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Stir it up: A life incomparable



I came across a post on Facebook that I found pretty interesting not long ago. Elayne Sikelianos, on the occasion of her 72nd birthday, posted: "Now that I'm long-in-the-tooth ... I'll share some amazing things I've done."

What first attracted me was the freedom that she exuded because of her age — the sense of "I'm too old for this to matter and I don't care." Then a heck of a tale unfolded. Sikelianos had been a driver for John Lee Hooker, and fed a not-yet-big-time Frank Zappa a couple of plates of her enchiladas at a Halloween party once. She dropped Owsley acid that she got from a friend who was an early roadie for the Grateful Dead, and sang in a "We Shall Overcome" singalong led by Pete Seeger. She got an Attic Bar T-shirt signed by B.B. King, and served a carryout at the Pegasus restaurant in Greektown to Isaac Hayes. She also tells the tale of saving her boyfriend's life when he fell over the side of a cliff and was impaled on a steel rod coming out of a seawall.

It was all pretty interesting stuff so I contacted Sikelianos so I could get some details, and the story just got better. Her mother was a burlesque dancer and her dad a jazz bassist. Mom danced at Club 509 on Woodward, among others, and made the cover of Detroit Nightlife magazine dressed as Leopard Girl. In the early 1950s she took off with her three little girls in a 1932 Dodge "with the fenders patched on with beer cans. We would be in the dressing room in our pajamas holding onto our dolls while Mom was out dancing."

They moved around the Midwest for about a decade. At various times Mom was known as Marco the Cat Girl, Melena the Leopard Girl, Melanie the Snake Dancer, Elaine Marko sultry exotic, and as the Feral Child.

They ended up in California, where years later Sikelianos met John Lee Hooker in Santa Barbara when the local blues society brought him in. The band was late and a friend enlisted her to calm a crowd that was getting antsy, and to take tickets. When Hooker showed up, Sikelianos, who was wearing a big hat, was introduced to him.

"His first words to me were, 'Ba. Ba, ba, ba, bad hat,'" she says. "Did you know he stuttered?"

Sikelianos ended up driving Hooker around on that trip, and she would do the same when he came to the area on subsequent occasions.

Regarding the impaled boyfriend, she says blood was gushing from the wound and she stuffed a piece of clothing into the hole to stop the flow. When emergency workers showed up, there was a quandary: They had been taught to bring the patient in without removing the impaling item. However this particular piece of metal was coming out of a concrete seawall. The boyfriend settled it by pulling himself off the steel rod.

Sikelianos had always maintained her Detroit contacts and visited her sister and aunts here regularly. In the early 1990s, after 30 years in California, she moved back here to take care of her father in his last days. She ended up working in several Greektown restaurants over the years, where she remembered walking around with her mother and "peeking in the coffeehouses" as a child.

When Isaac Hayes came into Pegasus, Sikelianos remembers he wanted to make sure there was no salt in his food because he had high blood pressure. She called back to the kitchen twice to make sure there was no salt in his food. A boss came over to chide her for taking so long with the order, Sikelianos says, because workers were supposed to move carryout orders very quickly. When he asked Hayes if things were all right the reply was, "Everything is fine. This beautiful young woman is taking very good care of me."

Somewhere in there Sikelianos became friends with Sir Mack Rice, who wrote and recorded "Mustang Sally."

"He really loved music, and he loved to be around musicians," Sikelianos says. "He gloried in his history, but in a really good way. He would make people feel good; musicians would flock around him."

Overall this is a pretty good tale chock-full of interesting characters, but as Sikelianos spoke I began to see that this story is about four generations of women who lived on the cutting edge of our culture. Her grandmother was a theater director and a lesbian, and was married (at least for a while) to the Nobel-nominated Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos.

The fourth generation is Sikelianos' daughter, the experimental poet Elini Sikelianos, who teaches at Naropa University and the University of Denver. Elini's book You Animal Machine is a memoir of her burlesque-dancing grandmother (who kept a scrapbook). In a passage describing her grandmother teaching her to dance, Elini wrote:

"We're having fun in that way you do with someone who might punch you in the teeth at any moment. Like standing at the edge of a dark cliff, below you, the nighttime waters aglow with dense possibility."

These Sikelianos women stand on the edge. Elayne's grandmother certainly stood on the edge of culture as a lesbian and theater director. Elayne's mother stood on the edge as a burlesque dancer traveling with her daughters. Elayne literally stood on the edge of a cliff when her boyfriend impaled himself, but she's obviously lived her life on the edge of the great cultural shift that took place in the 1960s. And even Elini, an experimental poet, lives on that edge.

At the end of her Facebook post, Elayne wrote, "Feeling fine in Detroit 2015 — enjoy your life's journey dear friends."

Although she didn't say this, but it was certainly implied: No regrets!

Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for the Detroit Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator.

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