Your Own Back Yard – Michael Gillan Maxwell

Visual Art – Creative Writing – Social Commentary


January 2012

Remembering Elvis on Velvet and Other Reflections on Pop Culture, Icons and Kitsch

I admit it. I’m drawn to Elvis on velvet paintings for reasons that are unexplainable to others and mysterious even to me. I am a product of mid century, middle class America with all its brash audacity, materialism and obsession with youth, celebrity and pop culture. A conversation with a friend led me down memory lane and reflections on Elvis on velvet, among other things.  “Elvis on Velvet” was actually the name of our band at one time – and was always my personal favorite! I had a magnificent Elvis on velvet painting with the cheesiest frame imaginable that I’d lean up against my amp when we played out. It depicted Elvis with a single tear dripping down one cheek as he hunched over the microphone. I liked to imagine that he was singing “In the Ghetto.” The other people in the band eventually voted it down because they didn’t want people to think we were Elvis impersonators or an Elvis tribute band when, in fact, we played no Elvis whatsoever. It wasn’t that we disrespected The King’s status as an icon of popular American culture or the contribution he made to rock and roll. We were just moving in a different direction. The band played under a number of other dubious monikers including: “The Dead Salesmen”, “Watching Dave Work”, “Instant Jesus”, “Liquid Jesus”, “Night Soil”, “The Channel Cats”, “The Underdogs”, “Spark Doggy” and “All Thumbs Buddha” before settling on “Regular Genius” which stuck for 10 years and 2 CDs.  I also had an Elvis lamp that should be in the Smithsonian. It totally rivaled the leg lamp Darren McGavin won as a “major prize” in the Christmas Story. I was finally persuaded to store it up in the attic, but it would scare the absolute bejeezus out of anyone going up into the attic because it looked like someone with piercing blue eyes and a massive pompadour haircut was up there lurking in the shadows. Both artifacts are now in loving homes where they are loved, appreciated and well cared for. The Elvis on Velvet painting is in a friend’s garage – AKA his “Sports Bar” and man cave. I once turned around in heavy traffic to go back to a rummage sale on someone’s front lawn where I thought I had spied an Elvis lamp. Much to my chagrin, it turned out to be a Michael Jackson lamp. This was twenty years before Michael Jackson’s sad and untimely demise; so, at the time it had nowhere near the heavy mojo that an Elvis lamp had. My Elvis on velvet painting and Elvis lamp now reside in the same mystical corners of my memory as my Davy Crockett paraphernalia, my Harmony guitar, my brother’s Indian motorcycle and Skeletor’s Castle Gray Skull. Actually, it’s a better place for all that stuff to be, because ultimately, that’s all it really is – it’s just more “stuff.” I guess we’re not the first culture to elevate our celebrities and popular figures to the level of religious icons and the pantheon of gods. One only has to go back through history to find numerous examples of this. Porphyrius was a renowned charioteer in Rome during the 5th and 6th centuries AD. He is famous for having seven monuments built in his honor in the Hippodrome. I’m not saying that an Elvis on velvet painting is in the same league as a monument to Porphyrius in the hippodrome, but only time will tell.


Conversations at the Lunch Counter

The tiny diner in middle of town is a cramped and steamy place that smells like bacon and coffee. A few tightly placed tables, a lunch counter decked out in chrome and formica and stools with seats covered in red naugahyde are wedged into the narrow space. Bacon and eggs, sausage and pancakes cover the griddle. It’s a shrine to comfort food and the place to go for a lumberjack’s breakfast, meatloaf, or pie. It’s also a spot to nurse a cup of coffee, read the paper, tell stories and exchange gossip.

The sun shines bright on this early spring morning and cars out on Elm Street drive up and down the road in both directions. Men come in and sit at the counter, around the corner, out of sight.

“I heard Gottchalk passed away last weekend,” one says.

“No, he’s already been dead for years.” another one says.

“You’re thinking of Gotsill, he’s the one passed away last weekend. He was a classmate of mine. Lived in the house just up from the telephone company.”

I pour hot sauce and ketchup on a steaming mountain of home fries. It’s quiet except for the sound of bacon sizzling on the griddle and the buzz of the exhaust fan.

“How ‘bout that body they found floating in the canal?” one of the guys says, “Some woman, floating face down. I don’t think they even identified her yet.” One of the other guys says, “They think she’s from around here, anyway.”

Someone scrapes a fork across a plate and the cook pours eggs on the hot griddle.

“I see where that pilot died.” “He was flying a twin engine Cessna and died at the controls. His passenger had to land the plane. They talked him in from the tower.”

Someone else says, “I read he had some flying experience. Logged about 100 hours, but never flew anything big.”

American cheese sticks to the roof of my mouth and I try to wash it down with hot coffee.

“Ever watch them crop dusters work? I used to watch ‘em work out near the airport,” one of the guys says.

“Heard about a time, when I was a kid, one of ‘em didn’t pull up soon enough and flew the duster into a tree. Hung that plane right up in the branches. Weird…you’d think it would’ve mowed that tree right down. Slammed his head on the dashboard and died. They said he woulda survived if he had his helmet on.”

“Those friggin’ guys actually wear helmets?” another one says.

The dishwasher comes out to take a break. She has hearing aids in both ears and her hairstyle looks like a helmet.

A man comes in with a newspaper and sits down at the counter.

He says, “Hear about that body they found floating in the canal? Found her floating face down in the water. Wonder who she was?”

“Can I get you something to eat Al?” the waitress asks.

“You got any donuts? I could go for a single donut.” Al says. “Anyone know when Gotchalk’s funeral is?”

One of the other guys says, “You mean Gotsill. Gotchalk’s been dead for years.”

The exhaust fan hums and cars drive past on Elm Street, going in both directions. A couple passes by on the sidewalk, oblivious to the conversation at the lunch counter.


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