Reflections on The King
August 16, 1977. Rain has been falling all night and all day. I am living in a village north of Toronto. The phone rings. It is my sister Chris in Ottawa. I don't believe what she's telling me. "It's true," she insists. "Turn on the TV. It's all they're talking about." I hang up. I turn on the TV. It's true. My eyes fill with tears. My heart is broken. He was only 42 years old.
Life is but a river of moments, and I remember vividly the beginning of his taking possession of me. We had just come back from what was then West Germany where my father had been stationed in the RCAF. We might as well have been on the moon. In the three years there, we never had a phone. Few did. Or a TV. No one did. We had a radio for the American Armed Forces network. I seldom listened to it. I had never heard of "rock 'n' roll." None of us kids did. I don't ever remember hearing his name. The music of the time was by Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone and Dinah Shore and Rosemary Clooney. Syrupy and soft. The music of our parents. We didn't have a singing hero to call our own.
June 1956. We have been back in Canada only a few days. We are visiting relatives in Ottawa before my father takes up his new posting at RCAF base St. Hubert outside Montreal. It is a warm, sunny day. I am in my uncle Harvey's car. We are driving alongside the Rideau Canal. He says: "Earl have you heard this new singer, this wild kid?" New singer? Wild kid? No, I tell him.
"He was on TV. You've never seen anything like it. He jumps all over the place. He shakes his body while he's singing, his hair flying. He's got sideburns, his hair all slicked back. You've never heard singing like from this kid. I wish I could remember his name. Let see if I can find him."
My uncle goes up the radio dial, and then back, and then up, and then back, and he does it for a good three minutes before giving up. "Damn it," he says. "He's got a strange name, but it won't come to me. Anyway, you'll hear all about him."
July 1956. We are living in an old gothic rented house at the bottom of a dead-end street in Longueil. I'm awaiting September and the new school I'll be going to by bus in St. Lambert. A small radio is on the kitchen counter.
I am eating breakfast. A song comes on. It punches my senses the way no song has ever done. "The day you went away I made myself a promise," the voice wails, "that I'll soon forget we ever met." I have never heard such music. I have never heard such an amazing voice. I have never heard such a pounding, guttural beat from depths previously unplumbed. The disc jockey names the song. I Forgot To Remember To Forget. He names the singer. It is the first time in my life I hear the name of he who would soon come to own me. It doesn't sound like someone's name, but something odd, mysterious, and exotic.
I have never heard a name "Elvis" before. Or a name "Presley." I want to know what he looks like. I walk to a drugstore. He is on the cover of almost all the teen magazines. "The singing sensation," he is called. "The teen-age idol." His looks stun me. His face is a higher definition of handsome. His features are perfect. His eyes are dark and brooding. His lips are full and pouty. His smile is a sexy crooked sneer. His hair is black and pompadoured and duck-tailed and side-burned. He looks menacing, rebellious. He looks like nothing ever seen before in popular music.
I buy one of the magazines. It tells his story. He is 21. Born into poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi. An only child. A twin brother Jesse Garon still-born. He has introduced a rock 'n' roll sound and style that is unique and unimitable. He has broken the musical mold. He is the most electrifying performer in the history of music. He sells out wherever he plays. He snaps his legs, swivels his hips, thrusts his pelvis, shimmies his shoulders, wails, whines, grimaces, moans, prances on his toes, falls to his knees. Girls shriek, faint, weep, and attack the stage and tear at his clothes.
Some radio stations have banned his records. Parent groups want him banned. Church ministers are setting fire to his records in public. He is called satan. He will destroy the morality of western society.
I am now hearing him on my radio in my bedroom. Don't Be Cruel.
Hound Dog. Heartbreak Hotel. Mystery Train. Good Rockin' Tonight.
I can't get enough of him. I am his. He is mine.
September 1956. I have started school. Three years overseas have left me culturally deprived. I don't fit in. Compared to the others, I am square.
They are cool and hip. The boys are wearing their collars up like Elvis. And black draped pants like Elvis. And pompadoured, duck-tailed hair like Elvis.
