“It‘s dead, it’s a disease, it‘s been going on for too long. It’s history; it‘s grown old. It’s not achieving anything. It‘s just digression. They play rock & roll at airports. It is too much like a structure, a church, a religion, a farce . . .”
–John Lydon on Tomorrow, June 25, 1980
Of the gaggle of rancid goslings just disgorged from the gravid underbelly of the transatlantic jumbo jet, their tiny outstretched brains now vodka-scoured and newly impressionable, the only one seemingly brave enough to leave the nest had just slid the entire length of the portable metal exit ramp, and lay crumpled on the tarmac below.
“Fuck me — where’s Malcolm?” said the small angular one, green hair and amber teeth akimbo. “He‘s going to do damage to himself.”
“He’s your mate, John,” said the slightly taller one, sporting a white sleeveless cassock like a football jersey, and fitted with a helmet of werewolf hair. “You feed him and clean up after him, or me and your mum is gonna drown him in the lav.” A third figure, smaller than the first and incongruously bundled in a sheepskin coat, as if he had been told to dress warmly and rarely argued, cowered behind him.
“You grow tiresome, Ste-ven,” said John, the green pikes of his hair catching the declining sun, giving him the impression of an obdurate, brilliantined insect. “I do hope this is going to be pleasant.”
As they surveyed the barren expanse before them, an apron of asphalt pocked occasionally with silver wings shining in the sunlight, they could see scattered evidence of the big river, the Nile of the South, just a half a mile to the west. Behind them, a slightly older and more decorous figure in a green velvet jacket, with a fine aureole of flaming Irish hair, emerged from the plane trundling carry-on bags, passports and a flared bouquet of travel literature.
“Boys, gather round, Valhalla awaits,” he said. “Where‘s Sid?”
“He’s gone on ahead,” said Steve, the taller one.
“Oh, goodness. Sidney, are you hurt? Do you need to go to hospital?”
“Where are all the reporters and screaming teenagers you promised, Malcolm?” asked John. His voice dripped with a constant sarcasm that his companions never acknowledged, but instead treated like some exotic accent. “You said they would be ripe for the plucking.”
“And so they will,” enthused Malcolm. “But first you must know your enemy. That is why we are bypassing New York and Los Angeles on this reconnaissance mission, where they are trained to deal with people like us. This will be where we make our stand when we return, on the fields of Atlanta and Baton Rouge and Memphis, well inside their best defenses. This is the real Colonies — a riot of genetics, a steaming cauldron of racial miscegenation and immigrant voices from the Continent and beyond. And we will find them in their beds, and we will infect them.”
“Welcome to Memphis — Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock & Roll,” read the cursive banner that greeted this ragged crew as they entered the main terminal.
“Ach, this is awful,” drawled John. “Far worse than we were led to expect. These people look like pink, plump baked beans. And this cretin mewling on the radio . . .”
“Please forget my pastThe future looks bright ahead . . .”
“That‘s him,” whispered Malcolm. “That’s Elvis. The King.”
“I can‘t wait to destroy this country,” said John.
“Don’t be cruel,” chided Malcolm.
Hours later, they found themselves unceremoniously dumped in the parking lot of an all-night diner called LeRoi‘s out on Highway 61 by a cabdriver who assured them this was the only place that stayed open late, but who may just have coveted the $20 fare. And although they dutifully had visited the cramped reactor core of Sun Records, the murky Casbah of Beale Street, the mezzanine of the Chisca Hotel, now a Church of Christ, where Dewey Phillips once sent his Red Hot and Blues out over virgin airwaves — even Graceland itself, where Sid yelled football-hooligan rhymes through the bolted gates while a minimum-wage security guard did his best to ignore them — none of these was quite so welcome a sight as the fluorescence which now beckoned from within. As they made their way through double glass doors, they passed a pink Cadillac with one tire up over the curb.
“Typical,” said John.
Inside, they might as well have set a waitress on fire or shot up the ceiling, since fry cooks, hash slingers, busboys, truck drivers, rockabilly veterans and ancient black men alike stopped what they were doing to size up an advance guard of this latest British Invasion.
“These blokes are gonna have us,” said Steve, bracing for the wave of hostility that had no doubt just tracked them stateside. Packs of diners rippled in anticipation.
