On a Friday at the Upper Hutt Cosmopolitan Club, John Summers saw Elvis. Or, sixteen of him.
Elvis was Māori. He was Pākehā. He was young. He was usually fairly old. He was drunk, possibly, or maybe just feeling nervy. He was blind, helped to his cane when stepping off the stage. He looked remarkably like Walter Matthau, like Nick Cave, like Neil Diamond, sometimes even like Elvis. He was us, New Zealand, on a Friday night out at the Upper Hutt Cosmopolitan Club.
There were lights and red curtains. Each letter of ‘ELVIS’ took its turn to flash bright on stage, and on my table a small plastic puck glowed to show that my ‘Cossie Burger’ was ready. These were the heats of Elvis Down Under, and eight Elvises (Elvi?) would be chosen for the final. It was, the compere said, “grassroots Elvis” – two words that still bounce together in my head. He was an Elvis himself, an Aussie in a cerise shirt. Before the show started, he gathered the 16 competitors together for a briefing, setting out the fundamentals in a corner of the Cossie Club function room. The voice is only 40 percent of it, he said, and your songs better match the era of your costume.
This meant that the good-time hits of early Elvis, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Jail House Rock’, barely got a look in. These were almost all the Elvis of the Vegas years, the days of jumpsuits and drugs and that famous sandwich. The first did a reasonable job, wearing a terrific powder blue suit. The second was too small for his, he was lost in it; it resembled a rhinestoned onesie, but his ‘Love Me Tender’ was a beautiful thing, a highlight. And from then I lost track. They were everywhere. Elvis would leave the stage as Elvis walked on, introduced by Elvis, while another ducked past en route to the bar. There were a few who forgot their words, and a few real standouts, including one of two who did Hawaiian Elvis. Yes, they sounded good, but it was their ease, their comfort on stage that was their greatest strength. They could karate chop and stab at the air with the mic and still look cool. Aussie Elvis was right, the voice was less than half of it.
The last time I was here, a crowd had also come to commune with the dead. It was the day of the Upper Hutt Psychic Fair. There were tarot readers, healers and spirit mediums, and a lady who could communicate psychically with pets – all she needed was a photograph. Elvis Down Under was another mass séance. It operated on a similar principle – both parties meeting each other half way. But it seemed more honest to me. “The more you drink the more I look like Elvis,” said one impersonator. We had come here aware of the illusion and were now all working together to transcend it, channelling another time, a past youth, a shared joy, or simply the apogee of entertainment – lights and lamé and soul-infused rock n’ roll. “Tomorrow they’ll do the gospel songs, and I’ll be here crying,” one lady told us. Wasn’t Elvis himself an impersonator in those final, bloated days – putting on the act so we might still have all of those things?
When Brendon Chase took the stage, the mood changed. New Zealand’s top Elvis impersonator, he wasn’t competing, but there to cap off the night. I realised I had walked past him earlier, just another Elvis I had thought, maybe a bit more tanned, but on stage he had an easy writhe and that effortless deep voice. His suit was meticulously embroidered with a giant peacock. He strolled through the crowd, his hips rolling like a man at sea, stepping up on tables to sing ‘Never Been to Spain’, a soft rock hit by Three Dog Night later made swaggering and altogether cooler by the King.
After Chase, the finalists would be announced, and we’d be thrown back into the world of artifice, admitting that some were more real than others. But I would leave the building before Elvis. I had a train to catch, and when I made my exit he was still going, surrounded by women wanting his sweat-drenched scarves. It was better this way.
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