I still remember where I was when I first heard the news. I was working for Richard H. Rodgers Film Media. (No, not -that- Richard Rodgers.) I was head of the booking side of the business, and sitting at my desk in the booking room when Artie Haber came in. It was a little after 4pm on the 16th of August 1977. He told me that the news reports were saying Elvis Presley had died.
I'm old enough to remember the end of the big band years. Most of the few bands that had survived had gone into television. Pop songs of the day tended towards sentimental ballads. And then Elvis burst upon the scene.
It became fashionable at one point to note that Elvis had "stolen" from black musicians and records. Back then, everyone had 'their' version of popular songs. It was the norm. It was Elvis who was most responsible for merging gospel with rhythm and blues to form rockabilly. He brought the music into the mainstream. He made the careers of most black performers possible. At one point, a nasty, racist comment was attributed to him. Black performers of the day who knew him came to his defense. No longer dealing with the mainstream press, Elvis gave only one interview about the incident - to African American magazine, 'Jet'. Even though the rumor was quickly discounted, it is still repeated and used against Presley to this very day.
In his later years, he became an object of some derision. Around 1973, after his mother's death and his divorce, Elvis' health began to decline. He became addicted to Demerol and barbiturates. He gained weight. In performance, he began slurring his words, and occasionally falling over. Even still, he was one hell of a performer. His last real hit was "Hurt". "If he felt the way he sounded", Dave Marsh wrote, "the wonder isn't that he had only a year left to live but that he managed to survive that long." Here it is, from Elvis' last performance on June 27th, 1977.
And here's the last song Elvis sang in Public, the closing number of that same June 27th, 2007 show.
I moved to Brattleboro in May of 1995. The apartment I rented had a side porch where I could often be found, gently rocking in my chair, gazing off at nothing in particular. That August, just after the middle of the month, there was an afternoon when a Church bell began to toll just after 4pm. It wasn't time for a service, or vespers, or anything I could think of. As the bell continued, I ran inside and turned on the tv - someone important must have died. But there was no such news. There was nothing in the paper the next day. It bugged me for awhile, then I forgot about it. The following year, once again in mid August, once again just after 4pm, the church bell started to ring. I remembered the previous year, and went off to turn on the tv and radio - this event was beginning to make me very curious. The months passed. On October the 31st, my then employer, the Brattleboro Food Co-op, had encouraged employees to dress up for Halloween. Several did - including one guy who was wearing a gold lame suit, and had his hair in a pompadour. It turned out that he was a big Elvis fan. Suddenly, it began to dawn on me. I asked if he remembered the date Elvis died. About mid-August he said. I asked if he remembered the time. He said that the death was reported a little after 4pm. I had moved to a town that still remembered Elvis 20 years on. I loved it. It was the kind of town I wanted to live in.
That Brattleboro is gone. More and more now, I hear the songs of those who can't make it anymore, who can't take it anymore, who have been pushed over the edge. Voices in the night singing a litany of curses. There's more homeless on the streets now. There's more people living out of their cars. They have all been made mad. And how could they not be in such times as these?
Now, I'm not an Obama fan. When he first ran for president, he often spoke of fixing middle class woes. He did not talk about the poor. No one talks about the poor. But good God - that man isn't being allowed to govern. He's been tarred and feathered as a demon by the rightist groups. They repeat untrue and outrageous statements about him and his policies. No one remembers or seeks the truth anymore. A person with a memory is now to be feared as a radical. Take the shout of "You LIE". All anyone remembers is - he lies. And the person who shouted that is now regarded as a hero for telling the truth "like it is".The recent brouhaha over the Muslims building a center near the site of the World Trade Towers is a perfect case in point. Here's what the president said:
He did not endorse the project. He simply defended their constitutional right build a center. Those on the right were quickly (and loudly) incensed. Obama was condemned for his comments. He's in with the Muslims, you know. He wasn't even born in this country. He lies. How can this be built two blocks from Ground Zero- Hallowed Ground? The yelling was so loud that the next day Obama was forced to note that he had not endorsed the project. So he was suddenly accused of "back pedaling". It was such a mess that other Democrats, who had been rather silent, started weighing in on the issue - especially those who are up for re-election. It just goes on and on from every side, and no one points out that Ground Zero isn't so Hallowed that a commercial complex can't be built at the site. No one seems to stand up and yell the truth anymore - and these days you have to yell louder than the lies. No one has the guts anymore. They can't take the risk of being politically destroyed. The president doesn't get to sing "Hurt".
While I was starting this post, I found myself telling you about Richard H. Rodgers just as the PBS station on the tv began broadcasting -that- Richard Rodgers (and Hammerstein's) "South Pacific" live from Lincoln Center. Wonderful show. Except that Lt. Cable dies offstage. Cable was the first of the cast to overcome his own inborn prejudices and fears. It's Cable who sings, "You have to be taught to hate and fear, you have to be taught from year to year.... You've got to be carefully taught." I wanted to know more about him. I wanted a chance to shed a tear over the man who stood up and told the truth. But Lt. Cable dies offstage.
One of my first dim memories of watching television was tuning in to the Du Mont channel to see "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle". But one day there was news on in its place. There was endless talk, men sitting at tables, and one really old man talking in a strange manner. After a few minutes, I changed the channel to search for cartoons. I did not realize then what I had witnessed. I did not understand it. I was not quite 4 years old. It was the final episode of a hell of a show. And the really old guy had spoken truth.
So what has happened to decency and civility? How can one promote decency when the banks and auto industry got bailed out and nothing went to the poor - except the added expense of being required to get health insurance? Oh that's right - the money spent didn't help. Even though even GM posted a profit. How can there be decency when the folks who spent the most borrowed money on overpriced houses are getting to walk away from thier debt? Even if they settle with the bank, it will be at 10 cents on the dollar. That kind of profiteering "rewards immorality to some extent.” And the little everyday guy? He got screwed. He's left wandering the night chanting his liturgy of swears. If he tries to talk back, to stand up, his character will be smeared and he'll be left to die off stage. At long last, no one has a sense of decency left. And no one rings the bell for Elvis.