Aloha from Hawaii

By  |  April 9, 2019

Aloha Means Hello

The first response, of course, is to think: “This is morbid.” Morbid because, well, look at the man. A mere five years removed from the jungle-cat splendor of his epochal 1968 Comeback Special, it doesn’t exactly take a clinical professional to understand he is unwell. He needs an intervention, not another network television spectacular, this one direct from Hawaii.

The second response, after that abates, is: “How unbelievably bizarre.” Because the broadcast is madness. A helicopter circles Honolulu like a HueyCobra stalking Hanoi. On the ground a throng of gathered locals are shot from above, who we are meant to believe are “happy and excited” that he is coming. A girl in a grass skirt is dancing seductively.

The chopper lands. The same girl or a different girl dances on the tarmac. He exits the helicopter and there he is: in a paradise of menace. A rope line of well-wishers offer their effusive welcomes, from handshakes to hugs to intimate kisses. As he walks by, they cover him in leis that create the impression of his already bulging white suit becoming unmanageably gargantuan. This even after back-to-back courses of the “Las Vegas Diet”: two weeks each of five-hundred-calorie-a-day restrictions and injections said to include the urine of pregnant women.

More shots of bikini clad beauties. Still more pandemonium on the procession to the venue: a bright red vehicle, a Kabuki scene, more native dance. From the perspective of the viewer, total sensory overload. Six years prior to its theatrical release, this is an unofficial preview of Apocalypse Now. You practically expect to see a howling Dennis Hopper and heads ritually placed on spears.
 

Say, Where Have I Seen This Guy?

Understand my irreverence was never situated in disrespect or unkindness. First he was a man and then he was a star and then he was a legend and then he was a caricature and finally an abstraction. This is the life cycle of commodification. By the time I first heard the name we were well into the weeds.

When I was a child, he was understood to be comical but I did not know why. What I knew was a bull market in kitsch—colorful drapes bearing his pompadoured mane and curled lips. Cut-rate paperbacks and trading cards and photos of him bloated and standing beside Richard Nixon. Weird tableaus. It wasn’t funny to me because the joke lacked context. I didn’t know his music save for the ubiquitous things: “Jailhouse Rock” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and maybe the one that went “I’m caught in a trap / and I can’t break out.”

Only gradually could I prise out the consequence of the man. I learned that the Clash said that he and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones didn’t exist in 1977, a claim that has only become more provocative with time. My early hero Declan MacManus pilfered his name and Buddy Holly’s image and made quite the career for himself. I saw Morrissey on MTV when I was fifteen, and heaven knows I was miserable then, but still the experience represented an improvement in my overall mood. From the tremulous voice and fantastic hair I knew there was a connection. And what of the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me, a favorite album, with its cover art an homage to GI Blues. A clue, to be sure, but to what?

The other thing you would hear is that he wasn’t dead. That people would see him, disguised, in random places. That his death was an elaborate hoax, perpetrated by whom and for what reason I do not know and never investigated. It was and is self-evidently silly or insane, but it does beg the question as to how such things take hold. Can a death be so unsatisfying as to demand a retake? Can it be because he seemed to disappear before he died?

TCB in a Flash

He was thirty-eight when they filmed Aloha from Hawaii. Rehearsals were held at the Hilton Hawaiian Village while the main stage was being constructed. A filmed first take in front of an empty theater ultimately comprised much of the footage eventually used on the broadcast. Imagine the man in front of no crowd at all. White suit, ruby-encrusted belt, billowing cape. He gestures emphatically one way and then the other. His nascent interest in martial arts has become his stagecraft—he chops and kicks at the air as he sings. He tears off his guitar and hands it to a roadie.

Despite the atmospherics, the music is often magnificent. Consider the personnel: Ronnie Tutt on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, Glenn Hardin on keys, James Burton on guitar. Murderers’ Row. An opening breakneck rip through “C.C. Rider” is followed by an emulsified take on “Burnin’ Love.” The voice soars undiminished during a thoroughly convincing version of George Harrison’s “Something,” although he suspects the Beatles of having fomented anti-American sentiment and told J. Edgar Hoover’s lieutenants as much when he toured the FBI. He warmly thanks the audience who isn’t there. The TCB band rollicks perfectly behind him. 

Bloomington

In the early two-thousands I volitionally migrated to a town that for me made no sense and in this I am not exaggerating: for at least six months I literally found every conversation and street crossing confusing. I went for a scholarship, for an adventure, because my mother told me to. The campus was leafy green, the cohort large and companionable, the nights late and the drinks cheap but all the same I felt, always, like a high-strung Northern-transplant Martian. A three-year obligation. Caught in a trap and I can’t break out.

