As I watch tonight’s YouTube viewing of choice, I’m watching a man whose life in the spotlight is about to fall away from him.
I’m also looking at his boss, Elvis Presley.
For context: This week marks the anniversary of the last week Elvis ever worked.
After the June 19 show in Omaha, the King stumbled for another week through the Midwest, playing shows in Lincoln, Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Des Moines, Madison, Cincinnati and, on the 26th, Indianapolis. (Two of those shows were filmed for a regrettable — and, as it turned out, posthumous — network TV special.)
After the June 26 show, Elvis went home to Graceland. He hadn’t held a recording session since the prior October, and he didn’t hold any more before his death in mid-August.
This, then, is the anniversary of the last week Elvis spent at his principal occupation — making music.
I’ll withhold most judgment on the quality of the music he was making at the time, except to say the June 19 Omaha concert is a less depressing experience when you can watch the film. I’ve had a recording for years, and it’s a hugely dispiriting listen. But the sight of Elvis’s porky smirk and the remnants of a gleam in his eye redeem things a little bit. Although he’s in dismal shape, he doesn’t look as bad as he sounds.
This week in ’77 also would have been the last week in the arena spotlight for Elvis’s longtime crony, Charlie Hodge.
Hodge, a diminutive Alabamian, had sung in a gospel quartet and picked a little guitar as a young man. He’d had the good fortune to meet Elvis backstage in 1955 and the even greater fortune to be stationed near Elvis in the Army, where he used their shared showbiz experience to strike up a friendship.
(Hodge’s Wiki entry, which appears to have been given a thorough scrubbing by the Charlie Hodge Appreciation Society, claims that Hodge appeared on network television before his famous future boss. Perhaps he did.)
And when Elvis returned to live performing that year, Hodge was again at his side — fetching towels, bringing drinks, holding mics, strapping Elvis into his guitar, and singing backup and strumming unmic’d acoustic guitar when not otherwise needed.
Reportedly, the members of the Memphis Mafia spent much of their abundant free time coming up with reasons to be jealous of one another. Hodge was a particularly ripe target: Alone among Elvis’s entourage, he got to be on stage every night, in close proximity to the King, sharing the attention.
Watching the Omaha film, it’s difficult to tell just how much he enjoyed the privilege by the end.
His smile seems genuine enough at times … but then there are times when he reaches for the mic and Elvis won’t give it to him, or when Elvis pantomimes kicking him in the rear end, and the cruelty under the boys-will-be-boys routine seems to show itself.
(Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography of Elvis says that, about two weeks prior to the Omaha show, Elvis hit Hodge in the nose forcefully enough to draw blood during a discussion of cars Elvis had given to some of his lieutenants. It could be, then, that Hodge’s relationship with Elvis was more strained during these last shows than it had been previously.)
Elsewhere, Hodge can be seen standing apprehensively in the background while Elvis launches into flannel-tongued between-song monologues. Even after many nights of watching Elvis embarrass himself onstage, that couldn’t have been pleasant.
And then there’s the start of “And I Love You So,” where Hodge dispenses his usual supplies and retreats to the background. He wrings his hands briefly, pulls up his pants, and finally settles into a sort of subservient parade-rest posture, unable for the moment to escape the fact that he is 42 years old and makes his living handing out towels and water to a former friend he can now scarcely recognize.
I wonder if Hodge ever thought, at moments like that: “I could have been my own boss. I could have stayed in the Army and been an officer by now. I could have married the local Chevy dealer’s daughter and gone into the business. Instead I run like a squirrel around the stage of the Omaha Civic Auditorium, trying to stay two steps ahead of a guy who swears at me when the mic feeds back. But what else can I do with myself at this point?”
Whether he liked the setup or not, it had almost run its course on that night in Omaha. Less than two months later, Hodge would be trimming and coloring his boss’s sideburns in preparation for his funeral.
In addition to co-writing the obligatory book, Hodge spent some of his remaining years as an onstage gofer to Elvis tribute artists — doing the same things he did for Elvis, on much smaller stages, for performers who presumably treated him humanely and with respect, and in front of audiences who bought tickets as much to see him as to see the Elvis impersonator.
I suppose that passes for a happy ending, when you’ve gone that far down the road of professional subservience.
I still like to imagine Hodge clad in ’70s polyester, killing time during soundcheck in Springfield or Tuscaloosa or one of the other second-rank ports of call where Elvis played at the end, mulling the eternal question:
Is it better to be renowned for your fetching than to be anonymous for your bossing?