The Day Elvis Beat Me Up

 From aged 7 until aged 20 I played the piano. I played incessantly. I played studiously. I played joyfully. I played for hours and hours. My family, bless them rarely beat me for this nasty habit. I would pound away and my Dad would sit in his easy chair on the other side of the wall acting as if he could hear the TV over my seven hundredth repetition of Czerny’s School of Velocity. Through all of this the one thing I wasn’t was a good piano player.

I eventually became technically proficient. I could read. I could play with feeling. I could understand music and most importantly I could write music. I remember asking my various instructors how good I was and they would invariably launch into lengthy praise of my latest attempt to write a sonata. By about aged 15 I realized I would never have the chops to be a classical or jazz pianist.  I didn’t have a natural ear like a few of my more talented friends.Another small talent I did possess was the ability to play while roaring stoned and drunk. So I started playing in Rock bands. It was a perfect fit.

So I switched over from acoustic piano to Hammond organ and electric piano.

It was around this time I made the fateful decision to play in a school talent show. This was a decision that was directly opposed to my usual High School attitude. I wasn’t a “Joiner”. Looking back I haven’t a clue why I filled out the form and committed myself to play 3 minutes of an original composition.  I decided to play a piece that was an homage to Philip Glass. It was a study of minimalism where a repetitious, repeating line is changed a note at a time so that it starts to morph into something different. My composition instructor, an old R & B organist lobbied me to change to one of my sonatas. I stubbornly refused. He, of course, had much more common sense than I did.

The student body was not going to tolerate a sonata, much less a minimalist tone poem in E flat.

The bill for that show was a usual mix of wierd solo instrumentals, baton twirlers (an odd,odd interest. Do they grow up to be plate spinners?), and even a rock band. The day before the show, during the rehearsal I was approached by Maddy. She was a Freshman, I was a Junior.  It seems that her accompanist had backed out at the last-minute.  She was pretty girl just coming into puberty. As usual I was helplessly unprepared for a petition for a favor from a woman. She asked if I could read sheet music. I said yes. She asked if I would accompany her singing. I said Yes. I failed to ask more questions or suggest that we practice together.  I was running a 16 year olds brain so there was lots of room for error. I remember being vaguely worried that either of the two girls I had a crush on would somehow be jealous of me appearing with her. Then I wondered if either of the girls knew I existed.

Playing backup for Maddy was easy since she followed on directly after my slot. I took the stage with a knot in my stomach. It evaporated as soon as I hit the first arpeggio. This was a phenomenon I would come to know very well in later life. Once I was playing I was fine.  I wound my way through the piece which sounded relatively simple but was in fact torturous to remember and play. The whole later half was built around cascading 9ths. Which for all of you non pianists out there – they can be a bitch to play.  I made it through without a gaff and even was knocking out some style by the end. I finished, and nothing. For a painful moment there was silence, then tepid, hesitant polite applause.  I started to sweat.

Maddy walked out and handed me the sheet music.  I set it on the music stand before me and immediate realized that  I had made a mistake. The song Maddy choose was “You light up my life” a Joe Brooks composition sung by, ee gads, Debbie Boone.  This record was riding high in the charts at the time.

I opened the sheet music and nodded to her. She nodded back and I tapped out a count with my foot and started in on the opening chords. Before she even opened her mouth I knew we were in big trouble. This was undoubtedly the most uncool song of the year. As I glanced at the vocal line my stomach knotted up again. One of my chores with my composition teacher was to play accompaniment for two vocalists he trained. I was never particularly good at it but I could always get by well enough.  Through this experience I had picked up the talent of glancing at a musical score and being able to judge its difficulty immediately.  Well Maddy had picked a real corker.  It called for a three, maybe  four octave rang to be sung correctly. Once again for the non musicians out there, that’s a rare, rare ability. It means you have to be able to sing across four whole octaves of the piano on pitch.  Tough, really tough.

So Maddy let’s loose and on the first note she’s completely flat.  As she starts to bellow through the song I realize that she can’t sing. By that I mean she couldn’t carry a tune, sing on key, sight sing a score or sing a score from memory. In short she couldn’t sing a lick.  Why had she gotten herself into this?  Why didn’t someone tell this person that she couldn’t sing?

Oblivious to her failings Maddy pressed on with massacring the song.  It was only moments into the first verse when the first catcall came.

