Elvis Presley died in a Graceland bathroom 40 years ago today. He was 42 years old.
Back to me: On Aug. 16, 1977, the night Elvis died, I saw the band Yes at the Capital Centre outside Washington, D.C.
Yes was about as far away from Elvis as you could get in rock and roll, but I thought the British prog band was the coolest. They had songs that took up whole sides of LPs, with numerous “movements” and incomprehensible song titles and lyrics that seem obviously silly now but at the time were keys to the coolness. The music was equally obtuse and bloated. My suburban dirtball friends and I would drink Kool-Aid and gin—the margarita of Falls Church, Va.—and play air bass (even in the era of the guitar hero, we all agreed that Chris Squire, the bassist, was the bossest Yes man) while memorizing every time change on Tales of Topographic Oceans, a 1973 double album with only four songs.
I had spent that summer in Astoria with my favorite cousins. All of New York was a dump in 1977, but I was in heaven. Astoria was as different from Falls Church as Elvis was from Yes. I was 15 and spent lots of days getting served draft beers for a quarter at Patterson’s, the corner bar, in between games of wiffle ball on the street next to the Steinway piano factory. A guy who lived down the block was a maintenance super at nearby Shea Stadium and would give me Mets tickets to any game. The team had just given up both Tom Seaver, the most popular player in franchise history, to the Reds, and Dave Kingman, the only big bat in the lineup, to the Padres, for warm bodies. They made a player, Joe Torre, the manager in midseason. They’d finish the year an amazin’ 37 games behind NL East division-winner Philadelphia. But we didn’t have any baseball in D.C., so I was in heaven watching games in a nearly empty stadium with rows of good seats to myself, and patronizing beer vendors so desperate to sell their racks of paper cups filled with warm, flat Schaefer that they didn’t bother to “proof” even obvious minors like me. (New York driver’s licenses didn’t even have pictures until 1984, so passable IDs were easy to get for those rare occasions they were needed.)
Lots of bad stuff happened in Queens besides the Mets losing while I was there. There was a power outage in July that left most of New York dark for a couple days and had everybody predicting race riots. Son of Sam, who’d been shooting people all over the borough for a year, killed his fourth and final victim on July 31 and got caught in early August. Plus, it was hot as hell all summer and the whole city smelled like piss.
Yes soundtracked the season for me, horrors and all. Art rock wasn’t as big with the Astoria crowd as it was with my friends back home, despite my efforts to make it so. I bought Yessongs, a 1973 live triple (!) album, at Discomat, a massive budget record store in Manhattan, and burdened my cousins with air bass riffs from tunes titled “I’ve Seen All Good People (A. Your Move; B. All Good People)” and “And You and I (A. Cord of Life; B. Eclipse; C. The Preacher the Teacher; D. The Apocalypse).” I bought a brass belt buckle with the Roger Dean toothpaste Yes logo for $5 from a we-sell-everything store on Ditmars Blvd. near the Astoria subway stop, then the last stop on the RR line. I even tried to see Yes in early August, on the first night of a three-night run at Madison Square Garden. But the scalpers would go no lower than $25, and since before taking off for Queens I’d purchased tickets for the Capital Centre show for $7.50, I couldn’t bring myself to pay that much. I bought a bootleg Yes tour shirt outside the Garden for $5 and went back to Astoria.
I took a train back to D.C. the day of the Yes show there, walked into my house, and learned from CBS News that Elvis Presley was dead. I was as in awe of the look and music of a young Elvis as anybody, and well aware that he’d changed the world, but the ‘70s version of the King was real hard for a teen to love. Elvis had recently played nearby at both the Cap Centre and Baltimore Civic Center. I didn’t go to either concert, but heard lots of reports that he’d shamed himself, particularly in Baltimore, where he famously left the stage just 20 minutes into a May 29 show, reportedly because he had eaten five banana splits backstage and had to take a dump. Elvis’s non-musical movement was still a major giggling point among us dirtballs when he died on the toilet. I remember thinking as I headed off to the Yes show that death was a fine career move for him.
But he was still The King, and his dying was a bigger deal to me than even seeing Yes. The only thing I remember about that night’s concert was that nobody in Yes even mentioned that Elvis was dead.
That slight, and the Ramones—a band from Queens I “discovered” in the summer of ‘77 and whose whole raison d’etre, according to Johnny Ramone, was Elvis—were the beginning of the end of my Yes fandom. I never bought another Yes record; I’ve bought lots of Elvis box sets and even made the Memphis pilgrimage for a Death Week festival in the early 1990s.
Death turned out to be a finer career move for Elvis than I could’ve dreamed. He’s rarely a punchline anymore. But there are exceptions. Yes got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. They probably deserved to be in that club a long time ago; this was a band that drew 105,000 fans to a single show in Philadelphia in 1976, after all. But I was all for keeping ‘em out as penance for disrespecting the guy who first brought rock and roll to the masses. I watched the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on TV a few months ago, and was thinking about my summer in Astoria and Son of Sam and the smell of pee and cups of warm Schaefer and the Mets and Elvis and movements and Tales of Topographic Oceans when Rick Wakeman, the Yes keyboardist who hit #30 on the Billboard album charts in 1973 with a record consisting of six rock instrumentals named after each of King Henry VIII’s wives (really!), mentioned the King early in his acceptance speech. But not to apologize for Aug. 16, 1977.
“We generally were very, very poor. My father was an Elvis impersonator,” Wakeman said. “But there wasn’t much call for that in 1947.”
An Elvis joke? Dammit. I laughed. But I’m still mad at the mofos.