Tuesday, August 16, 1977, Escondido, California
“The King is dead.”
Danny and I are in a men’s store in Escondido, a store I used to browse when I first loved Elvis and Danny’s father. Don’t step on my blue suede shoes. We have found a pair of thongs big enough for him.
“Elvis Aaron Presley, the Tennessee truck driver whose hip-grinder performance style helped launch the sexual revolution as he became America’s greatest king of rock ’n’ roll, died Tuesday afternoon of a heart ailment. He was 42
”Everyone is stopped in their flip-flops.
“His mother, Gladys, died exactly 19 years ago today. She was also 42.”
“That’s suicide, that’s a broken heart,” I mumble.
“‘That’s All Right, Mama,’ his first recorded song.”
“‘I think of her nearly every single day,’ he said.”
“His twin brother, Jesse Garon, dead in the birth he survived...”
I’m so lonely I could die.
“Your son’s going to be the great white hope,” Ray laid on me again, after picking up Danny at his paternal grandparents’ in Pacific Beach, where he’s been surfing. My brother-in-law doesn’t give a hoot about my disgust. Danny’s
his nephew-in-law, and these are the facts if I want to help him in this crucial phase of life. Told me again that if he doesn’t grow any more, 6 ́5 ̋ is tall enough to make it into pro basketball. “Every team, for the fans’ sake, has to have at least one white guy.
“Palomar — where his father played — would be his best bet. Two years of strong play at a good JC...” Palomar, where my brother-in-law teaches. My alma mater too. “Andy Gilmore at Palomar has concern for his players, he’s not into the meat market.”
Danny and I drive up the mountain to Ramona in hot summer rain. “His hips twisted, his body shook, he had a way of looking at you sideways with his chin pulled in.” August; it never rains in Southern California!
“Oh, Mom, it’s awesome out there!” Danny tells me surfer stories. “Whatcha doin’, Danny?” I asked him on the phone. Catchin’ a little wave. Shootin’ a little hoop. Watchin’ a little tube.” How much healthier surfing seems than football, even basketball.
“Just hours before Elvis was reported dead there was a rare hurricane in San Diego. Hurricane Doreen.”
Slick-haired, sneering-lipped, slinkyhipped hurricane, I’m all shook up. I’m 14, waiting for Ramon. A man with the weirdest name sings on the radio, “Heartbreak Hotel,” where the bellhop’s tears flow and the desk clerk’s dressed in black. I see a fat, balding old man, but hear in the haunting protest of his voice that Heartbreak Hotel is where I will room, too, and all of us in this late and terrible time, only the lonely beauty to assuage us. I say aloud, like a prayer, “I love you, Elvis.”
“Why didn’t they name it Hurricane Elvis?” Danny muses as we slosh around the hill, windshield wipers keeping time. He’s so tan, so
handsome , his blond Afro bleached neon white from the ocean. Wait until the recruiters see him now. Last spring they were saying he’s the all-around biggest and strongest 16-year-old they’ve ever met.
“They name hurricanes for women,” I snort. Danny knows that rap on sexism.
“Police Chief A.E. Hansen threatened Presley with jail if he ever returned to San Diego and ‘gyrated’ as he did in his 1956 performance.”
We rioted!” I laugh. “The only time I was part of a mass hysteria. I’ve always been so grateful. Made me understand something I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
So I tell my boy — older than I was then — about it. I still have my ticket: One show, Wednesday Only, June 6, 1956, 7:30 p.m. In Person Elvis Presley, RCA Victor Artist, The Nation’s Only Atomic Powered Singer — 2500 seats only $1.50, San Diego ARENA, 8th and Harbor.
Daddy and Sam the Bank Robber, both from Tennessee, like Elvis, took us, a carload of girls, plus Clarke, my little brother. The others didn’t know who he was. I hardly knew myself, except that I loved him on the radio, and I knew rock ’n’ roll was important. I’d been arguing about this with Jesse Barns and others who said, just like the adults, it’s trash, not music.
