Y’know, I wonder whatever happened to all those scarves and sweaty towels Elvis Presley threw into the audience over the years.
Are they sitting at the bottom of steamer trunks? Lovingly framed on walls? Clogging up landfills? Fetching hefty prices on eBay — when and if they can be verified as authentic?
Thirty-five years ago this spring and summer, the Elvis roadshow was reaching its denouement in venues across America. I got to thinking about those final months last night after I pulled a bootleg recording off my shelf and gave it a listen.
(Disclosure: I went through a phase a couple years ago when I downloaded a bunch of live concert bootlegs off the ‘Net. I don’t do it any more; and no, I won’t burn you a copy.)
The boot in question is called “Coming On Strong,” and it compiles the second halves of two early-’77 shows (Feb. 13 in West Palm Beach, and Feb. 16 in Montgomery, Alabama) in nice soundboard quality.
If you can overlook the fact that seven or eight songs are repeated (I can, given what I paid for it), “Coming On Strong” is a pretty good document of Elvis’ final months. It brings together in one place the full range of performances Elvis was capable of at the end.
On a few songs, he’s in a relatively good mood and what passed for full voice — though the disappearance of his singing technique is depressing. Even at his strongest, when he is able to take in a good lungful of air and project, he is too numb, too high or too out of shape to move between notes and lines with skill and assurance.
On other songs, he seems scarcely able to draw enough breath to squeak out each line. His singing becomes completely powerless, and not even a crackerjack band can push him forward.
That’s pretty damn depressing too, come to think of it, and also a little scary.
This man has no place being anywhere else in the world but a closely watched private bed in a detox hospital. But he is an Event; he has consented to appear; people have paid to see him; so out from the wings he stumbles.
In the end, “Coming On Strong” made me think more about the other 15,000 people in the building than about Elvis.
We all know his story, after all. We all know the image of the lonely, drug-addled fat man in the jumpsuit, tossing off songs in a slurred gasp in which “Everybody, let’s rock!” becomes “Err’buhy le’roh’!”
But what of the squealers? What of the women (doesn’t sound like too many men among ’em) who yell and scream and carry on like teenagers during “And I Love You So” and “Teddy Bear”?
Who were the people in West Palm Beach who applauded Elvis’ forty-five-second version of “Blueberry Hill,” and what were they thinking?
I imagine these people were either:
— willfully blind to what was going on in front of them and trying to ignore its implications, such as the passage of time and the fading of their own youths; or
— greedily importuning their hero for a scarf or a towel. (Or more: Elvis tossed his guitar into the crowd at least once.)
On these recordings and others, when Elvis’ voice trails off for a few seconds and he starts mumbling to the crowd, he’s clearly in the process of distributing souvenirs. Apparently, what he had already given the public over the course of the previous 20 years didn’t suffice.
(It would have been ballsy, just once, to hear him drawl: “Hey! You people in the front row! You want a gift from me? Go buy ‘The Sun Sessions.’ Most goddamn revolutionary record you’ll ever hear in your life. We got real, real gone for a change. That’s your gift. Thank me later.”)
I suppose Elvis had only himself to blame for the scarf-groupies. Throw stuff into a crowd and a lot of things can happen, most of them bad.
But when you look out into the front rows, and everyone’s waving and squealing while you’re trying to sing … well, that doesn’t really incent you to care much about your singing, does it? Kinda makes the performance, and maybe even the performer, seem … incidental.
I imagine the audience members I have branded “willfully blind,” the ones who didn’t want to believe what they were seeing, went home feeling thoroughly disillusioned and more than a little old.
I am not sure what the squealers and the scarf-catchers thought at the end of the show, or what they think now.
I hope the ones who left with a trophy still savor it. They got their scarf or towel for the price of a third-row ticket.
But it might have cost a lot of other people — including Elvis — a whole lot more.