Bouncing Back Like Basketballs
An essay published in the Oxford American’s Winter 2008 Southern Music issue.
n the late 1980s, Bill and Hillary Clinton were the second most recognizable couple in Little Rock, Arkansas, runnersup to a lanky young black man and a petite, grandmotherly white woman who wore sombreros and skimpy bathing suits, rode ten-speed bicycles, and handed out business cards reading ELTON AND BETTY WHITE, INTERRACIAL COUPLE. Anyone who lived in Little Rock at the time will remember seeing the two of them coasting along the sidewalk by the river, their twin ukuleles slung over their backs; or dining behind the window of Popeyes Chicken, making eyes at each other across the table; or riding the escalator at Park Plaza Mall, their enormous sombreros gradually swallowing their bodies. They were the city’s premier eccentrics. But to a small, yet avid, circle of fans they were something more, the creators of several warm, frank, fine, and funny albums of original folk songs, among them Sex Beyond the Door, the most innocently raunchy half-hour of music ever committed to tape.
I was fifteen and a sophomore in high school when I joined that circle of fans. One afternoon, waiting for my mom to finish some typing at work, I went rummaging through the knickknacks in her boss’s office and spotted a copy of a homemade cassette with a glossy Sears-style portrait taped to the front of the case. There was Elton, shirtless, in tight red shorts with a thick band of reflective trim along the bottom. There was Betty, in a white bikini with the tag sticking up at the crease of her back. There were the two of them, wearing red sombreros and facing a marbled blue backdrop, Elton’s arm slung over Betty’s shoulder, Betty’s elbow resting on Elton’s hip, their heads cocked toward the camera as they pretended to shush whoever might be listening. This, I thought, had promise.
I borrowed the tape and listened to it when I got home. It began with a short, spoken introduction in Betty’s soft, crackling Southern lilt and Elton’s strangely elastic drawl, half his syllables slurring together and the other half detonating like popcorn kernels.
Sex Beyond the Door. Original songs. I’m Betty White.
I’m Elton White. And these are the best in original songs you will ever hear in your lifetime. This first song is called “Climaxation Is a Sweet Sensation.”
There followed a set of twenty-four songs, each announced by its title, then performed with a simple ukulele or acoustic guitar accompaniment. The shortest ran only thirty-six seconds, while the longest stretched to just over two minutes. Most of them related the intimate details of Elton and Betty’s sex life. I sat in my room, legs crossed in the middle of my bed, listening to the recording with a very specific kind of delight, which had something to do with the subversive charge of the songs themselves, unshrinkingly lewd but plainly not contrived to offend, and something to do with the prospect of playing them for my friends later and watching their reactions.
Elton took the odd tracks, Betty the evens, so that his “I’m in Love With Your Behind”—
Lady, when you are walking
And your butt goes up and down
My nose dances around.
Lady, when you are walking
And your butt shakes like Jell-O
Ooh, my mind goes loco.
(Crazy, that is.)
—was followed by her “The Little Dicks Fit Me Best”—
Oh, I’ve been nearly everywhere
And I have tried them all
All the big dicks and the little dicks
And I have loved them all
But there’s something about my anatomy
That makes the little dicks fit me best
And I can romp and roll much better
When I’m not so pinned down.
—her “Menopause Mama”—
Oh, I’m so glad I can’t get pregnant
Whenever I get me some.
After all the huggin’ and the kissin’s over
There’s nothing to spoil the fun.
—by his “Woman, Your Smell, It Makes Me Well”—
When I feel sick and down
I need a lovely woman around
To smell on and feel
Somebody can heal.
Woman, your smell . . .
(and here the chorus was broken by a startling eruption of robust snuffling noises)
It makes me well.
