God Save the King: A Song I Love

ELVIS IS ALIVE!

That headline sold a lot of copies of my all-time favorite supermarket tabloid Weekly World News back in the day—no matter how many times they ran it on the cover. I should know. I bought just about all of them.

And that’s saying something, because Weekly World News turned to “Elvis Is Alive” almost as often as Men’s Health magazine recycled “Six-Pack Abs.”

What I loved most about the paper was that it took Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” to an illogical extreme, embracing fully and with absolute conviction a foolish inconsistency.  So over the years, Elvis would be alive, and then dead, then alive, and then dead again … and in 2005, the tabloid took it to a whole new level, screaming: ELVIS IS ALIVE—AND RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT!

Only Kenny on South Park died and came back more often than the King. “Oh my God, they killed Elvis!”

When Weekly World News ceased publication in 2007, the headlines disappeared, and the little fun that once could be derived from trips to the grocery store disappeared with it.

But just as Weekly World News found some semblance of an afterlife online, Elvis sightings continued unabated.  In fact, I contributed to them with an article I wrote for Runner’s World magazine, of all publications, on the annual Elvis 5K race held at Graceland in conjunction with Elvis Week back in 1996.

What’s Bubba Ho-Tep Got to Do With It?

Which brings me, on this solemn night when thousands will descend on Graceland for the Candlelight Vigil commemorating the King’s death 42 years ago, to a Song I Love by Texas singer Phil Pritchett and the Full Band.

In fact, there is nothing I don’t love about God Save the King, from the pounding-drums-and-wailing-harmonica opening to the gratuitously funny trolling of the Volunteer State in the chorus. And I loved it from the very first moment I heard it played on Boot Liquor Radio not long after it was released on Pritchett’s outstanding Tougher Than the Rest album in 2002.

That first listen compelled me to immediately search out Phil Pritchett and order the CD online. Ever since, when Elvis’ birthday and death week roll around in January and August each year, God Save the King has become what Blue Christmas is to Christmas for me. A holiday tradition.

Forget the sparkling jumpsuits and capes of the Vegas years. The song posits that Elvis faked his own death so he could play smoky honky tonks, “wearing a Stubb’s BBQ T-shirt and a faded pair of jeans.” Oh, and he’s an opening act. Even though he’s easily recognizable as Elvis Presley.

Yes, it’s as believable as Bubba Ho-Tep. And just as great.

If you haven’t seen the brilliant horror-comedy-drama, check it out now. It stars Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as President John F. Kennedy, who just happen to reside in an East Texas nursing home. The duo join forces to thwart an evil Egyptian mummy who’s sucking the souls out of their fellow residents there. It’s worth noting that Bubba Ho-Tep also came out in 2002, so there was clearly some kind of cosmic creative connection linking Elvis and the Longhorn State that year.

Back to God Save the King. One of the reasons it strikes a chord with me is because, as silly as the premise may be, it creates an alternative Elvis—one who rebels against the increasingly ridiculous movies and embarrassing songs he was contractually obligated to pump out by his carny huckster manager Colonel Tom Parker and chose instead to change his identity and sing roots music in dive bars.

In this alternate universe, the singer who now calls himself Jackson tells Pritchett:

The smell of a bar at midnight, man, this is what it’s all about

I tried to get back here for years, but the Colonel sold me out

If only …

And even though I love Memphis and Nashville, and have had more fun than should be legal in the state of Tennessee, I can’t help myself—I laugh every time Pritchett sings the chorus:

God save the King

He said it’s not as easy as it looks, to live as royalty

God save the King

He said I never died, I was just tired of livin’ in Tennessee

So spend three glorious minutes in the alternate universe where Elvis Aaron Presley didn’t die slumped in his bathroom at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977—“with a whole lotta trouble running through his veins,” as Bruce Springsteen sang in Johnny Bye Bye—but instead turned his back on fame and fortune and the Colonel and Doctor Nick and the drugs and the sycophants and went back to playing the music that stirred his soul in the first place.

Let Phil Pritchett take you there with God Save the King.

It’s proof positive that there’s still good rockin’ tonight …

Phil Pritchett performs God Save the King live at Bostocks Billiards & Bar in Stephenville, Texas in 2012.

Note: A Song I Love will be an occasional feature on From a Pawned Smith Corona.

Warren Zevon, Tony Soprano, and Life After Cancer

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Looking back on that long and anxiety-filled Fourth of July weekend 10 years ago, I can honestly say there wasn’t a moment when I actually thought I had cancer.

Not during the eye exam conducted by my optometrist, Dr. Mark Bolstein, when he spotted what appeared to be a nevus (a mole-like colored growth) inside my right eye. Concerned by what he saw, Dr. Bolstein insisted that I go down to Wills Eye Hospital’s Emergency Department in Philadelphia the next day because most local ophthalmologists’ offices were closed for the holiday, and he didn’t think I should wait until after the weekend to have it checked out.

Not during the interminable Friday afternoon I spent at the Wills Emergency Department waiting to be examined while the doctors dealt with scores of patients brought in with eye injuries suffered while shooting off fireworks. (The holiday weekend started early in 2009, since the Fourth was on a Saturday. I was told the holiday was always one of the busiest times of the year at the Wills Eye Emergency Department.)

And not even after the Wills doctors confirmed that I did indeed have a growth, a tumor, on the choroid (or back part of the eye), but assured me it was likely benign. They told me they wanted me to return to the hospital Monday to be examined at Wills’ Ocular Oncology Service because it had the specialized, state-of-the-art ultrasound and imaging technology needed to determine what exactly was going on.

Although I’ve needed glasses almost my entire life, I had never even considered wearing contact lenses because I was so sensitive—OK, squeamish—about my eyes. So I was utterly unprepared for the battery of tests I underwent at the Ocular Oncology Service, including having an oiled probe rolled over my eyes to create the ultrasound images and enduring a series of blindingly bright white lights needed to create the detailed images of the interior of my eyes. The various tests took almost all day, with long waiting periods in between while many others in the crowded waiting room went through the same routine.

Still, I never thought it would actually be cancer. I was somehow sure that whatever was going on in the back of my eye was benign, not malignant. I guess I was playing the odds because I had read that eye cancer was very rare. I was so confident that I had told my wife, Cathy, not to take the day off work to accompany me on the train ride down to Wills Hospital, saying I would just be getting tests and sitting around all day and once it was done, we’d figure out what I needed to do about it.

Of course, I had never even heard of eye cancer when it all started, innocuously enough, during a Wednesday afternoon matinee at the Ambler Theater the week before. I had just recently gotten a new pair of glasses, and it seemed odd that the vision in my right eye was blurry as I watched the movie.

I mentioned it to Cathy after the movie, and for once in my life, took the advice I had written and edited for so many health books and articles over the years. I immediately called Dr. Bolstein and made an appointment to come in the next day to get my vision checked.

That call may have saved my life.

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Going Five for Five

It was only after I was called back to a small examination room down a long hallway at the back of the Oncology Service on the 14th floor of Wills Eye Hospital that doubt started to creep in. I sat in that room, alone, for what seemed an eternity. As I recall now, I was there for at least an hour, probably more, as the doctors reviewed the results from all the sophisticated tests my right eye had been subjected to over the course of the long day to divine what the images meant.

When Dr. Carol Shields—who along with her husband, Dr. Jerry Shields, was co-chief of the Ocular Oncology Service at the time and literally wrote the book on eye cancer—finally came in, she was flanked by more than a dozen earnest young interns in white lab coats. It struck me kind of funny, like college kids trying to cram into a phone booth.

