The King of Rock & Roll died 35 years ago at his Memphis mansion, Graceland. Mick Farren — former frontman with London's beloved Deviants — wrote this heartfelt tribute to Elvis for New Musical Express——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
It was one of the worst storms to hit London since God knows when. The thunder rolled, lightning flashed and the rain hammered into the roof. There's something about a storm that brings a sense of doom. It fitted so perfectly.
When the ITV news flash sign came on the TV screen everyone looked up. When the flash sign was immediately followed by a still of Elvis Presley, a quiet voice breathed, "Oh, my God."
"Reports are coming in that Elvis Presley, the rock and roll singer, died this evening at his home in Memphis, Tennessee."
We all looked at each other in disbelief.
"Elvis is dead!"
It didn't seem quite credible. And yet it wasn't the kind of shock that followed the news of J.F.K. being cut down. There had been so much speculation about Presley's mental and physical health that his death was unpleasantly predictable.
It was almost impossible to know what to think. My first impulse was to pick up the phone and call a couple of people. I tried two numbers, but they were both busy. Obviously other people had reacted the same way. It was the kind of news that demanded to be passed on. Elvis had always been there. For more than two decades he'd maintained a unique position in too many people's lives. Despite all the depressing rumours it scarcely seemed possible that he'd gone, that Elvis Presley was dead at 42.
I guess the only word I can use is numb. Numb, and just very slightly embarrassed at the way I was reacting. It wasn't the ordinary kind of grief that you feel for a personal friend. There was no voice telling me that I'd never see Elvis Presley again. Jesus Christ, I'd never seen him, ever. I didn't even regret that I'd never get the chance to see him. The Elvis Presley I'd have given my right arm to watch was the wild hoodlum in the gold jacket who vanished into the US Army and never returned. I'd mourned his passing many years ago.
I think, to be absolutely truthful, any grief for Elvis Presley has to be bound up with a grief for my own early youth. It's grief for that long vanished innocence, that virgin state in which it was possible to discover rock and roll for the very first time.
The moment when I first heard 'Heartbreak Hotel' coming out of the radio was an experience that's impossible to reproduce. It was a time when the radio didn't add up to much more than The Archers, Journey into Space and The Goon Show. The readily available music was all 'Que Sera Sera', 'Love And Marriage' and 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?'
After 'Heartbreak Hotel', all that changed. Music had the power. It may have taken another six or seven years for Bob Dylan to articulate it, but right from the start it was obvious that the times were changing. If it needed a confirmation, it was right there in the way Elvis was condemned out of hand by parents and pulpit.
Elvis Presley was far more than just an entertainer. He was something different to Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. He'd picked up the teenage banner that had been dropped by James Dean. He not only picked it up, but he picked it up and ran with it. From the way he combed his hair to the sneer and the snapping knee, he was the beginning of the rebellion. You stopped thinking about being a chartered accountant and began to wonder if, just maybe, you could be Elvis.
Of course, the passing years brought disappointments. He came back from the army to make all those awful films and often equally awful records. The greatest white R&B singer the world had ever seen decayed before our eyes into a Hollywood clown who appeared to have no respect for his work, his audience or himself.
If it had been anybody but Elvis Presley he probably would have been quietly forgotten, but he was just too big for that. If it was only in the middle of the night, when listening to the old records, the magnetism still came alive in those attempts to recapture the first careless rush. It was a haven of simplicity in a world of 'Visions Of Johanna' and 'Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby'.
Presley had racked up so much affection in the '50s that it was even hard to blame him for his dire output. More often than not the blame was laid at the door of Colonel Tom Parker. It may not have been logical, but even when he did his worst, it was hard to believe that it was Presley's fault.
Elvis-worship lay dormant in a lot of us during the '60s. Just how many of us became noticeable by those who sat up and took notice when, at the end of the decade, it suddenly seemed as though our man was going to make a comeback with records like 'Promised Land', 'Burning Love', his TV special and his return to the live stage at the Las Vegas Hilton. As it turned out, Presley didn't come back to us. His return was for the blue rinse and double-knit set. He was fated never to return to rock and rollers and overgrown juvenile delinquents who had sweated out their adolescence with him.
Once again the decay started. His public behaviour became erratic. It looked as though — instead of coming back — Elvis Presley had dipped his toe into the real world but quickly withdrawn it again. The rumours flowed out from behind the high walls of his guarded mansions. They talked about his custom-built blondes, his drugs, his neurotic eating and violent temper tantrums. His marriage came and went, and the figure who was once a hero turned, bit by bit, into a petulant, overweight pampered child.
It was sad. It was like watching an old friend, whom you hadn't seen in a long time, slowly going to pieces. That may have been sad, but it was only a fraction as sad as the thought of Elvis Presley, maybe the biggest idol the world's seen yet, dying alone and disturbed in his luxury prison. There's just no way that you can help an idol. Maybe, in the final analysis, the world can't support an Elvis Presley all the way to a fulfilled and peaceful old age.
The clichés come thick and fast at a time like this. Some of them are even true. Without Elvis Presley, history would certainly have been different. Jagger might have become an estate agent, Dylan a rabbi, Lennon a bricklayer or Johnny Rotten a judge. He probably was one of the tiny handful of artists who actually affected the course of human affairs. Maybe the load was too much for him to carry. I don't know. None of us can really imagine how it feels to walk around being Elvis Presley every day of your life.
All this isn't what's really important. All I know is that the death of Presley has produced a kind of dull hurt that's hard to pin down. I can't exactly define why or how it hurts. All I know is something that used to be important to me has gone.
I guess that's the measure of the man and what he meant. At least, what he meant to me.
© Mick Farren, 1977
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