Elvis Dead

In a rented Dodge, driving
down Gorge Road in Victoria,
I heard it on the radio.
Elvis is dead.
I though I had
forgotten you but I was shaken.
You reached me.
Back more than twenty years
you reached me, when the sudden
cruel drive of voice and guitar
scattered the sweetness of violins,
stirred rebellion in the blood.
We had thought it would all
last for ever, I suppose—
Doris Day in long party dresses,
all smile and sweetness, all innocence;
Guy Mitchell and Dinah Shore
telling us over and over
that we were fine, that things
would always stay that way.

You ripped it apart.  Ripped it
in a way we couldn’t believe.
Ripped it suddenly.  Exploded it.
What you stood for
threatened more than comfort.
I imitated your records
with three chords on
an old classical guitar.

Now I find and play your records
worn almost to bits
and feel again the power
of being young, feel the room
expanding, marvel at it.
I still know the words.

Scruffy punk kid.
Fat rich boy.
You changed our rhythms,
shook the walls of the world.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Elvis Dead”?

The poem “Elvis Dead” tells how it was inspired. I was working for the National Parks at the time and had been visiting Fort Rodd Hill in Victoria, B.C. and heard the news of Elvis’s death on the car radio. I was really surprised by the depth of my reaction and don’t remember driving back to my hotel at all. John Lennon said “Before Elvis there was nothing,” and I grew up as a teenager in the 1950s when, in 1954-5, Elvis and others took hold of long decades of popular music and turned it on its head. I name some of the older singers, and their comfortable and comforting pop songs, and Elvis and the early rock ‘n rollers just blew all that apart, and were banned in places. I still love Elvis songs, just days after his 74th Birthday, and still will play early Elvis with excitement. And I was trying to capture that excitement his music brought to us, and to me. As a man he became a bit of a train-wreck, but his music lives and needed celebrating.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Elvis Dead”?

This is a free-verse poem, without metre or rhyme. It just seemed appropriate for the subject to let the form blow apart poetic conventions the way Elvis blew apart pop conventions, though I do write formal verse, with metre and stanzas and rhyme when it seems right for the voice and subject in a poem. In this poem I wanted to lead up through my shock to the exhilaration of EP shaking the world. It was a revolution in pop-music, and, for the first time ever, parents and children started listening to separate pop, whereas there was only one kind before rock.

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