“Who’s Elvis Presley?” That’s right up there with “Yeah, those are the two Amish guys who beat the crap out of me” and “Sorry, we’re all sold out of the Iron Butterfly box set” when it comes to utterances you’re least likely to overhear. Elvis Presley awareness is in our DNA; through some genetic voodoo, people are born knowing who Elvis is. He is arguably the most celebrated American icon, definitely the most impersonated. But why? It’s far from an original question, but it remains a valid one.
“He possessed not just the voice and the looks,” answers Jay Thurman, self-described “singer/guitarist guy” for Richmond, Va.’s Octane Saints, “he also oozed charisma. And his story is amazing: a poor Southern boy becomes the biggest thing in the world with all the fame and riches.” Mike Niles, leader of Flathead Mike and the Mercurys from Atlanta, paints Elvis as a figure for the ages: “His music and imagery have both aged very well. Many times when you look back at certain musicians, their sound and look pigeonhole them into a certain time, often to a slightly embarrassing end. Not so with Elvis.”
“Elvis meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” is how Jimmy Psycho of NYC-based Psychocharger begins his take on Elvis’ apparent eternal impact. “(He’s) remained a working class hero, a man who rose from obscurity. He molded his success from so many American elements: country, blues, and rock; Memphis, Hawaii, Vegas!” As Psycho (yeah, it felt a little weird to type that) continues, his words hint at another undeniable element of Presleyhood: the leather jacket Elvis/jumpsuit Elvis dichotomy. “Without any of the special privileges his celebrity status might have afforded him, he honorably served his country in the U.S. Army, had millions of women scream over him, had one hell of a car collection, and shot up TV sets with the nearest handgun,” offers Psycho. “(He’s also) one of few men who can encrust himself in rhinestones and still look cool.”
And the El Caminos’ Craig Chmielewski does his best to sum it all up in one action-packed sentence: “Elvis was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, the epitome of charisma, and just all around badass–not to mention one of the great singers of all time and the ultimate American success story.”
The Octane Saints, Flathead Mike and the Mercurys, Psychocharger, and the El Caminos are among the 20 acts taking part in the 6th annual Elvisfest, with the action flip-flopping, from set to set, between Local 506 and the neighboring North Carolina Sports Bar. The man behind Elvisfest is David Quick, formerly of the band Jack Black and currently the member of, depending on the phase of the moon, anywhere from three to five Triangle bands. Quick has his own thoughts on the Elvis question, recognizing that there are different Elvises that mean different things to different people.
“To the majority of people, he’s known as sort of a buffoon,” suggests Quick, thinking specifically of the Vegas-era Presley. “In that way, he’s now kind of a kitschy part of our culture.” But to another group of folks, perhaps best represented by 20 bands pilgrimaging to Chapel Hill to pay their musical respects, Elvis is much more. “The early Elvis is still, I think, really powerful among musicians–especially in this crowd,” Quick says. “You put on the Sun Sessions LP, it just hits you right away. It just pours out.”
The inaugural Elvisfest was held in New York City in ’98 when a Jack Black CD release show coincided with Elvis Presley’s January 8th birthday. Quick and the band decided to make that gig a celebration of Elvis. “Everybody seems to be aware of Elvis in August, (which is) when he died. That’s when they have that big thing in Memphis, and thousands of people come from all over the world,” notes Quick. “But it’s like, What about when he was born? That’s what really matters to me.” When Jack Black relocated to Chapel Hill, they brought the idea with them. The format is straightforward: all the bands have to play at least two Elvis songs if they want to get paid, and they fill in the rest of their 40-minute sets with their own music. “The correlation is, in my opinion, look what Elvis started, and look at how many different directions it’s gone,” shares Quick. “You don’t get much more different than, say, TCB–which is my band and which is all Elvis–and, say, Billy Joe Winghead. They’re up there with a theremin singing about homosexual liaisons in rest stops on the highway.”
As you’d expect, more than a couple of the participants fly under the ‘billy banner, be it the old-school rockabilly of locals the Straight 8’s or Brooklyn’s Blind Pharoahs, or Psychocharger’s “psycho-raw-kill-billy” (Psycho cites Presley’s ’50s stuff with its “raw energy of stripped-down guitars” as a major influence). But there’s also the catchy hard rock of Buzzsawyer, the metal leanings of the Crank County Daredevils and Bitch, and the anything-goes magic of Dexter Romweber.
This diversity is important to Quick, his reasoning being that Elvis liked all types of music. “He was a better gospel singer than he was a rock ‘n’ roll singer,” says Quick. “If I had a gospel band that’d be willing to share the bill with a band that sings about gay sex at rest stops, I may have them on there too.”
Elvis also liked his peanut butter and banana sandwiches, so they’ll be for sale at the Sports Bar’s grill. And in addition to wares for your stomach, there will be some for your mantle, or wherever you’re most likely to display an Elvis head. Derek–no last name offered–will be attending from New Jersey with Elvis heads in tow. (You can do some preparatory window-shopping at www.elvisdisease.com.) As he explains, “I got started because I was planning on making some cool gifts for friends. Other people saw them and they wanted the Elvis too–and these folks were willing to pay. End of story.” Among Derek’s favorites are ElvisChrist, Smellvis (“Put anything in a gas mask, I get all ga-ga”) and Aquavelvis.
It only seems fair that Derek also get to field the Elvis question. “Beats the hell out of me, man. Might have something to do with his wearing capes.”