The passion of Elvis

Watching Presley's "'68 Comeback Special" is a total religious experience, proving once and for all that the King was no false idol.

Topics: Music,

“In my Father’s house are many guitar men.”
— John 14:2

He stands endlessly multiplied, figures with guitars lining the scaffolding behind him as far as can be seen. And yet they do not dwarf him, do not eclipse him. There are no false idols to worship when he is present.

The opening of “Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special” (“Singer Presents Elvis,” as it was called at the time, and just released in its entirety, outtakes and all, as part of a new three-DVD set) remains a marvel of awesome, arrogant confidence. It opens with Elvis Presley’s face filling the screen, a mean, dirty blues riff behind him. “If you’re lookin’ for trouble, you came to the right place,” he says, and they are not welcoming words. They throw down the gauntlet to the audience, signal that Elvis is once again willing to act as a divider, willing to resurrect the rifts that his music caused 12 years earlier, willing to cleave parent from child, friend from friend.

The divide between people who felt liberated by Elvis and those who felt threatened by him is not the divide he caused in the ’60s. That division was between the people who were still willing to watch Elvis and get what the great critic Lester Bangs, seeing Elvis, called “an erection of the heart” and those who considered him a clown, irrelevant in the face of Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones, hell, even in the face of the lagging, dragging Doors. And yet the performance that opens the show, “Trouble” segueing into the hard rocker “Guitar Man,” is so big you can’t imagine any divide it will not swallow whole.

The final shot of the opening sequence finds Elvis standing with his guitar, singing the final verse, the camera slightly beneath him so that he is looming over us. As he sings, the camera pulls back to reveal that he is standing in the center of an enormous neon sign spelling out “E L V I S” in red lightbulbs, pulls back until he is just a small figure on the screen. This is the challenge the director, Steve Binder, has laid down to his star: Will Elvis stand up to “E L V I S” or will he be dwarfed by it, crushed by his own outsize image? There’s no contest. From the midst of that huge sign, Elvis is surveying his kingdom. He’s present in every particle of what we see even when he’s barely visible. “I like a lot of the new music,” he will say later in the show, “the Beatles ‘n the Beards ‘n whoever,” dismissing the music that he forged, saying none of them can equal him. And for the hour that follows, he’s right.

“For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.”
— Matthew 13:15

To say that Elvis surpassed expectations in this show is an insult. After the Army, after years of hiding from the public in movies like “Tickle Me” and years of hiding from his own best musical instincts in songs like “No Room to Rhumba in a Sportscar,” expectations weren’t much. But even if the music in this special had followed the Sun Sessions and the initial records at RCA, it would still be titanic.

The audience that tuned in to the special on Dec. 3, 1968, had no way of knowing that. It’s fair to assume that many who watched the show tuned in as a goof, as an ironic nod to their own recent past that, at the end of that abominable year, seemed so far behind them. Those who kept a flame burning, who hoped that they would see something that night that would unstop their ears and unlock their hearts, were in the minority.

The live performances recorded for the show were the first time Elvis had faced an audience in years. There are four of them, two recorded with the band offstage while he prowls a small platform performing a medley of his hits (known as “The Black Leather Stand-Up Shows”), and two recorded as an informal jam session with a quartet of buddies (known as “The Black Leather Sit-Down Shows”), including his original guitarist Scotty Moore, who would never see Elvis again after these performances.

All four tapings appear for the first time in this box set (the first sit-down show has previously been released as “Elvis: One Night With You”), along with outtakes and the original special. (A production number set in a whorehouse that the sponsor, Singer, deemed too steamy has been restored.)

It’s the “Black Leather” tapings on which the legend of this show rests. The audiences could not have known that they would be present for the greatest performances from the single most important figure in rock ‘n’ roll. “It was definitely not cool in 1968 to like Elvis,” wrote Peter Guralnick in “Careless Love,” the second volume of his Elvis biography. To young people caught up in the music or the fashion or the politics of that year, the audience for the show must have looked irredeemably square, particularly the women with their bouffants and hair-sprayed curls. And the women must have seemed too old for the screams they emitted, as if they were playing at being bobby soxers again — which is why those screams are so genuine.

