ALWAYS ON OUR MINDS Elvis Presley Pt. 2

33 years after his
death, there’s still no getting away from The King…

 

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

 

For
Elvis fans making their pilgrimages to Memphis,
the High Holy Days are during “Birthday Week” in January, the month of Elvis’
birth (Jan. 8, 1935), and “Elvis Week,” held the 10th through 16th in August, the month of his death. The rest of the year, Memphis is comparatively free of Elvi.

 

Conversely,
you’ll see them roaming the streets of Vegas all year round. The jumpsuit-wearing
superhero of the ‘70s takes precedence here, and not just because Vegas is
where Elvis reestablished himself as a live performer during that decade. Vegas
is all about the spectacular, and the bigger the better – it’s why perfectly
good hotels are repeatedly torn down to make way for something more lavish. And
what’s treated with reverence in Memphis is
delivered with a wink in Sin
City. How could it be
otherwise? Even Elvis’ most elaborate jumpsuits seem restrained in comparison
to the over-the-top costumes on display at the Liberace Museum.

 

The
Cirque du Soleil show Viva Elvis,
which opened earlier this year, tries to have it both ways, mainstreaming the
storyline while playing it tongue in cheek. The show follows in the footsteps
of the Cirque’s popular and critically-acclaimed Love show, which celebrated the music of the Beatles. It’s a
curious pairing in some ways, given that the Cirque’s shows have a more
sophisticated, artistic sensibility than Elvis ever aspired to.

 

Nor
does the resulting show feel as innovative as Love did. A specially designed theater-in-the-round was created for
Love, in the same space that used to
house the Siegfried & Roy white-tigers-and-lions extravaganza. The Beatles’
music was also heavily revamped for the production, with Giles Martin, the son
of Beatles producer George Martin, taking the unique approach of creating
mash-ups solely from the group’s own recordings (as opposed to the usual trick
of using the music of two different artists). Viva Elvis is a far more straight forward production, presented on
a conventional stage, and the music isn’t mashed; instead, Elvis’ vocals are
dropped into different (i.e. more modern) settings; the soundtrack is set for
release in November.

 

And
as Love followed the Beatles’ story, Viva Elvis mirrors Elvis’ life and
career, with varying degrees of success. “Blue Suede Shoes” gets the show off
to an energetic (if rather obvious) start, as the fans who have been
circulating throughout the theater leap on stage to dance around, and on top
of, a giant blue suede shoe. And “One Night” is surprisingly moving; the number
has two men, representing Elvis and his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon
Presley, doing gymnastics on a large guitar suspended in mid-air, with Jesse
falling to earth at the song’s end. But the set pieces don’t always work. “Got
A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do” has men bouncing on trampolines dressed as fantasy
superheroes simply because Elvis was a fan of comic books. “Mystery Train” is
oddly used as the jumping off point for flashy cowboys to display their equally
flashy ropin’ tricks. Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla is cast as a gauzy fairytale
in “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” complete with jumbo wedding cake and kewpie
doll bride, which is supremely kitsch, or supremely ironic, if you consider
that the King wasn’t exactly the most faithful of spouses.

 

Instead,
the show chooses to accentuate the positive, with the exuberant “Viva Las
Vegas” making the case that Vegas is the natural home for the King of Rock in a
way that Memphis never could be. In the number, Elvis is not just everywhere,
he’s everyone, with Elvi of all ethnicities, and both genders, filling the
stage, gyrating away in jewel-studded jumpsuits and plastic Elvis wigs. It’s an
unwittingly fitting tribute in a city where there are more impersonators of
stars working than there are actual stars.

 

And
spend just a few days in town and it becomes obvious that the jumpsuit is as
quintessentially Vegas as it is quintessentially Elvis. It’s a jumpsuit-clad
King whose statue stands outside the Las Vegas Hilton, where a plaque proudly
boasts he played 837 shows before two and a half million people (“Enough to
fill the Rose Bowl 25 times over!”). There are jumpsuits on display at the Hard
Rock Hotel and the Imperial
Palace (recently home to
“The King’s Ransom,” an exhibit of Elvis’ personal artifacts, including an
X-ray of the lungs that powered all those Vegas performances). The impersonator
shows all feature jumpsuit-attired Elvi, and the vendors on the street who
dress up as Elvis to attract further attention are invariably wearing a
jumpsuit.