Now I’d gotten this trip together. Descending into Poway from Ramona in Sam’s new Chevy station wagon, a sliver of moon setting over the hills, “Blue Moon” came on the car radio. We broke out, “I saw you standing alone...” Funny. “Moonglow” was number one on the charts that week. But “Heartbreak Hotel” was creeping up.
I’d never been to a concert before. I hardly knew what to expect.
“So many girls,” my father gasped at the Arena. They dropped us off. “We’ll be waiting right here when you come out.”
We walked into the biggest crowd: 2500 seats, but 5000 are jammed in. Ours are a million miles from the stage, up in the rafters, the Arena like an enormous gospel tent. These boring groups keep coming on first, the Flaim Sextet, the square comics. A low hissing, keening, booing, something is growing, then this other thing, the drumming stomping of 10,000 feet to the chant: WE-WANTELVIS! WE WANT ELVIS!
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the nation’s only atomic-powered singer!”
Twenty-one-year-old Elvis Aaron Presley is standing behind the mike with his legs spread, his head cocked. Not a fat and balding flophouse old man. He hits his guitar, and cellblock number nine, a riot’s going on!
I hear someone screaming. I’m a shy person, but I realize it’s me! “Look at what he’s doing with his legs!” I can’t believe my eyes, what he’s doing with his hips. Neither can anyone else. I’m trying to tell Sylvia, “Look at what he’s doing with his hips!” so afraid she can’t see it, so shocking, so forbidden it is. I scream, “LOOK AT HIS HIPS! LOOK AT HIS THIGHS!” pounding into her left side, which is pounding into my right side in the rhythm of the stomping, but my words are drowned out by thousands of others screaming about his hips his legs his face his hair his clothes his song. I am desperate to tell her, but she can’t hear me, she’s screaming so loud her face is exploding, trying to tell me something, the most important thing we’ve been dying for, for all of eternity.
Solid noise is building, and this enormous wave moves toward the stage, a sea of tortured girl-faces, blinding tears, trying to get to him, girls tumbling into the aisles, crawling over people, the jumping stomping feet. He’s doing splits, kneedrops, crawls to the edge of the stage, leaps back from the clutching hands. Then, he... burps ! At that, Barbara Evans, who later will be crowned Miss Ramona by Raquel Welch, in the same beauty contest where I will come in last, takes off, dropping down the packed bleacher rows. “ I have to ,” she mouths up to us, her blue waterpool eyes drowning all protest. “Don’t forget me, you guys, but...I have to... ”
She disappears into the 10,000. “I have to touch him, I have to touch...” the lonely boy on the distant stage strumming his blond guitar, writhing his pelvis just for us...GIRLS! We scream ourselves right out of time, Love, what we were born for, here at last.
Though out there in the night the sirens are already coming for him. Then it’s all over, we are delivered back to Hell, and Elvis is gone. The stage is deserted. It’s just us, torn and kissed and watered with our own tears.
Outside the Arena, Daddy and Sam grab us as we emerge with the mob. My 12-year-old brother Clarke standing there with his mouth open. A battalion of police with billy clubs, red whirring lights, sirens screaming. Thousands of sobbing girls.
“This Elvis Presley came out,” my father is sputtering. “I saw him! They were throwing their underpants at him. The police threw him in the back of a paddy wagon.” To this day, my father still testifies his shock at what he saw in girls that night.
We wait a long time for Barbara, convinced she’s been crushed to death. Sobbing, howling, girls continue to fall out the Arena gates, clothes and hair rent, to the stunned and mostly silent parents waiting on the curbs. A bunch are clawing at the Arena walls, and a few have broken through the police ring and are crawling on top of two white Cadillacs parked in front, leaving lipstick kisses, telephone numbers.
At last Barbara emerges from a huddle of cops, holding her right hand before her blood-glazed eyes, gasping, “I touched him, I touched Elvis Presley....” (Or maybe she touched someone who had touched him.) She had been lifted up, laid out over the heads of others, to reach the stage, to touch him.
All the way back to Ramona, the future Miss Ramona remains touched. Always, I will think she touched the secret of stage greatness that night, enabling her to win the contest.
