Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It was 29 years ago today, oh boy...
Where were YOU on the day Elvis died?

I remember...early in the afternoon of August 16th, 1977, I was driving my little Datsun pickup down Buckeye Street in central Spokane, when the news came out over the radio that Elvis Presley had died. So much has been written about "The King", that I'm not about to try and say anything new; heck, it's all been said. A few observations, though. First, I've read that there was no one who could say "no" to Elvis, as far as his massive drug consumption and humonguous eating binges were concerned. Secondly, there was only "one" Elvis, who was supposed to single-handedly try to handle the eternal pressures that come with stardom...The Beatles were equally, if not more famous, but there were 4 of them, so at least they had each other. Still, that's a weak argument, because the Beatles individually, got sick of all the pressure, and indeed sick of each other as the group's end neared.

Back to Elvis; he just couldn't seem to say "no" to anyone. He couldn't tell his corrupt manager, Col. Tom Parker "no" when Parker pretty-much removed him from the stage and told him he had to make all of those stupid movies in the sixties. Elvis couldn't say "no" to producers who wanted him to record songs that were absolute garbage..."Queenie Wahini's Papaya"..."No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car"..."Ito Eats"..."Wheels on my Heels"..."Fort Lauderdale Chamber of commerce"...and on and on. I've read "Elvis' Complete Recording Sessions", an excellent look at his career in the recording studio, and the book states that when Elvis tried to sing those dumb songs, he'd back off and get as far away from the microphone as he could, because he was so ashamed of what he had to do. In another instance, when forced to record another stupid movie-soundtrack song, he barked out, "What the H___ am I supposed to DO with S*** like this?"

I think, on the concert stage, was the only situation in which Elvis felt as if he were in control. And even in his later years, all hopped-up on dozens of medications at once, in spite of the fact he was so fat and in so much pain that he couldn't move, he had that VOICE. I have an out-of-focus DVD of his final performance, and he still sounds good. The theory has been brought forth that Elvis didn't want to go on the road anymore, so he committed suicide, and that's why he was found dead in the bathroom. I don't know. Anything's possible, I suppose. I think that he was a very complicated person...hateful yet compassionate; unreasonable yet compromising; private but concerned about of the few things he really cared about in his final years was his fans; even in his last concerts, he would banter with them, and during one song, he'd walk around to the back of the stage and wave to the people who sat back there in the balcony above.

Back in the '50's, my Mom had one of those little RCA Victor 45rpm-only record players that plugged into the back of a radio. And SHE had a copy of "Hound Dog". She also had a copy of "Love Me Tender". My conservative Mom had Elvis records...that in itself shows Elvis had a far-reaching influence. (My Dad couldn't STAND Elvis, let alone the Beatles!) And I liked "Hound Dog" even though I was only 4 or 5 when I first heard it. (Something cosmic is happening as I type this...Elvis' version of "Wooden Heart" is on the radio right now...) I've read that Elvis wanted to do all kinds of music. Hence, he could be the world's toughest rocker, then turn right around and bellow his way through "You Gave Me A Mountain", which came from a place deep within him. I think Elvis may have been a bit on the manic-depressive side. Many people who are "medicate" themselves, and boy, did he ever. It is what it is, though, a real tragedy.

Those who've written about Elvis have said that his 1976 version of the old Timi Yuro song, "Hurt", was his last really great moment in the studio. I was working at a little radio station in Sandpoint, Idaho when that record came out...when I'd first touched the tone arm to the record, out came a thunderous ""IIII'M.....SOOOOOOO.....HUUUUUUURT!!!!!!, I couldn't believe the force and power of his voice the first time I'd heard that record. Years later, I've read that Elvis was truly on his last legs by then; he was so depressed that he wouldn't go to the studio to make records, so RCA took the studio to him...a recording truck was parked outside his Graceland Mansion, and he recorded a very few songs there, "Hurt" being one of them. Also from what I've read, the very last vocal track he ever laid down was ironically, on the old Jim Reeves song, "He'll Have To Go". The backing track was previously recorded, and the next day Elvis emerged from his bedroom long enough to stick his vocal on the song. And not long after that...he was gone.

A lot of people joke about Elvis. Why? Perhaps because they, too, are vulnerable to the pressures that society heaps upon us all? It's even fashionable to joke about Elvis, but every time I hear one, I absolutely cringe. Hey, when he was great, he was absolutely untouchable. There will never be a voice like that again. It only got better, when in 1968, he filmed that "Comeback" special for NBC-TV. If anything, he sounded more powerful there, than on the early rock and roll records he initially became so famous for. My favorite Elvis tracks? "Hound Dog" (Great guitar solo there), "Too Much" (a dynamite song), "Little Sister" (which proved he could still rock when he got out of the Army), "Suspicious Minds" (a monster of a musical statement), and "Marie's The Name", what with that odd "G" to "E minor" chord structure...and he sounds great on it.

Here's a computer-enhanced rendering of what Elvis might look like were he still alive today.

If Elvis were still alive today, he'd be 72...I think that if he'd kept going, he could have been a great country artist along the lines of Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard; Elvis B-sides such as "Thinking of You" (the B-side of "My Boy", Elvis' 1974 single), showed that he'd have sounded really great in the country world. Another song of his, "For The Heart" (the B-side of the "Hurt" single from 1976), shows quite effectively that he would be able to handle a raucous 2-step tune as easily as Clint Black, Randy Travis, or any of the other country wannabees out there. But then again, perhaps Elvis' life couldn't have ended any other way. It is what it is. Or was.

Once I was playing guitar with a friend of mine in Spokane's Riverfront Park in 1977. I stood up on one of the hills in the park, looked at the downtown Spokane skyline, and bellowed out 'Heartbreak Hotel'. "WELLLL, SINCE MAH BAY-BEEEE LEFT ME......" Truly a moment for the ages. I'm not kidding. I actually did that.


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