‘The King’ departed this world during the month of punk rock’s apotheosis. Punk had set out to destroy Elvis, or at least everything he came to represent, but never got the chance, as Elvis destroyed himself before anyone else could.Nearly forty years after his death, rock’s ultimate legend and prototype just won’t go away and his influence and legacy are to be found not just in music today, but the world over.
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Dylan Jones is the Editor of GQ. He studied at Chelsea School of Art and St. Martin’s School of Art in London before becoming the Editor of i-D magazine. He has since been an editor at the Face, Arena, Observer and The Sunday Times. Jones has won the BSME Editor of the Year award seven times, and was awarded an OBE in 2013. He has written studies of David Bowie and Jim Morrison, in addition to two anthologies of journalism and more on technology, popular culture, the war in Afghanistan and even Prime Minister David Cameron.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Also by Dylan Jones
The Eighties: One Day, One Decade
From The Ground Up
When Ziggy Played Guitar:
David Bowie And Four Minutes That Shook The World
The Biographical Dictionary Of Popular Music
British Heroes In Afghanistan (with David Bailey)
Cameron On Cameron: Conversations With Dylan Jones
Mr. Jones’ Rules For The Modern Man
iPod Therefore I Am: A Personal Journey Through Music
Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy
Sex, Power & Travel
Paul Smith: True Brit
Jim Morrison: Dark Star
From the Roxy to eternity, and back again
John Updike, from “Jesus and Elvis”
Exit Stage Left
“Elvis Presley is like the ‘Big Bang’ of Rock’n’Roll.
It all came from there” – Bono
The phrase “Elvis has left the building” was used for the first time on December 15th, 1956, by the promoter Horace Lee Logan, telling the crowd at his Louisiana Hayride, broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, that the young star had left the premises through the stage door. This night, like so many nights in future, Elvis was accompanied by his police escort. He had played the Hayride two years previously, but now he was a massive star, and needed all the protection he could get. What Logan actually said was: “All right, all right, Elvis has left the building. I’ve told you absolutely straight up to this point, you know that he has left the building; he left the stage and went out the back with the policeman and he is now gone from the building.”
Logan was not in fact trying to get the crowd to leave, but to persuade them to stay and see the rest of the acts on the bill. After Elvis had given his final encore and left the stage, the crowd rushed for the exits, even though many other Hayride acts were still waiting to perform. Logan didn’t want them traipsing round the back hoping to get a glimpse of the new boy.
“Please, young people,” he continued over the tannoy, in desperation. “Elvis has left the building. He has gotten in his car and driven away … Please take your seats.” Later, the phrase would be used as a way to clear a room, to encourage people to leave, but this first time that wasn’t the case at all.
Even back then Elvis Presley was trouble.
That December night turned out to be the last time Elvis would ever play the Hayride. His manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, had just bought out his contract, and Elvis’s show there was never broadcast on the KWKH radio station again.
“Elvis has left the building …”
Throughout Elvis’s Las Vegas years, indeed any time he played a concert, the words would be delivered, matter-of-factly, after the encore, in order to calm the crowd down, or to get them to pick up their bags and their drinks and their posters and go home. Sometimes it was the MC, sometimes a backing singer, and quite often the promoter. But it was always said. It became the punchline to a thousand different jokes, some verbal punctuation, while baseball announcers on radio and television used the phrase as a way to signal a home run. When singing the closing theme to the television series Frasier, Kelsey Grammer would sometimes follow the last line with his own version: “Frasier has left the building.”
As the Chicago Reader’s Straight Dope column once put it, the meaning is clear to all: “the show’s over, the curtain has fallen, the sun has set, that’s all she wrote, the fat lady has sung, our work here is done, move along, nothing more to see … so long, hasta la vista, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here … Scotty, beam me up.”
The fateful words were said for the last time at the end of Elvis’s final performance, in Indianapolis on June 26th, 1977. On August 16th that year, Elvis left the building forever.
Like the murders of JFK and RFK, or the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon or Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley’s death is etched in our collective memory. Whether we’re fans or not. Everyone over a certain age can remember exactly where they were when they found out that Elvis was dead. For over twenty years, since the birth of rock’n’roll in 1956, Elvis had been part of the very fabric of American life. He was an object of desire and worship the whole world over. A life without Elvis was unthinkable, unimaginable. Yet the news was incontrovertible: on August 16th, 1977 he was pronounced dead, having been rushed to the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.
We still feel his death today. A 2004 Samaritans survey of Britain’s most emotional memories, for example, placed Elvis’s death at No.20, after events such as the fall of the Berlin wall, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and the 9/11 attacks.
