Elvis Presley: Powerful Claws Threaten Us

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 himself feels those limitations, and he starts to stand up. Girls scream in fright in the audience. He’s that dynamic. He’s a panther busting out of his cage. It is almost impossible to believe, looking at him here, that he would be dead only 9 years later.

In this number in particular he appears to me to go a place both primal and consciously performative, as well as completely private. There is a sense of his own huge private world from where he performed, what he drew on, his huge need to express himself, to be, as Dave Marsh observed, an “unignorable man.” There is also an exhibitionistic sense of his own power. He is completely unselfconscious in terms of his presence in all of those worlds. I am still trying to make sense of it myself, and to some degree, there’s nothing to be made sense OF.

The truth is in the performance. It 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. It’s a catharsis just watching it.

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. 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?

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 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. 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 whole thing. There are moments when the performance does have that embarrassingly 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 them, and 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. The claws are exposed. The powerful claws.

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37 Responses to Elvis Presley: Powerful Claws Threaten Us

  1. Paul Duane says:

    “It is almost impossible to believe, looking at him here, that he would be dead only 9 years later.”

    It’s almost equally impossible to believe that he’d spent the previous decade and a half fossilized in atrocious movies, singing the likes of Do the Clam, sitting in the Jungle Room (as Warren Zevon put it, “eating fried chicken with his regicidal friends”). It’s one of the most electrifying performances in history, seen out of context. Seen IN context, it’s unexplainable, volcanic and inexpressibly moving. The final moments of the ’68 Special, where he goes back into Vegas mode and sings Memories, doing once more the kind of thing the Colonel was comfortable with, is unnerving – like the people stepping willingly into the chamber of death in Logan’s Run.

  2. sheila says:

    Paul – Ugh. It’s fucking depressing.

  3. Kent says:

    Phil Spector was a longtime close friend of Elvis, and one of his biggest fans. He was in the audience for all the performances on this show. He felt the black jumpsuit segments were the best live work Elvis ever did after 1957. Small combo and stage, intimate audience, mostly friends and family, and they let the tape just run and run… and let Elvis be Elvis.

  4. sheila says:

    Kent – you get the sense that if Elvis was alone in his bedroom, performing these songs, he would do them the same way. Of course he’s feeding off the audience, but there’s something so natural about what he’s doing – he’s in a private space.

    I love these sessions – the strap comes undone, he doesn’t come in on Hound Dog when he’s supposed to and so the music has to vamp, he laughs at himself, the plug comes out of his guitar – it’s just riveting stuff. Of course it’s highly engineered, but it doesn’t FEEL that way. Or it feels like it’s been engineered to such a degree that once the cameras are rolling, everyone just lets it go. EP seems totally comfortable in his own skin. Powerful stuff.

    • Kent says:

      As Lisa Marie Presley says: “What you see, is what you got.” The simplicity of his wardrobe is also an immeasurable factor in the power of this piece. There’s no distraction. No doo-dads and glitta. Just a reminder that would become much clearer a decade later, that Elvis was the original punk. The true Rock and Roll Animal.

  5. sheila says:

    Not to get all conspiratorial, but I think authenticity like this is what the world yearns for – it cannot be counterfeited – and yet there is also a desire to control/tamp down/contain such authenticity. There’s of course those who want to make money off of it – but there’s a deeper level: a desire to emasculate and domesticate the wildness seen in Elvis Presley. Yes, Elvis Presley was responsible for using drugs and letting himself be surrounded by sycophants who only wanted something from him. But on a whole other level: how is the world supposed to handle such authenticity? How can we incorporate it? It’s like “incorporating” a wild animal. Deal with a lion by taming it and making it purr.

    Powerful forces aligned to domesticate this man – almost from the get-go. He went along with it for a while.

    Like I said, I know he’s responsible for not being responsible to his own authenticity, but it still makes me damn sad. Regardless, to echo your comment on Facebook: what a legacy he left. Those who wanted to control him, tame him, put him into wholesome entertainment vehicles, make him nice, agreeable, safe for society … do not have the last laugh. His legacy still can’t be touched.

  6. sheila says:

    Also – people want to be close to such power/and unselfconsciousness because they feel it may rub off of them. So the lines can become blurred. The Object (ie: Elvis) becomes a symbol for all they can’t have – so it can turn into resentment. You’d have to be The Buddha to handle such a situation with grace.

    But none of that is evident here in the performance. He is so IN it.

    • Kent says:

      Sheila, as you’ve said before, nobody could imitate Elvis, truly knock him off, because they didn’t have what he had. His instinct and intelligence as a performer were natural gifts. Elvis was BORN that way. What to do with so much talent in such a big hunka hunka burning love?

