Elvis Has Left the Building
The second I escaped high school, I went to work at my father’s full-line music store in the little corner hovel called the M.I. department, which stood for Musical Instruments. There wasn’t much to do but restock the clarinet reeds and trombone grease, make sure the ¼-size violins had bows in their cases, and dust and tune the guitars. Sometimes wannabe rockers stopped in, salivating over the vintage equipment before maybe buying a dollar’s worth of Fender picks. I invented names for these regulars—Boat Shoes, Holy Roller, Prescription Drugs, Tire Kicker, Bell Peppers, Boss Hog, Shell Shocked, Porky, High Butt, No Butt, Long Chin, Big Ears. It went on and on. I kept notes on index cards which I filed like a salesman’s box of leads—it was the kind of thing that made me look busy. Jon, a used car salesman, was hard to nickname anything but who he pretended to be most nights of the week—Buddy Holly.
I first met Jon on a slow summer weekday. I was sitting behind the display case that held distortion boxes and microphones, and I noticed at first glance his skinny legs and severe paunch, the twinkle in his eye when he saw me looking. He had a small head and face, as though he was still sixteen, and his manufactured-white smile beamed from a leathered face that suggested decades of hard living. He looked like Charlton Heston’s younger, slightly corrupt brother. “Heston’s Brother” was the best I could do on the spot. I figured I’d dig a little deeper so I asked him how he was doing.
“Just off the lot for lunch,” he said. “So delighted to find such an oasis.” He wasn’t looking at me. He regarded instead the inventory hanging on the walls and perched on floor stands, each guitar or bass apparently a little miracle.
Jon stopped before a used Stratocaster on the wall and looked it up and down. He then turned to me to ask what I thought of the current state of Fender guitars. My inexperience was apparent to anyone with half a brain. Usually such departments are manned by balding ex-rockers, bitter from their dreams dying a slow death over the decades, day-by-retail-day. Or else Guitar Center dudes on commission whose high pressure makes the teens with rock star fixations bow down and break.
Even so, Jon built me up just by asking such a question. He furrowed his brows and cocked his head, waiting for my reply. And when I gave it, his eyes narrowed and he nodded slowly, a nod of gradual understanding—he saw my point, he was being educated. All this would make it harder to say no to him, I realized half-in, whenever he started that ancient dance of horse trading that happens under the roof of every used gear shop on the planet. But I liked the attention, and he assured me he wasn’t looking for high-end equipment. In fact, he had a certain disdain for such stuff. He needed only that which “looked the part.”
“What part is that?” I asked.
He shrugged, said, “The ’50s.”
For a moment I thought I lost him, like I should’ve known this. Summer’s a slow time for music stores and I found that being alone didn’t provide very good company. To keep customers there longer I asked questions and listened. Sure enough, I asked Jon how his music was going and he smiled.
“Monty’s Classic Cars,” he said, leaning against the glass counter as though bellying up to the bar. “He’s got a lazy Susan stage, see, a slow twirler. In the middle’s a wall, and behind it’s us, every Friday night. And on the other side? A ’56, ’57 Caddy, you know, pristine as the day it rolled off the Clark Street plant. In the audience, cocktails and skirts and deep pockets. Real nostalgia types. I says, ‘What you want us to play, Monty?’ He says, ‘Jon, go to hell’—he knows me, see, we go way back, he wants me to play it all. No holds barred. Everything.”
“What’s everything?” I asked.
He tapped his temple; it sounded hollow. On his fingers were gold rings, his wrist a matching watch, digital. I imagined brass fixtures all over his bathroom. I thought I might call him Brass Fixtures.
“I got all Buddy’s music right here,” he said. “No sheet music required.”
“Buddy who?” I asked.
He looked incredulous. Then, features softening and eyes narrowing, he turned his back to me, crouched a little and rolled his shoulders. When he reappeared, he was wearing black-framed glasses with clear lenses. And there he was, Buddy Holly, kind of. For some reason we then shook hands. I told him my name and he said, with a little hiccough, that it was nice to meet me. Then he surveyed the merchandise anew for a good ten minutes in silence. And in silence he left, having bought nothing and still wearing the glasses.
* * *
A week later I was busy at my desk calling people at random from the white pages, conducting a survey. It was a slow day. The question—Do you, or anyone in your household, believe music can change the world in any profound way?—had so far failed to generate a single “no.” I don’t remember how long I’d been at it before I noticed Jon standing at the counter, looking at me with his eyebrow cocked, a knowing look that made me blush. I got up to go greet him.
He wanted a drum machine, the kind that put out basic beats—4/4 rock, say, or rumba—at the touch of a button. I showed him the only one we had, a trade-in, which made him frown. Then we began the ancient horse trading dance. He looked skeptical and frowned some more. I told him it worked great. He pointed out a nick in the corner. I said internally it was perfect. He asked if we had anything else, knowing we didn’t. I offered him a musician’s discount—slight raise of his eyebrows—then a “friend” discount. Nodding okay, he peeled off the cash from a brass clip, and then took out his Winston 100s.