Elton enjoyed using food as a double entendre for lovemaking, as in “Lady, Please Help Me Bust My Nuts and Eat With Me” and “Lady, Why Do You Make Me Eat on Your Sweet Meat,” while Betty occasionally expressed reservations about the whole sexual enterprise, as in the wonderfully matter-of-fact “I’d Really Rather Not Have Oral Sex,” in which she confessed, “It chokes me/It scares me/Makes me want to throw up.”
After some thirty minutes of defiant carnality, the album ended with a sort of demure, sheet-smoothing gesture, “God’s Basketballs,” Betty’s statement of faith in the ability of the human spirit to survive any fall:
Oh, we are God’s sweet basketballs
Sometimes we feel we’re ten feet tall.
The world pushes us down, but we don’t fall.
We just come bouncing, bouncing back like basketballs.
God is with us in all we do
And just when we think we’re through
He lifts us up, and we don’t fall.
We just come bouncing, bouncing back like basketballs.
Finally, as the strains of the ukulele ceased, Betty provided a P.O. Box to which interested listeners could write for more information, and Elton offered a hurried thank you. Then, following some tape hiss, the cassette clicked to a stop.
This was a far cry from the music I was used to hearing on the radio in those days: INXS, Poison, Richard Marx; a far cry, even, from the music I was beginning to discover independently: Yaz, the Cure, They Might Be Giants. It was simpler, more organic, much less professional. It was certainly more libidinous—or at least it was more at ease in its libido, less theatrical—and yet I could cell right away that there was something fundamentally humane about it, as if Elton and Betty were extending an invitation to all of us to gaze out at the world from the happy center of our own oddity.
If that night was like so many others, I must have lain awake for hours with the songs I had heard passing through my head, Betty’s voice sounding in one ear, Elton’s in the other, her gentle, porch-swing phrasing followed by his breathy Al Green moans, but the truth is that I don’t remember.
I do, however, remember what happened the next day when I brought the tape to school with me. First, I played it for my Communications teacher, never an authoritarian, who began to laugh during “Climaxation Is a Sweet Sensation” and continued laughing through “Heat,” “I’m in Love With Your Behind,” and “The Little Dicks Fit Me Best,” until she was literally clutching her stomach. At lunch, I played it for the group I joined by the auditorium. After the first few tracks, I fast-forwarded to a pair of late-album highlights, Betty’s “I’d Really Rather Not Have Oral Sex” and Elton’s “Lady, Your Breast, I Love to Caress-t,” with its extra rhyming t at the end. People I didn’t know began dropping by to listen. That afternoon, before the buses left, I let my friend Rob blast a couple of the songs through his car stereo, sending waves of erotic ukulele music across the parking lot. It was like a scene from a John Hughes movie: hundreds of conversations stopping, hundreds of heads turning all at once.
Over the next week, the tape quickly made the rounds. I loaned it to my Communications teacher so she could play it for her fiancé. The secretary of the student council borrowed it from me one night to record his own copy. Donavan Suitt, a junior I barely knew, took it home with him and returned it to me the next day along with a freshly completed synthesizer mix of Elton’s “Dick Fell in Love With Sally.” A few weeks later, I was participating in a mock-audition for my acting class when my teacher noted that among the many talents I had listed on my resume was singing.
“Why don’t you perform a song for us, then, Mr. Brockmeier?”
“Any song at all.”
In my best soft-Southern-lady voice, I announced my selection: “‘The Little Dicks Fit Me Best,’ by Betty White.”
My thesis: Elton and Betty White made me popular.
ut, of course, the story I am telling is not mine, or is mine only tangentially, and while I was growing up and learning to read and discovering comic books and Icees and MTV—The X-Men, cherry, a-ha’s “Take On Me”—and nursing nine-year crushes on the girls at my private school, most of whom I had known since kindergarten, and transferring finally, when I was fifteen, to the local arts magnet, where it would take me months to feel visible again as myself, Elton and Betty were conducting their own lives, gradually moving toward each other like streams funneling into a river.
