THE KINGS AND I
Elvis and Bowie never met. In Memphis I met them both. That would make me the one-degree of separation between them. A through-line of my musical heroes illuminates the trajectory of my life, beginning at age four: I would sit in front of the small black and white TV and stare, utterly entranced by Liberace. The glamorous bouffant hair? The smile that glistened like a star? My parents thought it was the piano and signed me up for lessons. That, of course, failed. It was not the piano. I told my mother that when I grew up, I was going to marry Liberace.
By age six I had discovered Elvis. "Love Me Tender." I was a child obsessed. Unaware that Elvis was Elvis, I knew that this music was special. I pestered my father until he bought the 45 rpm record. In the dark hallway, I stood in front of the record player and dropped the needle down on "Love Me Tender" repeatedly, an inexorable attempt to somehow embody that voice. I don't remember what was on the B-side; I'm not sure I played it. My father took me to see the movie Love Me Tender. He thought that because Elvis played a disreputable guy, I would lose interest. It didn't work. My father sent off for an autographed picture of Elvis.
Then one afternoon in 1964 my father and I were driving in the car. I begged him to let me change the radio channel from the classical station to a pop one. Just as I turned the knob, I heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand." In an instant I became a full-throttled Beatlemaniac. Ringo. Putting my ear to the speaker, I would listen only to the drums for hours at a time. (Could this explain why my daughter became a drummer?) I didn't speak to my mother for a month after she refused to let me take the train to Memphis for their concert. Even though my friends and I were caught up in the Beatle frenzy, we also loved The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, and The Animals.
Elizabeth Jones with daughter Corinne Jones, circa January 1973, Memphis.
Photo by Danny Jones.
Eric Burdon and the Animals played in Jackson, MS in 1966, and after the concert my friends and I discovered where the band was staying. The next morning we left school on the pretext of selling yearbook ads. When we tried to enter the Admiral Benbow Inn restaurant, the manager stopped us, saying the restaurant was for guests of the hotel only. One such guest, an amused businessman who most likely had a teenage daughter at home, invited us to be his guests and selected a large table. A short time later the Animals came in and joined us. I'm sure they too were amused by this gaggle of giggling teenage girls. After breakfast the Animals boarded their tour bus and requested a Rebel Yell sendoff. Of course, we did. Yeee-haaaa!
I married my high school boyfriend, Danny Jones, and we escaped the racial turmoil of Mississippi and the Vietnam War, traveling to Paris for a year -- 1968 to 1969. Danny would attend L'Ecole Superior des Beaux Arts at the Sorbonne to study painting and I would work. We arrived after the Moi de Mais riots and the schools were closed for a few months. We sat on the cold marble floor of Le Drugstore on the Champs-Élysées all night to watch the first moon landing. President Nixon's car stopped in front of us and he got out to the cheers of the French, waving white handkerchiefs and chanting Nixon, Nixon, Nixon! We saw the first flight of the Concorde and Charles de Gaulle. One night, while cooking dinner on a Gaz Camping stove set precariously on the mantelpiece in our hotel room, I first heard "Hey Jude" on our small transistor radio. I felt a shift.
Then after a year, the draft board required our return to the US. Although we were unaware at the time, we missed the historic Isle of Wight Music Festival by one day. We had been staying there with friends before we left to board our ship at Southampton. Maybe passing through Hurricane Camille as we crossed the ocean should have clued us in to the turbulence in our wake but we had been lost in France, locked in a static space-time continuum. We were still more or less on the culture side of counter-culture.
We came home to find the whole world changed. Woodstock had happened. Tie-dye and bell-bottoms, marijuana, LSD, psychedelic music. Our friends were different. We had left America during the musical world of Sam and Dave singing "hold on I'm coming" and returned to the world of Janis Joplin singing "come on, take another little piece of my heart."
Moving to Memphis in 1970 Danny re-started his music career. (In high school he played with the Soul Shakers, who once had a single that topped the Beatles in sales locally). He worked with many Memphis musicians, including Steve Cropper, Alex Chilton, and Mudboy and the Neutrons. We settled in to the glory days of Memphis music with Stax and Hi Records at their hottest. In 1972 our daughter Corinne was born. As this was cause enough for celebration, this was also the year I discovered David Bowie, which in no uncertain terms, rocked my world. I don't mean to conflate the importance of my daughter's birth with David Bowie, but...
While I was pregnant, working, and taking care of a home and husband, I heard my first Bowie song. "Changes." The voice, the music, the lyrics and the first color of the chameleon struck me hard. If one is not musical, can't sing or play an instrument, why is the response to music so charged? I suppose it is an almost primal response. I resonated with that song; it was visceral. I felt the changes in my life, the world, and most of all, with this new music.
