Thursday, August 16, 2007

Elvis+30

I got the call early on Aug. 16, 1977. My friend and guitarist Donnie Baer's brother-in-law was a fireman who had monitored the first ambulance calls to Graceland, and he was reporting Elvis had died. I replied with one word, "bullshit." There was nothing on radio or TV yet, and enough reason to disbelieve, at least for a short while. Elvis had become a curio by 1977, and had long passed the days when he was an active influence in popular music. But people from Memphis felt a special pain at his passing, especially those who had been there at the beginning.

My sister, Susan, returned home from a teenage party at the Gayosa Hotel on Main Street in 1957, flushed with excitement. Elvis had chosen the occasion to visit his friend, disc jockey Dewey Phillips, at the WHBQ radio studios in the hotel, "On the Magazine Floor," in Deweyspeak. After his visit, someone informed him of the party of twelve and thirteen year olds going on in the ballroom, and he took the time to come say hello to all the kids. Susan breathlessly told me about Elvis putting his arm around her and posing for a photograph, and I could picture the entire scene in my mind. Susan, short haired and diminutive in bobby sox and saddle oxfords, with Elvis, wearing a two-tone sport coat with the collar turned up in the back and slicked back hair, draping an arm casually around my sister's shoulder. Years later, I asked her what ever became of that picture, but Susan continues to insist that no such photo has ever existed. But I can still see it. After all, I developed it in my imagination for my scrapbook of Elvis memories.

That's how much we loved him. It was inconceivable to think of Memphis without his presence. When the nation saw him for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, we felt were watching one of our own conquer the world. And Elvis' loyalty to Memphis never wavered, even during the dismal Hollywood era. During the Quaalude years, I knew a girl who worked in the pharmacy across the street from Dr. Nick's office on Madison Ave. She told me that one of the guys was picking up packages of 100 Quaaludes a week for Elvis. I imagined the slur-fest that must be going on up at Graceland with "E" and all the guys, but I never thought Elvis could be ingesting them all himself. That's a dose to knock down a silverback gorilla. At the same time, reports of bizarre behavior by Elvis of using police lights to pull over cars and behaving like a narc, or interfering in the arguments of strangers as if he were a superhero, began to surface. When the drug problem became public knowledge, there was no Betty Ford clinic to check into, or facility to dryout and rehabilitate a reputation. The tragedy of Elvis' lonely death is that the Colonel had him end his years, playing a carnie circuit of arenas as a very sick man, in order to cover the Colonel's Vegas gambling debts.

When Elvis died, I, and several other musicians, gathered at the Sam Phillips Studio to talk it over. We ended up surrounding a piano being played by James Brown Hooker of the Rhythm Aces. There was Donnie, Bob Simon, Jerry Phillips, Casper Peters, Teddy Paige, and other regulars, and we began to sing Elvis songs. But because we were irreverent, we sang them all in minor keys, like "Hound Dog," only in E-minor, making it sound like a Gregorian chant. We were laughing to cover our sorrow, since every person in that room was aware that the reason we were even standing there, was because of Elvis. The very studio itself, stood because of Elvis. We were the musical spawn of Elvis. Whatever careers in music we had, we owed to him. That's how important he was in our lives.

I recall thinking in the early 70s, that there was no further need for Elvis to be so isolated. The people of Memphis were used to his presence and would allow him to interact normally in society without too much interference. I saw Jerry Lee Lewis and his entourage out on the town all the time. His boys protected him from the severely inebriated and he was generally gracious to everyone else. I wondered why Elvis couldn't live in a similar manner. But, I was walking down the concourse of the Memphis Airport, back in the days when you could actually meet someone at the gate, and I saw this bizarre looking man walking toward me headed for the exits. I thought, "I know this guy," but I couldn't place him, despite the white jumpsuit. He was very handsome, with unusually large facial pores that looked sanded, and a shock of the blackest hair to come out of a bottle. When I caught up to my mother ahead of me, she asked, "Did you see Elvis?" Only then did all the gears mesh and without another word, I turned and began running after Elvis like a crazed teenage girl. I caught up to him just as he was entering his car on the passenger side. He looked up and I said with understated brilliance, "Hey Elvis. How you doing?" "Fine man. How 'bout you?"

