Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Go around the world and even in the most remote parts, say the name, "Elvis."
The reaction is usually the same. They'll repeat his name a few times, especially if you are wearing a T-shirt with E's picture on it. Then, they smile.
Maybe missionaries who wanted to spread the 'Good Word' to every corner of the world, should have used Elvis as their ambassador.
It was 29 years ago today that I was a 12-year-old kid, sitting with my next door neighbors, Larry and Nita McCrary, holding one of Larry's various Gibson electric guitars. The particular one I was holding was one of those old, big bodied jobs.
I don't know the make or model, but it looked like the one Elvis used in the '68 Comeback special.
Put it to you this way: It was bigger and taller than me.
My little hands and short arms tried desperately to wrap around the big, electric twang box, because I was determined to learn "Heartbreak Hotel."
Larry played in a Country Western band on the weekends, and he had a plethora (love that word) of gee-tars, including a steel guitar, a couple of Fender Strats, a Telecaster and those few Gibsons.
Two years earlier, I begged my mother for guitar lessons. She finally relented, and I was one of the youngest pickers at Bert's Guitar Shop on Memorial Drive in Stone Mountain. Bert built and customized guitars for a bunch of folks that I didn't even know, at that time.
I actually met members of the Dixie Dregs and various musicians that played for local and national bands like Marshall Tucker, etc. It meant nothing to me, at the time, because I didn't listen to them.
My musical tastes, in 1977, consisted of Barry Manilow, Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, Sean Cassidy, and whatever else was playing on mainstream radio....ick, it makes me cringe just thinking about it.
Larry would allow me to come over to his house, hold his guitars, play them, because I always treated those instruments--and Larry--with respect.
My first taste of Elvis came through my dad. In many ways, my dad's upbringing mirrored Elvis. Both country boys--my dad was born and raised in Metter, GA--who came from very humble beginnings, both with dominant mothers, passive fathers, and a destiny to get out of the small town and onto bigger things.
Dad had the Elvis Aloha from Hawaii soundtrack, Elvis Gold Records volume 3, as well as a copy of the album, Burning Love. I had listened to them, with my dad, a few times and I had listened to Elvis, as I rode along with my dad on Saturday afternoon errand runs.
But it wasn't until I was 12 and in the 7th grade that I truly wanted to know who this Elvis guy really was.
Larry had been telling me about Elvis, and he'd been playing a version of Heartbreak Hotel that I really wanted to master. I had not heard the original, but the way Larry was playing the tune, it sounded really great.
On this day--August 16, 1977--Larry and his wife were telling me all about who Elvis was and how big he was, when they were kids.
What happened next I will never forget as long as I live. Larry was playing an old Elvis album, and I was hearing Don't Be Cruel for the first time. As well, I was showing them that I figured out "Marie's the Name of His Latest Flame" on the guitar, because it used the easy G chord and the E minor chord.
Through the oral history that Larry and Nita shared with me, I was sensing that Elvis was something big, and rightly so.
I promise what happened next is not some James Frey fabrication. This truly happened.
We were talking about Elvis, and I remember looking at Larry and saying, "Wow, I bet people will freak out whenever he dies," and Larry said, "He's still pretty young, so hopefully we won't have to worry about that for a while."
At 12, someone in their 40's is pretty old.
All of a sudden, I heard my brother outside the McCrary's living room window--which was open--yelling for me.
Angrily, I went to the window. See, my older brother had a way of always being in my business, or listening to my conversations, so he could run and get me in trouble over anything. I thought this was one of those times.
He said, 'Elvis is dead.' I said, "David, shut up and go home. You've been standing out there listening haven't you?"
He said, "No, I'm serious. Elvis just died. They said it on the news." I looked at him, sort of shocked, and I came back and said, "Larry, my brother just said Elvis died."
Larry said, "Are you sure he's not just pulling your leg?" And I said, "No, he said it was on the news."
Me, Larry and Nita turned on the TV, and there it was scrawling across the bottom of the screen. "Elvis Presley Dead at 42."
We were all stunned, and even more stunned that we had been sitting, minutes before, playing his music, talking all about Elvis, and I made the comment about his death.
All I could do is go home.
I sat glued to the TV for information, and as word spread, I really got the sense that this man was something big in America, and had made an impression on people of very age.
I can remember talking about it at church, in my youth group, and our youth leader getting upset. He told us, "The only king is Jesus." That made absolutely no sense to me.
My big memory was watching this special on Elvis, hosted by Charles Kuralt, that was hastily put together right after his death. I learned all about Elvis's youth, his Vegas years, the Comeback, Priscilla, Lisa Marie.
I felt the same sense of loss that others seemed to feel, but I was just truly getting to know who Elvis was and his impact on our culture. I just remember sobbing, after that show. As usual, my dad didn't understand. "Why is she crying?" he said to my mom.
In one of my mother's rare nurturing moments, she held me and let me cry. I truly can't tell you why it moved me so much, because I hardly knew who he was. But I sensed that someone great had gone, and I sensed it was a sad death.
Watching the news footage of those white limousines and the throngs of fans in Memphis never left me.
When school started that year, we were asked to do a book report. I decided to read the only book that had come out, at that time, about Elvis. "Elvis What Happened?" Yeah, great fare for a 12-year-old to read, but I hardly comprehended the whole thing. What I looked forward to was giving the book report.
We had to give oral book reports. I already knew what I would do to get an A. I often tell my mother, "Like you didn't know I was an 'outdoor-sy girl', then?" when we talk about how I became Elvis for the book report.