And then, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars arrived in Memphis, their second tour stop in America. No one attending any concert at Ellis Auditorium had ever before witnessed anything like this. There are no words. The energy was so electrified I swear we were levitating. The red-orange hair, the bright colored costumes, the flash, the music, that voice. I had never seen anything so spectacular. This was far grander than the moon landing. Ziggy had landed right in front of me like a glittering star, firmly establishing himself as the king of all he surveyed. The footage shown here is what Danny and I shot of the concert. We had a Super-8 camera with no sound and were trying to capture as many different moments from the concert as could be held on the two-minute reel. Looking at this footage for the first time in 40 years is exhilarating, bringing the memories of that night solidly home. Stage lights flash and strobe the dark stage and then suddenly Bowie is there, glowing magnificently.
The band left the stage and Bowie returned alone with a guitar. He sat on a stool under a single light. A string broke. Someone threw a red rose up to him. He played and sang "Life on Mars?" to a hushed crowd. This quiet, almost surreal moment is the one that I have long cherished -- even if memory is not to be trusted completely. Did the string break? Did he sing "Space Oddity" instead? The specificity of details is somehow less important than the emotion the memory conveys.
Ziggy Stardust, Ellis Auditorium, Memphis, 1972
After the concert we went to the Rivermont Hotel where the band was staying. Cherry Vanilla, who was a friend of a friend, had invited us to the party after the show. As we waited in the lobby, Bowie and Angela entered. He was still wearing his brilliant costume. We were tongue-tied, in awe, but we managed to speak. Bowie was lovely, gracious. Then he and Angela went up the elevator. We stood in the lobby and shy, awkward, we couldn't follow them to the party. How, when invited to a party with David Bowie, can one not attend?
Ziggy returned to Memphis as Aladdin Sane in 1973 and I again took along the Super-8 camera. My friend Maude Schuyler (Clay) carried her 35mm camera. This concert was held at the Mid-South Coliseum and promised to be even more powerful than the last one. Maude and I sat fairly close to the front. I had shot a few seconds, and had not even gotten the camera focused, when I felt a quick thump on my shoulder. I turned to face a police officer, who immediately escorted me out. I don't know if it was because I was polite or because I was so clearly devastated, but he allowed me back into the concert after I left the camera in the car. Maude had kept her camera cleverly hidden and managed to get two or three shots without being thrown out.
A few years later I met Elvis, thus becoming the one-degree of separation between Elvis and Bowie. Although I had fallen out of love with Elvis around the time of "All Shook Up," I was curious. A friend of mine was engaged to Elvis' jeweler and they had invited me to go with them to Graceland. As we pulled into the driveway, we found Elvis and George Klein riding motorcycles. We entered the house, which Elvis, himself, had recently redecorated. I've never read another account of this décor but it was glamorous, in a Mae West boudoir kind of way -- white French provincial furniture, trimmed in gold and upholstered in red velvet. White ostrich plume pillows rested on the velvet. I believe there was a white grand piano.
We took our seats in the dining room, which was dark and medieval -- long heavy wooden table with straight-back chairs upholstered in black leather, tacked with large brass studs. Elvis appeared, wearing black leather motorcycle gear. We were introduced and shook hands. He was lovely, gracious. He brought in his grandmother, a tiny, birdlike woman, and then escorted her upstairs to tuck her into bed. Later he asked if we wanted to see a movie. I was thrilled -- a real screening room. We went downstairs and being shy, I took a seat on the shag-carpeted floor next to the couch. I wondered what we would see. Jailhouse Rock? Blue Hawaii? Elvis came in and sat down on the couch next to me. His girlfriend Linda sat next to him. She wore a white leather crop-top and hip-hugger bell-bottoms with white fringe down the sides.
The screen filled with black and white images of Elvis in his white karate gi and black belt. As he demonstrated various karate moves, there was no sound. From the couch, Elvis spoke the voice-over narration, describing his movements in great detail. After a while, I began to feel drowsy and my head drooped. I heard a voice calling. Hey sugar. Hey darling. I never looked up. Suddenly a warm hand touched my face and gently lifted it from my shoulders and up, up 'til eyes met and noses touched. I relaxed into the hand holding my face. I gazed into the eyes penetrating my eyes. I felt the gentle grazing of his nose upon my nose. The King. Then he demonstrated to all how he could rip out my eyeballs with a single, very difficult karate move. Gouge me tender. Later I was asked to travel with the jeweler to Las Vegas to carry gems to the king. I declined.
