The Night of 100 Elvii
Night of 100 Elvii
I haven't had a better time at a "rock concert" since the last time I was in a hall filled with Elvis tribute artists (they don't like to be called "impersonators"), in Memphis several years ago. There's something about the innocent, exuberant joy Elvis people radiate when they get the chance to gather and worship their King and his servants as they please, without a lot of cynics around to treat them like pop music's Trekkies.
The occasion was the eighth annual Night of 100 Elvises, founded and honchoed by my friend Carole Carroll. In the true spirit of Elvism it's a charity event, with proceeds going to a local children's center and the massive old Lithuanian Hall itself, a turn-of-the-century pile located in a downtown Baltimore neighborhood that certainly isn't Lithuanian anymore. (I started humming "In the Ghetto" as soon as my ride turned the corner and I saw the spotlit hall surrounded by public housing, beat-down little rowhouses and a storefront with a bunch of what I suspect were decidedly not Elvis fans loitering under a big, hand-painted NO LOITERING sign.)
It's a big event. The 17 Elvis tribute artists this year (not counting the Graceliners) came from far and wide to do short sets and, just as importantly, to mingle with and get their pictures taken with the fans. They have stage names like Big El, Frank El, Norm El, TheElvisMan?and then there was Schmelvis & the Jungle Katz. There were short, fat Elvii in full Las Vegas regalia, sleek young circa-'56 Elvii, one black Elvis and those big lady Elvii. They came from North Carolina and Alabama, Virginia and New Jersey and Ontario. As usual when you get a gaggle of Elvii performing, the quality of the routines varied. Some have the moves but can't sing, some sing a decent E imitation but are too fat to do the moves, and a few put it all together in pretty convincing acts. I was pleased early on to hear one of them assay "American Trilogy," the K2 for Elvis impersonators because of its big operatic finale, even if he didn't quite nail it. One of the cool things about Night of 100 Elvises is that no songs are supposed to be repeated on the main stage, so you don't get a bunch of guys all doing "Polk Salad Annie" and "Heartbreak Hotel" over and over like I've heard at some Elvii competitions. By night's end they've gone through a wide range of the Elvis canon, a great touch. I imagine it takes Carole and the Elvii all year just to work that out.
In addition, maybe a couple dozen rockabilly, retro-rock and garage bands played; some of them were damn good. Santa showed up to sing "Here Comes Santa Claus" with one of the Elvii (Santa would later?and I'd like to think accidentally?slam a bar's swinging gate on my finger), and there were go-go girls in slinky Christmas-colored outfits. The night went from 6 to 2, and there were always three acts going at once: one down in a basement bar-lounge area, one in the high school arena-size main ballroom and one in a small room upstairs fittingly dubbed the Jungle Room. There was an Elvis ice sculpture, and Elvis memorabilia, and t-shirts, and a wheel of fortune with Elvoid prizes. Drinking and smoking were encouraged throughout the hall?another great touch?and there was fried chicken and raw oysters and hotdogs. Carole always did know how to throw a party.
Carole (who's also involved in the annual Baltimore Blues Festival, the eighth of which will happen in May) had kindly arranged for my two companions and me to have all-area VIP passes, so we had the run of the place and access to the performers' free beer and eats. But the whole rest of the crowd seemed to be having just as good a time as we were. The place was packed?Carole estimates 1000 to 1200, which sounds right to me?and it was a pleasantly diverse crowd. There were the dyed-in-the-wool Elvis fan-club types, some from as far away as Mississippi and West Virginia, who got there early to grab tables in the basement lounge where they could literally be touched by the performers. Some were Elvis fans, others fans of specific Elvii. They were mostly middle-aged and working-class-looking, the guys with their beer guts and thinning gray pompadours and knit shirts buttoned up to their second chins, the ladies in nice dresses and modest beehives. These folks mingled pretty freely and good-naturedly with a large crowd of young hipsters, artistes, rockers and the smattering of asinine fratboys any event with bands and beer will draw. There were also some corporate parties, and a large contingent that comes up every year from National Geographic's headquarters in DC. (DC people tend to treat every trek to Baltimore as a kind of ethnographic field trip.) This last group included a guy unaccountably, and perhaps blasphemously, costumed as a hybrid Elvis/Ronald McDonald.
