I was born in 1955, right around the time that Elvis Presley broke out in Memphis, Tennessee. Throughout my childhood, Elvis was an essential feature, a guiding light. I grew up with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. John Lennon once said, “Without the music of Elvis, there would have been no Beatles.”
The day that Elvis died has some memories. It was August 16, 1977. I remember it, but I did not record it as well as the underground rock critic, Lester Bangs. He told this story written in the anthology of his work Psychotic Reaction and Carburetor Dung. Lester Bangs had the chops.
I’m not even going to dig into Google and my dog-eared copy of the book. I’m going from memory only. As far as I can remember, Lester was sitting on the steps of a Chelsea NYC house or apartment when the news came across the radio…”Elvis Presley died today.” Man, what a piece of sad information. He had run out of beer and needed to make a trip to the local bodega. At the corner store he ponied up for another six-pack. Lester Bangs engaged the shopkeeper:
“Elvis Presley just died.”
“That fat fuck, my wife just hauled me all the way to Las Vegas to see him. It cost me a fortune. He was terrible.”
What a way to be memorialized.
I was in Durban, South Africa when I heard about the Elvis passing. I was living with my dad Mogs and then planning to skip the homeland. I had a weird job, working as a plant machinery evaluator, clambering all over factory floors. I’m not even going to go there, but Mogs and I worked a few buildings away from each other. The report came on the 8 o’clock morning radio news as we were driving to work. “Aw fuck,” I remember saying, “that’s not right.” We arranged to meet at the Royal Hotel Bar for lunch. Mogs had little idea about Elvis except for the western soundtrack Flaming Star. He bought the single for us one Xmas and thought that Elvis made a good cowboy. We both got shit-faced that lunch hour for different reasons. I missed the afternoon work session. I was not far away from skipping home forever. Elvis helped me along in that regard.
My old friend Tom remembers the Elvis death day in a small town Colorado bar with a local Native American woman whom he met by chance that night. They played Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear over and over again on the Wurlitzer, and sobbed into their whiskey glasses. Tom could have been on Smith Street in Durban at the Royal Hotel Bar. Across the world, it was like 3pm on Good Friday and we were all devout Catholics.
I’m sure there are tons of other good stories. But I want to pay tribute and catch a deadline. Look, I saw all of the bad movies including the few good concert ones, watched Elvis in the ridiculous jump suits, and heard his crazy pro-Nixon FBI rants. He was without a doubt a weirdo, a very poor person who became super rich.
I watched The Good Lord Bird a few weeks ago, the television series about John Brown, the one that Marty Brown has written so eloquently about in the pages of Hard Crackers (Issue #8–buy it here). The soundtrack is amazing, including Nina Simone’s version of the Bob Dylan tune I Shall Be Released. In the midst of it, as John Brown is approaching a hall to speak, there is an Elvis Presley gospel song. It is extremely powerful. People need to take notice. This all came from somewhere, and there is nothing ugly about any of it. Elvis had the stuff and no racist would have learned that and treated it with such respect. Don’t be cruel. RIP Elvis.