[Second day in a row of a post contributed by a fellow SB. I love it! Keep ’em coming.]
November 22, 1956
by Silverback J of the Mendocino Bonobos
It’s not like I got his autograph or got to touch him or talk to him or anything like that, but it’s still a memory as clear as the memory of where I was when I heard Kennedy was shot, exactly 7 years to the day later.
I was in my 13th year when all this happened, in Toledo Ohio: home of the Toledo Mudhens minor league ballclub. Coming into my own and bored to death in junior high school. Dad is gone most of the time on some kind of important business and my bipolar mother is blooming into a raging alcoholic. Anger and angst, disillusionment and rebellion are silently brewing in my blood. Boys and girls are pubescing and having their first starry-eyed crushes, including me on Karen Todd, but I haven’t the first clue how to talk to girls. They’re just starting to sprout pointers and secretly bleed, and us boys are just starting to get smelly armpits, our first pimples, and random boners.
It’s 1956. “Catcher In The Rye” and “Rebel Without A Cause”. Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up around her waist. Rock-n’roll blasting onto the teen scene. Top-40 radio and 45-rpm records for a quarter.
It’s summer, and me and Harvey Case are camped out in a pup tent in his back yard with our sleeping bags and our Hires root beers and transistor radio, listening to Randy’s Record Mart on KLAC: 50,000 watts out of Nashville. We’re talking about school and baseball cards and girls and such. What’s cool and what’s not. Harvey is cool, that’s for sure. Knows how to smooth-talk girls and how to dress cool. Introduced me to cigarettes a couple years later, which in time would prove to be the death of him.
Anyway, we’re chatting and giggling away in our sleeping bags when out of the midnight blue airwaves it comes over the radio: “Blue Moon”: a love-yearning ballad in a haunting, far-ranging voice like we’ve never heard, complete with echo chamber and falsetto wah-wah refrain. A simple clip-clop rhythm pacing the eerie crooning. We are instantly silent. Dumbstruck. Captivated. Hooked. “That’s from a truck driver right here in Nashville, folks, who goes by the handle Elvis Presley. You can bet we’ll be hearing more from this youngster.”
Within months I have the covers from every Elvis record thumbtacked to my bedroom wall: “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “All Shook Up”, and the raucous “Hound Dog”. On my little desk I’ve got a stack of magazine photos of this handsome 21-year old with sideburns, sneers, and shiny hair slicked back in dovetails. I’ve got white buck shoes and a turned up collar like him, and plenty of attitude to go with it, as in “You can do anything but don’t step on my blue suede shoes”. I know every word to his every song, and I dance the chicken behind my locked bedroom door while my mom yells “Turn that music down” so she can sip her Manhattans and listen to her Bing Crosby and Perry Como albums.
“Elvis The Pelvis” they’re calling his hip-swinging dance. He’s the unabashed singer with the bedroom eyes that mothers are warning their daughters about. The one the preachers are calling the devil, corrupting the morals of American youth with his “nigger-music”. Old-school DJs are boycotting his songs and breaking his records. And parents are baffled upon catching an earful of his beautiful gospel songs and reading of his polite manners, clean living, and love for his mother Grace.
Now my Mother, when she is sober and in between sudden absences for extended stays at the loonie bin, is a true dear. Has a heart of chocolate syrup and a generous spirit. A master’s degree in education from Columbia but relegated to being a stay-at-home housewife with four kids, me being the second: the affectionate and troubled black sheep, which is probably why I was her favorite, even amid my plummeting grades and blossoming juvenile delinquency.
Well one day I’m in my room practicing cool poses in the mirror, when in walks Mom who calmly says, “That singer you like so much is coming to the Sports Arena. I got tickets for you and your brother Steve.”
Steve: a year older than me and missing a couple DNA strands. Probably what they’d call Aspergers Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder today. Dear of heart, but borderline retarded, socially inept, and infinitely gullible. The butt of all the kids’ jokes and pranks. A classic geek. Thin and tall with horn-rimmed glasses and acne. High-tide slacks and wrinkled white shirts with plastic pocket protectors for his ball point pens. And consumed with radios: crystal, transistor, ham, CB, short wave, the works. And not the slightest interest in this Elvis Presley guy. Pearls before swine.
Well damn I’m excited. I’m counting the days and bragging it up to my buddies. I’ve never been to a live music concert and the only time I’ve been to the Sports Arena is for Holiday On Ice at Christmas with my family or to see the Harlem Globetrotters with my Dad.
At last the day has arrived. Thanksgiving Day actually. It’s cold and overcast and threatening rain. I’m decked out in my white bucks, black pegged pants, black sports shirt and white jacket that I’ve only worn when my Mom succeeded in dragging me to church last Easter. My greased hair is slicked back in doves and man I’m ready to rock-n-roll. Steve of course is dressed all nerdy and is unhappy about having to leave his short-wave radio because he’s just found some new station in Scandanavia or somewhere. We’re waiting in the living room when in walks the surprise.
Mom has hired some 150-year old spinster to be our “chaperone”. All 6-feet of this skinny old bag is dressed head-to-toe in her black Salvation Army uniform, complete with bonnet and gloves and cape and ankle-length overcoat with the Salvation Army patch on the front. She’s got a black umbrella hooked over her forearm and already a look of stern disapproval on her face. Looks like a damn witch if you ask me. This is going to be embarrassing. Mom gives her the $2.50 reserved seat tickets and tells her to keep a close eye on us. We get in The Witch’s smelly old Plymouth and head downtown at a snail’s pace, not saying a word.
