This article originally appeared at Moon In The Gutter to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his final performance.
Thirty years ago tonight at Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena an exhausted, disillusioned and sick Elvis Presley stepped onto a stage for the final time. He would be backed by his James Burton led TCB band, a band often described as one of the greatest live bands ever assembled, and he would perform 21 songs from all parts of his remarkable 23 year career. The reviews of the Indianapolis show were among the best of that emotionally and physically devastating 1977 Summer tour but the reality is that it is like many of the shows from that year, a combination of a tired artist walking through some songs while investing others with explosively spiritual readings that would show the last things to leave Elvis Presley were his voice and heart.
Much has been written about Elvis in that final fateful year of his life. It has always baffled me how people can take such glee in cruelly making fun of someone who was in such an obvious state of emotional and physical turmoil, but that is exactly what the last thirty years have brought. Whether it be the ill conceived CBS television special that was aired to pay off Colonel Parker’s gambling debts, or the factually and spiritually corrupt Albert Goldman assignation job of a book in 1981, to people who have no conception of how important culturally and devastatingly talented this man was, 1977 and the years since have taken much away from the legacy of Elvis Presley.
The thing that strikes me most about that fateful final year is just how great, even at his most vulnerable and damaged, Elvis Presley remained. For all of the rushed through and lifeless performances that he gave that year, each show would also feature some of the most powerhouse vocals of his career. I’m not an apologist for Elvis in 1977. The man was sick and needed to be in a hospital and not on the stage but there are moments, like when he is singing HURT, HOW GREAT THOU ART, BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER and especially a exorcising UNCHAINED MELODY, that the most powerful aspects of Elvis come out. Also noteworthy is that this was clearly a man who was remembering something special from his past and the spirited performances of TRYING TO GET TO YOU, LITTLE SISTER and an acoustic driven THAT’S ALL RIGHT all point to the fact that Elvis seemed to be finding solace in much of the rock music of his youth. A planned rock and roll studio album was being discussed for late 1977 and with people like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and David Bowie clamoring to write and produce for him, the late seventies could have been a most glorious time of renewal for Presley.
But it wasn’t meant to be and as tragic as the final year of Elvis Presely’s life was, it is hard to imagine things any other way now. The site of Elvis Presley’s final show was a sports arena built for the Indiana Pacers in 1974. Elvis had played there before but in that final show it has been reported that the 18,000 people that saw him thirty years ago tonight was the most the arena could hold.
The show was pretty typical for 1977 with the aforementioned THAT’S ALL RIGHT being the opening song after the 2001 theme played. The beguiling and always powerful CAN’T HELP FALLING IN LOVE closed the set which included readings of songs ranging from YOU GAVE ME A MOUNTAIN to LITTLE SISTER to a surprising, for 77, I CAN’T STOP LOVING YOU. The final words Elvis Presley spoke on stage were, "Until we meet again, may God bless you…adios."
The Elvis Presley of 1977 was the same Elvis Presley who had stunned people in his legendary 1968 comeback special, just like he was the same man who had made millions of people happy in his 31 feature films, and the same person who had inspired every major rock artist of the sixties and seventies with his work in the fifties…and finally the Elvis Presley of 1977 was the same little boy who grew up in poverty stricken Mississippi dreaming he could reach something else. The career of Elvis Presley can be split up into parts but it should never be forgotten that this was the same man all the way through and there was still a lot of that young dreamer left in him even at the end. Elvis in 1977 is often described as ‘old Elvis’ which is a mistake because Elvis Presley never had the chance to grow old, he was just 42 when he died.
Like many landmarks Americans take a weird satisfaction in destroying, Market Square Arena was imploded a few years ago to a crowd of hundreds; a crowd that erupted in a mixture of boos and cheers when the destruction happened. It has always reminded me of a line Lou Reed wrote in 1989, "Americans don’t care too much for beauty, they’ll shit in a river and dump battery acid in a stream..then complain that they can’t swim." There is a strong element in our country that takes a certain sick satisfaction in tearing down our landmarks and idols. Certainly for the last thirty years they have tried to do it to Elvis Presley and yet somehow he remains; like some sort of indestructible reminder that you can’t kill a dream that millions of people have ended up sharing.
Elvis Presley was often described, throughout his life, as someone who wanted nothing more than to make the people around him happy, and up to those last moments when he walked off that Indianapolis stage he was still doing just that. His ultimate sacrifice for making people happy was finally his own life, which perhaps says as much about the world we live in as anything else ever could. Ironically, even thirty years after he sang those final notes, Elvis Presley continues to make millions upon millions of people happy…whether you are a fan or not, that is a fact that should be celebrated.