I’m too young to have been sucked into the Elvis craze. I never understood the idea of women crying and fainting. Really, ladies? It’s no wonder that on average we earn less per hour than a man – as a group we look sort of ridiculous. All it takes to overpower us is a charismatic man?
So, I’ve never liked Elvis. He annoyed me on principle. He dressed funny. So funny. And he had this penchant for being followed by foolish women – women who gave the rest of us a bad name, a weak image.
This perception of Elvis was complicated by a traumatic event. When I was about 12 or 13 years old, my family visited my cousin Ali, “in the country.” She was much older than I was and had children of her own. She was a good Irish-Catholic girl and had settled down with a good Irish-Catholic boy to raise their children in suburban America. We didn’t have anything in common, other than blood. I was there because my parents brought me there. I haven’t seen Ali in decades.
I can’t tell you anything about this particular visit. I can’t describe the house, the children, what we ate—or even the time of year of the visit. But I remember Elvis. The snap-crackle-pop of the turntable playing Hound Dog, Love Me Tender, and Jailhouse Rock over and over until I wanted to scream. In my head I was listening to Norman Greenbaum (Spirit in the Sky), Three Dog Night (Mama Told Me Not to Come), and John Lennon (Instant Karma). To say the least, the Elvis barrage was not my cup of tea. But it was a world before Walkmans and MP3 players and so I was subjected to his music against my will. I escaped to the silence of the bathroom. I closed the door, exhaled a deep sigh of relief. I sat on the toilet and looked straight ahead.
And there, in living color, was Elvis.
My cousin had a life-sized poster of Elvis on the back of her bathroom door directly across from her toilet! How could anyone pee in here? I blinked several times thinking my over-active imagination must be playing tricks on me. But no, there was Elvis smiling down on me as I sat on the toilet. Not the young, sexy, James-Deany sort of Elvis. But Elvis in the silly white suit. Not quite fat-Elvis yet, just silly.
I was traumatized.
I went and sat in the car. I don’t remember what sort of car it was. It was my dad’s car – so maybe the Cutlass? It was an Oldsmobile; Dad always had Oldsmobiles. I probably had a book. Tolkien, Lewis or Carroll. Maybe Jonathan Swift.
All I remember of that day, with any clarity, is Elvis. And my dad being angry that I was anti-social. How do you socialize with people like that? It is likely I turned on the transistor radio that, at that point, I carried everywhere. Badfinger, Jaggerz, Blues Image, CSN&Y, The Beatles – anything but Elvis.
And for 40 years that’s sort of been my mantra: Anything but Elvis.
My cousin was inconsolable when Elvis died. I’m told she cried—heaving, sobbing crying—for days. She went to Memphis. To the funeral. When I watch video clips and I see the blond woman break through the police line I cringe – is that crazed, irrational woman my blood? My cousin? She walked on the hallowed land at Graceland. Framed newspapers with the headline, The King is Dead. Had trouble digesting the fact that he wasn’t immortal. I’m sure just in case that was the case – she said a rosary for him. I’m sure she knows exactly where she was the moment she heard; what she was doing, who she was with…
I know those particulars when it comes to John Lennon. The moment replays in my mind in slow motion when I hear Imagine. I can still hear the shatter of glass as the coffee pot hit the tile floor; shards of glass flying, ever so slowly, around me. Oh my God, why? was the thought.
But Lennon was shot. Elvis had a heart attack.
My mother compared Ali’s obsession to her own teenage crush on Frank Sinatra. Mom sat through three straight Sinatra shows in a row. I was somewhat incredulous; there is a vast difference between listening to an amazing singer – and having a life-sized poster of someone staring at you while you pee.
And then, of course, there were Elvis sightings. People giving up their careers to track Elvis around the globe. Look! There he is walking by the window in the address by his dad on CBS! Look! He’s at this event, or that. Listen! Here he is singing Don’t Cry Daddy! Being interviewed on the phone! Living in Germany, in a bunker under Graceland! He has reinvented himself as Jon Cotner!
I shunned Elvis at every turn. Until this weekend.
I was playing video-tag on YouTube. You know, one video leads to another. I followed the suggestions and I ended up at Elvis singing American Trilogy. And damn! He could sing. His voice, for the first time ever, gave me goosebumps.
I was mesmerized.
Look away, look away, look away Dixieland…
His passion for the song—for the music—Glory, glory hallelujah…
Consummate musicians surrounded him. And he was the song.
It makes me sad that he thought he had to do more than sing to garner attention. How sad to reflect, to watch the parodies, the mocking. The picture on the bathroom door for desperate housewives. I find myself wondering if without all the hype I, perhaps, may have been drawn to his music, his voice. His charisma. The magic was lost in the marketing to that generation lost in space……
I find myself hoping Ali heard more than she saw, because his voice deserved that. And I think she owes me an apology.
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