Urged on by his hairdresser Larry Geller, for the last year and a half Presley had been devouring a whole raft of spiritual books, including The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Cosmic Consciousness, The Infinite Way, Beyond the Himalayas, The Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East, The Prophet, and The Impersonal Life.
On March 5, just as Presley’s new soundtrack album Girl Happy was released, he drove from Graceland to Hollywood to shoot possibly his worst movie, Harum Scarum. He expressed frustration to Geller in Amarillo that he had been studying for a year but had not had a religious experience. Then, outside Flagstaff, as Presley stared out the windshield in awe, he saw the clouds form the face of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. “Why Stalin? Why Stalin? Of all people, what’s he doing up there?”
He pulled the car over and ran out into the desert, followed by Geller. When Geller caught up to him, Presley was crying, “It’s God!” He hugged Geller joyfully. “I saw the face of Stalin and I thought to myself, Why Stalin? Is it a projection of something that’s inside of me? Is God trying to show me what he thinks of me? And then it happened! The face of Stalin turned right into the face of Jesus, and he smiled at me, and every fiber of my being felt it.”32
One of Presley’s favorite books was Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and during the filming of Harum Scarum, on March 17, he went to the Pacific Palisades, California, ashram of one of Yogananda’s disciples, Sri Daya Mata (originally Faye Wright). He joined her Self-Realization Fellowship and would often go there to read and meditate.
He also read The Doors of Perception and made all the Memphis Mafia read Leary’s Psychedelic Experience. He tried LSD on December 28, with Priscilla, Geller, and entourage member Jerry Schilling. At one point, Priscilla sobbed and told Presley he didn’t really love her. But most of the trip was beautiful, as they looked at his tropical fish and the drops of dew on the lawn, though they never tried it again.33
It was a gospel song that kept Presley at the top of the charts in 1965. His five-year-old cover of “Crying in the Chapel” was released as a single for Easter and surprised everyone by becoming a No. 3 hit in the United States and No. 1 in the United Kingdom. Presley began to think it was time to start seriously recording again. Next spring he would record the classic gospel album How Great Thou Art and, during the sessions, cover Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” With Dylan covers being all the rage, it could have been the most notable one of all; Dylan later called it “the one recording I treasure most.”34 Naturally, Presley’s clueless manager buried it on a weak soundtrack album. Still, the King was on his way back.
- Guralnick, Careless Love, 195.
- Ibid., 195.
- Ibid., 217–18.
- Jann S. Wenner, “The Rolling Stone Interview: Bob Dylan,” Nov. 29, 1969, http://www.jannswenner.com/Archives/Bob_Dylan.aspx.