The death of Elvis Presley is a flashbulb memory burnt into my mind. In a 1977 journal article, Harvard researchers Roger Brown and James Kulik defined them as, “Flashbulb Memories are memories for the circumstances in which one first learned of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event. Hearing the news that President John Kennedy had been shot is the prototype case. Almost everyone can remember, with an almost perceptual clarity, where he was when he heard, what he was doing at the time, who told him, what was the immediate aftermath, how he felt about it, and also one or more totally idiosyncratic and often trivial concomitants. Although it’s been forty years, I still remember the day the King died.
When you’re nine years old, just about every summer day blends into another. The weather was warm and the day still long. School seemed an eternity away (until Labor Day, then I began to panic) so I rode my bike, played with friends, and enjoyed the outdoors (no kid stayed indoors if the weather permitted and few parents wanted their kids in the house anyways. This was the age when you went out after breakfast and came back until you heard your parents calling for you as the sun went down. Lunch and supper got thrown in somewhere, but in hindsight, unless you were going out to eat, you didn’t care.
August 16, 1977 was different though. I had just finished lunch when a friend raced to our home on his bike to deliver unbelievable news. Elvis was dead. My friend was never a big Elvis fan, in fact he hated him. He didn’t seem happy that the king of rock-n-roll was dead, but he wasn’t sad either. The news spread fast. My mom confirmed she’d heard it on the radio. She was always a big Elvis fan and I’m sure my appreciation for his music came from listening to her play Elvis’ records. The information age was still off in the distance but news this big still spread fast. The evening edition of the newspaper confirmed it.
At the time, none of us knew the circumstances of the king’s death. Today, TMZ would likely have pictures of Elvis’ corpse on the toilet with a caption “The King of Rock and Roll Dies on His Throne.” It just seems like such an ignoble way to die. As far as I was concerned, Elvis was the same guy I saw on his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong LP, not the bloated, drug-addled man struggling with personal demons and surrounded by leeches. It would be decades before I saw footage of a morbidly obese Elvis preparing for a show, sweating like Mike Tyson at a spelling bee. That moment, I realized anyone can go from sugar to shit, no matter how much money they have or how much fame they have. Elvis didn’t choke on his own vomit like some of his contemporaries, but how he died wasn’t much better.
The clichés of “his music will live forever” will be bandied about today more than ever, but it’s less important to recognize the loss of a talented performer than to acknowledge the perils of substance abuse. It happened to the king of rock-n-roll and can happen to anyone else you know. Flashbulb memories like Elvis’ death are embedded in the minds of millions (perhaps billions), but I wonder if the nature of Presley’s death still remains with many. Speaking from experience, substance abuse can be the biggest challenge of your life, but it's possible to overcome. Perhaps today will be a day when people will recognize their own substance abuse problems before they become a flashbulb memory for their family and friends.