It is 1956 and I am 12 years old. It is Saturday morning and I am sitting down in the basement of my Baltimore row house home. I am miserable because I am in love with a girl named Kathy Martin, a girl I have absolutely no chance of speaking to, much less taking out. She is dark, beautiful, and though I don’t know it at the time, she is from a rather well-to-do family. This accounts for her social polish, her style, her ineffable grace. My family’s lack of money, our stone Baltimore provinciality, our very real working-class fears combined with our very loony superstitions, sense of doom … all these have conspired to make me play the fool. When I see Kathy in the hall at school I stammer, attempt hopeless jokes, and suddenly see myself as Ralph Kramden. Overweight, sickly, too damned sensitive for my own good, and unable to tell anyone about it for fear of seeming unmanly. In short, there seems no release, except in movies, books, and this brand new thing on the radio called rock ’n’ roll.
Every Saturday morning I trek down to the cellar (we don’t have enough money to have a Club Cellar, which is my Mother’s small dream) and I sit in the cool shadows and I turn on the Buddy Deane Radio Show. Buddy Deane is a Southerner, from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He has made it big in Baltimore with both a radio show and a weekday TV dance program a la Dick Clark. Buddy, however, will never be as successful as Dick Clark, because Buddy is a hick. His mouth is too wide, his teeth are too big, his hair too long and greasy. He is too obviously a Baltimore local, destined for the small time. There is on Buddy Deane, in spite of his local success, the stamp of failure. Like myself, he is too eager to please, too vulnerable, too obviously ready for a rebuke.
In many ways Buddy Deane seems the embodiment of the Baltimore Myth. “Do your job, but don’t shoot too high, don’t try for too much.” Or as my father always said, “The bastards will get you in the end. The smart boys in New York … they know how to get it, and they grab it all …” Best, under such imposing restrictions, to finish high school, marry a nice girl from around the neighborhood, buy a row house, have a coupla kids, eat a few hardcrabs, drink a little National Bohemian Beer, watch the Birds and Colts, and … well, that’s it. Already I have seen the older boys in our neighborhood doing just these things and I have no reason to doubt that someday (if anyone will have me) I will do likewise.
Yet there is something else in me, something gleaned from movies, from books, and from the radio—something so small that almost any putdown could make it seem ridiculous, foolish, absurd. But then it blossoms forth again, in a random act of violence like smashing Northwood Elementary School’s windows, or ramming a shopping car into the side of a car—stupid acts, and ones I pay heavily for in guilty, sleepless nights.
But all the same, it is there, not only in me but on the radio—barely conscious, like an itch. Buddy Deane is part of it too. And on this particular morning, as I sit in an old lawn chair, a John R. Tunnis book in my hand, listening half-heartedly to Buddy’s Top Ten, he becomes crucial. The Number One record is something called “Dogfaced Soldier” by the Russ Morgan Band, and I listen groggily, aware of the mounting heat, of the sound of my father getting out the old hand mower. I know he will come in soon to get me to help him. I dread it. Another day on the damned lawn: bugs, sun, nothing …
Deane does a shill for some acne medicine, and then his voice breaks out of its customary slick patter and takes on a quizzical tone. He says, “Now I’ve got something, well, strange here. It’s a new record, and I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t know if you are going to like it or not.” There’s a pause, dead air, as if Buddy Deane is stumbling to express himself. “This is the craziest record I’ve ever heard. I don’t even know how I feel about it. But I do know one thing—I’ve never heard anything like it.”
I can feel myself growing tense. My hands grip my book, while outside I see my father’s feet shuffle by the basement window, the mower chopping away at crabgrass. “This record is called ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ ” Deane says. “It’s by a new young singer named Elvis Presley. Whether you like it or not, call in, and let me know what you think.” He gives the number of the station, then he spins the disc.
