Those who accuse the music industry of deifying its stars have no idea.
Jasmine's been after me for about a month now to go with her to church. She says it'll cement the relationship. Now these are two words I don't like to hear when it comes to women -- cement and relationship. See, I see love as more a fluid kind of thing.
I tell her I wouldn't mind going once, but don't go thinking I'm going to join. I like the music all right, I tell her, but the preachers ruin it for me, with their the gold belts, white jump suits, mutton chop sideburns, wraparounds. "They look so cheap and old," I say.
Jasmine gets a hurt look on her face but in a blink she segues into her conversion mode. "That's just false perception," she says. "You can't judge by the superficial, you gotta take a leap of faith, then everything that seemed superficial before shines in glory and you're rocking on real gone holy ground."
"Yeah, yeah, easy to say," I say, "but once I leap, there's no way I can know what ground I'm landing on till I land."
"Exactly," she says, then shakes her head. "Don't you trust me?" she says, and I don't answer. She casts her eyes downward and quietly tells me I might just be the type who'll never love someone tender, who'll never take care of business. Then she looks up and says "TLC," waving her hand in the air like a benediction. "You may never know burning love," she says. Unless of course I go with her to a service.
I could show you a thing or two about burning love, I'm thinking.
After our dramatic little scenario, though, Jasmine cuts me a beautiful, forgiving grin, says, "You're so square, but baby I don't care." It's my greased black hair, I know. She can't resist. There's something about religious zealots that's so sexy to me. Everything so clear cut.
I looked into it, for the sake of keeping her. I'm not against the whole idea. I just liked the young guy better. Even though most churches admit to two distinct periods, they all seem to settle on the Vegas one, the overweight, glitzy one. The "Peace in the Valley" one. I hate that song.
I read an article in a magazine once that some Ph.D. at Harvard wrote. Said the Church of the King -- Jasmine's particular church is the First Church of Grace of His Trembling Lip -- was a natural step in religious development, came at the right time to snatch up millions of disillusioned Catholics after the gay Pope scandal.
Then when they found those scrolls, archeological evidence recounting Jesus' actual death, how he got no burial, was left for the dogs after they took him down, that nixed the resurrection, this Harvard guy says, which upset a lot of Fundamentalists and other Christians as well. Some called it a fake, some tried to adapt their dogma, but then scientific proof came in showing how eternal life and reincarnation were real. So the abortion argument lost its zing, not to mention the heaven idea. The walls came tumbling down.
The mass recognition, Harvard Guy goes on to say, led to Him replacing Jesus as Christ figure easier than anybody could have guessed. What with the tragic death, the numerous sightings and visitations, the spontaneous pilgrimages to Graceland on Death Night which started up a few years after He died and turned into what's now the largest annual gathering in the whole damn world. Not quite so spontaneous anymore, of course. August 15th, Death Night, day before the tragedy -- just like Holy Thursday and Good Friday. It all fell right into place, Harvard says.
That's why the churches go with the Vegas guy. Historical continuity of myth. Hot buttons. Works the crowd better. It's true, people love a tragic story best. The King's tragedy turns into our salvation, just like with Jesus. Makes them forget about themselves. Shakespeare knew it, littered the stage with bodies. And costumes make the show. Give 'em enough for their dollar, people'll believe what you want 'em to believe. Colonel Tom Parker used to say that, but they don't talk about him.
So with all this myth and spectacle, why would anybody want to believe in the rockin' song of holding onto everlasting youth, like the young guy tried to do? He sure couldn't, anyhow. Hard to live that way, Daddy-O. I know.
They had a vote on which guy back when, before the turn of the century. Post Office asked people to decide who they wanted on the stamp, young or old. People picked young.
People had a better sense of style then.
I play His music all the time. I never bought any official church holy discs. All that sanctified crap they give you along with it always creeped me weird. I got the old RCA ones. Songs sound good still. The man could sing.
