Ship shape 

For Elliott Michaels, the "Professor' of Little Five Points, a life in music

New Year's Eve was fast approaching. Most years, Elliott Michaels wouldn't have expected to spend the last night of the year performing. After all, Dec. 31 is generally reserved for the big names, and Michaels' bands have never garnered much of a following. His current five-piece band, Galleon, is no exception.

But New Year's Eve 2003 was different. It would be exactly 30 years since Elliott Michaels played his first professional gig: New Year's Eve 1973, at a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., not far from where he was born. The gig, featuring the 17-year-old Michaels and his band, Time of Survival, "was a disaster," he recalls.

But, good or bad, an anniversary is an anniversary. So Michaels picked up the phone and called Ted Lathangue, who runs 9 Lives Saloon in Little Five Points.

Ted first met Elliott years back, when Lathangue worked at Clark Music on Ponce de Leon Avenue and spied an odd Benjamin Franklin-looking guy with a guitar case in hand, waiting at a bus stop outside. When Lathangue started booking 9 Lives, Michaels volunteered to play. While the pudgy, fortysomething Michaels isn't your typical 9 Lives fare, Lathangue gave him a shot. Soon, Lathangue was inviting Michaels on stage to sing Rolling Stones and Foreigner covers with his own band, Bitch, who've long held a Wednesday night residency at the club. At one point, Michaels became the centerpiece of Bitch theme nights -- called "Professor Elliott and Bitch's School of Rock and Roll."

When Lathangue heard about his friend's impending 30th anniversary milestone, he booked Galleon to open 9 Lives' New Year's celebration.

The gig, it turns out, went fairly well. Galleon probably took the stage a little early in the night to draw a big crowd. But it felt good to be up there playing. Performing always feels good to Michaels, but this time was particularly good. Because it was his 30th anniversary, and because Galleon feels like it's beginning to pick up momentum.

"I think 2004," Michaels says with no hint of doubt, "is going to be a very good year for us."

A week after New Year's, Michaels sits outside the two-room apartment he has rented in the Old Fourth Ward for the past four years. Inside it's a mess: Newspapers and plastic grocery bags are strewn everywhere, like what you might expect from someone who has always lived alone and never cared much for the trappings of domesticity.

But outside on a plain wooden chair, Michaels is the model of decorum. He's postured upright, hands resting on his lap. And when he leans forward to talk, he speaks with the absolutely clear articulation of an Ivy League orator.

"I'm 47," he says. "Or to put it in layman's terms, I'm old enough to know better and young enough not to give a damn.

"I've been doing jobs in the secretarial and clerical area for quite some time," he says, though he's been out of work since last spring. "But I don't consider it who and what I am."

Who and what Michaels is: a person who makes music. Not, mind you, a person with overwhelmingly apparent musical talent, or someone who has ever come close to making a living from playing music. And he's not a person bound for stardom -- though, after 30 years, it still remains among the possibilities Michaels imagines for himself.

He's a person who makes music, and that's all. It's his passion, and he does what he's passionate about. Because, in Michaels' cosmology, what else is there?

If you've spent any amount of time at 9 Lives in recent years, or across the street at the Star Bar, there's a good chance you've seen Elliott. Amid all the tattoos, piercings and leather, he stands out: He's the middle-aged guy wearing a cardigan or collared shirt and slacks -- looking far more like, say, Dick Cheney than your typical L5P scenester.

If he's on stage with Galleon, he's the guy singing no-frills classic-style rock -- songs of inspiration ("Open Up Your Soul") and love ("Options") -- interspersed with dramatic exhortations to the audience: "Sit back and get ready for the ride of your life, for this is rock 'n' roll at its high watermark." If he's not on stage, he's the guy rocking out in the audience, enjoying the band -- whatever band -- more than you are.

"He comes out and supports everyone, whether it's a hard rock band, a nu metal band, a stoner band, a girl group, whatever," 9 Lives' Lathangue says.

Lathangue considers Michaels a friend. But he's not going to lie, the dude is weird -- even Michaels himself will cop to that. Mostly, Michaels' weirdness is a function of his looking so out of place in the place he most chooses to be. But there's also a deeper incongruence. His demeanor, his articulation -- it suggests someone transported through time from an earlier, more formal and chivalrous era. He's been known to kiss women on the hand.

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