Love Me Tender – KD Wasley and the Hawera Elvis Museum
May 20, 2011
When it comes to Elvis jokes, Kevin David Wasley (KD) has heard them all. He’s often told it wouldn’t do to get all shook up with his paintbrush in his job as a contract painter and paperhanger.
People look at his feet and ask where are his blue suede shoes? He’s known by some as The King. Not that KD minds. With the 30th anniversary of Elvis’ death fast approaching, he’s as enamoured of the man as he ever was.
KD owns the Elvis Presley Memorial Record Room at 51 Argyle Street, Hāwera, and don’t let the fact that it’s in his garage put anyone off.
Step inside and it’s a veritable shrine to the singer from Memphis who died 16th August, 1977, though KD, self-styled curator, will argue. “It’s a celebration of Elvis’ life,” he says, “not his death.”
And so, very definitely, it is. Elvis on the walls and the ceiling. Elvis on glasses, mugs, ties, cufflinks, book sleeves, album covers, even the barstools. The television plays endless Elvis reruns.
There’s an accumulation of Presley detritus on every flat surface, and on round, curved, and oval ones to boot.
It’s probably fair comment that KD is, and will always be, intimately involved with The King. Everything in his own personally-appointed museum comes with a known history. Simply straying too long in front of an old china cabinet can jumpstart a flowing dialogue.
Rock around the record room
“I’ve got hundreds of things,” KD says, as he casually surveys the room. “These records over here might mean nothing to anyone else, but they came out of a juke box in Tennessee.
“The middle one, that’s an original recording. I paid a phenomenal amount for those – 75c each – and they’re priceless, today, priceless.
“See that bloke there?” He asks. “His name is Roy, he was my pen pal. Not an Elvis fan. He’s got more photos of Mt Egmont (Taranaki) around his lounge than I have of Elvis.
“When I was in High School, I wanted a pen pal in the States, and it had to be in Memphis, because that’s where my hero lived.
“Well, Roy happened to want a pen pal in New Zealand. I was like a rat up a drainpipe. I got me block and chisel out and wrote to him. He wrote back. A lot of these things he got for me.”
The tone of his voice indicates it was a sad day when Roy died. “He just passed away. He was 85 years old.” Roy is missed.
For visitors, it’s KD’s passionate oratory that accompanies them around the floor. KD’s a natural raconteur, with an erudite feel for his subject. He’s read every Elvis book, heard every Elvis song.
There surely can’t be much about the man he doesn’t know. And better still, he likes to share it.
“I’d probably not be exaggerating if I say I’ve had thousands through here,” he says. “I clock in roughly 48 years at the end of next year.”
A full-time fan
Kevin David Wasley, born in 1948, turns 60 next year. An avid memorabilia collector since 1957, when Elvis first crooned into his life, he often dons Elvis garb when doing the guided tour.
It suits him. His hair, though grey, is kept in the familiar smooth-combed style and he’s not opposed to a bit of the old imitation ‘leg wiggle.’ He’s a perfect mix of the bloke-next-door and showman.
He’s used to the attention, now, and though he downplays his role in keeping The King alive, he’s really what the museum is all about.
It’s not just his private collection that sparks enthusiasm for young and old, but an undiminished zeal which is as infectious as his grin.
Much media interest
KD’s obsession has often appeared on TV programs: That’s Fairly Interesting, Inside New Zealand, Today Tonight, Blind Date, Wheel of Fortune, and probably the most relevant of all – Obsessions.
He’s been featured in a raft of publications: The Listener, NZ Women’s Weekly, More Magazine, Woman’s Day, et al, as well as more than a few from overseas.
Interest this year is already heightened because of the impending August anniversary of Presley’s death.
It’s not just the media fixation that astounds KD, but the genuine interest that brings letters from all round world.
“They come from Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, United States, UK – people find out about it now through my website. I’d probably not be exaggerating to say I’ve had thousands over the years. Boxes and boxes of them.”