One man, who was barely ten at the time, remembered the moment vividly. “I’d been playing in the garden and when I came inside I found my mother sitting on the stairs, crying. I’d never seen her cry before. I asked her what was wrong. She said, ‘Elvis is dead.’”
“My parents sat me down with very serious looks on their faces,” recalled a similarly young fan. “My grandfather, who I didn’t know very well, was ill so I assumed they were going to tell me he had died. When they said it was Elvis who had died, I was completely distraught and wished it had been my grandfather …”
In the words of another, “I was working as a lifeguard at an outdoor swimming pool in British Columbia. I was on the deck and another lifeguard, who was [another] huge Elvis fan, came running out of the guard shack waving his arms, yelling, ‘Elvis is dead!’ I remember the pool, which was very busy, fell really quiet.”
According to a British devotee, “I was fixing a TV set and listening to Capital Radio late in the evening. I was just wondering why they’d played several Elvis songs in a row when the DJ announced, ‘The King is dead.’ All of the pop stations played nothing but Elvis for the rest of the evening.”
As for me, I heard the news sitting in the saloon bar of the Nag’s Head pub on London Road in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, where most of the punk bands in the area played at the time. The Nag’s Head was owned by Ron Watts, who also ran the 100 Club in Oxford Street, and everyone who played there played here. I was just seventeen. As the news spread around the bar, a couple of people appeared to cheer half heartedly, although after some stern looks from the barmen, mostly there was hush. Without access to anything other than secondhand information, the rest of the evening was spent in speculation. If it really was true, how exactly had he died? Was he alone? Was he naked? Was it true that it was a drug overdose? Could it have been suicide? I had just finished a dry run of packing for an imminent move to London, to Chelsea, and was about to start a new life. I wasn’t an Elvis fan, but this was monumental news, and my friends and I spent most of the evening absorbing its impact. If I recall correctly, that largely involved repeating the fact that Elvis was actually dead, “Fucking dead,” over and over again.
“Fuck, Elvis is dead!”
“Fuck me, you’re right. Elvis is dead!”
Media speculation about Elvis’s wellbeing – his mental state and health – had been so rife that for many his death was a tragedy waiting to happen. However it was no less shocking. After a while we began to feel as though this was our JFK moment, and that we would always remember where we were when the fat lady sang. There were the two Davids, Ross, Julian, and Russell in the bar that night, all of us around the same age, plus a couple of Americans who had just thrashed us at pool. They were more upset than anyone. They went to put some Elvis on the jukebox, but so many people were crowding around it, determined to play Thin Lizzy, Eddie & The Hot Rods and Dr. Feelgood, that they never got near it.
We were young, but there were people there that night – older men – who were far more affected than us, and their grief for Elvis clearly bound up with mourning their own lost early youth.
Then there was Sid, or “Syd” as he had rebranded himself some time before we all met him, thinking that the Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd connotations would play well in the saloon bar of the Nag’s Head. Sid was about twelve or thirteen years older than us – a lifetime when you’re seventeen – a light bulb dimmed by excessive drug consumption which, when we first met him, made him appear strangely exotic. He smoked dope all the time, and while this was appealing to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds like ourselves, even we found his habit excessive.
Being older, and owning a car, Sid became by default our driver. Whenever we were planning an excursion to Beaconsfield or Rickmansworth, or we thought we needed to spend a Saturday night at Skindles in Maidenhead, the Red Cow in Hammersmith, the Marquee in Wardour Street, or indeed the Nag’s Head; whenever we decided to spend all night up in the woods above Marlow smoking Red Leb, drinking cider and listening to The Faust Tapes, Gong’s Camembert Electrique or the first Stooges album (Sid loved the first Stooges album), Sid would be the designated driver, regardless of what condition he might be in, and regardless of what he intended to consume.
That was the thing with Sid: he didn’t outwardly change when he was under the influence of drink and drugs. He appeared to be stoned all the time, which I must admit we found appealing. “Sid’s Van,” a dilapidated old blue long-wheelbase Transit that had presumably seen better days, became the default response whenever any of our gang asked how we were going to get somewhere. “How? Sid’s van.” If one of us asked how we were going to get to and from the Reading Festival, Friars Aylesbury, the Hand & Flowers, the 100 Club or the Rainbow – or anywhere, come to that – Sid was immediately appointed our de facto chauffeur. He never volunteered, but it was always assumed that Sid would put down the bong, turn off the Deep Purple and leap up into the cabin.
