Born to Run (2016)
THE BIG BANG (HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEWS . . .)
In the beginning there was a great darkness upon the Earth. There was Christmas and your birthday but beyond that all was a black endless authoritarian void. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing to look back upon, no future, no history. It was all a kid could do to make it to summer vacation.
Then, in a moment of light, blinding as a universe birthing a billion new suns, there was hope, sex, rhythm, excitement, possibility, a new way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking, of looking at your body, of combing your hair, of wearing your clothes, of moving and of living. There was a joyous demand made, a challenge, a way out of this dead-to-life world, this small-town grave with all the people I dearly loved and feared buried in it alongside of me.
THE BARRICADES HAVE BEEN STORMED!! A FREEDOM SONG HAS BEEN SUNG!! THE BELLS OF LIBERTY HAVE RUNG!! A HERO HAS COME. THE OLD ORDER HAS BEEN OVERTHROWN! The teachers, the parents, the fools so sure they knew THE WAY—THE ONLY WAY—to build a life, to have an impact on things and to make a man or woman out of yourself, have been challenged. A HUMAN ATOM HAS JUST SPLIT THE WORLD IN TWO!
The small part of the world I inhabit has stumbled upon an irreversible moment. Somewhere in between the mundane variety acts on a routine Sunday night in the year of our Lord 1956 . . . THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN TELEVISED!! Right underneath the nose of the guardians of all that “IS,” who, if they were aware of the powers they were about to unleash, would call out the national gestapo to SHUT THIS SHIT DOWN!! . . . or . . . SIGN IT UP QUICK!! As a matter of fact, the arbiter of public taste in circa-1950s USA, “MC” ED SULLIVAN, was not initially going to let this Southern, sexually depraved hick sully the American consciousness and his stage. Once the genie had been let out of the bottle on national television . . . IT WOULD BE OVER! THE NATION WOULD FOLD! And we the great unwashed, the powerless, the marginalized, THE KIDS! . . . would want . . . MORE. More life, more love, more sex, more faith, more hope, more action, more truth, more power, more “get down in the gutter, spit on me, Jesus, teach my blind eyes to SEE” REAL-LIFE RELIGION!! Most of all, we would want more ROCK ’N’ ROLL!!
The polite charade, the half-assed circus acts, the anemic singers, the bloodless (and often highly enjoyable) shit that passed for entertainment would be revealed for what it was.
In the end, ratings and money did the talking and Ed (actually, on Elvis’s first appearance, Charles Laughton, covering for Ed, who’d been waylaid by a car accident) did the walking, right out to the center of his stage to cough out, “Ladies and gentlemen . . . Elvis Presley.” Seventy million Americans that night were exposed to this hip-shaking human earthquake. A fearful nation was protected from itself by the CBS cameramen, who were told to shoot “the kid” only from the waist up. No money shots! No shifting, grinding, joyfully thrusting crotch shots. It didn’t matter. It was all there in his eyes, his face, the face of a Saturday night jukebox Dionysus, the shimmying eyebrows and rocking band. A riot ensued. Women, young girls and many men, screaming for what the cameras refused to show, for what their very timidity confirmed and promised . . . ANOTHER WORLD . . . the one below your waist and above your heart . . . a world that had been previously and rigorously denied was being PROVEN TO EXIST! It was a world with all of us in it . . . together . . . all of us. HE HAD TO BE STOPPED!
And of course, in the end, he was stopped. But not before the money got made and the secret slipped out from between his lips and his hips that this, this life, this “everything” you know is a mere paper construction. You, my TV dinner–sucking, glazed-eyed friends, are living in . . . THE MATRIX . . . and all you have to do to see the real world, God and Satan’s glorious kingdom on Earth, all you have to do to taste real life is to risk being your true self . . . to dare . . . to watch . . . to listen . . . to all the late-night staticky-voiced deejays playing “race” records blowing in under the radar, shouting their tinny AM radio manifesto, their stations filled with poets, geniuses, rockers, bluesmen, preachers, philosopher kings, speaking to YOU from deep in the heart of your own soul. Their voices sing, “Listen . . . listen to what this world is telling you, for it is calling for your love, your rage, your beauty, your sex, your energy, your rebellion . . . because it needs YOU in order to remake itself. In order to be reborn into something else, something maybe better, more godly, more wonderful, it needs US.”
This new world is a world of black and white. A place of freedom where the two most culturally powerful tribes in American society find common ground, pleasure and joy in each other’s presence. Where they use a common language to speak with . . . to BE with one another.
