Friday, January 19, 2007

Riding With the King

It was April 5, 1985, and the Spaghetti House Girls were having a party.

I know this, because the dates on the backs of the old photographs documenting my visit to the King's resting place are marked "April 6, 1985." It all started the night before, at the Spaghetti House Girls' party.

They were called the Spaghetti House Girls after a wonderful party they'd had earlier in the year in which they cooked an enormous batch of spaghetti and invited everybody, telling them to just bring whatever they were drinking. They'd even passed out a flyer with a picture of Frank Sinatra, with the caption "Those little town blues getting you down? Come to our party." The party really hit the spot and was a big hit, and from then on, their house was the Spaghetti House, and they were the Spaghetti House Girls, a nickname they treasured.

There were a lot of nicknames and houses with nicknames: the House of Science; the Nut House; the Kool-Aid House; Stately Wayne Manor; the House of Reason. This was, after all, Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois in 1985. Nearly two years before, the campus had exploded when a critical mass of lefties, punk rockers, gay men and women, journalists and other malcontents had somehow found one another. The resulting frenzy of sex, drugs and rock and roll lasted several years. In April of 1985, it was still going strong. Punk bands, politics, parties, couplings, uncouplings, underground newspapers, lifelong friendships-- even today, it's still a little dizzying looking back.

The high point had come when the singer for my roommate's punk rock band ran for student body president in the Spring of 1984 as a joke, on an avowed platform of "Graft, Corruption, Decadence and Lies." Much to his surprise (and ours), he won overwhelmingly. We rocked, and we ruled the campus for years afterward. We were the fun people to be with.

But back to the Spaghetti House Girls. They were having another party. The reason for the party was that the movie Repo Man, which everyone could see was clearly going to be a cult classic, was going to be on cable for the first time that night. The Spaghetti House had cable tv. What they lacked was a color television. My roommate Curt had a color television, which he graciously lent to the Spaghetti House for the party.

I was not to see the end of Repo Man until about a year-and-a-half ago for reasons that will become obvious.

I ended up hanging out that evening with Alan "Madman" Matthews. Alan had tracked me down after finding out that I was, along with my friend Viktor Zeitgeist, responsible for "Welcome to Disney World," one of the photocopied underground newspapers that were floating around campus. He was a deejay with my roommate Curt, whom I shared a trailer with, at the school radio station.

The school was in the process of replacing the radio station's tiny antenna with the behemouth that is to this day spreading the station's "college rock" sounds across the corn and soybean fields of East Central Illinois. But for the time-being, the only way you could get the station was to hook your stereo up to cable. This meant that the only people who listened to the station were those who:

1. Listened to the station to begin with-- a small number
2. Had cable, an even smaller number
3. Knew how to hook their cable up to their stereo, a yet smaller number.

The result was that there were probably, in reality, fewer than 100 people listening to the radio station. Sad, but there was one good thing about it all. Because their signal did not go out over the airwaves, the station did not have to abide by FCC rules for that year. We could call and request the uncensored version of the Nails' "88 Lines About 44 Women." We got to hear exactly what Tanya Turkish liked to do while wearing leather biker boots, not just a blank spot. We called and requested the Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized" until the station manager banned it for excessive play. We called and could hear songs from albums we could not afford-- REM's "Radio Free Europe." Rank and File's "Sound of the Rain." The The's "Uncertain Smile." The Smith's "How Soon is Now."

Alan and I had become fast friends. So had Rex the Scumbag and I. Rex set world record times that still stand to this day for hitting on women his friends had just broken with. Physicists have determined that the smallest known amount of time is the time between one of Rex's friends breaking up with a woman, and Rex horning in on her. Our friends all have their quirks.

Rex, Alan and I had been drinking at the Uptowner/Cellar. We were, that night, in the Cellar. Rex was hanging out with Maxell. Her name wasn't really Maxell-- it was a nickname acquired in a typically Eastern Illinois University way. Some guy had been hitting on her, and she wasn't interested. He had asked her name, and trying to think of a fake name had looked up and seen a Maxell tape sitting there. She told him her name was Maxell. The nickname stuck.

At some point, we were joined by Harlan and Stenny, who were both friends of friends.

Eventually, we piled into Alan's car, "Christine," and went to the Spaghetti House Girls' party.

It all started with the big piece of butcher paper and crayons that the Spaghetti House Girls had put out on a table. This was a common mode of collective expression at parties at Eastern Illinois University in the mid '80's. Usually it was taped or tacked to a wall.

We watched the beginning of Repo Man, but soon gravitated toward the butcher paper.

As the night flowed, and the artwork and grafitti collected on the butcher paper, someone had written, in crayon, "Elvis Lives." Alan had seen this and said "Yes, Elvis Lives!" "I replied, no, he's dead!"

Alan replied "Let's go check!" And that was that. We were off. Just as suddenly, a plan began to take place. We were going to go visit the King. Never mind that it was around midnight and Memphis was a nearly 400 mile drive.