Yet it was this misdirection that blinded them to their most immediate threat, a rotund figure in a waistcoat and blocked Stetson hat, carrying an elephant’s-head cane, who had emerged from behind velvet curtains in back and now bore down on them at full gallop.
“I don‘t believe you boys are from around here,” bellowed the imposing figure, as much to announce his entrance as to establish a greeting. “Colonel Tom Parker,” he said, extending a flabby hand. “Call me the Colonel. You fellas carnies?”
“What’s a corny?” asked Sid.
“The carnival outside of town. I was a carnival barker for 13 years. I could sell your handshake back to you if I took a mind to.”
“We are a corporation,” preened Malcolm, “dedicated to promoting chaos and overturning the established order, by feeding on the twin bloated corpses of fetish capitalism and corporate rock & roll.”
“Y‘all musicians?” asked the Colonel, genuinely intrigued now.
“Not him,” said Steve, throwing a glance Sid’s way.
“Well I do believe you‘ve come to the right place,” said the Colonel. “Follow me.”
They passed through the curtains into another space, roughly equal in size, but inhabited by one sole booth of half a dozen men. All were burly, with beards and mustaches, save for the figure in the middle, a freakish, swollen man in a silver lame jumpsuit and smoke-colored sunglasses. An expensive ram’s-head necklace dangled from around his neck, and a full-length white fur coat was crammed onto the teakwood mantle behind him. The Colonel led them straight to him without deference or apology.
“Gentlemen, it is my supreme honor to present to you the man, the myth, the legend — Mr. Elvis Presley.” The man made no acknowledgment of their presence, and continued to sop up what looked like molasses trickled on top of cream gravy with a lone biscuit.
“It‘s an honor to meet you, Mr. Presley,” said Malcolm obsequiously, once the moment had hung there for more than a second. “We are visiting from England. We’re on Virgin Records and we‘ll be touring here in January. Perhaps you’ve heard of us — the Sex Pistols?”
“What is it?” asked the Colonel.
“The Sex Pistols,” repeated Malcolm. “You know, I‘m an enormous fan of the rockers. Do you know Billy Fury — his manager, Larry Parnes? I love their whole foppish brutality . . .”
“Hey, that’s Jim Reeves!” interrupted Sid, as the jukebox filled the tumescent air with warm treacle. “My mum sung this one to me. ‘Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone,’” he crooned along to the record, his voice sticking out like the sound of a sore thumb. For the first time, the big man in the booth looked up at them.
“What‘s your name?” Elvis asked John, the apparent leader.
“Johnny Rotten. And this is Sid Vicious, who I named after my pet hamster. I raised him in a shoebox.”
“You did not,” said Sid. “My mum raised me proper.”
“You come here to sell me some of your songs?” asked Elvis. The guys around him appeared noncommittal but nervous about this new tributary of discourse.
“Well, we did one called ’God Save the Queen,‘ for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee,” said John. “It goes: ‘God save the QueenShe ain’t no human being.‘ That got a pretty mention in the papers; you might like that. And our new one is called ’Anarchy in the U.K.‘ ’I am an Anti-Christ!I am an anar-chist!‘ That might be a nice addition to your repertoire.”
Elvis stirred his iced-tea glass with a long-handled spoon, weighing something internally. “Why don’t you boys get you something to eat?” he said finally. “Guys, can you take them over across the way there and help them get set up?”
“Sure thing, E.,” said one, and on his command everyone slid out of the booth. “Come on with us, Vicious,” said another one.
“You sit here with me,” Elvis said to John.
“Delightful,” John sneered.
The groups subdivided, Sid with the guys, and Steve and Paul off to the pinball machine in the corner to try their hand at the skittish charms of this latest high-strung beauty. The Colonel gently steered Malcolm to a separate table.
“Hey, is this you?” Steve called back, sizing up the leather-jacketed figure on the Happy Days Bally table before them.
“Naw, he‘s too skinny,” Elvis answered. He spread his arms out across the sea-green Naugahyde as his mood gained momentum. “You better keep an eye on that manager of yours,” he said. Across the room, Malcolm and the Colonel were now playing a spirited game of RoShamBo. A small stack of money was beginning to accrue at the center of the table.