Except I was in the phone booth. And it occurred to me that if everything was fine and this was just a routine medical issue, my exam room probably wouldn’t be filled with interns eagerly waiting to observe what happened next. I remember thinking: This isn’t good.

It wasn’t. Dr. Shields introduced herself, shook my hand and, in a very measured, calm voice, told me that I had a tumor on the choroid in my right eye, that it had grown sufficiently to impair my vision, and that there are five markers to determine whether a tumor is malignant, including whether it has orange pigment and thickness over 2 mm.

I went five for five. Not exactly the time you want to be Ted Williams.

Dr. Shields explained that my condition, known as uveal melanoma, is exceedingly rare. The odds of getting it are just six in a million. To give you an idea what that looks like, statistically speaking, only six people in the entire state of Delaware would have uveal melanoma at any given time.

There were no known genetic, environmental, lifestyle, or other risk factors. It does, however, typically occur in fair-skinned men and women with blue or green eyes. As a pasty white Irish-American lad with blue eyes, I once again went two for two.

So there’s no real rhyme or reason for who gets uveal melanoma and who doesn’t. It’s almost like winning the lottery. Except you lose.

Without skipping a beat, however, Dr. Shields told me that it appeared the tumor had been caught early, which was extremely important, and that it was treatable with a procedure called radioactive plaque therapy. That entails surgically applying a radioactive plaque the size of a nickel directly on the tumor inside the eye, and leaving it there for four or more days. The plaque has carefully placed radioactive seeds that provide 8,000 centigray of radiation to the entire tumor. The rest of the body receives only the equivalent of one chest x-ray. When the plaque is done zapping the tumor, it is removed in the operating room and the patient can go home the same day wearing an eye patch.

It was somewhat overwhelming. But Dr. Shields exudes confidence that is contagious. It’s no surprise that the world-class surgeon and researcher was a standout on Notre Dame’s first women’s basketball team in the 1970s, leading the team in scoring her junior year, serving as co-captain three times, and going on to become the first woman to win Notre Dame’s highest student-athlete award, the Byron V. Kanaley Award for academics, athletics and leadership.

“We have three goals: to save your life, your eye, and your sight. In that order,” she told me, looking me squarely in the eye. And I believed she would do everything possible to achieve those goals.

It was close to 5 p.m. on Monday, July 6, 2009. Dr. Shields told me that she personally would be doing my surgery, and that radioactive plaque therapy was done on Thursdays at Wills Eye Hospital. After surgery, I would be transported to a nearby hotel that was used for recovering patients and stay there until the following Monday, when I would be brought back to the hospital to have the plaque removed.

Without hesitation, I asked if we could do it on Thursday of that week, just two days away. It meant getting my pre-surgery physical in a hurry, letting family and friends know what was happening, and finding someone to take my tickets for a Bob Dylan concert that weekend. But the last thing I wanted to do was sit around for a week thinking about having cancer. Especially when the option was to do the one thing that gave me the best chance of not having cancer.

So we scheduled the radioactive plaque therapy for Thursday, July 9. Exactly 10 years ago today.

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One of the Survivors

I’m a cancer survivor. It’s a weird term, one I’m still not terribly comfortable with.

About the time I was going through my bout with eye cancer, I had two friends and colleagues from my first job at the Delaware State News in Dover who also were dealing with cancer. J.L. Miller, Tammy Brittingham and I had all been reporters together in Dover when we were young. When J.L. and Tammy found out I had joined the “club,” so to speak, both reached out to me and were incredibly kind and generous in encouraging me and letting me know about resources that might help.

J.L. and Tammy didn’t survive. And yeah, there are still days when I have to wonder why I’m here and they aren’t.

The tumor behind my right eye is now a shrunken scar, which blurs my vision just enough to remind me whenever I suffer doubts about just how fortunate I am.

Fortunate to have an optometrist, Dr. Bolstein, who recognized a troubling growth inside my eye and insisted that I get it checked out without delay. Fortunate to live a mere train ride from Dr. Shields and all of the amazing specialists at Wills Eye Hospital. They are simply the best in the world at what they do. Ten years later, I still have my life, my eye, and my sight. Going three for three on that score has made all the difference.

Fortunate to have Cathy Croft, my wife of 42 years now and love of my life, who had to sleep in a separate room during the four days I was radioactive, but who stayed with me then, and through and all the years before and since. Fortunate to attend the weddings of both of my daughters, Bernadette and her husband Brian, and Amelia and her husband Kurt. And fortunate to still be here to see my granddaughter, little Aria Louise Croft Greer, born to Bernadette and Brian in April.

Fortunate for all my family and friends. On this day, I especially think about Ernie Tremblay and Ed Claflin, who came to visit me in the hotel room the night after my surgery 10 years ago, bearing a bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. The three of us had worked together at Rodale Press back in the day, and had planned weeks in advance to meet up for drinks that night. When I called to let them know I unfortunately now had other plans, they simply asked if I’d still like some company. Even after mixing Jameson’s and Percocet, their friendship and support remains clear.

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My Own High Holy Day

Among the rituals of my life, my annual follow-up visit to the Ocular Oncology Service at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia each September has become a personal High Holy Day.

It is a day of remembrance and thanksgiving and self-examination. And despite the fact that I have been cancer-free for a decade now, and my genetic testing places me in the lowest percentile for the cancer coming back, it is also a day of high anxiety.

The train ride down, retracing my steps from the eye exam room to the ultrasound machine to the high-tech imaging machines, hoping that Dr. Shields or one of the other doctors will come in at the end and tell me that I’m in the clear for another year. Having expected the best, and hearing the worst, on my first visit in 2009, I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.

Once I get the all clear, my annual ritual includes a celebratory lunch at McGillin’s Olde Ale House, the oldest bar in Philadelphia. I started going there in the months after my surgery, when I had to return to Wills for a series of six eye injections of Avastin, a breast cancer drug used off topic to counteract possible side effects from the radiation treatment in eye cancer. My order is always the same: the corned beef special, O’Hara’s Irish Stout, and, of course, a Jameson’s. Or two.

Each year before I return to Wills, I’ve had MRIs, CT Scans, and/or x-rays done of my liver and lungs—the two areas most likely to be affected if the cancer were to reappear. And each year, they’ve been clear. At this point, I know that the odds of the cancer returning are slim. But the anxiety is there nonetheless, year after year.

And it’s not as though it’s irrational. After all, my odds of getting eye cancer in the first place were just six in a million.

Wisdom from Tony Soprano and Warren Zevon

Along with survivor’s guilt, I also sometimes find myself wondering why I haven’t gained some profound insight into the mysteries of life. Why I don’t seem to have learned some deep, life-changing lesson from my bout with cancer.

Instead, I too often find myself recalling something Tony Soprano, as portrayed by the marvelous and deeply missed actor James Gandolfini, said to his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi on The Sopranos: “You know my feelings: Every day is a gift. It’s just, does it have to be a pair of socks?”

Like Tony, there have been more times than I’d care to admit over the past decade when I’ve questioned why the gift has to be a pair of socks. But maybe simply recognizing that life is indeed a gift, even if it’s not what you may have been hoping for, is profound enough.

So at least for today, I’m doing my best to remember how precious our time is. Every day is a gift. That’s true. And that knowledge should change how we look at life, not in some huge, life-changing way, but in the small things we do every day.

As he did so often in life, the brilliant but criminally underrated singer-songwriter Warren Zevon put it best. His friend David Letterman devoted an entire show to Warren and his music after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an inoperable cancer that would eventually claim his life in 2003.

