In his wonderful new biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis, author Peter Guralnick quotes Marion Keisker, the Sun Records employee who first spotted the future King’s talent, describing Presley as ”a mirror in a way; whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him.” This is also the best way to interpret the boggling spectacle that was Elvis Aron Presley: The Tribute, the Oct. 8 concert in Memphis featuring more than 30 performances of Presley hits by musicians ranging from Tony Bennett to Iggy Pop.
Bennett, for example, saw Presley as the rocker who said he admired Perry Como — Bennett’s lugubrious version of ”Love Me Tender” was schlockier than Bennett usually permits himself to be. To Pop, Presley was the anarchist showman; his shredded rendition of ”Rip It Up” was the musical equivalent of the stunt Pop used to pull as Iggy Stooge: rolling around the stage bare-chested on broken glass.
The Tribute, cosponsored by Harrah’s Casinos (with chunks of the profits going to charity), was staged at Memphis’ Pyramid Arena and broadcast on pay per view. The evening got off to a rocky start with widow Priscilla Presley cozying up to the notion of Elvis as Jesus (”He loved all of you”), Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar rocking badly through ”Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and viewers probably regretting paying the $25 charge.
The preshow publicity centered on the rumor that Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley would interrupt their honeymoon to perform. They didn’t, but did make an appearance in a curtained-off arena box. Michael waved and covered his face with the curtain; Lisa Marie looked as if she’d been hit over the head with a 2-by-4. As inheritors of the throne, they too look in the Elvis mirror, and you get the feeling all they see is royalty checks.
What can you say about a concert in which the evening’s biggest hand went to Full House‘s John Stamos? The best performances were by those who, in true Presley spirit, were willing to be both sincere and hokey. Thus Billy Ray Cyrus’ ”One Night,” with wicked hip-grinding and backup by the Jordanaires, was terrific; so was Tanya Tucker’s raw, Elvis-as-pure-sex interpretation of ”Teddy Bear.”
The low points were predictable. Mac Davis croaked out ”Memories,” and Kris Kristofferson’s ”That’s All Right” was so tuneless I fully expected the Jordanaires to start laughing. But Michael Bolton took the booby prize when he had the gall to try replicating Elvis’ rubber-legged choreography during ”Jailhouse Rock”: It was arrogantly, transfixingly bad.
Most Pretentious Moment: John Cale turning ”Heartbreak Hotel” into a neoclassical dirge, dissonant and insufferable.
Most Disappointing No-Show: Cher.
Best Use of the Elvis Mirror Effect: Jerry Lee Lewis, looking healthy and cool, tearing through ”See See Rider” with a great piano solo. When Jerry Lee looks in the mirror, he sees … himself. C