Betty was born Betty Crandall in 1927, one of five sisters and two brothers, in Mabelvale, Arkansas, a train-station town on the south-central border of Little Rock. Her father, the town’s postmaster, had used his prerogative to name many of Mabelvale’s streets after members of the Crandall family, and I imagine Betty at sixteen, walking along those streets with her schoolbooks and her handbag, the names of everyone she knew stretching around her like the fibers of a web. There were webs everywhere, it must have seemed to her sometimes: Her home was a web, and her family was a web, and on bad days even her mind was a web—too close for her, too confined. She felt like an insect struggling not to get caught in it. In 1946, she graduated as valedictorian of her high school, and before long she married Scotty White, a young Air Force sergeant. Then it was away from Mabelvale and out into the world.
Scotty was frequently transferred between bases, and in only a few years Betty traveled the length and breadth of the forty-eight states with him. She was sharp enough, talented enough, that she was able to find work wherever they went. She served as executive secretary to a long sequence of base commanders before she and Scotty had a child. They named him Samuel Scott White, Jr., after his father, and, when Scotty’s station orders sent him to an air base in Japan, the three of them crossed the ocean together. By then, they had decided to call their son by his first name, Sammy, and so they were Betty, Scotty, and Sammy—so American, all those diminutives, so humble and yet so assertive.
Eventually, they returned to Mabelvale. Once more, Betty was able to live near her sisters, and this was a good thing: She loved her sisters—but then there was her motherin-law, whose house was right down the street from theirs and who never hid her disapproval of Betty. No one could ever do anything to the woman’s satisfaction, or at least Betty couldn’t, and she must have felt the webs forming around her again, sending out their countless invisible threads. When her son enlisted in the Air Force, shipping out to Vietnam as a fighter pilot, it only made matters worse. According to Carolyn Butler, Betty’s niece by marriage, “She was very much a conformist at that time. It was a very straitlaced sort of family,” a notion with which Betty’s nephew Tom Butler concurs: “Very prim and proper—that was Betty. Like Beaver Cleaver’s mother.”
“But I can tell you,” Carolyn adds, “Betty loved the fact that I was a Women’s Libber. She was so proud of that. She was angry with me when she found out I was having a child. She thought I was letting myself down.”
Betty found secretarial work at the Little Rock Air Force Base, and later at Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, the law firm employing Bill Clinton. (‘‘I’d see him every day,” she would tell a reporter in 1998. “He’d always come back and comment on the clothes I was wearing. The girls just threw themselves at him like crazy.”) It was not long, though, before she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and lost her job. Her family was reluctant to have her committed for treatment. She would begin taking her medication, and maybe the webs would go away for a while, or maybe they would simply wrap themselves so tightly around her that she could no longer see them at all anymore, but eventually she would sense that something was wrong and she would stop. Finally, after thirty-six years of marriage, she’d had enough of the pills, enough of her mother-in-law’s sighs and tsks, and she and her husband divorced. Betty left with ten thousand dollars and the car, neither of which lasted long. She found work as a parking-lot attendant, but got fired for wearing hot-pink spandex or—reports vary—for refusing to remove her beaded headdress. She started delivering papers for the Arkansas Gazette. She lived for a while in a van by the fire station, then in a number of abandoned homes, to which a nephew of hers secretly delivered bedding and mattresses to make her more comfortable. Her sisters began monitoring the police broadcasts to make sure she was all right. It was as if her entire earlier life, all fifty-five years of it, had thinned out and fallen away from her like a handful of petals.
Betty was already married and living in Japan by 1958, the year Elton was born. He was raised in tiny Dumas, Arkansas, three square miles of cotton fields and small businesses in the Mississippi Delta, in a home where, as he would later complain, “Paul and Elton washed the dishes/Robert, John, and Andrew got the kisses.” His mother, Geraldine, was a musician who composed her own gospel hymns and played the blues guitar, and it was at her knee that Elton learned to use his voice and fingers. He sang about whatever came to his mind, often just allowing the words to invent themselves as they left his mouth, because really, when you thought about it, what did it matter? Music was the lesser of his skills—a distant second, in fact, to basketball.