We spent the next 45 minutes or so gathering up all the hooch, money and Elvis tapes we could muster. Alan grabbed his boombox. We fueled up the car and we were off.

As the night wore on, everybody but Alan, who was driving, and I fell asleep. Rex and Maxell, who was someone's ex-girlfriend, fell asleep entwined. They were now, apparently, a couple.

As we drove through a night that made me think of Alan Ginsberg's "starry dynamo in the machinery of the night" in Howl. Alan and I talked of things that men talk of during those times-- women, dreams, the future.

The sun rose, and we approached Memphis. We stopped to fuel ourselves and the car. We were, after all, about to fulfill our culture's version of the hajj. It was a pilgrimage to pay respects to our fallen cultural hero.

We knew that we were getting closer when we spotted the "Lisa Marie," Elvis' private airplane that was named after his one and only child.

We arrived at the gates of Graceland. To our surprise, we were able to park on the street nearby. The excitement was palable.

We stopped for a couple of snapshots at the gate.

We found out, to our delight, that from 8 am to 9 am, they allowed visitors to roam the grounds of Graceland for free. This was good, because we were now having to budget our money. We would need money for souvenirs-- what would the point of making this trip have been if we didn't bring back evidence for our friends back in Charleston? Plus, we would need gas and beer for the trip back.

The viewing of the Safari room could wait for another day.

We entered the grounds and made our way to the King's grave. We were unprepared for the experience.

There was Elvis, with his middle name misspelled, just like I'd read. Near him was his mother and his stillborn twin brother. It was, unexpectedly, quite moving.

I did have one thing I needed to do. I'd brought along my 45 of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire." The reason for this was the B-Side, "Johnny Bye-Bye," a touching tribute to Elvis.

Well she drew out all her money from the Southern Trust
And put her little boy on the Greyhound Bus
Leaving Memphis with a guitar in his hand
With a one way ticket to the Promised Land
Hey little girl with the red dress on
There's party tonight down in Memphis down
I'll be going down there if you need a ride
The man on the radio says Elvis Presley's died

We drove to Memphis the sky was hard and black
Up over the ridge came a white Cadillac
They drawed out all his money and they laid him in the back
A woman cried from the roadside "Oh he's gone, he's gone"
They found him slumped up against the drain
With a whole lotta trouble running through his veins

Bye bye Johnny
Johnny bye Bye
You didn't have to die
You didn't have to die

I knelt by his grave with the record, and somehow felt like this was my little totem, my lifetime reminder of this trip-- the friends, the fun, and just how moving it ended up being. I still have the record to this day.

We realized that we were going to have to get moving if we were to start the seven hour trip back. We bid adieu to Elvis, and I got everybody to pose for a picture in front of Graceland.

Before we started the trek home, we needed to head across the street to the souvenir shop. We tallied our money, accounting for gas, food and beer money, and figured out how much we could spend on souvenirs. It was not much.

We knew we needed to get something for the previous night's lovely hostesses. We thought an Elvis shotglass would be fitting. Then we discovered that Elvis swizzle sticks and pencils were only 5 and 10 cents, and we spent the rest of the souvenir budget on them.

As we started back, Rex and I had one concern-- we were going to miss the "Gentlemen's Lunch." The Gentlemen's Lunch, or "Lunch" ("Will you be at Lunch tomorrow?") had started out as an all-gay institution. This group of men would gather to talk politics, history, gossip and just have a grand old time. Rex, our friend Kevin and I had become friends with this group, one of whom is now my co-best friend Jim. We were the first straight guys invited to the Lunch, which was indeed an honor.

Because of the trip, we were going to miss Lunch. As we pulled into a small town in Missouri for gas, Rex and I mulled over what to do. Then one last little miracle of the trip happened.

At 1 pm on Saturday, the normal time of the Gentlemen's Lunch, we pulled into Charleston, Missouri. It occurred to us that we needed to call Kracker's, the restaurant in Charleston, Illinois. We culled all the change out of the car and made the long distance call to the Gentlemen's Lunch. They were delighted.

We hit the road again. Knowing that the other people in the car were rested, having gotten at least some sleep the night before, I felt confident that they could make sure that Alan, who was now running past 24 hours without sleep, would not doze off at the wheel. I had a nightcap and got a little reading done before I dozed off.

At some point, we used Alan's boombox to record a punch drunk, on the road acapella version of "Suspicious Minds." Alan later transferred it to a carte for playing on his radio show. We were later to find out that it became a cult classic on the radio station for years, requested by listeners.

At around 4pm, we arrived back in Charleston. We'd heard that Crazy Bob, who lived in a rented house out among the cornfields with his brother Jimmy, was having a party/barbecue. We stopped at the ATM, got some money, and headed to Wilb Walker's grocery store for beer and food.

We arrived at the party feeling like Odysseus returning. The people we'd left the night before were now at a new party. People stood slack-jawed as they realized that we had actually done what we had threatened to do the night before. We threw out Elvis pencils and swizzle sticks like Robert Duvall throwing cards onto dead Viet Cong in Apocalypse Now. We found the Spaghetti House Girls and presented them with their shotglass. They were ecstatic.

