The first time I learned to love Elvis Presley, I was in my early 20s, and visiting Graceland during a cross-country trip with a few friends. I remember watching videos of his concerts in a dark theater there and being amazed at his energy and talent. Next, there was Baghdad Elvis.
When I covered the war in Iraq in 2007, a photographer we worked with happened to have mastered a near-perfect rendition of “Suspicious Minds.” At one point, in our heavily fortified compound on the Tigris River, he showed up wearing a bespoke white jumpsuit, circa 1973, leading us all in a night of raucous karaoke — loud enough to drown out the sound of bullets in the distance.
And then there was Parkes, the small town in rural New South Wales, which hosts the largest annual Elvis festival in the Southern Hemisphere (and possibly the world). I’d been hearing about it ever since I came to Australia but this year, I decided to go, and to bring my 11-year-old daughter with me.
I was looking for more than just spectacle, though there was plenty of that. I was looking for heart. Why do 25,000 people come out to celebrate a dead American rocker in the middle of a continent where Elvis never played a concert?
I thought maybe there was something to say about the America he seemed to represent, a country that had been more optimistic, carefree, effusive, and excessive than the more earnest and angry United States we’ve seen over the past few years. Perhaps Elvis nostalgia was also America nostalgia?
But what I found — as you can see in my article, with amazing photos from Abigail Varney —was simpler and more local, if no less profound. America was really not the point. Small town Australia and participatory “have a go” Australia was what animated the event.
According to Elvis tribute artists — and Elvis’s former tour manager, who made the trek from back home in the U.S. — Australians of all social classes, political persuasions and ages were more likely to dress up, sing, march in the parade, or play rugby, all while dressed up as Elvis, all while encouraging each other to get involved and have some fun.
The Australian festival was unique because the lines between serious and silly were blurred. While Americans listened and admired Elvis, Australians made him their own.
I’ve written a lot about that Australian penchant for pulling people into an activity — it’s a big part of the idea-driven memoir I published here, called “Into the Rip,” which will be out in the U.S. in the next few months with a different title. But in Parkes there was an extra layer of verve that only the combination of Elvis and small town Australia could possibly provide. My daughter loved it. So did I.
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