Archive for August, 2009

The Day My Music Died

As this column points out, every day is Anything Can Happen Day, but on August 16, 1977, what happened was the unthinkable…


     Well, this weekend… like pretty much every mid-August … I spent The Day steeped in Elvis music as various media marked the anniversary of his untimely death. There’s a strange combination of comfort and masochistic longing involved in this ritual; my adoration of Elvis goes back so far it’s an almost constant thread through my life, all the way back to my earliest childhood  memories.
     When I was a seven year old girl attending Maplewood Elementary School I discovered Elvis and was immediately and completely in love. He was my secret. My family attended Emmanuel Baptist Church and … despite my parents’ love of music … we were not allowed to listen to rock and roll (or dance, or wear make up, etc.). Even when they would bring home instrumental albums, if the cover art included cigarettes, liquor, or sexy women, they were immediately spray painted black before they were deemed fit to be in our living room.
     About this same time, my mom managed to get a hot lunch program started at my school. Each Monday we would bring our lunch money to school and buy a little ticket that could be punched once a day for five days to cover our lunch, including a tiny carton of milk. The only problem for me was that I was, even then, lactose intolerant and never could drink milk. Mom had thought of this too and had set up a provision for kids like me to be allowed to … for a little extra change each day…  get a carton of orange drink. So each morning my dad gave me my “drink money.”
     It was at this early stage of my life that a wicked devious streak kicked in:  my folks had no idea that every day I choked down my lunch without a drink so I could hoard the coins in the rounded front right corner of my little lift-top desk. (To this day I can eat an entire meal without so much as a sip of anything.) When I had enough money, I’d talk my Mom into taking me downtown with her on Saturday and letting me explore the stores while she worked.  This was a much different time in America and it wasn’t unusual for little kids to be running around alone downtown on our small city’s two-block-long Main Street, so nobody thought anything of it when I’d show up alone at the music store and produce a mitt-full of coins to buy a 45 rpm record. Then of course came the challenge of sneaking it home. I can’t tell you the anguished hours I spent getting ready to go downtown with Mom, searching for something to wear that she would approve but that would allow concealment of the contraband for it’s safe and scratch-free ride home. I was certain I was going to hell.  And yet…
     After a while I had a pretty good record collection built up. The fact that my parents both worked every day (and that  my older sisters who “watched” us younger siblings really didn’t care what we were doing as long as we weren’t killing each other or bugging them) gave me plenty of time to listen to Elvis at very low volume  on the little record player my folks had given me to listen to “story records” on. The only problem was that story records weren’t 45s so I didn’t have one of those little center things to fit on the player’s spindle; I solved this by stealing the silver  top off one of mom’s prized salt shakers and sneaking it down to Pop’s workroom where I punched a hole in the middle with a nail so it would slide down the record player spindle. (One more thing to hide in my room.) I left the kitchen quickly when my mother set the filled-but-useless topless salt shaker on the counter as she emptied the diswasher and the junk drawer muttering, “Where could that have gone?”  

