The King Is Dead! Long Live the King!

Friends bid adieu to eccentric Tempe street artist and club fixture

Tempe street artist, avid cyclist and self-made celebrity Frankie Martinez, known to most as Elvis, died October 8 after one of his lungs collapsed. This came as little surprise to any of the thousands who recognized him or the few who actually knew him, because Elvis always looked pitifully sick, except when he was really feeling it onstage, rocking out with amps at his back.

Elvis never would have wanted to be put in the ground, one of his sisters said during his memorial service last week at Tempe Mortuary, so the body of El Gato was cremated. The service was crowded, the pews lined with a mix of family members, journalists, Tempe scenesters and a pantheon of local music heroes. Walt Richardson was in the house, representing reggae; Chico Chism, for the blues; and all the usual suspects, famous and semifamous, among the cross-pollinated Mill Avenue rock lineups from the present and the recent past--the Gin Blossoms, the Refreshments, Dead Hot Workshop, etc.

I've been to a few memorial services lately. A few too many. One for a friend who died getting high; one for a friend who went through the windshield of an old Trans Am; one for a friend who just got sick and withered; and one for the father of a friend who flew his plane into a cliff over the Bering Sea.

Elvis wasn't my friend. But his service made me think about life--mine and the dead's--more than any of the rest. Beyond the usual platitudes, I was struck by the eulogy delivered by Elvis' neighbor, who acknowledged that a lot of people thought Elvis was a kook, and may have mocked him, or condescended, but they'd probably never witnessed the Saint Francis of Assisi routine Elvis could pull with pigeons and stray cats.

I was struck by Elvis' sister, who sang beautifully, through tears, "Un Dia a la Vez" ("One Day at a Time") with Los Peregrinos, a mariachi band led by Raul Zubia, father of Lawrence and Mark Zubia of the Pistoleros, who played with him.

And I was struck by Brent Babb, who spoke first and shortest. Babb's the lead singer for Dead Hot Workshop, and one of the few souls in Tempe sensitive enough to truthfully call himself close to Elvis.

Babb got a quick, sad laugh with his impression of Elvis leaving a message, then couldn't or just didn't say much else, except that Elvis was deeper than most thought, an artist and a work of art himself.

"What else can I say?" Babb asked. "Elvis has left the building."
I didn't step up while the mike was open during the memorial service for Elvis the Cat, but if I had, I'd have said this:

The first time I saw a picture of Elvis the Cat was in my hometown, Anchorage, Alaska, which is thousands of miles north of Mill Avenue. It was in January, nearly four years ago. I was at a party, drinking vodka straight from the freezer and staring out my friend's kitchen window, because it was dark and so cold, all of the trees had frost on their limbs; the world outside appeared as a photographic negative. Then I lowered my line of sight to the door of my friend's refrigerator, which was guacamole green, and there was Elvis.

It was a piece from a series of his bigger color-Xerox works, one of the 11- by 16-inch jobs, and it had a lounge-scene background, with this regal, white Persian cat that looked like it was cut from a Friskies ad or some shit and pasted onto a bar-stool perch, and beside this cat was Elvis Del Monte's head superimposed atop a classic shot of Elvis Presley, wearing a white lounge suit with gold trim. And lettered in one corner, in what looked exactly like whiteout, were the words "Elvis the Alley Cat Loves You."

My first thought was, "Hey, that's pretty cool." My next was, "Who the hell is Elvis the Alley Cat?"

So I asked my friend what was up with her fridge art. She told me she'd stopped in Tempe to hook up with some friends before she visited her grandparents in Tucson, and they took her to Mill Avenue, and she met Elvis there, and he had some of his portraits with him, so she talked to him for a while and gave him two bucks for the one on her kitchen appliance.

Her friends told her everyone calls that guy Elvis, and that he was really sick with diabetes or something, but he wasn't homeless, he was just out all the time, riding his bicycle around Mill Avenue, and he supported himself by selling all of these multimedia self-portraits he put together at Kinko's, and he was sort of a cherished eccentric in the local music scene who talked himself onstage with the Gin Blossoms to sing lead on Elvis Presley covers.

Well, fortune throws a wicked curve ball, and before a year was out, I'd moved into a house a few blocks from Mill Avenue, and I met Elvis for the first time. I'd lived in Tempe about 10 days, and I'd had it in the back of my head to keep an eye out for this guy I'd seen on my friend's fridge back home, and then I did, and I was, like, "Holy shit. It's Elvis." He was parking his bike outside Long Wong's as I was coming out, with a few shots of vodka in me, and it was dark, and it was fall, and instead of frost on the trees, there was neon everywhere, and the temperature was perfect.

I stopped and sort of rapped with him a while, and I asked him if he had any portraits, and he said no, not that night, but when I saw him again a few days later, he did. I bought two.

The last time I saw Elvis--again, outside Long Wong's--I just walked past him and said, "What up, Elvis?" and he nodded. That was careless of me, in retrospect. So was my treatment of the two Elvis portraits I owned. One I lost in a breakup; the other was taped to a chalkboard in my kitchen until a party I had on a Saturday night, six days before he died. The next morning, I found it soaked in keg beer, adhered to yellow linoleum. I wondered how many hundreds of his works suffered a similar fate, then I scraped up all of it except one dark corner that's still pasted on my floor, showing half of Elvis' head and one of his slogans scribbled in whiteout: "Elvis the Cat Is Back."

I'll keep an eye out for him.

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