That summer the war on juvenile delinquency and rock ’n’ roll escalated. The churches, the courts, the cops went nuts: Nigger music! Fire and brimstone! The media jumped in, selling papers. The scapegoat: Elvis Presley.
In early September he’s on The Ed Sullivan Show. I’m pressed close to our set, waiting. I love the United States of America. I believe we have Democracy. Eighteen months ago, Elvis Presley was driving a truck in Memphis for $35 a week. Now he’s earned more than $50,000. Daddy sits behind me on the couch, sullen. The camera is kept above his waist. I’m praying to Jesus: “Show his hips. Show his legs.” I’m praying to the founding fathers of my country for our Bill of Rights. In this great land, censorship is wrong. But the camera is kept above his waist. I die for his humiliation, their attempted manipulation of all girls. I’m screaming again, but below my breath; I’m so angry I could die. Only women are allowed to perform for the opposite sex, to bump and grind, the way the camera focused on Marilyn Monroe’s rear end this summer in River of No Return. The naked women on my father’s poker cards. On the calendars, the magazines in the garages of the fathers. Only men are allowed to sexually dream on the bodies of women. Women are to be dreamed upon.
For me, maybe for most girls, it was the other way around. I wasn’t dreaming on his body, but his free masculine energy, that we were privileged to see it and to partake of, if we chose.
Three months after The Ed Sullivan Show, the police chief banned him from ever returning to San Diego. “If he puts on the same kind of show here that he did last June, I’ll arrest him for disorderly conduct.”
Now, on the day Elvis Presley leaves this realm, I am hauling up a stormy Clevenger Canyon with my son and dog Moonlight, the road I learned to drive on — miraculously did not die on, or kill anyone else on in the effort to get home by my father’s curfew.
“Hard to imagine,” Danny sighs. “That Elvis Presley could cause...havoc.” The gold hairs on his brown wrists glisten. When they say “biggest” they are talking about his bones, which he gets from my side. His height is from his father, whose bones are long and slender. You’d think width and length would come from the same gene.
“Yeah,” I say. How to explain the rapidity of Elvis’s destruction? Senior year, I was interviewed for the high school paper, Who is your favorite singer? Two years before I was scandalous for liking him; now I was laughed at.
“It started with his first movie, Love Me Tender. They killed him with shame. He had no notion of being obscene; he was doing what came naturally, what his Mama applauded. He thought he was doing the right thing, like the blacks in his neighborhood, the folks in his Holy Roller Church, and making all that money. Then the Colonel got him, the Army drafted him, his mother died, and it was curtains.
“For years I’ve tried to write a poem about the Twins, Elvis and Marilyn. What happens to the boy and girl in America?” I sneer over the wheel into the rain. “Teenagers are just crazy. It’s hormones or something.”
A bolt of lightning dives down the other side. “Bullshit!” I crack too. “You can’t put off facing contradictions, you have to grow up, become really crazy, evil, right in the face of their so-called love, their Bible training! Propaganda about how good America is!”
How clear this is when you’re a kid, the adults’ sick hypocrisy, their footsteps you’re supposed to follow in. You resist, rebel for as long as you can.
“It was no different then than now, Danny. The teenage crime rate pretty much stays the same, but it’s always hyped as growing worse by each new generation of parents, who have to deny what they once knew. Adulthood in America is the mass psychosis.”
We’re still trying to climb Clevenger Canyon, named for the Indian killer in the novel Ramona. The wind is unbelievable.
“I raised Elvis to be good and kind,” the radio is quoting his mother. “He came back from boot camp with the whole plumb United States in his pocket.”
“You watch,” I say, “before we get home, they’ll say he was a Mama’s Boy.”
Finally, we hit the top, start coming down into the Santa Maria Valley. The sky is streaked in clouds and colors and lines so fantastic it looks like a painted movie set. “They make a big deal about his music being black, but more than that it’s from his mother. The whole thing about Elvis Presley was his unthwarted, unashamed, profoundly emotional relationship with his mother. No one ever gets this. Or if they do, it’s seen as a perversion, not as the source of his genius.