Jasmine tells me as we're driving down A1A toward Miami, palm trees swaying in the warm spring breeze coming off the ocean, that Elvis -- all the preachers call themselves Elvis -- that her church's Elvis, Elvis, told her she was a real Priscilla. Jasmine's squealing, practically creaming her gold silk pants and she runs a pink lacquered fingernail to her mascaraed eye and brushes away the touch of a tear, she's so happy because he said she was a real Priscilla. I think maybe I'm wasting my time on this whole thing with her. Then she throws both hands into the air, squeals again and shakes her glorious mane of black lacquered hair, as much as she can, leans over with her silky white blouse all billowing in the wind, puts her arms around my neck and lunges in, kisses my cheek, and the thick whiff of her perfume drowns out all my doubts as her heavy breasts rub through my black cotton t-shirt onto my chest and it makes me believe, good lord, yes. Love me tender, love me true.
I sing the song to her in my... His voice. She's nuzzling my ear, melting like a chocolate bar left in the sun.
Personally, I'd love to have something to believe in like Jasmine does, something to console myself with. My parents were traditional Christians back when preachers were still guys with white hair sprayed into a stiff pomp talking Jesus on Sunday TV. Florida was the main place for television church back then, and unlike many, my folks went out to worship and watch in person every Sunday. Part faith and praying, part the kick of being on television. I liked it too. We always videotaped, and that afternoon before Sunday dinner, we'd sit there and watched what we'd just sat through, pointing and cheering from our living room couch when we'd spot ourselves in the crowd, among the faithful. Weird how something as strange as that can be a sweet memory. The clear-cut simplicity of it, I guess.
Took quite a while for the whole Jesus thing to die. They held out, even with the growing popularity of Elvis churches encroaching and eventually taking over established Christian church buildings, like when the Crystal Cathedral went belly up after the big scandal with Preacher Morris Delbert and the four choirgirls. That's pretty well forgotten now, but it was plastered all over the tabloids back then for months.
The day I realized it had really changed, I was about fifteen. I remember it clear, this one Sunday morning, driving down Federal Highway with my folks and hearing for the first time church bells chiming "Love Me Tender."
Wow, I thought. The whole thing started to blossom after that, till pretty soon you couldn't find Jesus anywhere for looking. My folks still went to one of the last Jesus churches, a small one in Pompano, blue hair country. Mom said the Elvis stuff signalled the coming of the apocalypse, but the century had passed a little while back, Christ didn't return, so the wind was gone out of those sails too.
A few years later I remember getting a historical biography of Him out of the library, a real book from the reference section, with paper pages and black and white photographs and everything, the kind the church doesn't like to acknowledge or talk about, the kind they call secondhand tales told out of turn, falsifications and lies, blasphemous trash. The librarian looked at me like I was some kind of devil.
Book said He wasn't so holy after all, He wasn't any saint. He had sex with hundreds of women when He was on the road, wasn't particularly faithful to anyone. He was a young guy full of the juice of life. Later on, He took drugs by the fistful to dull the pain of seeing His juice slipping away.
Next Sunday I'm sitting in church beside Jasmine. Jasmine's beaming with the victory of me being there. She's looking so good, her hair in a high tease, tight pink angora sweater and black capri pants, doused in perfume, that gold bracelet I just gave her for her birthday jangling on her thin, pale wrist, I'm thinking I might convert, just for today, just to have a night of pure bliss peeling it all off of her back at her place. The deal is she won't go past kiss and touch without me first "joining in the oneness of the King's holy rocking soul." Right now she's got my soul rocking and my rocks aching, jumpy to join in that oneness, and she knows it.
All along the circular walls between each stained glass window are these big black velvet paintings of the King. One's a warm, compassionate face. One's a serious face in profile, contemplating a light from above. One's a full figure of him performing in the white suit, microphone in hand. One's him in the same suit standing sideways, doing a karate chop. One's him with arms outstretched, eyes heavenward, half circle of white cape under the arms. One's him in a dark suit, strumming a guitar on a leopard skin couch, wearing the shades. On and on, the many aspects of the King. Jasmine told me on the drive over it's considered sacrilegious to refer to him as Elvis. It's always the King. The preachers, though, they get called Elvis.