Everyone who saw him play acknowledged his talent for the game. He possessed a grace and a dexterity that put him two steps ahead of all the other players on the court, and I can picture him practicing through the long afternoons and evenings of his adolescence, taking the ball again and again to the top of his driveway, enjoying the way the concrete moved beneath him, the air moved around him, the way his limbs cut through it like a fleet of arrows. He was the best player at Dumas High School, so good that he earned a spot in the 1976 High School All-Star game, where he was named the MVP. This was the era of Julius Erving and Bob McAdoo, David Thompson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and there were times, watching Elton cradle the ball, when it must have seemed to the crowd in the bleachers that he could be one of them.
After high school, he went off to college, playing first for Westark and then for the University of the Ozarks. His best season came in 1979, when he led his team with 335 rebounds and 181 free throws—both records that still stand at the University. That year, he was named to the AllArkansas Intercollegiate Conference. After four years of college, he landed a tryout with the Atlanta Hawks. Undoubtedly he was nervous, but there were his numbers to give him strength, his lucky statistics, 335 and 181, 335 and 181, and everyone believed he had a real chance of making the pros.
It was with his knee injury that the whole world changed for him; one sudden, sickening wrench in his stance, and he must have realized he would not be Julius Erving, he would not be David Thompson, just one of the tens of millions of also-rans who burned brightest when no one was watching. He returned to Arkansas, to Little Rock.
Then, as he would so often declare, came the night when someone “put something in his drink.” From that moment on, I imagine, it seemed as if the air was no longer simply moving around him but moving through him. Everywhere he went, he was accompanied by a great rush of wind. That wind was with him when he began working as a day laborer. It was with him when he went to bed each night. It was with him when he started living out of his car.
In his spare time, when his knee wasn’t hurting, he would head to the nearest court so he could work on his lay-ups and hook shots. He taught himself an unusual trick—how to loft his body over the net, touching the backboard with his feet. And though it must have taken him a hundred hours of practice, eventually he perfected the maneuver, training his arms and legs to open up out of themselves at just the right second, like a firework, so he could land upright without falling over.
So there was Betty, with her broken marriage and her broken mind and her revolving color wheel of hair: sometimes red, sometimes green, sometimes purple.
And there was Elton, with his knee that tightened whenever the weather changed and his awareness that something had gone terribly wrong.
And then one evening—at a time, according to Betty, when “we were both so lonely we could die”—the two of them met while eating dinner at the Union Rescue Mission and Elton offered to walk her home. They must have talked that night about the work they did and the shelters they slept in and the name they shared—wasn’t it funny? And how a person can become more isolated from the world—or less—one step at a time. And how nice it feels when someone who loves you rests a hand on the back of your neck. And how quickly you can find yourself enclosed in a life where such a thing no longer happens and you can barely remember how it ever happened at all. And as they talked, I imagine, the wind began to loosen the webs from around her, and the webs began to calm the wind inside him, and the next night he walked her home again and the two of them moved in together.
“It was love at first sight,” Betty confessed. “There was a real magnetism.” But she worried sometimes about their age difference. She was thirty years Elton’s senior, after all, and as she admits in “What Did I Ever Do to Get You”: “It didn’t seem right/For a few nights.” She urged Elton to leave her and find a younger woman, and twice he did, but he never stayed away for long. According to Janet Harrison, another of Betty’s nieces, “She was definitely the dominant partner in that relationship. I’m not so sure she wasn’t the one taking care of him. But they were very good for each other in that situation.”
