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.