Elvis was 42 when he died in 1977 at his Graceland home. Quite possibly some of you can recall precisely where you were at the moment you heard. His career had been waning; he was bleary and bloated, sometimes incoherent; his voice wasn’t always up to the songs he sang for his still-adoring fans. Much of his later erratic and odd behaviour is well documented: the TV-shooting incident for example, and his request of Richard Nixon to be granted status of Federal Agent-at-Large in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
But this is not about Elvis per se, but about his status as an icon, and our collective inability to let him die. More than Marilyn or James Dean, more than Judy Garland or even Curt Cobain, Elvis lives on in myth, memory and…Tribute Artists!
If I hadn’t accepted my brother’s invitation to Harrison Hot Springs a few weeks ago where he was attending a convention of public speakers I wouldn’t have this story to tell you. But I did, and here it is.
This public speaking organization is well known and has, in the same way AA has led millions from intoxication to sobriety, transported many of its grateful members from shy, inarticulate, mumbling isolation to confident and polished speechifying free of ums, ahs and other verbal tics. An admirable accomplishment indeed. My brother is deeply involved. I, on the other hand, find this organization’s structure too – structured. I joke that he’s in a cult and I am not particularly drawn to cults, no matter how well-established or apparently benign. We are good-natured about this difference of perspective, although I know he would love it if I signed on to one of the many clubs he’s occupied with. But I digress.
The convention lasted a full weekend and participants were encouraged to let off steam on Saturday night with the live entertainment – their reward for working so hard. The entertainment turned out to be an Elvis impersonator, or, as they prefer to be called, an Elvis Tribute Artist. Who could resist?
This is an important cultural phenomenon, I told my brother, and I just HAD to go. Happily, he was able to wangle an invite from the organizers and I soon found myself among a group of True Elvis Fans, people who, until now, seemed to be nothing less than serious professional pontificators, dressed conservatively and observing all the protocol required of attendees at the convention.
There are all sorts of Tribute Artists. Some just walk around looking Elvis-like; some sing like him but look unlike him; some lip synch; others play guitar and sing. There are Elvises young and old; Elvises fat and thin. There are Asian and Black Elvises. There are female Elvises. This night, at Harrison Hot Springs, there was a “young” Elvis – meaning he probably wasn’t born when Elvis died, although he sang songs from every era of Elvis’ career. And he had The Voice.
And The Moves. Although he didn’t play guitar, the sound system provided everything he needed except lead vocals. This young man had entered an Elvis Tribute contest some years earlier as a joke; his friends had dared him. He won third place and the rest is history.
“Elvis” was charming and engaging and soon the audience, most of whom were women, was screaming and giggling and swooning and begging to have photos taken with him. Most of these women either hadn’t been born or had been very young girls during the real Elvis’ reign but they were swept up, crazy as if in the presence of the real thing and it was 1955 and nothing had happened since.
Until now I wondered why a person would want to go around in someone else’s skin, “being” someone else. Even if that someone else was Elvis Presley. What could possibly motivate someone to dress up and act out someone else’s fantasy life? And what did that person do the rest of the time? Who did they think they were the rest of the time? It had always been a bit of a mystery to me.
But watching this person, aka Elvis, create a mood, I kind of got swept up too. What he made happen in that hall was more than nostalgia. In the skin of Elvis, this young man fashioned an atmosphere of possibility, of hot summer nights, romance, sensuousness, innocence, palpable sexuality, unabashed pleasure and hope all rolled into notes and moves and moments. It felt free and wild and suddenly I got it, the Elvis thing.
The Tribute Artist makes it happen; the audience gets swept along, and for a brief time we all believe. Maybe it’s magic, who knows? I know I got “gifted” in a way I could never have imagined. Long live the King (and his imitators).