      Once Elvis left Sun Records he was flung out into empty space, flying into the sun on wax wings. Signed to RCA records, with sister division the National Broadcasting Corporation which aired the ’68 Special (financed by Singer, the sewing machine company), every corporate boss from General Sarnoff on down could have their say and try to assert control. Fortunately, Elvis exceeded all the boundaries, culturally and technologically. There was no apparatus to properly define and nurture his talent. There was only green cash, and the ancient, narrow pipelines that produced streams of it.

      In those days, the pressure came from the performance of the next hit single, and later, the next movie. In spite of all the psychological damage, creative miscarriage and misdirection, stuffed hawnd dawgs and teddah bahrs, and rhinestone jump suits, his trajectory lasted almost twenty five years. AT THE TOP. Not in the hearts of fans, that is still ongoing, but at the peak of show business as a top recording artist, movie star and live act. Top billing. Top dollar. How long could The Beatles take it at the top of the world? ’64-’69 FIVE years, two features, a cartoon and a documentary.

      Regardless of his career pressure, bad management, the chemicals in his brain, gunk in his arteries, physical, social and sexual gluttony, millions of dollars burned like kindling wood, he always had great heart, and when he felt like it he could cut a great record. He chose the moves he made and the subsequent chain of decisions to maintain top billing, and be paid as much as possible for it. In cash. His great work lives on, while his Rumbas in Rumble Seats, or whatever the hell, just fade away. Writers who don’t do their research pick on his later output. Writers with ears, hear that the tracks he cut in his last decade were among his best ever, his most socially pertinent, and most powerfully recorded.

      The world, and technology, were beginning to grow up to him. A little bit. The ’68 color special is proof. The previous clip you posted – If I Can Dream – shows it. The songs Suspicious Minds (’69), Promised Land (’74), and even his last hit record in his lifetime Moody Blue (’77) were all great singles, radio hits and big sellers, sounding as good as he ever sounded. Nobody and nothing ever really stopped him. He just wore out. At the top. There are only a few… ever… who can claim this victory.

      Elvis never makes me sad. I can only rejoice that he lived and achieved as much incomparable creative work as he did. Somehow, beyond the darker aspects of his life, or perhaps partly because of them, he is an enigma and still alive in the hearts of his audience. Big E. Long live the King.

  7. sheila says:

    Nice!!! To me, there is something divine in him. I mean that quite seriously. Judy Garland makes me feel the same way. They are the only two.

    • Kent says:

      Sheila, I agree, their voice and talent just blast through everything. I saw Sinatra three times in the ’80s before he started to falter, and he had an unstoppable charisma live. I never saw Elvis or Garland live, so the only live experience I can compare Sinatra to is Billy Graham at his peak in the 1960s.

      Somehow, I have never felt this radiance from Sinatra in his recordings or on the screen. It took me by surprise when I first encountered it live because my preconception of him, formed while he was deep in ratty rat-pack middle age, was of a cold hearted jerk. This evaporated the second he walked out onstage, and greeted the audience, before he even opened his mouth to sing.

      I don’t think Sinatra’s true gifts translate very well to film, and most of his charisma seems lost to me, unlike Elvis and Garland who shine on film, even in their worst vehicles. Both Presley and Garland (and Sinatra too) were naturals that started very very early in life, and learned how to project the pure force of their talent while still young. There is another I’ve seen that started as a kid, with a pure and natural flow of charismatic, melodic genius. But she has chosen sanity, and rarely performs. When she does, she blows the roof off, and always has.

  8. sheila says:

    Come to think of it, I might put Freddie Mercury on that very rare list as well. I watch him perform (sadly I never saw him alive) and it is such a perfect expression of self and sound and personality that it touches on something almost otherworldly. You look at him (and Presley and Garland) and think: There is literally no other place in the world for them except as giant mega-stars. It is inevitable.

    I have always enjoyed listening to Frank more than seeing him, although he can be quite good onscreen. It had to be something to see him live!

    and I want to thank you for your positive take on the Presley story. I’m reading volume 2 of the Presley bio and it’s depressing me. I want to swoop in, fire the Memphis Mafia, put Elvis back in the studio, and put him on a diet. But I know that’s ungenerous – because the legacy he left is extraordinary, even with his challenges and mistakes. The force of his talent was literally too big to be stopped.

  9. Kent says:

    Yes, diet and detox, but that commitment can only come from within. I have a Vegan friend who swears that everything E loved to eat could be done Vegan style and still taste good! Taking her up on this claim produced a vegan peanut butter, organic banana, smart bacon sandwich on gluten free vegan bread topped with vegan strawberry jam. DAMN, it WAS good!!

  10. miker says:

    Good heavens. I’ve never really been a huge Elvis fan (more Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly), but that is a truly chill-inducing performance. Even moreso because the fame machine had already taken full control by that time. This is Elvis giving an emphatic finger to the forces of corporate domestication by bringing forth something raw and inherently unsafe that they couldn’t possibly understand, in a live setting not amenable to editing. To echo Paul, given everything we know about Elvis, what his life was like then and what was to come, this performance very nearly defies belief. How could one fail to be awestruck?