     By 1960 my older sisters were both married and one of my brothers-in-law was, I gleefully discovered, a huge Elvis fan. I started spending a LOT of time at their place, something my folks never questioned and my sister would never rat me out on as it would have reflected badly on her choice of mate.  By now Elvis had even done a couple movies, which I longed to see, but I never could figure out how to pull off that huge of a deception (movies were another Emmanuel Baptist no-no), and helping me accomplish that was where my sis drew the line. This was also the year that Elvis released a Gospel album and, thinking this would prove to my parents that he was not “evil,” I actually tried to persuade them to buy it for me. My dad almost seemed ready to give in, but my mother wasn’t having any of it. Apparently she had at some point seen Elvis on TV and wasn’t about to have even his essence in her house with impressionable young kids …two of them female … no matter what he was singing. It was a good try on my part though.
     As the years passed my folks didn’t soften much on their views and I became what was back then viewed as “a problem child,” something my poor mom was ill-equipped to deal with after having raised my two older, angelic, very obedient sisters. She wasn’t the only one to be flabbergasted; whenever I’d start a new school year my new teacher would joyously greet me with, “Oh! You’re Dianne and Donna’s little sister!” which within a few days would change to a disbelieving, “YOU’RE Dianne and Donna’s little sister?!”
     Things were changing faster than I could catch my breath and I was growing up much too fast. The one constant in my life was my adoration of Elvis. Still living in the same small city, my folks now had their own store downtown and on Saturdays I’d hang out in the drugstore down the street from their shop. Back then you could sit on the floor and read all the “fan magazines” (which of course weren’t allowed in our house) and no one ever cared. Add to this the attraction of all these Elvis-wannabe older boys wearing jeans and leather jackets as they stepped over me on their way to the soda fountain… Yeah, it was a great way for a preteen girl to spend a Saturday.
     Maybe it was hanging around with my older sisters and their friends that had always made me feel older than my age and choose older friends, or maybe I was just precocious, I don’t know, but I would lie to people about my age and they always believed me. And so when I saw a picture in one of the fan mags of Elvis with a motorcycle, it didn’t take me long to befriend a guy with a cycle and convince him to give me a ride home one day. As we tore down the road through the crisp Autumn air I closed my eyes and smelled the leather and listened to the mufflers roar and LOVED it! No wonder Elvis rode a cycle even though he had all those beautiful Cadillacs!
     I had the guy drop me off a ways from the house and walked home.
Well, never underestimate the speed of the small town grapevine: by the time I passed our mailbox my mother was on full red alert AND had called my father, demanding that he close the shop and come home immediately to deal with this crisis. As I ambled up our long dirt driveway his work truck pulled in and passed me. When he got  to the garage he got out and stood there, his hands on his hips, watching me approaching. I was about to yell to him to ask what he was doing home so early when my Mom came out the front door uncharacteristically hollering at me to “GET IN THE HOUSE!”  So I pretty much knew what he was doing home.
     Sure enough, one of our nosy church-members had seen me and called my mom immediately to report that I had been spotted on the back of a motorcycle with (gasp) my arms around a boy in a leather jacket, “WEAVING in and out of traffic.” I couldn’t tell whether Mom was angrier about the boy or the motorcycle but I knew enough to keep my big mouth shut and retreat to my room to, as ordered, “Think about this.”
     Truth be told, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was the most thrilling thing I’d ever done in my life. More exciting than racing full-out on my horse without a saddle and taking huge jumps over fences and streams (which had nearly gotten me killed once) … more than sneaking cigarettes with my friends or learning the new dances from my friends older sisters when I went to sleepovers. Riding on the back of a motorcycle, hugging a leather-jacketed boy with slicked back black hair was in my almost-a-teenager silly-girl-mind almost like being Elvis’ girlfriend. I knew I was going to think about it all night and I knew I was going to do it again. And again. And again.
     And I did. Tom was three years older than me and amazing. I kept wondering what it would be like to kiss him. (For those of you too young to identify, things moved MUCH more slowly back then!) I figured it would be just like kissing Elvis. .. especially with my already amazing imagination.

     That was the winter of 1961 and we couldn’t ride the cycle because of the snowy streets, so we had to rely on Tom’s friends who had cars to cart us around. One snowy December Saturday I got my folks to let me ride to downtown with them when they went in to the shop, making the excuse that I wanted to shop and spend my birthday money from my grandparents. Actually, I was going to meet Tom, hang out with him all day, and then catch a ride home with his brother.
     Pretty soon the snow turned into an absolute blizzard, and while we were hanging out in the deserted corner drug store, almost every store on the main street…including my parents’… turned off their lights and closed up early. The old man at the drug store fountain brought us hot chocolate in heavy diner mugs and said he was going to do some work in the basement store room since no one else was around, to yell if we needed anything. We went to the jukebox and played our song; Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” from Blue Hawaii.  We’d only put in enough money to play the song one time, but something happened and the old jukebox just kept playing it over and over and over.

When Tom’s brother never showed up to get us and the store was closing, we held gloved hands and walked all the way home in the freezing snow as the sky turned that strange wintery purple blue and the light faded. At the streetlight by Krogers corner where we had to part ways, he kissed me. It was the first time I had kissed a boy, and somehow I just knew that Tom kissed just like Elvis!  To this day I can’t hear that song without getting that same strange feeling that I got sitting there with Tom, watching the snow swirl around the big plate glass windows of the corner store, piling up on the grey, deserted streets as we sat cozily inside sipping too-hot chocolate in the deserted drugstore and later under the snow swirling in the streetlight where we parted.
     Of course by summer we went our separate ways, and having in my mind come so close to an Elvis-y boyfriend I wasn’t terribly intrigued by mundane guys in general until in 1963:  I met an older gal-pal’s boyfriend who was even too old for her … and while for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why, this guy put me in mind of Elvis. His hair was wasn’t jet black but it was slicked back, he didn’t have a Harley but he did ride an old Indian motorcycle that was his pride and joy, and … like Elvis … he’d been in the service. His nose and mouth had a touch of Elvis, but not that much. It took me years to figure out that it was his southern accent… which I’d never heard for real on anyone else while living first in Cicero and later Michigan… that did it.             

