Books » Book Features

Killers & Kings

Silver still says Elvis was murdered, and Lewis knocked 'em dead.


Murray Silver could have been a contender. Silver never says as much in his latest literary offering, When Elvis Meets the Dalai Lama, but it's an unspoken thesis of the author's magical mystery memoir, which explores the birth of rock, wrestling giants, porn queens, Tibetan monks, and a plot to kill Elvis Presley.

"I knew I wasn't destined to be famous, so I always sought out people who were always making news," Silver says. "I was born to be a watcher, a witness to these things.

"I've always sought out uncommon things to write about," he says.

Silver's breakthrough book Great Balls of Fire: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis (which he wrote with the help of Lewis and the Killer's child bride Myra) earned mixed reviews when it hit bookstores in 1982. But less friendly assessments of the work hardly mattered because Hollywood was interested, and Silver had a movie deal in the works.

"Scorsese was going to make the movie with Robert De Niro [playing Jerry Lee Lewis]," he says, explaining how he thought the film could easily become the Raging Bull of rock-and-roll biopics. "Then Dennis Hopper was going to do it with Sean Penn," he says. "Then it was Michael Cimino and Mickey Rourke." In the end, Great Balls of Fire was adapted into a Grease-like musical comedy starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder. Murray's bitchy, behind-the-scenes account of the film, which was largely shot in Memphis, is appropriately sensational and reads like it a best-of compilation from the supermarket tabs.

Throughout his book's early chapters, Silver depicts himself as an obnoxious combination of Jiminy Cricket and the Phantom of the Opera haunting the movie set and telling anybody who will listen why the screenplay for Great Balls of Fire was a lie and a sick, possibly pornographic distortion of his work. Silver loved nothing more than to tell the cast and crew why the film was destined to suck. And suck it did. Great Balls of Fire drew hostile reviews and never lived up to financial expectations.

After the disaster of Great Balls of Fire, Silver attempted to collaborate with Elvis' personal physician Dr. George Nichopoulos, or Dr. Nick, on a tell-all book about the original rocker's private life and medical history. Dr. Nick's reputation was ruined by allegations that he'd over-prescribed drugs to Presley, and the jury of public opinion continued to hold him at least partially responsible for the King's untimely passing. Sensitive to Dr. Nick's peculiar needs, Jerry Lee Lewis recommended Silver as a biographer, saying, "He did a pretty good job with my book -- and he's way out there."

According to Silver, the book was also supposed to provide readers with evidence from Dr. Nick that Elvis was murdered.

"This was going to be the most explosive, shocking story of all time," he says. "It was going to be bigger than the Kennedy assassination. Bigger than the grassy knoll."

From the moment Silver encounters Dr. Nick, the tone of his book changes from grumpy and disgruntled to claustrophobic and paranoid. Shortly after sending off a proposal for publication, including five sample chapters, the writer and the infamous rock-and-roll physician were swarmed by the national news media.

"That's when the wheels came off the wagon," Silver says. "Nick and I were [portrayed as] wackos, weirdos, and liars. Ted Koppel was trying to get me on Nightline. Bill O'Reilly was trying to track me down. They all wanted to do a story about the book." The problem was, there wasn't any book, only a proposal and five sample chapters.

"I was told, 'You don't understand, sir. If you've got proof Elvis Presley was murdered, we want to hear it.'"

Silver describes working with Jerry Lee Lewis as something of a nightmare but swears dealing with the national news media was even worse. And then came the death threats.

"There were drug dealers out there who thought I might [expose them]," Silver says. "My apartment was broken into. They were trying to kill me."

Afraid for his life, Silver left Memphis and returned to his home in Georgia, but he continued to shop his book around. He found a potential benefactor in British publisher Robert Maxwell.

"I sent him a copy of my manuscript to read on vacation," Silver says. "Then I got a phone call saying that Maxwell was found floating face-down in the Atlantic Ocean. My manuscript was still on his desk, my contract blank."

It's been speculated that Maxwell's death was a suicide, committed in light of the businessman's spiraling debt. There's also been speculation that he was killed by everyone from the CIA to various Arab groups. Silver suggests that somebody just didn't want the world to know who really killed Elvis.

From hanging out in rundown honky tonks on Christmas Eve with Jerry Lee Lewis to partying down in New York with Richard Gere, the Dalai Lama, and Allen Ginsberg, When Elvis Meets the Dalai Lama is never wanting for interesting characters or exotic locales. It may be completely true, or it may be the result of an author's fevered imagination. Either way, it's amusing, occasionally insightful, and a decided change from the overly reverent Elvisanalia that tends to crop up in conjunction with Death Week in Memphis.

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