“His father was 17 when he was born, his mother 21. He was born a twin, and his brother Jesse, though stillborn, was never forgotten. When he was three, the father and his uncle, his mother’s brother, were sent to prison for forging a $4 check of his landlord’s to buy a hog. The landlord set them up. Elvis was left alone with his mother. When Vernon came home, he was a scarred man, literally — carried the flog marks on his back. Elvis would say to mystified reporters, ‘Lay off him, you don’t know what he’s been through.’“
They were primitive in their isolation in Tupelo, Mississippi. This was before TV, but there was the radio and music and the church. His mama’s brothers were preachers. Holy Rollers — he hated that term — they were members of the Assembly of God church. They moved a lot, lived on the edge of vital black neighborhoods. The family of three were close in their oneroom shacks. Then when he was in high school, they moved to downtown Memphis.
“Elvis was so young when he hit, still so connected to his mother. In high school he was weird — he wore mascara — didn’t split from her the way boys are supposed to — white boys, at least. He’d been around all those black mamas, and sons like him. The connection enabled him to turn great in her eyes, in the spotlight of the adoring woman, who said, ‘Look at my incredible boy!’ He was pleasing
her , just doin’ what he’d always done.
“Then she died, Gladys Love — his mother’s middle name was Love! — she probably died of the same thing as Elvis, AMA-prescribed drugs. And the shame .” She was to blame for this freaky, scandalous boy! And the loss: the Army took him. She got sick. He moved her and his father into a house outside the base. I could believe the Colonel slowly poisoned her — so his boy would become a man. Maybe she just up and died, finally getting it. After all, Jesus denied his mother. The Church, the Army, the Capitalists, the RCA rock ’n’ roll contract, and prescribed drugs made sure he died — that is, became a man.”
My son still seems to be listening.
“They killed Gladys and Elvis as they do all mothers and sons. Jesus, Jesse, Elvis — here are reasons we’re hooked on Elvis. He’s the Son, the male with heart, murdered by his father on the Cross.”
Finally, eyes rolling, Danny gives me his exasperated look.
“That’s the reason you were not raised a Christian. Jesus studied the ancient Goddess religions, tried to deliver the message of Love. But Christianity’s love is
not Love, it’s patriarchal power. More people have been murdered in his name — the Church is evil in its teachings of superiority. It destroyed the mother/son core of the Goddess religions by laying over it the one of the Son dead on the cross — dead to his body, his heart, his mother, his boyhood, his people, the earth, all of nature — to become the Father in heaven. The cruel, fucked-up father who demands his child’s death.
“They made this barbaric death the core of Western religion, to destroy the sacredness of mother-son love, to make death the heart of the male, to force mothers to bow down to their boys. The greatest killers in history are teenage boys who’ve left their mothers for the military. They’re trying to prove to the Colonels they aren’t Mama’s Boys. The crucifixion is symbolic of what every son must undergo to attain adulthood in the patriarchy, the martyred death every mother has to release her son to.
“And, because, Danny, we are forbidden to figure out this stuff, because what I am saying to you could get me killed, that’s why that preposterous image, a naked bleeding dead young man nailed to a cross, maintains its ominous power in the world. It’s at the heart of our tragedy, the martyred son, why we have slaughtered so orgiastically and why we are doomed for destruction.”
boom! thunders across the valley in prophetic agreement. I jump slightly and Danny whistles through his teeth.
I make the turn through the deluge. Ramon’s house, onto Olive. Talk about the murdered boy. Even then, I preferred fatherless men, so much more in touch with their hearts. Up the hill, past the shed for his cow where we loved, my boy is still listening.
“By the time of the funeral, someone will dare to say Elvis and his mother were lovers. But it’s fathers who molest the daughters.”
I apologize for the generalization, but having said it, am struck by the revelation.
“God raped Mary! Talk about nonconsensual sex! The father visits himself upon her, she hasn’t the foggiest, the boy born of his dominance must die of his dominance. That’s the patriarchy: He created him, not the woman. By rape, by his almighty power. God, our raping unknowable almighty Father who art in Heaven, that’s the male role model — not that poor foolish boy Jesus!”
