Where you were when

Originally commissioned for the 30th Anniversary of his death, this concerns, the cultural impact of “The King”.

The Newfoundland Herald – Aug 2007

Where You Were When…  by Russell Bowers


It speaks volumes for the cultural impact of the man, that I can vividly remember where I was when I heard Elvis Presley died, even though I had no idea who they were talking about.


I was 8 years old in August of 1977 and I had just walked out of the front gate of our yard.  Across the dirt road known then as Railway Street on Bell Island, Joanne, the eldest pre-teen daughter of our neighbours The Kents, ran out to announce, “Elvis is dead!”


Joanne was very much up on the modern music of the day, having an extensive Bay City Rollers poster collage, Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” and a deep and abiding need to sing Alan O’Day’s “Under Cover Angel” at the drop of a hat.  Even if she hadn’t been into Elvis’ music; her parents, my parents, everybody seemed aware of the importance of this event.  Except me.


I was later enlightened that evening when CJON-TV (who else?) aired one of Elvis’ last concert appearances.  Keep in mind, I’m 8, and this guy comes on TV in a very impressive white jumpsuit, which reminded me of René Simard (this should tell you how off base my musical tastes were in 1977).  The jumpsuit had a big gold sun on it, torn asunder by the protruding gold chains and gut of the man with the microphone.  The voice was commanding and he was in the middle of singing what I came to know as “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”  Elvis had been into the speaking part and he started to giggle, which made me giggle.  Then he spoke these words as part of the song – “And you’re standing there, without any hair…”  He broke up laughing.  I broke up laughing.  The fat guy was a riot!


Fast forward a few years, and I realize that Elvis’ giggling was part of a cocaine-induced stupor.  The excess bulk brought on by years of food and drug binging.  But that voice never failed Elvis.  It grew in stature as he got older, more confident in its ability to affect an audience.


Elvis and I have crossed paths a few times since then.  In 1995, I won third prize in a karaoke contest for singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with an Elvis impression.  Later that year, I agreed to dress up as Elvis for a series of TV ads for the Village Mall.  Remember those Elvis ads from a few years back?  Yep!  That was me wandering the Mall.


The trivia and the stories about Elvis Presley I’ve always found far more interesting than any of his music.  I’ve even signed into Hotels using his old pseudonym, Jon Burrows, although I have to admit I got the idea from Bob Siebenberg, the drummer for Supertramp, when he admitted to doing it in a 1986 biography.


The true facts (he knew all the words to the movie “Rebel Without a Cause”) and those of less rigid veracity (despite reports, he never did shoot out a television set with Robert Goulet’s image on it) seem equally fascinating.  Besides the unparalleled achievements and talent, there’s an undeniable absurdity to Elvis, both in the tales of his actual life and the degree to which his legend has grown spasmodically in the 25 years on.


Take his letter to Richard Nixon on December 21, 1970.  Here’s a guy who is to drug pushers what vacuums are to dirt.  Yet he writes the President the following:


“I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.


I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages. First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials.


“The drug culture, the hippie elements, etc. do NOT consider me as their enemy or as they call it The Establishment. I call it America and I love it.”


Years later, in 1984, the comedy duo of Pinkard & Bowden summed this up in their song, “Elvis Was A Narc”.  They sang, “He knew every pill he’d eat would one less on the street.  Elvis took ‘em all for you and me.”


My favourite Elvis story involves a recording session he was doing for one of those awful mid-sixties films Colonel Parker had roped him into.  They were wrapping up the session when Elvis suggested that the track would sound better if there were background singers on it.  The Director of the film said that wouldn’t work.  In the scene where Elvis was singing, he’s going down the road, on a motorcycle, a lone rebel.  “He’s a loner.  Where would the background singers be?”  Elvis paused and responded, “Same place as the band, I guess.”  Smart lad.


Elvis is the biggest selling rock artist ever, yet you don’t hear him on the radio that much.  Classic Rock radio plays Led Zeppelin, Styx, Billy Squier and other pretenders to the crown, ad nauseum.  But not much Elvis.  However, go and listen to an album like “Elvis 56”, a recent re-issue of his recordings from 1956.  He doesn’t fit with everyone else.  Once you play an Elvis song, where do you go from there?  No one else sounds like him.  But then again, the seminal musicians of this century are unique in their own sound and style.  Sinatra, The Bee Gees, Queen, Streisand, The Beatles.  Who do they sound like?  The fact is, most people listen to Elvis in their own homes on CD’s, tapes or records they bought themselves and it adds to Elvis’ intimate relationship with his fans.  He doesn’t need airplay.  To them, it’s personal.


The only Elvis CDs I have are the aforementioned re-issue and “Aloha From Hawaii”.  I doubt you need much else, yet people like Michael Tretow, ABBA’s engineer for the entirety of their existence as a recording group, has practically every noise Elvis ever made in front of a microphone and issued to the public.  And now RCA is releasing a four CD box set containing 100 previously unreleased recordings!  They maintain it’s for the “serious collector” yet 250,000 collectors will own it before Christmas, guaranteed.  Smart lads.


However, the other curious thing about Elvis and his departure from this mortal coil is how it fits as one of those “Where I Was When…” moments.  The Television played a big part in announcing his death, just as it has in so many moments of the last half-century with that shared sense of occurrence.  You remember where you were when Kennedy was shot, when the moratorium was announced, when Diana died.  So many of these moments involve death, or at least the end of something, an end that was unexpected, abrupt and decisive.


We’d all like to think that Elvis isn’t really dead – that he could, indeed should, have had a different ending.  But what would he be today?  The sobering fact is that he’d be 67!  Would he be playing Mile One, where all the old rock bands go to die?  You can bet your bottom dollar that the Michael Jackson – Lisa Marie sham would’ve never happened.  After all those jumpsuits and all those Vegas performances, could he have ever recaptured his cool?  Johnny Cash recaptured his.  Orbison did, too.  Willie Nelson never lost it.  Jerry Lee probably never had it to begin with. 


Genius denied or removed always leaves us with questions.  Would The Beatles have re-united if John had lived?  Would Pink Floyd have their status if their muse, Syd Barrett, hadn’t melted his soul with drugs?  Elvis is a question mark that tantalizes more and more as each passing year ticks away.  He’s a curiosity, a freak show, an entertainment and one of the most remarkable people of 20th Century.  Of that, there is no question.

 Top Ten “Where You Were When” Moments

1.              Kennedy Assassination – Nov. 22, 1963

2.              Death of Elvis – Aug. 16, 1977

3.              Trade Center Bombing – Sept. 11, 2001

4.              Death of Princess Diana – Aug. 31, 1997

5.              Death of John Lennon – Dec. 8, 1980

6.              Cod Moratorium Announced – July 2, 1992

7.              Paul Henderson’s Goal, Team Canada VS. Soviet Canada – Sept. 28, 1972

8.              October Crisis, War Measures Act – Oct. 16, 1970

9.              The Beatles on Ed Sullivan – Feb 9, 1964

10.              Death of Kurt Cobain – Apr. 5, 1994