They try to smile like Elvis and pout like Elvis and walk like Elvis and talk like Elvis and they have girlfriends who want them to look and be like Elvis and there are girls who have "Elvis" printed on their arms in lipstick and ink and magazine photos of Elvis in their lockers and they gush to one another about how Elvis is "the mostest" and they have boyfriends who are furious and jealous that they love Elvis Presley who is a constant in our daily lives, defining our adolescence, showing us it's all right to be different, to be rebels, to break the bonds of bland and boring passed to us from our parents.
Our societal attitudes are so anal. The post office wants an immediate end to the "desecration" of envelopes across the nation carrying the scribbled words: Postie, Postie, don't be slow, be like Elvis, go, man, go.
I try to look like Elvis. I stand before my bedroom mirror practicing his lop-sided smile. It upsets me that my mouth won't go the way his does. Nor my hair. I am too self-conscious to wear my collar up at school. Or to walk loose-limbed like my hero. I make small drawings in my scribblers of his face in profile. If only I could look like that.
April 4th 1957. Elvis performed two shows in Ottawa yesterday. I wish I could have been there. I read all about it in the Montreal Star.
It was bedlam. No one could hear a word he sang. Police threw fans back from the stage. Several girls from a Catholic school were suspended for attending his concert. The House Of Commons was nearly empty in a night session. Most of the MPs went to see Elvis.
March 1958. Elvis Presley has been drafted into the U.S. Army. I'm watching the shocking news on our black and white TV. It's the lead report. I'm devastated. "The world is all shook up today," the commentator says. All shook up. From the title of one of his hits. The expression has entered the vernacular. Elvis Presley has changed the way we talk, dress, think. A girl is crying on TV. "It's too much," she says.
Too Much. The title of another of his hits. Elvis is on TV getting his army haircut. He runs his hand over his spiky hair. His fans are shown across America, weeping. There is talk among them of marching on the White House in protest. Elvis will not be allowed to perform during his two years in the army. Two girls in Seattle have committed suicide.
Their note says that without Elvis life isn't worth living.
July 1959. Pvt. Elvis Presley is based in Germany with the U.S. Army. I am in England. My father is stationed at Henlow Camp. In June 1958 while in the army Elvis recorded a few songs in Nashville to cover the period he'd be away. He was worried he'd be forgotten. I take the bus into Hitchin. I go to the Arcade record shop. With my allowance I buy Big Hunk Of Love. I don't have enough money left for bus fare. In the summer heat I walk miles along a railway track all the way home.
November 1959. My hair is now Brylcreemed into an Elvis pompadour and duck-tail. It looks good. My Elvis smile is getting there. I write a letter to Pvt. Elvis Presley at 14 Goethestrasse, Bad Nauheim. A fan magazine says it's his home address. I ask if I can visit him. He doesn't write back. I have a new girlfriend. Her name is Jane Colton. We take the double-decker inter-county bus to and from school in Bedford. Walking home every night in the dank, dark, coal-smelling air, we hold hands and I sing Elvis songs to her. "Blue moon. Blue moon. Blue moon keep shinin' bright. Blue moon keep on-a-shinin' bright, you're gonna bring-a-my baby back-a-tonight, blue moon, keep shinin' bright." She takes my arm and draws me close.
March 1960. Sgt. Elvis Presley leaves Germany for America. I am still in England. Jane and I take the bus to Hitchin only so we can watch the Pathe news at the Hermitage cinema showing Elvis arriving home. It is the top story. His plane lands in a snowstorm. Thousands of screaming fans are at the air base to greet him. He is 25. He looks better than he has ever looked. Lean. Fit. He hasn't produced anything new since June 1958. He says he can't wait to record again. His fans everywhere are wondering how he will will sound. We can't wait.
April 1960. A week from now, we sail to Canada. I am over at Jane's. We are listening to the pop music station Radio Luxembourg. Elvis' first post-army single comes on. Stuck On You. Upbeat and catchy. It sold more than 1,500,000 copies in advance sales before it was even recorded. Elvis is back.
January 1968. Elvis has not performed in public since 1961. He is seen only in his many movies. I've gone to every one of them. I've bought all the soundtrack albums. But I'm disappointed. His songs are weak. The same with his studio-recorded single releases. It's not Elvis the way I want Elvis to sound. He hasn't had a hit in years. I've been writing letters of complaint to his manager Col. Tom Parker at his Los Angeles office. He hasn't replied.
