Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tiller Road

Today's the 31st Anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. He died young, but if he'd lived, he would have been pretty old. That's how I think of it, anyway. He's always going to be younger than me now.

I remember where exactly what I was doing when I heard he'd died, on August 16th, 1977. That in itself is odd, because I'd never really thought much about him while he was alive. I was born just at the fulcrum, that cusp of pop change, 1958.

1958 is a good year to call the beginning of the modern era. Sputnik came back to Earth (it was launched in 1957). The first atom bomb was dropped on the US (friendly fire). Luckily it didn't go off. BBC's Radiophonic Workshop was established. The Notting Hill race riots occurred. (Watch Absolute Beginners for a picture of the new, post-rationing, post-austerity London and its riots.) Passenger jets flew across the Atlantic. Instant noodles were invented. Edmund Hillary reached the South Pole.

Anyone born in or after 1958 has never known a pre-army Elvis. To us, Elvis was never a snakehipped revolutionary godling. He was always the guy who made films too watery, too anodyne to even stick in the mind, the man who became Fat Elvis. By the time I knew what music was, the Beatles had arrived. I can remember hearing I Wanna Hold Your Hand for the first time and wanting more. The era of pre-music, the 2I's era, had ended.

But I do remember where I was when I heard Elvis had died. I was living in London at the time and one day there was a tremendous lightning storm. It was remarkable; London's pretty rainy at the best of times, but not like this. The sky was black and the rain was horizontal, flying along in sheets rather than rods. I got off the bus at the end of the street in this storm, and the amount of water hitting me actually choked me. I began to wonder how I'd bet back to the flat alive. The sign with the street name - a metal rectangle about four feet long and a foot wide - had blown off its concrete supports and was rocking in a puddle on the pavement. I picked it up and held it in front of my face to walk to the flat. It didn't help much but at least it kept enough water off my face that I could breathe. I got up the stairs and went inside. I was still holding the sign when my flatmate looked up at me. "Elvis is dead," he said. He was a year older than me.

I wish I'd kept the street sign.

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