Elvis Perkins' life is a tragic and triumphant fairytale. The son of a Hollywood king, he was only a boy when his mother visited a fortuneteller. One can imagine the fortuneteller looking deep into Berry Berenson's eyes, her voice full of self-seriousness, and explaining that, although her son was musically talented, a career in music was not in the cards. Perkins says that after his mother relayed the news to him, he felt as if his "destiny had been taken away."
If a musician lives his whole life to make his first record, then Perkins made good on his life until now with Ash Wednesday-his hauntingly sad yet beautiful debut album, which plays out like a 32-year tale of love and loss. Like Dylan's Time Out of Mind or Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate, it's an intimate portrait of an artist who feels that he finally has something to say but doesn't know if words are enough to describe what he feels.
"If it didn't go down the way it's been going down, I'm not sure what that would leave me with or what I'd be doing," explains Perkins. "Getting through a catastrophic day is all relative to how you face it."
Perkins has had a couple days like this. His father, actor Anthony Perkins (Psycho), initially got Elvis into music. After years of rumors about his sexuality, the elder Perkins succumbed to AIDS in 1992. Almost nine years later to the day, his mother boarded American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to L.A. The plane was the first to hit the World Trade Center.
Once these things are known about Perkins-who doesn't attempt to hide them or refuse to talk about them, as some might-it's hard not to get overtly analytical with the lyrics on Ash Wednesday. On the title track, with its imagery of fire and "tear gas clouds," Perkins sounds like a sleep-deprived drunk who's just a little self-conscious of the fact that he is still conscious. But whatever their meaning, he says the songs are more painful on his throat than on his spirit. And, if anything, it's healing to perform such songs.
"I'm just trying to stay in the present as much as I can. Half with a sense of amazement and wonder, and half with a sense of duty and satisfaction in knowing that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."
In this fairytale, the seers are wrong. Sometimes the hero really does live happily, but not too happily, ever after.
Elvis Perkins plays with Let's Go Sailing at The Casbah on Wednesday, March 21. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. $10. 619-232-HELL.