Up on the big altar stage, there's a choir of women singers in white robes, swaying and clapping, singing -- "See, with your eyes now, see, what the King has done, o-ooo see, with your eyes now, what the King has done, Lord..."
The choir's wailing this to the old tune "C. C. Rider." The band is hot, tight as Jasmine's pants, slick as her red lipstick. They got these beautiful old vintage guitars, authentic brass horns, real drums, no programmed stuff, everybody's playing for real, working up a sweat and damn if it isn't starting to get under my skin, down into my twitchy zone. My leg is bouncing, Jasmine's noticing, wearing her cat just ate the bird grin, but I don't give her the satisfaction of even a hint of a smile.
The congregation is weaving, clapping, singing. A little boy in front of me is kneeling on his seat, bobbing his head to the music, staring at me. Black boy about five, cute, got on a little beige suit, daffodil yellow shirt and red bow tie. I wink at him and he grins and starts gyrating to the music as best he can from his knees, two little hands holding the back of the seat. His whole family, sisters and brothers of various ages on either side of Mom and Dad are all bobbing their heads and clapping in a grooving, rhythmic oneness, like some kind of human caterpillar undulating along the branch of a tree. Except, of course, they don't slide sideways.
I been used to seeing blacks and whites together all my life, in school and work and the market, but never in church. It was always black church and white church. A few spill-overs either way, but here I'm looking around seeing how it's all real intermingled -- black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and there's no big pockets of any one kind though the congregation either, it's cozy and mixed nice, mostly couples and families. The other odd thing I notice is I've seen about a dozen dwarfs.
The band kicks into "Good Rockin' Tonight," the choir changing it slightly and singing "Have you heard the news, there's good rocking today!" The little kid throws both hands up in the air and is bending his body, swaying side to side at the waist. I'm hoping he doesn't fall over in his seat. With the entire congregation going at it like this, I'm feeling it too though, and that's what I'm beginning to concentrate on, how I feel good. I groove along for a while until I get this calm inside, like I used to feel when I was about ten years old and it was early spring, not hot yet, just before summer hit and I'd go outside in the morning on Saturday early before the day had started, everything quiet except the occasional whoosh of a car going down the highway or the buzz of a lawn mower far off. Balmy air cushioning me like soft white cotton. I'd pick some green palm leaves off a small tree next to a hotel pool and go around to the back of the Wal-Mart parking lot, sneak down to the edge of the intercoastal canal and float the leaves out into the water and watch until they sailed out past the docked boats. Then I'd make up all kinds of little stories and adventures about where they were going, what they were going to find.
I turn and look at Jasmine. Her blue eyes float dazed in the black circles of her mascara and they're coming closer.
"You're real gone now," she says, and kisses my cheek.
I look at the velvet paintings along the wall. They look like they got lights behind them shining through. I stare.
Then I look around at the people, and their faces are beaming and I think I never saw anything as beautiful.
The band all of a sudden finishes and the music stops. The crowd hushes and the lights go down. Even though there's some light coming in the stained glass windows, it's fairly dim. One spotlight hits the microphone and an orchestra is coming over the speakers, a recording of the theme from the classic movie "2001."
Dah -- dah -- dah! Last note, lights go up, he comes whirling out in his white caped suit, its golf ball sized spangles shooting off lines of light, he's twirling the cape and holding his hand out in the air to the congregation, who are standing now and going nuts. He's not as fat like I thought he'd be, and he's pretty good looking. The hair is jet black, he's got the big weird mutton chop sideburns. No shades. The band is ripping into something I can't place. He stands in front of the microphone, raises his arms three-quarters up and the cape falls out full bloomed. In a flick, he whips his arms down, karate chops the air twice. I'm hearing a few screams and he grins. The lip curls.
I feel this pure sexual thrill of identification with him, how he knows he's making the women go crazy and he's loving it and that transfers to me somehow, this sexual feeling, that it's something I can do too.
I look over at Jasmine, and she doesn't know I'm there anymore. Her mascara's running a little, a tear out of the side of one eye and she's breathing too hard.
