Published on July 8th, 2015 | by Rafael Alvarez1
“Cherry in Magnolia” – Part 4: Thursday, August 18, 1977 — Sixteen Coaches Long
“The blues will always be around… people need it…” – Johnny Winter
Cherry awoke less than a half-mile from Graceland—enveloped in swamp heat after about five hours of sleep, not yet nine in the morning—beneath the largest magnolia tree this side of Chickasaw Gardens.
No time for broken down jalopies, last call for alcohol and born-again truckers unable to bleach the swastikas off of their knuckles when the Lord came calling. No time for the killing floor.
No more fooling around.
Rooting around in the satchel that held his squeeze-box, Cherry found a plastic milk bottle filled with water, doused his head and then used it brush his teeth before stealing the first unattended bicycle he saw.
North on U.S. 51 toward the cemetery—the crush of mourning and madness strong and growing stronger, part requiem, part crusade and every bit of it a goddamn shame; four miles from Graceland to Forest Hill: beep-beep, excuse me, coming through, beep-beep, get out of the way.
The white hearse and the limousines following it would not begin following the same route as Cherry for several hours, plenty of time to search the gathering crowd for a gold Monte Carlo, a long-haired 16-year-old behind the wheel and a middle-aged, pug-nosed peroxide blonde with the garish blush of Vegas by way of East Baltimore on her cheeks nipping at a pint of peppermint schnapps in the passenger seat while sniffling into a pink handkerchief.
“You idiot Willie,” said Cherry, stung with empathy for his little brother amidst a tidal wave of grief, zig-zagging in and out of commoners who’d made a King of a ruby-throated hillbilly. “You’re not supposed to fall in love with them.”
The queen of stones. The stone of monarchs.
He stopped near a lamp post a few blocks from the graveyard, set the bike against it (it was safe, who would steal a kid’s bike at a funeral?) and slid down to the curb to watch and wait, wondering how long it would be before somebody came by selling hot dogs.
The throng—more than 6,000 restless fans at the Music Gates—was growing by the minute as the action moved from the mansion to the graveyard. Van after van delivering flowers to the lawn that spread down from the mausoleum, a floral carpet of more than 3,000 sprays.
Cherry mused: Weird, ain’t it?
How wild, he thought in the middle of it all, is this?
Of all the mods and rockers he ran with in the days when Judy was giving him piano lessons in the front room of her Conkling Street rowhouse—back when Grand Funk Railroad was repelling the invasion by asserting what it meant to be an American band—Cherry was the only freak with enough heart and guts to give Elvis his due.
[Judy also told him about Dion (blues beneath the doo-wop) and Ronnie Spector (blues behind the wall of sound), taught him that the roots of all American music were the legs of simple kitchen chair carved from hardwood.]
And here he was at Presley’s funeral, waiting for his chance to return the only thing Ma cared about besides Willie and himself, ready to snatch it out from under his brother’s nose, sweet talk Charlene into running into a gas station to grab them a couple of sodas while he gassed up the Monte Carlo at the pumps and leave her waiting for change from the cashier as he drove the prize back to Ma’s clapboard bungalow in the northernmost Southern city in the United States.
All he had to do was spot them.
Reaching into the satchel, he took out the red pork pie hat he wore for gigs on Frenchmen Street and set it between his feet on the street, right next to the curb. Then he took out the concertina and a pair of carnival shades, settling back against the lamppost and beginning the opening chords of “How Great Thou Art.”
A nickel here and a nickel there but most folks were too concerned with getting as close to the mausoleum as possible to stop and listen for more than a moment, not a glint of gold in the traffic jam on Elvis Presley Boulevard except for the crosses around the necks of the mourners.
At the cemetery, a crush of fans began pressing themselves against the heavy steel doors of the mausoleum and the hearse had not yet arrived with the body.
“You’ve got to get through three steel doors in order to enter this place,” said a grave digger leaning on a shovel, talking to a news crew through the fence. “These doors have never been locked until now. It’s gonna get tough to get anything done around here after this.”
Previous Installments of “Cherry in Magnolia”:
look for Part 5 in TLV #233
This article was printed in The Local Voice #232 (published June 25, 2015).
To download the PDF of this issue, click here.