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VIVA LAS VEGAS

A BOXED SET WRONGHEADEDLY ATTEMPTS TO REHABILITATE THE LATTER-DAY ELVIS'S REPUTATION.

In 1970 Presley's film career was, for all practical purposes, over, yet he didn't attempt to fill this vacuum by transforming himself into a studio perfectionist. His one major effort in this arena (1969's From Elvis in Memphis) was spectacular, but it required more patience than Presley could muster on a regular basis. He recorded a great deal as the end neared, but there was seldom an overarching vision at play at his sessions. He came in, cut whatever songs had been lined up for him with whatever musicians were around at the time, and then headed off in search of the nearest fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. As Marsh notes, Presley had more to say about the tunes he covered during the Seventies than previously, but his instincts were far from infallible. Some of his choices were decent ("Always on My Mind" and "T-R-O-U-B-L-E," on disc two), some were abominable (disc one's "An American Trilogy," disc four's "Snowbird"), yet most shared a common bond: melodrama.

This virtue was a necessity, because Elvis had returned to the stage with a vengeance, and the routines he developed for the crowds who flocked to arenas and Las Vegas casinos to see him combined old-fashioned theatrics with a distinctively American predilection for the garish and the gargantuan. There was little that was subtle about Presley on stage, and he displayed absolutely no sense of shame. He would use every stratagem in the canon to reach his audiences, no matter how hoary or brazen, and he didn't seem to care that plenty of these ploys were looked down upon by the rockers who once followed in his footsteps. "Let It Be Me (Je T'Appartiens)," "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)" and "Unchained Melody" (on disc five here) recall Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso more than they do any of the King's contemporaries, because while delivering them, Presley wails for the balconies with the exaggerated tones of a hayseed Don Giovanni. Elsewhere, on studio efforts and live recordings alike, Presley piles on the string sections, horn sections and background vocalists like a creative glutton, then rides atop them in a way that is at once godlike and ridiculous.

The result of these histrionics is often preposterous, but entertainingly so. When Elvis was in his final stages, he had become so vast and supreme a figure that it didn't matter what he was singing; simply that he did so at all was enough. He could still approximate the rock of his youth, as he does on disc two's "Steamroller Blues" and disc five's live "Heartbreak Hotel," but he was more interested in jerking tears and causing the middle-aged females in attendance to gasp.

Elvis succeeded more often than anyone had a right to expect, and he did so without evincing the slightest pretension about art. And that's not a bad thing: The music on Walk a Mile in My Shoes is memorable (and wonderful--and horrible) because such considerations couldn't have been further from Presley's mind. Sorry, Mr. Marsh, but Elvis didn't require your worshipful approval, or that of any other dictator of taste. All he needed was some hairspray, a pair of white shoes, a few sweat-soaked scarves, a couple dozen studio hacks and a song that gave him an excuse to punch a hole in the sky.

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