece in a blues book. Certainly, considering the innate sadness of the material —— a decent Greek doctor from Alabama tries to help a good ignorant old boy from Mississippi entertain his dumb-assed fans. But it doesn’t stop there. Not hardly. I did the piece for Playboy, who rejected it, deciding they had no interest in telling the world Elvis didn’t die of drugs.
Before that rejection, though, I had to, first, not die of drugs myself, and second, write the piece. I hadn’t worked in months, and when I tried, I found that I could no longer write. It was without question the worst time of my life. I walked around dead. You can’t write unless you can hear the words in your head, and my head wasn’t talking. I didn’t have the blues, I had a terminal illness. Slowly, after months of trying to force myself to work and failing, I gave up and God started speaking to me again. At first there were only faint whispers, but the voice grew stronger.
The piece wound up being published in an anthology titled The Elvis Reader with its pages in the wrong order. I only wish I were joking. Before seeing the book, I had a copy sent to Memphis deejay George Klein, the president of Elvis’s senior class at Humes High School. When I saw him, George said, “Man, was that piece you wrote screwed up somehow? It was really hard to follow.”
As Dr. Nick and I drove out of Memphis, we passed one of the green and white traffic signs with a guitar pointing the way to Graceland and the likeness, sideburns clearly outlined, of Elvis Presley. Dr. Nick, driving a yellow Cadillac that Presley had given him, looked out at the cold spring rain. "For a long time," he said, "I didn't realize the full extent of the part I was playing in this thing."
We were going to Anniston, Alabama, to spend a few days with Dr. Nick's mother. It was the first chance we had found to talk since the Tennessee State Medical Examiners' hearing, several weeks earlier, where Dr. Nick had been charged with misprescribing to twenty patients, including Elvis Presley.
"One day Father Vieron came to my office," Dr. Nick said. The Reverend Father Nicholas Vieron, priest of the Greek Orthodox church attended by Dr. Nick and his family, has known Dr. Nick for twenty-five years. "He told me that he thought I was doing myself an injustice, I was doing my practice an injustice, my patients, my family, by being gone so much. That Elvis could have any doctor he wanted and didn't really need me all the time. That I shouldn't devote so much time to him. 'Why do you need to be there? Why can't it be somebody else on all these tours that you go on?'
"I gave it some serious thought. This was in 1975. The tours had changed, they'd really gotten laborious. It used to be that after a performance, Elvis enjoyed having some of the fans who would hang around the hotel come up and talk to him, just to get a feeling of people in that area and what they thought of the show and to feed his ego some. This would take two or three hours. I thought it was good for him, because it occupied his time, kept him happier. But some of the bodyguards resented it, because it meant that they had to stay on duty. If he'd get ready for bed, go on and have his supper, then they could go on out to the bar and do their thing.
"So, somehow we got away from doing that, and it really got to be a drag, because a lot of that responsibility after the show —— who's going to be with him and talk to him for two or three hours —— a lot of times would fall on me. And this was day and night after night. My nights were just horrible. I would go to bed when he'd go to bed, and then he might sleep two or three hours and wake up wide awake, and I'd have to go in and try to get him back to sleep. Then he might sleep two or three more hours, or he might sleep four or five hours. But the average was he'd sleep two or three hours and wake up, two or three hours and wake up. It was hard for me to fit into that schedule. On a tour, I had very little time when I could go and do anything. If he woke up and I wasn't there, he'd go bananas. It got to the point where I was working eighteen or twenty hours a day, sleeping in cat naps.
"It was also causing me an awful hassle at the office. The other doctors were bitching about me being on a constant vacation. How could I expect to come home and want time off? I'd have to work double, I'd have to make up the night calls I missed. And yet it was the same sons of bitches that would derive the benefit from it. The money I got from Elvis went to them, went into office practice. I had a hell of a time with all this.
"So when Father Vieron came in that day, I'd already given it a lot of thought. But Elvis had problems when I didn't go and he'd carry somebody else. There were a couple of tours, one Vegas tour and maybe a couple of other tours, where the shows didn't go too well because he was oversedated. A lot of times when the other doctors would go, it would be hard for them to keep the medicine with them. He always wanted to keep something there by his bed in case he'd wake up. He'd wake up and think he wasn't going back to sleep. He'd be half asleep, and he'd reach over and take whatever was there. Maybe three or four or five sleeping pills. The next day, try to get him up, no way to get him up. There were several times when he was a robot onstage. He'd done these songs so many times, a lot of people didn't realize it, but hell, he might not wake up till halfway through the show or after the show was over. Tell him things that he did, and he just wouldn't remember. After having gone through a few experiences with that, and some really bad ones, it was the consensus of the Colonel and the promoters that things were under better control when Elvis was with me than when he was with some other people. That they'd rather have me on the tours, and it got down to the fact that they weren't going to have any more tours at all if I wasn't going.
"I thought, 'Is it really my place to look at the business aspect of this relationship? Is it really my place to worry about what his promoters and business people are worried about, like, "Is he going to be able to make the next show? Are we going to have to cancel it? Is he going to be too groggy to do the show?"' It was a dilemma for me. It felt like this was going beyond the bounds of doctoring, and yet it wasn't, because his welfare, his health, were involved, and it's hard to separate that aspect of it from the business aspect.
"But the kicker, my turn-on, was the crowds. People would say, 'Don't you get tired of seeing the same damn show over and over again? How can you sit through the same songs all the time?' You don't hear half the songs. But you're watching these thousands of people who are mesmerized by this human being up there, and watching their expressions, their jumping up and down. The real feeling of accomplishment comes from knowing that he was able to do so much for so many. People would carry away something that would last them for weeks and months, for a lifetime."
But at the Medical Examiners' Hearing, when asked what he would do if he ever found himself in a situation like that of being Elvis Presley's physician, Dr. Nick said, "I'd get out of it, if I had the option."
...CONTINUE TO PART TWO...