I obsessed on minutiae, as I am wont to do in times of stress. In this case the eighties output of Neil Young, which if you’ve not engaged with it, is a peculiar line of study indeed. A catalog consisting of a ceaseless torrent of curiosities, bizarre misdirects, great acts of humanity, and open gestures of hostility.

What really captivated me was 1983’s almost universally reviled collection Everybody’s Rockin’. A notoriously slapdash twenty-five-minute-long contract-breaking gambit consisting of mainly oldies covers with a couple barely written originals thrown in. The sort of thing that makes people angry enough to sue you, which label head David Geffen did for $3.3 million on the grounds that the record was deliberately not commercial, which was certainly true. To this day I find it transfixing.

Is Everybody’s Rockin’ an act of self-abasement or self-preservation or both? Disappeared is the burned-out hippie-mystic-poet of the helicopter days of Woodstock. In its place is a Reagan supporter in a fruity pink suit regurgitating Pat Boone–style takes on early rock with the caustic vituperation of a performer once bitten and twice shy. He was a man and then a star and then a legend. But in this forced march he would go no further. He was thirty-eight when he made Everybody’s Rockin’. A self-made caricature before he could be caricatured by everybody else.

Living Your Gimmick

In professional wrestling, the carny art form which is perhaps the most similar to rock & roll, there is a term of art called “living your gimmick.” The idea is that the outsized character you play before audiences should become indistinct from the person you are offstage. The closer in nature those two entities are, the thinking goes, the more authentically you will be perceived.

That may be true, but the value proposition here is complicated and the dangers immense. To lose oneself in one’s invented persona is to run the risk of identity loss, spiritual unmooring, and more than one kind of death. When I lived in Bloomington, there was a thriving music scene and I became friendly with many of the players. The mood of the scene was dark and subterranean, with music to match. A few of the artists became quite well-known, and as their notoriety grew so, it seemed, did their commitment to their gimmick.

Understand that I intend “gimmick” as non-pejorative. As a performer it is useful and even vital to have one. But also understand that once you have chosen one, or it has chosen you, escape becomes perilous. When your audience has accepted you as one thing, it almost definitely will not like it so much should you decide to become another. Critics are worse. Stuck in a moment, the choice is likely to evolve and court contempt or indifference from those who want you to stay the way you are, or to accept a stasis unnatural to the human condition.

Some of those performers I knew from Bloomington aren’t here anymore. To many of their devotees, I gather, they disappeared into legend. I mean no disrespect—they were my friends—but I’m not so sure that’s what that they disappeared into.

Aloha Means Goodbye

Ultimately, the success of Aloha from Hawaii was staggering. It is estimated that somewhere between 1 and 1.5 billion viewers tuned in worldwide, through network and satellite TV, underscoring yet again my scientifically unprovable suspicion that America in the 1970’s was the strangest place in the history of the universe to date. The set builds: a medley of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and Jerry Lee’s “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin’ On.” The lunatic but somehow predictable and rousing “American Trilogy” consisting of “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the spiritual “All My Trials.”

After the concert, the trials just increased. Dr. Nick and his phonebook-deep prescription pad filled with hormones, barbiturates, tranquilizers, narcotics, and amphetamines. Divorce, ever greater financial demands, and ever depreciating creative returns. Hospital stays and health crises. Trouble with the Memphis Mafia: Sonny and Red West, roughly fired and writing a tell-all book. Colonel Tom and his endless wheedling. Caught in a trap, can’t break out.

But there is a general feeling, which I am not here to dispute, that this was indeed his last great moment. And goddamn if the ending is not spectacular. The crowd—the actual crowd—rapturous to the point of being nearly undone. The band on fire during a truly incredible take on “A Big Hunk o’ Love.” The man himself, having something like untethered fun, as he wraps his timeless high-B tenor around the masterful playing. And then the farewell: “Wise men say / only fools rush in . . .” The strain of the vocal, and then his scarves and his cape thrown heedlessly into the teeming congregation.

And the lights flash behind him. And they show his silhouette. And his one-word moniker. And he falls to one knee as the credits roll. And his name is . . .


Some background information for this piece was gleaned from Peter Guralnick’s wonderful biography Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, which is highly recommended for any music fan.


“A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Elizabeth Nelson is a songwriter, journalist, television writer, and civil servant in the field of education policy. Her writing appears in the Washington Post, NPR, the Ringer, Stereogum, and Lawyers, Guns & Money, as well as other places. She fronts the Paranoid Style, a D.C.-based garage-punk band once described by Robert Christgau as “better than anybody else except Sleater-Kinney.”