Powerful Claws Threaten Us: Elvis Presley, 1968 “Trying to Get to You”

One of my favorite Elvis performances. It’s one for the ages.

Elvis Presley performing “Trying To Get To You” during the informal sit-down session section of his 1968 comeback special. There’s a rough raw-ness to these sessions that are not only compelling but scary. The small space cannot contain him. At one point, he feels those limitations, and he starts to stand up. Girls scream in fright/excitement in the audience.

In this number in particular he appears to go a place primal as well as consciously performative, at the same time he remains in a completely private dreamspace. You figure out how one person can manage that. There is a sense of the huge private world of his desires and need from where he performed, what he drew on, his need to express himself, to be, as Dave Marsh observed, an “unignorable man.” There is also an exhibitionistic enjoyment of his own power. He is completely unselfconscious in terms of his presence in all of those worlds.

The truth is in the performance. The performance is about generosity, certainly, his willingness to give all of himself. That’s why we love live performers. That’s why we are drawn to them. He’s exposing everything. We would hold back some of that stuff. We might be embarrassed letting other people see that much of us. He is not. He “takes the fall” for us. We live off that contact high.

But there’s something going on here in particular that strikes me as quintessentially what Magic and Power is all about. It’s the kind of thing I miss so much these days when it comes to live performance: a sense that the performance is actually costing the performer something. Yes, there are those who still do it, but many rely on vocal pyrotechnics, which, while impressive, do not always equal the same type of cost. I’m not saying that Presley appears on the brink of some nervous breakdown here, he obviously doesn’t. I’m not talking about anything neurotic. I am talking about being private in public and the cost that that exacts on a performer, a cost he is more than willing to pay.

It’s difficult to do, especially for a star of Presley’s magnitude at this time. He had so much to lose. But that had always been his special brand of talent: bringing out into the light feelings/desires that many felt should have been left in the dark. You can hear the small audience start to scream spontaneously at certain points during this performance, and I can see why. It’s not a sex thing so much as it is a response to a kind of truthful assault, being in the presence of something so powerful and authentic that you almost want to draw away from it. It’s too much. Not only does it demand something of him, the performer, but it demands something of us. Will we be able to pay that cost? What is he asking of us?

Arthur Miller had this to say about Clark Gable (and stars, in general):

Great actor-personalities, I have come to think, are like trained bears in that they attract us with their discipline while their powerful claws threaten us; a great star implies he is his own person and can be mean and even dangerous, like a great leader.

I don’t feel particularly safe watching Elvis’ performance of “Trying to Get to You” and I’ve probably watched it hundreds of times. It’s a fun performance, everyone is whooping and hollering, Elvis cracks himself up at one point, but there is danger in that room as well.

Danger is part of live performing. Or at least it should be. Elvis Presley always had stage fright from the beginning of his career to the end. Not just because of all of the expectations of the fans, not just because he had so many lyrics to remember. Not because he had to live up to the legend. All of those things may have been factors in his stage fright, but he had stage fright from the first moment he sang in front of an audience long before he was famous, so there was clearly more going on there.

I imagine that it was also because: he knew where he was going to have to go and he knew that it would cost him to go there. He was willing to pay that price, there was no other way for him to get up there in front of people.

Something that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of Elvis Rhetoric is just how competitive he was. His demeanor was so courtly Southern polite, so deferential. Maureen Stapleton describes meeting him in 1956 and practically begging him to stop calling her “Ma’am.” There are many similar stories. It’s well-known that his career was managed within an inch of its life by Colonel Parker, and Elvis did what was expected of him and did what he was told to do. All of that is true and an essential element in understanding the man. But never forget: this man was more competitive than any man alive. There’s a reason Muhammad Ali looked at him and thought, “He is a kindred spirit.” To be the best, to dominate, to REALLY SHOW ‘EM … when Elvis got into that mode, mountains cracked apart. And that’s the mode he is in here.

I mean, watch this performance. The various expressions on his face, the gearing-up moments, the smiles, the closed-eyes, the shaking of the guitar like he wants to throttle it or fuck it, the sweat. There are moments when the performance does have that exposed gorgeous sexual energy that he brings into the light: you’re watching a guy having a private moment with himself, but there is more going on, always more. I think these singular figures, figures like Presley, flat out have more to let out than other people do. Their potential is larger, the inner space is more vast, or perhaps it is just that his perception of what he needed to express was clearer, more fearless, than those of mere mortals. He understood it, he got it, and he got it early.