I don’t really know how much my son knows of the story.
Myrrh’s father rapes her while her mother is at the annual Goddess rituals. Pregnant, she flees, he catches her, prepares to kill her, but she turns into the Myrrh tree, and as she ossifies, she births her son from her side. Jesus dies on the Myrtle tree with the three Marys at his feet. Wrapped in a hundred pounds of myrrh, he rises first to Mary Magdalene.
“They molest their daughters to cut themselves from their mothers. They rape their daughters for the same reason they want to destroy their sons, to claim them over the mother’s bond that they’ve lost. The daughter is sexually furthest from the now-hated, taboo mother. They’re jealous, crazed, because they have a confusing memory, which is really heartbreak for the loss of their mother, which is the loss of themselves. So they dream of being back inside her.
“Lots of male poets have told me of this sexual memory, of heartbreak mixed with the hormonal rush of puberty; their poems lead back to it. In this culture, there’s only one way to interpret this: they want to fuck their mothers. So they learn not only to deny their longing, they accuse the mother and son of their own perverted desire, and they turn it into straight-out conquest sex, the only allowable relationship with the female, and rape the daughters and sisters to prove they are men. A psychological reversal, a cultural-spiritual dyslexia. Their whole life revolves around this tragedy everyone in this supposedly enlightened culture is blind to.”
“Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true.”
We both laugh. Guess this is our facts-of-life conversation.
“They’ll say Elvis and his mother were lovers as they probably say it of us, because in this sick world, sex is the only valid relationship between a man and a woman, and because they are jealous and confused, betrayed, so sickly sexualized. They will tell you — you have to get away from your mother.”
“‘The only thing wrong with you, Doubiago,’” my son quotes the words of a coach at basketball camp, “ ‘you were raised by a hippie mother.’ He said I got to get my mean together.”
“Talk about castration!” I blow back. The tires are going to blow too from the sharp crunching seed pods. “Talk about Catch-22! Your one true ally is the big taboo, right? This is what happened to your father, Danny. The shame, the humiliation of not wanting to cut from his mother.”
He’s staring stiffly ahead. Lightning flashes across his face, which looks like mine now. Sometimes he looks like his father. What is he supposed to do with these facts of life?
“She capitulates because she wants her son, your father, to be happy. To be a man. To be successful. To be loved in the world. She teaches him to eat, to poop, to walk, to talk, to read. She helps him out into the cruel world. But also, and here’s the schizophrenia of it, she’s been taught that a strong mother and a weak father is dangerous for her son, will make him a homosexual, a weirdo. No one sees that this combination was the source of Elvis Presley’s greatness — not to mention the historical Jesus, with Joseph as his father — and why the world responded so greatly. So she remains subservient to the weak man. She’s trying to be feminine, to be Christian.”
I’m trying hard not to rant, not to turn him off. “The mother-son relationship is the great taboo. The son must learn to hate his mother. This is JudeoChristianity, capitalism, patriarchy. Nothing would work as it does if the mother and the son weren’t killed.”
“My mama done told me,” he sings, finally letting me know he’s had enough. “My papa too.”
But barreling down Olive like a river to my parents, to the house I grew up in, was most unhappy in, though they wanted to be good parents, Elvis singing, “I don’t care if the sun don’t shine” — Oh, that he died on the day she died, that is suicide — I’m seeing the alchemy of mother and son. Jesus coming across the sand from the East, where he’s studied with the Goddess religion. In the original societies, the mother/son relationship is the core, not the masculine imbalance of the father/son core of the patriarchy.
“The Cherokee — did you know Elvis was part Cherokee, like us? They did not allow fathers to discipline their sons. A Cherokee child was never hit. One would lose one’s self-dignity. Soon the whole tribe would. Guidance came from the mother and her brothers.
“It was understood that male rule becomes dominance. The male ego not in balance with the female becomes hatred — of children and the female, of others, of nature — hatred is the only way to maintain dominance. So the true masculine role model must come through the other side, just as the son came through her body. Your mother’s brothers — that’d be Clarke for you. Just as you would be the role model for your sister Shawn’s sons.”