Years later, in college, I will learn Edmund Wilson’s term, “the shock of recognition.” It describes that transcendent moment when you lose yourself entirely in a book, because the author is expressing perfectly all the longings that lay buried nameless within you. You become conscious of yourself and the great shared human spirit. On this day, sitting in my cellar, I have no words to describe what is happening to me. I only know pure, perfect physical and mental bliss. Every syllable of this Elvis Presley’s voice speaks urgently, directly, powerfully to me: “Down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel.”
Instantly I can see it, feel it, touch it all … I’m there … I’ve always been there … on the blackest of streets … and I can see the bellhop, his face in his hands, and the desk clerk, sitting behind a worm-eaten desk with his black shirt, black face. Behind him are the letter slots, but they are empty today, tomorrow, forever—it’s the saddest, loneliest tableau in the world, and the singer’s voice, expertly complemented by the raw blues guitar (and I have never heard the word “blues"), makes this world seem an ideal. It’s not like my sadness over Kathy Martin, over the dull brute facts of my life—instead it’s a perfect loneliness, a perfect dream space where all the pain is around me and yet I’m magically protected from it by the tough, vulnerable, infinitely sensual voice.
Nothing in my entire life has hit me with the force of the first moment I hear Elvis Presley sing “Heartbreak Hotel.” I literally cannot bear for the song to end, and when it does I race upstairs and call the station (something I had previously considered infinitely “uncool,” the kind of thing stupid girls do). I have been transformed, overwhelmed, and I don’t care who knows it. Apparently, however, other kids in our great sluggard of a city have been sitting right next to their phones, for the line is busy—and keeps being busy for half an hour. (Meanwhile, I race back down to the cellar and turn the radio up, just in case the song is played again.) After 40 minutes I give up and go downstairs to stay, while Buddy Deane begins to tally the results.
Again he sounds altered, stunned. “We’ve never had a response like this,” he says. “Already there have been hundreds of calls—and so far almost all of them have said the song is going to be a big hit.” He stumbles again. “And what’s more, most of the callers have asked us to play the song again, and so here we go, Elvis Presley singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ ”
The song starts again, and instantly I am transported as I had been the first time. The exquisite pleasure I get from Presley’s voice—the way it seems to put me in touch with something infinite and magical—is so baffling to me, so wonderful, that after the song finishes for the second time, I’m so dazed I can’t remember his name. I know it is something weird, wild and lovely and sweet all at once. I have to own the record, without delay … Even at age 12 I am self-conscious enough to wonder, “Why am I acting like this?” But the answer doesn’t seem to matter.
Upstairs, I rifle through my top drawer (knocking my tube of Butch Wax on the floor), find about 89¢ (the price of a 45), race down the steps and get my old rusted-up American Flyer named “Betsy” (after Davy Crockett’s rifle). Waving goodbye to my father, I open the gate to the backyard and start pedaling the two miles through our row house neighborhood toward recently-opened Northwood Shopping Center (the city’s second shopping center, and to our eyes a wonder to shame Frank Lloyd Wright).
My bike is three years old, a wreck; the pedaling is hard, across a parched Little League diamond and up a good long hill. Finally I get to the turnoff at Hillen Rd. and make my way up the huge new macadam parking lot to the Music Mart. Leaning my bike on the red brick wall outside Food Fair, I race inside and stare at the record racks.
The display is a Top 40 singles board, with each hit record stacked on a thick peg that resembles the spindle of my plastic pink-and-black record player. I look at the records quickly, trying to get Pat’s attention. Pat is a red-haired, freckled woman with a ponytail. She and her husband run the store, but he is rarely around. Or if he is, we boys don’t notice—for Pat is lithe and sexy, and we are all secretly in love with her.
She’s busy, so I look at the part of the board where she keeps new releases. No luck. I begin to feel a pang of disappointment … The record isn’t there and I can’t remember the singer’s name. Eventually, Pat turns, smiles at me, and says, “Hi, Bobby, can I help you?”