No one in that audience is concerned with what is the cool thing, only with what is the real thing. As Elvis surges through the stand-up shows, growling “Heartbreak Hotel” as if he were ripping chains out of concrete, creating a fury with his voice that diminishes even the hardness of the arrangements behind him, the audience tries to find a noise equal to his in their applause and their whistles. But what eclipses the sound is something that can’t be heard or measured, only felt, and that’s the tangible physical gravitation of performer and audience toward each other, the thrill they share of being swept up in something bigger than themselves, something terrifying and exhilarating, something both final and holding endless possibilities. This audience was old enough to remember what it was like when rock ‘n’ roll first appeared, what it meant to be among the people hearing that music for the first time. Watching the black-leather performances now, you wonder, were they feeling the same thing that night, and how could they not?

“But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.”
— Matthew 12:6

What those audiences witnessed was the moneylenders being thrown out of the temple. The memory of “Do the Clam” or “Rock-a-Hula Baby,” of “Double Trouble” or “Harum Scarum” was trashed. Elvis, acting as his own blade runner, retired the glazed replicant Elvis who had stood in for him for most of the preceding eight years.

Standing before the audience dressed from head to toe in that black leather, Elvis is impossibly beautiful. The sleepy baby softness of the ’50s has gone, replaced by a chiseled rawness. His skin is burnished, his gleaming hair blacker than any night sky. And at the bottom of it all, in fleeting glimpses, is the thing that makes him most beautiful — he looks scared.

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
— Luke 15:24

And why wouldn’t he be scared? The life he was leaving behind, and the one he would sink into in a few years, was a cocoon. It had made him nearly an irrelevance, and Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, to whom he had ceded control of his career, had no idea how to change that. (The special the Colonel envisioned was an hour of Christmas songs on a bare stage.)

Two production numbers provide Elvis the safe outlet of playacting, a gospel number and a long section built around “Guitar Man.” Breaking it up verse by verse, the director, Steve Binder, uses the song as Elvis’ story. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was the prophecy of Elvis, and Bruce Springsteen’s version of Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” Warren Zevon’s “Jesus Mentioned,” The Odds’ “Wendy Under the Stars” and Elvis’ own version of “Danny Boy” would be his epitaph. Here “Guitar Man” was a raunchy version of the rise of Elvis Presley, the bildungsroman with the (true) bits about the boy who read his Bible and loved his mother left out. In the number, Elvis is a young man leaving his dead-end home, making stops at carnivals, whorehouses, seedy nightclubs on his way to stardom. By the last verse of the song he’s made it, and yet what he sings denies what he’s won:

“Well I come a long way from the car wash
I got to where I said I’d get
Now that I’m here I know for sure
I really ain’t got there yet”

Elvis is saying that all his success is as nothing. There are still miles to go.

“With Elvis all things are possible.”
— Mark 10:27

It’s the black-leather shows, particularly the first of the sit-down shows, that prove how far he felt he had to go — though not forward but back.

Binder meant the session to be a version of what he had seen watching Elvis and his buddies hanging out playing and singing. Elvis instinctively turned it into an illustration of what Jean-Luc Godard meant when he said at about the same time that before you could start from zero, you had to return to zero. The instrumentation is basic. Scotty Moore plays electric guitar, which Elvis takes from him a few songs in, giving Moore his acoustic one. Charlie Hodge also plays acoustic guitar. DJ Fontana plays drums using only his sticks and a guitar case. Alan Fortas has even less, slapping a guitar case with his hands. Sitting by Elvis’ feet, his buddy and movie stand-in Lance LeGault shakes a tambourine. The session proceeds with a visibly nervous Elvis telling semiscripted stories, monitoring the byplay of the band, joining in but hanging back just enough to show who’s boss.

It’s a casual, even lowdown tone. The pleasure of shared, familiar jokes makes itself felt in the repeated, salacious versions of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do?” Elvis is, through it all, sexy beyond belief, sweating in his leather suit, a lock of hair falling luxuriantly down his forehead. And yet the charisma is almost unconscious because the proceedings are so loose, with gags and pet phrases (“mah boy, mah boy”) lazily making their way back and forth. Songs fall apart, or suddenly come together out of a strummed riff or tossed-off remark.

