Elvis Presley’s “Elvis: As Recorded at Madison Square Garden” Reviewed
When Elvis Presley was first in New York City, in the late 1950s, it was to perform on locally produced TV shows like Ed and Milton, and he was roundly ridiculed for his efforts: there is a place in ignominy for Steve Allen ‘s repulsively having Elvis sing to a Hound Dog. If the 22 year old Elvis was amused you sure coulda fooled me. Fifteen years later, between June 9th and June 10th, 1972, Elvis would play Madison Square Garden four times. He never returned. More like a mercy fuck than a concert.
But we have the album of the Jly 10th evening performance, Elvis: As Recorded at Madison Square Garden, released a week after the concert, June 18th, 1972, and it stands as perhaps his second best recorded live show, after the 68 Special (which was much better, but not really an expression of his still nascent second act live show), and superior to the follow up, 1973’s Aloha from Hawaii: Via Satellite . Posthumously, there is the An Afternoon At The Garden, which was pretty good as well, and the 2012 Prince From Another Planet, which included both the afternoon and the evening show, a DVD, and a 5,000 word review from one Lenny Kaye.
Elvis final tour would be in the summer of 1977, a deep run through the Southern belt he preferred to the East Coast, on and off from a Vegas run ending in February 1977 to a month before he died. Listening to the concerts today, they aren’t as bad as their reputations, though they might be if you saw the film as well. In 1977, Presley was going from Strauss to “See See Rider”, at MSG from Strauss to “That’s Alright, Mama”. “See See Rider” took its place in 1973, at the Hawaii gig, and remained there, so in a manner, MSG was the last major concert before the Presley Arena show was set in stone. Or maybe not, here is the first released version of “An American Trilogy” -as much a case to be made for modern arena rock as any..
Legend has it that everybody from Bruce Springsteen to David Bowie, John Lennon to the Stones, showed up for this one. Personally, I’d have made the pilgrimage to Vegas instead, Arena rock is always arena rock, wouldn’t you rather be at a 5,000 seater? Still, the presence of the King (Prince) of rock galvanized Herald Square, two years after the fourth iteration of Madison Square Garden had appeared: 7th avenue was littered with Presley picture albums, pennants, a “shabby Carnival” of Elvis knick knacks like you see on the fringes of Mexican churches for a different diety. Here is a long excerpt off Chris Chase’s New York Times review:
“He looked like a prince from another planet, narrow-eyed, with high Indian cheek bones and a smooth brown skin untouched by his 37 years. When Elvis started to work with the mike, his right hand flailing air, his left leg moving as though it had a life of its own, time stopped, and everyone in the place was 17 again. It was a lesson in dominance; we had just seen the comic who couldn’t control anybody, not even himself, and that had got us nervous; now Elvis made it all right again.
“Elvis used the stage, he worked to the people. The ones in front, in the best seats, the ones in back, and up in the peanut galleries. He turned, he moved, and when a girl threw a handkerchief on the stage, he wiped his forehead with it and threw it back, a gift of sweat from an earthy god.
“Young girls moaned, and stood in their seats trying to dance, and one kid took a giant leap from a loge seat clear to the stage, only to be caught and taken away before she could come too close to her heart’s desire. You had to hope she hadn’t broken her leg in that vain but glorious effort.
“A special champion comes along, a Joe Louis, a Jose Capablanca, a Joe DiMaggio, someone in whose hands the way a thing is done becomes more important than the thing itself. When DiMaggio hit a baseball, his grace made the act look easy and inevitable… Friday Night at Madison Square Garden, Elvis was like that. He stood there at the end, his arms stretched out, the great gold cloak giving him wings, a champion, the only one in his class.”
Now here is Robert Christgau’s review of the album: “If you want post-comeback Elvis, stick with TV Special and Memphis/Las Vegas. Unless your home entertainment center is equipped with a magic holograph and seats 20,000, this will not recreate the excitement of that justifiably fabled concert. In fact, it won’t even come close. That’s what arena gigs are about. C”
Nearly 45 years later, the film of the gig is both completely thrilling and somewhat bogus. All that karate shtick is much more fun in theory than in practise, by 1972 he was already outgrowing the jumpsuit, there was a camp wonder to it but if it was a camp wonder it was more DC comics than Marvel. While we count Arena rock back to the Beatles at Shea, and we’d been through the late 1960s explosion, still this was the transference of power from movie gods to rock gods at a level unheard of. The greatest city in the world collapsed at his feet and Presley broke a sweat sure, but only for effect.
Still, we have come to review a specific album and as specific albums go it is a a complete concert captured on tape and released eight days after it happened. This was instant karma come to life, and if the live show was histrionic, the recorded album is a very good mix of oldies and new songs, big brash ballads for the women in the audience and hard rocking stompers for the men. With a band that included names you know as well as your own, James Burton, Ronnie Tutt, Jerry Scheff, backing him, and the Imperials singing behind him on back up and harmonies, Presley went from the throw about and huge “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” to the Southern fried “Polk Salad Annie” to Presley 50s “Love Me” to standard bearer “All Shook Up” while making chopped salad of genre, of definitions of what pop, or rock, or soul, actually means beyond his decision to perform them. You get the hits, the “Love Me Tender” -a little slapdash but hey, the pop duo “teddy bear/don’t be cruel” deserved more than he gave em, though he can dip his voice with the best of them. A little later “The Impossible Dream” appears to be there for the heck of it, just to prove he can sing operatic power ballads, but it leads to “Suspicious Minds” -taken a touch fast, “For The Good Tines” -more or less perfect, and “An American Trilogy” -in its place as the lead up to the end (the song had just flopped as a Presley single (astounding, right? The day he performed it, the song was at #72 in the hot 100 and would die without a trace) . No turning back from there to the ending, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”… “A beautiful place, isn’t it?” was Presley’s only comment about the setting. If you were there, Presley was all dynamism but not dynamism for me, the scarfs (the guy who got them for him gets a shout out), the sweat, the girls, all of whom seem to have reached third base as they thrust themselves at him, don’t matter. All that matters is the sound and motion. A god comes to the metropolis.
Hearing (as opposed to seeing on video) the entire set is sublime. At the start of the documentary “Elvis On Tour”, a nervous looking Elvis is waiting in the dressing room to perform in San Antonio, he claims to always suffer from stage fright. Then he warns his band that for this audience, it is the first time they’ve seen him and they have a responsibility to perform well. Listening to this great album it is like the truth of that: when you take everything out and just leave the music, there is a perfection to Presley’s performance and it is, indeed, as though this is the first time we have ever seen him in person. And also the last.