We Don’t Want No Ukulele

A walk on Waikiki’s (slightly) wild side

Voices of the past: the classic music to be found at Bailey’s (Image: Gillian G. Gaar)

Vaccine mandates haven’t kept a line from forming to get into Cuckoo Coconuts.

When I last visited, on a pre-pandemic Sunday night, the Tiki-themed restaurant/bar, tucked away on Royal Hawaiian Avenue, was empty. I ate my Hawaiian burger (so-called due to the pineapple and teriyaki sauce) in near silence. Now, despite signs sternly warning that dancing is not allowed (another pandemic precaution), people are clearly itching for a little action.

Two college students suggest I’d have a better chance of getting seated by joining them, instead of waiting for a table as a single. I agree, though one of the would-be lotharios, arms covered with tattoos, is denied entry, due to his swigging too openly from his beer can. “Don’t come back until you’ve finished!” the wait staffer warns him (he smuggles it in later anyway). The other fellow asks what I’ll be doing the rest of my trip, hinting that we could perhaps get together. Sensing my disinterest, he hollers over to a table of young women more in his age demographic, oblivious to the fact that they’ve been glaring at use due to how loud he and his friend have been. The drinks are flowing, there’s a band onstage, the wait staff can’t bring orders soon enough, and there’s still a line of folks waiting to get in. It’s the sound of Waikiki coming back to life on a Wednesday night.

“Any requests?” The nightly entertainment at Cuckoo Coconuts (Image: Gillian G. Gaar)

The popular conception of entertainment in Hawaii is that of dulcet sounds; the friendly chirp of the ukulele, the gentle glide of lap steel or slack key guitar, and, of course, hula. And certainly you’ll still find that around the islands (such as at House Without a Key at Halekulani, my favorite place for sunset cocktails). But I was seeking out a different experience, looking to unearth a little rock ‘n’ roll spirit among the tourists now returning to Waikiki in ever greater numbers. Something more enervating than “My Little Grass Shack” and “Hawaiian Wedding Song.” Something that might keep you out past sunset.

First, a stop at Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts, for a touch of sartorial Hawaiian cool. Bailey’s is an institution, with a stock of over fifteen thousand shirts, ranging from the cheap five dollar offerings on the rack outside, to the collectible fare hanging from the ceiling inside, selling for hundreds of dollars. The biggest seller is the red Magnum PI parrot shirt (the original 1980s Magnum, mind you), selling for $65. Note that rayon shirts hang better than cotton. The antiques part of the store can keep you exploring for hours, digging among the wide-ranging assortment of vinyl, toys, clothing, and artifacts of Hawaiiana. The photos around the store also reveal that celebrity sightings are possible; past visitors have included the likes of Nicholas Cage, Matt Damon, and Jimmy Buffett. On my visit, I only encountered a man shopping for Danny DeVito (“Does he like Aloha shirts?” “I don’t know”).

In Waikiki, you’ll find a little Elvis everywhere (Image: Gillian G. Gaar)

As far rock music, there’s no getting away from Elvis here. The King made three movies in the islands (Blue Hawaii; Girls, Girls, Girls; Paradise, Hawaiian Style), stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Ilikai hotels (the latter seen to good effect in the opening credits of the original Hawaii 5-0), and performed a number of concerts on Oahu; there’s a commemorative statue outside the Blaisdell Arena, site of his 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii” shows. And there’s also a restaurant dedicated to his legacy, the Rock Island Café, which looks back to a time “When Elvis was King, Marilyn was Queen, and they both drank Coca-Cola.”

Walking into the Rock Island is like stepping into a super-sized version of a diner out of Happy Days. There are cute booths, a soda fountain, and TV sets airing a constant stream of clips from vintage television shows and movies (likely including Happy Days). But it’s the memorabilia that really catches your eye, a mix of collectables and more recently made items: specially mounted film cells of Elvis’ movies; an original vinyl single of Mike Post’s Magnum PI theme; Primo beer bottles. And never fear, soda fountain aside, you can get plenty of alcohol to accompany your pizza or burger; the mai tais in particular pack a punch (“They’re pretty heavy pours,” owner Mike Gelfo proudly notes). And where better to sip a Blue Hawaii than under that film’s poster?

The Heyday: an exercise in nostalgia (Image: Gillian G. Gaar)

The Heyday, the revamped poolside bar at the White Sands Hotel, offers another retro experience. As I strolled past the pool to the bar, deciding whether I should sit on a regular stool or a swing (the more you drink, the more the latter becomes problematic), I heard an Elvis song from one of his Hawaiian films wafting from the speakers, and I knew I’d come to the right place. The drinks are given a modern spin; the “Daiquiri Number Fun” has passionfruit and lychee in addition to lime and rum. And the music made me feel like I’d stepped back into my parents’ living room in the 1960s, giving me a warm and fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. On telling my bartender that only Herb Alpert was missing from the playlist, he smiled and said, “Just wait!”

If it’s a Sunday afternoon, you can wander down to Duke’s Waikiki and catch the best free show on the beach — Henry Kapono’s “Duke’s on Sunday.” Henry is Hawaii’s unofficial goodwill ambassador; on Hawaiian Airlines, you’ll be serenaded by his “Home in the Islands” video as part of the in-flight entertainment. Henry’s been a leader in Hawaiian contemporary music since the days of his ’70s group Cecelio & Kapono, and this (mostly) weekly showcase (sometimes he’s away on tour) gives you a great opportunity to catch him in action.