Elvis grabs the mike and starts in singing.
"Train I ride, takes me to the King
Train I ride, takes me to the Lord
If you wanna go there with me,
Just gotta hop on board."
The congregation's right there with him, singing and clapping. He goes along, singing new words to "It's Now or Never," "Can't Help Falling in Love," and "Suspicious Minds."
As the last song's about to end he holds his hand up behind him to the band and wiggles it, bringing it down, signalling for quiet. Dead silence. Then he points at the choir, not looking back, and their voices start up gloriously in a capella ooo's.
Elvis sings, to "Are You Lonesome Tonight,"
"Are you holy today,
Are you going his way,
Are you free from the doubt and the pain?"
Everyone is swaying, some got their arms in the air, some are shouting "Amen! Yes, King! I'm free!" Elvis signals the choir and it drops down to a bare hush of oooo's cooing soft in the background. He points out at the congregation.
"You feeling holy today?" He's got the voice, the deep, mumbly honey-throated Southern drawl.
The place shakes from shouts.
"Are you going my way?"
A joyous babble of Amen's agreeing.
"Are you free from your doubt and your pain?"
Yes, King! I'm free!
"Listen to me, then," he says, the choir still cooing soft. "We all want a burning love, don't we? We all want a love that'll free us, purify us, make us clean, holy and whole. Well, the King can give you that love!"
Amen, King! Gimme that love!
"But the mistake churches always used to make was to try to confine that love, stop up that love, connn-troooolll that love."
Everybody goes quiet. I realize it's basically the same performance every week and this is a cue.
"Did the King control his swiveling hips?"
"Did the King control his wiggling leg?"
"Did the King control his burning love?"
"Why not? Because you cannot control love, that why not! You gotta give love, take love, shake with love, love with love!
"All love is good in the spirit of the holy rocking oneness of the King. But of course, we can't be wanton and unfaithful. As man and woman, we must care for one another. How? How does the King instruct us, what are the two special rules we must follow to keep it all together, keep it from going astray? One! TCB. Taking care of business. Responsibility. Faithfulness. Hard work. The men especially need to pay attention to TCB. Two! TLC. Tender loving care. Nurturing. Comfort. A kind word. Specialties of the female. These dictates were handed down directly from the King to his personal entourage. If we follow them, we can't go wrong.
"Can we follow the King?" he shouts.
Jasmine's head's bent forward, lines of black snaking down her soft cheeks. She's shaking all over.
Both hands are up into the air like possession blew into her and she's shouting "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!"
I look to the stage. Elvis' casting a strong look her way.
"Who feels holy enough today to pledge their burning love?" he shouts into the mike. "Any first timers out there, new to the King? Who wants to pledge a new found burning love?"
Now, part of the reason for what I did next was definitely because of Jasmine and the look I see Elvis give her, but part was maybe because I really did feel something.
I hear myself shout "I want to pledge my burning love!"
Amen's come up all around. Jasmine turns, shocked, snapping out of a trance. She's beaming, squealing, kissing me on the lips.
Hands guide me out the aisle then I'm bounding onto the stage.
A hush comes over. I'm wearing my blue sharkskin suit, my hair's slicked on the sides like usual, pomped a little on top, jet black as Elvis' and from a distance, you'd might say I had more than a passing resemblance to the King. People have remarked. So standing beside Elvis we're the two Elvises, young and old. He puts his arm on my shoulder, leans in.
"Any chance you can really sing, son?"
I nod. "Bet on it."
I look in his eyes. Steely brown, no wavering in them. Grins. He's got deep lines on his face you can't see from stage hidden under a heavy foundation of make-up, crusted at the edges around his sideburns. All his magnetism disappears as I stand there beside him. He pats my back, says, "Then you just jump right in wherever you can," flicks his hand behind him and the band breaks into "Burning Love."
He's good, I admit. After he sings the first verse, we do the chorus together, then I stay on the mike and take the next verse myself, Elvis beside me clapping. We're both on the mike at the end, side by side singing, "I got a hunka-hunka burning love, gotta hunka-hunka burning love."