     And that would be my undoing: by 1964 when my family was ready to move to Florida, I was done with everything I couldn’t tolerate: I was sick of being suffocated, I was tired of being a kid, I had been sneak-dating this older guy … and I found myself lying in the canopy bed my mom had given me for my last birthday, surrounded by stuffed animals, trying to figure out how to tell my parents that I was pregnant and not going to Florida with them. They finally gave up on me, allowed me to marry my baby’s father, and went ahead with their plans to move to Florida while I remained in Michigan.
      If you need any more complete proof of how idiotic I was at this stage of my life, here you are: The biggest thing I kept thinking about when I was getting married was how I would now be able to have my Elvis records out in plain view, play them as often and as loud as I wanted, watch him on TV, actually BUY the fan mags with his pictures in them, and maybe even go to his movies! The first two things were easy accomplishments but the third… not so much. In my crazy 15 year old mind I did NOT want to go to an Elvis movie with my husband! That would ruin everything! No, I wanted to go with my girlfriends so we could sit together in the dark and drool and comment without reservation… and hubby wasn’t too keen on this. Girls’ Night Out in our small Michigan town was NOT a common occurrence in 1964, but then, neither were pregnant 15 year olds.
     Everything in my life … except my love of Elvis … changed 180 degrees by the end of 1965. With the birth of our daughter I had grown up almost instantly and was determined to be a great Mom, and while my husband had probably done his best, things were not good. We talked about moving to California, where his family had relocated, and began making plans to be there by Christmas. But while something about this plan nagged at me I was not able to face the facts that I missed my family and I did not want to be married.  At all.  To anyone.  Anywhere.  I guess I couldn’t face admitting what everyone had tried to tell me all along: I was too young.
      In January of 1966, a couple weeks behind schedule,  we were at last loading up the station wagon to begin the long trek to California, but when my husband announced “O.K., that’s it! Let’s go!” I brought my bundled up nine-month-old down the steps, jumped in the car, looked around and demanded,”Where are my Elvis records?”  He responded that they were upstairs in the hallway outside the apartment along with a few other things   we hadn’t had room for and had had to leave behind. I threw an absolute fit, handed him the baby, and charged up the stairs to get my records. As I attempted to drag the heavy box to the stairway my bewildered husband came charging up the steps, traded me the baby for the box I was pulling on, and carried the records down to the snowy alley where the old station wagon stood warming up with grey smoke huffing out of the tailpipe. We stood by the packed-to-the-gills car trying to figure out where to put the records… we had crammed in only our absolute essentials … mostly baby stuff… and there was really nothing we could jettison. I finally told him to put them on the floor of the front passenger seat.  And that was how I rode for the whole trip: with my feet either up on the records or tucked underneath me on the seat, the baby on my lap (no car seats back then). Before we were even out of the alley I sprang it on him: I didn’t want to go to California; I wanted to go to Florida, where my family was. To his credit, he didn’t argue about any of it. I think he knew as well as I did what was coming… maybe he’d even known it before I did.

     Shortly after we got settled in Florida I left him, taking only the baby’s belongings, my clothes, and of course my records. Life went on, it was very hard, and while I doted on my daughter and tried to work and finish school all at the same time, I kept buying Elvis records whenever I could and trying to figure out how to get to go to one of his concerts, but the $15 to $25 ticket price was just too dear.
       On Tuesday, August 17, 1977, I was working all day and nowhere near a TV or radio. I did some errands and drove home listening to an Elvis tape. When I finally pulled into the driveway just before dark, my 12 year old daughter came running out to meet me and opened my car door as I was gathering my stuff from the passenger’s seat.

     “Mom,” she gasped breathlessly, “did you hear? About Elvis?”

     For just a split-second my heart leapt, thinking she had heard something like that he was going to do a concert here at last, but before I could respond I saw her face and knew immediately that that was not it. This was not good news.

    “Oh Mom,” she said miserably, “he’s dead.”

