I clearly remember when Elvis died 32 years ago tomorrow. It was actually during one of my cross-country roadtrips. I was traveling from New York City to Los Angeles on a Greyhound Bus — a three day marathon that Jack Kerouac would have recognized.
Around two and a half days into the trip, somewhere in the middle of Nowhere Oklahoma, the bus driver abruptly pulled off to the side of the road. He opened the bus door, letting a blast of 100 degree air blow through the stale air-conditioning that had been recirculating in the bus for the past few days.
The bus driver was white-faced and could barely stand as he clutched the back of his seat, hat in hand, and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, wake up and pay attention please. I have some tragic, tragic news to announce.”
Two of my earliest memories are of the kinds of things that do cause society to come to a screeching halt. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember a jeep pulling up in front of the house and my father, a career Army officer, riding away. Then my mother started stockpiling food. On the afternoon of Kennedy’s assassination, a teacher ran out onto the playground and told us the President was dead and we should all run home. When someone stops a vehicle and says there is tragic news, I’m prepared for the worst: a dead President, a series of massive hurricanes, a nuclear war.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” said the driver, “Bow your heads and pray with me. I’ve just received word: Elvis Presley is dead.”
I couldn’t resist a loud hoot of laughter. Then I looked around me. The bus was full of sobbing people, strangers hugging and crying on each others’ shoulders and praying for Elvis’s soul.
Too young to have remembered Elvis in his heyday, to me, he was a fat, bloated, washed up singer who I vaguely remembered from silly musicals that I used to watch on TV with my babysitter. But at least to this crowd on the bus (most of whom were much older than me), he was something special. All the way from that lonely spot in Oklahoma to Los Angeles, I remember passing houses with flags at half mast and hand-lettered signs in windows saying “Elvis, we love you”, “The King: RIP.” and “God Bless Elvis”. I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now.
So it was with mixed feelings, two years ago, when I added Graceland to the itinerary of a cross-country trip I was taking with my 22-year-old niece. She insisted that we include Graceland for the simple reason that she likes Elvis’s music. That left me pondering should I book the Platinum Graceland Tour or the VIP Elvis Entourage Tour where you get a free backstage pass and in and out, head-of-the line privileges all day long (in case you want to tour Graceland in the morning, take a lunch break, then tour again before dinner, after which you can stop back in for the “Elvis After Dark” tour.) Speaking of the Elvis After Dark tour, my friend Rob insisted that’s the one to take as it’s billed as “showing you the nighttime world of Elvis.” Rob was convinced that tour would include taking massive quantities of pharmaceuticals, playing at being a policeman and shooting out TVs with handguns. For myself, my first thought was that I’d want to check out the Graceland gift shop and the Graceland themed restaurants. I was disheartened to see, at least on the Graceland website, that you can’t buy an Elvis on black velvet or get Elvis’s favorite snack, a peanut butter and banana sandwich fried in Crisco. I did find this neat site where you can buy Elvises on black velvet including young,
old, fat and Hawaiian Elvises. But they have none of the pseudo-religious scenes I have seen in black velvet Elvis paintings such as Elvis playing guitar to the Virgin Mary and Jesus, or John the Baptist raising his hand in benediction to Elvis, who is gyrating in front of what looks like the grotto at Lourdes. (I swear to you, I have seen such paintings at Mexican border towns with my own eyes. And I kick myself to think that I never bought one because, at the time, $2 seemed like a ridiculous price for such tat.)
As I said, at the time we were planning the trip, I still didn’t get the Elvis thing. I envied Aleana for her Elvis Attitude as she’s oblivious to the adoration of people 15 years older than me and doesn’t feel the need for the post-modern scorn of people of my generation toward Elvis. She just likes him because she enjoys his singing.
Graceland is the place that changes your mind forever. Every room has a video monitor playing live Elvis performances. As we passed through the Graceland tour, I quickly stopped looking at the shag carpet and the weird decor. I just watched the monitors and experienced — as much as you can outside of a live performance — just the raw talent and charisma of Elvis. I didn’t find myself converted to the Church of Elvis. But I finally saw what a multi-talented, charismatic and unique performer he was.
Thank you, Elvis, thank you very much.
Had I been sitting on the bus next to you, we would not have been able to stop giggling and the driver would have left us on the side of the road. I’m considerably older than you and I didn’t get it either.
I was in a bar in Rochester, NY, with my eventual husband, killing time before a Linda Rondstadt concert, when I heard the news. I shed no tears in my beer, and I don’t recall LR mentioning it during the show. Life was so different in the dark ages before texting and tweets.
Wow – I would like your take on the Elvis freaks you mentioned. THOSE are worth making fun of. Elvis Herselvis??!!
I actually think the various “flavors” of Elvis impersonators are fun. I think we even have an Asian Elvis now, and twin impersonators, The Elvi”. The camp of Elvis knows no racial, gender or regional barriers! Equal Elvis for All, I say.
Here’s how the whole Michael Jackson / Elvis Presly thing spun out in my head.
Wow. Connecting Michael jackson to Elvis to a 1962 Plymouth Valiant is surely the definition of “random stuff bouncing around in your head”.
And, if my memory serves me well as it drops a few bytes from time-to-time, Elvis’ next gig was at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine.
I remember riding in a car with my mother and the news came over the radio.. She didn’t seem to care too much, and I didn’t get it, either. PS, it’s half staff, not half mast. Masts are what hold the sails on ships.
My sources tell me both half mast and half staff are acceptable and interchangeable. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half-staff
However half mast is more a British convention maybe because at one time when Britain had the world’s largest and most powerful navy, there were more official masts than staffs. One of the by-products of a British husband. You find yourself saying these things.
I don’t get it either. Never did like him. And I can’t stand the impersonators. I would have been laughing right along with you on that bus. Pretty sad that 32 years later, people are still mourning, when our fallen heroes protecting us from radical terrorists don’t even get mentioned in the news, let alone mourned. The worldwide spectacle of MJ mourners highlights how our priorities are upside down – we should be mourning for those who have given their lives for the greater good.
now your friend Dino’s got me to thinkin’…..
totally unrelated to Elvis, but ever since 9/11 the local news radio show frequently breaks in with CBS updates with ominous sounding intro music – to tell the most mundane “breaking news” you’ve ever heard.
And I always get all stressed in anticipation only to think – they broke in for that???
Back around 1991, my husband took the Graceland Tour when he and a group of friends were on a guy trip to the Memphis Blues Festival. Of course, they went in the morning after a night of pretty heavy blues and drinking and were not, I gather from snippets revealed over the years, on their best behavior. They had to be responsible enough to help one member of their party who used a wheel chair for due to MS. He could walk, but not for long periods of time.
So as they were all contemplating the grave of Elvis along with a crowd of tearful true believers, this guy rolls up to the grave marker and after a few moments he ecstatically rises to his feet, takes a few steps and starts yelling ‘I can walk! I can walk! Praise God and Elvis!! I can walk!! It caused kind of a scene. I think the boys were kicked out of Graceland and asked not to return. Its one of Brian’s fondest memories.
What a great story, Kaylyn. But I’m appalled that Graceland would evict the recipient of Elvis’s first miracle.