Well, I’ll say this much: they’re good tickets. Three box seats, up close at eye level near the left end of the tall stage. We get seated – The Salvation Army Witch in between Steve and me – and I look around. The place is packed. Almost all teenagers and mostly girls, with a line of rent-a-cops standing in front of the stage. And the crowd’s as tense and restless as a lion pacing back-and-forth in its cage. How well I know the feeling of wanting to bust out. And how fantastic to see all these kids, these fellow fans and rebels, and to feel the mounting excitement. Lucky I didn’t get a boner. The Witch hooks her black umbrella over the railing, folds her gloved hands and looks around, shaking her head in disapproval.
After what seems like an eternity, the lights dim and out from the back left of the stage steps master-of-ceremonies Frank Vennor, who everyone recognizes from his WSPD-tv show “Weather In The Weather”, dished out live and outdoors every night at 11 from under the marquis of the ritzy Commodore Perry Hotel. Seemed like every night there would be some kid who’d get between Vennor and the weather chart and give the finger on live tv. You could just about count on it, and once in a while it would be a kid from my school, who’d be a hero for the next week or so.
Anyway, the mumbling of the crowd turns to cheers as Frank Vennor strolls up to the microphone in his conservative suit and bow tie. “Ladies and gentlemen,” and the anticipation rises to a fever pitch. “Elvis …”, and the crowd breaks into screams that drown him out. He stands at the mic and waits for the screaming to die down. “Elvis …”, he begins again, and the wild screams return, even louder. We’re on the edge of our seats, all except Steve and The Witch that is. After 3 or 4 times of this, Vennor is able to get out “Elvis is late” and a collective groan issues from the mob. Just for the hell of it he says, “Elvis” again and laughs as the screaming resumes, and then walks offstage while the crowd deflates.
After a few restless minutes I tell The Witch I have to go to the bathroom, which I don’t, and I go down the stairwell and mull around under the grandstands checking out all the cool cats and hot chicks and I’m standing by this 8-foot high plywood wall when someone yells “He’s here!” and everybody’s breathing speeds up and people crowd up to the wall trying to claw their way up to look over and get a glimpse backstage. I jump up and down trying to grab the top and pull myself up, but I can’t reach it. And then, and then, like a miracle out of nowhere, somebody, the Hand of God, somebody I can’t see and I don’t know, lifts me up by the waist until I can throw my arms over the top and there He is: Elvis, 21-years old and glowing like a candle, entering a back door twenty feet away with a buxom blonde on his arm, wrapped in furs. Elvis! In the flesh! Right there in front of me in his white bucks and black pants and shirt and white sports coat just like me. I’m damn near swooning.
Indulge me for a moment of reverence. Whoever did that, whoever that anonymous stranger was who lifted up this seventh-grader those many years ago, remains to this day the unsung hero of my lifetime. Many’s the time, even to this day, that I’ve wished I could meet him and thank him profusely and tell him he’s earned a place in heaven for doing that. Maybe there is a God after all.
Anyway, Elvis and his babe walk past and disappear behind a backstage curtain. I slide down the wall and rush back to my seat just as the arena lights go down and Frank Vennor strides back onto the stage and yells into the mike “Elvis Presley”, and the crowd goes berzerk. Flashbulbs light up the arena like a strobe light for what seems like minutes as the band jogs to their instruments then here comes Elvis, at a full gallop from the back corner, grabbing the microphone stand at top speed and sliding across the stage on one knee shouting into the mic “You ain’t nuthin but a hound dog”.
Well that’s all you get to hear. You can see he’s singing and his hips are swinging and the band’s playing something but you can’t hear a note above the thunderous screams of the inflamed throng. He doesn’t get through the first minute before the mob rises and rushes the stage. The Witch covers her mouth in horror and grabs her umbrella in case she needs a weapon. The police close ranks and push back against the surge. Elvis rushes offstage, the house lights come up and Frank Vennor comes back yelling that Elvis won’t return until everyone’s back in their seats, which takes 3 or 4 minutes. Just long enough to catch our collective breath. The house lights dim again, Elvis takes the stage again, the screams drown him out again, the mob rushes the stage again, and the whole scene repeats itself, with Frank Vennor shouting that “If you can’t stay in your seats the concert will be over!”
Girls are crying hysterically. It’s all I can do to not go crazy, and when the whole sequence repeats itself the third time and the screaming bawling mob is rushing the stage I leap to my feet and step toward the stage like the proverbial moth drawn to the flame, when I feel something restraining me. I look back and see The Witch’s umbrella hooked to my arm. Swear to God. She pulls me back down in my seat and I feel like screaming and slugging her at the same time. Elvis runs off the stage once more and after a minute Frank Vennor rushes to the microphone and yells, “That’s it! I warned you! Elvis has left the building.”
Whole thing couldn’t have lasted a half hour. Didn’t hear one full song, and he is gone. You can hear girls sobbing all over the place. It’s raining on our way to the car. The ride home is deadly quiet, I’ll tell you.
Yessir, I’ve had my share of thrills in my life, to be sure, but never anything quite like the time that Elvis left the building.