I’m a bit ambivalent when it comes to Elvis Presley, at least as an icon. His music never really resonated with me, although I like a few of his songs. More specifically, I like many of the song writers, which he wasn’t on of, and I certainly recognize that he’s a culture thief. When asked the elementary question, Beatles or Elvis, I always feel like I’m being trapped. The question always felt like and unwinnable test that represented a generational divide. One that supposes that there are no other musical options of importance, a frame argument designed by a narrow architect, the Kobayashi Maru for Baby Boomers. If made to answer I steadfastly reply The Beatles as they wrote most of their own songs.
Elvis’ persona is that of a hip-wagging, rock crooner with shiny pompadoured black hair. I imagine that the deal he made with Mr. Scratch to become famous began in the womb. His twin, Jessie Garon Presley was dead at birth and perhaps Elvis was the cause. If he could have absorbed his essence in the womb, then maybe he would have. Stealing a soul to make himself soulful. But really, if you are a not a fan, you need look no further than his hair. He’s a natural blonde, but who would know this? I see nothing wrong with changing your look, but again if you’re a hater, it screams “exhibit a” for his appropriation of black music and black style. Again, his soul for soulfulness. But, admittedly, he was also a magnetic performer and song interpreter and people like performers. Last Friday I read kid’s books to Henry’s second grade class and afterwards 3 of his peers came up to me asking for my autography, while Henry smacked his forehead in disgust.
Elvis is an icon whether respected or not and for a person who just claimed to be ambivalent you may wonder why I have a gold statue of him in my house?
My first meeting with Elvis was when I was 10. Of course, I had heard of him, but my Mom’s cousin, Christian, was in the 1961 musical romantic comedy Blue Hawaii. The story was that Christian was to play opposite Elvis as his main love interest. It would have been her big Hollywood break, but before or during, Christian had had a nervous breakdown and the role was given to Joan Blackman. Christian is still in the movie as one of the court that can be seen dancing within a group of women who swoon for Elvis throughout the film. These two things were the most that I ever knew about Christian, a story about her proximity to him and then her being prescribed Lithium.
Mom and I were both on summer vacation, she the teacher, I the student. We had close to three months to entertain ourselves on an educator’s budget. That summer she introduced me to all of the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and of Elvis Presley that were cataloged at Hightower Memorial Library. After the summer, I came away a Hitchcock fan.
My second run in with Elvis was in high school. I was ending a date with Hellen. The closest movie theater was in Griffin, 30 minutes away and after seeing a movie I don’t remember, we went to the only place that was open so we could get dessert, Shoney’s. If Shoney’s is what you remember, then the movie could have only been bad, but something did happen that made it stand out. As we were buckling in to the car to leave, a man who appeared to be in his 40s was holding the door open to go in with what looked like his date. He had black hair, mutton chops, collar was flipped up and he wore sunglasses at night.
Holy Shit, Hellen. Elvis is NOT dead. Do you see him.
He’s the spitting image, she replied.
And in a moment of magic, as if this clone heard us through the rolled-up windows, he turned toward us, one hand still on the door and one hand pointed to us. He made eye contact with me as if to say, Huh! – a musical grunt of appreciation. Hellen and I would have fallen out of the car if we hadn’t had our seatbelts on. Years later when I related this story to a friend of mine, who was a Griffinite, she said that she knew him. His name was Otis Spragins and he claimed for years that he was the illegitimate son of Presley. Otis was the reigning karaoke darling at WiseGuys Wings across from the Wal-Mart off the Expressway and it was almost believable considering his accurate impression and the fact that so many fatherless men in the south with some singing talent had claimed the same thing since the death of Elvis. If Otis didn’t have Elvis at least he had respect and wing bucks from his karaoke winnings.
Third Elvis Experience. I met my roommate Chuck at work. Chuck and I were two kids raised in rural areas who bonded over the fact that we had somehow found and secretly loved the music of English synth pop band Erasure. We were also born 5 days apart. His birthday was August 16th and mine August 21st. We decided to have a small birthday party at our house.
“Do we really want it to be a joint birthday party at our place?”, Chuck asked.
“Well, Elvis died the day after you were born. We could have an Elvis is Dead party. And we did.”
It was the 25th anniversary of Elvis’ death and this anniversary brought out more people claiming that Elvis was still among us. Our anti-Elvis party felt right. Regina, my girlfriend at the time and future wife, loved our parties as she had gone through a mild Elvis obsession phase in high school and especially had an appreciation for his earlier recordings at Sun Records.
We printed shirts for our “event” as we had access to a screen-printing press. Our first shirt was the Levi’s logo upside down with the letters in the logo transposed to spell Elvis. My second cousin Paul came dressed in a black wig and Vegas shades which everyone quickly borrowed. Friends quickly staged pictures of themselves slumped on the commode or the King’s Throne as it was called during the night.
Next year we did it again and by the third year we were charging admission at a small club in Decatur where Chuck would DJ on the weekend. By the fourth year we’d hear strangers discuss how cool they were because they had the t-shirt from the first year, they were lying, but it felt cool to have started something.
The final year it had become a hassle. The bar owner demanded more money than agreed on up front and more people that we didn’t know were there than we did know. Cousin Christian’s clambake scene played silently on a large screen behind us above the bar on a bed sheet. It seemed fitting to have her flickering image dancing us out for our last, secretive, public, joint birthday party. Elvis is Dead was dead.
Last year I was dusting the living room and almost dropped the gold bust of Elvis that adorns our mantle.
“Gina do you mind I drop this thing?”
“No!” she said incredulously.
“Why do you love this thing so much? Did it belong to an ex?”
“Well, yeah. But that’s not why I like it. I like it for its intrinsic beauty that’s all. It’s kitsch.”
It was the truth. It been given to her in a way that had little meaning, but I still wanted to drop it. I had a remnant from my wife’s past relationship on display in my house, and in every home, we had owned, or apartment we had rented since the start of our union and I was never even cognizant of the matter. Our home decor was having an affair in my mind. When she said that it was from William, I didn’t press.
You see, William was the guy before me. William was the high school boy who was Regina’s first love. The person I could have been ultimately jealous of if she had ever gone back to. William was the subject of one of my first uncomfortable conversations with Regina’s mom where I told her to protect her daughter by not giving him her new phone number just because he said he’d kill himself if he she didn’t. William was the boy who gave Regina the gold Elvis bust he’d won at an auction, because he felt like he was obligated to bid on something and guessed that she still liked Elvis or didn’t. And like Elvis, William had overdosed. He was young. He was troubled, but he was loved.
Regina had attended the funeral, but his ties to her had already been cauterized.
So, when people ask if I’m and Elvis fan after seeing the gold shrine in my house, I sometimes say “sure”, and sometimes I say, “Oh, it’s belongs to Regina”. Or I tell them about my mom’s cousin the actor or how my shirts for my birthday party traveled around the U.S. in a design exhibit celebrating the art of the t-shirt, but I never tease about breaking the bust again and I’m always a little more careful when dusting. Elvis is an icon and in our house he’s a memory.