Remember hearing Elvis for the 1st time?Published 12:32pm Saturday, August 20, 2011
Column: Pass the Hot Dish, by Alexandra Kloster
“If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking for trouble, just look right at my face.”
Slowly I looked up from the book on my lap. My ears stood at attention like a wolf’s. A pencil dropped from my mouth as my jaw fell slack. The song slid upward out of spoken word and into a snarling melody. I’d never heard anything like it.
“I’m only made out of flesh, blood and bone, but if you’re going to start a rumble don’t you try it all alone.”
I had to remind myself to breathe and blink. The book found the floor as I crept to the edge of the sofa and dug my toes into the carpet. I would have turned up the volume if we’d had a remote control, but I was too entranced to walk to the television without falling over.
That’s the way it was when I heard Elvis Presley sing for the first time.
I’d wanted some noise to keep me awake while I studied for my algebra exam, so I turned to the first black and white movie I could find. WGN was airing an all-night Elvis marathon. I didn’t know what the movie was called, but I recognized the lady from the “Adams Family” in it. It was a good enough background for quadratic equations.
Then the music waged a full-scale attack on my 14-year-old senses. Who was this man singing like a saint and moving like a sinner? I knew who Elvis was. He was the guy who died when I was little, the guy in the white jumpsuit, the one who lived at Graceland. Sure, I knew who Elvis was, but I’d never really listened to his voice.
The movie was “King Creole,” which led to “Wild in the Country,” “Love Me Tender” and finally “Jailhouse Rock.” I couldn’t get enough. It wasn’t because he was handsome. He was. It wasn’t his attitude, though there was lots of it. It was the way he made a song start in his shoes and come out the top of his ducktail.
His acting was fine, nothing extraordinary, but when he sang it sounded like a message from heaven with a little of that other place thrown in. He was a star just standing there, but when he threw out his voice he was his own planet.
I started searching the TV listings for Elvis sightings. I recorded everything on Beta tapes for safekeeping. I began to collect records and cassettes of Christmas Elvis, rock and roll Elvis, gospel, and country Elvis. I even had an eight-track Elvis I could play in my dad’s old Cadillac. I thought that was cool since Elvis was a Cadillac man, too.
Those things are gone, replaced by their modern equivalents, but my feelings haven’t changed. I still think Elvis Presley had the greatest voice of all time.
He didn’t flaunt the vocal gymnastics that have become so popular. He didn’t have to. Elvis could interpret a song with control, texture and feeling. He knew that singing and exercise weren’t the same thing. Singing was quiet reflection, grand emotion, devilish fun and sometimes pain. He hid his technique within the stories of the lyrics and made it look easy.
Elvis had range. He was labeled a tenor, baritone and bass, occasionally all at the same time. He had a town of voices inside him. The original crossover artist, he could ride the crest of a ballad, crawl under the blues, bounce over rockabilly, sigh the spirituals, cry country western, spit out rock ’n’ roll better than anybody and still be undeniably all Elvis.
It was like he swallowed the world and sang it out again, revolutionizing music and transforming the culture. Then the world swallowed him. Elvis seemed to be all right as long as he could manage his persona, but when the persona started to manage him he became the caricature we saw in the end as the King of rock ’n’ roll became a cautionary tale.
To me Elvis is not a velvet painting, a T-shirt or a calendar. He’s not a punch line. He is the man who made me flunk my algebra exam. He’s the kid from Tupelo, Miss., who conquered the world for a while. There wasn’t anyone like him before and there hasn’t been anyone like him since.
Aug. 16 was the anniversary of Elvis’ death. I remembered him in the best way, healthy and vital, standing on a stage in suit and tie, all smiles and swagger. Then I closed my eyes and let his voice lift my heart into my throat and break it to pieces like it always does, just like it always will.
Woodbury resident Alexandra Kloster appears each Sunday. She may be reached at email@example.com, and her blog is Radishes at Dawn at alexandrakloster.com.