Elvis Saves

How a Yankee found religion in the music of the boy from Tupelo

Poor Elvis, dead ere his prime.

That was the opening sentence not of an obit but a concert review I wrote for my college newspaper in 1971, six years before the one and only left the building for good.

The concert at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium left me bereft. And it inspired, if that’s the word, my pretentious, English major’s allusion to an obscure John Milton poem, “Lycidas,” an elegy mourning the early death of a young poet. That made perfect sense to me. In the review, I mourned the passing of the Elvis I loved. He was replaced by the same seeming imposter on display in some sequences of this summer’s gaudy Baz Luhrmann epic, “Elvis.”

When I saw the film in July, I cringed as I had in Cleveland a half century before, when my hero’s entrance was heralded by the ludicrous timpani-and strings orchestral pomp of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” — and when Elvis appeared in a bejeweled costume and struck absurd karate poses. Worst of all, in Cleveland, was his disregard for his own music, a life force that buoyed me since I was 7 years old, when I thought I was condemned to my splintered family’s own version of heartbreak hotel.

This Summer of Elvis, the 45th anniversary of his death — it will be commemorated on August 14 in Memphis during the city’s annual Elvis Week celebrations — coincides with his resurrection. That seemed to be the ultimate intent of Luhrmann’s over-the-top film, a bio-pic of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll that played more like a deification of Elvis the God.

It arrived in theaters at a time when his original fans, like his records, are oldies, both little noticed eddies in the streaming currents of popular music. To many young people, he is little more than an object of pop culture kitsch, at worst the face of white appropriation of Black music. And there are those too, as I learned at the “Elvis” screening, who know nothing at all about the life and legend of the wonder from Tupelo, Mississippi.

When I got my one and only chance to see him in person, I was 22 years old and, just like Elvis, I was itching with excitement, “like a man on a fuzzy tree.” I tried in vain to get any of my Hiram College friends to drive 30 miles to Cleveland with me for the show. To them, like many people I know today, Elvis was a joke. But to me, he was a savior.

I didn’t get to hear much more than the first verse of “Heartbreak Hotel” because my new stepmother hurried into the kitchen, snapped off the radio and said, “I’ll not have that noise in my house!”

I never heard or heard of Elvis Presley until the night I got out of the hospital on the 5th of July 1956. I was weeks shy of my eighth birthday, and for the previous six months I’d been sequestered in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Rochester, New York. There, on the children’s ward, there were no radios, no TVs, no newspapers. I’d also never heard of the Mad Bomber, a lunatic who had been terrorizing New York City for years. According to the radio that was playing on the kitchen counter next to the sink where I was doing the dishes that first night home, he had set off bombs at Grand Central station, just blocks from where my grandmother lived.

Once that scary news flashed, a different voice spoke a name I wasn’t sure I heard right. It sounded maybe like a character out of a comic book or a movie western. There was no time to think about it because a split second later, a sound came out of the radio that made me think the Bomber was at work.

“Well, since my baby left me . . .” I didn’t get to hear much more than the first verse of “Heartbreak Hotel” because my new stepmother hurried into the kitchen, snapped off the radio and said, “I’ll not have that noise in my house!”

Before I went into the hospital at the tail end of 1955, I lived with my mother and father, my brother and our dog in an older Rochester suburb near the city line. When I got out in early July 1956, I went to live with my brother, our dog and my dad and his new wife in a new house in a new, more distant suburb.

Along with Elvis and the Mad Bomber, divorce was another thing I’d never heard of. When I was in the hospital, my dad visited every day, but he never said anything about trouble in our family.  Then one day in early May, he said he wouldn’t be there the following week because he was going to Bermuda on what I thought he said was a “hunting moon” with my soon-to-be stepmother. “Is Mom going?” I asked. I don’t remember his response.

Our new house was in a cul-de-sac that was bordered by a steep ravine on one side and, on another, by a man-made ridge along the top of which ran the main line of the New York Central Railroad. Sleek passenger trains, headed west to Chicago or east to New York, streaked by with a sudden whoosh. But when long freights rumbled past, the house shook.

That was unnerving only when it rained, like it did that night I first heard Elvis. After my dad picked me up at the hospital and drove me home to the new house, he showed me around. It was a two-bedroom ranch that I later learned he’d bought for a price unheard of today: $17,000, even then a bargain made possible because the contractor had gone bankrupt and left the place unfinished. The staircase to the basement hadn’t been built, and the back kitchen door opened onto a landing that hung over a 10-foot drop to the concrete floor of the basement below.

The house sat at the edge of a sandy cliff and overlooked an undeveloped future parkland called Corbett’s Glen. The backyard stretched all of 12 feet from the rear of the house to the edge of the cliff. When we stood at the edge and looked down, it seemed only slightly less steep than that straight drop to the basement. The cliff ended 50 feet below in a swampy marsh full of bright green ferns my dad said were called “skunk cabbage” for good reason.