He lit up and inhaled, talked with smoke curling from his mouth and nose. To some, finishing a deal was like finishing sex. “Sherry’s got these steaks,” he said, apparently meaning his wife. His gold wedding band sported a gigantic diamond nested in a slab of turquoise. “Get home at seven, eight, she’s got one in front of me with mashed potatoes and gravy galore.”
Suddenly, at ten in the morning, I wanted a steak. And the way he smoked, it looked nutritional. I gave him his receipt and he set it and the drum machine aside, business done.
“Why the drum machine?” I asked.
He closed his eyes, placed the palm of his hand on the left side of his barrel chest like he was going to pledge allegiance. “Man, it’s raining in my heart,” he said.
“What’s wrong? Monty’s not work out?”
Taking a last puff, he stamped out his smoke in the sandbag ashtray. “These tears I can’t hold inside,” he said. “I lost my drummer.”
“Did he explode?” I asked. Everyone who came in that place knew Spinal Tap references like believers know Hallmark bible verses, but Jon wasn’t fazed. Though being blown up didn’t seem too far off the mark.
“Lost him to an Elvis cover,” he said, almost spitting. “This town’s off its nut.”
It was true—for a few months in the late ’80s, Portland went through an Elvis craze. Impersonators were popping up everywhere. And to Jon, the only thing worse was a bad Buddy Holly act. He took it personal.
“Only have to use this hopefully once,” he said, motioning toward the drum machine like it was a dead animal. “Got a guy coming in the studio tomorrow. We’ll see. Finding a dependable drummer’s like finding a faithful woman—damn near impossible.”
He looked so down. Musicians were either high or low. Never, it seemed, anywhere in between. There are two ways to cheer them up. Deride the success of popular musicians or else ask them about the equipment they own. I tried the latter route. “Jon,” I said. “What’s your studio like?”
His face softened as he proceeded to tell me about the practice space he’d constructed in his garage. “It’s Cricket Studio, redux,” he said, pronouncing the x. “Cement floors for reverb, see, that sweet, real echo, and walled in with acoustic egg-foam. It’s so natural. Looks and sounds like a dream.”
“Wow,” I said. “Nice.”
We spent a moment in a kind of quiet reverence, a call came through and I ignored it, and when Jon finally left, a warm smile was spread across his weathered face.
* * *
Jon came in one more time, a couple weeks after he’d bought the drum machine, but I didn’t recognize him at first. His hair was dyed black and he wore large gold-framed sunglasses. As I finished up with Debt Collector—swooping in always on a cash tailwind, this day’s haul a brand-new autoharp and a set of bongos, which he planned to strum and beat on as his wife delivered a natural birth—I began formulating a nickname for this new shady character in the corner. Wishing Debt Collector “happy hunting,” I went to assist who I thought was a stranger, the nickname “Coiffed Bozo” coming to mind.
“Can I help you in any way?” I asked.
Jon peered over the tops of those huge gold frames at me, ran his hand through his hair, and gave a left-sided sneer and struck a smoldering pose—knees bent, hips going circular with rhythmic thrusts that were nearly violent; keys and coins jangled in his pockets. He ended with a, “thank-you-very-much,” and shot me a wink.
I wanted him to stay forever.
“Elvis the pelvis?” I said. “What happened to the Wholly Buddy Hollies?”
“Call it professional differences,” he said. “I lost the whole band.” He reached for his cigarettes, paused and let the pack slide back into his chest pocket. “So I’m finally going to give the public what it wants,” he said. “Got a gig this very night, in fact. It’s The King henceforth.”
Before I could reply, a call came through for my department and I went to go answer. It was an old lady looking for a marimba. As I tried to talk her down to a child’s xylophone, each vibe a different pastel color, I kept an eye on Jon, who’d wandered over to the guitar straps. A white jump suit with sequins and flared lapels materialized over him and he stood there as though in a cloud of gold dust. But he hated Elvis, I thought, and then gone went the jump suit; only Coiffed Bozo remained. The old lady asked if she’d dialed correctly and I said, “Yes, and we no longer have any marimbas,” and hung up.
As I returned, Jon looked over his shoulder as if to check if we were alone. “You shouldn’t miss this, Eric,” he said. “Going to give them some real royalty tonight, an Elvis they’ll never forget.” His eyes flared at me over those golden frames. “I’ve planned a big finale, in fact.”
He filled me in on the whereabouts of his gig. Being underage, I didn’t know if I could get in, though I heard the place was pretty lax in that department. I told him I’d try. He bought the gaudiest guitar strap in the house—white leather with clusters of colored beads—and left wearing it over the shoulder, his step a little heavier than usual.
