Elvis is always on my mind

January 14, 2010

If you listened to Elvis, you were in the wrong crowd. Irish journalist and socialist Eamonn McCann recalls why that's exactly where he wanted to be.

ELVIS WOULD have been 75 this month. He played a big part in my upbringing.

I recall a priest called Flanagan standing stiffly on the altar of the chapel at St. Columb's, telling us that this rock 'n' roll music might be all very well for the ragamuffins and scruffs who infested the Bogside, but that we here assembled were destined for better things, St. Columb's being a class of a "junior seminary" and such.

It was particularly important that boys who actually came from the Bogside, and who were therefore at close risk of ragamuffinry should take the lesson to heart and shut their ears tight against the noxious throb. Elvis Presley was especially to be avoided, the veritable epitome of evil, gyrating his body and shuddering his voice for one reason only.

Uh huh, I responded, and butted in from a back pew that he shouldn't be saying these things when Elvis wasn't here to defend himself, which was the best I could come up with on the instant.

I had to say something, being known in the school as a leading Elvis supporter. Thrown out for impudence, I have tended to steer clear of chapels since.

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley (Ollie Atkins)

To become an Elvis fan was to fall in with the wrong crowd. St. Columb's boarders who were into Elvis would have been expelled (no joke) if they'd been caught somehow managing to listen to him.

I used to bring the New Music Express to school every Monday--had it on order at Melican's, 6d a time--which always had at least one Elvis feature. I'd pass it around our select coterie in the bogs, then we'd walk back to class, swaggering our secret and agreeing with one another that Pat Boone was crap.

When I was 12, 13, nothing in life seemed as important as music. Or, to put it another way, it seemed everything important in life could be expressed through music. Rock 'n' roll's arrival was the moment the thought first touched some of us that Derry might not be a small town holed up in a hick province after all or forever, but that we could fleetingly, even now, be abreast of the world.

THE BEST radio station on the Derry dial was AFN, the American Forces Network, blasting out from Frankfurt on what was reputedly the most powerful transmitter on earth to service the needs of hundreds of thousands of GIs still scattered across western Europe, impatient for demob and hankering after home and the sounds they'd grown up with. A disproportionate number were Black.

Over the radio, wavering across Europe to Rossville Street, preparing the way for Elvis, came Fats Domino, Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, Lloyd Price, Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The first time I heard a rock 'n' roll song I could hardly make it out, but I knew what it meant. I used to stand on a chair in the kitchen with my ear against the speaker to hear AFN or Luxembourg on a Saturday night, because our radio was on a shelf in the kitchen, and the kitchen on Saturday was always full of aunts and uncles, thoughtlessly combining to create a hubbub.

Eventually, my father and Jim Sharkey (later Feargal's da) from across the street rigged me up a contraption from a gramophone speaker and a roll of wire so I could listen to the music in the attic, even though the radio downstairs in the kitchen was turned off.

I was wired up to a secret world, the sound snaking its way silently up the stairs bringing the voices of exotic Americans, roaring out about sex, announcing it was okay to want to feel free. When Elvis arrived, I was well prepared. All that dark, thumping, pent-up power full of frantic threat and dangerous promise, Elvis channeled it direct.

You could imagine yourself Elvis. The first song I ever heard him sing was "That's All Right (Mama)." Scotty Moore on lead guitar, Bill Black on upright bass, Elvis on rhythm guitar. It said everything that ever needed said in a song. It was years before it struck me there are no drums.

It's said that Elvis stole Black music. But he didn't. He had emerged, naturally as it were, at exactly the instant segregation in music was breaking down. In the magical, mysterious way of genius, the fusion was made faultless within him. All popular music afterwards can be traced back to that point.

John Lennon said: "Before Elvis, there was nothing." Most of all, Elvis challenged the way things were, contradicted hitherto dominant ideas of racism, sexual conservatism, deference toward authority.

It was all to end badly. Some put the blame on Col. Tom Parker. But it probably would have ended the same, no matter what. From the first, Elvis was a perfect example of all he could be, and what's perfect can't develop into anything better.

I wouldn't want it any different. In a way that no consciously political artist I can think of ever achieved, Elvis pointed ahead toward freedom to come--invited us not to burrow back through history for a sense of ourselves, but to erupt joyfully out into a rowdy new world. He was the most revolutionary artist in any of our lifetimes.

Plus he had the best hair in history. Bliss, it was.

First published in the Belfast Telegraph.

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