Thirty-three years ago this week, I was standing next to Elvis. He was dead and in an open coffin, in Graceland, at a "press preview," before the tens of thousands of weeping bluehairs were let in to pay their homage.
I got to go because my boyfriend at the time, Marshall Fine, was the entertainment writer at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, where we both worked. Marshall had to go, and I wanted to, though I didn't exactly have the time off so I drove up and back in less than 24 hours. (More on what it was like to work in the "New South" of Jackson, as a young woman, in 1977, later.)
Marshall resisted, because Elvis had ceased to be cool. That was the year of Johnny Rotten, the Ramones, or at least Springsteen and Emmylou. It wasn't just that Elvis got fat and wore spangles--it was that he, unlike, say, the Beatles, never tried to change and grow with the times.
In hindsight, he was on to something. Why mess with greatness? But at the time, he seemed to be kind of a joke. It was sad that he died so young and messed up, of course, but....his heyday had been when I was a newborn.
Still, who wouldn't want to go see the actual body of Elvis? So off I went in my robin's egg blue Rambler Ambassador, through the Kudzu Corridor that connected Jackson and Memphis. The scene was surreal... even with all his money, Elvis apparently never sprung for air conditioning. It was hot as Hades in the entryway where we were ushered in, along with a photographer from the C-L.
We filed by the open casket, and I want to say there were only about 20 or 30 people, tops, in that room. When Marshall and I came around the corner of the casket lid, there he was.
I once took an aerobics class from Susan Powter, the onetime weight-loss infomercial queen, in Seattle. (She looks much prettier and softer in person, and is truly hilarious.) As she led us through her mega power moves, she yelled over the music, "Know what my goal is? For people to file by me at my funeral, and look into my open casket, and say...'SHE LOOKS GOOD!'"
Friends, I'm here to tell you, Elvis did not look good. He either needed more time in the L'Oreal Paris makeup roomm or maybe the damage he'd done to himself was so severe that warpaint couldn't help him. He was dressed in a sparkly jumpsuit, his hair styled into the immovable pompadour, but... his face looked ill, sallow and quite honestly awful.
Our photographer quickly snapped several photos (which the paper later decided would be 'inappropriate' to run), including one of me and Marshall trying very, very hard to look somber by Elvis's head, but kind of failing. And Marshall had a solo shot of himself doing rabbit ears above Elvis's dead head--and he is probably the only person on the planet who can claim that honor.
The sorrow and surrealism around the moment was palpable throughout Memphis, but I was oddly untouched by the loss of Elvis the icon. I was most struck by how sad the whole event was--the poor guy, rich as he was, didn't even have air conditioning in the palace that became his jail. (Talk about "caught in a trap.") Even makeup couldn't hide the tragedy of what had become of him in his last years.
It was an honor to see his body, I realized many years later, and of course re-appreciated his genius over the years.
And I would give a lot to get another copy of that picture of me and Elvis. So, Clarion-Ledger photographer from long ago, if you read this, let's talk.
And friends, in honor of The King, let us love each other tender.