Forty-two years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of a hospital in Tyler, Texas, swatting at flies. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema that eventually would kill him, and my parents were in Los Angeles, looking again for a way to treat the chronic disorder that would contribute to my dad's death some three decades later.
It was a typical, sweltering East Texas day in August, which was one reason the flies had moved indoors. I had ridden in the car some 30 miles from Longview with my grandmother and my aunt, hoping to see my grandfather. That was doubtful. Hospital rules prevented 12-year-olds from visiting patient rooms and he was not in any shape to come down to the lobby.
So I sat there, bored out of my mind, killing flies.
At some point late that afternoon, news started to spread that shook me to my adolescent core: Elvis Presley was dead at age 42.
Adolescents in the mid to late 1970s were not supposed to be Elvis fans, and I certainly did not get any cool points from my peers. “Fat Elvis” had become a parody, a bloated yet hollow shell of himself even for those immersed in the 1950s Happy Days-Laverne & Shirley nostalgia of the time.
But my peers didn’t understand what Elvis meant to me. At the time, I don’t think I understood why he meant so much.
My dad and aunt were teenagers when my grandmother discovered Presley in his first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride. A year and a half later, on Dec. 15, 1956, my grandfather drove my grandmother (then 51) and my dad (then 16) the 60 miles east to Shreveport to see Elvis’ concert at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds.
I still have the program from that show, which remarkably was taped and released on one of the hundreds of Presley compilations in 2011. Listening to the low-fi affair still brings a smile to my face, knowing they were both there.
My first rock and roll record was Elvis’ first album, bought by my dad in a record store on Ninth Avenue in Texas City. I remember sitting with my parents watching Aloha from Hawaii, the first show televised around the world via satellite. My first concert, at age 6, was an Elvis show at Hofheinz Pavilion. My second, at age 9, was his performance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
In a weird way, Elvis felt like a member of my extended family, although I was woefully short on accurate information. I hadn’t liked his last few albums, not knowing they were cobbled together by his label because he no longer enjoyed recording. I didn’t understand why he had not been able to recover from his divorce, not realizing it was in large part because of guilt over self-inflicted wounds. I didn’t connect the dots when my parents returned from a trip to Las Vegas in 1975, having been disappointed in Presley’s concert because he looked and sounded “bad” — code, as it turns out, for overweight and stoned out of his mind.
All I knew, at age 12, is that people aren’t supposed to die at 42 unless they are at war or in some type of accident. People don’t die while sitting on the toilet in their bathroom, especially when they’re only five years older than my dad and six years older than my mom.
We left the hospital that day and went to Gibson’s, one of those catch-all department stores not far from my grandmother’s house. My grandmother bought me “Moody Blue,” Presley’s last studio album that came in blue vinyl, and I played it on my aunt’s turntable that night.
Today, in the words of music writer Bill Holdship, Elvis has “now been gone as long as he was here.” And I have remained an Elvis fan, albeit one who — with the benefit of information — is more discerning and less a blind member of the cult. While I separate the schlock from the sublime, I remain in awe of his talent and charisma. I also am grateful for the way he brought my family together on a common subject for a lot of years.
In retrospect, I also can thank Elvis for introducing me viscerally to the concept of mortality at what now seems like so young an age. I didn’t realize it then, but Presley’s death was the first time I understood life can be more fleeting than you imagine. And it taught me, not for the last time, that you just have to appreciate what you’ve got.