Monday 24 June 2019

Don't be lonesome tonight - see Elvis

Elvis's TV comeback show in 1968 was a black leather moment of hope - before The King became The Burger King

Elvis in his 1968 NBC comeback special, wearing a black leather jumpsuit
Elvis in his 1968 NBC comeback special, wearing a black leather jumpsuit
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

When Elvis Presley made his first recording for Sun in Memphis as an 18-year-old, and was asked to characterise his vocal modus operandi - an incendiary mixture for the times of 'Negro' and hillbilly styles - he replied, truthfully: "I don't sound like nobody."

The truth of his life thereafter is a not a happy one but it surprised no one, not even Elvis himself perhaps.

If you want to read a sad book, pick up Careless Love, the story of Elvis's life as told by Peter Guralnick. And when your heart is not sinking it will be breaking at how such a phenomenal talent could have ended up the way it did; not just his squalid death (expiring of a drug overdose slumped on the toilet of his shagpile-carpeted bathroom at Graceland, on August 16, 1977) but almost sadder still that his gift as a singer and a performer was so wasted on such largely lacklustre material... be it forgettable films or mediocre songs or soul-numbing residencies out in the desert.

Elvis at his peak was one of the greatest performers ever to grace a stage. He was, as The New York Times famously dubbed him in its review of his concert at Madison Square Garden in 1972, a prince from another planet. He was as good an interpreter of songs as Frank Sinatra or Sam Cooke, and he was certainly as charismatic on stage as the likes of James Brown or Mick Jagger.

Had he had the proper management protection, Elvis mightn't have made so many bad career decisions. His intimacy with various prescription drugs, the spineless Memphis Mafia he surrounded himself with, plus his mental health problems, made Elvis almost a sacrificial figure.

In a few very short and very sad years Elvis went from The King to The Burger King. He was an Albert Goldman hatchet job waiting to happen (it wasn't just, as The Washington Post put it in its review of Elvis, Goldman's near-racist contempt for the subject's Southern background.)

It was depressing to watch it unfold: a man with such a voice ruined, a demigod who was killing himself in front of the world. It was like a public crucifixion. You'd like to think it all could have been different had someone interfered but as his ex-wife Priscilla Presley said recently, Elvis didn't listen to nobody but Elvis.

When Elvis sang Are You Lonesome Tonight he turned it into a tragedy of Shakespearean and Old Testament proportions.

He was the great male sex symbol, the lip-curling Elvis The Pelvis who could have any woman but was alone, and obsessed with one woman - his dead mother.

Watch him perform his 1968 NBC comeback special in his black leather jumpsuit, and backed by his original side-men - drummer DJ Fontana and guitarist Scotty Moore - and see a man at the top of his game, who appeared to have the world once more at his feet. Watch him perform Heartbreak Hotel, Trouble, Lawdy, Miss Clawdy and see the slim and sassy 33-year-old mesmerise the millions who watched the show. He had briefly emerged from his Hollywood exile to be his true self once more, "his rocker's charisma again... jamming with his old rockabilly combo, teasing the girls as if he had never stopped touring", as Jon Pareles pointed out in Elvis Rolls On. (Pareles also added that in 1969 Elvis "briefly re-engaged both rock and the era with Suspicious Minds and his moment of social consciousness, In the Ghetto. Then he took on his endless residency in Las Vegas and let himself be swathed in glitter, bombast, self-parody and his own sad girth".)

You can get a glimpse of this pre-parody gloriousness - the King before the fall - when This Is Elvis comes to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from July 3-7. Starring Steve Michaels, the show "recreates all the drama leading up to the comeback as well as staging the monumental concert. It then proceeds with the King to his Vegas debut". You'll be all shook up by the end of it.

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