* * *
I sat at the end of the half-full bar nursing a bottle of Heineken I’d managed to procure without an I.D. check. Fastened to the wall above the bar loomed the grille of some old American-made behemoth, and as I sat under it I had the strange feeling I was slowly being run over. Early middle-agers were showing up full of thirst and irony, free on a Friday to relive their youths or what they wished was their youths. Playing as background, largely unnoticed, Jon’s band on stage looked casual, jeans and collared shirts, nothing period. I wrote the tunes they covered down on my napkin: Earth Angel, Louie Louie, Sixteen Candles, Little GTO. Jon’s hair was still dyed black and styled. His plaid shirt and jeans said something different, though. His voice was far from perfect, but he belted out a variety of extended highs and tremulous falsettos, and shifted rapidly from treble to bass and vice versa. His face was shiny with sweat by the second chorus of “Earth Angel.”
At the end of “Lonely Teardrops,” I saw Jon disappear at the rear of the stage through a narrow black door. The bass player and drummer played on for a full two minutes. I think I was the only one who noticed his absence until suddenly the stage lights were lowered to only two spots—one illuminating the black door, the other glowing at the front. The band stopped, and slowly the crowd turned their attention to the two spots.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice came over the P.A. when it was finally quiet. “But especially for you ladies tonight.” It was Jon’s voice, husky and full of secrets. I saw the door crack open an inch. A cardboard cutout of a bloodhound came down from the ceiling over the front of the stage, followed by excited gasps that may have just been laughs. Swaying, I spotted its fish line and followed it over the ceiling pipes and down to the black door. Finally, the hound came to rest on the right stage monitor, facing the audience in the pool of light. I imagined Jon behind that door frantically fixing the line to a cleat, and I laughed. Here it comes, I thought, Jon’s finale. I looked around and many faces appeared to anticipate comedy.
“All the way from Graceland”—a pocket of contrived screams as though on cue—“let’s give it up for the one and only, Mr. Talent himself, the three-chord wonder who never got a song written for him he couldn’t ruin, The King—Elvis Presley!”
Five seconds passed, ten. Then a blast of music tore through the speakers before the volume was adjusted for normal ears. It was “Hound Dog,” but the band, bewildered, wasn’t playing. The black door flew open and Jon entered the light. This time the gasps were real. He was wearing the same kind of flared jump suit I’d seen materialize on him earlier that day, only of a deep red, plus the gold shades. Strapped across his chest lay an old, stringless f-hole guitar rimmed in red and green rhinestones. He swaggered over to the pool of light in front beside the cardboard image of the bloodhound, the rest of the band watching from the shadows.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” the real Elvis sang.
Sequins sparkling, Jon stiffened his body and froze in the pool of light.
“Cryin’ all the time,” the King continued.
Moving within the illuminated space, Jon bent at the waist and chopped the air, shifted and jerked in the light. He opened and closed his jaws machine-like, appearing to mouth the lyrics and serenade the bloodhound. He continued his robotic routine with mounting energy, the bends and chops more absurd and exaggerated. When a wide swing of his unbent left leg knocked the dog over, people applauded.
As the music went on, Jon gradually gave it up. He stood there, glaring over his shades at the audience and shaking his head. He took a flask out of his vest pocket and openly drank. Then his mouth moved, not to the last bars of “Hound Dog,” but to some other discourse. Veins stuck out on his sweaty neck. The song ended and in dead air Jon was left, alone near the spot in flared polyester, and I heard the end of a bitter fragment. A hush fell over the place.
He scanned the audience, peering over those shades. His breath came hard and deep, stretching his vest to the bursting point. “Sheep, listen,” he said, his voice cracking without a mike. Sweat poured down his face. “What you’ve just seen is a mockery of a man of fashion, of style, not of music or substance. Elvis was a shit-for-brains idiot, a fraud! What the hell are you thinking?”
“Do ‘Jailhouse Rock’!” someone yelled, garnering agreement and applause.
The drummer came out from his kit and approached Jon, as did the bass player, all to inebriated clusters chanting “Jailhouse Rock.” Jon unstrapped his guitar and took it by the neck, raising it high above his head, the gaudy strap he bought from me falling to the floor like someone’s old skin. The men backed away, out of the spot, so for a second it appeared that Jon was fending off invisible demons, and the crowd grew quiet again.
Jon was about to bring the guitar down—to what purpose I do not know—when a large man from the side bear-hugged him from behind, squeezed him so tightly the guitar fell from his clutches, where it clanged to the floor, its headstock snapping off. The band then started to play as the man guided Jon through the black door.
Almost as soon as the door closed, it flew open again and Jon ran the length of the stage and leapt. His flared lapels flapped like wings, and he hit the dance floor running, the crowds parting all the way to the doors. I tried to meet him there, but he went right past without seeing me. I watched him sprint away on the gravel with a desperation that suggested he may have cut the large man to pieces.
Back in the bar, it was just seconds after Jon exited before someone said—to the great amusement of everyone, including me—“Elvis has left the building!”
And I just about did the same before deciding to belly up again. Behind the bar as I was reflecting on what I’d seen, wondering where Jon had went and if I’d ever see him again, I heard excited talk of something called “karaoke.” A machine was being wheeled out with the promise of turning people into whomever they fancied, provided they were literate. A line of potential dolts formed, and I ordered up another drink, intending to settle in for a long stay.