“Well,” I stammer, “there was this record on the radio, on Buddy Deane, you know, it was called ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and it was by a guy called … Melvis Peasley, I think. “She looks at me as if I’m a seed pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
“It’s by who?” she says.
“Melvis Persley … or Gelvis Pesley … I can’t remember the guy’s name.” I suddenly feel like the biggest fool in the history of the world. Christ, I’ve pedaled like a maniac through the 100° Baltimore heat, and 103% humidity, my shirt is soaking wet, I can hardly stand up … and I can’t get the guy’s name right. Then I remember the effect the song had on me, and I almost yell at her. “Listen, I know I sound like a nut, but Pat, I’m telling you this guy Belvis … Pesley is going to be the greatest singer of all time!”
Pat shakes her ponytail, gives me a “Yeah, yeah” shrug, then turns away.
“If it comes in,” I say, “call me.” She turns back around and stares at me curiously. “You ought to go get a Coke and get out of the sun,” she says, smiling. Then she takes my number and I leave.
I grab Betsy and drift on down to the Arundel Ice Cream Parlour, get myself a root beer float and sit outside, sipping and staring at the half-built department store. The Hecht Company—the last and greatest building in the shopping center. I’m disappointed, but something new and warm and good seems to be born inside me. It is almost a physical presence, a kind of tough warmth. It is as though I have found a secret friend—a great, wonderful, tough but sensitive older brother who has been through all I have been through and a lot more. And as I sit there in the killer heat, I begin to feel strangely good about everything. Real fine. Solid. Not so lonely anymore. Not so worried about Kathy Martin. I have never felt anything like it before and I don’t bother to analyze it. It just seems that somehow, in the most unlikely way, something really wonderful has happened to me, at long last. And I reason, as I start the long sweaty bike trip home, that something else might happen again. And it too might be good.
All the way down steaming Hillen Rd., I sing parts of that song by what the hell was his name? “The bell hop’s always crying, the desk clerk’s dressed in black. They been so long down on Lonely Street, they’ll never oh never get back. It’s been so lonely baby, so lonely, baby. Baby, so lonely … I could die.”
God, I feel good singing those sad sad words. Pedaling and sweating and singing, I have never felt so goddamned good in my whole life. Whatever his name is, I love him. His great, distant/near, tender/rough voice lifts me up, gives me strength, courage, and above all, ecstasy. He is mine, all mine.
Now it is August, 1977, and I am 33 years old. I have abandoned the city of my youth (and feel strangely guilty about it, as though I have carelessly sliced away a piece of my soul) and am living in New York. There is no lawn to be cut where I now live, and the local “shopping center” is midtown Manhattan. My life lacks no novelty. If I am bored, I can take a six-minute walk and be in the theatre district for either a play or a movie. If I am hungry, I am two minutes away from several of the best French restaurants in the United States. I am writing a commissioned screenplay on this particular evening, and outside of a recurring ulcer problem I’m feeling pretty good.
Still, there are always things to be traded away for success. Without sentimentalizing it, I miss the sense of neighborhood which Baltimore offered. I miss the fierce, close friendships that I grew up taking for granted. And, of all things, I miss a sense of continuity.
Often while walking my dog at night I think of how few things I have carried over with me. Practically nothing material … a few old records … a black-and-white television set which I no longer use … a few old books, and nothing else. During these moments I will be hit with a sense of panic, a terrible feeling that I must be drawn back, back to Baltimore, to streets that have my own signature on them. Yet, I don’t go. The action is here, and I am a man who thrives on it now. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. Still, the feelings remains constant, ghostlike, always ready to surface at some hint of the past … like a desperate call from an old friend…
I sit at my desk, trying to figure out the logistics of a scene, when the phone rings. Automatically I pick it up, and automatically I assume my professional voice of authority. (One wants to be ready to face one’s agent, one’s editor, the success or failure of friends with a mask of tough courtesy.) I can tell immediately from the tone of the static on the wire that the call is long distance, and I feel a certain tension … long distance might mean California … might mean career …
But it’s not the present or future calling at all … it’s the past. My father is on the line and he sounds tired, older than usual.