“Malcolm likes to think he’s Oliver Twisted,” said John. “He let his own grandmother starve to death; that‘s how good he is at taking care of people.”
“These people will live off our corpses long after we’re dead and gone,” said Elvis. “Pharisees and motherfuckers. You put out a record yet?”
“We done it, but it ain‘t finished. It needs one more song. Malcolm says I’m supposed to write one about what I find here. Maybe I‘ll write about you.”
“My life is an open book,” said Elvis. “Red and Sonny took care of that.”
“Who’s Red and Sonny?” asked John.
“Nobody,” said Elvis. “So I guess you hate pretty much everything you think I stand for.”
“Hate is too pedestrian an emotion,” said John, his back up now. “I only feel sorry for others. Luckily, they‘re usually too stupid to realize they merit my sympathy.”
“Well, hate is fine,” said Elvis, something inside him opening to reveal a crevice of light. “You can hate the hypocrisy and calumny of the secular world. ’For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire.‘ Deuteronomy 4:24. But you have to hate the right things. Otherwise, it’s just another sucker con they‘re running on you. Whites hate the blacks, blacks hate the whites, young hate the old. Whatever they’re showing you in this hand, it‘s the other hand you got to watch. You know what I’m saying to you?”
“Kind of,” said John in a smaller voice, the bluster gone out of it.
“Looks like your friend may have a problem over there,” said Elvis. John followed his gaze to where Sid, in an apparent act of bravado, was sawing into his arm with his a six-inch buck-knife, the blood dripping off his elbow into the clotted yolk of his sunnyside eggs.
“This will only get worse,” said John, more in sorrow than in disgust. “Sid is a born victim. Our real bass player quit three months ago, ‘cause he got cheesed off at Malcolm. Sid was my mate, and our number-one fan. But I fear he is in over his head.”
“You better take that knife away from him,” said Elvis. “He’s gonna make the wrong sonofabitch mad, they gonna slip up behind him one day when he least suspects it, and somebody‘s gonna wind up dead on a bathroom floor.”
He leaned in closer. His breath was acrid with the scent of chemicals, and you could feel the enormous effort of his heart beating in his chest. “Listen to me, now: You’ll get cheated. People around you will die, for no other reason than you can‘t save them. Your closest friends will betray you, because the temptation is too great. Your fans, they’ll love you and they‘ll hate you at the same time, and if you try and change, they won’t permit it.”
He cuffed the younger man around the neck and drew him in closer still. When he removed his shades, his eyes were pinpoints, bored into the soft mounds of fat that all but obscured them. His voice was a conspiratorial whisper.
“I want to tell you a story,” said Elvis. “People who were trying to hurt me just told the papers all of my secrets. And they‘re right; it did hurt. But they don’t know all my secrets to tell. Not the one I‘m about to tell you. You looking for something to write about, this’ll be a good one:
”I was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. Now, if you don‘t know it, Tupelo is down in the deepest, darkest roots of the Old South. ’The buckle of the Bible Belt,‘ they call it — all moss and magnolia and black water up in the bayous. Franklin Roosevelt called it his first ’Electrified City‘ when they built the big dams. He come down on the train when my mama was seven months pregnant with us, and everybody went out to meet him. The National Guard lined the tracks.
“But where we lived, we didn’t have no electricity. We were just down out of the trees. It was a little bitty shotgun shack with a kerosene lamp, where you had to stuff rags under the doors to keep the cold out. Right across from Shake Rag, which was the Negro district, where the Elvis Presley Youth Centre stands today. They still had lynchings there, even when I was growing up.
”Now, my mama — who I called Sattnin‘, and who I loved most dearly, her middle name was even Love, and she used to call me Nungin, which meant young’un in baby talk. She was scared of most everything. Wind. Thunderstorms. ‘The devil’s noise,‘ they used to call it. She was real high-strung. One time she had my daddy cut down all the trees around our house ’cause she thought there was something hiding up in there watching her. And she was real wild. She used to buck dance, just like a man, where she‘d lift up her skirt and jump around like an animal. She’d get a couple of shots of white lightning in her, and she‘d just go. She used to run with the menfolk too. Back before the Pentecostals got her.
