Saturday, August 16, 2008


I will never forget what happened on this day 31 years ago.

It started like any summer day at my house in Columbus. The weather was beautiful, and quite warm, so I, of course, was sitting in the basement, playing a made-up dice baseball game with a mock team that I called the Columbus Explorers. Once a nerd, always a nerd.

It was around 3 p.m., and I was listening to WCOL, which was the premier Top 40 station in Columbus back in the days before AM radio was given over to Rush Limbaugh. Suddenly, the music stopped and an announcer came on, speaking in a serious voice that rivaled Death in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.


I knew this had to be important, because I rarely heard anything on WCOL besides music, DJ patter, and ads for Oxy-10. But what could it have been? Had President Carter been shot?


It took several minutes for the news to sink in. Even at that young age, I was well aware of Elvis’ status as a cultural icon. One of my favorite albums was Elvis’ Golden Records, and I knew that no one else epitomized the cultural phenomenon that was rock ‘n roll.

Sure, other rockers had died during my childhood—Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. Their deaths could be explained easily. They did too many drugs. But Elvis’ drug use did not become public until after his death, so the world—including an 11-year-old kid sitting in an Ohio basement—wondered why.

If anything, Elvis was, at the time, a symbol of the enduring qualities of rock ‘n roll. It didn’t matter that he had been recast as a Vegas-style entertainer that my grandmother could like. The fact that he was still having hits 20 years after he first shook his hips proved that rock ‘n roll would not only last, but could also age gracefully. How ironic that seems now.

After a few minutes of pondering this brush with mortality, I walked upstairs and out of the house. Our German shepherd, Jazz, was sitting in the fenced-in portion of the yard, looking dejected. She was usually chained up just outside the back step, so this was strange.

Mom said that Jazz was behind the fence because she had bitten a man who was delivering towels to Dad’s barber shop. He had apparently wandered into Jazz’s territory and surprised her. It was a minor wound, and nothing more came of the incident. It was the first and last time Jazz bit anybody.

While these two events stand out in my mind because they happened on the same day, there was no connection between them, of course.

Or was there?

My Grandma Acky had a weakness for tabloid newspapers such as The National Enquirer and The Star. She would read these papers cover-to-cover every week, laughing at the most ridiculous stories and believing some of the more straight-faced items. In the months after Elvis’ death, these papers were dominated by stories about Elvis, loaded with the sordid details of his final years.

One day, I thought about the events of Aug. 16 and put two and two together. It would be six more years before I would learn the word “synchronicity” via The Police, but I apparently understood the concept. I came up with this idea that there was some connection between Elvis’ soul and the towel guy’s leg, and then the tabloid headline flashed in front of me: “MY DOG KILLED ELVIS!”

I think I should have called the Enquirer with the story. I could just picture Jazz and me on the front cover, under some headline like “German Shepherd Holds the Secret to the Mystery of the Century!” I even thought of a possible motive. (Never anthropomorphize animals—they hate that.) I could picture Jazz being interviewed and saying, in my dopey “dog” voice, “He said I ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog!

Such are the thought patterns of an 11-year-old boy who ate too many Creamsicles and had no interest in playing sports.

I never called the tabloids, although it wouldn’t have been the most absurd news item ever written about Elvis. But for better or worse, I will always remember Aug. 16, 1977.

It was the day Jazz bit the towel guy.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Call The Police (and Elvis Costello, too)

You want me to stay sane, right? That’s why you didn’t get a mondegreen from me last week. I have many lyrics that I have misheard over the years, and it seems useless to run them into the ground when nobody wants to read them. Although there is one that seems fitting. Again, I’d misheard this for years. I found out through Wikipedia that the line from Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio” in the second verse is:

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry ‘bout the times they had
While everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed

And I heard this for 30 years as:

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry ‘bout the times ahead
While everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early death

I think they’re both pretty good. So, hey, that makes me a songwriting genius right up there with Mr. Declan Patrick Alouysius McManus himself. OK, maybe not.

On that note, my wife and I saw Elvis open for The Police last week. It was a great concert. While Elvis’ set was far too short and designed, I think, not to overshadow the headliners, he plowed through a stripped-down set of his oldest and newest. There were several tracks from his latest album—and, yes, it did start out life as an album—Momofuku, as well as tracks from the days when he was poised to be the Next Big Thing, before he described Ray Charles to Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett. Yes, there was “Radio Radio,” and “Alison” (a duet with Sting!), and “Watching The Detectives” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” While Costello has never been known for hit singles, these have become signature songs that he can’t get away from playing.

Then came The Police. I should note that I have not been as familiar with The Police’s oeuvre (every rock critic has to use “oeuvre” at least once in a career) as with Elvis Costello’s. I know all about the hits, of course, as they were part of the soundtrack of my high school years, but there were just other artists whose records I wanted to spend my allowance on.

Cynics will say that The Police’s current tour is just more money-grubbing from a has-been band with no new material. Nobody who saw Monday night’s show would say that. Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers were not going through the motions as many aging rockers do. They played as if they had something to prove. And I was impressed with the chops they had.

As I get older, I have come to appreciate technical skill in music more. In the ‘90s, I was more of the alternative rock mindset, which held that passion is EVERYTHING, even if you have no talent. It did not occur to me that you can see excellent displays of passion in preschools across America, but they’re not worthy of a record contract. Maybe it’s my wife’s influence, maybe it’s gray hair, or maybe it’s my karaoke hobby, but I now have greater appreciation for how hard it is to make really good music.

I already knew that The Police have made some great hit singles, with a unique mix of punk and reggae and hooks that stay in the brain forever. Who can forget “Every Breath You Take” or “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”? But what I didn’t realize is that they can also flat-out play.

The Police and Elvis Costello came to prominence as part of the ‘70s punk movement because they happened to be in the same neighborhood, but they were never really punks. Their music was always more sophisticated. It is telling that Copeland and Summers were veterans of prog-rock outfits (Curved Air and Soft Machine, respectively), which was exactly the thing that punk was meant to overthrow. This sophistication may have made punk purists sneer at them, but maybe it’s why they’re still rocking while Johnny Rotten is selling houses in L.A.