     Her caring little face reflected the pain she knew I would feel at this news; she was all too aware of how much I loved this man and his music. I sat frozen in the car, holding my purse and briefcase and the bag of groceries.  For several long minutes I simply could not move as she leaned into the car and hugged me. Of course I thought she had it wrong … she was 12…she’d gotten it mixed up… this couldn’t be.  But this dreadful event predated MTV and 24 hour news stations in our area, so I went inside and called a friend who confirmed that it was true. I felt as though I’d lost my best friend.
     Like so many Elvis fans I went through all the usual processes of grief, trying to believe it wasn’t true, that it was some elaborate hoax because he needed a break, or was in danger, or any of a million other goofy ideas until finally I accepted the undeniable truth: he was gone.
     There was no way to really ever lose the emptiness inside. The music was still wonderful, right down to his final recordings. No matter what he had done to his spirit and his body, the one thing that never failed him was that great and powerful voice. I contented myself with his voluminous library of recordings and at one time even had a jukebox in my house with nothing but Elvis 45s on it. Sometimes I’d turn out all the lights at night and play “Can’t Help Falling in Love” over and over, and smile remembering the snowy drug store and Tom, and how incredibly easy and beautiful life had been then.
     I guess because I’d filled so much of the emptiness of my life with focusing on Elvis, I could never really find anything to fill the void his passing left.  While I truly detested Elvis “impersonators,” dismissing them as coffin-riding opportunists who couldn’t hold a candle to the original, when I was writing a music column for a NYT regional paper I was assigned a story on “a local version of the King.” I first tried to beg off the assignment, explaining that I’d be unable to be objective because of my extreme prejudice, but my editor wasn’t having any of it and sent me on my way. I grudgingly called a friend and explained the dilemma, asking her to accompany me and explaining that since I was sure it was going to be awful we’d just go for the first few songs of the first set and then go on to hear some decent music elsewhere.
      When we closed down the room after the last encore, I felt happier than I could remember having felt in years. In my head I had already written my “You’ll Want Him, You’ll Need Him, You’ll Love Him” review of Bobby Salerno’s Elvis Tribute Show. He was absolutely unbelievable and PS – WHAT was he doing here in Florida with that much talent? The friend who accompanied me had seen Elvis live a couple of times, didn’t share my aversion to impersonators andwas in a better position to judge because she had seen imitators in Vegas and Memphis; she pronounced Salerno’s performance (http://www.ladyluckmusic.com/artists/bobbysalerno/ ) far better than any other she’d seen.

     For months we caught every performance we possibly could and it was eerie to find how comforting it was, how much like having Elvis back again. Bobby Salerno was sublimation personified.

     And then he was gone. We were told he had killed himself, but no one could tell us why. (http://tinyurl.com/mcmwzp)

       We couldn’t believe it and never really understood. Selfishly, we felt like we had lost Elvis all over again, and we were hurt and angry. We never went to hear another impersonator… or as Bobby had respectfully called it, “tribute artist.”             

     Finally, on the 25th anniversary of Elvis death, someone came up with this brainstorm to reunite all the players from Elvis’ concerts and have them perform the concert live with footage of Elvis performing on a widescreen at the center back of the stage. My editor tapped me once again and this time I didn’t bother to object. Unlike seeing Bobby for the first time, this just was not a pleasant experience. The hall was dark, the drums started their riveting intro, the horns joined them… and then … and then nothing happened. Oh, a giant screen lit up displaying a grainy, King Kong size image of a trim, fit Elvis going through the motions, but it felt empty and hollow and pathetic. It was like watching a big TV with a bunch of people playing music along with it and, if anything, made me feel emptier than before. Yes, these were the same exact musicians on stage as were seen performing on the screens on either side of the Elvis center screen, the same players from 25 years ago, but it just felt dull and desperate and overwhelmingly sad.

        And so it is, 32 years after Elvis died, that I still miss him. Though I don’t engage in the kind of fan worship you so often see mockingly depicted on various shows about Elvis, I can’t deny that it’s a kind of love that I don’t expect to see again in my lifetime. He was such a part of my growing up, his music the proverbial soundtrack of my life, I’ve yet to find a way to resign myself to the loss. And every year when the anniversary of his death rolls around I tell myself I won’t spend the entire day and night wallowing in the same old tribute specials and hokey movies that they air every year… and every year I watch every one and feel foolish all over to discover that I miss him even more with every passing year.

       I want him, I need him, I love him.  

     With all my heart.


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