The tour started in Knoxville, Tenn., on May 20, 1977, 16 days after the conclusion of the last. There was no longer any pretense of keeping up appearances. The idea was simply to get Elvis out onstage and keep him upright for the hour he was scheduled to perform. “He was pale, swollen–he had no stamina,” observed a Knoxville physician, who was shocked by his backstage glimpse of a man who appeared barely able to function. In Louisville, according to [Elvis’ stylist and spiritual influence], Larry Geller’s account, Dr. Nick was forced to revive him once again, and in Landover, Md., Elvis left the stage for “nature’s call,” tossed two microphones to the floor, and according to the Washington Star reviewer, “just refused to turn it on,” prompting the question for the reviewer as to whether or not he still could. Ginger [Alden, Elivis’ fiancée] left the tour in Binghamton, N.Y., after Elvis laid down an ultimatum that she would have to choose between him and her family once and for all. Elvis could barely contain himself, ranting and raving at the top of his lungs so that everyone else in the hotel could hear him from their rooms. Finally he got Larry to call Kathy [Westmoreland] because he couldn’t bear to be alone. She had just gotten in from a date but agreed without hesitation to spend the night with him. He talked to her about Ginger–he was no longer sure they belonged together, he told her, there were just too many differences between them. She “listened and held his hand … until he finally fell asleep.”
Over the next few nights he brought up things they had talked about often in the past, but now they took on a different tinge. He spoke to her about his mother, he talked about his pain, he spoke of his place in history. “How will they remember me?” he asked over and over again. “They’re not going to remember me. I’ve never done anything lasting. I’ve never done a classic film.” But then his mood would change. His mission in life, he said, was “to make people happy with music. And I’ll never stop until the day I die.”
In Baltimore, on May 20, he had to leave the stage again in the middle of the show, calling on Kathy and Sherrill Nielsen to carry on in the face of the crowd’s growing restlessness until he came back 30 minutes later. He was “weak,” “tired,” “paunchy” and “pained,” according to the Variety reporter who was present, and a building spokesman was left to attribute his “murmuring, swearing and unscheduled hiatus to the reported intestinal problem that had KOed Presley from an earlier … tour.” When he returned to the stage, he “came on like gangbusters,” according to the same report, “repeatedly thanking the audience for hanging with him” and explaining that he had twisted his ankle and was forced to answer a call of nature– “and you don’t fool around with nature.” Later he declared, “There’s nothing wrong with my health,” but “at the finale, there was no ovation, and patrons exited shaking their heads and speculating on what was wrong with him.”
Somehow they got through the rest of the tour. They were in Macon on June 1 when the CBS concert special that the Colonel [Parker, Elvis’ manager] had put together was announced. It was scheduled to be shot at the beginning of the next tour less than three weeks away and called for a $750,000 fee, to be split 50-50 between Elvis and the Colonel after $10,000 had been assigned to All Star Shows for promotional expenses, with ownership to be shared by the two principals after a single repeat showing. This was the first time the Colonel had actually applied the full-partnership agreement that Elvis had signed more than a year before, but he had kept careful records, and with this tour for the first time he stipulated that the two-thirds-one-third division that continued to be observed represented a temporary settlement only and that all accounts would be settled up, and all monies owed him under the terms of that January 1976 agreement would be repaid in full by the end of the year.
The very fact that Colonel Parker could even contemplate a television special at this point took everyone by surprise. Even William Morris lawyer Roger Davis, who was in charge of contract negotiations, was taken aback, but the Colonel simply shrugged and offered three variations of the same explanation to anyone raising so much as an eyebrow. Elvis needed a challenge and would not fail to rise to this one, he insisted on the one hand; it was Elvis, not he, who wanted the show, he might say on another occasion; more convincingly, he conceded that he had asked for so much money he never thought the network would go for it, and when they did, what choice did he have but to bring the deal to his client? His voice never lowered, his gaze never wavered, but for the first time that anyone could remember, he seemed to lack the conviction that would indicate he was either persuaded or amused by his own carny spiel. And the difference between tying a television shoot to shows in Omaha, Neb., and Rapid City, S.D., and setting up a global event like Aloha from Hawaii was lost on no one, least of all the Colonel. But no one said anything, and Colonel, as always, pursued his own agenda without reference to outsiders’ opinions–he was, no less than Elvis, utterly and irremediably, alone.