Soon the swift current of their histories took hold of them. They started delivering papers together, doing yard work, and house cleaning. They began their practice of making love two or three times a day, seven days a week. They began playing music. People noticed them fanning themselves with their sombreros in the summer heat or walking hand in hand through MacArthur Park, riding their bicycles through Hillcrest or sitting on a bench by the library. Betty ran the Pepsi 10K every year, and Elton played basketball in the Dunbar summer league, and one day, watching him run the court, she must have conceived of “God’s Basketballs,” her Gloria of praise to a God who would not let us fall, no matter how often the world knocked us down.
In 1986, a chance meeting set their music career on its course. Jerry Colburn, who hosted a show each week on Little Rock’s community radio station, KABF, happened to be working at the state social-security office when he noticed the peculiar couple who delivered the Arkansas Gazette to the front desk each day and wore the ukuleles slung over their backs. Did they play music? he asked them. “Oh, we play music,” they said. And so, in April of that year, Elton and Betty made their first appearance behind KABF’s microphone. As soon as they struck up their first track, “The Best Love-Maker in the World,” Colburn knew that he had stumbled upon an exceptional duo. “Betty was always more into social commentary. Elton was more into sex. She’s the storyteller, he’s shameless,” he says. “They didn’t have a doubt in the world that that’s what they were supposed to be doing.”
Colburn enabled Elton and Betty to reach a more substantial audience when he engineered the original four track of their album The Best of Elton and Betty (not a greatest-hits collection, just “the best songs they had written at the time”). Two more albums followed: Sex Beyond the Door, and Hard Deep Sex Explosion. Colburn seems to remember that there was also a fourth album, recorded on eight tracks by musician Bill Jagitsch, but Jagitsch made the mistake of giving the master tapes to Elton and Betty, and, as Colburn puts it, “That was the end of that.” From the very beginning, Sex Beyond the Door sold surprisingly well, prompting Bill Egerton, the proprietor of one local record store, to tell the Arkansas Times, “I can’t keep the tapes in stock. They’ve outsold every other Arkansas artist . . . ten to one.” As the cassettes circulated from hand to hand, Elton and Betty’s music gained a distinct cult status around Little Rock, and not merely for its novelty value. When you read their lyrics laid out on the page, their open sexual appetite can be overwhelming, but when you actually listen to Elton and Betty singing—and singing always, it seems, to each other—what you hear above all is the tenderness in their voices, the courtliness. That and a disarming guilelessness that makes you wonder if they realized exactly how funny their songs could be. “I asked myself that early on,” Colburn says. “Were they trying to be funny or were they unintentionally funny? They had to know that people thought what they were singing was funny. Every time they performed, people laughed. They weren’t put off by it.”
Their shows became popular features at private parties, including, by Elton’s recollection, one hosted by Senator Dale Bumpers. They opened for Brave Combo at Juanita’s, one of Little Rock’s most energetic live-music venues. At one point, the two of them asked Colburn to sign on as their manager, but, he says, “If there was ever an unmanageable music group, it was Elton and Betty White. It would’ve taken a lot of effort to get them moving in a certain direction at a certain time.” He tells a story about a Hyundai he once owned that threw a rod through its engine block and how Elton offered to repair the car, disassembled it, then wandered away leaving the pieces scattered across his backyard. “He never put it back together.”
By the mid-’80s, Elton and Betty had become a familiar enough sight that they began to draw attention from the local press. In 1987, for instance, a benefit was held at the Villa Marre, a historic home in Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter, at which the attendees paid forty dollars to meet the cast of the sitcom Designing Women. The Arkansas Gazette reported that Elton and Betty were escorted out of the party by a police officer, though they had been given tickets by “a man named Mark” while they were walking to the 7-Eleven for coffee. “Elton was dressed real nice. It hurt. It really hurt. A lot of people were watching this,” Betty told the reporter. “These were theater people. They had sequins on.”
