Elvis Lights Up Las Vegas

The King of rock & roll makes a triumphant return to the stage in the summer of '69

Elvis Presley in Las Vegas in 1969. Credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images

News flash of the Fifties: Elvis is performing again. He'll appear in Las Vegas for a month (divided up into two two-week gigs) at the International Hotel, starting January 26th and February 23rd. The following is an account of Elvis' Las Vegas opening, after almost a decade away from live performance, last summer.

Elvis was supernatural, his own resurrection, at the Showroom Internationale in Las Vegas last August. Everyone complained that Las Vegas was a bad choice, but you only have to look at the old color publicity photos of Elvis to know why it was the only possible place for him to make his debut after nine years of hibernation: The iconic, frontal image, completely symmetrical, stares out of the glossy blue background. The glaring eyes, the surly mouth, the texture of the face completely airbrushed out, the hair jet black with blue metallic streaks — these are superhuman attributes. It is the disembodied face of Krishna, Christ, Mao, where the image dominates the reality. The adherence to this formula has been so dogmatic that until recently you were in danger of a lawsuit from the Colonel if you used a photo of Elvis that was not the officially sanctioned publicity handout.

As you drove in from the airport, the giant neon billboard for the Showroom Internationale flashed ELVIS NOW (IN PERSON) in 20-foot letters of solid light. In person, in the flesh; the word, the voice, the image, made flesh. The distinction has to be made, for Elvis has been invisible for nine years.

Like the Temptation of Saint Anthony, Las Vegas bristles with absurdities; it reeks of unreality. Its suddenness in the desert is a thirst-demented prospector's hallucination; the neon totems on the Strip pumping liquid light into the brain like pulsating neurons, the endless chrome dispensers of fate in the casinos and the total absence of time (there are no clocks in Las Vegas).

Even the room you are staying in is wildly improbable; the color TV on its Renaissance stand, an octagonal quattrocento breakfast table under a fake Renoir. From a distance of five feet everything seems to be made of some incredibly ancient worm-eaten wood. In fact, it's not even wood.

It's just the ultimate transubstantiation, some synthetic substance that can be excreted into any conceivable shape. It's obvious — Las Vegas is the only place for the materialization of a Hollywood divinity, the reentry of the celluloid image into the real world.

Even Elvis seemed to find his reincarnation hard to believe. Mumbling, "Whass that, whass that?" He suddenly interrupted one of his long monologues like a speed flash — "Oh, it's okay, it's me, it's me!" And it was hard to believe as the curtain finally went up for the third time on Elvis. His head hung down, legs braced for his defiant stance and an acoustic guitar symbolically slung around his neck.

Waaal, it's one for the money, two for the show,
Three to get ready, now go cat go …

Wham! Right into "Blue Suede Shoes" before you have time to take in the whole scene. You are out of control, breathlessly slippin' and slidin' backwards, faster and faster into the past. An incredible rush, and it flashes at you all the faster because Elvis is singing it at almost twice the speed of the old single, so that it lasts in all about a minute and a quarter. As soon as it's over he tears into another hard rocker from his first RCA album:

Well, said I got a woman way 'cross town
She's good to me, oh yeah …

And the Sweet Inspirations echo "she's good to me," pumping back that gospel rhythm like a piston.

He pauses a moment and for the first time you can take everything in. Elvis is wearing a blue karate jump suit with a long karate belt. His bell bottoms have bright red satin vents and he's wearing a red and white scarf around his neck. His black pointed boots have studs on the toes and heels. His hair is cut in a short Beatle fringe at the front but he's still wearing the Presley sideburns. Behind him is a six-piece band from Memphis and behind them a 25-piece orchestra silhouetted by glowing backdrop lighting that oozes through a syrupy range of chartreuse, cerise and aquamarine. To his right are the Sweet Inspirations, a soul group that preceded him with some insipid versions of show tunes. Behind them, Elvis' own backup group, the Imperials, neatly dressed in blazers.

Elvis speaks. "Viva Las Vegas," he says, laughing; "no, man, that's one number I ain't gonna do" — unexpectedly revealing his attitude to the 12 years of schlock movies. "Welcome to the Showroom Internationale, ladies and gentlemen. This is somethin' else, ain't it? Lookin' 'round at all them decorations, funky angels hangin' from the ceilin' ... tell ya there ain't nothin' like a funky angel, boy." Presiding over the gigantic dining room and its 2000 paying guests are a giant 20-foot pair of papier-mâché statues representing Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV, holding a lace handkerchief the size of a tablecloth, and from the ceiling hang a pair of gargantuan cherubs exchanging a length of cream satin material. Above the stage there's a dumpy coat of arms, strictly from Walt Disney. Funky.

