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Reliving Elvis

Skip Heller By

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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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