A concert box set captures Elvis Presley at the end of his comeback
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Elvis didn’t need New York. Not really. Sure, he needed people in New York to buy his records and play them on the radio. And at the beginning of his career, he needed New York to put him on television, so he swooped into town to guest on shows hosted by Steve Allen, Jackie Gleason, and most famously, Ed Sullivan in the ’50s. But in the nearly two decades following the release of his first breakthrough singles, he didn’t play New York. Even after his 1968 TV comeback. Even after proving it all night, every night, in extended Las Vegas engagements with the crack band he put together to take his comeback to the stage. Even after he sent hit after hit up the charts like he was young again, thanks to a series of great songs recorded by Chips Moman in Memphis, songs like the scorching “Suspicious Minds” and the untypically topical “In The Ghetto.” He didn’t need New York.
But New York needed him. Or at least that’s what it sounds like on the recordings made of his four-show engagement at Madison Square Garden, newly re-released as part of the box set Elvis: Prince From Another Planet, which collects two of those performances—the afternoon and evening shows from June 10—along with a DVD featuring a fan-made video recording and a press conference. (The evening show has long been available as the quickly released LP Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden, and the afternoon show was released in 1997 as An Afternoon In The Garden.) Each opens as all Elvis shows opened at the time: With the slow build of his band playing “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a Richard Strauss composition made famous by its inclusion in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a shameless, cornball touch, with the desired effect of priming the crowd for the show to come. But the crowd noise captured here suggests the concertgoers don’t need much priming. They’d been waiting too long already. “Couldn’t get a good building in 15 years,” Presley jokes in the press conference, by way of explaining his reasoning for keeping his distance from New York. Maybe he was just waiting for the right moment. In hindsight, it’s good he didn’t wait any longer. Prince From Another Planet captures Elvis in his late-period prime, a phase that wasn’t destined to last much longer.
Elvis mostly sat out the ’60s. He did record and release songs, some of them great, and he starred in movie after movie, most of which weren’t. But in terms of meaningfully participating in the decade, it took Elvis, commonly known as the ’68 Comeback Special, to get things moving again. Elvis’ renewed interest in his own career predates the special. It’s evident in singles like “U.S. Male” and “Big Boss Man,” tracks that restored some of the spitfire intensity of his early work. The special reconnected him with fans and his roots, and gave him the momentum to record some of his best work in the studio and onstage. Elvis rode that momentum into New York in 1972, and here, it sounds steamroller-strong.
Even then, it had the weight of history behind it. There were stars and then there was Elvis, whose stardom drew an “overwhelming line in the sand in midcentury culture,” as Lenny Kaye put it in his liner notes. That’s a tough act to follow, but as the ’60s became the ’70s, Elvis was enjoying a rare second burst of fame and vitality. “Enjoying” might not be the right word, though. There was trouble at home—his marriage to Priscilla was falling apart as his career started to fall back into place. They separated in February, and formalized the separation shortly after the New York dates. Maybe it’s the benefit of hindsight that makes the heartbreak evident. And maybe it’s the way we romanticize entertainers that makes it hard not to hear their lives in their songs. But listen to the versions of “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” or “For The Good Times” recorded here, and try not to hear it as the work of a man in pain, working it out before an crowd whose adoration might, if only for the length of an hour, shoulder some of that pain.
More chilling still, listen to “Funny How Time Slips Away” and try not to hear it as a man who knew his time might soon be up. Elvis had five years left after this concert, but they weren’t five good years. There were other shows, even bigger shows. The following January, he performed the “Aloha From Hawaii” concert that was eventually broadcast across the globe. That might be the last time he played like he had something to prove. And though he released good songs again, they were rarely as good as the songs he released between ’68 and ’72, which found a nadir fast with the wretched 1973 single “Raised On Rock.”
You know the rest: The drugs, the weight gain, the public decline. All that lay ahead as the unwritten future when these shows were performed. In the moment, and in the years leading up to that moment, Elvis performed the extraordinary feat of transforming himself from a product that could be plugged into one interchangeable vehicle after another into a person again, live and in the flesh, giving it all onstage as he made it sound like every note mattered again. “Elvis has left the building,” an announcer tells the crowd before rattling off a list of souvenirs available at the concession stands. (“11-by-14 picture, especially for this tour, $1. Only available inside of Madison Square Garden.”) He never came back, but at least for a while, he was truly there.