"Well, here we go again," says Elvis as he leans into a classic Presley contraposto. He's putting himself on. Elvis imitating Elvis. He holds it until everybody catches on and laughs.

"Uhuhmmmmmmmm, uhuhmmmmmmm, uhuhmmmmmmmm ..."

"Here it comes," he says in a tiny mocking voice, interrupting himself like a self-contained Laugh In. He goes into the classic Elvis warmup, a deep, guttural, purring, humming of soft internal combustion, revving up as he lurches into epileptic rhythms of "All Shook Up." It really blows your mind to see Elvis doing his imitation Elvis. He is very good at it; he looks like he's been rehearsing the part for 13 years, and it's probably got a lot of laughs all these years from his buddies up at Graceland, sitting around drinking Pepsis on nights when everyone got tired of playing pool and watching color television.

Elvis' back band is tight and probably a lot better as musicians than Bill Black and Scotty Moore, who played on Elvis' early disks, but the sound is bland and professional. The arrangements, too, are more stylized than the originals. The drumming, for instance, is very syncopated, especially in the fast numbers, imitating the percussive hiccupping quality of Elvis' voice in songs like "All Shook Up" ("I'm in love" — boom boom boom).

The stylization has the effect of putting the music in parentheses, quoting it, putting it in perspective, putting it on. Elvis introduces the lead guitarist jokingly as B.B. King or Lightnin' Hopkins and his licks are very tasteful 1969 blues licks.

Elvis singing "All Shook Up" is a put-on, too, of course, but it's a serious put-on; he's putting on a whole era, he's putting on the Fifties. He's the medium and this ritual is so drenched in memory, time and remoteness that his act is a violent manipulation of the audience's heads. The memory floats back to the first time everyone heard "Hound Dog," and the details of that day, that afternoon, come flashing up like a rainy windshield. And Elvis is the man who knocked out a whole generation, a whole civilization.

Elvis, with his unfunky (yet mechanical, alienated) bump-grinding, was still too much Body (too soon) for the strained, collapsing psyches of the Omnipotent Administrators and Ultrafeminines. ... So Elvis Presley came, strumming a weird guitar and wagging his tail across the continent, ripping off fame and fortune as he scrunched his way, and, like a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, sowing seeds of new rhythm and style in the white souls of white youth of America, whose inner hunger and need was no longer satisfied with antiseptic white shoes and whiter songs of Pat Boone. "You can do anything," sang Elvis to Pat Boone's white shoes, "but don't you step on my blue suede shoes!"
—Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice

See, in this corner there was Ike "Nukeler" Eisenhower, and over in that corner was Elvis the Pelvis. Man, it was a massacre.

After a pause to catch his breath, Elvis modestly mumbles, "This is my first personal appearance in nine years." Thunderous applause, and from the balcony a couple of kids are shouting, "Dynamite, baby, too much." But the audience is super-straight, mostly middle-aged people with children and affluent old Elvis fans in their late thirties, their ducktails trimmed into neat executive crewcuts, their leather jackets turned in for seersucker suits.

The silicone couples in their After Six tuxedos and Dynel wigs would not admit it but what they were paying $15 a plate for is a Resurrection. They have embalmed him like the queen bee — with love, money, energy, and in return he performs the precious ritual.

Elvis ambles over to get a glass of "wa-uh." "It's so dry here in Las Vegas, seems as if I'm gonna have a little trouble with my thang — [laughter] ... ya know, ma throat. This stuff here is called Gatorade, 'cause it aids your gator. Just do a little commercial here: 'Use this here Gatorade and you ...' but really it's meant to be 10 times better than water ... 'n' boy, it sure looks to me like it's already bin used!"

That looks pretty lame in cold print, but it was a different thing when it was said with that Elvis drawl, everything mumbled out of the side of his mouth so that every line is thrown away as casually as spittin' tobacco. His Memphis buddies would laugh at a line like that and they probably have, yukking it up backstage. Later, in the casino, Tony Secunda was talking about the scene in the dressing room: "All his buddies were there, it was a very tense situation, glances, messages flashing around the room; you could feel the electricity. It was embarrassing, you know, they laugh at absolutely everything he says. I said to Elvis, 'You probably know each other so well, all you need is a look and you know.' He said, 'Sometimes you don't even need that.' It's a scary scene."

