Elvis in Taos

“What I think is, Jimmy Dean, that guy looks like Elvis,” the woman announced.

“Nope he don’t. Elvis weren’t never so thin in his entire life!” Jimmy Dean answered; he sounded about forty, his voice getting tight with age, though he probably didn’t know it.

A couple of days in August 1995, the fellas and me got stranded in a town in northern New Mexico named Taos. Never heard of it before then, but it seems to have a little reputation. Made a big deal about Kit Carson and D.H. Lawrence. Anyway, we’d played a date at the El Dorado in Santa Fe and decided to drive up to Aspen for our next date, but we never made it. We had chartered a local van to drive us, but in Taos the motor burned out, leaving us stuck till a new part came from Albuquerque. You can imagine, seven big city brothers stranded in a two-horse town. The van driver, a native of Taos and so in no big hurry to get us on the road, booked us rooms at the Taos Inn, then went home. We spent a restful night, and the next day I went exploring.

I tapped my way across what sounded like the main drag—had a long Spanish name with Pueblo in it— and down what they called Bent street into a plaza, where I started to hear the lapping and spilling of water, some kind of small waterfall or stream in the middle of this tree-cooled square.

“Now if you fall in the water, Garth, you’ll just have to stay wet all the way back to the motel,” the woman said to two hands splashing.

“Garth, damn it!” Jimmy Dean threatened. “Get out the water, son!”

“Better think about leaving now, Jimmy Dean.”

“Couple more minutes, Patsy. I want to see if this fella sounds any more like Elvis than he looks like him.”

“Now, Garth, see what I told you, honey!”

I could hear a guitar tuning, a nice mellow sounding instrument, even with metal strings. Then it started to play Heartbreak Hotel, but in an easy rolling way with a Night Train kind of riff in the bass and the melody coming through wistful. No singing now, just a guy who Jimmy Dean’s wife Patsy said looked like Elvis playing Heartbreak Hotel. But the guy playing it like he knew more about heartbreak than the young Elvis did when he made his first version. This guy could play too, made good chords.

“Garth, don’t bother the man, honey,” Patsy said. “Garth!”

“S’all right, ma’am. He ain’t nothing but a little hound dog sniffin round.” Now for obvious reasons, I never saw Elvis, but I sure heard him, singing and talking, and this guy had it down, the whole phoney southern gentleman thing, just like Elvis. Probably wanted to wring the kid’s neck, but you couldn’t tell it from his voice.

“Hey, Daddy-o, you do any singing?” I asked, surprising myself. “How about In the Ghetto?”

“You’re Ludlow Pops Washington, right? I got some of your records.” He played off my request. “Hear you’re stranded. You boys plan to do any jammin while you’re in town?”

I didn’t like the boys lick, but decided to ignore it. Couldn’t see his face. Maybe he didn’t mean anything by it. “I’m hoping we won’t be here that long.”

“You shouldn’t be in such a hurry, Pops. It’s a nice little pretty hip town.” His fingers started laying down a track for In the Ghetto. This guy could play. “As the snow flies,” he started singing, but didn’t go any further. “Forgot that one, Pops.”

Somehow I sensed he lied, just didn’t want to sing. Must tire a man out singing like Elvis for a living. Playing Elvis’s songs gives you more freedom. Everybody in the business knows Elvis couldn’t play much guitar. Name me one famous Elvis guitar solo. But this guy could play. “Maybe the words’ll come back to you, Daddy-o.”

“Maybe.” He paused. “Anybody show you around Taos yet? I’ll pack up and we’ll walk up to Dori’s.”

I heard him lay his instrument into its case and snap the lock. In a moment he took my elbow and pulled me away from the gurgling water. We turned right climbed a grade into the rattle and groan of the maindrag. Then we turned left and walked a few long blocks in the hot sun.

“Dori’s right next to the Post Office, Pops. We’re passing there now.” He guided me left two steps over a wooden bridge onto gravel. “Might as well sit outside. Feel that plastic chair in front of you?”

I did and took a seat, feeling the sun now muffled by shade, probably trees. “What kind of food can I get here? They have grits?”

He laughed. “Can’t get grits west of the Mississippi, Pops. Not without lumps anyway. But we can get some eggs and good hashbrowns. All right? I’ll go see.”

Somehow I sensed he lied, just didn’t want to sing. Must tire a man out singing like Elvis for a living.

 

His steps faded away across the gravel and climbed cement stairs. In a few moments he returned. “Miss Dori said she’d bring’em.” He sat down across from me.

“How long you been in Taos, Mister…”

“Aaron, like Hank. Eighteen years. Come up the mountain eighteen years ago this month.”

“And just stayed?”

“Pretty much. Sometimes when I need something for my guitars, I drive down to Albuquerque. But mostly I just stay put, building guitars.”

“Build’em as well as play’em.”

“Maybe better. Looking for a sound, Pops. You understand that. Started out singing, then all of a sudden I found myself in the Elvis Thing. Making good money. Folks loved the King. Then one night back in the early seventies, I sat up late with Willie and Glenn. Now those two ole boys can pick some guitars! So Willie was smoking some maryjane and even made me take a puff or two and even though I didn’t inhale, I must-a got high anyway. Lowered my defenses, you know. Willie started to kid me about my guitarplaying, how I couldn’t play a lick. Hoss, you just hold the thing! Can still hear that little ratfaced S.O.B. now. Only use you get with a guitar is to hide your fat gut.” He laughed like a wildman, howling. “Ratfaced ole boy was right! Bothered me I couldn’t play guitar. Started practicing. Took some lessons. Looking for a sound. Then I almost died. Got out of the business. Come up the mountain.”

“Which one of you fellas wanted the cantaloupe?” Steps came purposefully across the gravel. “Brought in one of the stranded musicians, did you, Aaron?”

“I couldn’t just let him wander up and down Bent Street, Miss Dori. Pass that omelette this way.” Plates plunked on the plastic table cover.

“I told Bim to make yours over-easy, stranger,” she said to me. “You looked like an over-easy kind of guy.”

“If you say so,” I grumbled though she’d guessed right. “Any salt around here?”

“Probably won’t need salt, Pops,” Aaron explained. “Miss

Dori’s got this red salt she’s pushing.”

“Better watch your tongue, Aaron. I’ve got the goods—”

“Would somebody please pass me my plate and locate the food on it for me? Put the easy-overs at twelve o’clock.” I could smell it now, savory scent of fried onions and potatoes.

Aaron’s fork and knife started working. After locating my food, eggs at twelve, hashbrowns at four, slice of cantaloupe at nine, buttered toast on a small plate outside of ten, Miss Dori ambled away. “Pay inside, fellas. Enjoy.”

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