“Yeah. Hi, Dad.”
“Listen … how you doing?”
“OK. … Good. …”
“That’s great, son. I got to thinking of you tonight, you know, when I heard that Elvis Presley died. You know how much you used to like his records.”
Instantly, all my professional cool—all the defenses that I have proudly erected—are obliterated. I almost start to laugh. It’s too damned much … like a cheap novel. Your old man … the only person you can’t bullshit … your old man calling you … to tell you that a rock singer—he was just a goddamed rock singer, fer Chrissakes, and it’s not like you were buying his records anymore … but Elvis Presley dying.
“How can he be dead, Dad?” I am numb, unable to talk.
“They found him on the floor. You didn’t know? God, I though you’d hear sooner in New York.”
“No Dad, I didn’t know. Christ, I can’t believe it, but I feel like I could start crying. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it. Jesus.”
There is a long pause, and then my father sighs deeply: “I remember the Christmas we gave you that record with ‘Jailhouse Rock’ on it,” he says. “You played that damned record until I thought I would go nuts.”
“Yeah,” I say, so ridiculously shaky. It’s like your own past coming to bury you … I think of a couple of years ago, when I had forgotten all about Elvis. My girl and I were driving in upstate New York when “Suspicious Minds” came on the radio, and I had to stop the car, I was so moved. Moved that he could still do it, that he was still great … when I had almost consigned him to my great submerged past. (One I wanted to forget in a lot of ways. Best to live now. Travel light. Reflect little. Keep moving. Score.)
“Well, I don’t want to bother you if you’re working,” my father says. “I just miss you. You ought to come down to Baltimore soon.”
“Yeah,” I say, suddenly feeling dizzy, sick. “Yeah … in two weeks. Yeah.” I tell him I love him, and hang up, and sit there remembering 1956, how far I’ve come, how much I’ve left behind, and how he was one of the things you took for granted that you’d always have around. And now … Christ … he’s gone. You were sitting with Denny Blake and Ned Myers at the Boulevard Movie, flipping out over Jailhouse Rock, and he is dead.
During the next few days, Elvis is all you hear. THE KING IS DEAD screams every paper, every TV show. You are told by Walter Cronkite, you watch a 60-minute assessment of Elvis’ career by noted social philosopher Charles Kuralt, during which Kuralt attempts to “put Elvis into the perspective of the ’50s.” You retch a bit as you watch one of the brilliant devices used in this instant documentary. They juxtapose Elvis with other “things that made it big in the ’50s,” among them “instant coffee and power lawnmowers.” You stare like a tranquilized goon as they carry his body down Elvis Presley Blvd., and you hear amiable newsmen fake sympathy so they can elicit a little grief from the thousands of mourners outside Graceland.
Yet the TV flacks seem befuddled when the grief is real. Usually their patter assumed a Ted Baxter solemnity: “They came thousands of miles in pickups, in beaten Chevys, in Greyhound buses. Most they were white, middle-aged, Southern and poor.” The operative word is “they.” Oh yes, “they.” The “they”s of the world being your old man, your mother down in funky, milltown Baltimore. The “they”s who never even heard of the Hamptons, or could imagine a “private screening,” and though backgammon might be some faggot version of dominos. And suddenly as I watch, all the old redneck in me comes out and I want to call the stupid bastards and say … say … what? What could I say? Unlike Elvis, I had left my home. I wasn’t New York, but I wasn’t Baltimore either. Not anymore.
