If it’s August, I guess it’s time, or an excuse, to mourn The King again.
The King of Rock ‘n Roll, The Hill Billy Cat, the Pelvis, however you want to call him.
Has it really been three decades since Elvis degenerated from a brief period of unique talent to a drugged out Vegas lounge act and recluse, crapped out on his commode at 42 from years of ingesting too many controlled substances along with a diet that included deep-fried peanut butter, mayonnaise and banana sandwiches?
Yuck. But I digress.
I certainly didn’t know that summer evening when Walter Cronkite interrupted his newscast with the news from Memphis that the following afternoon I would see Elvis Presley’s corpse. Twice.
The late Jerry Schwartz, my esteemed competitor on the morning rag — the Journal and Constitution had separate reporting staffs in 1977 — would see it too. Twice.
Minutes after hearing that Elvis had died, an editor telephoned with instructions to get to Memphis on the next available plane. I arrived well after dark, and, arriving by cab at Graceland, found a crowd on the sidewalk. The scene struck me as a skewed version of those crowds you see on TV in front of the White House at moments of national trauma.
There seemed to be hundreds, from grandmothers to kids, crowding the sidewalk, as many, mostly women, pushed against the front gate, decorated with metal musical notes and the stylized form of a gyrating (and slender) Elvis. Some clearly were there to be seen, like the 51-year-old grandmother from Missouri, her gray hair glinting in the TV lights, as she told me she rode a motorcycle. “Elvis rides one too, you know.”
Traffic crept along Elvis Presley Boulevard as the King’s fans mobbed a car bringing the early edition of the morning Memphis Commercial Appeal with the banner headline: “Death Captures Crown of Rock and Roll.” Their staff had done a solid writing job, as I recall, but what impressed me was the (black and white) cartoon on the editorial page: no words — just a pair of empty shoes. Blue suede, I presume.
The following afternoon, the Presley family opened Graceland so his fans could view Elvis’ body in the foyer of the mansion, for a last look before a private burial.
As viewing time approached, the temperature was crowding an oppressive, steamy 90 degrees. The 50,000 mourners, some of them on the sidewalk from overnight, were lined four and five abreast down two blocks and around a corner, waiting and sweating.
At 3 p.m., the gates finally opened, and we moved across the 100 yards or so to the mansion. Elvis lay in his casket in the darkened foyer, dimly lighted by a floor lamp, surrounded by Memphis cops and the King’s personal body guards, wearing tuxedos.
We were told not to linger, and we circled single file around the casket for a last look at Elvis, clad in a white suit and tie, his face puffy and waxen looking. Then we headed out the door and onto the steamy lawn. It took no more than a dozen seconds.I recall a woman in an aquamarine pant suit clinging to her male companion as they left Graceland, bawling uncontrollably.
The tears were contagious, overwhelming women who had yet to see the body, as their bemused husbands and boyfriends wore expressions that said “I guess I need to be here, but I’d rather be (at a bar, fishing, tuning the pickup.)
Once outside, I compared notes with Schwartz, and we disagreed on the color of Elvis’ pale shirt. To spare us both annoying phone calls from our editors about contradictory stories (and the lesser matter of accuracy), we agreed another look was essential.
The still waiting mourners stretched outside the gate and down a block at least. Going to the end of the line clearly wouldn’t do, we agreed. Waving our press badges, we butted back into line. And got away with it; while I can’t speak for Jerry, of course, I think we expected nothing less.
I’ve pondered in recent years over why our actions didn’t start a riot, or at least get one or both of us punched out. Perhaps it was a gentler time then. Maybe I’m stretching here, but I’ll throw out the idea that there wasn’t the animosity toward the press 30 years ago that exists in today’s polarized atmosphere. We didn’t have talk radio then,
Whatever the reason, Schwartz and I took that second look at Elvis, and agreed that his shirt was a very light, pale, blue. Almost white.
The Graceland vigil continued over night, with more han 300 still there at dawn; I read in the morning Commercial Appeal that two women were killed crossing the street, struck by a drunken driver. I missed it, fortunately, because I went to a blues club and witnessed a poignant tribute to Elvis.
Without fanfare, a trio of elderly black men at least 25 years older than Elvis began their last set with a unannounced, dirgelike, instrumental rendition of “Hound Dog.”