The place is going nuts. Jasmine is looking at us in ecstasy, doing spasmodic little half crouches, pressing her knees together and going into squeals and I know what that means.
Song finishes. He pats me on the back, gauging crowd reaction.
"I might just bring you back another time, son," he says. Then he looks down at Jasmine and leans over, intimate, confidential Elvis-to-Elvis arm and says, away from the mike, "Sweet little piece you got there. Real choice A-1 Priscilla. Best keep your eye on that though, 'cause I've had mine eye on it a while. I might just steal it if you don't pay attention."
Then he laughs, big white teeth, slaps my back.
"That so." I slap his back a little too hard, wink and grab hold of the mike.
"Pastor here just graciously asked me," I shout out to the congregation, "to do a couple more on my own. What you think of that?" Applause comes strong up over.
I see him go white under the make up. Then grits his teeth to a tight smile and waves out, turns, glaring anger and unease as he walks past to side stage.
The band is looking this way and that. Confusion. I step back to the guitarist and ask if they do "All Shook Up."
"`Course," he says.
"Then make it really rock, man."
I hold the mike out shoulder level, do a couple hip swivels. Screams. I count it off -- One, two, three, four!
They hit the first chord like thunder. It slides up nice and slow. The drummer's got the in between beats cracking.
Dah dum! Dah dum!
I point my finger at the middle of the congregation, slow glide it until it's right on Jasmine. Give her a wicked grin. Hell, my lip curls. I turn and wink at Pastor E., then I'm singing to Jasmine.
"I'm proud to say that your my buttercup, I'm in love... unh -- I'm All Shook Up! Umm, umm, umm -- ummm, yeah, yeah!"
The place is crazyland now. Chaos. They're rockin', on their feet, some are standing on the chairs, young girls are making unrestrained noises. I look over to Pastor, see him bravely clapping along, smile plastered ten times tighter. I'm thinking he looks like what he is, cheap old car salesman in a loud suit waiting to get back and make his tired tried and true. Song's ending, I point at him, shout, "I'd like to sing this next one for that man there, your Elvis!"
Crowd roars. He waves to them then gives me two fingers off his eyebrow for show.
I run back, quick consult with the guitar player, who I can tell likes me now, then back to the mike.
"Welllllll..." Band finds the key. Guitarist nods.
"It's... a one for the money - two for the show - three to get ready - now go cat go! But don't you, step on my blue suede shoes..."
My antennae are up, nerve ends tingly. I'm rock solid on the beat, in the middle of the music, hearing each instrument clear, separate, rocking on real gone ground, just like Jasmine said. I'm cueing the band with my body to where the emphasis is, like a conductor. Like the King.
I feel the crowd and I'm right there with them.
I sense waves of tension in some of the older folks, though. The challenge in the song. Young against old.
I cast a quick glance back. Pastor Elvis isn't clapping anymore. He's studying them, squinty-eyed, waiting for the time to move.
The song's ending; I'm on the last line -- "But lay off of my blue suede shoes -- " I snap around, point at the guitarist, then turn sideways and face the Pastor.
"You ain't huh-na-thin-buh-da -- Hound dog! Crying all the time. Y'ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. You ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine!"
Drum beat goes rat-a-ta-tat-a-ta-tat-a-ta-tat-a-ta-tat!
Swiveling front I point down to Jasmine.
"Well she said you was high class, but that was just a lie!"
The congregation's barely clapping now. They're stunned, except the little boy in the beige suit, yellow shirt and red bow tie, who's standing on his seat gyrating, going crazy still till his sister slaps him on the shoulder. It's like he's waking up. He looks around and starts bawling.
I finish the song. Dead silence. A few boos. The Pastor strides over to the mike.
When he's close enough I put a hand out to hold him at bay.
"I just insulted this here man, pastor of your church," I say. "Why? Why would I insult a man I just met? And why would I insult you in your church? Am I crazy, a rabble rouser?"
"No, ladies and gentlemen."
There's murmuring, unquiet shifting. Pastor stands back, watching close.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have to tell the truth, and the truth isn't always nice, but see, this old man here, he said something to me, disturbing."