See, I wasn't one of those girls that fell in love with Elvis and fantasized about being his date, or lover. Nope. I wanted TO BE Elvis. He was the coolest, and I knew it. I wanted to dress like him, I wanted my hair like his. I wanted to sing like him, move like him, maybe be his little sister, but not his girlfriend.
That's what I did. I slicked my hair into a makeshift Ducktail, wore my brother's old tuxedo jacket, a white ruffled shirt from my mom, black pants, and my mother's white 'Go-Go' boots (I kid you not).
The fact that I did not get beat up, or shunned is a miracle.
I slung my guitar over my neck, and I was ready to be 'Elvis.' When I got up to give my book report, I did my best Elvis impersonation, trying to stammer and slur my words like he did, while I described the book, etc.
Then, I tried my best to sing Heartbreak Hotel, as I had finally learned the dreaded F chord. I re-created every move I had seen Elvis make in that CBS special, and I do remember I really got into character.
Looking back, it must have taken my teacher a lot of effort not to laugh, but I know she appreciated the creativity. When I finished, the whole class clapped, I received an A, and I was asked to recreate this for three other classes. Looking back, was that good or bad?
Of course, when you are that young and innocent, you don't understand when older kids call you 'gay.' I had no idea what 'gay' meant. But here I was in my first drag show!!!!
The thing was this. It was innocent, and I truly adored the Elvis I had gotten to know far too late. Those growing up in the early 60's can remember exactly what they were doing when JFK was shot, when MLK and RFK were shot.
For my generation, it was Elvis' death that is remembered with such clarity. Over the years, my love and understanding of who he was has only grown. I truly think he was much too sensitive for this world, and after all I have read about him, what comes across to me is that he was a very sensitive, lonely, man with a great gift he had been given.
Psychologically? Yeah, no doubt he was pretty messed up. A little too close to 'mama' for my comfort, and toward his tragic end, from all accounts it was pretty pathetic. His interpersonal relationships with women were at bit, well, odd. He sure had a temper, and I'd have to say that he may have flirted with being manic depressive.
What was great was his sense of humor. If you watch some of the concert footage, rehearsal footage from "Elvis That's the Way It Is," or if you listen to some recordings taken from concerts, he had a tremendous sense of humor that was really deep and off-the-wall. And what can you say that hasn't been said about the man's voice?
He also had one of the best concert bands in history. James Lee Burton, Ronnie Tutt, etc. Need I say more?
At the same time, I so identify with his wanting to give as much as he could to others, never worrying about what he got in return.
Think of all of the "Elvis just handed me the keys to a Caddy," lines from some blue-collar or down-on-their luck person, to whom Elvis just happened to interact. He gave so much to so many, most of them he did not know.
Look at pictures of him and focus on his eyes, but more than that look at his hands. Long, sensitive and expressive hands. It says a lot about the guy.
He truly believed in respecting your elders, and his loyalty was admirable, but many times misplaced. Colonel Tom had way too much control of Elvis, but being the good southern boy that he was, he could never stand up to him.
I've read, recently, that maybe the reason he didn't stand up to him has to do with dirt Colonel Tom had on his boy, Elvis. Maybe so. I have no idea about that.
But as you can see from his last concert ever televised, this was a very tired man, with substance abuse problems, who sought to numb himself out from the pain of losing his mother, the pain of being lonely, the pain of fame, and the fame of being trapped as 'Elvis.'
Don't get me wrong. I have made several jokes about Elvis, and after I gained weight, I kept telling my partner, "God, I hope you don't find me on the crapper like Elvis." I also am amazed and love the whole kitsch thing that surrounds Elvis. It's amazing to watch. Most of his films were laughable, but there were a few gems. To me, King Creole is the best. Check it out, when it shows upon AMC or TCM soon.
Yes, I admit--and I am proud of it--that I have a framed Velvet Elvis hanging in the guest bedroom that we have dubbed "The Dead Celebrity Room."
I often do a 'What If' when I thinking about Elvis.
What if Elvis had actually gotten off the drugs at a Betty Ford Center?
What if Elvis began psychotherapy, with a qualified therapist?
What if Elvis became the spokesperson for Jenny Craig?
What if Elvis did Infomercials?
What if Elvis ended up on Regis and Kelly show?
What if Elvis had told the Colonel goodbye, and taken charge of his own career?
Hell, maybe Elvis would have played JR on "Dallas," played the Kris Kristofferson role in Star is Born, or made cameo appearances in some big films.
It's a game I often play, when I'm feeling creative or silly. It's because I miss the guy, and I wish I had been able to know him on a personal level, away from 'Elvis the Image.'
Of course, there are many who say he isn't dead. I love a good mystery, and it would be so choice if he did show up, next year, in Memphis on the big 30th Anniversary.
Hey, wait, I think I saw him at the DQ, downin' a Dilly Bar. I swear!
Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell
Jimmy Rogers on the Victrola up high
Mama's dancin' with baby on her shoulder
The sun is settin' like molasses in the sky
The boy could sing, knew how to move, everything
Always wanting more, he'd leave you longing for
Black velvet and that little boy's smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees
Black velvet if you please
Up in Memphis the music's like a heatwave
White lightening, bound to drive you wild
Mama's baby's in the heart of every school girl
"Love me tender" leaves 'em cryin' in the aisle
The way he moved, it was a sin, so sweet and true
Always wanting more, he'd leave you longing for
Every word of every song that he sang was for you
In a flash he was gone, it happened so soon, what could
chorus repeats 2x
If you please, if you please, if you please