Love In the Time of Corona: An Audience with the King

I love to play the “how’d you get that scar” around the campfire. Never played that game?! Oh, it’s great. You just go around the circle and each person shows, as best they can in the light of the campfire, a scar on their body and then they tell you the story of how they got it. You learn so much about people! One thing I’ve noticed, and I find this exceptionally interesting, is that when people are telling the story of how they were wounded in some way that ultimately would mark their body for the rest of their lives, they are usually pretty stoked to tell it. This is something that was at least somewhat traumatic if it drew blood and now you sit and listen to them tell the story with this sort of mischievous glee like the subtext to every sentence was “yeah, it hurt like a sonofabitch but now, looking back it was pretty awesome.” In Alabama, they usually went something like: 

“W’ll we’d decided we was gonna make a tire swing out over the rocks to drop into the lake and was intendin’ on using one of them big tractor tires from Booger’s and, well, let’s just say hindsight is twenty-fuckin’-twenty and lookin’ back now I can see we needed a waaaaaaaay stronger rope. Johnny Ray got twenty-seven stiches and a broke toe but that’s nothing compared to what coulda happened. I just thank the Lord Jesus Christ he had the sense to crawl inside the tire before it hit the rocks!” 

There are things I miss about my homeland, Alabama. There are things I don’t. 
So yeah, Johnny Ray would eventually end up around some campfire and tell the story of his scar and when he would, he would tell it with pride. Interesting, that. The people are often able to see their great strengths only through the experience of things that scar us in some way.  I think of that whenever I’m faced with traumatic events in life and God knows the past few (read four) years have been traumatic for a lot of us. I’ll make it through these rough times like I’ve made it through all the others and you will too. I’m a Queer, Southern, alcoholic, writer, activist, Marine. I can get through anything. Hell, this ain’t even my first plague. 

Another fun game to play around the campfire is “what was your first concert?” I love to play “what was your first concert” because I don’t think I would change mine to any other if I could. I love that my first concert was Elvis Presley. No shit. Mom was a big fan and it was determined that since Elvis was getting pretty plump and sweaty by that time, my parents’ firstborn should probably get to see “The King” while the reign still continued. It was August 30, 1976, four days shy of one year before he died on the throne at Graceland. Almost forty years later, mother and I would make a spiritual pilgrimage to Graceland. We walked through holding hands and with reverent silence with the exception of the occasional whispered observation to which the other would reply in sotto voice “I was thinking the same thing!” She and I did that a lot. When I got my first stereo for Christmas one year, it came with one and only one album, Elvis: In Person at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. I listened to it so much I nearly wore the grooves off it. Since it’s a live album you here Elvis’ banter with the audience. 

Something weird just happened. When I said that about the banter I was thinking of one example where he says, “When I take time out to drink water just look at me and go ‘is that him?’” and since (of course) the album is now playing on Spotify in the background while we visit, it came up right up on that exact part as I was writing that! That’s a pretty weird coincidence! (Or maybe we’ve just been visited by The King himself!) 

I also remember that in one of the songs, and I can’t believe I don’t remember right off hand which song it is, a woman in the audience just has a complete come-apart so much so that Elvis stops singing and the band stops playing while we all listen to this woman scream in a way that could be mistaken either religious ecstasy, abject terror, or both. Over and over, as an eight-year-old, I’d listen to this woman ascend (or descend) into The Sublime and something in me needed to know more about what that might feel like. Or what it might feel like to make someone feel like that. Whatever it was, I was transfixed by it. On the album you can hear Elvis chuckling in the background. I’m not even sure what was so fascinating about it to me, perhaps that someone could wield that much power over another with his performance; perhaps that someone would give themselves so completely to the worship of another human. As I said, I’d eventually get my own experience of Elvis in person at that August concert in 1976. There were no hysterical women in the audience that night, not to the level of the woman on the album and I think I found that both disappointing and a profound relief. I have other memories of the night. This was later-years Elvis so the attire was the cape, bell-bottoms, flared cuff-and-collar look for the royal raiment. That night it wasn’t white though; that night he wore a sort of robin’s egg blue and perhaps my memory is bastardized by years of ensuing cruelty and jokes after his death (sacrilege!) he did sort of look like a cased sausage. 

It’s sort of sad that no one under thirty knows how super-cool it is that Elvis was my first concert or anything much about him really, this White man from the South singing a lot of Black music and often backed up by Black singers at that historical moment in America. How his going off to war help build support for the idea to a generation of Americans. For those of you old enough to remember Elvis, you’ll likely remember “An American Trilogy” which is a medley of “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials” which is an appropriated Negro Spiritual. 

The concert was at Colman Coliseum on the campus of The University of Alabama. It is one half mile from Foster Auditorium where George Wallace had stood in the doorway on June 11, 1963 and proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Years later, as a student at Bama, I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Maya Angelou speak in that same auditorium and my Black, Queer friend and I took a picture lip-locked in that same doorway. God, I wish I knew what happened to that picture, and that friend. Incidentally, in 1973, long before I would be a student there, I watched a then-wheelchair-bound and frail George Wallace congratulate Bama’s first Black Homecoming Queen (I know, I know) but wait, there’s more. Toward the late seventies, former Governor Wallace said that he had become a born-again Christian and that his segregationist words and actions had been wrong.  He publicly apologized to Black Alabamians especial Black Civil Rights workers.  It doesn’t really matter what I think about all that. He ran again in 1982 and won carrying 90% of the Black vote. Truth is stranger than fiction. 

