Thursday, August 16, 2007

The American Idol

By Lars Trodson

I pulled into the driveway on a bight summer afternoon, and I know the driver’s side window was down because my brother Craig came up to the car and he said that Elvis Presley had died. I have no idea what my response was, but I don’t think it was very dramatic. Elvis, at 42, was from an entirely different era. I was listening at the time to Ten Year’s After and Van Morrison and John McLaughlin and Roy Buchanan. I can’t remember who was on the radio in 1977, but it wasn’t Elvis Presley.

Elvis was, after all, my father’s guy. They were about the same age, and even though Elvis had a couple of hits as late as 1970, he seemed a relic. I think the only songs I heard with any regularity were “Hound Dog”, "Jailhouse Rock” and “In the Ghetto.” My reaction to his death came out of the arrogance of youth, and also the reaction of a kid flush with the knowledge that he was about to head off to college, and leave everything he knew behind. The past was the past, man.

I remember no other discussion after that. I do remember, however, the television coverage, and the accolades, and the outpouring of grief. I think, not long after, that a tabloid magazine had a picture of Elvis in his coffin on the cover. That grief I couldn’t access -- not the way I could for John Lennon just a mere three years later -- but the spectacle was interesting enough.

I remember two things: visiting Graceland and the time I saw Elvis in concert at the Providence Civic Center in 1974. The tickets for that concert were $10 and I went with a childhood friend by the name of Rod Zolmian.

We had seats way up and before the concert -- my parents were also there, somewhere -- we saw all the women and men. All dressed up. This was like a Vegas show. Everybody’s hair was perfect -- all slicked back and in these pink bouffants, and the dresses were flowing. The ladies seemed to me jovial, they laughed easily, and this was a generation that didn’t feel guilty about their drinking or their 100 millimeter cigarettes. These were the men who had come out of World War II, or Korea, or who had perhaps not returned from Vietnam very long before.

I think I know who Elvis was to them: an American kid, polite, but freewheeling, impossibly handsome, loaded with talent. He was the jukebox and the hamburger joint and the drive-in, and he was a long way away from the madness of America in 1974. So it was a happy time at the Providence Civic Center, and even though, at 14, I didn’t understand the phenomenon, I could certainly feel the vibe inside the hall.

A comedian opened for Elvis, and he told a joke I remember. It went something like, “Why is it when you get up to adjust the antenna on your TV set the picture always clears up?” Big laugh. It was that kind of humor, and naturally the references belong to another era entirely. But it must have been a pretty good gig, opening for Elvis.

The band assembled, and “Thus Spake Zarathustra” echoed through the auditorium and Elvis came out in his white spangled jumpsuit. I can imagine the applause was thunderous. He then did this: he strummed his guitar, waited a beat, and said: “That’s all. Thank you very much.” Everyone laughed, and the mood was easy and cool, and then Elvis cruised through his set. He read the words to “My Way” off a sheet of paper. He did a medley of his hits. And then it was over, and I think my parents gave us a ride home.

For years I had the ticket stub to that concert, and I even wrote on the back the date and locale of the concert, but the last time I looked for it in the box I had it in it was gone. I may have showed it to someone, and didn’t put it back. I don’t know. But I wish I had it.

I can only say the music at that concert didn’t come across in the same way that I hear it now. I thought it was a synthetic thing, but now when I hear those old rock and roll hits, I hear something authentic and wonderful. The music seems to me something I like to call as having the sound and feel of things dug out of the earth. Those old songs of Elvis, and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis don’t sound so much composed as they feel like something plucked out of the air. They were cobbled together from the sounds they all heard in small rooms, and back alleys and barrooms, train stations and hotel lobbies, in jail, at parades, and on the street late at night, and church, and at outdoor revival meetings, and during the shouting matches between two drunk lovers. I don’t hear any of that today, not so much. As I write this I’m listening to a CD called “Cash Sings Cash” and I’m reminded of that all over again.

And of course when I hear the music, I think of that young man whose life turned out so weirdly wrong. You do want to ask Elvis, “What happened? What were you so sad about? What made you do that to yourself?”

I also laugh at how I thought Elvis was a relic. I’m now five years older than he ever got to be, and I hope I have not yet entered into some late-life decrepitude.

Elvis certainly hasn’t. A couple of years ago I was in Memphis, and our little group went over to the Sun Studios, and then to Graceland. It was a beautiful southern day, and we had traveled over the Mississippi River and into the state of Mississippi and through miles and miles of the kind of goddamn poverty you feel should no longer exist, and then we drove over to Graceland. I suppose we did that as a tonic to what we had just seen.

There were crowds of people flowing in and out of Graceland. The house had just been sold to a private company, and the “Today” show was going to do a story the next morning with Priscilla Presley, and we watched a little bit of that in the hotel room.

But outside Graceland -- we didn’t want to get on one of the buses to get inside -- we looked at the house and lawn, which had patches of brown, and mostly we read some of the uncountable number of inscriptions on the wall in front of the house. I was surprised, in a way, that the house was so accessible. It was right on the main drag, and it really wasn’t all that far from the street.

But mostly I remember what people had written: “We love you, Elvis.” “In our hearts forever.” “You’re the king.” And on and on. Many of the inscriptions were brand new.

I popped open my cell phone and called my parents. My father answered and I said, “Dad, you’ll never guess where I am.” He asked, and I said, “In front of Graceland.” And the reaction on the other end of the line was one of a 70-year old guy who -- and this is the magic of the whole thing, really -- was suddenly just as young as Elvis was in his burning prime.