“You Suck! Get off the Stage!” someone kindly chimed in. That was the signal for general chaos. I started to play louder in an attempt to cover some of the insults and talking. Mr. Stevens, the junior physics teacher, trundled up and down the aisles sweating profusely as he waved his fat finger at various malcontents and rascals. As the insults grew more numberous and louder he started to pantomime death and dismemberment at individual students to keep a full-blown riot at bay.

Then it happened. We were about two-thirds of the way through the song I slammed out a huge clam. I think I intended to play Eb but instead hit G major or C sharp or some other embarrassing chordal .dissonance  Maddy’s eyes had been brimming with tears since the first catcall and now the flood began. “I hate you!” she whispered savagely as she hurried off the stage to hide her tears.

I tried to resolve the chord change I had been stuck with and then quickly exited in the opposite direction. Fo course, I felt angry for not realizing that the other accompanist had probably quit for a reason.  But overall I was angry at the other kids for the way they treated her and i felt disappointed in myself for letting her down and not playing flawlessly. The error I made was minor. Had it occured in the midst of a successful rendition of that saccharine Debbie Boone song it would have passed largely unnoticed.

It was within the hour that I heard the fateful phrase that would haunt me for the next few days.

“Maddy’s brother is looking for ya!” someone helpfully informed me.

If you’re male and you went to public school in the USA in the 20th century then you will remember having anyone’s brother “looking for you” was not a good thing.

Now I wasn’t a coward. I wasn’t a scrapper either. Although I was in my second year of Aikido lessons and had defended myself from my violent older brother for ten years I was not a fighter. Maddy’s brother by comparison was quite a bit larger than me was a work out kinda guy and more to the point was three or four years older than me.  He was actually an adult! In the land of teen fears all bluster melts away in the face of an actual adult.

in the face of this imminent threat I quickly went to Plan B. Every kid has a plan B. It is the plan of improvised safety.  It has many strategies including but not limited to feigned illness, sudden affection for your father’s presence, long unused paths through the local wilderness, safety in numbers and attempting to hide a sword in your locker.

In the end Tony, ’cause, of course, Maddy’s older brother was inevitably a Big Mean Tony, was persistent. He got the drop on me as I left Spanish class.  I felt myself grabbed forcefully from behind. He pulled me out of the crowd spun me to face the wall and ground my front into the concrete block.  Then he spun me around to face him and held me up off the ground by the throat.

“You fucked up my little sister’s show asshole.”

What do you say to that? I remember thinking I can’t believe it, I’m getting the crap kicked outta me in front of most of the junior class by a guy in a CAPE. Yup, that’s right. He was wearing a long white cape fringed in sequins and rhinestones. This makes perfect sense since he was clad in a form fitted white body suit also covered in sequins and rhinestones. And even this made perfect sense since Tony was one of the world’s first Elvis Presley imitators. So in an effort to get the picture correct here I was being throttled by what appeared to be Elvis Presley. This was the Elvis from the Fat Elvis phase not the lean, mean blue jean Elvis. No, no, that would have been a favor to me. No I had to get beat up by fat old Elvis.

Someone shouted, “Kick his ass Elvis!!”

“I didn’t!! Honest Tony! Really I d-d-d-didn’t” I squeaked.

“Oh yeah? How’s that?”

“I tried to help her. That’s why I agreed to play back up for her. I was the only there that didn’t laugh at her!”  His glare softened.

“Is that so?”

“Yeah, honest. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt Maddy. Honest Tony” I pleaded.

” Ok.” He agreed, his anger fading as quickly as it had come. “It just kills me to think of all those people laughing at her. She’s just a kid and she loves to sing. Why would they have to laugh and be mean.”

“I don’t know. People are always mean. You know how it is..”

He shot a look at me. Of course he knew. He had decided to start imitating Elvis in 1970, eons before anyone could understand why anyone would ever do such a thing.  He had stuck to it and now was finding gigs since Elvis had died 8 months before. Tony’s star was rising. He would go on to be a sensation in Vegas,. He would live in a copy of Graceland and  drive a Stutz Blackhawk just like the King but all of that lay in the future as we stood there in the river of kids making their way to class.  Here and now he was just a big brother doin’ his best to undo a crushing blow to his dear little sisters hopes.

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

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~ by Brad Morrison on March 7, 2010.

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