Little by little, the cliff eroded when it rained, and our backyard shrank along with it. My dad couldn’t afford the landfill that neighbors had trucked in to expand their backyard a good 20 yards beyond ours.

But I wasn’t to worry, he assured me. He’d already begun a project that would take him all summer and fall and well into the next year. He was building a terraced retaining wall and a staircase down to the bottom of the cliff out of more than a hundred broken and discarded railroad ties that he scavenged from the trackside. They were heavy, badly splintered and still held enough creosote to sting. He lifted and hoisted them onto his back and walked bent like a laborer in a prison camp as he carried them home one by one, some from as far as a mile away.

That first night, however, as I looked out the window above the kitchen sink and watched the rain, I imagined the cliff eroding and the house teetering and tumbling over the edge, hitting bottom and breaking apart just like our family had done.

The news about the Mad Bomber seemed to confirm the alarm raised by the rain. But then there was that strange name and an explosion of sound, urgent and spine-tingling, that struck in me not fear but a kind of boundless, never before felt elation.

Elvis did for me what my dad would do for our family when, in what I’d grow to see as an act of atonement, he labored mightily, shored up that cliff face and saved our new home from disaster. At a time of uncertainty, anger, grief, emotional turmoil, maybe even trauma, Elvis lifted me, shook me, gave me a shot of pure adrenalized and irrational joy, heaven-sent on radio waves. He saved me.

And so, from the moment 15 years later when spotlights swirled in Cleveland’s Public Auditorium and piped-in Richard Strauss orchestral music heralded the entrance of King Elvis, I was at first bewildered. Then I was crushed as he proceeded to desecrate the sacred songbook. Elvis sang contemporary tunes like “Polk Salad Annie” and “Proud Mary” but not “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel” or “Shake Rattle and Roll.” When it came to the most essential hits from the canon, he fired off a volley, with truncated versions of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog” performed in an almost self-mocking medley.

But the Elvis I loved, Early Elvis, nowhere to be seen in Cleveland, sprang surprisingly, even shockingly to life this summer in Baz Luhrmann’s film. Yes, the movie lacquered layer upon layer of lily-gilding mythology and outright fabrication: Col. Tom Parker was a carnival huckster, shady promoter and rip-off artist of the first order, but hardly the mad Lucifer of Tom Hanks’ almost comical characterization; and it was Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, not Parker, who crossed the wires of Black R&B and gospel and white country music that ignited rock and roll. And yet, the film found the electrifying essence of what is, to me, the true and enduring Elvis.

It was done by using recordings of his actual voice on the soundtrack and by the astonishing performance of Austin Butler. I don’t know if the real Elvis ever wore an all-pink suit on stage, and I always thought his guitar was purely a prop — only years later did I learn that he was an accomplished rhythm player. And I never got to see an exhilarating, heart-stopping, libido-celebrating live performance by Early Elvis with my own eyes. Until I beheld Butler’s brilliant pantomime.

For most of the next two hours, I was alternately enthralled and appalled both by the film and by what became of the Elvis I loved, his art lost to artifice and his soul sold to Hollywood and Vegas, loveless excess and drugs. But then, at the very end, the film achieves an unexpected emotional power. It’s done with a clip of actual footage of Elvis during his final 1977 performance, less than two months before his death.

When the real Elvis himself first appeared on screen, I wanted to look away. His face was almost hideously bloated, and he looked stricken, like a frightened child, bewildered himself by the sorry, drug-ravaged, despairing and almost unrecognizable performer he’d become.

The clip first struck me as a cheap shot by Luhrmann, a gut punch to leave the audience gasping. But instead of cutting away, the scene is allowed to play at length and the theater’s speakers filled with the sound of Elvis singing “Unchained Melody.” He transforms the song into a soaring spiritual full of longing and, yes, soul — in a voice, undiminished in its power and inimitable. It was a voice that had evolved since I first heard it in 1956. But it was one that could and would never die.

The theater was half full on a holiday weekend and most of the audience was on my side of old. As we filed out of the theater, I felt numb from two and a half hours of exhilaration, disappointment and finally, shock and wrenching emotion.

Ahead of me were by far the youngest members of the audience. I was dumbfounded to hear one say to her companion, “I never knew that story.” To me, that was like saying she never heard the one about the baby in the Bethlehem manger. But then she surprised me.

“Devastating,” she said in a hushed, emotion-strangled whisper. “It was absolutely devastating.”

Elvis, I thought, lives.

Steve Dougherty is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He has written about music and musicians for The Atlanta Constitution, People magazine, People and Life Books and The Wall Street Journal. It all began with Elvis.


About the author

2 thoughts on “Elvis Saves”

  1. It says at the top “Reading time 11 minutes.” It took me 22 minutes because this piece was good enough to read twice. Now I want to see the damn movie I’ve been avoiding…

Leave a Comment