By the time they got back to Memphis, Red and Sonny’s book, now titled Elvis: What Happened?, had started to appear in serialized form in England and Australia, and Elvis fans around the world were exchanging shocked telephone calls. “The first two chapters are about him giving drugs to a girl and how he put a ‘contract’ on Mike Stone,” wrote Donna Lewis in her diary after a friend read her excerpts on the phone. “What horrible lies!” Elvis was almost as anguished, and yet he could still lapse from time to time into a state of denial that allowed him to believe the book itself might never come out. That may have been one of the reasons he refused to respond to feelers from Frank Sinatra’s camp about doing something serious to stop publication, but Larry thought it had more to do with guilt. Part of him seemed to accept exposure as the punishment he deserved. On the other hand, sometimes he said to the guys that he felt like Jesus betrayed by his disciples.
On June 4 he rewarded Larry and Kathy with their own Lincoln Mark Vs, burgundy and white. He was just showing them some of the features of their new cars when Charlie [Hodge, a member of Elvis’ band], who had been drinking heavily once again, started mouthing off about how the wrong people had been rewarded and he was going to get a Rolls-Royce of his own. Elvis stopped in midspeech, and then, as Larry and everyone else watched, “turned away as if he were going to ignore [the remark] and swung around and caught [Charlie] on the bridge of his nose with a backhand. Then, realizing what he’d done, Elvis ran up the steps and into Graceland,” while Charlie stood there, “stunned, [with] blood pouring down his face.” Afterward, Elvis was clearly mortified, but he couldn’t bring himself to apologize, sending Larry to make sure Charlie was all right. “He never hit me before,” Charlie moaned as he lay on the floor of his room. “Why did he hit me? I love him. I know he loves me.” But the most Larry could get out of Elvis was a promise to take it up with Charlie the next day.
He tried to do something for George Klein, who had been indicted by a federal grand jury in February for fixing a radio ratings poll. Recalling the way he had practically just walked into President Nixon’s office when no one else thought Nixon would even know who he was, he put in a call to President Jimmy Carter on June 13, sure that Carter, a fellow Southerner whom he had met at a 1973 concert in Atlanta while Carter was still governor of Georgia, would intervene. When the President called back 24 hours later, he couldn’t seem to make him understand what he was driving at, though. They spoke for about 10 minutes, with Carter getting the impression that Elvis was “stoned and didn’t know what he was saying,” other than that he was asking the president to pardon a friend who had not yet been tried. According to Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley, the President attempted “to ease Presley out of his paranoid delusions, calming his fears that he was being ‘shadowed’ by sinister forces and that his friend was being framed,” but when Elvis called back at 8:45 the following morning, Carter didn’t take the call.
They embarked on the fifth tour of the year just two days later. Ginger insisted on staying home to watch her sister Terry give up her crown as the reigning Miss Tennessee, but she rejoined him in Kansas City on the second night. Even with Ginger present, he seemed utterly exhausted. “In spite of what you may hear or you may read, we’re here, we’re healthy and we’re doing what we enjoy doing,” he announced to the crowd, but no one observing his pale swollen appearance, the awkward slow-motion manner in which he lurched about the stage or his overall sense of confusion and self-doubt could have been taken in, no matter how much they might have wanted to believe his protestations. It was equally difficult for anyone on the show to believe they would be filming a television special the following day. More and more the feeling grew that they had set out on a doomed voyage, captainless, rudderless, with no hope of turning back.
The performance in Omaha the next night in front of the CBS cameras exceeded everyone’s worst fears. One has only to listen to the complete, undoctored audio recording of the show to understand the panic that seems to have overtaken Elvis. His voice is almost unrecognizable, a small, childlike instrument in which he talks more than sings most of the songs, casts about uncertainly for the melody in others, and is virtually unable to articulate or project. He gives the impression of a man crying out for help when he knows help will not come. And even after more than 20 years, it is almost unbearable to listen to or watch, the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty, and in its place sheer, stark terror. “It was like he was saying, ‘OK, here I am. I’m dying, fuck it,’” said Tom Hulett, who up to the last minute was still hoping he might pull it off. “I’ve never seen a backstage area so sad.”
