Last month, as lights dimmed in the Ruth Eckerd Hall auditorium, I flashed back to Aug. 24, 1983 when a slightly off-kilter 24-year-old drove 126 miles one-way to see one Declan Patrick McManus in concert. You probably know him as Elvis Costello.
It was my first Elvis concert, and surely the most memorable. I’ve seen Elvis six times, but my rekindled memories have nothing to do with the actual show. Aug. 24, 1983 remains vivid because of the great Elvis T-shirt caper.
The escapade began when Mike Smith and I got the bright idea to silk screen T-shirts to commemorate what promised to be the greatest concert of our lives.
And it would have been … if our T-shirts hadn’t been so dang awesome.
Mike’s claim to almost fame was his Bucky Blaster comics, but the guy could draw anything. To this day, his sketch of my little brother eating an “all-day sandwich” is my most prized piece of art.
So I wasn’t surprised when he penned an incredible image of Elvis screeching into a swaying microphone while his band rocked steady. Mike nailed it! Elvis and the Attractions looked just like, well, Elvis and the Attractions!
So we hand-cut the images into a sheet of emulsion just like Mr. Fettig taught me in Graphic Arts, applied stencil to a silk screen and pulled ink with a window washing squeegee. Oh, and we heat-cured the yellow K-Mart T-shirts in Gwen’s oven. Only two caught on fire.
My friends and I proudly wore our shirts to the concert. Mike carried five extras he planned to sell.
It was a grand plan … until Wesley got pulled aside by an ogre wearing a lame Elvis shirt (it was emblazoned with a pair of glasses) and ID badge bearing the word “crew.”
“Where the h— did you get that shirt?” he thundered. “I bought it from a guy selling shirts out of the trunk of his car,” Wes said with the aplomb of a safe-cracker.
Mr. Angry pushed past Wes and ran toward the parking lot without so much as a glance at the shirts Mike and I wore. Wes and I laughed and congratulated Mike on producing a shirt 100 times cooler than the official merchandize.
Mike wasn’t laughing. “We could go to jail. We have to ditch these things,” he shrieked before making a beeline for a nearby restroom.
Mike exited with his shirt turned inside out. His pockets no longer bulged; Mike had stuffed the extra shirts in a trash can.
Me, I proudly wore my shirt through the whole show. At least two dozen people asked me where they could get one. Some offered to buy the shirt off my back.
That shirt was obviously priceless. It still is.
I haven’t been able to squeeze into it for years, but I have it tucked away somewhere. You don’t trash a rarity, something only four people in the world own — me, Mike, Wes and the guy who emptied the restroom trash cans.