Life is simple for the fanatic. Every moment of every day is devoted to the cause, sacrificed at the altar of the chosen godhead. What to wear, what to buy, what to listen to, what to watch, what to hoard, what to shun is never a cause for indecision or angst. The fanatic always has a friend, a compatriot, a brother-in-arms to stave off the harsh stares and criticism of the unanointed. The fanatic, bathed in the warmth of his righteousness, always has a place, always has a mission, and always has a reason. To be in such a place must be a grand thing: to have a template for every move, a fire in the breast that never flickers, and a ready group of brethren at one’s beck and call. Oh, to be a fanatic. What sweet, sweet surrender.
A predisposition to this mania must be hard-wired into some of us. Not everyone watches “Star Trek” every night or collects Beanie Babies or flagellates and bleeds in the city square. Not everyone can spend a majority of their waking moments watching college football or thinking about college football or getting violently pissed off when someone disparages a college football team. No. There is a breed, a separate species of human that is susceptible to this madness, to the fury that seizes their consciousness and never lets go.
In Ypsilanti, in a place called Riverside Park, I witnessed a mighty throng of these zealots, these soldiers in the fight. The punishing sun became a cathedral spire, and the slightly moist grass a hardwood floor to a temple where one man would be conjured and mimicked and brought forth to be touched and absorbed in hazy communion. Heathens, step forward and take this man! Believers, come unto him and give him praise! Those hungry for a pulled-pork sandwich or a tasty barbecued rib, kindly step off to the rear of the temple and choose between “The Pork Posse” or “Little Porky’s” or “The Rib Rustler!”
The rest of you, grab a Budweiser (four bucks for 16 ounces — not bad) and get on your knees: Elvis has just entered the building.
Michigan Elvisfest 2004 is the official title of this annual gathering in Ypsilanti’s historic Depot Town. Sure, they’ve covered all the bases to make you think that this is nothing more than any other summer “festival” that pops up when the weather gets warm and people get to itchin’ to drink beer and show off their potbellies and farmer’s tans and silk-screen T-shirts. The festival had a big inflatable Budweiser can and a bunch of overpriced trinkets to waste your money on and one of those air-filled bouncy rides for the kiddies. It had young girls showing off for young dudes, and young dudes trying to look tough in cutoffs and sandals. It had fancy old cars and fancy old biker ladies and a battalion of portable toilets busily consuming the byproducts of the day’s ingestibles. A well-behaved, genteel soiree. But there was madness lurking beneath the summer blouse, quietly pulsating under baseball cap and bonnet. A mere scratch was enough for it to pour out, a confessional where these wretched sinners would bark their testimonials.
Are you ready to testify, Brandon Calderon? How about you, Amanda Wilson and Daniel Klein and Jedd Nickerson? And what about you, Mary Carson? Are you ready to tell us what happened when the savior took leave of his earthly cage and whose ghost now dwells within your eternally raptured heart? Sing now. Sing to us of the rotating pelvis and the flopping black bangs. Sing to us of teddy bears and tender love and hotels full of heartbreak. Sing to us of Tupelo and Memphis and Las Vegas. Take us to Graceland, and let us wash away our trespasses before its gates. Sing!
Jedd Nickerson looks like Elvis from 200 yards away. A thin Elvis, better-looking than the original, with deep blue eyes and a soap actor’s physique. Gets a “tribute artist” gig after performing in Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, where a sharp-eyed agent sees a good thing a-coming. Dyes his blond hair black. Does Elvis-grams and private parties and is a pastoral intern at Ann Arbor Vineyard Church. Pragmatic. Clean-cut. A businessman.
Why Elvis? Nickerson says it provides a “nice consistent income.” Elvis will take care of you. Elvis will provide.
Brandon Calderon is 8 years old. He first came to the “gathering” when he was 4. Elvis took over. He’s reedy, tanned and only too pleased to pose for every single person who wants a snap of his Vegas-era getup. He looks tired. The suit looks hot and itchy. He is gracious and polite, despite his discomfort. Just like the real thing. Buy ya a Cadillac if he had the dough. When Brandon thrusts his leg out, Elvis-fashion, it twitches. Fatigue? Cramps? Possession? Brandon is interrupted on his way to the portable toilet by another group of the camera-wielding curious. His mother tells them to wait until he’s done. Taking care of business, baby. Taking care of business.
Daniel Klein is selling books. He has a booth next to the stage, which is currently occupied by a 16-year-old Elvis who is making grown women cry with his dead-on hip gyrations. The performer smiles broadly at their crumbling dignity, despite the braces on his teeth. Yes, Daniel Klein writes books. Mysteries. Elvis mysteries. Kill Me Tender. Blue Suede Clues. Viva Las Vengeance. His first Elvis mystery has Elvis investigating the deaths of Elvis fan club presidents. Klein used to write jokes for Flip Wilson and Godfrey Cambridge back in the ’60s. Then he wrote medical thrillers. Then he put out a gag book called Where’s Elvis? — a takeoff on the Where’s Waldo? craze. Read some Elvis biographies. Klein was fascinated with Elvis the man, not his music. Considered Elvis a great autodidact. The books are big in France.
Amanda Wilson is the winner of the children’s look-alike competition. She’s 6. First saw Elvis in a magazine or on TV or maybe in a dream. Mom’s not a fan of Elvis, but her daughter can think of nothing else. Wants to learn how to play guitar. She’s a beautiful little girl who wants to be Elvis. Mom thinks her obsession could be a lot worse, citing other dubious role models out there for little boys and girls. Amanda’s delicate facial features are almost entirely covered by the massive, gold-trimmed Elvis sunglasses drooping over her nose. Elvis is taking over, mutating her beauty into another kind of beauty. An Elvis beauty. A child’s innocence absorbed by the beatific master, showing her the way, putting a guitar in her tiny arms and plastering a good-natured sneer on her face. A young lamb joins the flock.
Mary Carson saw Elvis at old Olympia Stadium. Her house in Westland is jammed with all things Elvis. She says her daughter will never have to work a day in her life when she bequeaths all the memorabilia to her upon her death. Mary passed out cold when she heard of the King’s death. She booked a flight for Memphis to attend the funeral. Her husband suffered greatly because of her affliction, jealous of a man who never even touched her. She works at a Burger King, and no, Elvis has never come in for a Whopper.
Jerod Wesney looks like Elvis too. He laughs, though, when asked to testify about his servitude and allegiance to the Man.
“Look, man. A pompadour is a pompadour. And sideburns are sideburns. And I got a pretty face. That’s all it is,” Wesney says.
He wants to be an English teacher, not a look-alike. Then why are you here, Jerod, if not to join the chorus, to fill your empty days with hunks of burning love?
“I like the music, man.”
Amen.Dan DeMaggio is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. Send comments [email protected]