Elvis, We Hardly Knew Ye (Because We Were Dumb Kids)

Thirty Years Since Elvis Left the Building

It’s a question that seems to be on everyone’s lips this week: Where was Bob Wire when he heard that Elvis had died? Well, I wasn’t fetching a new roll of Charmin for him at Graceland. That was Red’s job.

No, I was riding shotgun in Mike Shay’s bitchin’ 1972 Camaro, motoring north on I-15 after a long day at the Upland Pipeline skate park in Southern California. I’d told my dad, who abhorred skateboarding, that we were driving down to Compton to buy some pot. Mike’s little brother, Terry, was in the back seat, nursing a scraped elbow he was sure was broken. We kept turning up the radio to drown out his whimpering, and a news report broke in, saying Elvis had died.

I looked at Mike. “Wow, he’s dead?”

“I didn’t even know he was sick,” said Mike with a shrug.

“I thought he died in the war,” Terry chimed in from the back seat.

“What war?” Mike and I both said.

“You know, Vietnam. I heard that he was, like, a platoon leader or something and he was killed leading his squadron up Heartbreak Ridge to capture an enemy hotel.”

I gave Mike a look that said, I’m sorry about your retarded brother. Then I twisted around in my seat to face Terry. “No, Elvis wasn’t even IN Vietnam, dough-head. He did join the Army in the early 60’s, but I think he just went to Germany to play nightclubs and stuff, and to invent the Beatles.

See, at this point in my life, I hadn’t paid much attention to Elvis or his career. Later, though, after purchasing the box sets and reading a few biographies (the best being ‘Last Train to Memphis’ by Peter Guralnick), I would come to know quite a bit about the King. I think it’s no secret that his music and vocal style have even rubbed off on me a bit.

But on this summer day back in 1977, we were just three skate rats who listened to more Aerosmith and Zeppelin than any crusty old rock and roller whose records filled our parents’ album collections.

“Yeah,” I continued, “my dad told me that Elvis was promoted by this colonel named Tom Parker. And then they left the Army and did some shows in Tennessee or something, traveling around on a hay wagon. Then Elvis took the hay wagon to Hollywood and made some prison movies.”

Mike’s eyes lit up, and I could feel the Camaro accelerate. “Oh, yeah! Like ‘Caged Heat’? I love that one, man. Chicks in prison. How’d you like to be a prison guard in a women’s prison?”

The three of us were silent for a few moments while we pondered that dream job.

“No, it was like a musical, like ‘Jailbird Rock’ or something. I think Marlon Brando was in it. I don’t know. Anyway, now he’s in Las Vegas, I think, doing shows with Wayne Newton and Dean Martin and shit.”

“Yeah, that’s right!” exclaimed Terry, adjusting the dirty tube sock we’d wrapped around his elbow like a bandage/tourniquet. “Mom saw him at Caesar’s Salad last year, remember? She said he even talked to her!”

“Oh, yeah!” said Mike, slapping his palm on the steering wheel. “She was sitting at a table right in front of the stage, and he threw a scarf at her. She caught it, and it was, like, all sweaty, and smelled like Vienna sausages.”

“Yeah, then he came down off the stage and talked to her!” added Terry.

“What’d he say to her?” I asked.

Mike squinted, concentrating. “I think he asked her, like, what’s your name, where are you from, stuff like that.”

Terry began cracking up in the back seat, and said, “Yeah, then he asked her if she was gonna eat her baked potato!”

We all laughed our asses off, and the conversation quickly turned to food. We decided to pull off at Barstow and find a Jack in the Box. But even then, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow, the landscape of American music had been irretrievably changed, that this day would be some kind of watershed.

Elvis may have died an ignominious death, but his life was a uniquely American journey, and his music would affect more people on this planet than any other musician before or since. I personally owe a debt of gratitude to the man, as do millions of other musicians who were captivated by his singing, hip-swiveling, and southern-fried grace.

Thank you, Elvis. Thank you very much.

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