But I could still grieve. I could remember. I could be a little proud that a few months back I had been offered to co-author a book with three of Elvis’ bodyguards, and I had instantly turned it down because it smelled of shit. Now that book, Elvis: What Happened?, had hit the stands, had a five million printing, and its author, Steve Dunleavy, would become rich. Dancing on the grave. A true Heartbreak Hotel. I could sit and wait for the call from my mother, who secretly loved Elvis, and I could hear her say “Do you know this Steve Dunleavy character? No? Well, if you ever see him, tell him I think he is a creep. I saw him on Geraldo Rivera and I wanted to kick in the TV set. Elvis was a good boy.”
I sit around my sweltering apartment feeling dazed, trying to sort it out … Elvis’s huge talent, the rich mystery of his voice, which like Garbo’s face was always just beyond the reach of exposition. How many times had I heard people do Elvis imitations (or done them myself) to the amusement and knowing smiles of our friends? Yet we knew that we had missed it. The voice was his signature. His genius. Not ours. The true magic was that Elvis’ voice spoke to us so naturally that we assumed ownership.
Indeed, another call comes from my oldest Baltimore pal, Richard Moss, now working for the government in D.C. He tells me that he has just come from the Egyptian Embassy where young Egyptian bureaucrats sat humming “Love Me Tender,” drinking wine and feeling as blue as the housewives who waited up all night outside Graceland.
The shock of losing him … for me the shock of the shock, as well … is not unlike the trauma of losing JFK or Martin Luther King. In spite of all the smears written about all three of them, they seemed an extension of what we believed best in ourselves.
So why the meaness in the press coverage? Perhaps there is a deeper sadness here. A sadness which transcends one great American’s death. It is the sadness of my generation, many of whom (perhaps myself included) cannot get used to the idea that we are mortal. Of course, Elvis was our symbolic Never-Aging Rebel. And, of course he manipulated the image, and grew rich and famous off of it.
And we went for it. We went for it in the ’50s, when we needed it. When we needed—oh, how we needed—to cut out; hit the road, Jack; ride the mystery train.
And we went for it again, in a bigger way, in the ’60s … when most of us literally did the things we dreamed of doing (and that we thought Elvis was doing) in the ’50s. We headed down the American Highway never thinking that the last exit could be Heartbreak Hotel.
Which brings us to now … now that we are having trouble with our weight, have been through one or two marriages, have seen ourselves easy prey to petty careerist jealousies and all the other human frailities we so loudly proclaimed abolished. It’s as though we are unleashing our own sense of failure, of bitterness, on our first love:
“We loved you. You were our Youthful God, and when we believed in you, you made us believe we too were gods. And then you went and did it, man. You got old, you got fat, you grew lazy, confused. And then you went down the crapper. You flunked, baby. You were’t a legend at all. You were only a mortal, and a Southern shitkicker to book, like your shitkicker fans. And you left us all alone.
And so some of us feel he failed us in some essential way. That, or he cheated us. He was a romantic of the ’50s, that most existential of ages. And we loved him for ushering in our own Romance. Which is, of course, what I felt that day in my cellar … the Call … the First Stirrings of the Call … Not merely sex, but Art, Beauty, Perfection, Idealism … and we lived it to the hilt in the ’60s. But now we’ve become older, more tired, cynical and, quite frankly, afraid. His death is too much for us, because he represented too much to us … all our love, and good bodies, but all our own terrible, sensational and grotesque waste.
Yet, like our hometowns, like our parents who we once rejected—like our own pasts—finally we are powerless to reject Elvis without severing the vital connections that keep us alive. His life was a triumph over low birth, lack of education and a deadening conformist era which broke many a more advantaged man’s heart. He taught us how to begin to feel, what it meant to turn yourself loose. He seized his time, and he gave it back to us—recharged, renewed, filled with all the courage, tension and sweetness which made up his own complex and lonely heart. In short, he was simply one of us—and for a very long time, one of the best. As Auden wrote on the death of W.B. Yeats, “He became his admirers.” It is Elvis’ legacy, and his challenge to us, that we do as well for those other children of the dead ’70s, sitting alone in their dark cellars, awaiting for the Word.