The people on that road trip kept in touch for a long time, but slowly lost touch as the years passed. Alan transferred to Northern Illinois University, which was closer to his hometown of Sandwich, Illinois. Maxell dropped out of school and eventually moved to Mexico, where she settled down with a guy and had kids. Harlan graduated, and lived in Israel for a year, serving in the military there in order to have dual US/Israeli citizenship. Stenny took my place when I moved out of the Wrigleyville apartment I'd lived in after college with friends Dan and Mark. He himself left when he married some girl he'd met on the el in Chicago.

Rex is still a scumbag. But he's OUR scumbag.

Thinking about the trip and the almost religious significance of it for us, we realized a couple of things later happened: there was a sudden, unexpected, huge resurgence of interest in Elvis in the late eighties. We took credit as being pioneers of this movement.

Elvis subsequently became many times wealthier in death than he'd been in life.

Also, just a couple of weeks before that trip, a relatively young guy named Gorbachev had come to power in the Soviet Union. He was later able to wrestle with the old powers in the Soviet Union, institute Glastnost and Peristroika reforms, and change the course of history. We had obviously given him, through our pilgrimage, the good mojo to accompish this task.

And what about Repo Man? For years and years, I would see the beginning of this movie, but miss the ending. I even bought a copy of it-- but ended up giving it to my friend Ron; it's his favorite movie. Time after time I'd start watching it, but always after I'd had a few drinks; I'd always end up falling asleep before the ending.

I finally saw the whole movie in 2005, twenty years later. While my son and I were visiting Ron and his son, Ron and I figured out that the key, in my case, was to watch it before we went out drinking.


lulu said...

Hilarious. Fucking HILARIOUS!

God. There are SO many parts of that story that parallel my college experience, Wayne Manor (also a house on St Olaf's campus), the booze fueled road trip (Someone must have those photos of Mount Rushmore, Repo Man, the music.

What a great memory.

kim said...

I've heard you tell this story a few times. . .when I have a cocktail, so it's more fun.

Ummm. . .I really don't know what to say.

Erik Donald France said...

Epic tale, man! Love it!

vikkitikkitavi said...

What a fucking beautiful post. Thank you. I have two things to say.

1. My dearest posession is my mother's 1956 Elvis Presley fan club membership card.

2. I host a lot of hootenannys, and at some point during the evening, my friend Jamie, who plays the guitar, will say "It's time for Vikki's song." Then he plays Johnny Bye-Bye, which I sing, all alone, because no one else is enough of a Springsteen geek to know the song.

Bubs said...

What a great story! Without a doubt, one of the best stories I've read in a long time.

That's been a running joke with us for years, whenever we find ourselves going south on 55 or 57--inevitably one of us will say, "hey, want to drive to Graceland? We can be there in 8 hours." But you actually DID it. That is so cool.

You're right about how unexpectedly moving Elvis' grave is. Really, the whole tour of Graceland ends up being pretty poignant. MizBubs said it best:

He was the most famous man in the world, and all he wanted to do was hang out in his basement rec room with his buddies.

Toccata said...

What an amazing story. That experience is exactly what everyone hopes their university days will offer but few actually achieve. I remember lots of spur of the moment road trips but nothing comes close to what you and your friends did. Well, maybe Guatamala.

Johnny Yen said...

Arrrggghhhh! I had to reload all those friggin' pictures!

Everyone needs to do one road trip like that in college. It's a rite of passage.

It just gets better for you each telling, doesn't it? Wait 'til I get really old-- I'll tell it every day.


Muchos gracias. From one Springsteen geek to another. He always had great b-sides-- they were always something that wasn't on an album. One of those that I like to play on guitar and sing is "Shut Out the Lights," the b-side to one of the Born in the USA songs. It was about a Vietnam vet returning home. Taking on new meaning these days.

My relationship with my son's mother was pretty difficult, but one of the sweeter things she ever did was drive to the other end of Chicago to buy me the 45 of "Fade Away" for Christmas. The b-side, "Be True" is one of my all-time favorites. This was, obviously, in pre-mp3 days. I've since downloaded it.

Thanks, and oh my god, I have made the exact same joke!

MizBubs is a wise lady-- I suspect you've figured that out already. She's absolutely right.

It's funny when I get around the people I went to school with. Other friends and relatives who hear our stories are incredulous that these things happened-- I've got a lot more stories. But they were all true. I think that what happened was that a group of people coaelesed that figured out that life was only going to be as fun, down in the cornfields, as we were going to make it.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Before Bruce released Tracks, the only place to get those B sides was to buy the fucking 45s, which I did. I still have them.

And once again, I concur that "Shut Out the Light" is an amazing B, and one of his most beautiful and sad songs.

Rob Dolin said...

Wow! Thanks Harlan for the link.

Stenny said...

I want my royalties on the recording!