A “human being” proposed this, helped bring it to pass, a “boy,” a nobody, a national disgrace, a joke, a gimmick, a clown, a magician, a guitar man, a prophet, a visionary? Visionaries are a dime a dozen . . . This was a man who didn’t see it coming . . . he WAS it coming, and without him, white America, you would not look or act or think the way you do.
A precursor of vast cultural change, a new kind of man, of modern human, blurring racial lines and gender lines and having . . . FUN! . . . FUN! . . . the real kind. The life-blessing, wall-destroying, heart-changing, mind-opening bliss of a freer, more liberated existence. FUN . . . it is waiting for you, Mr. and Mrs. Everyday American, and guess what? It is your birthright.
A “man” did this. A “man” searching for something new. He willed it into existence. Elvis’s great act of love rocked the country and was an early echo of the coming civil rights movement. He was the kind of new American whose “desires” would bring his goals to fruition. He was a singer, a guitar player who loved black musical culture, recognized its artistry, its mastery, its power, and yearned for intimacy with it. He served his nation in the army. He made some bad movies and a few good ones, threw away his talent, found it again, had a great comeback and, in true American fashion, died an untimely and garish death. He was not an “activist,” not a John Brown, not a Martin Luther King Jr., not a Malcolm X. He was a showman, an entertainer, an imaginer of worlds, an unbelievable success, an embarrassing failure and a fount of modern action and ideas. Ideas that would soon change the shape and future of the nation. Ideas whose time had come, that challenged us to decide if we would all be attending a funeral of national destruction and decline or dancing while birthing the next part of the American story.
I don’t know what his thoughts were on race. I don’t know whether he thought about the broader implications of his actions. I do know this is what he did: lived a life he was driven to live and brought forth the truth that was within him and the possibilities within us. How many of us can say that? That we committed all of ourselves to something? Dismissed as a national joke, he held out a dream of the kind of country this could be, and soon we would go there . . . kicking, screaming, lynching, burning, bombing, saving, preaching, fighting, marching, praying, singing, hating and loving our way forward.
When it was over that night, those few minutes, when the man with the guitar vanished in a shroud of screams, I sat there transfixed in front of the television set, my mind on fire. I had the same two arms, two legs, two eyes; I looked hideous but I’d figure that part out . . . so what was missing? THE GUITAR!! He was hitting it, leaning on it, dancing with it, screaming into it, screwing it, caressing it, swinging it on his hips and, once in a while, even playing it! The master key, the sword in the stone, the sacred talisman, the staff of righteousness, the greatest instrument of seduction the teenage world had ever known, the . . . the . . . “ANSWER” to my alienation and sorrow, it was a reason to live, to try to communicate with the other poor souls stuck in the same position I was. And . . . they sold ’em right downtown at the Western Auto store!
The next day I convinced my mom to take me to Diehl’s Music on South Street in Freehold. There, with no money to spend, we rented a guitar. I took it home. Opened its case. Smelled its wood (still one of the sweetest and most promising smells in the world), felt its magic, sensed its hidden power. I held it in my arms, ran my fingers over its strings, held the real tortoiseshell guitar pick in between my teeth, tasted it, took a few weeks of music lessons . . . and quit. It was TOO FUCKIN’ HARD! Mike Diehl, guitarist and owner of Diehl’s Music, didn’t have any idea how to teach whatever Elvis was doing to a young shouter who wanted to sing the elementary school blues. Despite incredible access to these amazing machines, he remained clueless about their real power. Earthbound like everyone else in 1950s America, he was all “Buzzing on the B string,” staff paper and hours of stupendously boring technique. I WANTED . . . I NEEDED . . . TO ROCK! NOW! I still can’t read music to this day, and back then, my seven-year-old fingers couldn’t even get around that big fret board. Frustrated and embarrassed, shortly, I told my mom it was a no-go. There was no sense wasting her hard-earned cash.
The sunny morning I had to return the guitar, I stood in front of six or so of the neighborhood guys and gals in my backyard. I gave my first and last show for quite a while: I held the guitar . . . I shook it . . . I shouted at it . . . I banged on it . . . I sang voodoo nonsense . . . I did everything but play it . . . all to their laughter and great amusement. I sucked. It was a joyful and silly-assed pantomime. That afternoon, sad but a little relieved, I dropped the guitar off back at Diehl’s Music. It was over for now, but for a moment, just a moment, in front of those kids in my backyard . . . I smelled blood.