Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Elvis Game

Sheila at The Sheila Variations is always so nicely obsessive about books, theatre, film, music -- in short, everything I enjoy reading about.  She delves and delves into her subjects until you think she can't come up with anything else, and then she comes up with yet another handful of pearls.  Brief is not her middle name and I love her for it.  I found her last year when I was doing a little of my own obsessing about Harriet the Spy and Louise Fitzhugh and I've been a faithful fan ever since.  The way she tears into her topics with such gusto is beautiful and frightening.  Did I mention her intellectual generosity?  She'll never be accused of merely phoning it in.

Lately, Sheila has turned her predilection for obsession as well as her crackling intelligence and her dizzying writing talent upon The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.  Young Elvis?  Old Elvis?  All the Elvises. Any age, any angle, any order.  She's seeing Elvis through a prism, or maybe Elvis is the prism.  She's reading about him, she's watching him, she's and loving and analyzing everything.  Her delight has become my delight. Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (born January 8, like Elvis) comes to mind.  I still smile at the thought of him sitting politely with Bush through all those U.S. State dinners back in 2006, his mind fixed purely on going to Graceland.  He'd love Sheila's retrospective.

This lush cornucopia of Elvis has been going on at The Sheila Variations for about a month now.  At first, I merely wanted to put on my Elvis Greatest Hits CDs and reread Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography and page through a curious little number on my TBR called The Psychological Elvis (or something like that), but I was so into Elvis by now as well that it just wasn't enough.  Maybe a viewing of Kid Creole or Roustabout or Flaming Star?  Perhaps my secret guilty pleasure A Change of Habit?  Keeping pace with American retail, I got a jump on the holidays by playing Blue Christmas.

I'm not a huge Elvis fan, but he seems embedded in my life.  For me, there was no time before Elvis.  We had his albums at home.  I grew up being taken to every single Elvis Presley movie that came out during the 1960s then the concert films in the 1970s.  For several years, my mom cleaned house to the strains of her Promised Land 8-track.  ("Strains" might be the wrong word.  She turned it WAAAAY up.  Elvis sounded like a drunk.  The whole duplex shook.)

When Elvis died, I obsessed about he and my dad both being born in 1935.  For the next week or two, when my dad was at home, I hardly let him out of my sight.  I followed him from room to room.  When we went to the mall in Oklahoma City, I didn't want to shop.  I sat on the bench next to him.  "What?" he said irritated.

I shook my head.  You could die, I thought.  I didn't want to say it; I didn't want him to worry.  Even at the mall, Elvis was all over the piped-in music (not Muzak, for a change) -- old stuff, new stuff.  My father liked Elvis' last single Way Down because J.D. Sumner was doing those impossibly low notes, and he, like Elvis was a rabid Southern gospel fan.  Southern gospel irritated me, but I did like Sumner's backing vocal and my father was a 1935 model so I tried to dampen down my usual surl and look for things we could mutually appreciate.

All of this has been churning around inside me while I've been visiting Sheila's blog this past month.  A couple of mornings ago, I woke up and clearly realized that my longing for Elvis had gone all the way to the bone and taken a peculiar turn.  What I really wanted, I couldn't quite have:  I wanted to play the Elvis Game again.

The Elvis Game was something my friends and I concocted in third grade (1969-1970). At least three people were needed for the game:  A person we dubbed 'the stuck-up dookie brain', an Elvis and the audience.  The SUDB was an authoritarian figure always trying to show Elvis how to sing and dance or behave without his customary soulful vocals and trademark gyrations.  Elvis would dutifully try to follow these strictures but eventually he would break free and revert to type and the audience would go wild.  The SUDB was all sorts of things:  a minister trying to teach Elvis how to sing dull, deadly hymns in church while stiffly holding a hymnbook; a stern teacher trying to keep Elvis from making school fun; a drill sergeant attempting to show Elvis proper lockstep marching; and someone that I can't remember that was supposed to admonish Elvis when he wanted to break out and sing The Star-Spangled Banner at a rock-and-roll tempo.  (Someone's mother actually yelled at us for that one, saying we were unpatriotic, we were bad Americans for egging someone on to "mock our national anthem.")

The Elvis Game was entertaining because all of the roles were fun.  It was a laugh to be the SUDB and adopt an overdone, bossy, straitlaced tone, then crumble into exaggerated frustration; it was always good to be Elvis and be as opposite as the SUDB was telling you to be, while politely agreeing.  (My crowning success as Elvis was when I was sternly instructed by the SUDB to "teach arithmetic properly" and I did a sultry --or rather, an 8-year-old's interpretation of sultry -- rendition of  the multiplication table to the tune of Love Me Tender. I'm pretty sure I got most of the products wrong, but I even had the SUDB laughing hysterically.)  Even being part of the audience was great because you could yell and shout ideas and help raise the outrageous bar.  For example, I once coaxed ("coaxed" sounds too gentle) my little brother to don my stringy brown wig and "be" Ann-Margaret.

Sheila's view of Elvis seems much the same as our view in that long-ago backyard game:  An Elvis quick to spot bullshit and incapable of dissembling.  Not a hint of stuck-up dookie brain about him.  He was all about delight and his cool went beyond posturing; it was transformative.  Sheila is capturing this.  Junichiro Koizumi understands it.  I appreciate in varying degrees the performer who was Elvis Presley, but the one I carry in my heart is actually a compilation of eight and nine-year-olds from The Elvis Game.


Care said...

Aw! You are a delightful writer! SUDB hee hee.

Anonymous said...

Oh geez...I haven't thought about 8 track tapes in eons. I wonder how many people don't even know what they are?

Brad Sinor said...

If you are interested in reading something really unique about Elvis, check out the novella that Joe Landale wrote called Bubba Ho-Tep. It has an older Elvis (he faked his death) in a Texas nursing home with a black man who thinks he's Jack Kennedy and they fight a mummy that has come back to life. It was made into a wonderfully bizare movie with Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as Kennedy.

Unruly Reader said...

Oh, so much want to be 9 again so I could play along! *Excellent* game.

SFP said...

I can't remember if you read the Rick Bass book about the Browns. Elvis was a characer, and very sweet.

And as for Harriet, I learned about a week ago that Jonathan Lethem wrote a novella a few years back that has a grown up Harriet the Spy as the main character. I ordered it immediately and can't wait for it to arrive.

Tami said...

Ooooooh Elvis! I used to beg my mom to let me stay up on Friday/Saturday nights when Elvis was on the 10:30 TV movie. I love your game - how creative for third graders!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Thank you so much, Bybee, for the nice nice words about my site. I am so glad you found me through Harriet the Spy, too - that just seems perfect.

This post, and imagining you guys as little kids "being Elvis" or "SUDP" has totally made my day.