Reliving Elvis

Skip Heller By

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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.


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