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Music (and Elvis) as Inspiration and Healing

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Music (and Elvis) as Inspiration and Healing

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John Michael’s newest Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise column, “Music (and Elvis) as Inspiration and Healing,” looks at the influence that Elvis has played on his life. 

Elvis meant a lot to me as a kid, maybe more than I knew until I watched the Elvis movie currently in theaters and had all these emotions come up. “Hero” is a word we shouldn’t take lightly and should use sparingly.

Elvis was my hero, still is in many ways. I’ve written some about my rocky youth, no rockier than most for sure. But with my parents constant fighting and my dad’s increasing long absences, music, specifically Elvis tunes, became my escape. I want to be clear, it was music; singing and dancing offer an escape not from reality, but to reality; joy and love are more true than trauma and grief.

We had a console stereo in our living room when I was growing up which had two massive speakers. In my early grade school years, I’d create a blanket fort for myself near the far speaker. My mom had a bunch of her old records from college, and I quickly settled on Elvis as the ones I would listen to. I’d lay down in my fort and absorb the music and emotions. Then, when I had the lyrics memorized, I’d tear down my fort and dance around the living room and sing along.

“That’s All Right,” “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and especially “All Shook Up” were my favorites. I also really enjoyed “Heartbreak Hotel,” even though I probably didn’t know what the song was about at the time, I just loved how his voice sounded on that record.

Also on The Big Smoke

I had one of my first girlfriends over to the house in fifth or six grade and I was going to play her some records to handle the awkwardness of not having other friends around and not being in the familiar surroundings of school. I remember mentioning Elvis and she kind of scoffed and laughed. Her scoff may have been my first introduction of rebelliousness against cool. This must have been ’74 or ’75 when Elvis had lost his cool and was playing in Vegas. How an 11-year-old girl would know this, I have no idea, I sure didn’t. I put on an Elton John record and pouted because I wouldn’t be showing off my dance moves.

There were three television stations back then, so my only exposure to Elvis was essentially those records. After listening to his early hits, my mom would buy me other Presley records as they came out. My lack of cool and understanding were further exposed when some older kids laughed at me because I was telling them about these great Elvis songs, “Unchained Melody” and “Never Been to Spain.” They said that they were not Elvis songs, he only “covered” them after other people (The Righteous Brothers and Three Dog Night) had made them famous. I came away from that incident furious and still believing I was right.

I remember being really excited when I found out Elvis was going to perform a live concert on TV from Hawaii. I remember watching it with my mom and maybe being a little disappointed. I didn’t understand the white jumpsuit, for one thing. He was also wearing a lot of scarves and once in a while he would wipe his face with one and hand it to some screaming girl in the audience. In my mind, it made no sense at all and was gross. (“Gross” was a big word in the 70s.)

To me, Elvis’s main appeal was his music, I had no idea he was a sex symbol. Six or seven years ago, I was watching a video of a pudgy Elvis in the white jumpsuit playing and singing at the piano. Even at that late stage of his career, he had obvious sex appeal.

Elvis died in August of 1977. I’m sure my mom broke the news to me, but I don’t really remember. But I do remember the absolute heartache. Don’t take the word “hero” lightly, because a hero shows you where your dreams are.

Elvis died in August of 1977. I’m sure my mom broke the news to me, but I don’t really remember. But I do remember the absolute heartache. Don’t take the word “hero” lightly, because a hero shows you where your dreams are. Kids idolize and have a zeal for people who ignite the passion for something they want to spend their life pursuing. Shame-based as we are, the middle class are taught to pursue practical careers that offer security. Coming out of college, I still had a passion for music, but it was an unrecognized dream at that point, not something I ever thought I could do. I just thought I had a passion for listening to it.

I recently wrote about some deep panic I was going through. Well, I think I’ve come through my survival fear and death wish after being molested as a kid. My breathing is mostly relaxed throughout the day and I’m sleeping deeply. It seems like I’m in a grieving period now as the emotions that were buried under fight or flight are starting to surface. I’ve actually cried a few times about the sexual attack, something I couldn’t do after it happened because I hated myself for letting it happen.

I went for a long drive after coming out of the Baz Luhrmann-directed Elvis biopic. For me, the movie was visually stunning if a little too long. I had some tears for Elvis and for myself and my musical dreams. I remember saying out loud, “He was my hero.”

The good news is that dream ain’t dead yet. I’ve got a lyric book with about 70 songs I’ve written over the years. I occasionally hear snatches of music while meditating or dreaming. Also, I had a dream I should enter song contests. My dreams were frozen for most of my life behind a wall of shame. As my tears melt that wall, I will be in hot pursuit.


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John Michael

Hello, good people. I am rarely sure how to describe myself. If I say I am a Christian, many things may arise in your mind that ain't necessarily so. I was homeless for seven years and learned more about myself in that stretch of time than in any other segment of my life. I read the Bible a lot out there and came across a passage in Proverbs that has shaped my approach to life: "A man's pursuit is his kindness." I am well educated with a Master of Social Work degree and have worked a wide variety of jobs in my 52 years. None have lasted too long however. When I was homeless, the beauty of Texas wildflowers made me decide to want to live again. Along with kindness, beauty, play, and self-expression are life-guiding ideas. My shadow contains things like feeling sorry for myself, a truckload of defiance, a desperate need to please women, and no small amount of cruelty. A quote from Luke also has had a lasting effect on me: "For God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil." When I read that I thought, "Hell, I have got a fighting chance." I am here to tell you, you have a fighting chance as well. Besides Christianity, practicing Buddhist and Shamanic techniques inform my relationship to God and the world.

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