By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS — He was still Elvis.
And I saw him.
Forty years ago, on June 26, 1977, I attended Elvis Presley’s last concert. It was at the now-demolished Market Square Arena in downtown Indianapolis.
I was a teenager then. I’d skipped school to buy the tickets, getting myself into a fair bit of trouble by doing so, but I’d been an Elvis fan for a long time. I really wanted to see him perform live.
It wasn’t cool to be an Elvis fan then. My friends ribbed me about it, but that didn’t bother me much.
There was a quality of yearning in Elvis’s voice that spoke to me then and speaks to me now. His art was a kind of seeming artlessness, an ability to communicate the most deeply felt emotions with his music. He seemed to embody many of the tensions and contradictions — insecurity and self-assurance, sensitivity and toughness, anger and acceptance — that warred within me, too.
His show didn’t disappoint.
While he walked through his early hits in little more than a perfunctory fashion, he delivered powerful performances of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Hurt,” singing as if his heart were about to explode.
Less than two months later, it did.
The mythology is that Elvis’s final shows were disasters, moments when he was so wasted that he could barely stand, much less perform. Certainly, a few of the reviews suggested as much.
But it seemed to me even then that fame too easily made a celebrity into a canvas onto which we could paint our own hopes and fears — and that many of the reviewers weren’t critiquing his performance as much as they were the fact that he had aged or put on weight. They wanted to see the young, slim, hip-shaking Elvis, the one who shattered windows and kicked open doors to let the breeze blow through, not some middle-aged guy who sang of weariness, despair and … hurt.
But I didn’t come to the show expecting to see a 21-year-old hillbilly cat. I came expecting to see what I saw, a man of some years, trying through his art to make sense of and express what he’d seen and felt.
Many years later, when I was about the same age Elvis was when he died, some Elvis fans asked me to give a short speech at Market Square Arena before it was torn down.
I told them young Elvis had been such a liberating force and such a seductive figure that the power of that persona allowed us to forget that he also was a human being, one who had been touched and scuffed up by life just as all of us are. I said that his death at age 42 may have cost us the greatest period of his art.
And I talked about what it meant to be 40 — to have put on a few pounds, to have some regrets, to have taken a wrong turn or two and had to find one’s way back on course.
The pity with Elvis, I said, is that he didn’t have the time to find his way back.
But, on that stage 40 years ago in an arena that no longer exists, it seemed as if that was what he was trying to do — find his way back.
That is what moved me then.
And moves me still.
When he performed “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” he sang it as if it were a hymn of reassurance, his prayer for reconciliation and forgiveness.
And “Hurt” was a kind of deliverance, a release of the pain and anguish he felt, perhaps the only way he knew to confront his demons.
He sang as if not just his life, but his soul, depended on it.
In a sense, it did.
For great artists, the line separating art from life is a blurred one. The forces that inspire them also can torment them.
Right up to the end, he was still a man, an artist, who embodied tensions and contradictions.
He was still Elvis.
And I saw him.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits,” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.