Bowie returned to Memphis several times over the next decade. Diamond Dogs 1974. Insolar 1976 and Insolar II 1978. Serious Moonlight 1983. (Four concerts in all took place while Elvis was still alive. I don't know if either of them made any attempts to meet.) I was there for each of the Memphis Bowie concerts -- with each dazzling character telling stories through song and dance or mime, and never failing to take my breath away. The mystery and allure of Bowie was the magic of anticipating who would appear each time.
I moved to Dallas and in 1987 Bowie brought the Glass Spider Tour to town for two nights. It was hailed as the most elaborate concert of its time and an inspiration for others who followed. A friend and I bought scalper tickets and paid $100 each. We sat close to the front but over to the side. Bowie was natural -- a seemingly effortless but impeccable performance. Brilliant. I had to return the next night. Back to the scalper, I purchased a second-row center ticket for $200. That night I put on my Yamamoto jacket and took my place front and center. I thought, finally, after 17 years, Bowie would see me in the audience. How could he not?
During a slight lull near the beginning of the concert, the little girl sitting next to me screamed, "Oh David." Bowie laughed and smiled at her. For the rest of the concert whenever he sang a sweet lyric, he sang it to the little girl. What I realized seeing the concert the second night -- and how could I have not realized it in all of the concerts before -- was that Bowie was the consummate performer. What had seemed spontaneous the previous night, was now replicated down to each turn of the head, each smile, and even the quick glances to the left or to the right. A precision-perfect performance that had the effect of being fresh and new.
That was my last Bowie concert. My unrequited affaire de coeur avec M. Bowie was over. Well, that's a lie. Watching a video of that concert now, I see that Bowie played a lot of it on his knees, front and center, reaching forward into the crowd. Well, he must have seen me, right? I pulled out my Bowie albums and CDs and they are what one would expect, including the "Loving the Alien" mint picture disc, "Bertolt Brecht's Baal," "Historia De La Musica Rock," "Sound + Vision" and "Peter and the Wolf." Each of the album cover photos captures a precise snapshot of a moment in my life -- from the insanely happy ones to ones of sadness or sorrow. The ebb and flow of these memories are carried in the music of David Bowie. My life is held between the fluttering falsettos and shuddering lows of his voice.
My musical journey from Liberace to Elvis to Bowie makes complete sense to me now. Elvis and Bowie share the same birthday, January 8, although born twelve years apart. Liberace and Elvis had met in 1956, and although their respective musical talents were keyed to different generational audiences, they shared much in common besides sparkling capes and virtuosic showmanship. Each ruled Las Vegas in different decades. Bowie never met Liberace but his wife Angela did, becoming his one-degree of separation. (Mine too, come to think of it). I never met Liberace but I have never forgotten his smile, white tuxedo, and incredible charisma. He was a piano king, who played classical or boogie-woogie with ease and not a little swagger.
These consummate performers, each in their own way, leapt over boundaries -- musical, social, sexual, costuming, excess -- and hair. A rare combination of grace and flamboyance propelled all three to dizzying heights of fame and sometimes notoriety. There is little doubt that Liberace influenced Elvis and that both Elvis and Liberace influenced Bowie. These three Kings of their respective musical magnitudes could look through the camera or down from the stage as if you, and you alone, were the recipient of that grand smile or twinkle in the eye. We lived for the promise of those moments.
By Elizabeth Dollarhide
Elizabeth Dollarhide is a writer/producer. She is a member of the Producers Guild of America. Currently she is in development on Theatre des Etoiles, a French film, and in production on Motion Arrested, a documentary on the drug war and mass incarceration.
Danny Jones with daughter Corinne Jones, circa January 1973, Memphis.
Photo by Elizabeth Jones.
I went over to Danny Jones house on North Cooper in Midtown, Memphis and found myself in a living room made small and cozy by musical equipment. Danny proudly showed me his super 8 camera bag, seemingly untouched for 41 years. Beside the pristine super 8 camera (note pictures in this article), inside the bag was the familiar blue/white plastic film reel marked "Bowie" that he and Elizabeth had shot at historic Ellis Auditorium in September of 1972 along with his ticket stub.
Danny even entrusted me with the film since it had to be taken over to Pro-Video for a transfer. Also amazing is the footage of Lou Reed at Ellis Auditorium and George Harrison, Billy Preston at the Mid-South Coliseum. Maybe one day Danny will unleash that material as well. It seems when Danny Jones was shooting film, he was making music with the likes of Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson.
Here is a brief bio of his musical background that he has provided... (Mike McCarthy)
Danny Jones Music Bio.
Aladdin Sane, Ellis Auditorium, February 25 1973
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