08/18/2010 01:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I Saw Elvis in His Coffin

I never saw Elvis live -- but I saw him dead.

In the summer of 1977, after the King ingested that last deep-fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich, I was among the first to see Elvis in his coffin in Graceland. I was reminded of that this week, when the 33rd anniversary of his death rolled around, by my then-girlfriend Anne Hurley, who accompanied me on my journey.

It was the same year I spent working at a newspaper in Jackson, Miss., as the paper's first full-time entertainment critic. Before the summer was out, I'd had the chance to see every major black music act working at the time. By the time my birthday rolled around that November, I had been fired for panning a concert by Anita Bryant at the Mississippi State Fair. But that's another story.

When Elvis fell off a toilet and straight into rock'n'roll heaven, I was the reporter the paper called to drive up to Memphis to cover it.

But I didn't want to go.

Why not? Well, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I was broke, thanks to a weekly salary of $210 and a bizarre overtime system: The more hours I worked, the less I got paid per hour. Now this was 1977, the year after Jimmy Carter's election supposedly heralded the rise of the New South. But the plantation mentality ruled at the Clarion-Ledger, a family-owned newspaper where I toiled (which, tellingly enough, had no black reporters).

And, being broke, the idea of trying to wrangle a hotel room in a town soon to be overrun with media was a daunting one. I had only recently received my first MasterCard (by lying about how much I made each year on the application) and I had a persistent fear of charging myself straight into the poorhouse. The paper wasn't about to advance me any money; they wanted me to leave right away and there was no time to collect an advance. And I wasn't convinced that, once I returned with a fistful of receipts, they'd actually repay my expenses.

The other reason was even more basic: At that point, I thought Elvis was a joke. A big, fat joke, figuratively and literally. Judging from photos I'd seen, Elvis had ballooned into pudgy travesty of himself; judging from what I heard from my friend Scott Greenblat (who worshiped the big E), Elvis' shows had turned into a parody as well, with the massive, sweating, jump-suited star doing karate moves onstage to Also Sprach Zarathustra and singing things like The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

What did any of that have to do with rock'n'roll?

This, after all, was 1977, not 1957. I was reading stories in the paper everyday about a new musical movement called punk and a band called the Sex Pistols, who were tearing things up in England (though none of their records had made it to Mississippi at that point). I was still reveling in the frisky, yearning spirit of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, which was about everything that Elvis had failed to deliver on.

Elvis, on the other hand, seemed hopelessly passé. It seemed like years since he'd even had a song -- something as energetic as Burning Love or Suspicious Minds -- that didn't make me want to hoot in derision. I understood intellectually what he meant to the history of rock'n'roll -- but as far as I was concerned, he was a fossil, a living dinosaur who emerged from his cave to waddle on to the stage in Las Vegas once a year and excite the unenlightened masses of slack-jawed droolers, now in their 40s and 50s, who comprised Elvis' faithful.

And here was my editor on the phone, insisting that I jump in my car and drive up to Memphis to cover the scene at Graceland.

"I don't care what you think about his music," he said. "He's the biggest native son this state has. And we have to cover it."

He wanted me to go to Memphis and stay for the duration. I didn't want to go at all. We compromised, finally: I would go to Memphis the next day -- the day after Elvis died -- and do a color piece from the scene. I'd phone it in; then I could come home.

So, on the morning of Aug. 17, 1977, I found myself standing on Elvis Presley Blvd. in front of Graceland with what appeared to be 10,000 mourning souls. All around me, people were openly weeping; I had to stifle the impulse to giggle.

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