It was hot as hell on August 17th, 1977, the day I accidentally saw Elvis dead.
It was the year that Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit movie theaters like a neutron bomb, the year that Rocky won an Academy Award for best picture. I had my first kiss that year — at Skateland, under the disco lights — an abysmal experience. It was a year for events of cosmic proportion.
I had grown up in Memphis, steeped in the tradition of Beale Street, the Memphis Queen, and rhythm and blues. I knew who Al Green was, and I’d wired up my own little crystal radio set so that I could lie in bed at night and listen to ELO, The Bar-Kays (a Memphis group), and Boz Skaggs on WHBQ.
I’d heard Elvis before, of course, and knew dozens of people who’d seen him tooling around the city in one of his Stutz-Bearcats, but I wasn’t a particular fan; Elvis and Graceland were just a part of the place I grew up, same as W.C. Handy, the Orpheum ghost, and the muddy Mississip.
I was in no way aware of Elvis’s slow, drug-hazed decline nor his ignominious death. I was eleven, going on 12, and had already been (badly) kissed. I had no idea that 300 National Guardsmen had been called in to deal with the 75,000 fans who had converged on Graceland and were camped outside the distinctive ugly wrought-iron gates, hoping to be allowed in to see Elvis laying in state.
I was, however, forced to tag along with my mother, who (also unaware of the Elvis insanity) went to visit her friend Martha, who lived not far off Danny Thomas Boulevard. Martha had a teenage son about my age, and after the adults had settled in the kitchen with iced tea, we decided to do some urban hiking.
We headed out through the back yard and into the light woods that fringed their neighborhood; it was about 3 in the afternoon, and as humid as a steambath. I was wearing my favorite pair of bell-bottoms and a tee-shirt with a groovy iron-on (all my tee-shirts had groovy iron-ons). The bell-bottoms I remember especially because as we hiked out, we shoved our way through some deadfall and came upon a chest-high rock wall topped with jagged rocks or barbed wire.
To an eleven year old, a rock wall says Climb up! rather than Stay out!, so we clambered over, and naturally, the seat of my jeans caught and I tore a two-inch L-shaped hole in them. I was wearing white underwear (all my underwear were white) that managed to escape the talons of the fence, but still I was deeply mortified to be in the company of a boy I barely knew with my jeans ripped and my underwear showing. In later years I would cultivate this fashion, but at the time I was far too eleven. In even later years, my own children would cultivate this fashion even earlier than age eleven.
But I was talking about dead Elvis, sorry.
I was still flushed with embarassment when I began to notice the change in our surroundings. Urban wooded trash had given way to smooth expanses of groomed pasture. I could see what looked like a tidy barn just ahead, and some smaller outbuildings. We hiked amiably in silence, making our way toward the barn, then on past, toward nothing in particular. Everything was strangely, persistently quiet. I guess I was aware of the two-story Colonial house rising up in front of us, but I was eleven, and my underwear was showing, and it didn’t seem important.
So it was a considerable surprise to me when some security guards materialized and came striding quickly over. “You’re not allowed to be back here,” one of them said, taking hold of my elbow and directing me firmly toward what appeared to be a back entrance to the house in front of us.
I found myself with absolutely nothing to say, but I had the sense of being caught up in something far bigger than myself (that was how I always felt). My recollection is that we were taken through a kitchen into a foyer-like area and inserted into a shuffling line of people. I didn’t realize what was happening until I saw the open casket, sitting there like a giant, buffed-up asteroid, and Elvis Aaron Presley, bloated and pale in his white suit, blue shirt, and white tie, incontrovertibly dead.
I stopped, stunned, in front of the casket. A woman moaned behind me, and a guard pushed us all along. Horrified, I averted my gaze from the dead man, who only barely resembled the rock star I knew. I stared at the floor in front of me as we were hurried out past tremendous heaps of flower arrangements (later I read that it took 100 vans to cart them all away), past the stone lions, and down toward the front gates.
“Why wasn’t there shag carpet?” I wondered inexplicably. Even my family had lovely burnt orange shag carpet, and we weren’t fashionable or rock stars.
And turning to the boy I’d arrived with, I asked, with more than a little sense of displacement and worry, “Do you have any idea how to get back to your house from here?”