Around these parts, we like to write about Elvis Presley on the occasion of his birthday. Whereas in the past we’ve recommended some music and ranked his movies, this year we’re going to take a darker turn. To mark the King’s 78th birthday yesterday, we’ll discuss Elvis in Concert, a CBS TV special (and soundtrack) showing footage from two of the handful of Presley’s final concerts, June 19 and 21, 1977, in Omaha and Rapid City. Elvis’s last concert took place in Indianapolis June 26 and he died on August 16.
If you’re so inclined, you can listen to the album here.
Elvis in Concert is an incredibly depressing document of the last days of an American icon. A performer who rose to fame propelled by vitality, sexuality and energy appears here a ghost of his former self — enervated, clouded and lost. It’s a rare thing to have an audiovisual record of the moment before the death of someone as famous as Elvis (or at least it used to be), and Elvis in Concert is as illuminating in its own way as Kurt Cobain’s suicide note.
Presley didn’t kill himself as directly as Cobain did, but all the reasons and warning signs are present in the performances he gave just two months before he died. Elvis in Concert provides a map to the last days of Elvis the same way that Let it Be gives us insight into the Beatles’ breakup or that 2 Broke Girls will someday mark the end of the U.S. republic.
The psychic pain, the drugs, the weight, the lethargy and negligence, the out-of-control downward momentum — it’s all in there if you can stand to hear it.
And I barely can, to be honest. I listened to the soundtrack to Elvis in Concert to prepare for this post, and it was only the second time I’ve ever listened to it — the first since buying the CD in the early ’90s. It’s not an easy listen — for a couple reasons. Aside from the obvious morbidity of the whole thing, the music itself is terrible, due entirely to the state in which Elvis finds himself — a sad, pathetic, irreversible decline.
The soundtrack opens with fan interviews before the concert as they file into the arena. They all praise Presley, declare their fealty to him and excitement for the performance. One woman says, “I imagine he’ll still be as good looking as he always was. Just older.” Uh, lady…
Another fan says, “all ages come to see him, I think,” a statement which is immediately cast into doubt by the voices of the people being interviewed. A few of them are clearly elderly and the rest don’t exactly sound spry.
Elvis stopped making new fans when the Beatles broke, and probably even earlier then that when his new music dried up upon his entering the Army. As music and pop culture rushed by him like a bullet train in the ’60s, he was mostly content to make silly musical movies about the race car driver getting the stuck up but pretty girl. He couldn’t stay relevant.
Then, when his creative resurgence began with the ’68 Comeback Special, any chance he had to reach young fans had passed. Despite several years of impressive concerts, TV specials and quality new music, American youth had no use for Elvis Presley anymore. Luckily for Presley and those his money kept in good stead, his original fans from the ’50s proved fiercely loyal. Teenage girls scandalized by young Elvis’s slithering hips were now old ladies happy to catch a scarf thrown from the stage.
After the fan segment, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) begins for what was at one time the best stage entrance this side of “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Here’s the same intro just four years earlier:
Make no mistake: Elvis’s artistic Renaissance was very much real. While Presley’s entire ’70s existence now gets lumped together as the “Fat Elvis” years, but that’s not entirely fair.
The early part of that decade saw Presley still reasonably fit and definitely putting on good shows. Yes, some of his choices made him eminently mockable to generations of punks, heavy metal fans, indie rock kids and more — the bedazzled jumpsuits, the weird obsession with martial arts displays on stage (Elvis was a kind of precursor to Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), the scarves and kissing — but Presley was determined to give the crowd his money’s worth.
For much of the ’70s, his voice remained in fine form, his backing band grew airtight and, while beefier than in his Ed Sullivan youth, certainly not fat.
Check out “Polk Salad Annie” from 1970:
That all changed in the last couple years of his life as his drug problem got worse, his enablers got grew greedier, and he drifted further away from any sort of grounded reality.
By June 1977, there wasn’t much left of Elvis Presley. His lucid moments were fewer and further between. He became untethered without any consistent, guiding force in his life like his mother or his wife. Dr. Nick kept the pills coming and Elvis kept taking them.