Toward the end of the show, Letterman asked him: “From your perspective now, do you know something about life and death that maybe I don’t know now?”

Zevon replied: “Not unless I know how much — how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”

That’s it. Enjoy every sandwich. That’s why I started getting the corned beef special at McGillin’s each September after my annual follow-up appointment at Wills Ocular Oncology. To remind me to enjoy every sandwich. Unfortunately, I don’t always appreciate and celebrate the small things that make life better every day.

But I’m trying to do better. When I was in third grade in White Plains, N.Y., my teacher bestowed “Avis: We Try Harder” buttons to kids in the class who made the effort to improve. I got one on the very last day of school. I’m hoping I don’t wait as long this time.

Maybe I learned something profound after all.

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Coda: Dr. Carol Shields, Trailblazer

Meet Dr. Carol Shields, now chief of Wills Eye Hospital’s Ocular Oncology Service.

Coda: Warren Zevon’s Last Interview with David Letterman

I’ll admit: I can’t watch this without crying. Here is the complete show of Warren Zevon’s final appearance with David Letterman. To me, it remains the most authentic, generous, humane, and moving program I’ve ever seen on television. For the “Enjoy every sandwich” quote, go to 25:58. But I highly recommend watching the entire show.

Coda: ‘Every Day Is a Gift’—Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi

This clip reminds us of just how much we lost when James Gandolfini died in 2013. “What’re you gonna do? It’s the human condition.”

Springsteen on Broadway: Magic in the Night

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“I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. In case you haven’t figured that out by now.”

The self-deprecating joke Bruce Springsteen tells to open Springsteen on Broadway sets the tone for much of what follows over the next two hours. The greatest storyteller of his generation in rock ‘n’ roll, Springsteen draws on his autobiography, Born to Run, and a personally curated set of songs from his catalog to tell the story not only of his own life and times, but the life and times of all of us who have taken the long journey with him.

Most of the show’s humor—and there is plenty of side-splitting, joyous laughter in the show—is at his own expense. The chronicler, defender, and voice of working class Americans—who by his own admission has never worked an honest job in his life. The guy who wrote Racing in the Street and too many other songs celebrating cars and driving to count—who, by age 21, still didn’t have a car and still didn’t know how to drive. The songwriter who couldn’t wait to get out of the dead-end town he grew up in, Freehold, N.J., who wrote such scathing lines describing it as “it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we’ve gotta get out while we’re young”—who today lives 10 minutes from his childhood home.

But he also delves deeply into his difficult relationship with his late father, Douglas, who worked a series of odd jobs over the years, from factory work at the rug mill and the Nescafe plant to driving trucks, buses, and cabs, and who remained a mysterious, dark, and often absent presence in his son’s life.

And in a segment that moved me to tears, he talked about the pride, the joy, and the hope that his mother, Adele, has always brought to his family, and how she always had his back—even when the depression his father battled throughout his life threatened the fragile bonds of his family.

“Truthfulness, consistency, professionalism, kindness, compassion, manners, thoughtfulness, pride in yourself, honor, love, faith in and fidelity to your family, commitment, joy in your work, and a never-say-die thirst for life. These are some of the things my mother taught me and I struggle to live up to,” he said.

And I choked up, as so much of what he said described my own mother, who died six years ago. And my own struggles to live up to the things she taught me.

That’s always been part of the deal between Springsteen and his fans. In 1975, John Rockwell, the New York Times chief rock critic at the time, wrote of Springsteen’s music: “Hearing these songs is like hearing your own life in music, even if you never lived in New Jersey or made love under the boardwalk in Asbury Park.” (For the record, I have done one of those things.)

That connection has only strengthened through the years, as Springsteen has moved on from the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll as set down by Chuck Berry (RIP) in the 1950s of cars and girls to more mature themes of love and trust and betrayal and the loss of loved ones (another cathartic segment of the show centered on the outsized role that the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, played in Bruce’s life, and how he seeks to keep alive the spirits of those who have passed on) and how to live with integrity and how to keep the demons at bay and instead hold fast to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

In this age of spoilers, I will resist the temptation to share details of specific songs and stories, since the official opening isn’t until Thursday night, Oct. 12. And letting the show unfold before you as Bruce conceived it is part of the power of the performance.

The show features Springsteen, dressed in his trademark, dark-colored, working man’s garb, alone on stage (his wife, Patti Scialfa, comes out to join him for two songs) against a dark, urban-industrial backdrop. It is adorned with a microphone at center stage and a baby grand piano to the left, which Springsteen alternates playing with an array of acoustic guitars brought to him by a stagehand.

The Walter Kerr Theatre, which has fewer than 1,000 seats, creates an intimacy that hasn’t been possible since his early days playing small clubs. It is as close as you will ever come to having Bruce in your living room. Whether the mood is somber or ebullient, the lighting by Tony Award-winner Natasha Katz creates exactly the right atmosphere.

The sound is simply superb, and the show features reimagined versions of songs Springsteen’s fans know by heart in ways that spark fresh insights and understanding. In an illuminating interview Bruce did with New York Times critic Jon Pareles recently, Springsteen explained it this way:

I’m playing familiar music, but I believe it will lead you to hear it with very fresh ears by the context that I set it in. I always make a comment that when things are working in art, one plus one equals three.

And that’s what happens throughout Springsteen on Broadway. One plus one equals three. The songs and the passages from the book create a third, new theatrical experience that is the most profoundly moving I have ever had on Broadway—or in any theater.

There is magic in the night.

And even in these dark and trying times, there is light. There is also a train pulling out of the station, bound for the land of hope and dreams, if you have the faith to climb on board.

Idiot Wind Blows Through Concert Venues

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Emmylou Harris, in the voice of an angel, recounted a tale so horrific that it would make the devil himself feel shame.

I was born a black boy
My name is Emmett Till
Walked this earth for 14 years
One night I was killed
For speaking to a woman
Whose skin was white as dough
That’s a sin in Mississippi
But how was I to know?

At least I believe those were the words she was singing. I could only make out every second or third word, at best, because the people in the row behind me at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia were talking and laughing loudly throughout the song. Just as they had since they arrived midway through the opening set by Carlene Carter (3rd generation member of the legendary Carter Family and daughter of June Carter Cash, who collaborated with the night’s headliner, John Mellencamp, on his latest album, Sad Clowns and Hillbillies).

And just as they continued to do for the entire set by Emmylou, a Country Music Hall of Fame artist who has graced several of the finest albums of the past 40-plus years with one of the most gorgeous voices on the planet, moving seamlessly between country, folk, rock, and other genres.

Now 70, she is a beautiful thread that weaves together Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Willie Nelson, Mark Knopfler, Conor Oberst, Neil Young, Rodney Crowell and so many others … not to mention her Trio collaborations with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. And she has written songs of uncommon poignancy that stir the souls of those willing to listen.

Mansfield Frazier is one such soul. Five years ago, the former Cleveland newspaper editor wrote a piece for the Daily Beast that expresses the profound effect hearing Emmylou Harris sing “My Name is Emmett Till” on the radio had on him. Frazier was 12 years old in 1955 when details of the unspeakable torture  inflicted on the 14-year-old Till for the “sin” of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi made national news, one of the sparks that lit the Civil Rights Movement.

Frazier, who is African-American, writes:

“But 56 years later, I listened, transfixed, as Emmylou Harris sang her version of the story with heartbreaking tenderness, and I was awestruck that a 65-year-old white woman, born and bred in Alabama, would have the compassion and the courage to perform this song in front of a country-and-western audience—in Nashville no less. Her sincere voice and remarkable words evoked such long-ago memories that I could feel a huge lump in my throat.”

