The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Remembering Elvis

I might have gotten more hits on this post had I put it up yesterday (August 16). But that's not really why I'm writing it. I don't just remember Elvis Presley one day a year. To borrow from one of his hits, he is “always on my mind.” And it is still officially “Elvis Week,” so I guess I'm covered.

For me, yesterday was a mix of happy memories and melancholy thoughts. Happy because I grew up on Elvis and hearing his music, especially his early tunes, takes me back to an idyllic time in my life. I was a toddler when Elvis hit the music world like a hurricane. Scratch that. It was more like a tornado. You can see hurricanes coming and predict their paths. Nobody saw Elvis coming.

My older sister was a true member of the Elvis cult and it was through her that I initially connected with the burgeoning “King of Rock and Roll,” a title, I'm told, that he really disliked. But I soon came to be a fan all on my own. I distinctly remember being in about the second grade and belting out “Return to Sender” whenever it played on the radio. I couldn't quite get all the words in those days, but it was the thought that counted.

In our increasingly deranged modern world where people have to wear body armor to movie theaters, it seems impossible that I, as an eight, nine, and ten-year old kid, used to walk to the theater by myself to see “Kissin' Cousins,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and “Girl Happy.” And the movies I didn't see on the big screen, I later watched over and over again on the small one. I even went to see Elvis' big dramatic opus, “Charro,” when it came out in 1969. The only movie I ever missed was “Stay Away, Joe,” and having watched part of it on TV the other day, I realize that I didn't miss much. Elvis should have told that overblown carny con man, “Colonel” Tom Parker, to take a hike years before he ever got dragged down so low.

But even when he was wallowing in an artistic misery that you could usually see in his face, I stood by him. I was a fan. I gloried in the “return” of Elvis heralded by what we now call the “'68 Comeback Special.” And I shared the triumph other true believers felt when Elvis captured the world live from Hawaii in 1973. Whether he liked it or not, he was “The King.”

And then the crown began to slip. Oh, later “Vegas Era” hits like “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “Burnin' Love” proved that Elvis still had it. But that he was struggling to keep it was obvious. Even my sister, a loyal and devoted fan since Day One back in 1956 found it difficult to watch the sweating, overweight specter slurring and stumbling through his greatest hits. She nearly walked out of one of his last concerts. It was, indeed, painful to watch him in his last years. A failed storybook marriage, a constant battle with his weight, an increasing dependence on prescription drugs, and a career that was careening into parody all took their toll on a man who, at heart, was still a wide-eyed country boy from the poor side of Tupelo, Mississippi. And that's where the melancholy thoughts overtake the happy memories.

Elvis could have had so much more and he could have been so much more. You may ask, incredulously, “He was the most famous person in the world! What more could he have had?” How about happiness? Love? Personal satisfaction? I like to say, “Money can't buy happiness......but it can sure rent a lot of it.” Elvis rented a lot of happiness. He paid for a lot of love and devotion. But I don't know that he ever owned much. There was a sad loneliness about Elvis in his last years, a palpable emptiness that he sought to fill with the affections and attentions of sycophantic hangers-on who were more than willing to be there to benefit from the largess of the King, but who were, in truth, nothing more than shadows; present in the light but quickly fading when the darkness came.
And when the final darkness came for Elvis, it came not in a bright setting surrounded by the presence of loving friends and family, but behind darkened shades, alone in a bathroom. The tragic image of a bloated Elvis fallen from the toilet and dying in a pool of vomit is not one I like to entertain, but it is there, nonetheless; an eery parallel to a wasted king fallen from his “throne.” That's why, as much as I “loved” Elvis as a fan – and still do – it sometimes makes me sad to think about him.

I was driving down Virginia Beach Boulevard in Norfolk, Virginia on the afternoon of August 16, 1977. It was a hot summer day and my air conditioning wasn't working well, so I had the windows open and the radio cranked up pretty loud. The “cricket” and fanfare that preceded the “CBS News Special Report” got my attention. The report from Memphis struck me like a blow. I was momentarily stunned to the point where I had to pull into a parking lot to recover. Elvis is dead? There must be a mistake. Elvis can't be dead. He's only 42. Wasn't it just yesterday that I was singing “Return to Sender” with him? Didn't he just get out of the Army? Didn't he just marry Priscilla and have Lisa Marie? Isn't he still standing, Phoenix-like, in a bejeweled white jumpsuit in front of a camera beaming his image via satellite to hundreds of millions of homes around the world? He can't be dead. For if he's dead, part of my youth has died, too.

