| I’m writing this on the 27th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, and I can still remember what a shock it was to walk into the house and hear he had left the building for good. That his death was next door to natural made it somehow even more jarring. He hadn’t perished in a car accident, like Eddie Cochran (or Marc Bolan of T. Rex, who died just a month later), or in a plane crash, like Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. It wasn’t booze, because the King rarely drank. And the drugs involved sure weren’t those I associated with such psychedelic superstars as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.No, we were told that Elvis Aaron Presley had died of a heart attack. And holy God, he was 42 years old. To me, who had yet to see his 30th birthday in that long-gone year, 42 seemed almost ancient. Yes, it was possible for a fortysomething to die of a heart attack, especially one who had battled obesity (as Elvis had, whether he liked to admit it or not). But how, I wondered, was it possible for the man who had lit up the whole world with his rockabilly rebellion to have turned 40 and reached heart-attack country in the first place? I guess I’d been thinking of him as some sort of bebop Peter Pan, and I don’t think I was alone. There’s a good deal of evidence to suggest he thought of himself that way. Even the emerging news of Elvis’ substance abuse problems did little to put his death in perspective, because his bad habits—diet and sleeping pills, tranquilizers, prescription uppers—were so mundane. They could be the vices of any lonely single man with too much money and time on his hands.
The mourning for Elvis Presley is a remarkable thing. It began in mid-August of 1977 and has never really stopped. This may be because his passing constitutes the primal death-trauma for the baby-boomer generation. That ordinary death—a heart attack in the bathroom following a strenuous game of racquetball—signaled not one unpalatable fact to us boomers but a pair of them: If the King of Rock could roll into his 40s, then we could too. And if the King of Rock could die of a heart attack (when—gasp!—he didn’t really smoke or drink), we were also eligible. His death was one more punch on our collective ticket out of childhood, whispering one more of adulthood’s unpleasant truths: Yes, you’re eligible too. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anybody.
Five years later, John Belushi, the first comedic superstar of our generation, died at the age of 33. His was a big-time drug overdose, and there was perhaps some bleak comfort to be taken there—but still, he was one of us, a young guy. He was also a visitor in our homes on Saturday nights and early Sunday mornings, and no matter what Belushi might have done to earn his untimely exit that morning at Chateau Marmont, it was hard to see his friends—guys like Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd—standing around his grave with the wind whipping at their black coats and their faces uncharacteristically solemn. We could perhaps dismiss Belushi as just another dumb-ass drug OD who thought he was too famous to die. But those uncharacteristically solemn bystanders with their well-known faces… they were different. They might have been mourning for Belushi, but they were standing in for us, a generation not yet done with the rites of thrown rice and already having to learn those of black crepe and covered mirrors.
We boomers have been a blessed generation, by and large, and our celebrity surrogates have been likewise blessed, but since Elvis’ sudden departure on the Mystery Train in August of ‘77 (yes, Virginia, even famous people go bye-bye), we have been faced with more and more deaths in members of our extended celebrity family who are in our own age group. George Harrison, for one; Rick James, for another; my man Warren Zevon, one of the sweetest guys who ever lived, for a third.
Yet thinking of the famous who’ve passed on doesn’t have to be an exercise in unrelieved bleakness, and I’m not just saying that to avoid going out on a downer. There are a thousand different ideas about what happens to us when the show is over (it’s Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out” I’m listening to as I write this), but even the most cynical among us probably likes to think that there might be something afterward; something to go on to. And for the talented people we’ve welcomed into our lives, we know there is. For John Belushi, there’s always going to be the fighter pilot in 1941 and the samurai bit on SNL. For Warren Zevon there’s always going to be “Werewolves of London” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”
For Elvis there’s an afterlife of a hundred songs, and people will be listening to them long after we’re gone. Folks born years after he died will make a pilgrimage to Memphis to put flowers on his grave, and that’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t make me stop wishing the big stupe had laid off the pills and fried banana sandwiches, but no—memory and pilgrimage are how we honor those who have brightened our lives and made us happy, and that’s not a bad thing at all.