I urge you to read Frazier’s heart-rending, yet ultimately hopeful, column. It is proof that, for those with ears to listen and a soul to understand, music has the power to confront hate and awaken “the better angels of our nature.”

But that only happens if you listen. And increasingly, I have found that fewer people are listening to artists at larger venues. Perhaps I was just unfortunate enough to be in the wrong row at the Mann, with the lone group of loud-mouthed, self-absorbed jerks directly behind me. But from the loud buzz I could hear even when the idiots behind me were momentarily quiet to take a breath or gulp a beer, I doubt it.

‘A few soft words in pursuit of quietude is no vice’

In talking with music-loving friends, I’ve heard plenty of similar discouraging stories. It’s reached the point where that bastion of good manners and taste, NPR, recently felt compelled to address the musical question: Can I Ask Loud Talkers At Outdoor Concerts To (Please) Shut Up?

Personally, I don’t even consider that a question. Being NPR, of course, their answer is more refined and thoughtful. Stephen Thompson writes in his column, The Good Listener:

“As for what to say and how to say it, be polite and friendly, stick to “I” statements as much as possible (“I’m having trouble hearing the show…”), and try to be as brief and direct as possible. Speaking a few soft words in pursuit of quietude is no vice.”

Well, yes, you could do that. It’s certainly an impeccably reasonable way to approach the situation.

‘I hope the music isn’t interfering with your conversations and phone calls!’

But I must confess I took a decidedly different tack when Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band played the first concerts at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia back in 2003. I was sitting in the second row of the upper deck with my wife, and in the row directly in front of us was a younger group that had obviously been tailgating in the parking lot for some time before the show began.

When the show started, they hardly seemed to notice. They continued yelling back and forth, up and down the row, and talking loudly on their cell phones. I finally lost it when Bruce went into a fierce, full band version of “Lost in the Flood” from his first album. When the song ended, I reached down and grabbed the two guys in front of me roughly by the shoulders, leaned forward between them, and, with what I’m sure was the full Jack-Nicholson-in-The Shining crazy in my eyes, said: “I hope the music isn’t interfering with your conversations and phone calls!”

In my defense, I did use an “I” statement. Although I’m pretty sure that’s not quite what The Good Listener had in mind.

Stunned, they stared at me like I was a lunatic (which was probably a fair assessment) and then started stammering about how they loved Bruce and were listening and hadn’t spent the entire show talking to each other and on their phones. That was when I noticed that virtually the entire row in front of me really was all one group. Once they got over the initial shock, they all turned around and started shouting at me that I was trying to spoil their fun because I was old and it was my problem, not theirs. Besides, they said, nobody else was complaining.

It felt like it was about to get uglier fast, when an amazing thing happened. The people next to my long-suffering wife and I and the folks in the row behind us—all strangers in the City of  Brotherly Love—started yelling back at the front row that they had, indeed, been acting like jackasses and ruining the show for them. With the numbers suddenly on my side, the front row sulked back in their seats, and were noticeably less obnoxious the rest of the show.

Later, the most drunk guy in the group looked over at me, glassy eyed, and said: “I hope I’m never as old as you.” I smiled, and replied: “I hope you never are, too.” He looked confused as to why I was agreeing with him. I doubt it ever penetrated the fog.

I’m not proud of the way I handled the situation, and don’t recommend this approach to others. There have been several times since when I’ve had to ask people to pipe down, but I’ve managed not to do it in such an aggressive, confrontational manner.

‘The fault is not in our stars …’

I have several friends who love music, but have given up on going to concerts at larger venues because of the routine rudeness they so often had to deal with. I know even more people who have given up going to movie theaters for the same reason.

I understand their decision, but chafe at the idea that people who are really passionate about the music should be the ones to stay home. Especially since, unlike most of the real problems facing the world, the answer is simple: If you have no interest in hearing the opening acts, stay out of the venue until the headliner shows up. And if you have no interest in actually listening to the headliner, then save yourself a ton of money and don’t go to the show.

Of all the things that divide us as a people these days, I must admit the one I find most mystifying is that there are actually people who think nothing of spending upwards of $100, plus shelling out for a half dozen or more $10 beers or even more expensive cocktails, to go to a concert and not listen to the music. It’s like they’re at their local bar, and the performers are the jukebox (or nowadays, Sirius or Pandora) playing in the background as they regale their friends with tales of work and the absolutely fascinating things that have happened in their lives that week.

When I see these people at shows, talking loudly to one another or on their cell phones, paying little or no attention to the stars on the stage, I can’t help but think of the words of one of Emmylou’s former singing partners, the Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan: “It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”

You hear a lot of complaints about stars who go through the motions, failing to perform with the passion and energy and artistry expected. That certainly hasn’t been the case at most of the hundreds of shows I’ve seen. And from what I could tell, Carlene Carter, Emmylou Harris, and John Mellencamp were at their best in Philly, delivering passionate performances and engaging (or at least trying to) with the audience. Dan DeLuca’s review in the Philadelphia Inquirer certainly confirms that.

For me, it’s a simple matter of respect—for the performers and for the music. Buying a ticket doesn’t entitle you to be a jackass.

I’m also reminded of a line by another pretty fair writer, William Shakespeare: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves …”

Coda: My Soul’s Got Wings

Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter join John Mellencamp and his band for a spirited version of “My Soul’s Got Wings” at the Mann Music Center In Philadelphia on July 6, 2017.

Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now

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“If I should die in a car wreck, may I have Van Morrison on my tape deck.”

I heard the Poi Dog Pondering song U Li La Lu only once on the radio a quarter of a century ago, but that line has always stuck with me. I don’t have a tape deck in my car any more. But if I do get to choose the last singer I hear before shuffling off this mortal coil, it will be Van Morrison.

More than any other artist, Van’s music has been an integral part of my life since I was a kid. As the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in his famous liner notes for the 1972 two-record Them collection: “We have grown up to Van Morrison: gone through make-outs and periods of adolescent darkness, found rock poetry sans pretence in his lyrics, turned up our radios a little louder (as he counseled in “Caravan”) every time he came on, heard in his music hit singles and sheer art (though never “Art Rock”) and gorgeous combinations of the two.”

Yes. That’s exactly right. I have grown up to Van Morrison. I loved Gloria and Here Comes the Night, the hit singles from his first band Them that made the U.S. charts in 1965 and 1966, and first heard Brown Eyed Girl while on vacation on Cape Cod in the summer of ’67. Those “sha la las” blasting from a tinny transistor radio delivered fully on the promise of the title of Van’s first solo album–Blowin’ Your Mind. I remember the  transcendent experience of hearing Astral Weeks for the first time, and I remember playing the Moondance album over and over during my own periods of adolescent darkness.

I remember listening to Period of Transition in 1977, as I got dressed on my wedding day. I remember a harrowing weed and beer fueled high-speed car ride with friends from my first newspaper job in Dover, Del., in 1978 to see Van at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., on the Wavelength tour. It’s a wonder that Poi Dog Pondering lyric didn’t come true that night.

I remember listening to Into the Music as I drove out to Port Mahon along the Delaware Bay to do long runs while training for my one and only marathon in Montreal in 1979. Well, you get the idea. Whatever was happening in my life, there was always Van Morrison. And that’s still true today.

When I first heard Brown Eyed Girl, I had no idea just how restless and brilliant and contrarian and creative Van Morrison would turn out to be. Or that he would still be making vital music at age 71, and that I would still be listening to it in my 60s.

