Figured I’d post something now on Elvis; more substantial post(s) later ….
So I wanted to put something up today, because I got into a really great yammering session on politics and art in this coffeehouse where I was working on a piece about cars, and it’s going to take some work to get it the way I want it, and sometimes I’d rather shoot the shi-, I mean, converse with people than knuckle down and write, so I’m going to repost something I wrote on August 16, 2005, which seems like another lifetime ago now, about the King of Rock’n’Roll, which is and forever shall be: Elvis Presley.
We were sitting here looking at The Sacramento Bee, and there’s a piece on Elvis, who would have turned 75 tomorrow if he’d have lived. Somehow, when you die at age 42 from a mix of opiates and Southern cooking, the idea that you’re going to live to 75 and beyond becomes reasonably unlikely. I thought, man, I’d, well, not kill, but sing “Rock a-Hula Baby” in a Hawaiian shirt to an editor for a shot at writing a newspaper piece on The King, but nobody had the smarts to call me. So, here’s something I wrote a while back. Enjoy.
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It was 28 years ago today that Elvis Aron Presley fell off his toilet in the shag carpeted sanctum sanctorum of his second-floor bathroom at Graceland and achieved immortality.
Actually, that immortality morphed into a kind of pop-culture ignominy: The erstwhile Adonis with a guitar, gone fat and stupid on fried banana sandwiches and prescription painkillers, then squeezed like sausage into a sequined jumpsuit and shoved out onto a stage at the International Hotel (now the Hilton) in Las Vegas in an opiated stupor: “Well. Well well well well well. Well well well. Lemme have a drink of water …”
But where I come from, we worshiped The King, and we still do. And not just the electrifying Sun sides and the first vivid records he cut for RCA, but even some of the crummy tunes he cut for all those movies in the 1960s, songs with titles like “Rock a-Hula Baby” and “Do the Clam” and “Viva Las Vegas” and “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce” and “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car.” And a few of us are old enough to recall that NBC special in the late fall of 1968, when The King came out onstage dressed neck to toe in black leather. “If you’re looking for trouble,” he growled, “you’ve come to the right place.” And he meant it.
Once this writer, in angst over a busted relationship or the looming draft and the Vietnam War or teenage life in general, tried to induce mental retardation in himself by watching as much of a three-day weekend marathon of Elvis movies on KTXL Channel 40. It worked to some degree, as anyone who’s ever sat all the way through Harum Scarum or Change of Habit can attest.
Which brings us to that fateful day in the late summer of 1977. I’d been at the dentist getting a root canal, and in preparation for that grim ordeal, I’d given myself a little pharmaceutical cushion. Nothing spectacular, mind you: four or five blue Valiums, a Percodan, a couple of Codienes, a few shots of Jim Beam and a joint of what passed for pretty good weed in the 1970s. Hell, I’d bet money The King would have done the same thing.
My new dentist was pretty cool; he let me come in an hour early and sit in a big chair with a mask that pumped my thobbing skull full of nitrous oxide that, along with all the other stuff I’d ingested, sent me tripping off to a really cool place. I think the girls in the office there felt sorry for me, because my previous dentist had been like that Laurence Olivier character in the Dustin Hoffman movie Marathon Man; he’d hung creepy clown paintings up all over his office that he’d painted himself, and he played Dixieland jazz records really really loud and he didn’t use nearly enough anesthetic; imagine your dentist leering at you as he presses the drill through your mouthmeat to your jawbone and you scream “Aaaaaargh! Nooooo! The pain! The pain!” as he cranks the knob on his stereo and snaps his stubby fingers and sez: “Man, that Firehouse Five + Two is a moving outfit, baby!”
So in my nitrous haze, I heard something about “Elvis” and “drugs” jump out of a news report on the radio, but I was so far into the ozone that it really didn’t register.
I’d forgotten that I had to go to work, which my then-girlfriend reminded me when I poured into the passenger seat of her car when she picked me up at the dentist’s office and mumbled, “Uh, get me home in time for Ultraman.” At the time, I was clerking at Tower Records in Stockton, California, and my shift was supposed to start at three, and I was a half-hour late. When I walked in the door, or stumbled as it were, the person behind the counter bluntly told me that I was on cash-register duty until six, then high-tailed it out the door.
I soon learned why. The store seemed a bit packed, and there was something strange going on. I focused my eyes on the people standing at the counter, and they all seemed like they had some form of Down’s Syndrome, and they were all tightly clutching Elvis records. “Love Me Tender” was playing softly in the background. I took a quick visual scan around the store, and everyone there seemed to be, well, mentally retarded, to be politically incorrect about it, and many of them were weeping rather loudly and disconsolately. I asked the guy in front of me, whose Elvis soundtrack to Clambake I was about to ring up, what the heck was going on.
“Elvis is dead!” he barked.
The following three days were a blur. We got cleaned out of Elvis records rather quickly, and I remember patiently explaining that just because a person dies, that doesn’t mean you can’t buy their records anymore; that most likely the RCA factory in Indianapolis was working around the clock to press new Elvis records to meet demand, because the Colonel was not about to miss out on this big-ass payday. At one point a couple of us took Victor Elvis, a serious fan who used to hang out in the store and demand that we pay homage to The King by playing nothing but Elvis, down to Dok Shoons, a local Armenian hot-dog joint, and we bought him a foot-long and talked with him. It was hard to console a fan whose love for The King ran that deeply. But we understood.
It was a month or so later that I knew that Victor was going to be OK. He came into the store wearing new white Angel’s Flights, and he insisted we hoist his five-foot, 250-pound frame up on the counter and that we put on the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever and turn it up so he could disco down and show everybody his new moves.
Then came the years of Elvis as laughingstock. The King soon became the butt of jokes for every terminally unfunny, limp-dicked comic who ever shamed a stage at a Ramada Inn lounge trolling drunken fertilizer salesmen for cheap laughs, and his name was invoked by morning zoo morons on chain-operated radio stations across the country. “Lemme have ‘nutha sammich,” the fools would slur, too stupid to realize that it was a revolution started in Memphis by the very hepcat they ridiculed that made it possible for them to spout their inanities in the first place. Of course, being in radio, they were way too intellectually hampered to comprehend the irony.
Funny thing, but I still think about The King, even today. It’s pretty convenient to snark on him like he was some stupid hillbilly who got famous for no reason, but if you go back and watch old footage of Elvis, especially from his Sun Records days, you can figure out pretty quickly what all the hoopla was about. The man had the moment. He grabbed those bolts of lightning from Zeus on the mountain and hurled them at us lowly mortals down on the plain. He wasn’t some bullshit creation of a bunch of bored record-company flacks and radio weasels and marketing monkeys. No, Elvis was the real deal.
It’s easy in 2005 to forget that fact, because Elvis made a bunch of spectacularly crappy movies, then after a brief Indian summer comeback of Memphis-style secular gospel, he got fat and stoned and he fell off his potty upstairs at Graceland reading a book of Kama Sutra positions while trying to squeeze out an honest dump, which I’m told is hard for serious abusers of opiates.
Elvis died alone. Nevertheless, what was great about him still lives. Rest in peace, King.
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At some point, I’ll resurrect a piece of fiction I wrote, a short story about Elvis firing the Colonel in 1955 and signing with Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun’s Atlantic Records instead of RCA Victor, and what happened when some really brilliant record men were steering his career. I hope you liked that little blast from the past. And I’ll have something else here later today, or this evening.
It is a pleasure writing for your enjoyment, let me tell you. Cheers! —Jackson Griffith