Pre-Postmodern Elvis

Photo by Jack GouldThere are so many different kinds of bad taste. Take (please!) the Overstuffed Elegance model (gilded Rococo chairs with ropes across them; grand pianos with signs requesting that you not play them; arrangements of big ostrich feathers in vases like in that one hideous early 1980s Rod Stewart video in which he's so loaded they have to keep him on a settee because he's about as steady on his feet as Kelsey Grammer). Or one could go Overblown Stubble—best realized in Miami Vice, in teal and magenta and neon and etched glass. Or there's the always-popular Trailer Trash Vulgarian kind of bad taste of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which still, like a crack mom, has its Christmas decorations up, bringing down the neighbors' property values. They might as well put a couple of cars up on blocks on the front lawn.

Garden Grove's Crooner's Lounge, billed as an Elvis shrine with garlic tacos, is appointed in disappointingly good taste. I mean, it's not in good taste, like, say, my living room, which is in a really good taste kind of bad taste. But it's not in bad taste either, and I don't think it's really very fair to offer up an Elvis shrine that's not in bad taste. Where's the red-velvet wallpaper? Where are the mirrors? Where are the extraneous beads and shiny white leather, with fringe? Where's the shag carpet, for God's sake?

The classic Graceland model of shiny brothel hideousness—an obvious fit for an altar to the Big E—could so easily have been built and stocked (like one stocks a pond with trout) with extra barflies from the red-velvet-wallpapered Fling.

But it is not to be. Instead, the Crooner's Lounge at Azteca is full of blond wood and perfectly framed totems. Add a couple of ferns, and it could be Cheers. Add boring, corporate, aging frat-boy types, and it could be the Hard Rock Caf.

It has none of these things. It has some locals hanging out quietly at the bar while the movie Fun in Acapulco plays in the corner. And it has JJ, the owner/bartender, a well-tanned Elvis who just might be the biggest work of art in the place. Rrrowwr!

JJ, of course, is a true believer in the Legend—the Elvis Archetype, if you wanna get all Jungian about it. And there is no irony here. If irony were iron, this place would be anemic. This is Elvis before Postmodernism—pre-postmodern Elvis, if you will.

JJ does not present bronze reliefs of Young Elvis and Fat Elvis together as one for your amusement. He does not hide behind a smirk of ironic detachment. He does not present frolicking kitty cats and then sneer, “Just kidding!” He does not envelop his Elvae in holy robes and beads of veneration befitting the Holy Mother as you and I might in order to construct a commentary on pop culture as American civil religion. JJ's Elvae are not kitsch.

Thomas Woodruff is a neo-Victorian tattooed motherfucker of a painter out of New York. I use each of these adjectives so you'll understand why I asked him (some years ago) if he really meant his happy babies and kittens chasing butterflies or if, instead, they were meant to mock the simple-hearted. I thought he was going to knock me down. He glared and then almost bellowed, “I mean them!” I asked no more questions.

Margaret Keane and her big-eyed tots are big again with the Silver Lake crowd—just as they used to be big with hausfraus. Long Beach's Long Gone John, a recording impresario, was way ahead of the curve; he's been collecting Keanes forever.

But there's always the excuse of Gen-X nostalgia—a nostalgia that's always masked with irony. JJ doesn't do irony. He presents his Elvae straight, no chaser.

Here is what JJ has, among much else: big Elvis sunglasses on a shelf; Elvis' stationery from the 1960s; a ticket to a concert Elvis would have performed had he lived; autographs of Elvis' costars, like OC resident (and OC Weekly cover girl) Jeanne Carmen, who's a regular at the lounge; a lei that Elvis may have worn, but JJ has no way to document that, so he leaves the issue alone; a picture disc from “Paradise Hawaiian Style”; a portrait that could have been done by Nagel; and a poster of a giant Elvis head peering out of the clouds like God almighty.

But if Elvis is a god in the Crooners Lounge, he's a Protestant god, not a Catholic one. The holy relics—like John the Baptist's little toe or a toothpick-sized piece of the True Cross—aren't gilded and flashy and bejeweled; they're simple and scrubbed and low-key.

But in this Jubilee Year (thanks, pope!) we need a little more Hollywood-style glitz, a little more razzmatazz before we genuflect. Asceticism in art, like grunge, is so 1990s.

Crooner's lounge at azteca restaurant, 12911 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 638-3790. Elvis memorabilia up indefinitely.

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