He says he gets the occasional ‘dickhead who wants to tell me what a wally I am’ but the majority come from supporters.
In the old days KD wrote hopeful letters himself to Colonel Parker’s office where Elvis’ manager hung out and directly to members of the Presley clan. And, he says, “Because I live in a small village, I feel chuffed that they wrote back.”
As for six degrees of separation from his loftiest musical star, he’s gotten reasonably close to the man, with The King’s original backing band arriving to see him at home.
They are just a few of a host of entertainers who have visited him over the years, like American rock n roller Johnny Tilletson, kiwi legend John Hore, and bands like The Chills.
An energetic start
Ask KD about his earliest Elvis memory and he’s happy to divulge that he was just 13 when he got hooked, not just with the distinct musical sound, but possibly the ‘James Dean’ look.
He points to an early photo, 19 year-old Elvis snapped in an unguarded moment on a train in 1956. “He was touring from Memphis to where he was recording.
“The record company said no coloured photos because this guy will be gone soon he won’t be around long, he’ll be a flash in the pan.
“Alfred Weinberger took them, and they’re the most sought after Elvis photos in the world now. Look how young he looks.”
His biggest regret is easily that he missed an Elvis show. “Yes, I had a chance to see Elvis,” he says, “but I had a mortgage and a wife.”
He has the tickets in the Record Room, framed, and on show, and as he happily admits, “I’ve still got the wife, and that’s good, too.”
The gospel according to Kevin
According to KD, Elvis Presley had a million buck’s worth of talent which earned him a million bucks, but it was that talent that ultimately killed him.
Post-1956, after the tidal wave of fame hit, EP’s life could never be the same. “He took uppers, downers to cope. It was a shame. Look at him there in the picture. No dyed hair. He started dying it the next year and did it from then on.”
The 1950s and 60s are definitely his favourite eras, with the new rock ‘n’ roll, the flashy jackets with the leopard-skin lapels, the style.
“This is my time warp. When I heard Elvis it was instant WOW. He grabbed me with everything he did. Everything you see is the early stuff, that’s what I grew up with. I don’t do the big white jumpsuits. This is the real Elvis.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate the man Elvis became. Even the fat, ageing Elvis is up there on the pedestal next to the youthful one.
“He was my motivator,” KD says simply. “Everything I’ve done in life – I’m not original – I’ve copied it all, haircut, clothing, shoes, ties…
“See this jacket here? I was about 18 or 19 when I bought it in Auckland. There’s a photo of me, there, in the 60s, all dressed up. I sing. I was in a band.”
He says his father loved ‘his Bing Crosby’ and that he probably drove him ‘bloody mad with an obsession he thought was going to ruin me’. But after his father watched what he spent versus what he collected, he ended up on his side.
“I’d go down to the mart and buy up the old LPs, but I didn’t take any drugs or anything like that. It didn’t hurt me.”
Going to Graceland
And yes, KD’s been to Graceland, 17 times he says, as he allows himself a long orgasmic sigh. He once went ‘missing’ there, and on another ‘I forgot my wife was with me’.
“When you come from Hāwera and you travel all the way to America, you don’t sit on your bum in a hotel room,” KD says. “I went on the property five times in one day. I didn’t get to sit on Elvis’s bed, but I did manage to sit in his car.”
He agrees that the subsequent ‘telling-off’ by the security guard was worth it.
If Elvis Presley has become KD’s addiction of choice, it’s fair to say that somehow he’s learned to keep it under control, how to take it or leave it, and not push it onto people who don’t care to know.
While it’s a huge part of his life, it’s not the total package. “I can honestly say I’m pretty balanced,” he says with a wink. “It finishes at the gate.
“If I go downtown and have a few beers, I don’t talk about Elvis. It’s not difficult. Sometimes the last thing I want to do is to talk about EP, and I’ve still got my buddies around.
“This place is not a shrine,” he says, reassuringly. “It’s a tribute. It’s my tribute to the man. To me he’s still alive.”