They also aroused a certain squint-eyed interest with their political activity. In light of his skintight outfits and her peacockish hair, they had never seemed particularly likely to seek public office, but in 1986 they did exactly that, Elton fielding a writein candidacy against Congressman Tommy Robinson and Betty against Governor Bill Clinton (who—reassured by her nephew Tom Butler, then the Deputy Director of the State Health Department, that he still had the family’s support—spoke warmly of Elton and Betty, reminiscing that they were very smart people and later joking that he might vote for Betty himself). Asked by the press why she and Elton were running, Betty said that “everywhere she looks, she sees an unhappy society and that her candidacy would make people more joyous.” The chief issues on their platform were reducing taxes and lowering the age of consent to fourteen. Elton received 77 votes, Betty 109—a thin showing, but not too bad considering they had done little to advertise their cause other than singing at the mall, holding a press conference at which Elton presented his tune “Thank You Media (for Coming to Our Press Conference),” and waving signs from a crosswalk over the highway. As Betty boasted, “The whole campaign only cost me thirty-six dollars.”
Four years later, the two of them would trade candidacies, Elton running for Governor, drawing 81 votes, and Betty for a seat on the U.S. Senate, her numbers surging to 832. By then, they had married in a small ceremony at the downtown courthouse, and the name they shared had slid together like a stereoscopic image.
It was around this time that I arranged to interview them for a research paper on Arkansas culture. I met Betty outside the room she shared with Elton at the Albert Pike Hotel, where we spoke for some forty minutes. Her husband, she explained, was tired after a long day of hauling furniture, but she herself would be delighted to answer my questions. Here is what she had to say about songwriting: “I wrote about things that I had been interested in, like women that call their babies ‘precious,’ and they grow up and are in wars and terrible things happen to them. I was writing motherhood songs, and they weren’t going over at all, so I thought, ‘Well, you want to hear about sex? I had a marriage for thirty-six years. I’ll sing about sex.’ I started writing about sex, and it just picked up immediately. Elton didn’t like it at all, at first. He said, ‘You sing White songs that make people cry.’ But that’s how it started.”
About inhibition: “Most of the people who find my music offensive are people who are ill, because when you are inhibited it causes bad health. I feel sorry for them. I was reared in the same kind of home. I couldn’t walk for twelve years. I think of things I’m not supposed to think and feel things I’m not supposed to feel. I’m a terrible, terrible person. And every time I see someone in a wheelchair, I think, ‘There but for the grace of God goes Betty White.’”
About motherhood: “Mother love is so strong. It’s sacred, it’s so protective. It’s what protects the child growing up. But after they reach adulthood, it can literally kill a person. The mother looks at the person’s mate, the son’s mate, and what’s she doing to him? Is she doing enough? Is she treating him right? . . . Eventually you look at him and see his mother complaining.”
About racism: “I’ve been through that myself, and I consider myself to be a fairly liberal-minded person. In Japan, I didn’t like to see the white boys with the Japanese girls, and here I am going through the same thing in Arkansas.”
About Elton: “We are very happy in our relationship. We get very angry at each other, but no one is holding a gun to his head to make him stay. . . . Elton says he wants to help problems, and he does. I have real problems with Elton. He’s not as bad as he used to be, but if we only had two pieces of chicken and were in an economic struggle, and somebody walked by, he would say, ‘Hey, want some chicken?’”
About her philosophy: “Enjoy life and leave the world a better place than you find it. . . . If you are not happy and you are not enjoying life, there is no need to make the trip. I believe in a joyous world, and I believe in God, and that has enriched my life so much. I don’t want to see it plowed under.”
About the age of consent: “How old are you, Kevin?”
“You’re eighteen? Then in my estimation, you were old enough to get married about three years ago.”
