I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself. Working in journalism you’re wise not to believe the hype. I had never heard anyone suggest Shawn Klush wasn’t a talented Elvis tribute artist. He’s won awards. He gets plenty of gigs and draws large crowds. But the press releases I’ve seen proclaiming “World’s Greatest Elvis” came from the man’s own PR team, and so you question it. And I had never bothered to personally see one of the many performances the Pittston native had given locally. So yeah sure, whatever, there’s no way he could have been that good on Vinyl (season 1, episode 7) this week.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate Elvis. True, I didn’t for a long time. At least, I didn’t respond to the cliches and symbols that came to characterize Elvis in popular memory. (Fun fact: my mom’s second wedding at the American Legion Hall in Moscow back in the ’80s was conducted by an Elvis impersonator/DJ and while the guy had a nice voice and a gentle spirit, he was good at his job, but I wasn’t a fan of that whole scene.) It wasn’t until a few summers ago when I developed a taste for The King’s feelgood films that I realized I was a fan. I had always liked the Christmas songs. I loved Dwight Yoakam’s covers. The gospel songs were groovy. I basically liked all of the music I hadn’t heard too many times growing up, tracks like “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears.”
It occurs to me now, that I may have actually interviewed the Klush for electric city at some point. I honestly don’t remember and our archives are maddeningly unsearchable. I talked to at least three Elvis tribute artists through the years, back before all the other tribute acts came out of the woodwork. It was literally all Elvis all the time for these guys. There was something obsessive of this degree of specialty that freaked me out. How does somebody make a living pretending to be someone else? And not lots of someone elses, as actors do, but just one person. For their whole life until they outlive the idol by a couple of decades and can’t conceivably pull it off anymore. The idea has perplexed me enough that I’m working on a play (Pepper Canyon Blues) centering around the members of a fictional tribute band. The fun of this is I get to make up the legendary band (The Playboy Riots) and the characters who take the stage in the guise of those unseen characters as Pepper Canyon.
Getting to the point, I’ve been watching HBO’s Vinyl since it debuted and was glad to be up-to-date on the episodes when it was announced in The Times-Tribune last week that Klush would be portraying Elvis on the show. My expectations were not high, and that’s partly because all of the other celebrity portrayals on the show so far (excepting John Cameron Mitchell’s Andy Warhol, which I liked even as some critics did not) have been the mildly-to-severely disappointing experience I imagine watching most tribute artists must be. But Klush blew me away. He was not only a believable Elvis, and more believable than any I remember seeing on film before, but he was also a good actor. There was stuff going on under the surface. He was thinking thoughts Elvis might have thought, because part of has brain has come to accept the dichotomy that he is as much Elvis as he is Klush. And he can sing. That is to say, he sang, a capella, a song that is not Elvis’s music, and it sounded how I imagine it would sound if Elvis sang it.
It wasn’t a pretty scene. This was a sad, sweat-shiny, puffy pill-popping Elvis only a few years before we know he would die. The cinematography was challenging, the set design was overwhelmingly Vegas, and the scene really was the climactic heart of the episode. It was just Klush and Cannavale – here playing a freshly sober Richie Finestra who’s unanchored and not comfortable in his own skin – and they’re talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Cannavale is an intense and powerful actor and it cannot be easy for even trained actors to hold their own against him. Klush did it.
The New York Times agrees that Klush’s performance was satisfying, writing: “Shawn Klush, a professional Elvis impersonator, gives one of the best acting performances by anyone portraying a celebrity on this show. He’s not the spitting image of Elvis, but he skillfully captures the singer’s bloated charisma and his insecurity. It’s the culmination of seven episodes’ worth of musical vignettes by 1950s rock stars: Here Elvis is drinking a Tab, showing off his martial-arts moves and spouting his philosophy of rock ’n’ roll.”
Klush’s Pittston roots are not the only NEPA connection in this episode. One of two girls Richie and Zak pick up in Vegas confesses that she is from … you guessed it, Scranton. It’s nice to see Klush fare so well because people in northeast PA derive a disproportionate amount of their pride from our local boys and girls done good. We’re still seeking that outside, “credible” affirmation before we’ll fully commit to patting ourselves on the back. We are so starved for attention, every time anyone with any status or celebrity says “Scranton” anywhere beyond our immediate forest, we get a molecule of our collective self-esteem back.
I also appreciated Klush’s performance because it helped me better understand this whole tribute phenomenon. Watching the scene, I was grateful we had this person who had given such serious study to Elvis and could respectably honor his legend. And that’s how music fans must feel when they see performers that can get the music right. There is an art to assuming another’s identity with such soulful respect and precision. I love music but I’m not that much a fan of any one artist that seeing a tribute act would do anything for me. I’d rather see an obscure, authentic original musician any day than a cover band. But that’s just me. I do plan to see more tribute bands perform as I get deeper into work on Pepper Canyon Blues. I’ll let you know how that goes.