“Well, when my mama had us, Jesse Garon and me — he was my twin brother, who died when we was born — my daddy’s folks come down to help. J.D. and Minnie Mae — Jesse was his given name, he was the one who Jesse Garon was named after — along with a midwife and one of the neighbor ladies. When it got close to time, they sent for old Doc Hunt. Doc sent everybody out of the room but J.D. and Minnie Mae. After about a half-hour, J.D. come out on the porch and he said, ‘The firstborn is dead.’ The story is: Jesse is supposed to have came out first, and they said he was stillborn. There was talk later on that Doc Hunt might have saved him, that he got startled when he saw me, cause he wasn‘t expecting nobody else. But my mama told anyone who would listen she was carrying twins. So that wasn’t it.
”My mama was the one who finally told me what really happened. She made me promise never to tell another living soul, and I haven‘t up to now. But I’m fixing to tell you. I‘m tired of carrying it around as a secret: Jesse Garon was black. He was as black as the ace of spades. When Doc reached in and pulled him out, they all just set there looking at him; there was no mistaking. Vernon — that’s my daddy — was crying. And J.D. said, ‘She don’t want a baby that looks like that.‘ And then he said, ’I don‘t want a baby that looks like that!’
And before anybody could do anything, he grabbed Jesse Garon by the throat, and he just squeezed on him until he went blue, and then he stopped breathing. J.D. said, ‘No namesake of mine is gonna be no nigger.’ He would‘ve strangled me too, except for Minnie Mae cried out, ’He‘s white; he ain’t colored!‘ and made him stop. Nobody ever saw the body; Doc Hunt spirited him away, and they buried him in an unmarked grave. J.D. finally moved away up to Louisville and changed the spelling of his name so nobody could find him. He couldn’t take the shame, I guess. Later on, I took care of Minnie Mae up until she died.
“My daddy — Vernon, I mean — he never spoke Jesse‘s name after that. Mama told me he was steer-cotted, which is a steer that’s been castrated. Folks always said she was the one who was barren, because she didn‘t have no more children, but that weren’t it. She said that one time after they were married, he got drunk and hit her, and that she went down to Florida and took up with a black man there. She couldn‘t tell me nothing about him, except that he was real handsome, and he played the guitar. He was a traveling musician who took up with a lot of married women, and he was always changing his name so that jealous husbands couldn’t find him. She called him Poor Bob; that‘s what he called himself. We tried to find him once when I first got out of the Army, me and Scotty and Bill, my backup players. Frank Sinatra hosted this welcome-home party and TV special for me down in Florida. But by then the trail had gone cold.
”After we moved up here to Memphis — ’the lights up the river,‘ we used to call it — I never a had no friends. The coloreds didn’t want me; the whites didn‘t want me. They couldn’t even say why — they just took one look at my cat clothes and my pink and black, my big old process, and they knew there was something just weren‘t right about me. I think that’s why Mama and me was always so close. And Jesse.“
”‘Substitute,’“ said John. The carapace of anger he had worn in with him had now softened into a kind of silent wonder.
”What‘s that?“ asked Elvis.
”Pete Townshend’s ‘Substitute’: ‘I look all white but my Dad was blackMy fine-looking suit is really made out of sack.’“
”Yeah,“ said Elvis. ”Something like that. Same thing as an adult. Pink Cadillacs, like the one I got parked right outside; the way I fixed up Graceland. I‘m a seventh-degree black belt ’cause I took to it after I saw Black Belt Jones and Dolemite, and now everybody just makes fun of me. Even me getting so damn fat: Muddy Waters is fat. Howlin‘ Wolf is fat. Willie Dixon? That is one fat sonofabitch. But let Elvis get up around 255, and I got to wear these damn jumpsuits and capes and a woman’s girdle. I‘d make a lot more sense as a black man than a white one.“
”I had meningitis when I was 8,“ said John. ”I was held back a year in school. It gave me terrible eyesight; that’s why my eyes bulge out like this.“
”Well, then you know what I‘m talking about. Sam knew — Mr. Phillips — because I told him that first night in the studio, right after I pulled out Big Boy Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right, Mama‘. And of course the Colonel knew. He never said nothing — even after I had my plastic surgery in the army. They cut my nose down thinner, made my eyes less hooded — less ’slumbrous,‘ like they called ’em in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. They wanted to redo my lips too, but I wouldn‘t let ’em. And they had a doctor come in from South Africa — well, he wasn‘t a real doctor, but whatever he was — and give me injections to make my skin lighter. Watch King Creole and G.I. Blues, you can tell the difference. But the Colonel found out about it somehow down in Florida. He claims to have the evil eye, so who knows how. The only time he ever brought it up was after my TV special in 1968. I got back some of the old fire, and me and Scotty and Bill and D.J. was gonna go back out on the road. We decided that night in the studio; we had it all worked out. But then the Colonel asked me how I’d feel if my fans found out I‘d been lying to them all this time — how they’d cotton to the fact that I was a half-black man. They would have lynched me. It would have destroyed everything I‘d worked for.