Today is Van’s birthday, and he’s celebrating his 71st year the same way he’s celebrated every year since 1964: By recording music and playing live shows. His new album, appropriately titled Keep Me Singing, comes out Sept. 30 and he’s already released a video of the first song off the record called Too Late:

Like Van said in Into the Mystic, it’s too late to stop now. That we have had this singular voice in our lives for so long, when so many others have been silenced prematurely, is our good fortune.

Greil_Marcus_Van_300pThe renowned rock critic Greil Marcus, in his book of essays on listening to Van Morrison’s music titled When That Rough God Goes Riding, writes “Morrison may have the richest and most expressive voice pop music has produced since Elvis Presley, and with a sense of himself as an artist that Elvis was always denied. But what is that voice for?”

Marcus, a serious and scholarly critic with a contrarian streak as deep as Van’s, writes off large portions of Van’s catalog–especially the 15 albums over more than 15 years recorded from 1980 to 1996. Even writing about Van’s first solo album in 1967, Marcus sniffs: “The bright, bouncy Brown Eyed Girl was Morrison’s least convincing recording …” So much for Van’s only top 10 hit.

If you love Van Morrison’s music, as I do, reading When That Rough God Goes Riding will alternately elevate and infuriate you. That’s what great criticism is supposed to do: challenge your thinking and help you see things in a new light. Marcus’ book, which borrows its title from a song off the 1997 album The Healing Game, holds Van Morrison to a standard precious few could ever hope to attain and absolutely nobody could possibly maintain over a half century of writing and performing: the soul-searing peaks of revelation that mark his finest work.

Listen to what Marcus has to say about Astral Weeks, which has lost none of its astonishing power since its 1968 release:

It was forty-six minutes in which possibilities of the medium–of rock ‘n’ roll, of pop music, of what you might call music that could be played on the radio as if it were both timeless and news–were realized, when you went out to the limits of what this form could do. You went past them: you showed everybody else that the limits they had accepted on invention, expression, honesty, daring, were false. You said it to musicians and you said it to people who weren’t musicians: there’s more to life than you thought. Life can be lived more deeply–with a greater sense of fear and horror and desire than you ever imagined.

Better yet, listen to Astral Weeks, because what Marcus’ book does best of all is drive you back to the music. With Astral Weeks, Marcus writes, “Morrison’s music opened onto the road it has followed since: a road bordered by meadows alive with the promise of mystical deliverance and revelation on one side, forests of shrieking haunts and beckoning specters on the other, and rocks, baubles, traps, and snares down the middle.”

Since 1964, it has been one of the pure joys of my life to go down that road with him. And you know what? It’s too late to stop now.

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The Warner Brothers ad for Astral Weeks, from Rolling Stone magazine. I’ve kept it in the album sleeve for almost 50 years.

Coda: Van Morrison and Bob Dylan

I saw this BBC special about Van Morrison when it aired in the early 1990s, and still have a VHS recording of it (although currently not a VHS player). The opening scene features Van and old friend Bob Dylan performing “Foreign Window” and “One Irish Rover”together on a hillside in Athens–two gods of rock mythology in the setting of the gods of Greek mythology. This clip also features Van and the Chieftans performing Raglan Road.

Coda: Van Morrison Live at the Filmore East September 1970

Van, in all his revelation.

Coda: Poi Dog Pondering U Li La Lu

If I should die in a car wreck, may I have Van Morrison on my tape deck.

Christopher Jones, Phil Ochs, and the Chords of Fame

 

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So play the chords of love, my friend

Play the chords of pain

If you want to keep your song,

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t play the chords of fame

The brilliant, but troubled, singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, who later descended into alcoholism and manic depression before taking his own life at age 35, warned of the dangers of playing the chords of fame.

Christopher Jones, the promising young actor who took the starring role that Ochs turned down in the satirical 1968 teen rebellion film Wild In The Streets, turned his back on fame just as his star was reaching its peak, and went on to live a quiet life until his death from cancer in February 2014 at age 72.

The story of Christopher Jones should be the stuff of legend. Instead, it’s largely forgotten. A charismatic young actor with smoldering good looks, hailed as the next James Dean, becomes a leading man on TV by age 24 and quickly parlays his success into starring roles on the silver screen—and then, before he turns 30, walks away for reasons that have never been fully explained.

And never looks back.

Oh yeah, and did I mention the Charlie Manson cult murder angle? More on that in a bit.

For the next four decades, Jones lived off the money he made as the star of the ABC TV series The Legend of Jesse James, which lasted only one season, and a tantalizingly brief movie career that included starring roles in the cult classic Wild In The Streets, the John LeCarre spy thriller The Looking Glass, and David Lean’s epic Ryan’s Daughter. He also was a painter and a sculptor, a devoted father, and—by his own account in rare newspaper interviews—happy.

So today, on what would have been Christopher Jones’ 75th birthday, we would do well to remember the actor who decided not to play the Chords of Fame.

‘A Leader of Men and of Little Girls’

Born William Franklin Jones on Aug. 18, 1941, he had the southern gothic version of a Dickensian childhood. The family initially lived above a grocery store in Jackson, Tennessee, where his father was a clerk. When Jones was just 4, his mother, an artist, was confined to a psychiatric hospital, where she died 15 years later. Jones was sent by his father to live in in a children’s home in Memphis.

At 16, with permission from his father, Jones joined the Army, went AWOL, and did a short stint in prison. Like so many before him, he made his way to New York City, where he studied painting while working odd jobs until he won a small role on Broadway in the 1961 production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. It got him noticed, and he auditioned at the famed Actors Studio. He wound up marrying Artistic Director Lee Strasberg’s daughter, Susan Strasberg. (They divorced in 1968.)

In 1965, Jones landed the starring role in The Legend of Jesse James. That’s where I first saw him, and became an instant fan. Jones played the outlaw as a good-hearted Robin Hood who robbed and killed only to right injustices. I watched every episode, and was among the thousands of young people who were crushed when the show was canceled after one season. The show led me to read up on the real Jesse James, which provided a valuable early life lesson that TV and reality are distant cousins, at best.

Wild_In-The_Streets_300pJones soon landed the starring role in Wild In The Streets, an American International Pictures exploitation film about 24-year-old rock star Max Frost, a “leader of men and of little girls,” as the off-screen announcer intones, who spearheads a teen rebellion that results in 15-year-olds getting the right to vote and Frost carrying every state but Hawaii as the Republican nominee for president.

That’s right, Republican nominee. It seems that in this crazy, totally ridiculous satire, the GOP is desperate enough to offer its presidential nomination to an unhinged celebrity. If you think Donald Trump is unstable and unpredictable, wait until you meet Max Frost, who accomplishes his government takeover by having his young “troops” dump LSD in the Washington, DC, water supply and, upon taking office, sets 30 as the mandatory retirement age. “Who, after all, do you think caused all of our troubles? Those who are stiff, baby, but not with love—with age!” At age 35, everyone has to go to an internment camp, where, as Frost explains, “We’re going to psyche ‘em all out on LSD, babies!”

Truth in advertising: “Perhaps the Most Unusual Motion Picture You’ll Ever See” Watch the trailer for Wild In The Streets.

The film features a stellar cast given the material, including Hal Holbrook as an ambitious young congressman who forms a Faustian pact with Frost and his teen followers to advance his own campaign for U.S. Senate; Ed Begley as California’s distinguished senior senator, who just doesn’t understand what’s the matter with kids today; Shelley Winters as a psycho, abusive mother who’s even more twisted than Angela Lansbury’s Manchurian Candidate mom;  and a very young Richard Pryor as Stanley X, an anthropologist and author of The Aborigine Cookbook who is the drummer in Max Frost’s band. It also includes cameos by Walter Winchell and Dick Clark as TV news announcers.

