Long live the King

Earlier in the week I was engaged in an animated three-way conversation in my office.

The other two conversers were Phil Markwalder, a former student, and Joe Conto, the guy who haunts the office next to mine.

We were talking about music. After a while, it became a two-way conversation, as Joe and I started talking about ’60s and ’70s music, each of which happened decades before Phil did.

Inevitably, I mentioned the Beatles.

Suddenly Joe’s face lost all expression. He looked less like a live human than an Easter Island statue.

“What? What?” I said.

“The Beatles,” he hissed. “I hate them.”

I was completely taken aback. Most people I’ve known love the Beatles; a bunch of them like the Beatles, and a rare few don’t care one way or another. But hate them? I never knew anyone to utter such blasphemy.

“You hate the Beatles?” I said. “Why?”

“Because they destroyed Elvis,” he said.

I knew Joe was an Elvis fan. And when I say “a fan,” I mean a diehard one. He not only loves Elvis’ music; he loves his movies as well, those masterpieces of schmaltz, schlock and dreck. Beyond that, he’s so hung up on The King, he loves Elvis impersonators as well.

In a way, I admire Joe’s dedication. To me it’s like the penitents who whip and scourge themselves, stick giant pins through their cheeks and walk on red-hot coals – it’s devotion in the highest sense. It’s also something I don’t understand at all.

Not that I don’t like Elvis – I do. In fact, I like him immensely and always have. And when I say “always,” I mean that almost literally: I was 9 when Elvis made the scene, and I became an instant fan.

The way it was

Memory is more a trickster than a recorder, so while I remember seeing Elvis’s TV debut on the Dorsey brothers show, I really didn’t. I thought that because I remember reading a Life magazine feature on Elvis right after his debut.

I can still see two of the article’s photos. One was Elvis leaning over the stage, pointing at his hysterical fans. Underneath the photo was the caption: “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.” The other was a picture of his car. It was a white Lincoln Continental, but unlike any other car I’d ever seen, because smitten girls had covered it with love notes and phone numbers, either written in lipstick or engraved with nail files.

I was only 9, but even at that tender age I realized any guy who inspired that much female adoration was A-OK with me.

After that, Elvis was always around. It was his music, his life, his Army stint, his movies, his marriage, his this, his that and his other thing.

And let’s face it: Elvis was a musical giant. Beyond his talent itself, he paved the way for all sorts of other performers and styles. Once Elvis hit the boards, he blew the doors off the music scene as we knew it. Essentially, he was the force behind R and B, country, western and blues music, and musicians getting mainstream airplay and concerts all over this favored land of ours.

Of course, the rock music scene was anything but stagnant, and as the times changed, so did the music. The Beatles introduced an entirely new era of everything – music, dress, thought, lifestyle, art and who knows what else. By 1967, with the introduction of Sergeant Pepper, the floodgates were opened: Psychedelia was everywhere; Jimi, Janis and Jim were breaking barriers of every kind. This was followed by all kinds of rock hyphenates: western-rock, folk-rock, Latin-rock, Southern-rock, soul-rock

But even with all the new faces and voices on the scene (and there were innumerable ones), it wasn’t as if Elvis vanished. He still put out music; he still had his fan base. To be honest, however, I didn’t pay much attention to him then, as I was so involved with all the other rock genres. I didn’t diss Elvis; I just didn’t seek him out. But something happened in 1971 that made me realize who The King was and who he’d always be.

and the way it still is

I was in the Navy, stationed in Germany, and one of our main entertainments was movies. They cost a quarter, they changed twice a week, and I don’t recall ever missing one. Anyhow, an Elvis movie came to the base, and my best friend Dale and I went to it.

This was an Elvis movie, all right, but one with a difference. The others were all those cliche-ridden crapolas – smarmy romance and sloppy fight scenes, with some crooning in between. This one was a documentary about Elvis’s comeback, after years of no live performance. It was called “Elvis, That’s the Way It Is.”

When we think of Elvis’ concert films, the image usually comes to mind of Elvis in his decline – a fat, sloppy, burned-out, messed-up, mumbling automaton. Well, this Elvis was anything but. It wasn’t just Elvis coming back – it was Elvis coming back with a vengeance. He was 34, lean and mean, slick and sly, dashing and dynamic and at the top of his game.

And Elvis at the top of his game was untouchable. He could sing, he could move, he could storm the stage like nobody’s business. If we’d forgotten how good he was, as we watched this flick we immediately realized we were in the presence of Greatness.

After the show ended and the lights came up, Dale and I said nothing. We just looked at each other and shook our heads in amazement.

That Elvis, the magnificent one, didn’t last very long. Only a few years later he was a mess, and a few years after that, he was dead. And Joe was wrong. The Beatles didn’t destroy Elvis – drugs did.

His decline and fall were neither fast nor unexpected, and toward the end of his concert career he was less a performer than a curiosity – a parody, if not a travesty, of his former self.

But I remember Elvis as I choose to – from the young kid who blew the world’s mind to the seasoned performer who electrified me and my friend 40-plus years ago. Conveniently, I forget the rest.

And since that’s the beauty of selective memory, I do it with a lot of things. I doubt it’s made me a better person, but I know it’s made me a happier one.