A few disconnected reflections on the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis A(a)ron Presley:
1. I have a memory–accurate or not–of how I heard about Elvis’ death. I was 13-and-a-half years old. We weren’t back in school yet–I was soon to enter 8th grade. What I see in my mind’s eye is riding in the car with my mother and my sister. Once we were old enough, Amy and I fought over who would get to sit in the front seat with Mom on out-of-town trips. At some point we came to the sensible compromise that one of us rode shotgun on the way out, the other on the way back. My recollection is that as the older child, I got first dibs on the front seat, but maybe Amy has a better memory about that.
So, we’re in the car (a blue 70 Ford Fairlane Torino), heading south on US 25 between Florence and Walton (I visualize it as around the intersection with Industrial Road), listening as we did in those days to 1360 WSAI. It’s a late Tuesday afternoon, and it’s hot. I believe that car didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows would have been down, and I probably would have been in the back seat. When the DJ broke the news about his death, it was quite a surprise, but really, I was too young and not cognizant enough of his historical role to mourn. While I know my dad loved “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” I didn’t grow up listening to lots of Elvis. I’m certain that we heard a ton of his music on the radio over the next few days, though.
2. My grad school officemates were John, Paul, and Will (one of the reasons I went by William in grad school). We shared 123 Altgeld Hall, in the basement, from Jul 87 to Jul 92. I don’t exactly recall how it started, but over those first couple of years we built a shrine of sorts to The King. Of course we had to have a velvet Elvis, which wound up hanging over my desk. Aside from postcard-sized pictures and a commemorative plate, our main source of material was the Weekly World News: some of the featured headlines were “Painting of Elvis Weeps Real Tears,” “Caveman Looked Like Elvis,” “Elvis is Alive!,” “Haunted Elvis Lamp Sings ‘Burning Love’,” “The King Has Lived Many Times Before,” and “Elvis Talks to Me From The Grave” (the WWN had a hard time deciding whether he was truly gone or not). Before we left Illinois, we talked about bundling our collection of “memorabilia” in a manila envelope, lifting one of the tiles of the dropped ceiling and placing it up there as a time capsule of sorts–I think we did that?
3. Over Labor Day weekend in 87 I flew down to Memphis, where my high school friend Bill was working. While there, I did make the pilgrimage to Graceland, taking in the cars, the jungle room, the grave, etc., etc. I’m sure I picked up a thing or two for the shrine. As it was just after the 10-year mark of his passing, I’d lost out on the chance to join the festivities noting that anniversary.
4. Now that I’m older and have some perspective, I can definitely say that my favorite Elvis period is what came right after his 68 Christmas special: “Kentucky Rain,” “In the Ghetto,” and in particular “Suspicious Minds,” the only song I’ve ever done karaoke to. The drugs and the fried-peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches hadn’t really taken their toll yet, and maybe he actually had acquired an ounce or two of maturity by then; I see it as the sweet spot of his career. While I find his very early stuff pretty good, his film career and the flavor of musical kitsch that came with it aren’t anything special to me.
5. He had talent and he had charisma, but Elvis also had very little self-control. It was all too easy to poke fun at him because he didn’t keep it together when he could have had the world on a string. That’s not to take away anything from his musical achievements or his fans, since in the end it really was a loss that he didn’t give himself the chance to make great music in his 40s and beyond.
6. Elvis almost was on the first AT40 chart I recorded: the double-sided “Hurt/For the Heart” dropped off that week from its peak of #28 (“Bohemian Rhapsody” is another one that fell off then). He had two appearances in 77: “Moody Blue/She Thinks I Still Care” (reached #31) was on in February, and “Way Down” was there right before he died–it re-charted in the aftermath (#31 the first time, #18 the second). Out of all the tribute songs that were written immediately following, only one–“The King is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell–made the Top 40, reaching #13. Yes, it’s both saccharine and maudlin, but it’s also honest and from the heart. Elvis, you have been missed.