Monday, January 10, 2005

The King is dead. Long live the King.

WARNING: The following post contains anecdotage of the father-and-son type, and should probably not be read by those with a low tolerance for such.

My four-year-old son is a big Elvis Presley fan. People who know me might find it hard to believe that I had little to do with this, but other than introduce the lad to a few songs every once in a while, just to dilute the kiddie playlist some, he took it all the way home, all by himself. First with a ukulele and now with a kid-sized six string, he has for years filled our apartment with his ungodly caterwauling, angry-faced posturing, and extemporaneous “Hound Dog” lyrics . (All rock & roll is angry to him.) He’s particularly taken with the amped up, ramped up versions of “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” from the ’68 comeback show. And since he hasn’t (to my knowledge) seen any video of Elvis, only still photos, he’s had to let his imagination fill in the steps in between the frozen karate chops and leg twists he’s seen in the illustrated Elvis books he’s long enjoyed perusing. No joke.

On Saturday morning, to celebrate Presley’s 70th birthday, we threw a little dance party at home. It was after this shindig -- heavy on the Sun Sessions, and his current fave, “Blue Suede Shoes” (it’s a source of amusement that it’d be okay to step on his face, if only you left the shoes alone) -- that I chose to tell my boy that Elvis was dead.

He cried for a pretty long while. The bromide that “he lives in his music” was the source, ultimately, of a little solace, but not much.

This was a parental miscalculation of some magnitude. Not on the order of, say, a public browbeating over a pants-wetting accident, but up there with other dream-crushers as the accidental revealing of the death of Santa. I think on the surface I was trying to be honest (“Where does Elvis live?”) in the face of his questions (“Can we go visit?”), but given his belief, and the unlikelihood of his driving down to Memphis to discover the truth for himself, there was zero harm in letting him think that Elvis still walks the earth (others do, after all). There was something cruel and hard in my telling him.

Of all the possibilities, the one that feels truest is that I wanted to watch him experience the loss, and that I wanted him to feel something that I didn’t, or couldn’t. I remember when Elvis died -- it was 1977, I was nine -- and my main concern was that he and my father were the same age: shades of dad’s mortality. But I wasn’t a fan, then. When I discovered, much later, Elvis’ music, he was already long dead, and an approachable figure. Elvis, as far as my son was concerned, lived, and no amount of Greil Marcus mythologizing or Peter Guralnick reportage could make it so for me.

As someone whose enthusiasms often feel, to myself, prefabricated, I hope I can steer clear of my son’s loves enough to let him discover the inevitable disappointments and loss on his own -- just be there to pick up the pieces. Thankfully, my kid doesn’t listen to or believe everything I say, evidenced by a question he asked of his mom the next day, Sunday: “Elvis isn’t gone, right?”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems to me that this experience will lead to Jack being the one to discover Elvis living out his years happily and anonymously. And remember, parents are supposed to forgive themselves every night for the day's mistakes.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

That would be amusing. Thanks for the encouraging words.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Chilly Jay Chill said...

Meant to call you about this yesterday: a really nice post. And it seems like Jack has bounced back from the revelation of E's mortality nicely. At the very least, the experience should give him the leverage to get a trip to Graceland out of you a few years earlier than you might prefer...

4:31 PM  
Blogger Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

Thanks. Yeah, that trip to Memphis just got moved up a few years for sure. Whole thing reminds me of an anecdote Kate heard from a friend. The friend had just seen Elvis Costello play, and after the show, at the bar, he happened to be sitting next to Townes Van Zandt. The friend recognized Townes, and said, "I just saw Elvis!"

To which Townes dutifully replied, "Elvis is dead, son."

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, it went like this:
Friend, Tom, was working at a music club at which Townes Van Zandt was playing. Having spied Mr. Costello in the audience during the show, Tom ran up to Mr. Van Zandt excitedly and exclaimed, "Elvis came to see your show!" To which Townes responded, breaking the news gently, "Elvis is dead, son."

10:51 PM  

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