Remembering Diana – and my own parents

(Published in the Calgary Herald on Sept. 6, 1997)

The death of Princess Diana and the memories of my dead parents are much on my mind this weekend. As the princess goes to her burial place today, I think of my Irish father who died in Dublin a year ago Sunday, and of my mother who died 20 years ago this week. My parents would have had much to say about the life and death of this glamorous English princess with the Pepsodent smile and the soap-opera life.

My news-savvy father, who read two newspapers every weekday and four on Sundays, would have had tough questions for me — the journalist in the family — about the unrelenting media glare shone on the princess during the 16 years of her public life, and the paparazzi-goaded car journey that brought her to an untimely end in a Paris underpass.

My independent-minded mother, who died four years before Diana shyly entered the public stage, would have seen a great waste in the gruesome death of this luminous young woman who broke through the royal bubble to make a genuine emotional connection with those outside her privileged world.

My mother admired strong women who broke the rules, especially rules made by men. I expect she would have liked this thoroughly modern princess who took her children shopping on High Street, shook hands with lepers, and talked to reporters in her swimsuit.

I have been at a loss to understand my own feelings of sadness around Diana’s death, because she was never my princess. I grew up in republican-sympathetic, post-war southern Ireland where the Royal Family was viewed as an absurd foreign institution with its pomp, glitter, and overblown rituals. Why should I care about some social-climbing child-minder from the ranks of the minor aristocracy who willingly became part of that privileged world of palaces and pageantry, went to the disco with Elton John, and went yacht-hopping in the Mediterranean, while the rest of us went to work for a living?

I think about my late parents as I grope for explanations, because we look to the past for the answers that elude us today. We hope the wisdom our parents gleaned over the course of a lifetime will help us make sense of the world we inherited from them.

My practical-minded Irish father, who came from a time when being Irish meant defining yourself against what you were not, i.e. British, would have told me that you could still be Irish and appreciate the best of what the English had to offer, including their poetry, their songs, and the refreshing presence of an unstuffy young princess who thumbed her nose at “the Firm” and showed the world that you don’t need a palace to be a princess.

My mother, who cried when she heard of President Kennedy’s assassination, would likewise have wept at Diana’s death. In November, 1963, my mother’s tears were for a young widow and her two young children. The fact she was an American president’s widow, and that she lived across the sea, did not make her remote in my mother’s eyes. Like Princess Diana, the Kennedys had a special ability to make real emotional connections with those outside their exotic world, because the Kennedys seemed real and warm and frailly human.

My mother’s tears last weekend would have been for two sons left without a mother who clearly adored them. To a cold-looking family where public demonstrations of affection were limited to ritual kisses after royal weddings, Diana brought spontaneous hugs, laughter, and fun. She too was real and warm and frailly human. What kind of glum-faced fate awaits her sons within that staid family now that their vibrant mother with the 1,000-watt smile is gone? A beacon of light, as Lady Thatcher said, has been switched off.

Because she left us in the same autumnal time of year as my parents, Princess Diana now forever occupies the same spiritual and cultural place in my life and memory. The world we inherit belongs to the dead, to the people who made the poetry and the songs. The song of my parents was the song, now playing in my heart, that urges me to muddle on through patches of achievement and decline, triumphs and shadows. The song of Diana will be the song that reminds me that one small candle can light a thousand.

Remembering Elvis

(Published in the Calgary Herald on Aug. 16, 1997)

Those who cared will still remember what they were doing when they heard the news, 20 years ago today. I was interviewing Calgary concert promoter Dave Horodezky at his office when he excused himself to take a call. “What a shame,” said Dave, after a moment’s silence. “What a black day for rock ‘n’ roll.”

What a black day indeed. For members of the first rock ‘n’ roll generation, Elvis Presley’s death at age 42 brought home to us the sobering reality of our own mortality. I was 33 then, and suddenly felt much older.

Other rockers — Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix — had died before Elvis. But we could rationalize their deaths as avoidable aberrations, caused by plane crashes or drug overdoses. Elvis’s death hit closer to home because he was the first of the original rockers to die from natural causes. Or so we thought at the time. It was only later we would discover that pills and southern-fried cholesterol were contributory factors.

I cared about Elvis because his music, wild, loud, uninhibited, was joyously different from the Mantovani music my parents listened to on Radio Eireann, the national broadcasting service in my native Ireland.

At age 13, it was important for me to have things private and unshareable — things that were exclusive teenage property. The sideburns and ducktail hairdo would come later. In the beginning, it was enough just to have the music, the raw sound, beamed to us from across the Atlantic via the only commercial pop music station, Radio Luxembourg, that could be picked up in Dublin in those unenlightened times. My friends and I listened to it surreptitiously after dark, when the station pointed its signal toward the British Isles.

Elvis didn’t invent white rock ‘n’ roll, of course, but he was unquestionably its first universal hero. Bill Haley, who scored the first huge rock ‘n’ roll hit with Rock Around the Clock, didn’t count because we knew he was just a failed country and western singer who got lucky with a new gimmick.

Elvis was the real thing, an American hillbilly with danger in his voice and rebellion in his soul, who took his surly look from the movie characters of Marlon Brando and James Dean, took his good-rocking music from the black gospel, and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers he heard on the radio as a kid, then synthesized these various borrowings into something original, something distinctively his own.

Competing for our young ears during the same period were other top U.S. rock ‘n’ rollers, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Little Richard. But good as they were, they could not compare with Elvis, who commanded from the first day we heard him. First with Heartbreak Hotel, and later with Don’t Be Cruel and Hound Dog, he ruled the airwaves like never before.

My friends and I would suffer through two hours of hit-parade Perry Como and Dean Martin on Radio Luxembourg every Sunday night just to hear three minutes of Elvis singing Don’t Be Cruel. By the end of that memorable year, 1956, Elvis had racked up half a dozen record hits, and earned the right to be forever called the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No one would ever dethrone him. From that moment onward, Presley would be the once and future king.

The generation that followed, the teenagers who had their life’s soundtrack composed for them by the Beatles, would doubtless disagree. They would say Elvis was nothing more than a brooding singer with an average voice, swivelling hips and limited guitar-playing ability. Heck, he didn’t even write his own songs.

But then they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t understand why Calgary Herald editor Bob Parkins showed up for work on Aug. 17, 1977, wearing a black arm-band. They wouldn’t understand why, for those of us who were teenagers in 1956, even the most mediocre of the first Presley recordings could make the pop music that followed seem as nothing, to be blown away like chaff.

I don’t much understand it either. I don’t understand why Pavarotti appeals to me more than the technically superior Placido Domingo, and I can’t explain why Elvis ruled and Pat Boone didn’t. Boone also released several rock hits in 1956, including Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally. But he couldn’t hold a candle to Presley. Maybe it was because Boone sounded like someone my parents would have approved of.

I almost never listen to Elvis’s recordings nowadays, though I will always play his Blue Christmas in my house at Christmastime while resolutely refusing to listen to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Fats Waller and John Field have taken the place of the popular music I craved as a teenager. The Presley impersonators have ruined his songs for me by reducing them to parody.

But whenever someone suggests, as a 30-year-old friend named Tom did recently, that Elvis was not very good, I put Presley’s July 2, 2021 recording of Hound Dog on the turntable, and listen to it one more time. I hear what you say, Tom, but I have to disagree. Elvis was good. He was very good.