Monday 20 January 2020

'My hero Elvis became my soul-saver, my spirit guide'

As the 40th anniversary of Elvis's death draws near, Joe Jackson reflects on the influence the star has had on his life

Sing along: Elvis singing ‘Muss I Denn’ (‘Wooden Heart’) in the 1960 movie ‘GI Blues’.
Sing along: Elvis singing ‘Muss I Denn’ (‘Wooden Heart’) in the 1960 movie ‘GI Blues’.

Joe Jackson

Picture this scene. It's 1961. You are a child watching GI Blues, starring someone you used to call Elvis Parsley and in whom you have no interest at all. He's beckoning to German kids at a puppet show, telling them to sing along with a song called Muss I Denn (Wooden Heart). Then suddenly, he seems to say, "That means, you too!"

You want to sing but don't know German. So, you make up your own words. And the louder you sing the more it feels like you are flying into outer space.

Joe Jackson in Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988.
Joe Jackson in Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988.

Now picture this scene. It's 2007. You hear a doctor say, "He may not make the morning." You hadn't realised your condition was so serious. You curse yourself for telling even your mother not to come to the hospital because you don't want her or anyone to see you this way. A nurse gives you morphine, a haze descends, Elvis sings We Can Make the Morning, you pray, "Lord, God, don't let me die tonight." Now it's morning, you awake and a nurse tells you that all night you were crying out, "I've gotta to get to Graceland!"

Cue the music from The Twilight Zone, right? Wrong. Cue my RTE Radio 1 programme, Joe Jackson's Conversations about the King. But if you tune in tomorrow night, don't expect to hear those two scenes from my life. I allude to the "spacer" incident during GI Blues, but my long dark night of the soul experience is better suited to a one-man, multi-media show I've written, and will soon perform, called, Gotta Get to Grace-Land. That said, my near-death experience in 2007 has influenced everything in my life ever since and this radio show is no exception. Certainly when I revisited for the programme - which itself is a variation of my radio series, The Joe Jackson Tapes Revisited - interviews I did with Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis, Gordon Stoker, from Presley's vocal group, The Jordanaires and Bono, I discovered that certain themes reoccur.

One is the belief that you must follow your dreams. Such as, say, me aged nine, seeing GI Blues, becoming an Elvis fan, learning weeks later that he got his break by making a demo record for Sam Phillips and deciding that one day I would go to Memphis to thank him for discovering my hero. A quarter century later I did.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow calls this "self-actualisation". The same phrase could apply to the fact that also at nine, after I read that Elvis had been a truck driver, like my dad was, I felt that I myself could do or be anything and decided to become a journalist.

And how's this for synchronicity? His death on August 16, 1977 led to the birth of my career. I wrote about being a fan. In the radio show, I include a 1992 interview I did with Ben Weisman, who wrote the music for Wooden Heart, and for my childhood theme song Follow That Dream. I thank him for both. And I include that section purely to, as I say, inspire listeners to follow their dreams, whatever they may be.

Sex also is a theme that recurs during many of my Elvis-related interviews in particular. Bono tells me that Elvis in black leather in his 1968 comeback television special was the first man who "heterosexually charged" him. Elvis liberated me, sexually, too, albeit in a different way. One night in 1965, only hours after me and my best mate, plus our two first girlfriends, saw Elvis's movie Tickle Me, we all wanted to kiss but didn't know how to start. Having studied, very conscientiously, pictures of Elvis doing so, I said: "It's easy, I'll count to 10 and we'll just do it!" Everyone happily agreed. Then I remembered that when Elvis kissed the gorgeous Mary Ann Mobley, in Girl Happy, he held his hand against the back of her head and moved it a bit. I decided to try that.

We kissed. My girlfriend got dizzy but said she felt great. I almost roared aloud, "Thanks El!" and now knew for sure just how right he was when he sang in a song from Tickle Me, 'if it feels so right, how can it be wrong?' I also knew, even though we were in the Chapel Lane in Glasthule, where I grew up, and local priests persistently told us that even kissing was a sin, that they must be nuts.

Those priests probably would have said that Presley was singing "the devil's music". But on October 10, 1966, I bought Elvis's 1960 gospel LP, His Hand in Mine and learned the opposite was true. In its sleeve notes, I read that gospel music was for Elvis, 'a source of comfort and spiritual ease'. That was what I needed at a time when domestic issues were shadowing my home, and my parents were parting. And I found it as soon as I played the LP. And so, over time, Elvis became an emotional imperative in my life, soul-saver and above all, spirit guide, though the latter is not something one usually associates with the King. But that is what he remains to me.

Interviews such as those with Sam Phillips, Gordon Stoker and Dory Previn, in my radio show, tomorrow, highlight how, talking with such people down through the years helped crystallise my perspective on Presley in this sense. This brings us back to my long dark night of the soul in 2007. In fact, it felt like a battle for my soul.

Weeks earlier a PR person who set up many of my early interviews, told me: "You used to be great, every rock star who came to Ireland said, 'Who is this guy Joe Jackson I want to be interviewed by him,' but you've sold your soul for the dollar." She was alluding to the fact that I now did weekly interviews for the Sunday Independent. During that night her accusation came back to torment me. So did the sound of Bobby Darin singing 'a song for a dollar make a dead man holler louder than the squalor he comes from'. And that was followed by this line from the Bible, "what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul!"

I also heard a former girlfriend say again, in anger: "Everyone knows you're great at getting people to spill their guts for the Sunday Independent, but you don't have the guts to look inside your own soul, do you?" Ouch!

And I heard my dad say, "Didn't you find beside my body a note? Didn't I say in that note that one day you may turn our story into a play, a novel or a poem? So why are you helping celebrities tell their stories and not telling ours, or mine?"

Thus, it continued for what truly felt like an eternity. I also saw my own funeral. But when I heard someone say, beside my coffin, "Joe, as we all know interviewed celebrities," I wanted to shout, "Hey, there was more to my life than that!" In fact, hearing that comment, and my mother saying, "Hold on, son" may have snapped me awake. Then a nurse said to me, "Good morning". I replied, "It is! I'm alive!" She told me I'd been crying out all night: "I've got to get to Graceland," then she asked me: "What is Graceland?" I told her, "It's the name of Elvis's mansion in Memphis."

That nurse said she came from India and never heard of Elvis. I joked, "He's a singer, who died in 1977, and I nearly met him last night!" Then I said, "But I've been to his mansion, I have no craving to go back, so I think what I really was crying out is that I've got to get to a land of grace."

She smiled and said, "It is a good morning you didn't die last night and I believe Jesus kept you alive for a reason!"

So, was I Born Again? Not bloody likely! These days my view of a deity is, as with Presley's for at least the last 13 years of his life, pan-denominational. But I did think, 'Well if He did, it was not to remain a celebrity interviewer for the Sunday Independent!'

Later that morning I wrote a letter of resignation, even though I loved the job and I had been allowed to write hopefully uplifting articles. So, did I since then get to the land of grace? That quest continues.

Joe Jackson's radio show 'Conversations about the King' will be broadcast at 6pm tomorrow on RTE Radio 1

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