The Night of 100 Elvii

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



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.


Mazel
Tov



Jewish World Review (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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