One of the prizes to be won at the wheel of fortune was a curious little book, The Truth About Elvis Aron Presley In His Own Words, by "Donald Hinton, M.D. with 'Jesse'" (American Literary Press, 88 pages, $12.95). Elvis people will probably recognize what's hinted in that "with 'Jesse'": This book is a late entry in the Elvis-is-alive subgenre of Elvist lit.
The best-known book purporting to prove that Elvis faked his death was Gail Brewer-Giorgio's Is Elvis Alive?, which came packaged with taped telephone conversations of a guy sounding a lot like the King. That was in 1988. As the 90s progressed, the expectation of the King's earthly return lost momentum even with the hardcore believers?though a few held out the hope that 2001 would be the year of his triumphal reemergence. They based this on certain numerological machinations, and the King's use of "Also Sprach Zarathustra"?aka "the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey"?to open his shows. Now that both Tribute Week and his birthday have passed, however, I'd say there's not much chance the King will come back and prove what Tiny Tim once told me about tabloids?that if you wait long enough, everything they print comes true.
So it's almost the end of 2001, and here comes this guy Hinton, who apparently is a bona fide MD and psychiatrist in St. Louis...and who claims he's been prescribing painkillers to the King sub rosa since 1997. The basic story will, again, be familiar to anyone who knows the lore. Elvis faked his death in 1977 so that he could escape the drugged-out nightmare his life had become in the final years. He adopted the name Jesse to honor his stillborn twin, Jesse Garon Presley, and has lived on in secrecy, his whereabouts known only to a tiny cabal of friends and supporters.
Hinton claims to come into this picture in 1997, when a mutual friend let him in on "Jesse's" secret and asked him if he could help supply painkillers to the still chronically uncomfortable recluse. Hinton complied, apparently unfazed by the dubious ethics of prescribing drugs for a patient he's never met. Over the few years since, the King?"such a kind and gentle soul, always giving"?has responded with letters, cards, a wristwatch, cufflinks, a gold tooth he claims was pulled back in '77 and at least one bizarre signed photo of a white-haired guy who looks nothing like an aged Elvis Presley; in letters to Hinton, he explains this unsettling discrepancy by claiming to have had a lot of plastic surgery while doing undercover antidrug work for the government.
Hinton takes and offers all this as proof that whoever he's supplying his medications to is in fact Elvis Presley. You might draw a different conclusion. What's most interesting about this little story is not, of course, the mysterious Elvoid figure, but Hinton himself. Is he a dupe of hoaxers who came up with a funny way to score free drugs? Or a hoaxer himself? Either way, that a man with both an MD and a degree in psychiatry has written such a book is an example of the intensity with which Elvism still lives in the hearts and minds of the faithful. TCB, Dr. Hinton.
Jewish World Review ([www.jewishworldreview.com](http://www.jewishworldreview.com)), Binyamin Jolkovsky's online magazine of (mostly) conservative (mostly) Jewish political and social commentary, turned four years old last week. Financially, it's always been a struggle for the 33-year-old, who runs it out of the attic of his Brooklyn home. But at least he tells me that readership is "at an unprecedented high."
"We've created a sane place in cyberspace for political and cultural discussion," he declares. "While we are traditionalist in values, we do offer alternative viewpoints... Whether you're on the left or the right, you have to understand the opposition's point in order to clarify your own." So regular columnists run a pretty wide gamut of viewpoints, and include MUGGER, Nat Hentoff, Amity Shlaes, Edward Luttwak, Mort Kondracke, Michael Kelly, Mort Zuckerman and Clarence Page, among a few dozen others.
On the cultural side, Jolkovsky uses the site to promote a positivist view of Jewish heritage. "My belief, as a Jewish Gen-Xer, is that there's much much more to Judaism than the Holocaust and Israel," he tells me. "For too long Judaism has been portrayed as a sort of sour pickle Judaism?basically it gives people a stomachache..." Too many young Jews today "never learned about the spiritual aspect of Judaism. It was like the Jewish version of save the whales." He likens Jewish heritage for many young American Jews to an old trinket stored away in the attic; he'd like to help them see it more as a valuable heirloom. The site runs book and music reviews, bits on Jewish history and ethical questions, even comic strips aimed at "making the Jewish cultural experience come alive for the Gen-Xer."
There's one area where Jolkovsky's views aren't so sunny. Asked his take on the current status of Israel and Palestine, Jolkovsky, who lived in Israel for three years, flatly declares, "There will be war. It's inevitable. It's only a question of when. If I would have to bet I would bet that Sharon is testing the waters right now."
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