Elvis and Death, by Brendan O’Malley

I asked my brother Brendan, a wonderful writer, to write me something on Elvis Presley. I just wanted to hear what he would say about him. As per usual, Brendan blew me away.

Elvis and Death
by Brendan O’Malley

I have impersonated Elvis Presley in public on three occasions, two theatrical and one celebratory. While I enjoyed all three and will briefly outline them all, the celebratory one is the most important and bizarre. Much like The King himself.

As a freshman in high school I transitioned from folk tunes, The Beatles and the Original Cast Albums of Oliver, Oklahoma and Guys and Dolls directly into the maelstrom of indie-underground DIY (Do-It-Yourself) punk rock. The 1980’s mainstream was an endless procession of marketing schemes designed to ram the ‘60’s down our throats and remind us that we would never eclipse such a fecund musical/political landscape.

Elvis? He wasn’t even on my radar then, he was a dim figure from the distant past, almost like Napoleon or Mozart. I knew he was important but I really had no idea why.

Part of the ethos of punk rock was a total disregard for the supposed greats who were a yoke to be thrown off, a curse borne from stagnant nostalgia. I could barely be bothered with David Bowie or Led Zeppelin, let alone some crooner from the ‘50’s. Elvis Presley was a dinosaur.

Cut to sophomore year of high school. I have such a horrible memory that the circumstances of my first Elvis impersonation are hazy at best. I think the Humanities class was having some sort of cultural group project and the presentation covered a bit of the ‘50’s. Being a lazy and indifferent student, I chose to imitate Elvis Presley and sing “Hound Dog” a-cappella in the library as a way of filling a few of the minutes I was required to fill.

I wore my white Chuck Taylor basketball sneakers and swiveled my hips and probably sounded more like Cher than Elvis. But it was clear who I was supposed to be. Needless to say, the library went nuts.

Now, I am a good mimic. I am a good singer. I am a good dancer. But the moment before I began I was filled with existential dread. Because it is one thing to imitate Elvis Presley alone in your room. It is another thing altogether to try and pull it off in public. IT ISN’T EASY TO SHAKE RATTLE AND ROLL. It is potentially very embarrassing. And in order to pull it off, you have to inherently believe that you are worth watching, that what you do will excite the ladies, and that you won’t be laughed off whatever stage you are on.

(Side note. This story should show you how long Elvis’ shadow was…this was pre-internet, pre-cable TV and EVERYONE knew how Elvis moved even still!)

Bottom line is you cannot FAKE an Elvis impersonation. He CARRIES you into his own version of expression. If you don’t allow yourself to be swept away you will look like an idiot.

Well, whatever I’d done that day in the library stuck in someone’s mind because the next year I was asked to play The Pharoah (written as an Elvis impersonator) in a production of “Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Prout, the Catholic All-Girls school in our town.

Just imagine a high school junior impersonating Elvis every afternoon for a bunch of girls in plaid mini-skirts and knee-high socks. I’d won the lottery.

I wore a sparkling gold suit and crooned my teenage heart away. I got a prom date out of the whole deal and one of my favorite high school memories in the bargain.

Then I put my pompadour away for several years.

And now for the aforementioned “celebratory impersonation”.

College came and my life was a rocket blast of theater, beer and enjoyable exhaustion. I did four shows a year with a full course load and spent almost every waking moment involved in theater. When I think of those times I am nostalgic to an almost political level…it makes me wish we had a national theater where I could go and work for the rest of my life. Four plays a year for the rest of eternity.

As all theater junkies know, our world revolves around the current show. Each show has its own particular brand of steam to let off and the parties are legendary. Throw a bunch of high-strung creative people together in a pressure cooker and they will make your average frat party look like a study group.

Halloween was fast approaching. A party was planned. I had a date, a nice girl I’d known for some time but our friendship was wholly platonic with that distant hint of something more causing us more tension than enjoyment. We didn’t coordinate our outfits. She was not a member of the theater department so I applaud her bravery for agreeing to go with me into a crew of hams wearing a costume. She donned the garb of a quintessential nerd, tape on the glasses, pocket protector, etc.

I went as Elvis in “Blue Hawaii”.

I wore a white blazer, a garish Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans and my old Chuck Taylor sneakers, most likely the same ones I’d worn five years earlier the first time I channeled The King.

I will make a long sordid story short because I still have to weigh in on the man himself.

In all honesty, I regretted bringing my date. I felt cramped, as if I couldn’t really participate with my friends the way I normally would have. I stood at the end of the line at the beer keg while my “date” mingled in another room and I pondered my mistake.

I felt a presence behind me. I turned. A six foot tall Amazon with jet black hair, dark circles for eyes, and a Wicked Witch type costume.

She said, “Hi Elvis!”

I said, “What are you supposed to be?”

She said, “Death, what else?”

