Friday, November 03, 2006

A Little Biddy Help From Elvis

OCTOBER 16 - I met Elvis on my birthday. Well, not really. Elvis "died" in 1977 - that the King still roams one of the most enduring American urban legends. It's been poked fun at in movies like Death Becomes Her, where Elvis is reprimanded for showing up in public after faking his death; and Bubba Ho-Tep, where a geriatric Elvis saves the world from an ancient mummy. Going to Las Vegas without seeing Elvis is like going to McDonald's without trying the burgers. It has to be done at least once. So on my birthday, Bevis and I went out of the main city to visit a man called Steve Connolly, an Elvis impersonator. We went out to the desert, and there was construction going on everywhere… they were building new roads, widening old ones, putting up malls on the outskirts of the city… it was just a remarkable sight. The development that Steve lived in is a lovely suburban community that’s right of an American movie or television show. I half-expected Elliot to come riding past on a bike with E.T. in a basket, or Eva Longoria stepping out to seduce the gardener.

Steve Connolly’s house was something else, though. As soon as you step into the room, you’re greeted by a baby grand piano to the left, and a gigantic portrait of Elvis on the right wall. Steve, aside from being an Elvis impersonator, is also a painter and the portrait on the wall, along with other paintings in the house, were all his. Behind the piano were different Steve Connolly-as-Elvis memorabilia, like newspaper clippings, playbill flyers, and a life-sized statue of Elvis playing the guitar. It was a surreal experience, starting from the time that Steve opened the door for us… it’s not everyday that you knock on Elvis’ door, after all. It was somewhat disconcerting to be greeted by a man with a cemented mile-high coiffure and large, upturned collar in the middle of the desert. I think Bevis a little frightened by the whole introduction. It was bizarre and cool at the same time.

Steve took us on a quick tour of his house, which included a guitar-shaped swimming pool. He considers himself a serious musician, and it shows. He has a guitar collection that includes a $6,000 Gibson replica of one of Elvis’ guitars. He had originally been in his own rock band from his hometown in Massachusetts when a man, after seeing him do an Elvis cover, approached him and told him he should just become an Elvis impersonator. He had strong objections to it – he was determined to be a rock star, for crying out loud – but his mind started to change when, trying it out, a gig transformed him from a $100 a night band frontman to a $1000 Elvis impersonator. The rest is history. Steve went on to become one of America’s most popular Elvises, winning awards and getting the Las Vegas’ press’ vote as Best Elvis. In a town with over 100 Elvis impersonators, that’s saying something.

We asked Steve what the requirements were on becoming Elvis and the first thing he mentioned was the hair, “no hair, no gig baby!” And he was right! The hair is huge. Literally. It was tall enough to house a dwarf. The first thing that people notice is the hair, and once you get that right, Elvis is much easier to accomplish. The next step to imitating Elvis is the lip, an upwards curl on either side of the upper lip that Steve did with ease and Bevis almost had an aneurysm trying to imitate. People always ask for the lip curl, Steve said, so it’s kind of required if you want to be the kind of Elvis who’ll be meeting and greeting. The third requirement to becoming Elvis is what Steve calls the ‘wiggle’, or the moves of Elvis “the Pelvis”. He pointed out that Elvis was very asymmetrical, demonstrating that symmetrical movements just turn out goofy while Elvis’ moves were carefully designed to be uneven and consequently sexy. The fourth requirement is to be able to sing on key, which is something of a no-brainer unless you’re only going to be Elvis for Halloween (which is just around the corner, by the way…). If I recall correctly, the fifth requirement is the hands, since Elvis loved to gesticulate and he had his own brand of Elvis Karate. The man had a Black Belt in Karate, which lent well to his on-stage kicks and gestures.

Meeting Elvis wasn’t the most bizarre part of the night, however. Our mission that day was to experience Elvis… and the experience just wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t actually become Elvis! So Bevis agreed – ok, I cajoled him to do it – to let Steve transform him into The King for one day. Armed with over five kinds of industrial hair sprays, Steve proceeded to mould Bevis’ otherwise straight and flat hair into the world’s most recognizable hairstyle. There simply are no words to describe the transformation of a small Asian man into America’s biggest rock and roll icon. You guys simply have to watch the show. It’s gold.

Steve then invited us to watch his show at the Fitzgerald, which is one of the older hotels in Las Vegas on Fremont street. When you go to The Fitz, as its fondly nicknamed, you get the feel of an older, more relaxed Las Vegas. It’s almost sad, actually, almost as if Las Vegas is moving and growing faster than the Fitz can move, and is being left behind in another era. Old Las Vegas. The show itself was a lot of fun, though… Steve was really something to watch. I was never a big Elvis fan, but watching his show really enlightened me about why Americans hold on to Elvis like a national treasure. It was revelatory. Elvis Presley was a true American artist, someone who shaped the way Americans think and act – being banned from television just because of the way he moves his hips! – Elvis IS America. And it was breathtaking. I appreciated the way Steve explained it… he wasn’t an impersonator. He was paying homage to a great American artist, and you felt his gratitude exude from him every time he spoke about the King. For the first time since arriving in the United States, I caught a glimpse of the American Dream. And it was beautiful.

PS – The other TJs gave me a fried Twinkie for my birthday. These fat bombs have held a special place in my heart since I read about Twinkies on the back of the comic books that I read as a kid. The ads would depict some super-villain about to perform a dastardly deed and a super-hero would swoop in and throw Twinkies at him, at which point the villain would drop whatever he was doing and revel in the delicious taste of the Twinkies. When I was in America twenty years ago, I stuffed my face with Twinkies because of those comic book ads. I am 12 years old again, and life is good.

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