When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka.
Those times are the most vivid memories I have of childhood. I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.
I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: "baba" meaning brother or sister, and "gammon" meaning bullshit (sort of).
The Northern Territory is also where I first discovered Elvis Presley. My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town—nearly microscopic. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.
I would beg money from my parents and play Elvis as much as possible in the short times we would stay there. I was frequently annoyed that they only ever had one beer each and never drank it slowly enough for me to hear more than one or two songs. My favourites back then were "Burning Love" (which I thought of as "Hunka Hunka") and "His Latest Flame".
My second memory is of watching the best Elvis movie ever made, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope that this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other and the adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up.
This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick cause we all loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on an American Indian reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen. Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, and almost everyone was unemployed. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.
The film was such a hit that they played it every night for a week. We all sang along to the songs and when it got to the final scene—there’s a party which turns into a fight which results in the total destruction of the new government-issue cheap and shoddy housing—everyone would get up and yell and mock punch each other. And when Elvis said, "That was one hell of a fight!" we all said it along with him. Even after Stay Away Joe was long gone, doing its rounds of other communities, we’d sing songs and act out scenes from the movie.
Some of us kids really thought Elivs was Native American. I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.
Even now hearing "Burning Love" or "His Latest Flame" or any of his songs I first heard on that Mataranka juke box, I think of sitting with dozens of kids on that basketball court, bum itchy from the gravel, watching Elvis driving around in the car he was selling off piece by piece. I think of turtles and lily root and days that were either wet-hot or dry-hot and flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. And kids who were smart, funny, gorgeous, generous and mean as hell. Kids I haven’t seen since I was eight years old, and already losing my innocence about the difference between being white or black in Australia. A world I haven’t known since I moved back to cities where the houses I live in never fall apart.
That’s my Elvis.
New York City, 19 July 2003