 

Vegas-based
Elvis tribute artist (or, as he prefers, “Elvis emulator”) Jesse Garon jokes
that the prevalence of the jumpsuit is due in part to most impersonators not
being able to squeeze into the King’s slimmer Hillbilly cat outfits of the ‘50s
(let alone the form-fitting leather suit featured in the 1968 TV special Elvis). But for Garon, they also
represent the era when Elvis truly became the King. “He created what a
rock star was, with his jumpsuits and his belts and his entourages and his
planes” he says. “That’s
my favorite period still. And I think it means a lot to me because I’m just now
able to play that character, because I always had that baby face before. But
now I’ve finally grown into it.”

 

It
was 1993 when the former Jesse Grice of Dallas,
Texas, came to Vegas “with
a pink Cadillac, a U-Haul, $1800, and a dream.” He was reborn as Jesse Garon, paying his dues in the
touring version of the Legends In Concert impersonator show, before going into business for himself, eventually working
his way up to being proclaimed the “Official Elvis of Las Vegas” by Mayor Oscar
Goodman. Garon made the cover of Time magazine
in 1998, when Vegas was one of the fastest growing cities in America. The gates of his home were
modeled after the ones at Graceland.

 

But
when he tried to diversify by opening a bar in 2005, his fortunes began to
change. The bar closed just over three years later, and mounting bills led to
Garon losing his home. But Garon is nothing if not resilient (“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do”), and he’s back to being a
full time Elvis-for-hire. He specializes in weddings (“What I love the
best, because you’re dealing with people on the happiest day of their life”),
or special events like chauffeuring guests to and from the Viva Elvis show in his pink caddy – “Anything and everything having
to do with Elvis!”

 

But even though Garon attributes Elvis’ continual appeal to
how “Everybody sees a little bit of their self in him and emulates a lot of the
good qualities that he had,” he admits that the best part about being Elvis is
that he can step outside of the role. “My favorite thing about being Elvis is
that unlike Elvis I get to put it on and take it off,” he says. “When I go out
of town, I go to do a show and they treat me like a king. You go to Thailand, and
they truly treat you like a king. But if I want to put on a baseball hat and
just be Jesse, it’s a privilege that I have. I can see how it can really get to
you, having to be Elvis all the dang time.”

 

Elvis of course never had that luxury; he was forced to be
Elvis all the dang time. And perhaps
he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “He lived his life and died his death
just like he wanted to,” says Wayne Jackson, a trumpet player who played on the
classic tracks Elvis laid down at American Sound Studios in Memphis in 1969,
including “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.” “He traded a normal life for
42 years of being Elvis, and I think he kinda knew what he was doing. And I
think he loved being Elvis. Wouldn’t you?”

 

In a culture that so reveres fame and wealth, we’re supposed
to want to be. Elvis Presley
epitomizes the American Dream, after all. In his case, it turned out to be a
dream with a dark flipside, a dream that consumed the dreamer – “the American
Dream turned nightmare” as author Alanna Nash put it. But that’s also the key
to the durability of Elvis’ legend. The dream and the nightmare, the light and
the dark, aren’t diametrically opposed but inextricably intertwined. Thus,
neither the fans nor the detractors will ever come out on top in the debate
over Elvis; instead, they continue to fuel a discussion that’s only helped his
story resonate with increasing depth and meaning over the years.


Go here to read Part One of our Elvis tribute. Meanwhile,
check out author Gaar’s photo gallery of assorted Elvi and Elvis-related
happenings right
here.

 

Gillian G. Gaar is the author of Return of the King: Elvis
Presley’s Great Comeback, out now from Jawbone Press. (Read more about the
book here on
the BLURT website.) She will be doing a reading and book signing Monday, August
16, at Seattle’s Café Racer for Elvis Tribute Night & Karaoke Party, and then the
following evening, August 17, she’ll be at the Feedback Lounge (also
in Seattle), signing books and co-hosting a rock and Elvis trivia contest.

 

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