When Henry’s in town, the tables are cleared out of Duke’s outside patio, a pop up bar is installed, and Henry holds forth from 4 to 6 pm. Pre-pandemic, you could literally walk in off the beach, get a beer, and listen to Henry rocking the revelers with a mid-tempo groove (“I Shot the Sherriff” seems to be on autoplay). During the pandemic, the patio has been cordoned off, and the limited space fills up fast, but you can still see the show from the beach side, as plenty of fans liked to do even when the patio was open. You can also watch even if you’re not in Hawaii, as the show is streamed over Henry’s facebook page, bringing a little Aloha spirit right into your home.

Henry Kapono: Hawaii’s unofficial goodwill ambassador (Image: Gillian G. Gaar)

Cuckoo Coconuts seems to cater to the tourist crowd (the giveaway is that they serve drinks in hollowed-out pineapples or coconuts). As such, they don’t want to scare anyone away, and the live entertainment is mainstream fare; on my visit, a woman singer was making her way through the likes of “Blue Bayou,” “Old Time Rock and Roll,” and “Hotel California.” For a more low key (and adult) experience, check out Arnold’s Beach Bar. There’s some tiki décor, but you wouldn’t really call it a “tiki bar”; as online reviews note, it’s really more of a neighborhood dive bar, with the kind of nondescript entrance you might easily mistake for an alleyway. They have live music in the early evening; when I asked the singer-songwriter playing guitar if he knew any Nirvana, he obliged me by playing “All Apologies.” It’s the kind of place you could imagine having the motto, “Where friends meet friends.”

As far as evening shows, there are currently Polynesian-themed productions running at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Royal Hawaiian hotels, and the International Market Place mall. But non-Polynesian shows have had a harder time of it in Waikiki, even before the pandemic. Blue Hawaii, the Elvis impersonator show — gone. Fourever Fab Presents the Best of the Beatles, another impersonator show — gone. Na Kane: Men of Paradise, with men stripping to a hot soundtrack — gone. There’s only one such show that’s still standing: Rock-A-Hula

Doing it his way: Johnny Fortuno as Elvis in Rock-A-Hula (Image: Gillian G. Gaar)

Rock-A-Hula (the title of an Elvis song from Blue Hawaii) opened in 2011 as a standard impersonator show, with a set from four different tribute artists. In 2014, it got an upgrade, with Polynesian culture (hula, fire-knife dancers) serving as a backdrop to a rotating cast of main performers. Given his ties to Hawaii, there’s always an Elvis in the show, and Johnny Fortuno has great fun with the role. He’s slim enough to portray both the 1960s-era Elvis, crooning something from one the King’s Hawaiian films, and the jumpsuit-clad superhero from the 1970s, belting out “Suspicious Minds” and “My Way” with gusto. His passion draws you in; it’s a sincere portrayal, without the cheesiness of some tribute artists. Plus, he can really sing.

Michael Jackson, currently played by Brandon Jones, is show’s other tribute artist (the Hawaii tie-in is that Jackson’s last US shows were in Honolulu). There’s also a “Hawaii artist” to add some more local color (Sienna Souza, when I attended). It’s an engaging, fun way to pass the early evening, as the show gets out around 9 p.m. But you can add a dinner option, and, seeking to make more use of the venue, there’s now a post-show “Music Lounge” that opens when the show’s over, featuring contemporary Hawaiian music and piano, continuing all the way to midnight.

MJ, Sienna and Elvis bid you a fond farewell during Rock-A-Hula’s closing number (Image: Gillian G. Gaar)

Most music in starts to wind down around 9-ish in Waikiki. But at 9:30 pm, Marshall Turner has cranked his amp on Kalakaua Avenue (one of Waikiki’s main thoroughfares), and shows no signs of turning in. I met Marshall over a decade ago, among the myriad street performers who hustle for tips on Kalakaua. He was dressed Elmo (a big hit with the kids), but he’s a multi-talented guy, who’s also hawked handmade duct-tape wallets and can twist balloons into amusing animal shapes. 

And he’s also a musician, playing “Original rock with a blues influence, combining old school guitar techniques with a Jeff Beck/Van Halen/Hendrix kind of modern approach.” Unable to find a venue for his talents in Waikiki, where the emphasis is on playing covers, he’s taken to the streets: “Gotta make your own gig, bro!” He’s something of a purist about presentation as well, standing up as he plays (“I don’t sit down; that’s lazy”), which of course gives him all the more room to move about as he shreds. 

Marshall Turner rocks Kalakaua (Image: Gillian G. Gaar)

He admits that life as a street performer can be challenging. “On the street, you’ve got just a second or two to try and catch people’s attention as they walk by.” And then there’s the noise factor. As more tourists arrive, with an increase in street performers to meet them, local residents are griping about the volume, with a bill currently making its way through the city council to limit the noise level (ironically, Marshall’s interview with Hawaii News Now is drowned out by a loud car). But despite the lack of remuneration (he figures he earns about minimum wage), he persists; “If the music’s in you, it’ll come out.”

And that’s the resilience that I took away from my time in Waikiki; a determination by all to get back to taking care of business. And what better way to do that than with a mai tai and the right sounds at hand? You don’t have to look too hard to find it.

In Waikiki, the new music waiting to be discovered is just a downbeat away.

 

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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