Strangely enough, he rallied two nights later in Rapid City, S.D., on the second night of filming. “I know I was terrible,” he said to producers Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, as if the first show had been an accident that had happened to someone else. He would do better this time, he assured them. And indeed he did. He looked healthier, seemed to have lost a little weight, and sounded better, too. All that Gary Smith was hoping for at this point was to try to capture some of the excitement of the crowd, some of the belief that the fans still placed in Elvis, and this he was able to do. But he got something else as well, something he had not bargained on and that would ultimately prove too raw for network broadcast.
It came at the end of the show when Elvis sat down at the piano and, with Charlie holding a hand mike, launched into “Unchained Melody,” the Roy Hamilton number in which he so often seemed to invest every fiber of his being. Hunched over the piano, his face framed in a helmet of blue-black hair from which sweat sheets down over pale, swollen cheeks, Elvis looks like nothing so much as a creature out of a Hollywood monster film–and yet we are with him all the way as he struggles to achieve grace. It is a moment of what can only be described as grotesque transcendence, and when at the end he signals to Charlie, “I got it,” and goes on to complete the song with no help from Charlie or Sherrill Nielsen or any of the other background singers who frequently sustained his notes now in the more difficult passages, the expression on his face, the little-boy sense of relief that he has actually pulled it off, is both entrancing and heartbreaking. And then it is back to the standard finale, the giving out of kisses and scarves and the ritual departure that make up the carefully constructed facade he has built to wall himself off from everything but the approbation of the crowd.
“Dwight and Gary were kind to him,” was Joe Guercio’s conclusion, “and still there was nothing really there.” Just how desperate everyone was to believe otherwise, though, was made evident by a telephone conversation that took place between Myrna and Jerry Schilling right after the show. “Jerry said, ‘How did it go?’ And I said, ‘It really went great.’ He said, ‘Well, how did Elvis look?’ I said, ‘He really looks good. He’s lost a little weight.’ And afterwards, when I watched it [when the show was broadcast in October], I just burst out crying. We were all wearing blinders.”
There were five dates still left to play. Ronnie Tutt left after the Des Moines concert, citing a family crisis, and Larrie Londin was able to come in for the last two nights after Sweet Inspirations drummer Jerome “Stump” Monroe filled in for one show. In Madison, Wis., Elvis was being driven from the airport to the hotel when he spotted two youths ganging up on an attendant at an all-night filling station. Over the protests of Ginger and his father, he leapt out of the limousine and struck a karate pose, offering to take the two bullies on. The fight broke up without any further blows being exchanged as the three participants stood in stunned recognition of who was intervening. “Presley did not leave until tempers were cool,” reported one wire-service account. “‘He was willing to fight,’ said Thomas McCarthy, one of several police officers providing Presley with security. ‘That’s the bad part.’ Presley shook hands and posed for several pictures. He seemed amused by the whole episode as he got back into the limousine.”
In Cincinnati he gave everyone another surprise when he grew irritated at the inadequacy of the hotel air-conditioning system and, deciding to take matters into his own hands, set out to find another hotel, heading down the street in his DEA jogging suit with his security detail behind. He was an hour late to the show that night because of what he termed “a technical hitch,” but his performance was generally accounted to be a good one, and the show in Indianapolis the following night, the Colonel’s 68th birthday, displayed an energy and a vitality that had been missing the entire tour. Perhaps it was because he had given up on hotels, flying home to Graceland after the Cincinnati show and returning with a plane full of friends and relatives. Rhythm guitarist John Wilkinson thought he seemed nervous before he went on, but he did an 80-minute set, a third as long as the average performance, and at the end, after strong versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Hurt,” he brought his father out onstage, introduced various friends and relatives, and with the conclusion of the final number put the mike down and walked back and forth shaking hands, as if he really didn’t want to leave.
Peter Guralnick will read from Careless Love on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh (call 828-1588), and on Thursday, Feb. 24, at McIntyre’s Fine Books in Pittsboro (call 542-3030).