Unusual? I guess you could say that.

‘Once You’re In, You’re In’

Phil_Ochs_Patriot_300pOn screen, Jones is every bit the pop star he portrays, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Yet, as I watched the movie again last night, I couldn’t help but think what it would have been like if Phil Ochs had said yes.

Ochs, a passionate, literate, and wickedly funny folksinger and political activist, loved Elvis, James Dean, and John Wayne. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved most about him. In his excellent biography, There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs, author Michael Schumacher writes about Phil’s passion for movies, and how he harbored the faint hope of one day acting in films himself.

At one point during this period, Phil was offered the lead role in Wild in the Streets, a feature film about a rock ‘n’ roll idol who is elected President of the United States. (Ochs manager) Arthur Gorson had disapproved of the movie’s right-wing message, and had discouraged Phil from accepting the part. The movie went on to become a major hit, and twenty-five years after the fact, Michael Ochs still stewed about his brother’s rejecting the opportunity to star in the film.

“I was not managing him at that point,” Michael stated, “but if I had been, I would not have let him turn it down. Yes, it was right wing, and it was against everything he believed in but he still should have done it. He loved the movies and wanted to be in them, and this was his chance. Once you’re in, you’re in.”

He’s right. But as Max Frost and the Troopers sang, nothing can change the shape of things to come. Jones, who did say yes when the role was offered, went on to make the sexploitation farce Three in the Attic with Yvette Mimieux; The Looking Glass War, based on a John LeCarre Cold War spy thriller with Anthony Hopkins; A Brief Season, an Italian film that I don’t believe has been released in the U.S.; and Ryan’s Daughter, the Irish epic by Doctor Zhivago director David Lean that stars Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, and Sarah Miles, along with Jones.

‘It’s Too Late to Fall In Love with Sharon Tate’

And here’s where the Charlie Manson cult connection comes in. It was during the filming of Ryan’s Daughter, which was going to be Jones’ ticket to major stardom, that word came of the Tate-Labianca murders. In what I’ve long thought is the best opening line in rock history, the late writer, rock star, and poet Jim Carroll wrote: “It’s too late, to fall in love with Sharon Tate.” That proved to be literally true for Jones, who told a British interviewer in 2007 that he had fallen in love with the actress—who was the wife of director Roman Polanski and pregnant with his child at the time—in Rome earlier in 1969.

News of her grisly murder by Manson family members on Aug. 9, 1969 devastated Jones, and he suffered a breakdown. He was barely able to finish the film, and walked away from his Hollywood career when it finally wrapped. Jones, who turned down Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 entreaty to play The Gimp character in Pulp Fiction, only appeared once more on screen, in a small role as a favor to old friend Larry Bishop (who played The Hook in Wild in the Streets and was the son of comedian Joey Bishop) in the 1996 movie Trigger Happy.

Over the years, Jones hinted that there was more to his decision to still the Chords of Fame than Sharon Tate’s murder. He told the Toronto Globe and Mail: “Fate is fate. That’s the way it was. As for the rest, I want my epitaph to read: ‘Some things are better left unsaid.’”

So happy 75th birthday to Christopher Jones, who chose to play the chords of love instead of the chords of fame. I only wish Phil Ochs could have been so fortunate.

Coda: Phil Ochs

Chords of Fame from Phil Ochs Greatest Hits

Coda: Christopher Jones

Watch the premier episode of The Legend of Jesse James from September 1965.

Max Frost and the Troopers perform “Shape of Things to Come.”

Are You Running with Me, Elvis?

 

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The author, right, talking with Jumpsuit Elvis at the finish of the 1996 Elvis International 5-K, in front of the wall surrounding Graceland. Photo by Roark Johnson.

Twenty years ago this past weekend, I flew out to Memphis for Elvis Week on Runner’s World magazine’s dime to do a story on the annual Elvis International 5-K race. I toured Graceland and Sun Studio and drove down to Tupelo, Mississippi, to visit the shotgun shack where Elvis was born. I hit Beale Street and saw the Memphis Horns playing in a bar after getting their star on the walk of fame, and caught a set by the legendary Rufus Thomas in a small hall at the end of Beale Street with maybe a dozen other fans.

And yeah, I ran the Elvis 5-K race that finishes at the gates of Graceland. It remains the best assignment of my life, one that allowed me to indulge three of my obsessions at the time: music (and more specifically the cult of Elvis), running, and writing. It also was the story that showed me that Kerouac really was onto something with his idea of spontaneous prose. Running with either a notebook or tape recorder on a hot, sweaty, August morning in Memphis were never options I considered. So I stashed a notebook in my car before the race and, once I wrapped up running and reporting, headed straight to the parking lot and started writing. Not just notes, but the story.

As true and accurately as I could, I wrote what I saw, heard, felt, and thought before, during, and after the race. Runner’s World had agreed to send me to the 1996 race, on the 19th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, so it could publish the story a few months before the huge 20th anniversary Elvis Week extravaganza in case runners wanted to make it a destination race. That meant I had a few months to turn in the article. I typed out my hand-scrawled version after I got home, and then over the weeks and months that followed, tried several different approaches.

As the deadline approached, I went back to my original version and realized it was much better than any of the more polished, later rewrites. With a minimum of editing, that’s the version I turned in. And that’s the version that Runner’s World printed.

Normally, in this age of wonders, I would just link to the Runner’s World archive of the article online. But like a lot of publications, RW doesn’t have issues from before the current century available online, so the article only exists in print copies of the magazine.

So here it is, exactly as it was published in the May 1997 issue of Runner’s World magazine. I am eternally indebted to then-Executive Editor Amby Burfoot for allowing me to do this one.

And in case you’re wondering, the race is still going strong. The 34th annual race (it started five years after Elvis’s death) was held this past weekend on Saturday, Aug. 13. For more info, or to start planning if you want to run the race to be held during the events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the King’s death in 2017, visit http://elvispresleyrunandwalk.com/ .

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The sun begins its slow ascent through the early morning Memphis haze, heralding the start of another sultry summer day. Once, within the walls of his beloved Graceland, Elvis Presley would have begun his own slow climb up the stairs to bed after another sleepless night of racquetball, private movie screenings, fireworks or gospel singing. But not this morning.

Looking resplendent in a white jumpsuit with gold embroidery, accented with a bright red scarf, the King strides purposefully through the race registration area, which has been set up in the shadow of his beloved Lisa Marie—the jet plane, not the daughter. He picks up his race packet—“Thank you. Thank you very much”—and joins the sea of more traditionally attired runners parading slowly up Elvis Presley Boulevard to the starting line of the Elvis Presley International 5-K.

It’s his race. The rest of us are just running in it.

*****

Walking the quarter-mile from Graceland to the starting line on Timothy Drive, it all seems more than a little surreal. And it’s not just Jumpsuit Elvis. Speakers mounted on the lead truck blare the soul-stirring strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which once let the faithful know that Elvis was not only in the building, but was also about to take the stage. The soaring theme song segues into “That’s All Right, Mama,” the song a 19-year-old Elvis recorded just a few miles away at Sun Recording Studio back in 1954—the song that started a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, on the road to Graceland.

At most summer races these days, wraparound shades (the kind sported by Lynn Jennings and Steve Scott) are all the rage. But not here. At the starting line of the Elvis 5-K, aviator sunglasses—the kind favored by the King in the ‘70s—are the defining fashion statement. Many runners—women as well as men—also sport bushy black fake sideburns, tacky even by Elvis souvenir standards.