The 1968 comeback special represented a renewal of energy, an unleashing of force and spontaneity and personality that Elvis felt had been inhibited in his years in Hollywood. He hadn’t been before a live audience in almost 10 years. He had been highly visible on the drive-in screens of America, but the heat and sweat of a live audience had no longer been part of his life.

Here he steps out again, before a small audience, close enough to touch him, and it was instantly obvious that there had been no diminishing of power in his time away.

If anything, his power had grown. It had become even more ferocious, more urgent.

His claws are exposed. The powerful terrifying gorgeous claws.

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22 Responses to Powerful Claws Threaten Us: Elvis Presley, 1968 “Trying to Get to You”

  1. I always liked the idea (I think Greil Marcus was the one who suggested it) that this was Elvis singing directly to his audience–the audience that he had been cut off from for so long. I used to watch to have a bootlegged tape of the sit down performance back in the days when it was hard to get hold of an official copy and I watched it every Christmas season by myself (fell out of the habit when VHS turned into DVD, etc) and as great as the whole thing is, this was the one that always grabbed me, like I was part of that audience he was still reaching for even though he was long gone. It hasn’t lost its power to amaze!

    • sheila says:

      NJ – It totally hasn’t lost its power, you’re right. Every time I watch it, I am amazed by how present he is – not just to the audience (although that too) – but what is going on in himself. It’s exhilarating to watch.

      I love that you would watch it every Christmas. I am so glad they released it in that deluxe set with all the special features, etc.

  2. sheila says:

    Also – I love comparing this fully adult version to the song to the more youthful insouciant version he did when he was starting out. Same sense of commitment – totally different story being told. Young Elvis had a lot to express – 30-something Elvis had even MORE.

    • Oh very much agreed! And it’s also telling that it was a song he kept coming back to, even though it hadn’t been a big deal the first time around. Not released on Sun, released as an album track on RCA…Not something nostalgic fans would have been begging for but demonstrated a complete self-awareness of his own journey….that quality he so rarely got credit for from the intelligentsia.

      • sheila says:

        Total self-awareness, yes!

        And it’s one of the best songs to mark that development, in a weird way – when sung as a young man, it’s hopeful and a bit … jaunty? Like he knows he will eventually get to the one he’s “trying to get to,” he’s sure of it, of course it will happen.

        As a 30-something, though, the need is more urgent. There’s more overt sex in it. There’s also more “what can you do with these dizzy dames” kind of experience in it. He can totally transform what a song sounds like – because of what he brings to it. He was not STUCK.

        If he had sung the song as he did when he was a younger man – it would have been going for the “nostalgia” ticket – and he would never do that. He wouldn’t make his career on nostalgia. He had to re-invent it – from the inside out.

  3. This may be my favorite thing you’ve ever written. It’s tremendous, Sheila.

    • sheila says:

      Really really appreciate it, Matt. Thank you!

      This is deep shit, it’s important to try to figure it out – at least TRY to express it.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Todd Restler says:

    That was so cool. I kept noticing him peeking out at the audience to guage it, then sort of responding with his vocals. He also seems somehow extremely comfortable and totally uncomfortable at the same time.

    This reminded me of Jason Lee in Almost Famous. He was playing a pompous ass who couldn’t shine Elvis’ shoes, but this dialogue reminded me of this performance.

    “I work just as hard or harder than anybody on that stage. You know what I do? I connect. I get people off. I look for the guy who isn’t getting off, and I make him get off. ”

    That’s what it looked like Elvis was doing here, at least to me. I am starting to “get” the whole Elvis thing.

    • sheila says:

      // I get people off. I look for the guy who isn’t getting off, and I make him get off. ” //

      Ha. I love that!

      That generosity is one of the things that makes Elvis unique, I think. It’s there in his sexuality – and I’ve thought a lot about it – what makes it so explosive? Why? and when you compare it to Mick Jagger, say – what is different? Not better, but different.

      Mick Jagger, to me, has an aggressive strutting sexuality – throwing it out at the audience. It’s all Here it is, here it is, here it is.

      Elvis, to me, also does that – for sure – sometimes more than others – but he also has a receptivity – a receiving aspect – so that his sexuality is open and open to what is coming back to him from the audience. Not that Jagger isn’t aware of the audience, of course he is – but Elvis somehow makes his sexuality a one-on-one feedback loop with a huge audience – so everyone feels like he’s giving it just to them and them alone.