“That was 10 years ago now. Man. That’s the last time I played with those guys, and the last time I saw Scotty. The Colonel has his secrets too, I guess. He killed a man in Amsterdam when he was 20, and hopped a tramp steamer for New York.”
His breathing had gotten very shallow, and he took out a packet of pills from his breast pocket and swallowed the whole handful without looking at them. After a time, once his breaths had deepened and elongated, and the flush of his face added a slight glow to his countenance, he returned to his story.
“I‘m telling you this because I want you to take what I have to say seriously,” Elvis said when he had recovered. “It’s my gift to you: You can piss on it or put it in your pocket or sell it to the papers. I don‘t care. But at least you’ll know that what I‘m about to tell you I believe.”
“Right,” said John.
“Good. Because my whole life, I have known that I was special. That I was imbued with some sacred power; that God had some master plan for me. When she was carrying us in the womb, Mama used to go down to the Assembly of God service every day, where they had the holy rolling. She had a prophecy one time that her only son would be a great man, and he would carry on the Lord’s purpose. I used to think it was Jesse watching over me — ‘coming through,’ taking over me when I was onstage. All my life, I‘ve had sleepwalking — action nightmares, my mama called them — where I’d see Jesse‘s little blue face, fighting for breath, and then it would be my face, blue against a red backdrop, and then on top of that I’d see the face of Jesus. ‘Precious memories, unseen angelsSent from nowhere to my soulHow they linger, ever near meAnd the sacred past unfolds.’ The Blackwood Quartet sang that at my mama‘s funeral.
”But then as I got older, I learned there was others like me. That others had this power. This force inside of them. I don’t know how many there is of us — 12 or 15 maybe, I‘ve heard of. Sam said that some of the old bluesmen he saw had it. You get it from somebody; it’s passed on between the generations. I thought I might have got it from Frank Sinatra, but Sam thinks I had it by the time I first met him. I tried to give it to the Beatles. They came out to my house in Bel-Air in 1966. But they already had it. Or at least one of ‘em did. One of them was real polite.“
”Macca,“ said John. ”Paul McCartney. Our producer was recording him during the week and us on the weekends.“
”Paul, right,“ said Elvis. ”It wasn’t him, it was the other one. He sent me a real nice note later on, but there wasn‘t nothing I could do for him. Except that it’s always been a lot stronger in me than anyone else. We had a big storm in Tupelo when I was 1 year old. A tornado came down and sucked the feathers clean off the chickens, and shish-kebabbed the cows on broken tree trunks. A couple hundred people got killed. John Lee Hooker had a song about it. I always thought I might have got it from that. The Colonel used to call me ‘the first atomic-powered singer’; Fat Man and Little Boy was the names they gave the a Hiroshima bombs, and I always thought that best described him and me.
“The way I figure it, maybe God knew the whites was gonna kill the blacks, or the blacks was gonna rise up and kill the whites. And rock & roll was his way of preventing that. It was like a virus, a plague, only in reverse. It infected all the young people, and they carried it for a generation, and then when the times demanded it, it was like an antitoxin that inoculated us against racism and prejudice — to cross-pollinate the races and open our hearts to one another. It‘s taken a while to work itself out, and it’s got a ways to go, but that‘s mostly what it’s done.
