We all know the famous stories about the insecurity and fragile ego of Elvis. His last words before he walked out to perform live on the ‘68 TV special were ‘What happens if they don’t like me?’ Before he appeared at Madison Square Garden, he
expressed similar doubts to Tom Jones. Elvis was worried that a sophisticated New York crowd might prove hostile. Perhaps he imagined a crowd of 20,000 adversaries and maybe that is how fame works. Once you reach a certain level you expect people to be interested no matter what their taste. Hostility will manifest itself everywhere. Tom Jones was unsuccessful in calming Elvis. They had different natures and at some point in the conversation Elvis may have decided that there was no point in revealing fears and expecting consolation from a more confident and less complicated Welshman. And both men were right. Jones understood that Madison Square Garden would have 20,000 Elvis fans desperate to see their hero. But Elvis realised that there would also be present the most sophisticated media in the States and an audience dotted with hip celebrities. This was the show that would attract John Lennon and David Bowie and the latter actually arrived and walked down the aisle after Elvis had begun the concert. No, I do not forgive the Estuary ponce, either. More was at stake than normal and, before his final self-destruction, Elvis was at his best but most tortured when he sensed when his credibility was at stake. Elvis appeared in Madison Square Garden in the middle of 1972. Five years later he was dead. When he appeared in Honolulu for a satellite show 6 months later he was already calculating how to sidestep demands on his rapidly deteriorating strength and talent.
In 1972 he was already in decline. He had neither the exceptional energy nor the fabulous voice that had been revealed in the early years of his return. The singer who appeared at Madison Square Garden was not the equal of the maestro that delivered the fabulous concerts of 1969 and 1970. The voice had weakened. But he was the equal of anybody else and the new ‘Prince From Another Planet’ box set from BMG exists as fabulous proof.
The first vinyl recording of the concert was released within days of Elvis appearing at Madison Square Garden. Days before, the New York press had been ecstatic. ‘Like A Prince From Another Planet’ was the title given to a review by New York writer Chris Chase. ‘Once in a while a special champion comes along…’ wrote Chase and he was merely expressing what the audience felt. And, of course, this is what fans
feel when the see and hear their particular hero deliver. They feel privileged and content. Later, if their hero declines, their attitude can change quickly. That which originally felt like privilege soon becomes a sense of unfulfilled entitlement. For some Elvis fans, this happened when we saw the ‘Aloha From Hawaii’ special. After being obliged to witness the decline, some became disillusioned with what had originally inspired them. In such circumstances, when we were obliged to listen to an artist who is on the cusp of decline, it was easy to be critical of the original recordings of these 1972 New York concerts, especially as recording technology could never capture the live performance accurately. Judgments are rarely impeccable and consistent. They not only require objectivity but faith in our understanding. The decline of Elvis had impact, we all waivered a little. One fan, aware that Elvis was not quite at the peak of 1970, said that Elvis sounded as if he was singing like someone waiting for a taxi. Nothing weakens like disillusionment. I have had more than the odd doubt myself, have listened attentively to the earlier recordings of Madison Square Garden and identified unfulfilled potential.
I was wrong. My faith is back. The new box set, ‘Prince From Another Planet’, is marvellous. The superior recording does not hide the weakening in the voice but in a strange way that makes the show even more impressive. Elvis needed to conquer in New York and he had to do it with inferior powers. This is what made him nervous before the show. He succeeded, though, and one is persuaded again of the conceptual strength of Elvis. What emerges with real force from the extra clarity is the vision and purpose Elvis had when he was determined to succeed. He delivers a show full of energy and power. True, he fakes some of the fifties hits in the medley but even these have real highlights such as his version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and, in the afternoon show, a surprisingly tough version of ‘All Shook Up’.
Not only does Elvis sound ready for the challenge, so does everyone else. Joe Guercio said he believed that Elvis was never totally relaxed on stage. This contradicts the notion of Elvis as the great live rock and roll performer. Yet, listen to this concert and it makes sense. Elvis is not a persuader or a charmer on stage. He may tease occasionally, although in New York it was restricted to the introduction of ‘Hound Dog’, but his method is to attack and be defiant. A view emerged, after the first recordings of the concert had been released, that the excitement at the concerts had been generated by the audience. Elvis was not on form that night. This is not the case. The shows at Madison Square Garden represent not merely a cusp between the strong and weaker Elvis that followed but also a peak. After he returned to live performances in 1969, Elvis refined his show significantly on two occasions, in 1970 in Vegas when he began to include contemporary material and in 1971 when he took the show on tour. What is odd about the Madison shows is how they resemble the format he used in 1960 in Honolulu. It is almost as if he has worked himself back to what he believes in, the mix of hard rock and roll with the odd ballad as a breather before the final triumphalism. If the voice has the edge in 1960, the show in 1972 reveals awareness beyond that possessed by the young man who had just returned from the Army. This performer has learnt to how to drill a band to perfection. The more mature performer understands what is at stake. It both terrifies and inspires him but it is essential to the success that he enjoyed but could not sustain.
There is no mystery about the talent. Lenny Kaye, the Patti Smith Group guitarist, describes Elvis in the liner notes as a magnificent instrument. And listening to this re-mastered and revelatory recording it is impossible to dispute. The only puzzle is how does a re-mastering make such a difference. Well, it now sounds like a live concert and not an artifact confined to a machine in the room. Elvis knew not only how to work an audience but a venue. Like James Brown, he can fill a room with energy and emotion. Nobody is allowed breath, neither the band nor the audience. The new recording captures his ambition, his defiance and above all his conceptual skill. Kaye is right, Elvis was a magnificent instrument but he was much more than that which was why even with reduced powers he was able to triumph that memorable night in New York.
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