A White Boy With Black Hips

THE NEW YORK TIMES
August 10, 1969
By Richard Goldstein

At first you wondered what he was doing in the Neon West. Elvis the Pelvis, King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, now just another bauble in the Vegas Tiara. His name and image jingle-jangled over the radio, promoted in billboards and Cinemascope marquees like a triple-seven jackpot on the nickel slots. This was no gig for a Jailhouse rocker (even on parole). But then you remembered what he had become: Elvis the crooner, sanitized into a latter-day Eddy Arnold, singing gauzy ballads that slip across your lap like napkins or pop religiosos with his hips and legs stiff as a safety pin.

And you thought about his journey through the Hollywood vaporizer: Blue Hawaii, Harum Scarum, Fun in Acapulco, It Happened At The Worlds Fair, even Viva Las Vegas. They did him up in motif after motif like a store window. Maximum visibility and minimal contact. And the Elvis mannequin had all the advantages of a sexual ready-made. You could watch him work out in screen without ever feeling him sweat. It was, as Elvis remarked at a press conference following his Vegas opening, “like singing to a turtle.”

Yet there must of been so consolation in his movie grosses (a figure you usually hear reported as $50 million- that’s five-oh-million). Why then was he abandoning this formula, which had kept him in lucrative isolation, to face a live audience for the first time in over eight years? You supposed he was doing it for the money. Maybe those box-office receipts were beginning to slip, the recent spate of Elvis-epics on TV having all but glutted the market. Perhaps it was time to move on to something new. Or something so old you couldn’t possibly accuse him of cashing in someone else’s chips.

So the King was inching is way toward a reaffirmation (lesser men might have called it a comeback). First, there was last season’s TV Special, featuring the old Elvis in new leather. Then a song called In The Ghetto sold 1 ½ -million copies, put Elvis square in line with the Urban Coalition and inspired the nightmare vision of a movie musical called Elvis In The Ghetto. Now his prime minister and manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was granting interviews to select journals. There had even been a guarded attempt to involve the underground press and, through it, the generation which reached puberty just in time to experience Elvis as a rite de passage.

It was that generation which the King needed most to reach. They had little use for him as a matinee idol, and as for his gospel side, he could have easier sold them beds in an old age home. But Elvis had one thing going for him: his past. At a time when pop is infused with nostalgia, what better way to summon up the immediate past than by resurrecting it’s most genuine artifact – a white boy with black hips? Only you had to imagine him on TV. That may not explain why Elvis decided to render himself alive again, but’s why you were so anxious to see him. He has survived the sixties with his talent intact (because it remained unused). His films were so patently contrived that you could watch them and chuckle over the “real” Elvis who had eluded first Nashville and then Hollywood. Now, at last, you would have a chance to see (or see through) that secluded cool. You might witness an unmasking. Or an unveiling.

He had chosen the International Hotel and it’s most gaudy ballroom for his debut. Under a huge canopy of Czechoslovakian crystal and plaster figures, an audience of 2,000 settled into an after-dinner lull. Elvis’ father slipped unnoticed into a center booth. And Colonel Parker shook hands with every critic in the house. Then the lights dimmed to mere brightness and the great lamé curtain shuddered and commenced to rise. But you didn’t see Elvis right away. First, The Sweet Inspirations did a melody of tunes designed to wrench them from their gospel routes. Then you sat through some racist routines by a stand-up comic (remember the one about the cowardly matador and his stupid Mexican manager?). Just as you were settling into a bummer groove, Elvis strolled out with no fanfare and none of that bouncing around like an aging trooper.

It took a while to notice him and then longer to accustom yourself to what you were noticing. He wore a dark blue variation on a karate suit tastefully tapered  and belled. His hair, which seemed darker than ever, in his neck longish, and he wore it in his eyes again. He raised his guitar and seemed to hang back a second, on the edge of some very painful chord, but then he plunged into Blue Suede Shoes, shaking and shimmering hips working while his left hand poked rhythm into the air. It felt like getting hit in the face with a bucket of melted ice. He looked so timeless up there, so constant,  and yet you knew he was thirty-three (publicly) and in it for the money.

It made you feel furious to be robbed of your distance so easily, and then you felt unnerved – for the first time maybe – by the same shaky feeling your folks got from watching Sinatra on TV, a feeling you used to sneer at. It was a long show and spartan by Vegas standards. Elvis was in front throughout , stopping only to catch his breath, drink water, and once or twice flash awkward ‘V’s’ at the longhairs at the critics’ table. He was playing to us, though you had to see him another night to realize that. For a more mature audience, he stood still bathed in a heart-shaped spot, and between songs he wiped his brow with handkerchiefs from the audience. Leaning over, he accepted embraces from clutching arms.

It was rather biblical. You could witness some older ladies who have been ignored by rock even though they too grew up with it, and you pictured them a decade younger, screaming as they were now. But then it meant “touch me” and now it means “help me touch myself.” “Elvis, please answer my question.” “Yep.” “Did you read the note last night?” “Yep.”

He was still the boy that makes the girls weep. Still the man of the people, even though the people had moved to the suburbs. And still the jailhouse rocker. All he had to do to turn you on was to get into something raunchy (“why did he chose a black group to back him up?” someone asked at the press conference, and he answered “Because they help to  give me my feel.”) It was enough to watch him move (that hip action still powerful), not because it was obscene but because it seemed so innocent, so traditional. Once he stopped to catch his breath. “Now you just watch me while I rest,” he said, and you knew that he knew more about Rock ‘n’ Roll than anyone except the man who taught him how to shake. And you realized then that Elvis had come to Vegas for the same reason everybody comes to Vegas … TO WIN!