Pastor Elvis pushes in to grab the mike from me. I shove him away. A shocked inhale out there an audible "Ooohhh." One sound. Pastor yells to the crowd without the mike.
"This disrupter... he's obviously disturbed. Please treat him with care -- TCB -- TLC -- but please -- come up, somebody help me... get him off the stage..."
Several burly guys are heading down the aisle now.
"Wait a minute," I say. "That beautiful young woman there, see her? When I came to the stage to receive salvation from this Pastor, well, he winked, whispered she was one sweet piece."
Congregation hushes, the big guys slow down.
"Said she's a real Priscilla he had his eye on a while and if I didn't watch myself he'd steal her when I wasn't looking. Guess he thinks he can, because he's Pastor Elvis."
The big guys stop. Someone shouts "No!"
"Yes! What reason do I have to lie?! I'm standing here 'cause of a leap of good faith. Don't know a thing about this Elvis but what Jasmine told me -- she said she was happy because he told her she was a real Priscilla."
There's general hubbub, babble. Jasmine's nodding, big.
"That innocent girl," I say, "didn't know what was waiting. Now I don't know how you people run things, but that don't sound like TCB to me. Personally I'm offended, as you might figure."
Pastor Elvis is square-jawed, shaking his head in the negative, making broad gestures as if pushing me away with his hands, playing like what I'm saying's hogwash.
"Well, then, you all tell me," I say, "if I'm lying. `Cause if I'm not, I just bet Jasmine's not the only one, I bet there's another woman out there done to the same, someone who maybe didn't want to say so publicly before, or someone who knows about such a thing. Anyone confirm what I'm saying? Pastor made someone else his Priscilla too?"
Dead silence. I got a strong feeling my instincts are good but at the same time I'm not sure if I just hung myself. A half minute goes by. People are looking up at me, over to Pastor.
Out of the back a woman's voice yells "Yes! It's true!"
Down the aisle she comes, big teased hair, blue eye shadow and thick mascara, gold lame jacket, tight black pants packing sagging weight, pushing I'm guessing forty. A flash hits me. Looks just like what Jasmine's gonna.
"He told me I was his Priscilla too!" she says, up close to the stage, pointing a long red fingernail. Then she faces the congregation.
"When I was fresh, he loved me. Then I wasn't anymore, my sin was I got older, so he dumped me. That's not TCB. I don't know why I keep coming here, I still have some TLC for him in my heart I guess. But I'm just a fool, `cause his love wasn't tender and it sure wasn't true."
Poor old Elvis is frozen. Drops of sweat are falling off his sideburns.
Out of the crowd pop two more teased hair brunettes, younger than the first, older than Jasmine, shimmying down the aisle.
In the front row a woman who looks like the oldest of the Priscillas gets up, hurries off to the side and pushes herself through the emergency exit door.
Pastor's wife, I figure.
Pastor Elvis' looking at me. Hard. Then he suddenly swings around flourishing his cape and disappears.
I wait a beat. Don't know if it might be blasphemy, but I say it anyway, can't resist.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building."
There's a pause, then they start to laugh and clap.
One eternal minute goes by as I stand there at the mike, thinking, Maybe got what I wanted. The young one. Only it's me.
Destiny breathing down my neck hot and heavy. Clapping's louder. Deafening. I can't help...
I feel my lip curl, looking at all of them looking at me.
"But I ain't Elvis," I shout back. "I ain't the King."
Jasmine is gazing up glassy-eyed, they all are, like I'm a velvet painting. I want to run but my leg's twitching.
Shouts grow louder, trying to drown it out of my head, voice in there telling me over and over, "You ain't the King. You ain't the King."
William Routhier (email@example.com) lives in Boston and has written for Stuff Magazine, The Improper Bostonian, The Boston Book Review, and Living Buddhism; his fiction has appeared in Happy and atelier. He is currently working on a novel and a book of essays.
InterText stories written by William Routhier: "Graceland" (v7n3), "Fun World" (v8n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 William Routhier.