Elvis made me what I am
August 16, 2002 | More from Patrick Brown
Patrick Brown is CBC's correspondent in Beijing. Before taking up his assignment in China, he was a correspondent in London from 1980-90, Beijing from 1990-96, and Delhi from 1997-99. He has reported from around the world - from Europe, Russia and other former Soviet states to Iran, Iraq, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines. Brown came to Canada in 1970 and joined Radio-Canada International as a news editor after working as a computer systems analyst, teacher and freelance journalist. He went to Montreal to work for the local CBC radio station as a reporter in 1976 and he became radio's national reporter based in Montreal two years later. Brown was educated in his native England at Cambridge. He holds a Master's degree in social anthropology.
I heard the news on the radio as I drove across the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal, heading back to the CBC newsroom to file a story that will be forgotten for as long as Elvis Presley's death will be remembered. I pulled over to listen more carefully, and learned not only that Elvis had died a significant turning point for him, obviously but also that the Quebec chapter of the Elvis Presley fan club was organizing a charter flight to go to the funeral, which was to be a significant turning point for me.
On the morning of August 18, 1977, I climbed aboard the flight to Memphis, Tennessee, on my first assignment outside Canada. Twenty-five years and thousands of flights later, as I pack my bags to go back to Afghanistan, I treasure the moment. It was only a 12-hour trip next door to the United States, and the only danger was of drowning in a flood of hysterical tears, but, just for a day, I was a Foreign Correspondent!
The worm was in the apple. I was to work in Montreal for another three years, covering speeches and strikes, fires and elections, then in the midst of the first Quebec referendum in 1980, a group of CBC managers whose careers soon faltered in connection with other dubious decisions, appointed me as CBC Radio's London correspondent.
CBC London has always been our main fire station. Correspondents based there are expected to move quickly when news breaks out in places where there is no resident correspondent. There was no bureau in the Middle East, so I spent much of the 1980s bouncing between Europe and the Middle East, with occasional forays into Asia or Africa.
Postings followed in China, India, and now Thailand. There have been many wars, and many war stories, and people often ask about them. Violence and risk are fascinating, and people who have not been to a war often ask what it's like, and why I go back time after time.
I know many correspondents and photographers who are addicted to the adrenaline and intensity of war zones, but I am not one of them. I find no thrill in gambling, and certainly no thrill in gambling with my life and those of people who are working with me. For me, the fascination is not in the conflict itself, but in the fact that conflict brings out the extremes of human nature, good and bad.
One of the stories that stands out most vividly for me was one that I filed from Beirut, when the USS New Jersey was firing its 16-inch guns at positions on the shore. Shells the size of Volkswagens were whistling over the city and exploding on the outskirts.
Like many others, pupils at a school for blind children were huddled in a basement waiting for the racket to stop. Their teachers told me they believed the children, lacking the sense of sight, were particularly sensitive to the noise. That's why they had brought all the school orchestra's instruments down into the basement, too. Finding a roomful of children playing music as hard as they could to drown out the frightening racket of war was like coming across a flower in the desert.
One of my first assignments after going to London took me to the shipyard in Gdasnk where Poland's Solidarity trade union was born in 1980. On one of my last assignments from London, I stood on the Berlin Wall on the night of November 9, 1989. I have spent many nights in many cities as gunfire echoed over the shadows cast by the flames of burning vehicles and buildings. The fear, and the rush of relief after it's over, are powerful experiences but they do not come close to the exhilaration of being with the people of Berlin the night the wall fell.
My most evocative memories, like my dreams, usually include music. The final movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony rolls over images of the Berlin wall. A young man sings the "Internationale" on Tiananmen Square. An Afghan wedding orchestra caresses instruments which had lain silently buried in the drummer's back yard for six long years while music was banned under the Taliban.
This profession exposes us to a great deal of misery, but also to wonderful moments when the human spirit seems to triumph over everything that is mean and destructive in the world. Those are the moments that stand out for me, not the personal scrapes and escapes that happen to everyone who does this kind of work.
The plane to Memphis 25 years ago carried an eccentric collection of Quebecers with nothing in common but the urge to pay their last respects to the King of Rock and Roll. An octogenarian with a Canadian Legion cap and a row of World War II medals wandered up and down the aisle, intoning "I'm all shook up" like a funeral dirge.
The organizer of the trip, a man in his 30s, told me he loved Elvis even more than the old guy in the aisle. The younger man was president of the local fan club but had never heard Presley's music. He was deaf. The indescribable aura of The King, the overwhelming power of Elvisness in all its non-musical manifestations, was enough to make him a dedicated fan and bring him to Graceland for a final
In the year Elvis died, I am told, a handful of people made their living impersonating him. Now there are at least 85,000 living and working around the world. One Web site (www.thenakedscientists.com)
estimates that, at the present rate of growth, Elvis impersonators will make up a third of the world's
population by the year 2019.
Many on the plane would come to believe, of course, that Elvis is still alive. Perhaps they're right, and I made the first of many mistakes of a career reporting foreign news when I assumed that I was attending the funeral of a dead man, and reported it that way.
The strange alchemy of Elvis, a mesmerising amalgam of musical genius and inspired bad taste, has touched many lives. It surely touched mine.
Listen to Patrick Brown's original radio report on the funeral (Runs 2:29)
The part of the story where you mentioned the deaf Elvis fan is very much
proof of the influence Elvis had on our society (and still does). No one
else in any vocation, whether entertainment or not, had as much to do with
shaping our culture.
His music, his life, his personal demons all have repercussions even 25
years after his death. His story is both a success and a tragedy. Now that
we know what kind of personal life he was forced to lead because of his fame
shows that he truly made a great sacrifice for what he was able to give us.
Like Elvis and his Cadillac's etc., he gave us more than we ever gave him.
Ronald Potter | Niagara Falls, Ont.
Dear Mr. Brown,
Whenever a story comes on TV or radio that has a report from you in it, I almost always stop what I am doing and listen. You bring the story alive and I feel a connection to it through your reporting. Strange, there is no other reporter who has affected me the same way.
You are the eyes and ears and voice and somehow the conscience, if you know what I mean, of the story. You have a gift. Thank you for your commitment and your heart.
Great, great story of human interest.
Would you write more about Afghanistan, and especially about the people over there, because you are always smiling while taking photos with Afghans.
(one of your fans)
Susan & Logie Donaldson