Ten years later, I devoted my entire afternoon radio show to Elvis. I pulled out obscure soundbites and familiar mega-hits. I talked to the folks at Graceland. I even had my sister on for awhile and we discussed the influence Elvis had on us. Then I opened up the phone lines and let my listeners share their thoughts and memories. It was a profound and moving experience. The power and the impact of one man and the mark he made on countless lives was simply stunning. Ten years after the fact, some people were still crying.

I've read a lot about Elvis in the years since his death. I've read ridiculous theories about Elvis being alive and performing as “Orion.” I've read self-serving garbage from people whom Elvis called “friends.” I've read the “tell-all” memoirs of his ex-wife. I've read biographies of every stripe, including “Last Train To Memphis,” Peter Guralnik's two-volume tome. I've watched televised specials and retrospectives until my eyes were sore. I came away from all of it with the same sad feeling.

Nearly twenty years after Elvis died, I made a brief acquaintance with Charlie Hodge. Charlie was a member of the so-called “Memphis Mafia.” Watch some of the footage of Elvis in concert. You'll see Charlie. He was, as he referred to himself, “the scarf guy” – the one who kept Elvis draped in the scarves he used to give away to adoring fans. Charlie was a longtime friend to Elvis, going back to their Army days at Ft. Hood, Texas. He never reveled in the glory reflected from Elvis. He quietly and gratefully accepted it. He was one of only a few who was always there for Elvis, in good times and in bad. He truly cared for Elvis and looked out for his best interests when most others were busy looking out for themselves. He was a true friend.

We moved in the same social circles for awhile and Charlie freely spoke about Elvis, defending him against all manner of what he called “rumors.” It was through Charlie that I learned of Elvis' enlarged heart and of his liver condition, apparent genetic traits he shared with his mother and an uncle, both of whom died relatively young as a result. Charlie talked of glaucoma and hypertension and of three apparently undiagnosed heart attacks that Elvis had suffered prior to his death. And he revealed bone cancer as a cause for much of the pain Elvis suffered and for which he took many of the pharmaceuticals that most point to as the ultimate cause of his death. Charlie hated the word “drugs” in relation to his friend. He always referred to the “medicine” Elvis took. He also spoke of Elvis' deep religious devotion and said that Elvis seemed happiest when he was singing gospel music. And Charlie remained amazed all those many years later at the breadth and depth of Elvis' generosity, much of which has been documented, but much more of which is only known to those involved. Charlie showed me the precious diamond “TCB” necklace given to him by Elvis. Elvis ultimately gave a lot of those lightning bolt symbols away to friends and business associates, but Charlie's was one of the original twelve Elvis had made when he took a liking to the Bachman - Turner Overdrive song, “Takin' Care of Business” and adopted the phrase as his personal motto. Charlie didn't wear the piece like junk jewelry. He preferred to reserve it for special occasions. He proudly displayed his affection for Elvis, but was averse to ostentation and the inevitable questions the necklace usually brought about.

Even though I only knew Charlie, who has since passed away, for a brief time, I was able to come away with a deeper insight into who Elvis really was as a result of the acquaintance, and for that I am very grateful.

It doesn't seem possible that it's been thirty-five years since I sat in a Norfolk parking lot waiting for word that a mistake had been made. The concert from Hawaii happened the year I graduated from high school. Elvis strutting in black leather on NBC-TV only a few years earlier and standing in a tuxedo looking like a nervous groom only a year before that. And it certainly can't be fifty years since we sang “duets” on the radio. It just can't be.

This one still makes me cry like a baby.

Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind,
Memories, sweetened thru the ages just like wine.

Quiet thoughts come floating down
And settle softly to the ground
Like golden autumn leaves around my feet.
I touched them and they burst apart with sweet memories,
Sweet memories”

The King is gone. Long live The King!

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