Tuesday August 16th 1977 is a day I shall never forget. On this day I kicked a small, Spanish girl in the head.
I hadn’t meant to; she’d run in front of the swing I was playing on and I didn’t know how to say ‘Mind out!’ in her language. So my feet met her head in a most impolite way and she ran off crying. I was mortified.
I ran back to the Menorcan hotel we were staying in to confess my crime to my parents and I didn’t have to run far because there, in the lobby was my mother in hot pants and tears. I looked at my father for an explanation. “Elvis Presley has died. Mum’s a bit upset.”
And so started my relationship with The King. Shortly after his death ‘Way Down’ made it to number 1 in the charts and I’d hear it on the radio. I decided that I liked this Elvis almost as much as Showaddywaddy.
Fast forward to university. I’d gone through a brief rockabilly sort of phase during the Lower Sixth when I’d listened endlessly to 50s music, Elvis Presley in particular, and argued a lot with my jazz-loving father who regard the man as a fraud (actually, I think Elvis would agree with him on this. “I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”).
So when Phyllis, the woman who cleaned our university accommodation, told me she belonged to the Elvis Presley Appreciation Society (Leamington Spa chapter), in a gesture of solidarity (I felt uncomfortable about having a cleaner), I asked her to take me along with her.
I was soon to discover there is a difference between enjoying Elvis songs, being enthralled by the story of a doomed, man-child of possible Cherokee heritage and being an actual, full-on Elvis fan.
Boy, was I glad I knew all the words to American Trilogy because when, after three hours of sausage rolls, Stetsons and flag waving, it came to say goodbye, this is what we sang.
We stood in front of the Stars and Stripes, holding hands, in a circle of perhaps fifteen people (the entire chapter) and we wished we were in Dixie to a musical accompaniment. That, my friends, is how I learnt about perspective. And the American Civil War.
Some years later, my parents were on a road trip around the U.S.A. My dad sent me a postcard from Graceland. ‘Your mother came over all unnecessary at his grave,’ it read. I hoped she wasn’t wearing hot pants this time. It can get chilly in Memphis in January.
It’s forty years since Elvis died on a toilet in that same house, younger than I am now; in fact, barely into Executive Youth.
I feel I have more in common with the man as I grow older. For one thing I thought I had died on a toilet in a Chinese restaurant in Belfast a while back.
It turned out I was allergic to MSG, whereas Elvis had been prescribed nearly 9,000 different pharmaceutical pills since the January of 1977 and had a bowel twice the average length (we knew he was special!) with an impacted stool four months old.
Like I said, doomed. Also, I totally get that age/sunglasses equation where the older you get, the bigger shades you wear.
Elvis has been in my consciousness since I was 8 years old. His was the first death I was ever aware of, the first sad celebrity demise I was touched by and he was the first man I rowed about with my dad.
When my sons had nits as small children, I’d sit them in front of the 1968 Elvis Comeback Special and comb out their hair to ‘If I Can Dream’.
The tragedy of Elvis is not that he died. It’s that he surrendered the black leather version of himself to peanut butter and quaaludes. I wish I’d been there to save him.
**First published August 16 2016; updated August 2017 to mark the 40th anniversary of Elvis’ death