Sunday, February 2, 2014

Meeting Elvis and other stories...

My friends and I in Memphis didn't consider him a star, but a greaseball from Tupelo. From my memoir, Memphis Afternoons                     

                  IN THE FIFTIES, the "right" Memphians weren't overly concerned with any music heard outside a church. There were more churches in Memphis than gas stations, or so we were told. W. C. Handy's trumpet had reverberated on Beale Street, lined with storefronts and cafes in a neighborhood that still smelled of charred hickory and the residue of barbecue sauces locally divined and applied with paintbrushes. Occasionally some blues slipped past the rusty screen doors of black bars, but white people went to Beale Street during the day only for passport photos or to rent a tuxedo or to trade an old railway watch for cash under the three dangling brass balls. Pawnshops stood in direct opposition to the prevailing notion of suburban rectitude.
The city would eventually get around to naming a square on Beale for Handy; many of the buildings would be razed and brought up again in architectural fantasies of what had existed before the entertainment was canned and the food franchised. Meanwhile the rest of downtown was being abandoned by whites. They still attended parties at the Peabody Hotel, where the Mississippi Delta was said to begin, and men in seersucker still passed beneath ornate façades of Front Street and into the old cotton emporiums, but their purpose was more and more real estate speculation and less and less the product for which the Deep South was famous.
The refurbishment of Main Street as one long shopping strip would fail to call back those citizens who had shifted eastward; it would become known unofficially as the Nairobi Mall. Today Graceland, farther from the river, lies in a welter of commercialism catering to tourists, on a street locals call Suicide Boulevard, where may be bought objects as various as Toyotas and the Graceland Coin Purse. Drivers slow down to rubberneck the music reliquaries and run into one another, hence the nickname.
Handy was not the pride of white Memphis, but then neither was Elvis, not in the fifties when he was beginning to gain a national reputation. Elvis wasn't a star here; he was a greaseball from Tupelo. His debt to black music couldn't be obscured by a message that was Caucasian, Protestant, transcendent, echoing through white fundamentalist congregations all over the South. A case could be made for Heartbreak Hotel as a fleabag purgatory for poor white boys like Elvis himself, his music ephemeral by virtue of his origins. It reached our ears over Red, Hot and Blue, a raunchy radio broadcast ruled by a countrified DJ whose Falstaff beer commercials were as well known as his choice of music: "Freeze it and eat it! Open up a rib and pour it in!" This would be followed by Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" or one of the inspirations of Killer Diller Lewis.