The prerace nervous tension is broken by the starting gun. Slowly and fitfully, some 4,300 runners and walkers—the largest field yet—surge up the slight hill toward Graceland Drive, where the race course turns right just before Graceland Elementary School. The streets in the neighborhood are lined by red-brick ranch houses and other neatly kept middle-class dwellings. It looks like any other southern suburban neighborhood, until you remember that these were Elvis’s neighbors.

They live close enough to have been scared silly the night Elvis and the boys got carried away shooting off fireworks in the backyard and accidentally set off the entire stockpile of explosives. They could have heard the gunshots ringing through the night as Elvis and his buddies took turns target-shooting on the makeshift firing range that had been his old smokehouse. And maybe, just maybe, on a soft, still summer night, they might have been able to hear Elvis and friends gather around the grand piano off the living room, singing gospel standards into the wee hours of the morning.

Such reveries are broken by the guy barking splits at the mile marker. A few yards past, there’s a water stop with Elvis singing “Don’t Be Cruel” from a portable cassette player. Even the weather, it seems, listens when the King sings.

*****

As the course winds through the neighborhood behind Graceland, close to the 2-mile mark, I notice a positively ebullient runner ahead of me. He’s running back and forth across the course, high-fiving the sheriff’s deputies who are handling traffic control for the race. As I draw closer, something about him looks familiar. Black hair. Aviator sunglasses. A wide glittering blue belt with sparkling silver stars. Could it be?

Of course. This is Sensible Elvis, wearing a singlet and shorts instead of a jumpsuit. “You’ve got a lot of energy for a guy who usually goes to bed about now,” I remark as I pull up alongside of him.

“I’ve been getting a lot of rest lately. I’ve been sleeping for 19 years,” he replies in that familiar drawl.

I remember how the second floor of Graceland remained closed to visitors when I took the tour the previous day and—calling upon those fine instincts honed by 20 years as a newspaper reporter—decide to take a shot.

“Upstairs? On the second floor?” I ask.

Elvis smiles conspiratorially. “Yeah. But don’t tell anyone.”

“No problem,” I say. (Mental note: Find the first pay phone after the finish line and call the Weekly World News.)

I move by Sensible Elvis, following the course as it turns back onto Graceland Drive, heading toward Timothy Drive. Considering that there are more than 4,000 people tromping through the neighborhood, the course is astonishingly quiet. The runners are the only ones up at this hour. A handful of residents—including a few blessed souls who have turned on their sprinklers to cool the participants—come out to watch, but most remain safely inside, seemingly oblivious to the grand spectacle passing by their closed doors.

Back on Timothy Drive, the course slopes downhill to the starting line, then climbs up to Elvis Presley Boulevard. As I make the turn onto the street of dreams, I think of songwriter Paul Simon’s line, “I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” Simon may have had some deeper metaphysical idea in mind when he penned the line, but on this morning it is quite literally true. And what a reception it is. Three of the street’s four lanes are closed. The road is lined by fans (in town for the Elvis Week celebration), runners who have already finished and their friends and families. And best of all, it’s all downhill for the final two-tenths of a mile to the finish at the gates of Graceland.

The crowd roars as I pick up the pace, and I think, Gosh, this is great. But suddenly I realize the cheers are not for me. They’re for him. As the fans scream louder, I hear—just a few steps behind me now—that familiar drawl, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” No way. Not today. It may be his street—heck, it’s his race—but I’m not going to let Elvis beat me. Imagine explaining to your running buddies that you got outkicked by a guy whose idea of carbo-loading involves deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I unleash what’s left of my kick and hold off Sensible Elvis to the finish. In the chute, I turn around, high-five him and say, “Great race, King.” Gasping for breath, he replied (what else?), “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

I grab a cup of water at the end of the chute and walk back to the finish line. A few minutes later, Jumpsuit Elvis comes across in a scene reminiscent of John Wayne. Elvis is leading the Marines. As they have every year since the race started in 1983, some 150 Leathernecks from Marine Aviation Training Support Squadron 901 run the race in formation, keeping step to the bark of the drill sergeant’s cadences. Afterward, I track down Jumpsuit Elvis (okay, he’s pretty easy to find) and ask him about the race.

“I forgot how hot it gets here in August,” he says. “I’ve been away for a while, you know.”

My heart sinks. “Up on the second floor?” I ask.

“No. Up north,” he says.

Elvis looks at me and grins. “I can’t tell you that,” he says. (Never mind, operator. I guess I won’t be needing the number for Weekly World News after all. Thanks anyway.)

*****

There’s nothing left to do but stroll over to the postrace party, held in the pavilion next to Elvis’s airplane museum. There’s a live band playing country and rock, a clogging demonstration and plenty of food and drink. Some runners even find the energy to hit the dance floor.

I spy Sensible Elvis in the crowd and learn that he is really Seth Zamek, from Jackson, Tennessee. “I’ve been here a couple of times,” Zamek says. “This is the first time I dressed up, though. I had to do it.”

I look around for Jumpsuit Elvis, but he’s left the building. As I dig through my race packet, though, I find a clue to his whereabouts.

It’s a coupon, good for one free Quarter Pounder with Cheese at any Memphis-area McDonald’s. Somewhere under the “golden arches,” a man with black bushy sideburns, aviator sunglasses, a sparkling white jumpsuit and red scarf is taking a bag from the clerk behind the register. And in a soft, slightly slurred drawl, you can hear him say, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

From Runner’s World magazine, May 1997

 

American Tragedy: A Look at the Opioid Epidemic

In the iconic film “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wicked Witch of the West conjures a field of red poppies to thwart Dorothy’s entry into the fabled Emerald City, and foil her return to Kansas. Today, poppies like those are inflicting a plague of opioids across America, feeding an addiction epidemic that doesn’t discriminate based on race or income, or distinguish legal drugs (like those that took the life of actress Judy Garland) from the illicit. But thanks to a partnership between Alvernia University and Caron Treatment Centers, there is hope for some, and training for the next generation of addiction counselors.

 

I wrote the cover story for the new issue of Alvernia Magazine looking at the national opioid epidemic through the eyes of a smart, funny woman named Jennifer who lived through the hell of addiction for two decades before finally getting clean six years ago (sadly, her brother wasn’t so lucky), and through the experiences of the dedicated professionals at Caron Treatment Center (and the faculty and staff at Alvernia University who have taught and trained many of them) who help people put their lives back together.

It’s a harrowing tale, and it’s easy to get discouraged when confronted with the devastating statistics and the damage done. But it’s also a tale of life and hope.

I’d like to thank Steve Thomas, a wonderfully gifted designer who I had the intelligence to hire for his first daily newspaper job at The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa., way back in the early 1990s, for a dazzling cover design and splendid layout that surely wasn’t helped by my writing so many damn words.

It’s always nice to work with old friends. Especially when they’re really good at what they do.

Ali and Mailer: Shadowboxing with Immortality

I remember sitting in the kitchen of my parents home in Wilmington, Del., on that momentous March night in 1971, listening to the radio for the round-by-round bulletins from Madison Square Garden, where the Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was taking place.

I was rooting for Ali, just as I had rooted for Joe Namath over Earl Morrall and Johnny Unitas in Super Bowl III the year before, and just as I would root two months later for Marty Liquori over Jim Ryan in the Dream Mile at Franklin Field.