Back to the concert. “Dixie” is the first of the three songs in “An American Trilogy” and when Elvis began to sing “Dixie” the entire auditorium stood as they would for the National Anthem, I shit you not. Hand-to-God, if my mother were standing here (and I’m not so sure she’s not) she could tell you that what I tell you is true. And this was 1976. How’s that for a nice little mile marker for how things were going as the nation passed the 200 year-old mark?

Perhaps Elvis wore the blue version of his famous late-life onesie in honor of my mother, to match what shehad chosen to wear.  My parents were industrious and resourceful and we didn’t have a lot of extra money lying around ever.  I’m sure the cost of the concert tickets was a subject well-discussed before the decision was made. There wouldn’t have been funds for mom to go buy a flashy concert dress and this was in the day when people did dress up for such an event, especially if it was “The King.” Like most female teenagers of the 50’s my mother had taken “Home Ec” and also had been tutored, I’m sure, by her mother, my Mama Vee, who was an artist at the sewing machine. Mom made her dress for the Elvis concert. The fabric she chose was this 100% synthetic that looked like very, very thin terrycloth. It was sky blue (like Elvis’ bell-bottomed scuba suit) and was also sort of tie-dyed, or rather tie-bleached because there were only two colors, the light blue and white. The white shapes evoked images of clouds in the sky but maybe that was because I saw all of the heavens in my mother. I almost never saw my mother wear long dresses. Except for the occasional “prairie skirt,” most of what the women wore to church in those days hit about mid-calf. This dress was long; it brushed the top of her sandaled feet when she walked, yes sandaled; one would think pumps for such an occasion but again, my mother was practical and she probably thought “you know it’s going to be a long walk from that parking lot into the coliseum and then once we get inside we’ll have to find our way to our seats and if I have to go to the bathroom or if we want to get concessions….” So it was a simple sandal, more of a flip-flop really, silver lamé, with a big clear jewel that looked like a giant diamond between her big and second toes. The dress scooped down low in front! I’d never seen my mother go in pubic with her décolletage so proudly on display. My mom had a rocking body and was full of curves. The dress was slit to the thigh. The thinness of the fabric made her look sort of naked and I thought of how thrilling that must be to feel to be that naked in public! I lovedthe way people looked at her at the concert that night. I loved that that beautiful woman who was turning heads was my mother, the center of my universe. 
In preparation for the night, mom had spent some time in the sun. She could always get a beautiful deep tan really quickly. This, she always attributed to our Cherokee heritage which, now, thanks to 23 and Me, I know doesn’t exist. 

After Mom had finished making the dress, I seem to remember her modeling it for her best friend Wanda Harland when I was in the room. In fake astonishment, Wanda asked, “Why Judy! Where in the world is your bra?! Mother just lifted her chin and said, “I burned it.” It was the 70s after all and burning one’s bra had become the titular ritual (get it?) of what was known at the time as the “Women’s Lib” movement. 

The suntan accentuated a small scar on her right breast. The low-scooping neckline let the world see parts of my mother only a few people had seen. I’d always fixated on the scar and for some reason unknown to me it made me angry. As a teenager, the subject of breastfeeding came up and it occurred to me that I had never asked my parents if I was breastfed as a baby. “You were at first,” she explained “but then I found this small cyst which the doctor wanted to remove. That’s where I got this little scar.” (The scar!!) “The cyst turned out to be benign but the doctor suggested I stop breast feeding so I did.” That was it, the mystery of why that little scar inspired such ire in me. At some point they (I hold no ill will toward my mother for this of course) took me off of my natural food source and started feeding me the milk of another animal with something from Gerber mixed in. That had to have effects beyond what is known not just biochemically but in the way of a natural bonding between an infant and its mother. 
Somewhere among my writings is a short story I wrote about fifteen years ago. It’s a Kafkaesque account of what I imagine to be the first hours of my life. If not macabre, at least creepy; I describe being brought in to my mother after the nurses had cleaned me up. She snuggles me up and I begin to nurse. But there seems like there’s not going to be enough! So I start to suck more furiously and desperately like time was somehow running! My little infant brow furrows. What had been, moments ago, cherubic features were now locked in an angry grimace! (the short story’s really more of a dark comedy) There may have even been steel teeth involved. When my mother was finally crying out in pain, the nurses came to help and ended up having to pull me off of my mother’s red and swollen breast like you’d pull a tick out of a dog’s ear! My tiny mouth snarls before immediately forming my first word which would later become my raison d’être: 


And thereafter anything in this world that has given me, even if temporarily, that sense of ease and comfort that is meant to be felt by an infant at its mother’s breast, has tasted just like that to me: “More.” 

I’ve been addicted to everything from boys to bourbon and nothing kept me where I wanted to be for very long. That’s the shitty thing about addiction, those boys and that bourbon can show you the gates of Heaven but they can’t take you in. 

There. I’ve told you what my first concert was and about how I got one of my early scars (by way of my mother’s). Let’s move on around the campfire. Who’s next?

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