Original publish date: May 8, 2016
A couple of weeks ago we passed another one of those anniversaries that always seem to fascinate me. My favorites are those events that involve history colliding with pop culture and celebrity. 16-year-old Bill Clinton photographed meeting John F. Kennedy at the White House, 6-year-old Teddy Roosevelt photographed watching the funeral cortege of Abraham Lincoln from the second story window of his family mansion in New York City, Elvis Presley photographed shaking hands with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office just before Christmas in 1970. I LOVE stuff like that!
There are no photos from this event, at least none that I’m aware of, but this story does have Elvis. In the wee hours of the morning on April 30, 1976, Bruce Springsteen jumped the fence at Elvis Presley’s estate. The E-Street Band was touring Memphis, Tennessee, the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll, in support of their Born to Run album. After the show, 26-year-old Springsteen and guitarist Little Steven (aka Steve Van Zandt) hailed a taxicab and decided to pay a 3 a.m. visit to Graceland. When Springsteen saw lights on in the mansion, he climbed over the stone wall and ran through the grass, jumped up on the porch and rushed to the front door; just as he was about to ring the doorbell, he was nabbed by security.
‘Is Elvis home?’ Springsteen asked. ‘No, Elvis isn’t home, he’s in Lake Tahoe’ came the answer from the unamused guards. As ‘The Boss’ was brusquely led away from the mansion and back towards the front gate, Springsteen attempted to wow them by telling them that he was himself a performer and had recently made the covers of Time and Newsweek. They were not impressed. Springsteen poured on the charm and begged to be let inside – but he was instead escorted promptly through the gate and out onto the sidewalk. Elvis died at Graceland the very next year. Ironically, if you look closely at the cover of Born to Run, Springsteen’s guitar strap proudly bears an Elvis fan club button.
Bruce Springsteen was seven when he first saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was The King’s third and final appearance on January 6, 1957. According to one reviewer: ‘On that Sunday night in 1957, Elvis smiled, smirked and played with the audience. Breaking from his usual attire, Presley came out wearing a bloused shirt and vest, with makeup painted around his eyes. That night Elvis sang hits like Don’t Be Cruel, Love Me Tender, and Hound Dog, shaking his hips and standing on his toes while girls screamed in the audience. And that guitar: it was a weapon and it was armor. This was the dream.’
Watching the show, Springsteen was hooked: ‘I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley’, he recalled. His mother eventually bought him a guitar and paid for private lessons, but young Brucey’s hands were too small. He didn’t like structured instruction so he put the guitar in the closet and started playing sports. Meantime, Elvis was on the way to stardom and legend.
Elvis purchased Graceland for his mom and dad on March 19, 1957 for the amount of $102,500. The 17,552 square foot mansion has a total of 23 rooms, including eight bedrooms and bathrooms. Located at 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard, the 13.8-acre estate is located in the vast Whitehaven community about 9 miles from Downtown Memphis and less than four miles north of the Mississippi border.
During the years that Elvis lived at Graceland the front gate area was a gathering place for fans. After all, there was always the chance that he might drive through in one of his cars or on a motorcycle, or ride down on a golf cart or on horseback and have an impromptu autograph session. They could also watch him and his ‘Memphis Mafia’ friends ride their horses and golf carts around the grounds. Even when Elvis out of town, fans gathered at the gates and chatted up the security guards (some of whom were Elvis’ relatives) while meeting other fans from around the nation and the world at the same time. When Elvis was away, sometimes the guards would let fans onto the grounds for photos, sometimes even driving them up to the front of the house. There was always a sense of warmth, welcome and camaraderie. Many lifelong friendships between Elvis fans began at the Graceland gates.
However, it wasn’t all that uncommon for fans and curiosity-seekers to climb over the stone wall or wood fence on a dare or, more often, with the misguided mission to meet Elvis. The security staff not only routinely escorted uninvited guests off the grounds, they sometimes had to coax them down from the trees. Legend states that on one occasion Elvis caught a couple of mischievous young guys who had jumped the fence and were taking a swim. Elvis is said to have nonchalantly suggested that they be careful, then went back in the house. Once, a fan made his way into the house and was found sitting in the den waiting for Elvis, hoping to interest him in some songs he had written, but the meeting never happened. I imagine the songwriting intruder was busy being arrested. It certainly was a different world back then.
Anyone who’s attended a Bruce Springsteen concert knows that the Boss loves to share stories with his fans. His legendary 3-hour sets are littered with songs punctuated by long anecdotes, and there’s no story he loves telling more than the time he got booted from Elvis Presley’s front porch.
“Later on, I used to wonder what I would have said if I had knocked on the door and if Elvis had come to the door. Because it really wasn’t Elvis I was goin’ to see, but it was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear and somehow we all dreamed it. And maybe that’s why we’re here tonight, I don’t know.’ Bruce continues,’ I remember later when a friend of mine called to tell me that he’d died. It was so hard to understand how somebody whose music came in and took away so many people’s loneliness and gave so many people a reason and a sense of all the possibilities of living could have in the end died so tragically. And I guess when you’re alone, you ain’t nothin’ but alone’. Presley was only forty-two years old when his life tragically ended. “They found him slumped up against the drain,” Bruce Springsteen would later sing of his fallen idol, “with a whole lot of trouble running through his veins; Bye-bye, Johnny;
Johnny, bye-bye; You didn’t have to die; you didn’t have to die.”
13 months later, on May 28, 1977, Springsteen and Van Zandt attended an Elvis Presley concert in Philadelphia. It was not one of Elvis’ better performances according to reviews and fan accounts, including Bruce’s own account, ”that wasn’t a very good night.” After that disastrous show, Bruce apparently went home and wrote ‘Fire’ to assuage his disappointment. Springsteen envisioned “Fire” as a song which could be recorded by Elvis, his idol. The song is a superb tribute to the great early sixties recordings Presley made, in particular Suspicion and His Latest Flame. Springsteen later stated ‘I sent Elvis a demo of it but he died August 16, 1977 before it arrived.’
After Elvis died Bruce gave the demo to rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, who cut it in New York in December 1977 with Link Wray on lead guitar and Bruce himself playing (un-credited-at-the-time) piano. Later, the Pointer Sisters got a hold of the track and recorded their version which made it to #2 on the pop charts in 1979. Don’t remember the song? Do these lyrics ring a bell? ‘I’m ridin’ in your car. You turn on the radio. You’re pullin’ me close. I just say no. I say I don’t like it. But you know I’m a liar. ‘Cause when we kiss Ooooh, fire.” My wife might disagree, but Elvis Presley would have killed with that song.