March 1968. I receive a personal letter from Tom Diskin. He is Parker's chief assistant. "Dear Mr. McRae. We are most appreciative of your observations and comments regarding Elvis' product and you can be sure that a steady and persistent program is evolving that will lead to some stand-out product in the coming months." I am thrilled. It is the closest I'll come to Elvis Presley himself. I frame the letter.
December 1968. I am in front of the TV. I am counting down the minutes to 9 p.m. The media hype has been phenomenal for weeks. Elvis has made a Christmas special. His first appearance on TV since the '50s. Elvis in an attempt to re-capture all that he was. Elvis as the Elvis we remember and want. Does he still have it? The skeptics are many. Suddenly, the screen is filled with his face. "If you're lookin' for trouble," he sings, "you've come to the right place." The camera pulls back. His raven hair is pompadoured and greased back the way he wore it in the '50s. He's in black leather from head to toe. He's slim, he looks stunning. His sexy charisma explodes from the screen. He sings his old rockin' songs. He still has the voice. He is real. He is Elvis. He is, again, back. The King. All others, pretenders.
April 1969. I am flying back to Toronto from an assignment in New Orleans. I arrange a stop-over in Memphis. I want to see Graceland. At 5 a.m., I take a taxi to Graceland. I ask the driver to wait for me. I stand awestruck with my camera before the musical gates. I am the only one there in the frosty dawn. An old man comes out of a wooden hut on the other side. I recognize his face from photographs. It is Vester Presley, Elvis' uncle.
He asks me where I'm from. I tell him, and what Elvis means to me. He opens the gate. "Come with me," he says. He drives me in his golf cart up the driveway to the front steps of Graceland. He takes a picture with my camera of me on the steps. I ask him if Elvis is home. He puts his index finger to his lips and points at a second-floor bedroom window. I think of yelling out, "Elvis. I'm from Canada. You're biggest fan. Can I speak to you for a moment?" I don't. I leave. It is the closest I'll come to Elvis Presley himself. I frame the photo.
June 1975. Elvis has been touring America again throughout the decade. And performing in Las Vegas. Wearing spangled jumpsuits. And recording. His shows sell out, but he has recurring health problems. He has trouble with his weight. He has had only two hits. Suspicious Minds and one that was the retro Elvis I yearned for, Burning Love. But I continue to buy his records. I have every one he ever made.
He owns me.
I am in Memphis to interview Leo Cahill for a feature in the magazine I write for. He is the colourful, controversial, former coach of the Toronto Argonauts. He is now general manager of the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League. He knows of my love for Elvis. He tells me Elvis sometimes attends the games, and sits in the executive booth with him. I'm in awe that he's actually met Elvis.
Suddenly, his secretary puts her head in the door. "Marty Lacker is here to see you, should I send him in?" Cahill says yes. I nearly fall off my chair.
I know all about Marty Lacker. He's one of Elvis' closest friends. A member of his Memphis Mafia. I tell Cahill he must introduce me. It's the closest I'll ever get to Elvis. "Okay," says Cahill, "but I can't tell him you're a reporter. They have a thing about reporters getting to Elvis. I'll say you're a Toronto friend who's in plumbing supplies."
Cahill introduces me. I'm speechless. I shake Lacker's hand. I'm aware of feeling the hand that has touched Elvis. Cahill tells Lacker I'm the biggest Elvis fan in the world.
"Oh, really," chuckles Lacker. "Let's find out." He asks me some trivia questions about Elvis. I answer them all. "Sumbitch," says Lacker. He's impressed. Then, the purpose of his visit. He says Elvis and his buddies are playing racquetball late tonight. They want Cahill to join them. Cahill says thank you, but no. He says he has a business breakfast meeting at 7 o'clock in the morning. He doesn't want to be up late. Lacker tells him to phone him at Graceland if he changes his mind.
He's no sooner out the door when I'm almost on my knees begging Cahill.
Please. Please go. Please take me with you. I'll be good. I'll be unobtrusive. I won't say a word. I'll just watch. It's the closest in my life that I'll ever get to meeting Elvis Presley. Please. "I don't think they'll allow an outsider," says Cahill.
It's 1:30 in the morning. I am on an upper floor of an office building somewhere in Memphis. The floor overlooks racquetball courts. I am with Cahill. Strangers are coming out of private elevators. I keep my eyes to the ground. I am trying to be invisible. I am shaking. Cahill speaks. "Elvis, I'd like to introduce you to my friend. Earl, meet Elvis."