In 1989, The Arsenio Hall Show aired a recording of “I’m in Love With Your Behind” that Elton and Betty had taped at Little Rock’s RAO Video, with Elton strumming and singing while Betty bobbed and swayed around him in an affectionate little dance. It was, claimed Arsenio, “the biggest-selling video in Arkansas right now.” A couple of years later, encouraged by one of his producers, the two of them set out in their 1970 Chrysler Imperial (Jerry Colburn: “Somebody must have given it to them”) for Los Angeles. When they arrived, though, no one from the show would return their calls. They quickly burned through most of their money. By the time they discovered Venice Beach and its collection of street preachers, fortune-tellers, and sword swallowers, they were sleeping in their car. Out of desperation, they started performing on the boardwalk for tips. Soon they became regulars there, settling into a one-bedroom HUD apartment by the ocean, where they could wake each morning and see the waves brushing the shore. They lived frugally, helped along by Betty’s social-security checks. Every day they ate lunch at McDonald’s, and every night they took a bus to Boston Market, where the staff would be waiting to serve them their usual—a turkey sandwich, mashed potatoes, and a fruit cup, along with an extra plate so they could split the meal in half. Betty’s son, Sammy, now an American Airlines pilot, visited them often. “We’re living an ideal life,” Betty would say. “Elton recycles cans and bottles, and he brings home the most fabulous clothes. We’re literally the most well-dressed people around here.”
Over the next few years, their celebrity began to spread. They hosted a public-access show, Husband and Wife Time, which was cited in a “Best of L.A.” feature in Los Angeles magazine with the tribute “They sing and dance as if they’re stoned-sometimes in bathing suits. Oh, and did we mention that they’re both from Arkansas?” The LA Weekly named them the sexiest couple in Los Angeles. Their act received notices in such publications as the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Variety, which described Betty as “a former Arkansas coworker of President Clinton [who] plays the ukulele and likes to dress in a beaded bikini” and Elton as “a onetime NBA prospect who wears a Speedo stuffed with socks and likes to play a toy keyboard salvaged from a trash can.” Even the French Agence de presse photographe ran a feature on the couple, noting their “sunglasses that would make Karl Lagerfeld look ordinary” and Elton’s “apocalyptically bulging Speedo,” as well as their pornographic video library, with its “impressive collection of interracial orgies.” They appeared on several TV talk shows: Maury Pavich, Sally Jesse Raphael, and The Dairy Show. Often they had mentioned their desire to achieve fame with their music, and it seemed that they were beginning to skirt its edges, but to those who observed them with care it was obvious that fame was simply a game they liked to play, a yarn they liked to spin, an excuse, most of all, for them to conduct themselves in a way that brought a little ebullience to their lives. As someone who used to watch them sing on the boardwalk said to me, “They did not care what people thought. All they cared about was each other, and that was it.”
On August 20, 2003, at the age of seventy-six, Betty died following a short illness. Five years later, Elton remains in the home they shared on Venice Beach, living primarily off the money he makes recycling aluminum cans. Not long ago, he was arrested for disorderly conduct, but he successfully fought the charge, receiving an admission of racial profiling from the LAPD. On his floor, you will find piles of cans, videotapes, and clothing. He has mounted several of Betty’s dresses on the wall, where they hover over him with their sleeves spread open. He takes solace in his religious faith, and in the certainty that in some preternatural way, bound by his love for her, she has not really left him, that she speaks to him through the sound of the wind sweeping over the ocean. According to Tristan Dean, a fan who visited him in 2007, “The only ukulele he now has is her old one, which he does not play but only cradles when he misses her.”
Dean coaxed Elton outside for a walk, and while the two of them were talking, three seagulls dove over the beach. Like a cassette tape catching on its spools, Elton halted his story to count them out.
“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he said.
To those of us who used to see them performing for change down by the river or walking along Markham with their hands around each other’s waists, Elton and Betty White will always belong to Little Rock. They achieved their first small measure of fame here, in the days before the Internet made every local kook the common property of the world, and for a long time, they were a sort of shared civic secret. Though they left for California more than fifteen years ago, they are still remembered in Little Rock with almost universal affection, particularly among the then-adolescent members of the city’s punk-music community. Here, for instance, is a poster named Honky-Tonk Dragon commenting at his blog of the same name:
Some of the crustiest, most cynical, and “hate the world” kids in the LR punk scene at the time, regarded the Whites as son of proxy grandparents, non-judging, nurturing, and a haven from the closeminded conformity which was the status quo in the region at the time. (Or at least so it seemed to teen-agers with green hair.) . . . They proved to this young lizard that you can be your own person with style, humor and grace, that sex can be a good thing worth talking about, and that the truths of the heart are far more important than conventional wisdom.
