When I was on the cusp of 20, we went to see the Elvis impersonators. I was there with an ex and his whole family. Some of their friends came, too, and they talked for weeks about “going to see Elvis.”
I was so unimpressible at that age. The last time Elvis actually performed in Richmond, VA it wasn’t in the suburbs and it was 1976, I knew. June, 1976 to be exact.
What I didn’t understand at the time was how it wasn’t a performance, but a feeling they were going to see. It was about reliving a moment when rock ‘n’ roll was new. Everything was new because they were young.
There were two impersonators on that evening: a younger one dubbed “The Heart of Elvis” and an older ‘70s-era Elvis called “The True Voice of Elvis.” The crowd screamed for the first one, but when the second came on stage they erupted, rushed to the stage and clambered for towels and teddy bears “The Voice of Elvis” tossed off the stage after wiping his brow with them. That man’s name is Doug, I remember thinking, from my seat way back in the theater. You’re screaming for a sweaty teddy bear from Doug Church.
It was around that point I wondered what I was doing there with people who built Elvis shrines in their dens. They’re the same people who made Graceland the second most-visited home in America. But nostalgia, even the invented kind, is a powerful thing. One woman at the show couldn’t have been more than five years old when Elvis last performed, but she was screaming along with the loudest of them. And I get it. I go see an ‘80s cover band every couple of months and it’s the same. I didn’t live through the ‘80s. I write first drafts on a typewriter. It’s an image that feels safe and familiar.
Central to Elvis is the image of Elvis. When you think of Elvis, do you think of peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwiches? Do you think of lounge suits and the room where legends die? But people forget that his early recordings were damn good. It’s easy to remember the rhinestone suits. It’s hard to give oneself over to the authenticity of his early years and love it, which is what I didn’t get at that moment with the Elvis impersonators.
I thought about that night a lot in the years following. And I started listening to Elvis, really listening for the first time. Doug was fine, but I became curious about the frenzy of it all. I listened to the hits over and over before settling into 1999’s Sunrise, comprised mostly of his Sun Studios recordings from 1953 to 1955. Some call the first track, Elvis’s first record release, “That’s All Right,” the real emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe that's true. But it 's more rockabilly than strictly rock 'n' roll, and too distinct to just be part of something bigger.
“That’s All Right” was the recording that started the fervor we associate with his shows, with Doug, with the kind of screaming and single-minded adoration reserved for the Beatles at Shea Stadium. The story goes that Elvis Presley was in the studio, tooling around with the Arthur Crudup song when producer Sam Phillips told him and the band to “back up and do it again.” And he found his sound. It’s a great song, one that demands movement and repeated, obsessive listening.
Obsession is a funny thing. Doug’s fans have an excess of it. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with so many things. I obsessed over my mandolin even though I wasn’t any good at playing it. I was obsessed with music videos, less as I approached teenagerdom with Tim McGraw and more with My Chemical Romance. Gilmore Girls was on ABC Family every afternoon at 5 p.m. and I had to catch it every day. When I didn’t, it was a VERY BAD DAY. And growing up, I was growing out of my Lord of the Rings obsession and growing into one with boys and how much I could drink and my horse and low-cut Mudd jeans.
I was in love with everything outside of myself. And it’s only looking back at photos of this 15-year-old with her horse in those low-cut Mudd jeans that I really love her. It’s easy to forget how uneasy it felt to be in that skin and how I wanted so badly an identity that was clearly defined by my favorite band at that moment. By a genre. By a scene.
I want to tell her easy definitions aren’t necessary for anyone to love her. I want to tell her that she could contain a bounty of obsessions and not wither from the energy of it all. And to go a little lighter on the eyeliner.
Of course, there’s another picture of her out there, five years later in between two Elvis impersonators. It’s likely on a digital camera owned by the family of someone I wasn’t obsessed with. That was the real tragedy of her, dulling that obsessive spirit.
That’s not what it’s like for the fans of Elvis who have now become fans of Doug. They’ve never lost the obsessive spirit. They remember a time when their knees didn’t hurt and an entire life was undetermined before them. They remember the first listen of a fine record at 15 years old. There was this new sound in the air in ’55 and an entire generation had a collective identity through music.
What’s incredible about Sunrise is hearing how this new sound evolved. Elvis must have felt strange in that skin, too, on the verge of his artistic identity. Along with the studio cuts, Sunrise includes alternate takes and the 1953 recording he made for his mother shortly after graduating high school. It’s on the B-side, these alternate recordings. The slow version of “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” is my favorite of the two. There’s a roughness to the playing in “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way,” and an awkwardness in “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You.” They’re punctuated with comments from the sound booth. Live performances round out the album.
“That’s All Right” appears three times and it feels new each time it comes on.
Doug’s fans, they’re the ones who get what’s rising up in this album and they’re cheering for the precipice of what’s to come after ‘55. They get what I’m feeling, and for them when everything else feels dull, when the new things aren’t new—when cutting carbs, running, and a shot of bourbon don’t cut it—there’s Doug.