The entire 1977 tour was a disaster. As rumors promulgated in gossip media about Presley’s health and state of mind, he put on a series of brief, poorly received concerts characterized by bizarre behavior and a distant, unrecognizable star.
According to Peter Guralnick’s “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley”:
In Alexandria, Louisiana, he put on virtually identical shows on successive nights that pretty much reflected the mood of the tour. ‘[He] was onstage less than an hour,” the Alexandria Daily Town Talk reported, “he was impossible to understand…he never said one word to the audience…He [simply] came on stage, did a few numbers, and then dashed off.” Just as on other dates, he forgot lyrics, complained about the sound, arbitrarily stopped and started songs, and sometimes looked and sounded weary almost past the point of enduring.”
The tour also saw shows cancelled at the last minute because Elvis was too drug-sick in his hotel room to stand. Yet somehow, Colonel Tom Parker persuaded CBS to cough up decent money to film the two shows in Omaha and Rapid City and compile a special.
Which brings us back to Elvis in Concert. Once Elvis takes the stage and launches into opener “See See Rider,” you can immediately tell something is wrong.
Elvis’s vocals are thick and slurred, as if the words have to fight through a potent stew of saliva, barbiturates and butter to make it out to open air. He brings no energy to a song that outright demands it…a song that always killed several years before. Here, it comes and goes and leaves no impact except the startled realization that there is something very wrong with the singer.
Even Prelsey’s customary, iconic “Thank you very much” after the song ends lacks conviction and coherence.
Presley mutters something about the concert being on TV, then complains about being under hot lights. He has transformed into a grotesque, slumped on stage leaking sweat, struggling to stay in the moment as the crowd gawks.
Then, he launches into “That’s All Right,” a rockabilly romp that also happens to be the first single he ever released for Sun Records. While it becomes apparent that there’s nothing wrong with the backing musicians — Presley’s touring band was consistently professional and excellent in the ’70s — the problem lies entirely with Elvis himself.
“That’s All Right” does bring to light some of the more pervasive problems with Elvis’s act by this point. He had made everything bigger and flashier and overstuffed until the songs could hold no more music. He added horns on top of backing singers on top of flutes. Many of Elvis’s early songs — “That’s All Right,” “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” “Heartbreak Hotel” — work best with simple arrangements and spare, driving energy. Instead, Presley began to drown them with schmaltz and stuff them into hyperactive medleys.
Of course, those problems paled in comparison to the narcotic-fueled lump at center stage. Off key, mumbling, and audibly disinterested, Presley dragged the music down into his hole.
Next comes “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” — the pacing of the setlist is terrible. The truncated version of the show that appears in the soundtrack and on the special doesn’t do the flow any favors, but you can see that even in the full setlist, the pacing is abominable. Slow songs and fast songs are interspersed with no thought seemingly given to placement within the set.
Beyond that, though, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” represents the most painful moment of Elvis’s recorded history.
During the spoken word section of the song (beginning at the 1:27 mark of the video above), Elvis completely forgets the words, begins mumbling incoherently, tries to joke his way out of his predicament, but never gets back on track. His tongue is his own enemy and he seems literally unable to form English words at times. At least he has the presence of mind to notice the irony as he tried to say, “You read your lines so cleverly/You never missed a cue,” — though that hint of self-awareness somehow makes the whole thing even more excruciating. Finally, after what feels like an hour of Elvis trying to make it through an uncomplicated 20-second speech, he blurts out “aw, the heck with it” and launches back into singing. Throughout the show, in fact, speaking seems more difficult for Presley than singing — not that the singing seems easy.
It’s agonizing to listen to Presley go through this, on stage in front of thousands of people (and posthumously in front of millions, when CBS aired the special 2 months after his death), with no escape available. This is the point when it hits you: you a hearing a dying man.
“His voice is almost unrecognizable, a small, childlike instrument in which he talks more than sings most of the songs, casts about uncertainly for the melody in others, and is virtually unable to articulate or project. He gives the impression of a man crying out for help when he knows help will not come. And even after more than twenty years it is almost unbearable to listen to or watch, the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty, and in its place sheer, stark terror.”