My single conversation with Elvis made me realize that, if I had chased after him at full speed through an airport just to gaze upon his countenance, perhaps he couldn't come out in public after all. I have attended many Elvis "Death Week" events over the years, including conferences, dinners, and impersonator competitions. At first, I went for the freak show aspect of it; to witness these people who were turning Elvis into a world spiritual figure. But the devotion and sincerity of these Elvis fans, who come here during the hottest days of the year, was moving to me instead. I went to laugh, and ended up crying. In the middle of yet another Ronnie McDowell "tribute," I looked to the back of the room and saw a large group of Japanese tourists standing and silently weeping copious tears. You have to marvel at the astonishing depth of emotion created by this one man, in people from all corners of human existence.

I never got to meet Elvis. I might have imposed upon George Klein or members of the Phillips family to wrangle myself an introduction, but that would have been very un-Elvislike of me. I was lucky enough to have been at the epicenter of the Elvis explosion and could never describe to a non-Memphian how incredibly exciting it was. Like cotton candy, Elvis' music is a confection that conjures up wonderful memories that linger long after it's gone. I did write a short poem for him after his death, titled; Elvis Never Bought Me a Cadillac.
Elvis never bought me a Cadillac/ He never knew my name.
I never got a diamond ring/ But I loved him just the same.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was taught long ago to reverence the reverence of other people, but not (necessarily) what they reverence. So, I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, but I never 'got' the Elvis thing. I may have appreciated him more if I had been a musician, like Randy. But, like most people I can grock some cultural phenomena while others either disinterest me or repulse me (like hip-hop). Elvis was, indeed, an important part of the evolving cultural scene. Before him all you heard on the airwaves was Patty Paige, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and other pre-rock types. Personally, my major imprint was from the psychedelic 60's/70's, and even part of the art-rock 80's. Too bad for me and others of this ilk, because we have been in a cultural wasteland for about 20 years. I hope that there will be at least one more interesting 'new wave' to hit shore before I am too old to appreciate anything. I doubt if there will ever be a cultural phenomenon like the 60'/70's, though. So many people throughout the free world became attuned to a common culture in terms of music, fashion, linguistic expression, art, literature, philosophy, spirituality, etc., etc. Some have called it a Golden Age and, apparently, those don't come along very frequently. But then, this is just one man's point of view. I'm sure that there were others at the time who couldn't appreciate it.

geno722 said...

I didn 't get Elvis either, at least at the time. I was barely 21 when I moved to Memphis from New Orleans in 1976 to pursue the kind of rock and power-pop that was coming of Ardent and a few other Memphis studios at the time. Not unlike my sister- who ceremoniously had my father drive her to a dumpster in 1965 to dump her Elvis record collection to make room for the Beatles - I didn't get it. In 1976 word was that Elvis pretty much stayed drugged out all the time and didn't get out much. I had a "day gig" at the then-brand-new Pop Tunes store in Whitehaven which is where I was the day Elvis died. Not unlike a panic run on a bank, tear-filled customers bought out the store's remaining Elvis stock in about two hours. The other thing I remember driving home from the store that night: the streets of Memphis were deserted the night of Elvis' death by about 9:30 PM. Not even in music-rich New Orleans, my hometown, had I ever experienced anything like it. Yeah, at that point, I got it.

Anonymous said...

When Dewey Phillips(the John the Baptist of rock and roll)opened the doors to the messianic age of rock - He pointed the way to the most explosive singer who ever lived---Elvis Presley(rock's messianic figure). Dylan said when he heard Elvis sing Blue Moon of Kentucky the doors of his soul flew wide open and that he was set free and that he knew what he was going to do the rest of his life. If you don't 'get Elvis' listen to MY BABY LEFT ME or BABY, LET'S PLAY HOUSE or ONE SIDED LOVE AFFAIR or the naughty version of SHAKE RATTLE and ROLL or listen to his blues like RECONSIDER BABY or even his later standard RAGS TO RICHES(better than Bennet). Even when he sings Sinatra's arrogant signature song MY WAY he turns it around as if he's remorseful, sorrowful...even repentant. Little Richard, Chuck, Fats, Bo Didley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee and all those great Sun Record guys(including Randy)were of the messianic age of music but there was only one Elvis and he was baptized by Dewey the Baptiser! Take away the myth and "E" is under-rated. PS I once looked for Randy in midtown Memphis in the 70's but instead found myself drinking beer with Jerry Lee Lewis at The Hot AIR Baloon(?) All he talked about was how a great singer Elvis was! And that was from The Killer. PADRE PATRO

Anonymous said...

I remember when I was about 6 or 7 and my big sister Robin,10 years older, and her best friend Sally came running into the house all atwitter and giggly. Sally's dad had taken them over to Elvis house on Autumn and they had gotten to meet him.For a week Robin bathed with her hand sticking out of the shower cutain because he had kissed it. I'll never forget getting the neighborhood kids to "come look at this."She was so mad and yet so sweet about it.She already thought "us kids" were a pain in the teenage ass anyway.It's funny but a few years later I was the same way about the Beatles!!long live teenagers! Chop

randy said...