Memphis acquired Elvis as it acquired many of its citizens, by Greyhound or Trailways, rusty pickup or low-slung sedan, rolling in from the sweltering hinterland; the city processed him through one of the segregated schools beyond the frontiers of respectability, Humes High, where Elvis's classmates had names like Duane, Gavin, and Merle. Their hair glistened; they had an apparently genetic understanding of the internal combustion engine. We called them rogues and looked apprehensively but with wonder at their cars, more affected by gravity than ours, the smoothly rounded surfaces deprived of chrome and bright emblems of automotive distinction, reflecting an opalescent, homegrown individuality. Whenever we sighted one of these machines, we chanted, "Chopped, channeled, lowered, Offenhauser heads. Chopped, channeled, lowered, Offenhauser. . . ,"without understanding exactly what the words meant.
In stripping away mid-century ornamentation, the drivers had made their cars into expressions of mechanical rage:  super-ambulatory, highly sonorous, exclusively white badassedness. Their mufflers — "glass packs" and "cutouts" - barked in defiance of the law that had made Memphis the quietest city in the country, spraying aural spermatozoa over those broad, ordered streets. The drivers, like Elvis, carried packs of Luckies rolled in the sleeves of their T-shirts; knotty biceps hugged the polished doors as they careened from midcity stoplights, their engines fitted with twice as many carburetors as Detroit thought appropriate. Mechanics' skills were perpetuated in shop class, whereas in our shop classes we made racks for our fathers' shotguns or tooled leather purses that our mothers shoved to the backs of their dresser drawers. Outwardly we scoffed at hoodlum transport, but secretly the customized cars' owners scared us east Memphis boys, and their dates drove us to damp, solitary dreams.
These girls were known to do things in the back seats that girls from Miss Hutchinson's school did not do in the back seats of our fathers' sedans. Their hard beauty and nasal intonations, picked up in Arkansas when they weren't picked up in Mississippi or west Tennessee, signified blatant accessibility. They were not just compliant but receptive, preordained for acts of desire by dim rural customs, whereas our girlfriends seemed bred to the two-step and the preparation of toast points.
Elvis was considered culturally dangerous by our parents, but he wasn't "bad" — an accolade meaning physically tough. In fact he was a little frail for Humes, where some really bad boys decided early on to protect Elvis and so became stars in their own right. Without them the Presley baby face wouldn't have survived until wrecked by pharmacology and meatloaf thirty years later.
My friends and I weren't Elvis fans but we heard the music so much that "Don't Be Cruel" can still make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. No one actually knew Elvis. We heard about him from unlikely people: the girl next door to me had a friend who dated a boy who had once been the backup driver for Elvis on a trip to Paducah. We heard rumors of Elvis's renting the fairgrounds and allowing his friends to ride the Whip and the roller coaster and eat Pronto Pups far into the balmy, cricket-laden night. We did know that Elvis shopped for pegged trousers and hairline belts at Lansky's, on Beale, and we sometimes wandered there among the shirts with collars that could not be buttoned down, not to buy but to soak up menace. Humesians with chipped teeth I had seen at the Rainbow Terrace Room picked fights and hit with a slope-shouldered, frightening know-how that broke noses and bounced heads off asphalt.
I saw Elvis in a red midget racer on Poplar Avenue one Sunday afternoon, wearing goggles, his long dark hair undisturbed by the gale. By then he had left behind the roadhouses where he had performed for people who brought their bottles along in paper bags and for whom fighting was often more attractive than listening. We didn't know those places then, being too young to have seen Elvis in his obscurity, but word of those nights endured. We heard that people had once laughed at Elvis, and waited in the parking lot to catch him after the show and teach him a lesson. The men had seen their wives, girlfriends, and daughters writhing to Elvis's melodic stroke; a persistent rumor featured him with a length of garden hose hanging down the inside of his pants leg, a notion so stark, so sexually blatant, that it took the breath away.
The closest thing to those roadhouses that I came to know were the Plantation Inn and the Cotton Club, in West Memphis. Both required crossing the Mississippi River to another state and another set of laws. These places pulsed with a mixture of country, blues, and rock 'n' roll. Men, women, boys, and girls drank liquor with impunity and adhered to each other like flypaper. "Breaking in" on a couple was a potentially violent maneuver. A trip to the toilet might involve a physical challenge, to be sidestepped by artful insults or simply by refusing to fight or, if you were lucky, by joining the spectators at a fight already under way. More than once I stood at the reeking enamel orifice, concentrating on the job, armpits slippery, silently cursing the leisurely function of my own clammy innards. I was glad to reenter, unharmed, that enormous, raucous, smoke-strewn room.
Class distinctions were at work, but no one used that term except in the phrase "low class," synonymous with "white trash." These were, to my mind, people you saw on porches up some defile in east Tennessee, or in the Ozarks. Those standing in the forefront of rural poverty near Memphis tended to be black. Negroes may have been the missing element in acknowledged Memphis, not necessarily below the rank of a white country boy like Elvis, but of another universe, and yet there was more affection for them than for some whites, a tacit recognition of Negroes' difficult past and a culture that grew up in artful opposition to the controlling one. People like Elvis, in his incubation, had no excuse for being unattractive. Blacks were often spoken of as their natural enemies, since obstreperous poor whites "need someone to look down on." This equated people at the economic bottom without having to be specific about it, condemning their antisocial behavior when some of the worst of that went on inside the Memphis Country Club.
Twenty years later, by chance, I was introduced to Elvis in Las Vegas, where I had been sent to write a magazine article about another entertainer, Sammy Davis, Jr. We both ended up in Elvis's dressing room, crowded with backup singers, managers, wardrobe people, and bodyguards. Elvis had exchanged his jumpsuit for a red Revolutionary War coat with epaulets; his thick black hair resembled the hair I remembered, but the bloated face was someone else's. He greeted Davis, and told no one in particular that he, Elvis, had given Davis the black sapphire he wore: "Tha biggest black sapphire ah ever saw for tha biggest black star ah know." Elvis added, "I want ya'll to see my new ring," and a loop of admiration formed around his splayed, bejeweled hand. "Now this here's a star ruby. You see plenty of star sapphires, but you don't see many star rubies. . . Get a spot!"
Elvis's valet appeared with a pair of white trousers decorated with turquoise. Sammy Davis said he would like to have a pair made for himself, and Elvis said, "I give ya my permission."
Elvis returned to his separate dressing compartment and the rest of us gathered around the bar in the main room. One of the bodyguards told of visiting Spiro Agnew, the vice president, and the discomfort Elvis's entourage felt at being temporarily relieved of their weapons. Elvis had presented Agnew with a gold-inlaid magnum revolver with ivory handles. While the bodyguard talked, I watched Elvis, alone in his suite, sipping Perrier. Memphis had long since decided that Elvis was a star, not only because he had brought to the city fame that could be exploited, but because he chose to live there when he could easily have lived in Nashville, Hollywood, or Vegas. The skinny sexual demiurge who had once threatened mid-southern domestic virtue was unimaginable in this pudgy darling of Nixon Republicans. Elvis's friends seemed less affected by his success. They drank bourbon and told stories. The men had capped teeth now and sported conventional jackets instead of shiny black ones without lapels. They no longer wore the hairline belts from Lansky's, but the way they stood — feet widespread, shoulders rolling — was pure, unabashed Humes High.                                  

No comments:

Post a Comment