Unchain His Heart

This Elvis clip has been making the rounds on Facebook recently. I am kind of obsessed with it. It is, to me, a really complicated performance and moment.

The background: it was just a few months before his death, on his final tour. He was very, very sick – in retrospect, he probably could have died at any moment.

The concert was widely reported in the press as being an unmitigated disaster. Elvis badly mumbled his way through a few songs, talked in a weird, disjointed, fashion, and then left the stage, leaving his band to try and entertain the audience without him.

He came back thirty minutes later, and didn’t seem much better, although he completed a few numbers. Then, still mumbling incoherently, he sat down at the piano – which, typically, he only played for friends – and launched into a performance of “Unchained Melody,” by himself. So began an almost unbearably raw, real moment among the gross shambles of the show-business atrocity that was his late career.

The voice, that voice, returns, in moments, with all its potency, but you can hear him panting in between lines, as though it is almost killing him to deliver it (he supposedly collapsed in the elevator afterwards). His face is a mask of sweat. But his fingers find the piano and beat out a simple but beautiful gospel arrangement of the tune. He shoots cocky looks to someone off-camera, like a pleased child saying, “Hey, look at me. I used to do this. I can still do this. I can PLAY MUSIC. This is the gift and the curse that brought me here.”

There are moments in the beginning when it seems like he is half-passionate, and half-trying to keep himself at an ironic distance. By the time his band decides to join him, he is all in. He reaches for operatic notes he hasn’t reached for in a dozen years or more. One note in particular is among the fullest and most beautiful he ever sang. He is shaking, sweating, and has about 20 different prescriptions drugs in a body that is full of the swollen internal organs that were soon to kill him.

He finishes with an ascending falsetto that doesn’t quite hit. But he knows what he’s done. He stands up, smiling and swaggering. Watching this performance is like watching a boxer who is going down but manages to throw a killer punch before he hits the floor. It was one of the worst concerts of the worst period of his career, and he was literally dying but this song, this performance, is a complex and tragic triumph.

What I mean is: it’s pathetic at times. He looks like a drunken baby in a bad wig, like a little boy who wants a cookie for being good. It’s heroic at times. He is struggling against his own physical limitations and the sham of a career that was developed for him by a frankly despicable con-man whom he’d come to hate – and he’s finding art in that long, long con. And he’s bucking the expectations of an audience that still want to see him wiggle his hips and sing rockabilly so that, if they squint, the fat man in the weird superhero jumpsuit might be the beautiful androgyne that brought the world to its knees in the 1950s.

Post-script: I’ve since heard that this moment was somewhat scripted, which complicates it further, but doesn’t, I think, take away from its value.

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