And when Elvis’ focus snaps into the music, it’s like feeling an electric wire come alive in your hands. You see it in the sudden driving rhythm he gives to the first number, “That’s All Right,” or the way his legs flail, looking for purchase, during “Heartbreak Hotel.” And you feel it in “Trying to Get to You” like a mountain erupting out of the earth to bear you up to the heavens. A road song in which a man journeys to the woman who has at last sent a letter telling him she loves him, it had appeared on his first RCA album. Twelve years later, Elvis sings it as if he’d never fully realized what it meant until now. When he gets to the chorus:

“When I read your lovin’ letter
Then my heart began to sing
There were many miles between us
But they didn’t mean a thing”

He’s leaping over all the wasted years and missed opportunities, going back in order to move mightily forward. He repudiates all that waste in the two versions of “One Night” that follow, the second one starting as a joke. By the time he is singing about the very quiet life that’s “been too lonely too long,” the lines pulled out of him as if from a man pleading for his life, he has risen to his feet, unable to sit any longer, his body yearning in the same way his voice is yearning for the “unlimited possibilities” Peter Guralnick spoke of in his music.

It doesn’t matter that the promise of these performances was only sporadically fulfilled — in the great album that followed, “From Elvis in Memphis”; in the recordings you can hear from the first Las Vegas shows; in the bottomless “Suspicious Minds”; in “Burning Love,” a song to transfix the most devoted holy roller and the most depraved rock ‘n’ roller; in the sporadic album cuts that suggested Elvis still cared about the music, like his version of Faye Adams’ “Shake a Hand” and Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” that continued until his death. In all of rock ‘n’ roll there isn’t anything to equal the bigness or freedom of Elvis’ voice on “Trying to Get to You” and “One Night.” It’s both his most desperate and most determined music, a reach for salvation, and a deliverance.

“But when ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified: for these things must first come to pass; but the end is not by and by.”
— Luke 21:16

The special was filmed in the last week of June, nearly three months after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, and less than a month after Bobby Kennedy was. That’s the context in which the show’s closing number, “If I Can Dream,” was conceived. Binder wanted Elvis to make some sort of statement about what mattered to him. He got Earl Brown to write a song especially for Elvis that would do just that. To the Colonel, the song smacked of controversy. Elvis made it known he was doing it.

Like “In the Ghetto,” which would appear on “From Elvis in Memphis,” “If I Can Dream” is general enough not to offend anybody. It’s a brotherhood song. And, as sometimes happens with certain banal songs or books or movies, the banality becomes a vehicle for an artist’s powerful, overwhelming conviction, for something bigger and more complex than what the words themselves suggest.

Muted horns play in the background. Elvis stands in the foreground in a white suit with the sort of long coat you might see on a preacher. “There must be lights burning brighter somewhere,” he sings, and that’s all it takes for the song to connect. By the time audiences saw Elvis singing this, nearly six months after it was recorded, the year had offered even more horrors. In December 1968 the image of a land lost in enveloping darkness was a potent one, and the conviction that there must be something beyond that darkness was more than many people could even imagine hoping for. Elvis sings to get every drop of blood that had been shed that year, and every drop of blood that would be shed, into the song. He aims to match those sacrifices with the blood of his performance.

The song is not an act of denial, not an attempt to ameliorate the horrors of 1968; it’s an attempt to face them, to wrest some meaning from them beyond loss and sorrow and violence. Elvis really sings as if he could accomplish that. The performance is a deadly version of what he would mean seven years later when he sang, “Have a laugh on me, I can help.” By the end he sounds drained, the “thank you, goodnight” a hoarse croak. And like everything else on the “’68 Comeback Special,” the performance is an act of will. It builds and builds until, by the last verse, he’s swaying his arm back and forth, hunched over as if he were scraping dirt away from a grave, rooting down a mountain scoop by scoop, so that each line feels like a triumph of sheer physical strength.

The anguished final line, “Please let my dream come true, right now!” is both plea and command, a supplicant’s prayer combined with the unreasonable demands that rock ‘n’ roll has always made. The song is a vision of paradise sung from the valley of the shadow of death. And while you’re listening to it, while you are watching any of Elvis’ performances here, it really does feel as if death shall have no dominion.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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