Oh! Goddess. This chalice of male essence, held holy down through the mother’s family. The structure of family gets turned around when the mother’s power is not despised and destroyed. Why don’t we study these things? How were children raised in those war-free, sensuousloving, ancient matricentric societies? What were the roles of male and female? How would Goddess worship — as opposed to God worship, with its decree of female subservience — and revered mother/son, brother/sister relationships affect the lover relationship? The father relationship? The sister and daughter relationship? The individual psyche? The structure of society?
We’re headed right into the turkey farm at the foot of Giant’s Grave.
“There are lots of fucked-up mothers, Danny.”
The turkeys are bunched up under the long sheds. I barely make the turn, hearing in Hurricane Doreen’s pounding one of my mother’s oldest aphorisms: “When a woman goes bad, she’s more evil than a man.”
“Women are products, just like the men, victims of patriarchy. What I’m talking about is not so much physiological, you-got-penisI-got-vagina, but psychological. Everyone gets twisted.”
As I make the next 90degree turn, he’s singing, “That’s all right, Mama, any way with me ...” The radio carries it on.
“When he graduated from high school, he went to a record store to make a disc to give to his mother, ‘My Happiness.’”
“God, I never thought to wonder what happened to him that night in custody of the San Diego Police.”
“As far as anyone knows, the last time he ever sang was this morning at 7:00 a.m., just before he went to bed. Elvis was a night person. He played the piano, and the last song he did was ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.’ He used to say that when he died it would rain all over the country, and he was right, it is raining, folks, even in the desert, even in Las Vegas!”
Or what happened to him in boot camp, custody of the U.S. Army. Jesus at the hands of the Romans.
Daddy greets us as we pull up the hill, the rain threatening to undermine his new asphalt drive. This hill I waited for Ramon to climb. That pepper tree. To come through my window.
“More letters.” Daddy hands them to Danny as we climb out of Roses. “For Dan the Man...Dan the Recruit.”
Jim Stanley again, head football coach at Oklahoma State University; Rich Brooks, head football coach at the University of Oregon; Terry Shea, from Utah State University; letters from football coaches at UCLA, UNLV, ASU. One basketball coach, Stan Morrison, at University of the Pacific. Daddy reads to Danny in front of a 30-foot saguaro cactus. The same thick wrists and fingers, but my son towers over my father’s six feet.
“It was a distinct pleasure to have an opportunity to meet you at the Squaw Valley Basketball Camp. I am most impressed with you both as an athlete and as a young man... Over the upcoming year, you may rest assured that you will hear a great deal more from us...I hope you realize you really are a basketball player, not a football player...Please forward my regards to Coach Mastin. I sincerely trust that one day you will find a way to thank him for his enthusiasm and help...”
Why do these guys make me see the Colonel chewing his cigar? I want you, I need you, I love you.
Inside, in front of the TV, the 13-year-olds, my daughter Shawn and Clarke’s daughter Chelli, are miming, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog!” They crack up laughing, falling on the floor. “Ugh, Elvis Presley! So fat, so boring, so...’60s.”
“Hoping to avoid controversy, Steve Allen dressed Elvis in a tuxedo and had him sing to a dog.”
I start to tell them, then give up. Sit down and watch the television behind their wonderfully wiggly bodies.
“Although he complied, Elvis was furious. Less than 24 hours later, he walked into RCA’s New York studios to record ‘Hound Dog,’ pouring his true feelings into the music, a shocking burst of noise, defying every uptight arbiter of good taste. Incredible ringing music! There are places on ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ and ‘Mystery Train’ where Elvis, unable to restrain himself in the presence of Scotty Moore’s soaring, thundering guitar, shouts right out loud and laughs with the sheer exhilaration of it.”
See the genius of Elvis Presley, his shocking Boy strength. Elvis was a good old boy, that’s why he’s so loved. He never became a man, only more passive, introverted, controlled, rich, fat, drugged, victimized, and martyred. Could fuck only 15-year-olds. Never the authoritarian, the Colonel, the coaches, never God — no one really loves those guys — but like Jesus, Elvis stayed the son.