      I don’t know – there’s something very interesting going on there. Elvis is not embarrassed by his sexuality – (obviously) – but some men are, and the way they combat that is to throw it out there in an aggressive “I’m The Man” kind of way. That can also make for very exciting performances. But Elvis receives too and is more compelling in the receiving.

      He was so nervous before filming this black-leather sit-down session for the special that he was almost in tears about it. What if people didn’t like him? What if they rejected him? What if it didn’t go over well?

      He cared. It was life or death to him. Even with all that ambition, though, there’s no tension, no pushing.

      It’s extraordinary.

      Thanks for the observations!

  5. sheila says:

    Also, just for a fun comparison: here is Elvis singing this same song more than 10 years before – when he was 20, 21 years old.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SRRRhdtzY8

    There’s the same urgency – but it’s a youthful urgency – there’s innocence in it. As opposed to the clip in the post – which is a full-grown man roaring his need.

    Elvis could re-visit these songs at different times in his life and step into them, bringing all this other stuff along with him. He was not stuck in the past, trying to re-create what worked before.

  6. Peggy says:

    I am just catching up on your Elvis posts. Pardon my tardiness, life gets in the way.

    I love the ‘compare and contrast’ you set out here between the youthful version and the mature. My favorite performance of all is this song from this 1968 special. Mercy!

    For anyone who wants to know why Elvis made girls scream, this is Exhibit A. His power and his charisma are here in spades, but, I think it’s the yearning in his voice, the need he expresses that touches our own. He needed to connect with his audience. She was his true love.

    • sheila says:

      Peggy – Mercy indeed!

      I like what you say about the audience being his true love. I think that’s very true and very few people (performers) can actually withstand that kind of relationship. Most need other things, a life outside. Of course EP needed it too and cherished his private time – but he was always tapping his foot, waiting to get back out there again. Many great performers have this quality/true-love-thing but very few to the degree Elvis had it. (I’d put Judy Garland and James Brown up there, although there are others.)

      It was single-minded, that love, and you can FEEL it in that 1968 special like no other time.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • sheila says:

        Also his “Baby What You Want Me Do” is practically obscene. In the best sense. He is so in the zone with his sex drive and that current of sex coming back at him from the audience – it’s ferocious. I need to go watch it right now.

        • Peggy says:

          Oh yeah! ‘Ferocious’ – I love that. He goes back to “Baby What You Want Me To Do” again and again …and it gets better each time. When he sings “Love Me” he means it.

          I was 16 and, uh, impressionable when the special aired. I have never quite recovered. The deluxe set helps…feed my addiction.
          Enjoy, I am joining you.

          • sheila says:

            Yes! I wrote a piece about how he obsessively keeps going back to Baby What You Wane Me To Do until he gets the catharsis/expression he’s looking for. Amazing!

            The deluxe set is awesome, all those great additional features. Indispensable!

          • sheila says:

            (I also love the anecdote in Ann-Margret’s book about how the two of them sang that song at his house for all of his buddies, with the two of them crawling around on the floor. Now that is a clip I’d like to see.)

        • Bob Herz says:

          Would love to read your piece on that (Baby what you want…). Wasn’t Elvis going to record that as a single at one time?

  7. Bob Herz says:

    All of the piece is good (you are terrific on this, as on all things E), but the major insight, the one that turns all the bios on their head, is here:

    “It doesn’t matter what Presley would have said about his own life. Presley talking about himself would be the least interesting thing about him. What is interesting, what is powerful, is the performance. The persona, ablaze with commitment and yet ease. He never seems to be reaching. The music. You don’t need to hear about Ed Sullivan filming him from the waist up when you see him perform in the 1968 comeback special. All you have to do is watch the guttural sexual moan of “One Night” or the raging wail of “Trying to Get to You” to see why he shocked the censors of the 1950s. He’s still too big for our culture. He’s still too wild. What are we to do with someone like this? The question still remains.”

    • sheila says:

      Your kind words are really important for me to hear. 2017 is going to be an Elvis-focused year and I need the support. Or, I don’t NEED it – but I do appreciate it: it helps me strengthen up for the journey ahead. So thank you.

      • Bob Herz says:

        Are you kidding? You write brilliantly & poetically about Elvis, with incredible insight and empathy. I loved what Greil Marcus did i9n his Presleyiad, and the bios from Guralnick, but honestly, you have more depth and more poetry. You have also hit into areas that they could not, perhaps because of your background or experiences, and I learned things from you that I had not seen elsewhere. Also, I like your metaphors: claws indeed! Wonderful.

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