Sid had a van, Sid could drive, and so Sid would drive us. It was as simple and as effective as that. He could navigate the B-roads of Buckinghamshire and the byways of Soho even when heavily self-medicated, and he would often stop and ask for directions in London with a huge and inelegantly rolled spliff hanging from his lips, attached simply by muscle memory. He was a lovely, sweet man, who went through life assuming that everything would turn out all right as long as he spent every waking hour out of his gourd, smoking roll-ups, listening to Hawkwind on the eight-track in his van and finding the funny side of almost every situation. A carpenter by trade, he would spend hours with a Rotring pen, drawing extravagant speaker cabinets that he would never find the time to make, proudly showing us all while we nodded and asked him to take us to Slough for the night.
Sid was our Gandalf, our guru, our sage, our man who had been there at the beginning. For Sid loved Elvis. Not in a cheap, ironic way, but with a genuine passion. We occasionally teased him about it, but we learned not to; this was one of the few things that would turn his mood, which would cause him to cross the central reservation on the M40 and drive back to High Wycombe. Sid was always good at digging up new music, and whether it was Tom Petty or the new Eagles LP, you could guarantee that Sid would have it before anyone else. He liked all the old head music – Greenslade, Soft Machine, Jefferson Airplane, the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac – but he was also deep into Iggy Pop and the MC5, and when punk came along he was one of the first of our gang to wholeheartedly embrace it. He felt no desire to dress like a punk – at his age it would have been ludicrous – but he got “where they are coming from.” But as we were driving back from some party in the small hours, as we were bickering over what eight-track to play next, squabbling yet again over whether Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn or Joni Mitchell’s Blue was the best thing to listen to when coming down from a massive speed binge, Sid would put on one of his favourites, either The Beach Boys In Concert, or an Elvis compilation tape largely made up of songs from his 1968 “Comeback Special,” when the King donned black leather and finally rediscovered his mojo. Sid’s van had an uncharacteristically sophisticated sound system, his own approximation of what we then referred to as “quad,” which was in fact just a bunch of randomly placed mini-speakers torn from several ancient Talbot Avengers.
Sid even had a tiny Elvis tattoo on his forearm, where everyone could see it. We thought it was pretty naff, but rather cool as well (none of us had tattoos at that point, and the whole idea was strange and exotic).
Though he looked nothing like him – Sid wore thick National Health glasses, had dank curly hair and never wore anything other than patchwork denim – he always reminded me of John Milner, the Paul Le Mat character in George Lucas’s American Graffiti, the cool kid who never left town, the drag racer who never went to college, and who never moved on. While Milner had a Ford Coupe, Sid only had a Ford Transit. But like Milner, Sid would spend every Saturday night with kids five, ten years younger than him, until they too moved on. Sid was destined to never grow up. That was what we liked about him, and why we would eventually feel we could live without him, too.
Sid went to pieces when Elvis died. He turned up in the Nag’s Head that night, having heard the news on the van radio, and instead of coming over to talk about it, just ordered a drink – he drank pints of snakebite – and went to sit by himself. We could all tell that he’d been crying, could all tell that while he didn’t especially want to be disturbed, he wanted everyone to know just how much he was suffering.
We all knew, even at that tender and callow age, that Sid had been left behind, and that with Elvis’s passing he could no longer spend his days in a state of perpetual adolescence. Now that Elvis was dead, Sid would finally have to grow up.
Although Elvis’s weight issues had started to turn him into a parody of his earlier self, in essence he had remained the same for so long that when he died it was as though the youthful enthusiasm of early rock’n’roll went with him. And this was written on the faces of all the greasy twenty- and thirty-somethings in the Nag’s Head that night. Even though most of the people in the two downstairs bars had long hair and were wearing denim – and most of them were men – you could tell that in their hearts they were seventeen, with big black quiffs and pink peg trousers. At last, this was their James Dean moment.
When Diana, Princess of Wales died almost exactly twenty years later, on August 31st, 1997, there was a national outpouring of grief, as through her immense capacity for empathy had genuinely managed to touch hearts. When she died, that was repaid, and on September 6th, a day of national mourning, three million people lined the route of her funeral procession. As Tony Blair’s New Labour government had only recently been elected, it took a form of ownership of the death, and out of tragedy came the prospect of a new political dawn.
Elvis’s death was completely different, and had a totally different effect on the US. His death was co-opted by no one. Everyone and their mother would try to exploit the death commercially, but the event and its aftermath were owned by an entire generation, a generation of baby boo...
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