You wonder what he's been doing all these years behind the electronic gates at Graceland and when you find out, the revelations are about as inspiring as a rerun of The Beverly Hillbillies.

"This next song is one of the first things I recorded for RCA back in nineteen hundred and twenty-seven. ..." Into "Love Me Tender." Really heavy string arrangement, and in the background the schmaltzy lighting is having an orgasm. It's a tearjerker alright, but Elvis does it with style, Sweet Inspirations cooing, the majestic sweeping strings and Elvis' deep crooning voice washes over the room like a Technicolor wave, and the audience is swept up on the shores of Memory Lane as helplessly as an old hula hoop on Miami Beach. Elvis, the ballad singer, has always been at home with sentimentality; he can carry it. He has pulled off some really heavy tearjerkers beautifully that would have crushed a lesser crooner under the sheer weight of goo. It's just the white version of the kind of thing Levi of the Four Tops gets into when he's being "real sincere."

As Elvis gets ready for the next number, his hips begin shaking, "Down, boy!" and his hand is strumming the guitar like an invisible machine gun. "Had a little trouble with that when I was over there in the Army. They give me a rifle and right away I'd be goin' pow! Pow! Pow! — yes sir!" He lays into "Jailhouse Rock," after two verses he switches into "Don't Be Cruel," then "Heartbreak Hotel."

He's panting, really out of breath as he winds up "Heartbreak Hotel." "Tell ya, body, mind, everything's goin', man. Deteriorating right here on the stage ... that's what it's about come to for sure. Anyway I'd like to dedicate this special song here ..." He crouches over in that raunchy Presley starting position, neck of his guitar practically touching the floor. Everyone cracks up. "See, I looked her square in the eye, 'cause that wasall she had, one big square eye. I said 'baby,' she said 'mmmmmmm.' She was a weird kinda girl. She had on a guitar, too and we were both going 'hmmmmmmm.' So anyway I said 'baby' 'n' she said 'deeper, baby, deeper.' I got up real close to her face 'n' I was goin' — [croaks] — 'uhnnn, uhnnn, uh nnn.' See she split 'cause she thought I was a frog. Anyway my legs were gettin' tired in this position so she asks me 'hmmmmmmm?' [croaks into the mike] See, she had on a microphone too. So I cleared my throat — [clears his throat over the PA]; that's another thing you don't do over the microphone ..."  

It's like an old radio show with one of those purple people-eater lead-ins.

Super teen humor — "So I went up to this green thing with four red eyeballs and nine hairy legs ..." Elvis continues: "So I said 'YOU!' Blew her hair straight back, man. I said:

"YOU ... ain't nothin' but a houn' dog ..."

"Can't Stop Loving You" is his next number. The band pauses while he chokes up "those happy hours" like an ancient whisper, and lines like "I live my life in dreams of yester ... daaay" come out, like some other songs in the show, as more than a little symbolic.

"One of the first records I ever did recorded ... I did about five records before anyone realized who I was. One of them is pretty raunchy ... my nose was runnin', my eyes, my ears ... [grunts]. Well, here we go, I guess ..." — and then he stops abruptly in a dazed way as if he were pretty stoned on something himself. "We already did this song, right?" The song is "Mystery Train," country blues, one of the old Sun releases, a muted trumpet honks: "Train comin' roun' the bend."

Just about the time that train is comin' 'round the bend, right there in the break it turns into "I'm the king of the jungle, they call me tiger" boom/boom/boom/boom/boom. A strobe flashes in time to the syncopated drum-bass-tambourine on Elvis leaping about the stage.

"Like to tell you a little about myself. I started out ... in childhood. I started out when I was in high school, went into a record company one day, made a record and when the record came out a lot of people liked it and you could hear folks around town saying 'Is he, is he?' and I'm going 'Am I, am I?' ... whew [out of breath] ... Elvis deteriorating at the Showroom Internationale in Las Vegas ... where was I? ... oh, anyway, made a record, got kinda big in my hometown, few people got to know who I was, that's double ya, yew zee, was. See, so I started down in the wuz [he really must be stoned] ... ah shucks, what I mean to tell ya is I was playing around these nightclubs, alleys, 'n' things; did that for about a year and a half, then I ran into Colonel Sanders — Parker, Parker and he arranged to get me some [blows his nose] Kleenex ... he arranged to get me ... whew, I'm telling you ... shot to hell, this boy can't even finish a sentence straight ... anyway there was a lot of controversy at that time about my moving around on stage so I ... cleared my throat again, looked at my watch and ring and the guy said ... the guy said? ... The guy said nuthin' ... I'm the guy! I'm telling you, you better get this together, boy, or this is gonna be the last time they let you up on a stage.  

"So, as I said, I went up to New York, did the Jackie Gleason Show three times — whew, sure has been a long, long time — anyway, did that couple of times ... had pretty long hair for that time, and I tell you it got pretty weird. They used to see me comin' down the street and they'd say 'Hot dang, let's get him, he's a squirrel, get him, he just come down outta the trees' ... Well, anyway, did the Ed Sullivan Show. They just shot me from the waist up. Ed's standing there in the wings saying 'Sonofabitch! Sonofabitch!' I didn't know what he was saying so I'd say 'Thank you very much, Mr. Sullivan.'   

"Next thing, they dressed me up in a tuxedo and had me singing to a dog on a stool; you know I'm singing to this dog 'n' the dog is going 'Whooooogh!' and I'm going 'Whooooogh!' Then I got into the movies, King Creole, Jailhouse Rock, Love Me Tender, Loving You, loving her ... So I'd done four movies and I was feeling pretty good with myself, had a pair of sunglasses and was sitting there in my Cadillac going: 'I'm a movie star, hot damn!' and the driver's going, 'Whew, watch that squirrel, man, he's just out of the trees.' I was livin' it up pretty good there for a while and then I got drafted, and shafted and everything else. One thing I found out, though, is that guys really miss their parents in the Army, they're always going around calling each other 'mother.' When I got out I did a few more movies, and a few more movies, and I got into a rut, you know there's this big rut just the other side of Hollywood Boulevard ... Pow! ... You know they let me do my thang here for a while and then they'll put me away for another nine years ..."

Elvis straps on an electric guitar, tunes it, pretends not to be able to play it and then gets into the classic second and third string rhythm progression, dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum ...

We're goin' up, we're goin' down ...

Elvis sings Jimmy Reed! He does it very funky, just playing with the band a tight down-home blues. Next he does a country number, "Detroit City," and then Del Shannon's hit, "Runaway." The last part of the show consists of very heavy production numbers beginning with the Bee Gees' mournful metaphysical ballad, "Words."

Then the lights die down, the strings pick, the piano tinkles like an ice cube.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,
Now it looks as though they're here to stay ...

Elvis sings Paul the way Paul would sing Elvis.

Suddenly, I'm not half the stud I used to be ...

The orchestra is welling up with emotion like a giant Welk, the Sweet Inspirations are drifting up, scaling the heavenly stairs like an angel choir at the end of one of those Bible spectaculars, "oooh, oooh, oooh," and Elvis singing "I believe in yesterday" like a true confession. I can't stand it, it's the end of the world! But this is only the beginning because the next song is:

Na na na nanana na, nanana na, hey Jude …

By this time the chicks at the front tables in their giant bouffants are getting really out of hand, reaching up to grab him. He leans over and gives each of them a kiss. They throw their table napkins up to him, and he wipes his face, under his armpits and throws them back. He even blows his nose on one of them and hands it back to a squealing middle-aged fan who holds it reverently like a piece of the true cross. You can see he digs it, too, he really appreciates that people still dig him that much. These are chicks that really went ape for the Pelvis way back then, flipped their wig, baby, for an itsy bitsy piece of his moony gold lamé threads. Kind-of-grungy, nowhere chicks who'd write those dumb letters to Elvis all made up of the titles of his hits:

Big Hunk o' Love,
I want you, I need you, I love you. All shook up over you so Don't be cruel Just because ... Treat me nice I beg of you, Let me be your teddy bear. Don't let this be a one-sided love affair. There'd just be one broken heart for sale.
Signed,
Loving You

Next he does his mini soap opera, "In the Ghetto," and follows it with his new single, "Suspicious Minds," a heavy production number. When he gets to the line "caught in a trap, I can't walk out," he crouches on the ground and leaps up like a 'possum, springing a bear trap. The line has a pretty symbolic sound.

As an encore he does his 1962 hit, "Can't Help Falling in Love." "You've been a beautiful audience, ladies and gentlemen, you've made it all worthwhile."

Wise men say only fools rush in
But I, but I, but I, can't help falling in love with you.
Shall I go, would it be a sin?
But I can't help falling in love with you.
Like a river flows slowly to the sea,
Darling so it goes, some things were meant to be.
Take my hand, take my whole life too
For I can't help falling in love with you.

As we are walking out into the casino, a balding man with a beer belly is handing out 13-year-old color photos of Elvis. Someone says, "Hey man, you know who that is? It's Colonel Parker."