Nine years on the run from 33, he’s dead on the cross. Father’s orders.
“He was accused of fornicating with a dog onstage in Hollywood... The next night every movie star in the business was in the front row.”
The muchachas are in paroxysms. Me too. I could cry. I’m in kindergarten. Music’s not allowed in our house. Daddy complains when Mama hums at the kitchen sink. She explains that his mama was a Southern Baptist. Singing is a sin except in church. Even though Grandpa, the Devil of Ducktown, never missed the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Daddy’s not used to a woman singing, but someday I will have a piano, she’s working on it. Then Karen Pohlman gets an electric pedal slide steel guitar for her sixth birthday. After she has her lessons, she sets up on the sidewalk out front of her house and gives me mine. In her cowboy boots, in my red ones, beneath her hat, beneath mine, she holds the heavy metal bar in my hand, plucks and presses the fingers on the other one to the strings, slides my hand down. Oh!...the...sound...exactly ...that sound...dear Jesus I was born to. Clitoral.
The radio, the sound, the guitar, the summer. The beat of Ramon’s body against mine. All the lonesome years later, I danced as I vacuumed down this, my mother’s long living room, the echoey old lobby of my father’s heartbreak hotel.
Oh, Elvis, I’ve been mourning your death since high school.
Nightmares all night. Trying to clean my ears with Q-tips. “Are you lonesome tonight?” Dreams of running from the landlord, hiding in a boarding house on a bad street. Stabbing my love in the groin, rushing him to the hospital. What happens to the boy in America?
Awake. Afraid. Coyotes screeching across the scorched hills. Until he comes through the window from the pepper tree and lies beside me, the throbby ache of my belly for his hands, his smell, the sound of rock ’n’ roll. The deep guttural pelvic beat. A million zillion feet. The music that’s been beaten out. These crazy explosions. What you hear. The scrape of the tree against the house, Santa Ana. The howl of the universe’s blood rocking through the body. I’m seven. He comes to me. Eight. When I’m most afraid. Nine. Nightly. Ten. My Personal Savior. Eleven. The Living Flesh. Twelve. Always he stands there beside my bed. Takes me in his arms, the smell of living flesh, the sound of light. He moves me over and across the world, into the hearts of the enemy, Hitler, the Russians, the Koreans. The feel of his flesh upon me, love thy enemy. Thirteen. Turn on the light.
Wednesday, August 17, 1977, Ramona, California
Flags at half-mast in Memphis; 80,000 view his body in front of Graceland. “Even Elvis, it seems, would have been surprised by the public outpouring.”
The storm is over. “There will be peace in the valley.” Danny and Daddy gone deep-sea fishing. Shawn and Chelli gone school-shopping with Mama. Open The San Diego Union.
The Statue of Liberty Look-Alike Link
“200 Elvis Presley imitators have arrived at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Comparison of the close-up of Miss Liberty, left, with a photograph of Presley, right, will reveal why the performance is a fitting tribute.”
Wow! The face of Liberty looks more like Elvis than Elvis does himself!
“The face buried deep in the white satin lining of the coffin, its configuration, and particularly the dark shadowing around the eyes, makes Elvis in death resemble his mother Gladys.”
Your mother begged you to love Pat Boone instead of Elvis Presley.
Now you’re 36. When Marilyn was 36, she killed herself. Or was murdered. America’s great white hopes. Your son will be. Pull from the shelf Look Homeward Angel . “The earth was spermy for him like a big woman.” Mama’s father’s favorite book, your redheaded CherokeeIrish grandpa. Dead at 36. Thomas Wolfe was 6 ́7 ̋. “My advice, Dan? Grow two more inches.” What happens to the boy? Gladys Love birthed two, Jesse Garon and Elvis Aron. He was always so lonely, he’s my brother, he’s not heavy, carried Jesse with him into this Vale of Sorrow, oh Mama.
“He dissolved into a presentation of his myth, and so did his music, his voice prostituted to a huge orchestra. Where once it reverberated in his throat, gradually it sank down into his chest...smoother, still commanding, but slick.” — Greil Marcus, Mystery Train
“The only myth still living in America has died.”
