Friday, April 15, 2011
Elvis and Me
Last night, we saw Robert Shaw and the Lonely Street Band's Tribute to Young Elvis at the Elk's Theater. I'm a sucker for Elvis. Any Elvis -- young Elvis, old Elvis, hot Elvis, not-so-hot Elvis, gospel Elvis, rock and roll Elvis, blues Elvis, ballad Elvis, bad actor Elvis, soldier Elvis, Las Vegas Elvis, Elvis in a tortilla...
Elvis died the year after my dad got sick. Our house had every Elvis LP imaginable. My sister and I would stand on the top of the itchy yellow and black sofa, jump rope microphones in our hands, teddy bears near by, singing "Teddy Bear", tossing the bears to the ceiling at the finale. The first time I heard him sing "Old Shep" I cried. When Elvis died, I was 9. My dad had almost died the year before. Our whole lives had been turned upside down. In the south, Elvis walked hand in hand with Jesus. The King Could Not Die. But he did, and in the way of things, a decade later, my dad did too. Elvis was 42; my dad was 46.
I'm 42 now, and at the event last night, I was one of the youngest people there. The man sitting next to me wore a silver snap-button shirt, the final three buttons open because his belly had exceeded the width of the fabric. In front of me, women my mother's age joined hands, singing with Robert Shaw. When Robert sang "It's Now or Never", the man next to me, who was there alone, whispered, "I played that a million times."
The audience screamed for young Mr. Shaw. Screamed. Women using walkers. Women with mastectomies. Women with thinning, beehived hair. Women stood for young Mr. Shaw. Women with grandchildren. Dead husbands. Dead children. They stood and they screamed and they stomped and they danced, leaping for the teddy bear he threw to the audience. Grandmothers. Great grandmothers. Screaming. Stomping. Dancing.
Mr. Shaw did an Ed Sullivan imitation. The audience laughed. They'd watched the show when it aired. To hell with censorship, said young Mr. Shaw, and commenced the wiggle.
Swollen ankles dissolved into lacy bobby socks. Orthopedic shoes tip-toed into saddle shoes. The women's eyes were sparkling -- with tears, with love, with memory.
"I know there's some men out there," said young Mr. Shaw. "Just can't hear you."
The man next to me hooted, exposed belly wiggling.
I was twenty to thirty years younger than most of the audience. I knew all the songs. I hadn't played the 45s in my bedroom over and over or written letters to him when he was serving in Germany or cried when he married Priscilla, but Elvis was the soundtrack of my childhood as it was the soundtrack to their adolescence and young adulthood. Elvis made it OK. Elvis gave the sense of hope when there wasn't any; the sense of rhythm to a stiffening people; and he offered faith. Whether you believed or not, you believed when Elvis sang that gospel. No matter what else happened in his life, no matter how sick he got, when he slipped into music, he transported himself and everyone with him. He was living art.
After my dad's first heart attack, he spent some time talking to men at the Salvation Army. He brought Elvis' gospel LPs and played "Peace in the Valley" and tried to convince everyone that it was possible. Over time, it became less possible, and we moved away from the South, from Elvis, from who we were before Elvis died. Elvis may have lived on, grown stronger perhaps, in death, but it didn't work that way for my dad. Each year that passes brings fewer people who ever met my dad, ever knew him, ever loved him.
Last night, hundreds of us stood for young Mr. Shaw, many of us crying, for the gift of two hours suspended in time. For a spit of a second, we were all who we were when we first heard the sounds. We had not yet had our hearts broken and our bodies injured. We had not yet left friends behind, watched neighborhoods disintegrate, spent days in Hospice saying good-bye. We were girls and we were boys with the fire of all the world in front of us.
Perhaps now, because we have been marked, wrinkled, divorced, denied, loved, spurned, broken, built back up, perhaps now we could listen to young Mr. Shaw and see the beauty of the fleeting moment of youth. What we thought would never leave, leaves. This is true of everything. And when you really know that in your bones, you see that spark, that hip swivel, that sneer; you hear the seduction of the guitar's strings, and you pay attention to it. You know it's precious and primal and if there is anything divine in the world, it is in that spark. You look around the audience at the men with faraway eyes, the women with open mouths -- this group of people that you know differs as much as people can differ on religion and politics -- but they are standing up together. They are clapping together. We are young. We are young. We may have nothing else in common but we have Elvis and his promise of passion and desire and kindness.
We are young.
We are old.
We are beautiful and we are screaming together, not at each other.
The power of art brings that out and lets the rest fall away under our dancing feet.
Viva, viva, us all.
The video below is "young" Elvis singing "King Creole".
The video below is the "old" Elvis singing "How Great Thou Art".