The Rev is right. If you "don't get" the Elvis thing, begin with the Sun Sessions CD. Elvis was one of the few musical performers who was at his best right at first. With 2 guitars and a bass, Elvis' voice and phrasing are so joyous and exhuberant, it makes you smile. If you only know Elvis from the sappy operatic ballads, you don't know Elvis. TCB

Anonymous said...

I don't get it. Last blog mMemphis was unlivable. Now your lucky to be born there. which is it?

Anonymous said...

OK, bottom line...Memphis is (now) unlivable. But that doesn't mean that a Memphian has no pleasant memories of better days. In fact, living in Memphis was a riot during the Golden Age. And Randy and the Radiants were part of that Golden Age. That is why I will always say that he should have one of those musical note things on Beale St.

Anonymous said...

We need a new wave. The tough thing is that new waves can't be forced. They just appear in their own time and manner. But, an exciting new wave would be a real upper about now. There has been a long drought...unless you count the country wave or the hip-hop wave...yuck! Remember when the 60's wave began to appear with the Beatles and then gained momentum? What fun and excitement. It was sort of like the scene in the Wizard of Oz when everything went from black and white to color. Remember what a blast it was. Oh well...forgive me for bringing back ghosts. Dreams keep me going. The current reality is such a bummer.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and there was a sense of magic in the air, like anything could happen. Wait a minute. Maybe it was youth that I am remembering and not the 60's after all. Maybe the '60's' are happening right now, and will always happen for the young. Someone should write a song.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to offend any one, but come on, Elvis was a greaser and lived like a greaser who had a little money.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of cultural waves, some have dared to insinuate that hip-hop is a sub-human wave of barbarism in spite of the fact that the hip-hop song 'It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp' was dignified by being selected for an Academy Award. To protest this illiberal point of view, I am putting together an act which will consist of several grill-wearing silver-back gorillas doing a lip-synch of that song, and perhaps also one of the little known number called 'Cut Yo Haid Muh-Fuh Ho'. In fact I am in the process of getting permission to create a pre-school picture book depicting the lyrical content of the latter song for distribution in the city schools. My problem is that I need financial backers. Any one interested in helping out with the advance of hip-hop culture?

Anonymous said...

I got the distinct feeling after 'It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp' won an Academy Award that there wasn't much of a civilization left here in America for the Muslim terrorists to attack. Why waste the time to destroy what amounts to a coast-to-coast ghetto? Just wait for the decay to progress a little further and then move in without firing a shot. Maybe producing a rap version of the Koran could help matters.

Anonymous said...

Elvis sucked hard

Anonymous said...

Does anyone see the irony in the fact that the pacifistic, aesthetic, intellectual, cosmic-consciousness obsessed hippy culture has been supplanted by the violent, nihilistic, benighted, devolved hip-hop culture? The hippies may have been wrong on some things, but at least they were thoughtful, and bent toward spiritual growth and the advancement of the common good. How did a barbaric sewer culture gain the ascendency? What happened? It's like a twist in some sci-fi horror movie...or maybe a bad trip.

kimk said...

Dear BAH:

I found your blog in a rather roundabout way; I was Googling for some blues CD and in one of the pages noted the name Teddy Paige so I looked to see what he was up to. This is weird:

Paige article

Anyhow, so that gets me looking for a bit more of Paige and I find your Elvis-Is-Dead blog entry (of course he's not really dead, but we'll pretend) and the list of people at the studio wake makes me wonder if I shouldn't at least know who this sputnik57 person is.

Which means I have to read a lot more of your entries trying to match what I suspect with what is written: writer is Jewish, probably a Sputnik Monroe fan, (if you'd mentioned Hopalong Cassidy it would have been easy) so I have a pretty good idea before running into the Jesse Jackson one with "Randolph J."

So 'Hi Haspell' -- it's Kim Kubik -- still stuck in SF (and still alive, jeeze! Don't get old if you can at all help it) -- nice to see that you're still feisty/ cranky and have a "new" R&R CD out which I'll have to purchase. I wish Averitt were alive so I could report all this to him. He was my last link to Memphis, I haven't been there since 1994 when my mother passed away, so now only have a vague glimmer of what goes on in Bluff City.

My email is 'chaotrope @ jps.net' (without the spaces around the @); I won't bother listing a phone number, I still used a rotary dial phone until the recent DSL made it inoperable.

- kim