Saturday, August 18, 2012

Elvis on Tour

On Thursday someone asked me if I remember where I was when Elvis died.

I was at Jericho Beach, almost fifteen-years-old, smoking Player's Light cigarettes, drinking homemade wine from an army surplus canteen and listening to CKLG-AM on a white transistor radio. I was with two friends my age; one I know for certain, the other an abstraction, maybe a composite of two.

It was hot that day, and this man came up to us, younger than our fathers but older, much older, than anyone's oldest brother, and asked my friend (the one I remember) if he would apply suntan lotion to his back, which he qualified by saying he had broken his arms in a motorcycle accident and had limited mobility.

My friend reluctantly took the tube and made a face as he squirted the lotion onto his palm. One, two, three strokes and my friend said, "There," and kneeled away -- just as the DJ broke the news of Elvis's death.

Last night, while scrolling through my PVR, I noticed that I had taped a 1973 film that followed Elvis over a fifteen city North American tour in the summer of 1972. While never an Elvis fan I found myself riveted, not only by the man but by the construction of the film, known simply as Elvis on Tour.

Of greatest interest to me (a former touring musician) were the arrangements of the songs Elvis and his twenty piece band performed on this tour. Not the songs he became famous for but those that were hits for others shortly before Elvis added them to his concerts, songs such as "Polk Salad Annie" (1968) and "Proud Mary" (1969), songs The King and his arrangers had sped up, coloured with horns and background vocals, and subjected to numerous crescendo seeking key changes, each completed by Elvis's version of a karate move, as if the song had been wrestled to the ground, only to be finished off by a death blow. That these songs were occasionally broken up by ballads made their formulae all the more apparent.

As the concert progressed I found myself back at Jericho Beach, sharing a joint with the man who asked my friend to rub lotion onto his back. My friends had gone by then, but I was too interested in this guy's story: how as a youngster he was lured to the city from a northern logging town, where he too was sped up, coloured (by drugs and alcohol), subjected to numerous key changes, etc., before turning his life around and working to help those less fortunate.

Once done, I thanked him for the joint and got to my feet, brushing the sand off my legs. It was then that he reached for his tube and asked if I might apply a little more lotion to his back before leaving, which I did, with the same three strokes my friend supplied. "Ah," he said reaching behind his back, a finger just under his shoulder blade. "There. Right there. You missed a spot."

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