Here is Sgt. Howie at Dr. Benway’s Office:
RIP Betty, and may all the men in heaven have little dicks.
—and Jennifer Juniper at one of Elton and Betty’s two MySpace pages:
I miss seeing Elton and Betty riding around on their bicycle in Little Rock . . . wearing hot pants and sombreros. Little Rock is a more boring place without them.
—and here is Bircho (the drummer for the venerated Little Rock hard-core band Trusty) at the other:
Betty was very maternal to the punker weirdo type kids there. She was always offering advice (or the more than occasional lecture!). Elton was always laid back, with a huge smile on his face. He once told a friend and I that whenever he was downtown he always looked up when he was next to tall buildings because “you never knew if somebody was falling.”
It cannot be denied that they were figures of fun to many of the people who lived here, and maybe sometimes the laughter directed at them was derisive, and maybe sometimes it was superior, but more often than not, I think, it was tempered with genuine fondness, and I’m not at all sure they didn’t welcome it.
The original cassette releases of the Elton and Berry catalog have become quite hard to find in recent years. Donavan Suitt (the same Donavan Suitt who borrowed Sex Beyond the Door from me when we were in high school and returned it with a dance remix of “Dick Fell in Love With Sally”) is remastering their albums with plans to distribute them. “Elton’s not playing music right now,” says Suitt. “No surprise: He’s lost his inspiration. But maybe he hasn’t had the thought that people really like his music. Maybe we can get him playing again.” It is Suitt’s intention to donate all the profits from the CD releases directly to Elton—as soon, that is, as he and Jerry Colburn can figure out a way to contact him. He has not performed on the boardwalk since Betty died, and if he owns a phone, he has not been answering it. In a photo taken several years ago, he can be seen presenting the camera with a framed portrait of Betty covered in minute red handwriting and a drawing of a cross. There are days, his gaze seems to suggest, when the only sunlight he sees is through his window. On one side of the glass are the shops and the restaurants, the waves rolling into shore, and the sounds of ten thousand people, all of them busy going somewhere, while here, on the other, are his memories of Betty. The choice is easy.
Sex Beyond the Door is twenty years old now, and so is the image on the cover, the one that shows them shushing whoever might be watching. If Elton has not lost it, he must run across the original picture every so often, holding it up to the light and reminding himself, I was like this. Many years ago and half a country away from here, I was strong like this and in love like this and I glowed with youth and happiness. He does not believe he will ever get over her. He flinches at the sound of her name. And if he could see me now, standing behind him in an effort to view the world as he does, I am certain he would strike a pose like the one he once did in the Sears Portrait Studio, turning to look at me over his shoulder, placing his finger to his lips, and swearing me to secrecy.
I still own my copy of Sex Beyond the Door. I have listened to it so often that I know it by heart: every note and every lyric, every breath unexpectedly curtailing the melody. But the Elton and Betty White of “Take Me” and “My Three-Feet Tongue Is Sweet As Sugar” are not the Elton and Betty White who undressed and got into bed and slept side by side each night—not really—and the more I learn about them, the more mysterious they seem to become.
What am I honestly able to say about them? Only that they shared this city between them for a while, and for a while I shared it with them, and now Betty has disappeared into the privacy of her death, and Elton into the privacy of his life, and I find myself wondering how clearly any of us saw them. They were so horny, and they were so beautiful, and you never know if somebody is falling.
“Elton & Betty White: Bouncing Back Like Basketballs” was originally published in the Oxford American’s Winter 2008 Southern Music Issue.
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