Early evening, Main Street, Ramona
In the Pioneer Market, the oldest continuous business in Ramona, now a head shop, my brother’s best friend, proprietor Richard Levis, rants to me about “the foul corruption of sports in America.” Elvis Presley is crooning down my second-oldest Main, “Love me tender, love me true...”
“Did you know Elvis went out for football, ROTC, failed music?”
“We’re looking for an inspired, moral coach,” I say. For this I will be true ... “Surely that’s not impossible?”
“That’s a coach,” Richard says, his Pamo grandmother flashing lightning bolts through his acorn eyes, “who would take him right off the streets.”
I see for the first time how tall Richard is.
Ride around, Sally. So dark. Sang “Long Tall Sally” the night I saw him. The Santa Maria Valley. Down to Pamo. The Presidio sent a warning. Chief Aron met it with contempt. So the Church came up — the first recorded white men here — burned the Pamos’s great village, flogged the survivors, sentenced them to starvation by confiscating their hunting tools. Sentenced Chief Aron to death for having plotted to kill Christians. Claimed for the General’s grandson the Spanish land grant that is now Ramona.
Back up, out of Pamo, out of ground fog, across the Santa Maria, down Seventh, past the one-room shack on B Street where Danny was conceived,182 years after Chief Aron, like the shotgun shack where she brought forth her boys, end of Lonely Street, the lights splaying out, oh to think of the act of that conception! Talk about lines, Tupelo honey, at least we were married. I remember every movement of Danny’s night, Christmas Eve, last week of the ’50s.
“President Carter said Elvis symbolized America’s vitality, rebelliousness, and sense of humor.”
“You can do anything you want just don’t...”
Its sadomasochism, too.
“Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel, but love me...”
Climb the mountains to Julian. I’m 16, it’s Christmas. Daddy driving the family in the new sea-green Ford Fairlane up the black asphalt two-lane into the silent white falling moonlight snow, Elvis’s throbbing sobs, “I’ll have a blue, blue Christmas without you.”
Daddy and Sam watched us, before busting in, “Did he come, Sharon? Did he come inside you?” Forbidden to ever see my Love again.
Midnight, Sunrise Highway, Spiritual Point
Big Mama Thornton is singing the “Elvis Presley National Anthem,” the original “Hound Dog,” thumping and screeching into the deep star night future. Moonlight is pissing on every shrub, rock, and oak. Wow! It’s August! Meteors streak across the sky. “You ain’t nothin but a hound dog, barking ’round my door...”
Wow! I never understood this song before.
It’s a woman singing to a man! In her voice, it makes so much more sense. It’s men who bark around your door. Elvis was singing a woman’s song.
They reverse everything! Infinite possibilities, these shooting star rivers of her milk that form the curds that create the worlds and all creatures. ’Course Elvis did have women barking around his door, what most men would give anything for. His mama taught him how to stare up at the moon, to allow your body to relax completely, so you can float up there between it and the stars.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna make it,” he cried when she died, grief like no one had ever seen.
And he didn’t.
What happens to the boy? Each year that passes from his birth is a year further from her. “They said you were high class, but that was just a lie.” That jet overhead. Vandenburg. Edwards. China Lake.
Throw a rock, the ball through the hoop, for the baby boys hunted through time and the land, the broken Libra moon sinking all the way back to Las Vegas, the whole plumb United States a meat market in his pocket.
“I saw you standing alone. Without a dream in your heart.”
Just a fat balding flophouse old man.
Guess I’ll sleep here, my prayer — ooh, remember that great song? — as we pass through Perseus, trying to kill the many-headed goddess. Be here when the sun comes up on the desert floor, the boulders and arroyos of Cuyamaca leading the revolt against the mission. Here where they have their Easter sunrise service, here where they raise the cross before the sun.
- But look now, son
- the body’s not in the tomb
- He’s coming out to meet you.
Oh, Jesse, between the moon and the stars, for God’s sake, let your brother through that door.