Reliving Elvis


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No matter how much is written, or by whom, Elvis Presley remains impossible to explain. The usual "young white rocker who could sing black" is as inaccurate as any standing American mythology. His legacy has been as mangled as his career was, often to the detriment of the work itself. Yes, at the time of his death, Elvis had become (to use Frank Zappa's description) "that poor guy, that drug-infested blimp." Yes, by 1962 he had become the star of bad movies that spawned mostly bad songs.

But look closely, and a much more complex and magnetic artist comes into focus, one who hangs onto his fastball well into the late innings. Elvis had power, a mystique few could ever claim. He was remote but never cold, and his fans to a one related to him (many still do). Maybe you had to have been to an Elvis concert to have felt the full impact.

Which I was.

As a small child, I fell under the spell, seeing his famous Aloha From Hawaii television special as it aired on January 13, 1973. I walked into the room while my mother was watching, and I was fascinated. It was an otherwise unremarkable day. Except that a figure approaching a billion people around the world watched Elvis sing on TV. And that was the headline the next day.

Watching the DVD of that special now is still quite something. The King is in fantastic voice, terrific physical shape, and clearly rising to an immense performance challenge. But there's also a lot of TV hula cheese throughout, to say nothing of a few melodramatic song choices that point out his excesses in the most unsubtle ways. Not everything about it has aged well.

Just six months earlier, Elvis played New York for the first time since his famous appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show (the last being January 6, 1957), something he was reluctant to do. He played four capacity-crowd shows at Madison Square Garden, from which a fantastic live album (Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden) was assembled. Although history has awarded the mantle of importance to the Hawaii show, this one has the intensity and the power and even the charm. The Prince From Another Planet gives us the afternoon and evening shows he performed on the first day (June 10, 1972). And puts us in the room as no previous Elvis release has done.

First of all, his backing band was on fire. The rhythm section of bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Ronnie Tutt was equal parts sizzle and steak. They were busy, but they grooved very hard. Also, they very versatile. The slow, funky "Never Been To Spain" percolates and builds to a climax spearheaded by one of those showstopping Elvis vocals. But "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" is sheer stark drama. Unlike the famous Phil Spector Wall of Sound masterpiece that features the unforgettable vocal handoff between Righteous Brothers Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, this is a one man delivery. No problem. Guitarist James Burton's fills are perfectly placed as well. And even in this, the vocal is delivered so casually that it's easy to overlook the virtuosity.

(Phil Spector and I became friends, and I rarely asked him about his own songs or other people's interpretation, knowing his feeling about the producer's role. But I couldn't resist asking him about this one, and he said, "You have no idea how great he was.")

The whole show is a study in casual power. Elvis was apparently nervous backstage, having never gotten over the whipping the New York critics gave him back in the fifties. He was not sure New York audiences would like him. He needn't have worried. It becomes obvious in the first few bars of "That's All Right" (his first song on both shows) that he owns New York. The crowd hangs on his every word, every note. The band responds to the crowd's energy with a charge of their own. At the helm is King Elvis, alternating sheer vocal command with self-mockery, charm, and pure rhythm'n'blues sexuality.

The eclectic scope of the set list—the two shows are nearly identical—gives every indication that this is a contemporary entertainer. Rock revivalism was providing many a fifties rocker with a new payday, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, and more than a few others were playing big halls again. In fact, Madison Square Garden was (on October 15, 1971) the site of the famous "Garden Party" that Rick Nelson wrote and sang about. Crowds were coming out to hear the old stuff. Don't mess it up by providing anything new.

But Elvis Presley did not take those cues. Yes, ten of the twenty-five songs in the first show (and nine of the twenty-two in the second) were chart hits—including "Suspicious Minds" which was about three years old at the time and had hit Number One on the Billboard charts. But the rest of the material is country, rhythm'n'blues, and rock, and not retro. His version of Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times" is knowing, sad, and compassionate. Where Ray Price's chart-topping version was the sound of a man who had come to accept the end of a relationship and was trying to offer comfort, Elvis' reading is offhanded and strong outside, but there's a subtle thing when he sings "and make believe you love me one more time" that is palpable.

This is not an oldies show. This is a very present tense Elvis Presley. The climax of the shows isn't a rereading of one of the old hits but rather a throwdown of Tony Joe White's tale of swampland poverty, "Polk Salad Annie," that sounds more inspired by the Ike and Tina Turner Revue than anything Chuck Berry would attempt. The rhythm section is funkier than thou, and Burton's guitar playing is extra greasy. and let us not forget the "chickaboom chickaboom" backing vocals. It's a big, screaming soul frenzy that has nothing to do with teenagers in love.

By the time the show ends—"Can't Help Falling In Love" is his closer—he has literally built, inhabited, and departed from a music world he's built around himself.