I am not making this story up.

And thus Elvis and Death met once again. In line for beer. We laughed at the irony, made a few peanut butter and banana sandwich jokes and within a few minutes Death and I ran off to a bathroom and made out feverishly until I realized I had COME WITH A DATE.

Now, I am not proud of this behavior but I think I have Elvis to thank for a lot of it. See, he is truly the first public male perhaps EVER who took joy in turning women on. In fact, that was his GOAL. He knew he could do it and so it was almost a responsibility.

He did it so effortlessly that it worked when I aped it almost thirty years later. I didn’t even have to sing. I just had to PRETEND I was Elvis and a hot girl in a beer line made out with me.

So if you’re keeping count (and I sure as hell am) Elvis got me a prom date and a makeout session with Death.

All of this for me came BEFORE I ever even really paid any attention to his actual talent. I can vividly remember watching his ’68 Comeback Special on VHS (also in college) and feeling like the top of my head was flying off. This was not some manufactured icon being shoved down my throat by the Baby Boomers. This was a giant of a man, so at ease with himself that your attention was drawn in like the tide to the sand.

The sad thing is that he never got the chance to reinvent himself, to shake off the drug haze and reaffirm that instinctual power. If Frank Sinatra could come back from doing a duet with a dog to win an Oscar, who knows what Elvis would have done. No offense to Frank but Elvis could act him under a table.

I spend very little time mourning what we missed out on with Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix or James Dean. They never had to endure the humiliation of degrading in front of an audience and the giant lie of everyone pretending it wasn’t happening.

Elvis was a GENIUS performer. You think he didn’t KNOW the white suits and karate were beneath him somehow? Of course he did. You think he was proud of the goopy sentimental schlock he was churning out? Of course he wasn’t. You think there wasn’t a corner of shame that he was nurturing and encouraging so that one day he could re-emerge from his cocoon and spread his wings again? Of course there was.

Think about that voice at 65, healthy, emotionally scarred by all the hard living and bad choices, coaxed back into shape by a hard-fought desire to re-connect with his own joy.

Death wouldn’t stand a chance against that King.

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20 Responses to Elvis and Death, by Brendan O’Malley

  1. Noonz says:

    Brendan kicks ass.

  2. sheila says:

    Yes. He does.

    I love how Death knew he was Elvis, even though he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and could just as easily have been Don Ho.

    Amusingly enough, there was another “Elvis in Blue Hawaii” at that very same party.

  3. Kent says:

    Wonderful, Brendan and Sheila! A date with death! If he had cleaned up, and lived just a little bit longer he could have worked with Ingmar Bergman… or Woody Allen!

  4. sheila says:

    He had a nice sense of self-deprecation about his persona as well – even at his height – he took it seriously, but not too seriously – that would have been a goldmine for a director like Allen!

  5. sheila says:

    Did you ever meet him, Kent?

    • Kent says:

      No… was going to see him in concert the year he passed. I was in Memphis for Christmas that year and met his cousin Vester. Vester was funny. He said Vernon was funny, but Elvis was funnier. Elvis was good at comedy onscreen, and it shows in his interviews. Natural humor. And a prankster.

      One of Ann’s best friends, Glenda Farrell, worked with him in the ’60s and came back with Elvis stories. Glenda and Ann were MAJOR pranksters. Glenda grew up on the vaudeville circuit with her parents, and met Ann in 1943. Anyway, she told Ann that Elvis was “a nice young man, lots of fun, but a little too quiet”.

      For comparison sake, Glenda thought Eddie Cantor was “too serious”. This used to really crack Ann up. Cantor visited the set constantly when Ann worked with Joan Davis, and she said they couldn’t shut him up. Joan would send him home to his wife, and his wife would send him back to the set with Joan.

      One of my old pals worked on all Elvis’ later Universal movies, and said that Elvis never told jokes, but kept the sets light and laughing.

  6. nightfly says:

    Aside – I love the guy on the upright bass in that photo. His expression is priceless. It’s like he’s just been playing all night, happily punching the clock for Al Dvorin, and WAIT- HOLY SHIT THAT’S ELVIS. That’s ELVIS PRESLEY on stage with me! HOLY SHIT this is AWESOME!

    All the pictures are wonderful, but Upright Bass Guy comes up big in a big situation here.

    Great, great post, Brendan. The O’Malley Talent Monopoly is fun to watch in action.

  7. sheila says:

    Nightfly – isn’t that such a great moment? He’s screaming, too – he’s onstage and he has become an audience member!! I think that was Elvis’ first bass player – Bill something? Shit, I don’t have my facts straight – he was sheer hillbilly, and would keep up a running patter of absurd dialogue during the shows – which kept them really really “country” – Eventually, he was shoved out of the picture once Elvis went Hollywood. When he died, in the 60s, suddenly and early, Elvis was devastated. He loved him. I think that’s the guy.