Like so many of my generation, I favored the brash, colorful, anti-establishment types, whether in sports, music, movies, TV, or writing. Lennon over McCartney. Jack Nicholson over John Wayne. The Smothers Brothers over Bonanza. And Norman Mailer over … well, just about everybody else. In my mind, then and now, Mailer was to writing what Ali was to boxing: simply The Greatest.

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So when news came over the radio waves that Frazier had rocked Ali in the 15th round, sending him to the canvas, I felt disoriented and queasy. Sure, Ali had gotten off the canvas to finish the fight, but Frazier was the new heavyweight champion of the world. The only consolation was that it was clear even from listening to the fight that it had lived up to the hype, that it was truly something special.

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So was the piece that Mailer wrote about it—10,000 words written in two days, which appeared first on the pages of LIFE magazine under the headline “Ego” (with ringside photography by Frank Sinatra) and, a month later, as a $1 Signet Special paperback titled King of the Hill. It’s a breathtaking exposition on Ego, boxing, African-American identity, what it means to be a man, and, yes, The Fight. That Mailer framed the article around the construct of Ego, which he called “the central phenomenon of the 20th Century,” makes perfect sense. After all, it was Mailer who wrote early in his career:

The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.

Even Mailer, in his later years, admitted he had failed to achieve that revolution, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or Ego.

Mailer had an abiding admiration for prizefighters and the price they paid to contend at the highest levels, and he brought a pugilist’s mindset to writing. He even had his friend José Torres, a former light heavyweight champ and Boxing Hall of Famer, school him in boxing in exchange for instructing Torres on writing. Yet, Mailer only wrote one other book about the sport he loved passionately—the highly acclaimed account of the 1974 Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, titled The Fight.

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It is a splendid book, one of the best ever on boxing, but I have always preferred Mailer’s coverage of the first Ali-Frazier fight. The piece is classic Mailer, brimming with passion, energy, intelligence, immediacy, and sheer audacity. The fact that it holds up so well 45 years later is a testament to Mailer’s genius. As we mourn the passing of Ali today at the age of 74, it is worth remembering how Mailer described him in the aftermath of the Fight of the Century:

He is America’s Greatest Ego. He is also … the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet, he is the very spirit of the 20th Century, he is the prince of mass man and the media.

While Ali was certainly one of the most polarizing figures of his time, with his embrace of the Nation of Islam and principled refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, the fight against Frazier in Madison Square Garden changed the way America saw him and set him up to become the most popular athlete in the world.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and Mailer saw it clearly as the fight happened:

Yes, Ali had never been a street fighter and never a whorehouse knock-it-down stud, no, it was more as if a man with the exquisite reflexes of Nureyev had learned to throw a punch with either hand and so had become champion of the world without knowing if he was the man of all men or the most delicate of the delicate with special privilege endowed by God. Now with Frazier, he was in a sweat bath (a mudpile, a knee, elbow, and death-thumping chute of a pit) having in this late year the fight he had sorely needed for his true greatness as a fighter six or seven years ago, and so whether ahead, behind or even, terror sat in the rooting instinct of all those who were for Ali for it was obviously Frazier’s fight to win, and what if Ali, weaknesses of character now flickering to the surface in a hundred little moves, should enter the vale of prizefighting’s deepest humiliation, should fall out half conscious on the floor and not want to get up. What a death to his followers.

But when Ali did, in fact, wind up on the floor in the fight’s final round, he summoned the courage to get up and was still standing as the bell rang. And long before Ali-Frazier II, or the Rumble in the Jungle, or the Thrilla in Manilla, or carrying the Olympic torch in Atlanta all those years later, Mailer saw the future:

The world was talking instantly of a rematch. For Ali had shown America what we all had hoped was secretly true. He was a man. He could bear moral and physical torture and he could stand. And if he could beat Frazier in the rematch we would have at last a national hero who was hero of the world as well …

For more than four decades, that’s exactly what we’ve had in Muhammad Ali: a national hero who was hero of the world as well, the most recognized and beloved athlete on the planet. His final years were marked by quiet dignity in the face of debilitating disease, and he remained a beacon of perseverance and principle and pride, a shining symbol of freedom to the end.

And now he’s gone. But Ali’s legacy is assured, here in the land that had such a passionate love-hate relationship with him, and around the world. In terms of Ali’s continuing ability to inspire and challenge, death has no sting. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering it can’t float like a butterfly, either.

 

Put Your Money on the Bar, and Listen to Sinatra

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I grew up in White Plains, New York, in the 1960s, reading Pete Hamill’s columns in the old New York Post. It’s hard to imagine now, after all these years of Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing bludgeoning, but at the time, the Post was the great liberal, working class tabloid, featuring the best writing I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. Hamill, who holds the distinction of being the only person to serve as editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, was a huge influence on my decision to go into newspapers in the mid-1970s, and I have read almost everything he’s written—newspaper columns, magazine articles, novels, essays, screenplays and more—over the years.

I also grew up listening to Frank Sinatra on WNEW-AM which was always on the radio in our kitchen, especially when the legendary William B. Williams was on the air with his Make Believe Ballroom. Sinatra was one of the first things my father and I agreed on, and it remained a shared bond until he died.

So it’s no surprise that my favorite book about Frank Sinatra is Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters, originally written in 1998, shortly after Sinatra died, and re-released last fall as part of Sinatra’s 100th birthday celebration. If you love Sinatra, this book is indispensable.

At just 180 pages, it’s a book you will come back to year after year, and each time, it will reveal new insights about the man and his music. It’s not a biography. It’s really more of an extended essay, a very personal perspective not only on why Sinatra matters, but why he will continue to matter. As Hamill writes:

The music remains. In times to come, that music will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture. The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives. Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts in joy. Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relieve the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E.M. Forster: ‘Only connect.’ In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will Frank Sinatra.

“That mysterious quality that makes the listener more human.”

I have never read or heard a better description of Sinatra’s genius, and why his music has mattered so much to me almost my entire life. This is an intimate book, one that takes you into the smoky backroom at PJ Clarke’s as Sinatra holds court, and into the back seat of a limousine as it rolls through Central Park in the wee small hours of the morning in New York. On the pages of Why Sinatra Matters, you encounter an artist and a man you will like very much, as Hamill did.

You will love this book for its passion, its honesty, its keen appreciation of art, history, and culture, and perhaps most of all for the understated brilliance of lines like this: “If you loved someone who did not love you back, you could always walk into a saloon, put your money on the bar, and listen to Sinatra.”

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One of my prize possessions: a signed copy of Why Sinatra Matters, with words to live by.

So today, as we mark the 18th anniversary of Sinatra’s passing, listening to his timeless music still represents the ultimate triumph over the banality of death. William B. Williams is long gone, but living in the Philadelphia area, I’m lucky enough to have the ageless Sid Mark still on the air in his 59th year doing an all-Sinatra radio show. (You can listen live on soundsofsinatra.com Sunday mornings from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.)

Since the anniversary of Sinatra’s death falls on a Sunday this year, Sid was on the radio this morning, as he has been for almost six decades, talking about his old friend and playing his music for fans young and old.

I’m also spending time today with Pete Hamill’s wonderful book. Hamill turned 80 last year; I turned 60. Both of us grew up listening to Sinatra on our parents’ radio. So did my daughters. (With Sid Mark filling the role that William B. Williams played in my parents’ home in White Plains.)

I have no doubt that in the decades to come, future generations of listeners will grow up discovering and embracing that mysterious quality that makes them more human.

Coda: Remembering Frank

This is a very good interview with Pete Hamill on McGraw Milhaven’s radio show on St. Louis station KTRS on the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth.