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Viva Las Vegas: Elvis Returns to the Stage

Elvis Presley on stage
Photograph from MPTV / Reuters

Las Vegas is more like Hollywood than Hollywood, because the money is changing hands right out front. Committed to veneer as an art form, over-thirty and relentlessly white in essence, if not always in packaging, Vegas is the antithesis of the cultural revolution. Its hopelessly reactionary nature is best exemplified not by the fountains in front of Caesars Palace, or even by the ethnic comedians, but by the existence of—yes—prominent citizens who want to Make Las Vegas Beautiful, which means toning down the neon on Fremont Street and creating vest-pocket parks. Andy Warhol, tolerant as he is, would have a hard time justifying that. Yet the metaphor of the crap game does have its application to rock: “Just give me money, / That’s what I want.” The crass determination to get rich has been one of the great unsung forces behind the cultural revolution. Of course, it has also worked the other way. In the past fifteen years, Hollywood and its variants have bought off plenty of rock performers: the Paul Anka types, who used rock as a detour until the nightclubs were ready for them; black people—like the Supremes—who identified success with whiteness; and, most important of all, Elvis Presley. Elvis, the very definition of rock and roll for its vociferous defenders and detractors, became the first rock-and-roller to switch to ballads for the whole family, and a pioneer (here he had some competition from Annette Funicello and friends) of the unalienated youth movie. You couldn’t blame Elvis. In those days, everyone kept speculating about what would happen to punks like him when the rock-and-roll fad was over. It took the Beatles to affirm the first principle of the cultural revolution: The kids have money, and kid music equals kid capitalism. Colonel Parker, meet Brian Epstein.

When I heard that Presley had accepted an engagement at the new International Hotel in Las Vegas and was to give his first concert in nine years, I knew the confrontation had to be interesting. Elvis was at once old money and young money, sellout and folk hero. How would he play it? In his television special last winter, he wore a leather jacket and wiggled his hips. But then he recorded “In the Ghetto,” which was weak on beat and strong on slush. It was a No. 1 hit—except in the ghetto—and no doubt met with the approval of the Make Las Vegas Beautiful folks. Now Kirk Kerkorian, who owns the International and apparently wants to become Nevada’s other famous tycoon, was energetically promoting Elvis’s return to the stage. He invited all the New York rock writers to come out in his plane—the first privately owned DC-9, remodelled to seat twenty people and make the usual first-class accommodations look chintzy. The press releases for the hotel promised that all its features would be the largest, the newest, and the most expensive. Ordinarily, invitations to junkets—a traditional Hollywood institution—are no problem. Who wants to fly to Houston to see Tony Bennett? But in this case I was faced with a dilemma familiar to observers of revolutions and nuclear particles. To participate would compromise my objectivity; to hold aloof would falsify the experience. In a medium as sensitive to context as rock, the hype is an essential part of the message. The story was not just Elvis but Elvis and all of us in Kerkorian’s womb. I flashed yes, and, along with other refugees from the cultural revolution, armed with long hair, giant sunglasses, and artificial euphoriants, I set out to dig Babylon: Garish is beautiful. There was something to be said for the Las Vegas thing. At the same time, I hoped Elvis would be crude and surly and stomp all over the veneer with his blue suède shoes.

The opening took place in the Showroom Internationale, a two-thousand-seat nightclub whose sublimely irrelevant décor included relief carvings of Greek temples and winged gods and goddesses, and whose menu that night consisted of such tasty items as Aloyau Roti à l’Anglaise Périgourdine and Pointes d’Asperges au Beurre. The audience was 99.44 per cent white and predominantly middle-aged and moneyed; the celebrities present ranged from Fats Domino and Phil Ochs to Pat Boone and Henry Mancini. I was surprised at how seriously people were taking the occasion. They seemed to feel that Elvis was theirs, not just a progenitor of the music their kids listened to. A woman of fifty who had come from Los Angeles whispered excitedly, “My husband thinks I’m real silly, but I always wanted to see Elvis in person.” It was obviously the raunchy Elvis, not the Hollywood Elvis, that she wanted to see.

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