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Home > Newspaper Articles > 1971 > November 10, 1971 (8.30 pm). Boston, MA.
CONCERT DATE: November 10, 1971 (8.30 pm). Boston, MA. Boston Garden.
In Praise of Elvis Presley
By Jon Landau
He stands there in a black jump suit with gold spangles and an orange cape. When he stretches out his hands the cape forms a half sun under his outstretched arms and he looks like the true king of rock 'n' roll. He parades in front of 15,000 people and waits for the applause to wash over him and it comes as it always does and as he knows it will.
After strutting from one end of the stage to the other after waiting until he feels just right, and until the audience can't wait another second, he turns to a back-up musican who hands him his acoustic guitar. With the rhythm section churning, he stands in front of the mike, holds but does not play the guitar and sings, "That's alright mama, that's alright for you, just any way you do".
It was his very first record and it doesn't sound quite the same as when he did it 17 years ago at the Sun studios in Memphis. But I am moved by the fact that he is doing it at all. Following a first half consisting of a wonderful performance by the Sweet Inspirations, a typically tasteless (but well received) attempt at humor on the part of a Las Vegas comedian, and an intermission, the offical Elvis Presley Tour MC called people back to their seats.
When things had settled down, he announced from the darkened stage that, "There will be no congregating in the aisles of any kind. It is mandatory that everyone remain in their seats so that others can see. These rules will be strictly enforced by the security guards. Suddenly the sounds of "Theme from 2001," as the opening bars of "Thus Spa ke Zarathustra" are now called, filled rusty old Boston Garden to its hilt. The horns were quickly enhanced by the addition of what seemed like a full coterie of choral singers. Finally, as the horns eased their way out of the final notes, drummer Ronnie Tutt struck up a percussive pattern worthy of Gene Krupa. And then, after a beautifully planned, seemingly endless delay, he jumped up on stage (not descending from a helicopter through the ceiling, as a few of us had by now expected) and he was ready for action.
The audience was dazed as they caught its first glimpse of him. As the stage lights went on they also saw for the first time the whole entourage - the six-man rhythm section, the nine back-up singers, the 20 horn players - all perfectly arranged and blocked out on stage to enhance the glory of Elvis Presley, or King El, as he now appeared to be.
The magnificence of Presley's performance lies in its presentation of him as royality. He is the one entertainer in the world who doesn't have to take out any insurance on his fame, success, grandeur, or greatness. He is the one and only performer who can simply revel in it and us with him.
On the stage itself, Presley surrounds himself with the best that money can buy. Tutt is the only true big-band rock drummer I have ever seen in action (one day Hal Blaine will go out on the road) and he is magnificent. But then too, it isn't every one who has James Burton himself for a lead guitarist and the Sweet Inspirations for a third of the background voices. Not everyone has a personal road manager alternating between playing acoustic guitar and singing backup parts, and handing the star his guitar, clothes, glasses of water, towels, or holding the microphone chord when he starts to move with it. Poor Charlie Hodge even gets introduced as "...the man who hands me my water and my scarves" (which latter Presley periodically throws into the audience).
All of it is for the greater glory of Elvis himself. Every person on the stage, every article of clothing, every instrument, light, microphone, is a prop. When men solo it isn't for music but effect. The accumulation of effect is the core of Presley's art. His success at it makes him one of the few touring practitioners of the art of the American musical comedy. His 31 movies have given him enough training so that when we see him today we are watching a musical comedy actor first and a pure musician later. When he combines that talent with his projection of a very personal sort of regality, the result is a beautifully wrought modern-day pageant.
Elvis Presley has lived through the greatest superstar trip of any performer and he has survived it in his own kind of way - with a sense of humor. The Beatles may have been more popular but they were a group. Elvis participates in a pure one- to-one relationship with his audience, and when he steps on stage it is he and he alone who is the subject of the manic, uncontrolled, irrational adulation which is the core of the American star system. Stardom, of whatever type and in whatever period, is the goal that turns into a burden. Personally, it is killing rock stars too young, crazy and blind to cope with it. And yet while the signs of self-destructiveness in the life style of the rock musician are increasingly obvious to those outside the arena, fans and the rock press continue to glorify it and musicans continue to live and die by it. Because stars grow into fixed entities in the public mind, stardom is frequently antithetical to the growth of personal art. The price of a large audience is the need to be continually satisfying it. Part of Dylan's greatness has been his constant flirtation with his audience, his capacity to reject it, his refusal to capitulate to its demands upon him.
