Sunday, February 3, 2008

Tuesday, January 12, 1960: Parisian Romp

I've never been able to shake the impression that Elvis's year and a half in Germany (October 1958-March 1960) while a soldier in the U. S. Army had a sort of surreal quality to it. Arriving in Bremerhaven on October 1, 1958 and met by approximately 1,500 unruly fans, Der Elvis must have experienced a sense of deja vu, believing for a moment he was back in America. Soon after his arrival, he boarded a train to Friedberg, northeast of Frankfurt, where he and the other members of the Thirty-second Tank Battalion, Third Armored Division, were installed in the austere, grey-bricked Ray Barracks which, about twenty years earlier, had been the barracks of Hitler's S. S. troops.

"I'd like to meet Brigitte Bardot," Elvis had said while still in America, on the day he departed for Germany, and perhaps he'd meant it, because twice he used the opportunity that extended leave gave him to visit Paris. Apparently he never met Brigitte Bardot, but in addition to meeting lots of cute German girls, while on leave Der Elvis also met many cute French girls. Peter Guralnick, in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, 1999) said that while in Germany Elvis had other sorts of encounters as well, having met "pills that a sergeant had introduced him to when they were on maneuvers at Grafenwöhr" (p. 21). Guralnick goes on to write on the same page that one time one of Elvis's service buddies observed Elvis exchange some "'large bills'" for "over four quart-size bottles of amphetamines....When Elvis returned to the car, he said with a wink, 'Rexadus, it ain't what you know but who you know that counts in this old world.' And Rex couldn't help but think, 'And if you got lots of money it helps.' "

Albert Goldman, author of the much-maligned (read: mythbusting) biography Elvis (McGraw-Hill, 1981) isn't quite so sure that Elvis was first introduced to amphetamines in Germany, believing that this explanation is nothing but an expression of the old "innocence corrupted" myth--the inevitable Platonic apocalyptic sequence of deviation from the Good--that fans hold on to about their cherished King. I tend to agree with Goldman: there's no evidence that Elvis did not use amphetamines prior to entering the Army--his mother's use of "weight loss" pills is well documented--and well-known Memphis figures Elvis knew before entering the service, such as Dewey Phillips, allegedly got by with a little help from their friends.

According to Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen's Elvis Day By Day (Ballantine, 1999), on Tuesday, January 12, 1960, Elvis traveled with his friends Joe Esposito, Cliff Gleaves, and his new found friend and recently hired karate instructor, Jurgen Seydel--"the father of German karate"--to Paris. Required to return to the base by Sunday, Guralnick reports the second trip to Paris was "much the same" (p. 49) as the first trip to the city of lights, meaning an amphetamine-fueled nighttime trip fantastic, in which Der Elvis careened "from one improbable fantasy to another" (34). The Parisian romps anticipated his life-to-come in America after returning from exile in Germany:

They woke up late in the day to have their one full meal, a huge 8:00 p.m. breakfast. Then they would catch the first show at the Carousel or the Folies Bergère, and from there go on to the Lido, where the statuesque chorus line, the Blue Belles, were all English girls eager to make Elvis Presley's acquaintance. After the Lido closed, they would proceed to Le Bantu, a late-night club which didn't open until 4:00 a.m., bringing with them as many of the Blue Belles as wanted to come along. At the end of the evening Elvis would take his pick from among all the girls, leaving the rest for [the others] to choose from. (34)

Returning from his second trip to Paris on Sunday, January 17, Elvis had just about seven weeks left in the Army. He would return to America late on the evening of March 2, and three days later, on March 5, the King would be formally discharged from the service. Hence, on January 12, his army nightmare was just about over, but Elvis's image would be irrevocably altered (perhaps intentionally) during his absence, and his cultural influence effectively over. As John Lennon is supposed to have remarked upon hearing of Elvis's death in 1977: "Elvis died the day he went into the army."

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