Back to Memphis.

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.)

When Elvis filmed his legendary 1968 comeback special, Hodge’s musical ability and place in Elvis’s inner circle landed him a spot in the show’s rowdy small-band jam sessions.

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?

Walkin’ every night here in the shadows.

I’ve been quiet for a few days. I should probably be quiet tonight too, as I don’t have a lot to say.

But, the beast must be fed. So, a couple of words on the earworm that’s owned my head for the past 36 hours or so. It’s a relic from an artist on his way down, but not yet bereft of talent.

(It also happens to be 40 years old this year; that’s not particularly why I’m writing about it, but since it’s convenient, I’ll mention it.)

Looking back, 1973 was pretty much the start of Elvis Presley’s final decline. After his successful Aloha from Hawaii concert in January, Elvis’ agenda for the rest of the year included a divorce; several drug overdoses; hospitalization; and being bum-rushed on stage by a group of fans, an incident that greatly unsettled him.

The year also marked the start of a decline in Elvis’ chart fortunes. After reaching No. 2 with “Burning Love” in the fall of ’72, Elvis spent the next two or three years issuing a stream of singles that limped into the Top 20 and expired.

(Elvis remained a successful concert attraction, as well as a strong performer on the country charts. Even 1974’s infamous spoken-word outing Having Fun with Elvis On Stage was a Top 10 country album. However, he would not have another pop Top 10 single in his lifetime.)

During a burst of recording in December 1973, Elvis managed to put down one song that outshone the others in atmosphere and intent, if not in chart success.

“If You Talk In Your Sleep (Don’t Mention My Name)” was co-written by Johnny Christopher and Red West, Elvis’ bodyguard-turned-biographer.

It’s a cheatin’ song, drawn from the endless well of honky-tonk-tinged country songs that owe their existence mostly to a clever bit of wordplay in the chorus.

It’s not the finest of those songs: “Someone else is waiting / And he owns you” is cringe-worthy even by 1973 standards. And Elvis’ pillowy baritone doesn’t have the power to lift the song over its less inspired moments.

America agreed: The song topped out at No. 17 on the national pop charts in the summer of ’74, and local airplay charts don’t show it catching fire in any regional markets.

And yet … there’s a certain backstreets smolder to it, an ominous quality of lust-driven paranoia that’s perceptible but only hinted at. (Our narrator isn’t breaking off with his married lover, even though he’s far enough gone to worry about what she says in her sleep.)

Someday a singer will come along who scorches where Elvis only simmered, and in so doing, makes the song theirs forever.

(That singer was not Little Milton, shown here giving the song his best B.B. King, except that B.B. is probably a more dutiful lip-syncher.)

Until then, we have the King, standing in the shadows of love and waving an admonitory finger:

The fat man and the faithful.

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.