One of the most frightening parts of listening to Elvis in Concert is the realization that CBS only used the best material. The worst, darkest, most heart-wrenching moments were all left on the cutting-room floor.
And yet listening to the soundtrack still feels like hearing a prolonged, private death rattle.
Elvis moves on, blessedly, from “Are You Lonesome…” into a “Teddy Bear/Don’t Be Cruel” medley, followed by the ’70s ballad “You Gave Me a Mountain.” Two things become increasingly apparent: 1) Elvis’s voice is shot. Aren’t fat people supposed to be better singers? Opera and all that? This recording single-handedly destroys that myth. 2) The state of Elvis makes even innocent lines in his songs seem prescient and insidious. The “put a chain around my neck and lead me anywhere” bit from “Teddy Bear” sounds less like a playful flirtation and more like a brainwashed cult member speaking to Colonel Parker or his handlers. It’s impossible to listen to any of these songs without certain lyrics jumping out through the stereo and slapping you across the face, screaming, “Elvis is going to die!”
“Jailhouse Rock” begins with a tossed off, “My third movie was called Jailhouse Rock,” which is emblematic of how much thought Elvis put into his stage banter and introductions for this concert. “The first record I ever cut was called That’s All Right,” etc. He can’t keep up with the speed of the vocal melody in “Jailhouse,” constantly singing a note or two behind the beat.
Soon, Elvis launches into the gospel track, “How Great Thou Art,” an exceedingly strange choice for the set. It’s a complete momentum killer, slow and maudlin and not catchy at all. Elvis recorded some great gospel music in his career — check out “Peace in the Valley”:
But “How Great Thou Art is not one of those great songs, and it comes off even worse live, and even worse than that in Elvis’s current state. It’s also odd and telling that he’d include gospel in his set at that point because Presley always had a complicated relationship with religion. He purported to be a good Christian boy because that’s what his fans and mother desired, but his lifestyle betrayed a lot of his wholesome beliefs. He also read voraciously about other religions — taking ideas from Eastern philosophies and incorporating them into his life. Retreating to a standard Christian gospel so close to the end of his life feels like a little boy trying to climb back into the womb.
At this point in the soundtrack, more fans are interviewed, and one British gent talks about his fan club seeing Elvis for the first time, and expecting him to be “12 feet tall with an aurora around his head.”
Well, no. Not exactly. The Elvis who appeared before that fan club on that day was the very expression of a mortal, feet glued to the ground and sick with human disease and vice.
This incarnation of Elvis, this model of imperfection, tries to sing “Hurt,” one of his late period songs that could carry incredible power and emotion live. But here, it falls flat like everything else, with Presley missing notes, struggling to find the right vocal register, and again flubbing a spoken word section. The magic just isn’t there.
Toward the end of the show, he plays Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and announces that he needs to read the lyrics because he doesn’t know them well enough. Here is a song that should be apropos for an end-of-life, career-capping concert, for a star like Elvis Presley. But even this rings false, perhaps because there’s no way that Elvis’s regrets in that moment are “too few to mention.”
Then, the standard set closer, “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” on which Presley relies on his backing singers much more than usual, and Elvis has left the building.
This is an era in which only two of Elvis’s jumpsuits still fit him, in which his backup singers walked off stage after a racist comment involving the word “catfish,” in which he’d halved the length of his concerts. There was just nothing left. But while this slow demise should have taken place behind closed doors, it instead took place on stage and later in a ghoulish display on television. As with many negative aspects of Presley’s career, the blame lies partly with Elvis himself for neglecting to take control of his life and partly with Parker and other hangers-on who put their own financial security ahead of Elvis’s well-being.
It’s astonishing to think that Presley would have only been in his late 70s were he still alive, and that’s because he seemed already long past dead during Elvis in Concert. As a historical document, the concert is a vital piece of Elvis’s career. But I hope to never have to listen to it again.