I turn. It is him. Not a newspaper photo. Not a TV image. Not a movie screen image. It is the King. It is Elvis Presley. His looks are phenomenal.
His face is tanned. His swept back hair is raven. His tinted glasses have "EP" in diamonds on the bridge. His dark blue velour tracksuit has a leather holster-type belt holding thin cigarillos.
His hand takes mine. I am feeling the hand of Elvis Presley. I want to suspend the sensation forever. "Pleased to meet you," he says. "Any friend of Leo's is a friend of ours." He is looking me straight in the eye. It hits me. At this exact moment. Of this exact hour. Of this exact day. Of this exact place in history. I am the total focus of Elvis Presley. Not anybody else in the whole world. No one. Nobody. Just me. I am his full interest. No else matters. I am in the presence of God.
"Where y'all from?" he asks.
"Toronto. You played there in 1957. The next night you were in Ottawa, my hometown."
That smile. "Ah remember. They were hockey arenas. Oh mah boy, it was wild. I love mah Canadian fans."
"You were great, Elvis. Will you perform in Canada again?"
"One day I hope to. Do y'all play racquetball, Earl?"
"Yes," I lied.
"Good. Then y'all playin' me. Let's go, boys."
"You sonofabitch," Leo Cahill whispers to me on the way down to the courts.
"He's never asked me to play him. I don't get it."
Neither do I.
Elvis sheds his tracksuit. He's wearing white shorts and a white T-shirt. He puts on a white headband. One of his boys sidles over to me. "Just one thing," he says. "What's that," I say. "Elvis wins," he says. In other words, don't try to embarrass the King. I would never.
Elvis is like a child on the court. Laughing. Whooping. Cutting up. And he is good. Elvis wins. He thanks me. I can't believe this is happening. An hour passes. The games are over. We are all sitting along the wall. Elvis is holding court. He is telling stories from life on the road, kibbitzing with his boys. When he laughs, we all laugh. You don't embarrass the King. When he takes a cigarillo from his belt beside him, three of his boys jump up with lighters. The look on his face says it isn't necessary. He would have lit it himself.
"Chicken time," someone starts chanting. "Chicken time. Chicken time. Chicken time." The others join in. "Chicken time. Chicken time. Chicken time." A crescendo. "Chicken time. Chicken time. Chicken time." I'm perplexed. I raise my eyebrows to Cahill sitting next to me. "What time is it?" he says. "A little after 3," I say. "Right," he says. "See that phone on the wall? Watch." One of Elvis' boys goes over to it. "He's phoning the owner of a Kentucky Fried Chicken store at his home," whispers Leo. "He's waking him up out of a dead sleep. He tells him 'It's chicken time,' and the guy gets up, gets dressed, drives a half hour to his store, fires up the ovens, makes the chicken, and delivers it here. You'll here the buzzer sound." Cahill grins. "Let's see you try it from your home at 3 in the morning. That, Earl, is the power of Elvis Presley."
It's almost 6 a.m. The pale sun is rising. I'm sitting with Leo in the lobby of my hotel. No one but us. "You know what?" I say. "What?" he says.
"I forgot to ask him for his autograph. I wish now I'd brought my camera."
Leo shakes his head slowly "No. Don't you see? It's good that you didn't. He liked you. That's what made it real for him." I ask: "Was
it all real, Leo? Did this all really happen to me? Or was it a dream?" He smiles. "No, Earl. It was no dream. You met him. You met Elvis Presley."
Elvis Presley was the most dynamic and influential entertainer of the 20th century. He was a greater icon than all before him and after. He changed the popular culture forever. In a global poll in the '70s he ranked second in name recognition next to Jesus Christ.
He has sold more records by far than any singer dead or alive. He has had more number one hits worldwide than the Beatles who credit him for inspiring them. Graceland is the second most-visited shrine in America next to the White House. He is as popular in death as he was in life. Three years ago, the re-mix of his obscure 1968 song A Little Less Conversation topped charts around the world, including Canada. He continues to have more fan clubs than any other artist. Today would have been his 71st birthday. But to me he is forever young. To me he will always be this wild kid who jumps all over the place that no one's seen anything like.