The most unfathomable thing about Elvis is the ambiguity of his judgement. As a pure singer, none finer ever lived. But his legacy is so tightly bound to substandard songs. While other singers cutting in the sixties had material by Bacharach/David, Goffin/King, or one of the other great partnerships of the rock era, the King was tethered to dross by Delores Costello (Ed "Plan 9" Wood's girlfriend) and Ben Weisman. Every so often he'd rescue himself from oblivion just long enough to remind us of his power, but he'd generally fall back into bad movie songs and no live audience interaction.

Until his historic 1968 comeback special (on NBC TV) reaffirmed him as a major talent. At which point the songs and productions improved, the movies went away, and he went back to live gigs.

The book and DVD of Prince do much to restore the feeling of Elvis coming to your town. For a few days before, the papers were full of small features about Elvis and his fans. If there were tickets left for a show, there was generally a small ad with big letters ("ELVIS!!") to sell them off. In the pre-death days, Elvis imitators were relatively few, so there would generally be an article about one. If you were in the Philadelphia area, Larry Seth was the guy. He had a revue called 'The Big El Show.' On the West Coast, there was Alan Meyer, a/k/a Alan. Neither looked that much like Elvis, and it was the pre-surgery days of showbiz, so these acts were still a light curiosity. There was also a major local Elvis collector, Paul Lichter, who wrote books and had a huge collection of memorabilia. His Huntingdon Valley home was something of an Elvis museum.

I remember these articles vividly. I remember Elvis playing the Spectrum on June 23, 1974 and the days leading up to it. Because I went, with my grandmother. That show was probably the most important event of my childhood, too. I clipped every article out of the three area newspapers, as if there would be some clue to what the show would give me. The New York articles from the Garden show are collected here, and Lenny Kaye's liner notes—he was at the show and the press conference—are the best rock liner notes I have seen in over a decade. His ability to communicate every aspect of the story—and it is one—to pure cohesion is worthy of any writer's jealousy, which I have for him at this moment, very much.

The Spectrum was a big, ugly-sounding hockey rink in South Philadelphia. The boxing scenes in Rocky were shot there. In 1974, its seating capacity for concerts was about 18,000. Elvis gave two shows on that day, one at 3 pm, and a second at 8:30. The band was pretty much the same as on Prince.

In these rustic days, only the Grateful Dead really invested heavily in their touring sound system. The sound of the Spectrum was terrible (I was to attend quite a few shows there over the years), and there were no video screens or anything of the type to amplify the visuals. My grandmother borrowed a pair of high-powered field glasses from my Uncle Dave, retired Navy. They weighed more than I did, and I hung on to them for dear life, because they cost about fifty (1974) dollars, which was the defense budget to an eight year old boy.

The lines and crowds in front of the venue were a crush, made even worse by that it was raining and hot. There were cheap plastic umbrellas as far as the eye could see, and vendors selling all manner of Elvis pictures and posters, some authorized, some not. There were more women than men, and my grandmother (then 52) was about the average age. The clumps of people reshaped themselves into orderly, solemn lines. These people didn't go often to concerts. They dressed up for this one. It was important for them, too. My grandmother held onto me, and I held onto Uncle Dave's expensive binoculars. There seemed to have been a miniature eternity from the time in the line to our being seated then finally the lights dimming. It was likely only thirty minutes.

When the lights finally went down, the band—with horns, backing singers, the works—went into Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra," known more for its use in 2001: A Space Odyessy. As it burst into it climactic end chord, the drums went into a kind of doubletime George Of The Jungle tom-tom groove, and the audience went crazy, the trumpets kicked in, and 18,000 people went collectively batshit. The "whoosh" of 18,000 continuous cheers was as loud as the band, and then...

The flashcubes. In these pre-digital days, portable cameras were small Kodak instamatics and brownie boxes. Flash came from cubes with four small bulbs, one to a shot. Or from small disposable bulbs. The tiny torrents of lights were random and violent to the eye. And constant. Those first few minutes Elvis was onstage, you could have read a book by those flashcubes. It was blinding.

Until now, I have not encountered anything that pointed accurately to that experience, but the DVD that comes with Prince features some 8mm film shot at the Madison Square Garden afternoon show, synched to the the audio. Regrettably, it's not the whole show, and mostly only pieces of songs through the set, but it's decently shot, and from far enough back that it's exactly what I remember seeing and hearing through the fifty dollar field glasses, except with much better sound. There's a short documentary, and footage from a press conference Elvis gave for the show, and those likely should have prepared me for what I was about to see in that 8mm footage, but it didn't. I was sucked in and reliving it, reliving his connection to the audience that hung on every note, word, and stage move. There was Elvis, unstudied, casual, conquering, exactly as I recalled. I could smell the cigarette smoke and hairspray all over again. I got choked up as it all came back.

The enormity of our lives' events will often lead the thoughtful among us to question if things were as we really remember them. Rarely are we visited after the fact with forensic evidence that tells us our memory was on point. For once, Elvis' full glory has been packaged and preserved with dignity and distinction, and we have that glimpse of what it was really like.

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