    And yes, Brendan is wonderful, I totally agree!! I saw him do The Pharoah in Joseph and he was amazing, and I say that even though I am totally biased.

  8. sheila says:

    Bill Black. I am pretty sure that’s him.

  9. sheila says:

    Also, side note: check out all the screaming girls in the stands, and look at the one disgruntled guy – who appears above Elvis’ right shoulder. That pretty much sums up the response at the time.

  10. nightfly says:

    Thanks for the aditional info about Upright Bass Guy. Cool and sad at turns, if it makes any sense.

    He captured so much of my attention I didn’t really notice the rest of the crowd. It’s basically Elvis and then UBG totally losing his mind on stage. But now I look and just above his shoulder, in the crowd, there’s a girl in the crowd I see who is trying to pull her brain out by her hair… He really was just an atom bomb on stage. It makes Glum Boy’s reaction even funnier.

    While I’m typing this, Ladybug is watching X-Factor, and the latest auditioner chose to sing “Trouble” from Elvis’ comeback special. He clearly wasn’t paying enough attention to your blog this week! He scraped through with kinder words than I would have given him. I mean the kid had Vanilla Ice’s exact hairdo, I’m not even kidding. It’s just so unfair to him to compare him to the original. I hope he’s actually better in the competition.

  11. sheila says:

    // there’s a girl in the crowd I see who is trying to pull her brain out by her hair… He really was just an atom bomb on stage. It makes Glum Boy’s reaction even funnier. //

    hahaha totally.

    I wince at the thought of Trouble on X-Factor. That song was written as a send-up, kind of ironic – making fun of the Elvis persona while at the same time honoring it. Elvis loved it. He got the joke, he was in on it. If you’re not “in on it”, then Trouble could be so so stupid.

  12. sheila says:

    And just to bring it back to Brendan:

    // a corner of shame that he was nurturing and encouraging //

    Very very good line.

  13. Patrick says:

    Tipping my hat to Brendan, with a Hound Doggy hello.

  14. Lisa says:

    My own selfish reasons aside (I want to seeeee youuuuu) you really need to come to Memphis some time if you can swing it. Elvis is EVERYWHERE, and in, like, a metaphysical sense, not the tourist sense. (Which, hello!, is there too. And it’s INSANE.)

    The first time I ever saw Graceland, Danny and I went over for the weekend (friend from HS was in Fiddler with Theodore Bikel) and since I’d NEVER been there and Danny hadn’t gone since he was a child, we decided to go early and go to Graceland before the show. You can buy different levels of tickets; the house only, the house and airplanes only, and the Platinum Tour, which is the house, the planes, AND an exhibit called “Simply Elvis” which is all the stuff that won’t fit in the house. Well, what would YOU do? We went all-Platinum, baby! All Elvis, All The Time!

    Unbeknownst to me, it was the Saturday after Elvis’s birthday, so there were a LOT of people there. A LOT. Danny and I were kind of gently making light of their obsession, all the while singing along with the music (playing at *11*) that is constant everywhere you go at the site, even in the bathroom. We thought we were there IRONICALLY, so hahahaha stupid Elvis fans.

    Then we rode the tram over to the house, and you put in your earphones (you get this little Walkman-type thing) and all of a sudden, Priscilla’s voice is in your ear. She describes the house, narrates the memories, and dude, it is REAL. I looked over at Danny once, when we were walking into the kitchen, and he had this look on his face like, “This is ELVIS’S kitchen. He ate HERE. OMG.” (The house is, as you probably can figure, a lot smaller than you’d think. It’s almost too small.) By the time we’d walked through the entire place, and got to the gravesite, I was in tears. As I read the birthday tributes from people all over the world (Japan!), I sobbed. Danny looked over and said, “Are you crying at GRACELAND?” And I said, “Look how much people loved him!”

    It was totally crazy. We need to do it together.

  15. Helena says:

    I like the ‘hugging Elvis’ picture. That little girl is looking straight up his nose – even the inside of his nostrils were worthy of veneration! And there’s something very serious and gracious about that kiss, isn’t there. Like he’s giving her all the time in the world to do it.

  16. sheila says:

    Lisa – “are you crying at Graceland?” hahahaha Classic! I know, I have to go – it’s been on my list of places to see for years. Maybe this winter some time. Will keep you posted. Meeting you in Memphis? HEAVEN!!!

  17. sheila says:

    Helena – Yes, he seems to treat their adulation with grace. It had to be insane, he was like 22, 23 years old here. Quite heady stuff for a good Christian boy from Tennessee. I love how young they all look – their pinned-down hair, and sweet faces. Crazy!!

  18. Brilliant – Death wouldn’t have stood a chance against Elvis with a will to live and reconnect to his creativity.

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