Discovering The King postmortem
By KEVIN O'HARE
The Republican (Springfield, Mass)
It's too bad I didn't keep a diary that year.
For I have absolutely no idea where I was on Aug. 16, 1977, when I heard that Elvis Presley died.
That may not be that weird to you, but I've spent almost my whole life either playing or writing about music. As the 30th anniversary of The King's death approaches, it strikes me now as incredibly strange. Almost incomprehensible.
I remember exactly where I was when John Lennon died.
I was only 6, but I can tell you every single detail about where I was and how I heard that President Kennedy had died. Heck, I even remember where I was when I heard that Princess Diana had died.
But Elvis? One of the greatest musical icons of the 20th century?
The truth is, I barely cared.
Oh right, the overweight guy in those ghastly jumpsuits had checked out.
He seemed closer to the singers of my parents' generation than any rebel. He had his picture taken with Richard Nixon. We later found out he offered the president drug surveillance tips on rock stars. He played Vegas.
I scoffed at the idea of seeing "The King" perform in my hometown, preferring to spend what little extra cash I had on Jethro Tull, Traffic, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen concerts.
Besides, the last time it seemed like Elvis mattered was during that brief comeback in 1968, when he lost weight, got back in black leather and started singing songs that actually reached out to a new generation, like "In the Ghetto" and "Suspicious Minds."
Then he got fat and doped up.
You would have had to have lived through it to have known that for years there was a huge schism between fans of 1950s rock and fans of 1960s rock. They had Elvis. We had the Beatles. They had Buddy Holly. We had Bob Dylan. They had the Everly Brothers. We had the Rolling Stones. They had Little Richard. We had the Doors.
They didn't care about our heroes and, for the most part, we didn't care about theirs.
But something changed when Elvis was carried through Memphis in the famous white hearse accompanied by 14 white limousines. The people who knew Elvis before he went in the Army in 1958 already felt the loss. For most of the rest of us, there was a whole new world to discover.
There's something about dead rock stars that makes them more alluring, even when they're incredibly famous to begin with.
And so, with all the media hype about the passing of Presley, there was something intriguing about it all. They started playing his old records on the radio.
And suddenly, I was left to wonder: What in God's name did I just miss?
Elvis was like a flash of light, this jolt of mesmerizing, tantalizing, sexually charged, totally over-the-top fury from Tupelo to Memphis and beyond. My friends and I started to realize what we all had just lost.
I saved my money and I bought a compilation of his early work that contained all those amazing 1950s songs. And I bought "The Sun Sessions," another compilation of his brilliant early work for Sun Records.
This wasn't the fat guy from Vegas. This was arguably the most essential figure in the history of raw, stripped-down rock 'n' roll, sung by a guy with a voice that made my house shake. At the time, punk rock was just starting to gain huge momentum all over the nation. But punk had nothing on Elvis singing "I Got a Woman," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" or "Promised Land."
And with that discovery, there came a new awakening to all the other wonders of the 1950s. I had to own everything Buddy Holly ever recorded. I bought Everly Brothers albums and Chuck Berry albums and Little Richard albums and LPs by everyone from Carl Perkins to Ricky Nelson. And I realized that without all of them, there would have been no Rolling Stones, no electric Dylan, and certainly no Beatles.
John Lennon once said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." Lennon also famously said, "Elvis died (when he went) in the Army."
Lennon was pretty close to being right on the money on both counts. Presley was never near the same after he enlisted in the Army in 1958. It wasn't the Army that necessarily ruined him. It was what happened afterward.
When he was discharged in 1960, there were still some hits but he went Hollywood, immersing himself in a career of mostly absurd B-movies and unfathomably dreadful career moves, dutifully playing the good soldier to his misguided manager, Col. Tom Parker. Meanwhile, the music world was changing meteorically, blown away by the British Invasion of 1964.
The singer who seemed like he should have been the most powerful guy in the world crashed under the weight of greedy management, some of the most horrific career choices that any major star ever made and his ever-expanding entourage of sycophants who catered to his every prescription-drug-induced desire.
Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977. He was 42. There were plenty of good moments in the last 19 years of his life, but plenty of disastrous ones as well.
His death opened a whole new world for my generation. And that world focused on the extraordinary body of work he created before the bad movies, before the Army, before Vegas and before the big belts, sweat-soaked scarves and dreadful jumpsuits.
Thursday is a night for playing "Mystery Train." It is a night for playing "Promised Land."
It is a night for playing "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
Kevin O'Hare is a music writer for The Republican of Springfield, Mass.
He can be contacted at email@example.com.