Thursday, August 16, 2007

August 16th, 1977: The Day Elvis Died


South Bend, Indiana
--It was a really hot day that day. We were all outside playing, dreading the return to school that month. The last year had been extremely violent, especially just walking to Edison grade school. The sky had a real amber-hue to it, and my brother and I were outside in our front-yard playing. I was nine, and he was seven.

We were cute kids, but our neighborhood was an unusually troubled one. Next-door, there lived a woman who was literally insane, a drug-addict (cocaine and pills), a child-abuser, an alcoholic, and she was fucking someone in the prosecutor's office, so when she threw a lawn boulder through one of our living-room windows, there was no recourse whatsoever.

The story of this woman will have to wait for another time, it's so baroque. On that same day in a part of London, the Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones was doing his guitar-parts for "Never Mind the Bollocks," when one of the engineers in the studio stopped-in and told him that Elvis had died (he didn't care). My mother saw Elvis at Notre Dame University's Joyce ACC, where Frank Zappa and everyone else played, on that last tour. She loved it.

Did I say it was hot that fateful day in August of 1977? It was, it really was. We'd already been to the Museum of Natural History in Chicago to see the full-on King Tut exhibit--a once in a lifetime affair--and Star Wars was coming. Punk was already here at CBGB's (good riddance!)and Max's Kansas City (wish it was still around and relevant), but hardly anyone knew what it was in Northern Indiana at that time, nor cared.

It was the salad days of the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Styx (yeccch!), Supertramp (double-yechhh!), Billy Joel, Alan Parsons Project, Steely Dan (back again, still good!), Carol King, Queen, Pink Floyd, James Taylor, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and even Frank Zappa...it was another time altogether from today, but familiar in some ways. Elvis just seemed out-of-place by 1977. It was actually hard to understand his place anymore, and I guess he felt the same. In retrospect, it was a decade literally teeming with cultural innovations, a flipside to today where there are virtually none.

It's funny, but most of the music my brother and I listened to as kids were my mom's old 45s. They were great, and in 1977, music was expensive and scarce compared to now. Obviously, there was no internet, no world wide web. People kinda still lived in a regional sense, in a kind of cultural isolation, and you might never even hear of a cultural movement until it had been over for at least seven years. We had time to let our imaginations run wild, we didn't have to be told what to see, hear, or even think. It was cool. In that sense, we lived in an Edenic paradise that children in the modern world may never experience again (unless order breaks-down as I expect it to, then it might), and our minds were allowed to roam free as a child's should--at least outside of school.

But what was so special about our experiences that day? The crazy, stupid rednecks who lived diagonally to our house at Whitehall Drive: They were the first to have a VCR, but needed to shave their knuckles so as not to alarm us city folks. The father had the personality of a potato chip and worked in a paint-factory. Both parents left guns lying around in their bedroom, including a .44 revolver, which was pointed at me by the son (the youngest). They all definitely looked like inbreeders and could barely talk, let alone read very well, and they worshiped Elvis as a god. I think they were from Kentucky, which was unsurprising, and had a kitsch museum that they called home.

The rednecks had entire photo albums the factory dog father had made, all from before Elvis went into the Army until the seventies. Some were faded-Polaroids, some were from negatives, but most were in color, and most were pretty impressive. I should say here that I love Elvis's earliest recordings with Sam Phillips and the Sun Records label, as well as his early-singles with RCA ("Hound Dog" is still one of the heaviest rock songs ever).

Hey, I even love "Suspicious Minds," a later single from the "fallow years." Never, ever, recite the lyrics to this song to a schizophrenic. Read the lyrics, and you'll know why. Oddly, they could easily describe the King's life at that time, as well as life in America in 1969-70. Or now.

What happened that day? We're sitting outside on the edge of our lawn, right up on the curb. Broken-glass is all over the street in-front our house from Coke (TM) bottles, because we used to break them all the time there. We also used to have water and snowball/iceball fights a lot, but that's for another time, heh-heh. What did we hear that day?

This is what we heard: wailing and screeching--much like that of Muslim or Sicilian women at a funeral--that began emanating from the redneck house. It was really loud, then--all of a sudden, the fat brunette daughter came running-out screaming, and so did the other kids. I never saw the parents' reactions to the death of Elvis, but there wasn't much activity over there for awhile, it was really quiet. I assumed they were all in-mourning. We laughed really hard at the kids as they came outside squealing, it was pretty funny and ridiculous. Again, keep-in-mind that we loved Elvis too.

The reactions were similar throughout the USA that week, it was bizarre, and thus, the Cult of the Dead Elvis was born. Ever since then, I have wished they would all shut-up. For that reason alone, I wish he was alive, and his death at 42 was certainly untimely. If you want a real headstone for rock's demise, one could argue it was the day Elvis died, with some minor-footnotes of relevance afterward.

As a genuine cultural movement, created and played-by ordinary people for other ordinary people, rock has been dead in America ever since. The pockets are all that have ever mattered, not the mainstream. Rock was barely alive then. I miss Elvis. I wish he hadn't died in the state that he was in (Tennessee). "Train arrived, sixteen coaches long, ...Well, that long black train take my baby and gone." My baby's gone. The real Elvis is the lonely Elvis, the ponderous young man who yearned for a better life. How many whites listened to "Worried Man Blues"--the genesis of "Mystery Train"--in those days? It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.

I wish he'd made more of the 68' comeback, fired "the Memphis Mafia," Colonel Parker (really Mephistopheles to Elvis's Faust), and the idiot doctor who was prescribing him those pills that killed him. But that's not how things worked-out, and it's sad. What's sadder is that Elvis proved the American Dream is a lie, that fame is a hell of being constantly bothered, ripped-off, and misunderstood, and that all those rednecks are dreaming of something that never existed for more than a few-years.

Rockabilly rode a wave of Cold War fears, angst, and sexual-repression. It made a struggling redneck trucker a star, and it also ruined his life. On that hot August day--30-years-ago--we had a good laugh at the expense of the neighborhood rednecks--we loved Elvis too, but they made it into something more than it all was: a religion, and that's what it soon became, and what the Cult of the Dead Elvis still is today. Rock is a pathetic outgrowth of the American Dream, and it's a lie. Elvis, RIP (if you can).

At least my brother and I had a good laugh that day. We wouldn't be laughing the next year--in November--when Jonestown hit.