When Dylan persisted in his rock 'n' roll after endless denunciations for showing up at Newport with the Butterfield Band backing him up, he ushered in a freer approach which assumed greater capacities on the part of the audience than in the past. Elvis, however, remains of the old school. He has his audience, they have him, he loves them, they love him, and his purpose is to please himself by pleasing them, never to please them by pleasing himself.
Elvis is too old to imitate his own past. He will not pretend that he is some adolescent high-energy rocker straight out of the Delta. Nor can he cope with the continuing feelings so many people have about him with a straight face. He must un dercut their adulation of him just as he must undercut his own narcissism if for no other reason than to preserve his own sanity. If he really belived all the things they felt about him he would have risen up long ago.
The one thing Elvis Presley obviously doesn't want at his concerts are uncontrolled displays of emotion. He has had them before, knows how to elicit them, could have them now if he wanted them, but controls his performance brilliantly to make sure that they don't occur. They frighten him and drive him farther back into a conception of himself that he cannot handle. He wants his people to have fun and he wants to have fun with them. But it's all middle-aged now and he wants them to have a middle-aged kind of fun. And so he does his balancing act between really singing and acting, and farce, burlesque, vaudeville. His brilliance is reflected in his control; he never moves too far in any one direction and therefore never loses his grip. When he finally exits the ovation is enormous but when the lights go on it ends instantly. People have a good time, they scream and they shout, but they never once move to get out of their seats.
What surprised me at the concert was how much I did get involved with Elvis, how much I could relate to his need to be the way he is, and how much sheer artistry and talent manages to pour through the tightly drawn lines of his very stagey production.
While he sings in a lower voice than ever, and what I liked about the early records was that beautifully vulnerable high voice he sang, "That's Alright Mama" with enough verve to scare the unsuspecting. He marched right into "I've Got A Woman" and then segued into a false ending built around "Amen", only to launch back into "Woman". Without coming up for air he was lost in "Proud Mary", and when he hit the chorus, he rolled his body right through "We're rolling, rol ling, rolling on the river", with a series of startling kneebends. He did it all in ten minutes and it was a tour de force of theatrics, professionalism, and, happily, music. For despite the refusal to put it all out, he sings so well, so naturally, so evenly, one hesitates to press him for more.
He sings like an angel and moves like a ballerina, and he left me struck dumb.
He was far from through, and after some cooler numbers de signed to let people settle down, he went into what I thought was the finale, "Suspicious Minds". Here, he did with an up- tempo song what he had earlier done with a slow one; he got everything out of it that is there. It is a beautiful song, the best Presley has done since he stopped making the movie sound track albums and by the time he finished you knew that underneath the control and the lightness of most of the evening's music there stood a man with more natural ability, talent, and soul than I expect to see on the stage at any rock consert. He finished it with yet another series of Karate moves, done to the accompaniment of Tutt's drumming. Not through yet, he moved like a locomotive through the last four numbers, all recent hits, climaxing with a fine version of "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You". When it was ove Charlie Hodge draped the cape over his shoulders, Elvis extended his arms so that the fiery orange formed that half-sun underneath him and he once again basked in his glory. He looked at the audience from every side of the stage and then he left. For one of the few times in my recent memory, I had witnessed a performance that had left me completly satisfied. On a recent Ed Sullivan show they showed some film clips of Presley doing "Hound Dog" in 1956. He looked great but the performance was laughable in its ineptitude and self-parody. Presley made greater records 17 years ago. But in his own way he has grown as an artist and any man who can do the show I saw him do last week doesn't have to apologize to any one for not singing the old songs or the songs someone else may want him to do.
Presley hasn't looked back and he hasn't stopped growing. As much as he was 15 years ago, he is a pure reflection of American popular culture. He is, on the one hand, gross, excessive, vain, narcissistic, and violent. On the other, incredibly competent and professional, unpretentious, exhilaratingly visceral, innately physical, and talented in the most natural and personal sense possible. He is a different artist today than he was 15 years ago, but to me, no matter how frustrating the lapses in his career have been, he remains an artist; in fact, an American artist and one whom we should be proud to claim as our own.