”That‘s why I sing to mostly white people now. Las Vegas, the International Hilton, whitest people I can find. ’Cause they‘re the ones that most needs it. I’m like a missionary, only the opposite. I‘m going into the heart of whitest America, and I’m carrying the black gospel. That‘s why I always close with ’The American Trilogy‘– ’Dixie,‘ ’The Battle Hymn of the Republic‘ and ’All My Trials, Lord.‘ The South, the North and the slaves. I’m the one person can bring us all together. That‘s what Sam used to say: ’I ain‘t looking for no tall stumps to preach from.’ Just let me do my part.“
”Why are you telling this to me?“ John finally asked. ”Why did you choose me?“
”Because I‘m tired,“ Elvis said. ”I’m operating on but one cylinder. And I feel intensely alone at heart. ‘I’m so lonely, I could die.‘ I just don’t think I can get it up to go out on tour again, even though we‘re set to leave on August 17. I have aches all through my body; I have to take whole buckets of these pills just to get through a day. It’s time to pass it on.“
”To me?“ asked John, startled. ”I‘m gobsmacked.“
”I’ve been around long enough to recognize the Lord‘s handiwork when I see it,“ said Elvis. ”Something brought you in here tonight. And I’ve been waiting for something, I didn‘t even know what. Just trying to hang on until I received some sign.“
”But I hate rock & roll,“ John protested. ”I’m not your man.“
”Well, maybe that‘s your role,“ said Elvis. ”Maybe your job is to kill it off — strangle it like J.D. strangled Jesse Garon. Maybe it’s got to die for something else to be born. Or maybe it‘ll fight back, become something harder, scrappier. The holy fire. I don’t know. I can‘t get up high enough to see over it.“
”’When the two sevens clash,‘“ said John, growing animated. ”Marcus Garvey prophesied that when the two sevens clash — 1977 — it will be safe for the Rastafarians to return to Ethiopia. ’And for Babylon the wicked, there will be brimstone and lightning and thunder.‘“
”Now you’re thinking,“ said Elvis.
”But what if I don‘t want it?“
”You in Tennessee, son,“ said Elvis. ”This is the Volunteer State.“ With that he took his enormous hands and folded them down over the younger man’s forehead so that they formed a perfect skullcap. Something within them seemed to glow and hum, and then all was still again, save for the faintest smell of carbon in the air.
”You will be a man, my son,“ said Elvis, folding his hands in benediction.
Malcolm sauntered over to their booth as the Colonel watched them all from some remove, the original suspicious mind, missing nothing.
”Are you getting along famously, I hope?“ Malcolm asked, roseate in the bloom of victory.
”It‘s been stimulating,“ John snarled, the old curdle returning to his voice with a practiced whip crack.
”We’ve been getting along just fine,“ said Elvis, a weight now lifted from him, taking years with it. Seeing that his private audience had concluded, the guys trickled back over so as to better be at his beck and call, and seemed to catch the updraft in his mood.
”Your Colonel thought he was going to win my boys in a game of chance,“ said Malcolm. ”But I brought out the two-pig-bluff, and I don‘t believe he knew what hit him.“
Sid made his Vicious face — cocking one corner of his lip up past his nostril and sang, ”’She‘s sure fine-lookin’ manShe‘s somethin’ else.‘“
”Hey — you do that thing,“ said Elvis.
”What thing?“ asked Sid.
”My snarl. You do my snarl. I got that from Frank Sinatra in The Man With the Golden Arm. I did it in front of him once, I thought he was gonna pop me in the snoot. That’s why I took ‘My Way’ away from him.“
”What‘s ’My Way‘?“ asked Sid.
Elvis closed his eyes, his voice tattered but still held aloft, giving proof through the night. He struggled through the first few bars, the sound a shimmery rasp, but then the hoarseness cracked, like a break in the clouds, and a warm golden radiance shown through.
”And now the end is near
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I’ll say it clear,
I‘ll state my case, of which I’m certain.
I‘ve lived a life that’s full.
I‘ve traveled each and ev’ry highway
But more, much more than this,
I did it my way.‘“
”I like that,“ said Sid.
”Well then, you can have it,“ said Elvis. ”I make you a gift of it. Any you boys want a Cadillac?“
”No, we’re fine,“ said John. And then, when this didn‘t seem to be quite enough, he turned back and gave a full open-hand salute. ”God save the King,“ he said.
”The King is dead,“ said Elvis.
”No, we mean it, man,“ said John.
”So do I,“ said Elvis. ”Long may he reign.“