  11. bethann says:

    The true apex, the real climax of this entire show, the moment from where there is nothing left to lay bare is on “One Night” on the FIRST sit-down show. After the proceeding songs were sung and sung again, ringing every single drop of emotion from the lyrics, opening them up for a deeper more driving rhythm, “One Night” is nearly the last song at the first show. What begins as flubbing the lines with the original lyrics and a misstep with coming unplugged from the amp, quickly, very quickly, becomes into some sort of moment as he explained it to June “it stronger than that. It feels like my heart is going to explode.” I do believe that there was an explosion!

    No one can watch that performance and not come away with that impression. After that song, then we are certainly descending from some sublime place where he can only imagine. It is true in that sometimes you can take it in incremental bits because it is too damn intense.

  12. bethann says:

    This would be the clip to which I was referring. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=hNNYFdklVJI

  13. Sandi says:

    Having been one of the lucky fans who attended the 68 Special (which seems like it was just yesterday) all I can say is the energy that filled the room was something that cannot be defined….then again, it was that way anytime he walked into ANY room!

  14. sheila says:

    Sandi – I am so envious. Could you tell me more about it? Which section did you attend? Where did you sit?

  15. Oh man. THIS is my Elvis. I love this special. And I love the way that he can’t be contained. He tries to sit there and sing but his body wants to move with the music. And that voice.


    No one has done it like Elvis ever again. *sigh* And my favorite part of his performances are the fk ups. He just laughs at himself. Lordy, that man.

  16. Johnny says:

    Elvis payed the ultimate price, the ultimate sacrifice that someone HAD to take. Words aren’t enough to describe this man.

    • sheila says:

      // Words aren’t enough to describe this man. //

      True but it’s important to try!

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Johnny!

  17. Regina Bartkoff says:


    Amazing performance! I realized watching it halfway through I just had this big wide grin plastered on my face, then I watched it again, he gave people so much joy! I loved how after a big vocal thing he goes woo! Making fun of himself, and you see this humor in his eyes all through. The great mysterious talent, the dark good looks, and then the humor! the final killer blow, who can resist that?! Great on point essay too, of course Sheila and the danger in his and live performances and I loved the comments from all you obsessed Elvis freaks!

    • sheila says:

      Regina – I love when he goes “woo ” too, it’s so great ! Like, he’s feeling it, too – he got off on what he was giving out too. And yeah, keeping it light, laughing … it’s really extraordinary how easy he makes it look.

      It’s great, too, because he was SO NERVOUS about this whole thing – the risks the special itself took, having him perform live – as opposed to in front of little sets, with props around him – it was a really radical TV special (Steve Binder directed) – and Elvis knew it was an announcement of “I’m back.” It needed to be huge.

      Nobody else could do what he does in that clip.

      The Beatles were awesome – but there were four of them. Elvis was one guy. The whole thing hinged on his power of personality. He had to show up – as himself – he didn’t write his own songs, he had nothing but … HIM.

  18. Johnny says:

    I totally agree with you Sheila! And what Regina said is very true, every time I watch him performing I get this huge grin on my face, like a little boy staring at a new toy, and it makes me think: Just look at him, no one can be this good or ever will. Just like someone said once (can’t remember who), someone like Elvis only comes every few thousand years and we are lucky to have been there. Great post Sheila!

    • sheila says:

      Thank you, Johnny!

      He really does seem quite … impossible. Like … it can’t have really happened at all. No way.

      But there he is. Right there!!

    • sheila says:

      I love, too, that he’s playing Scottie Moore’s electric guitar.

      When did he ever play an electric guitar? It’s soooo bad-ass.

  19. Johnny says:

    It all seems like a dream… like the man himself said: I hope I don’t wake up tomorrow and find out it’s all gone.

    • sheila says:

      In that context, his behavior with the Colonel makes perfect sense. I have done my best to chip away at the “Elvis as victim of Colonel” narrative – it’s one of the most tiresome and lazy narratives out there. Or, at least, I’m bored with it and don’t really countenance it much anymore. :) Can only speak for myself.

  20. Peggy says:

    Ah Sheila, you have struck a perfect chord. I was 16 and with my parents and brothers watching the NBC special. I don’t think I breathed during the entire sitdown segment. My friends and I were of an age to be Beatles fans, but for me, there was something about Elvis. I’ve been trying to identify it for years now. Your posts come so close to what I feel, a visceral thing, inexplicable because words are inadequate but you’re right, we must try. He meant it. And he paid the price. What an honor that he did it for us, the fans. Thank you so much!

    • sheila says:

      Peggy – what a beautiful comment!! Thank you so much for sharing it!!

      You know, even after so many times watching the special, it still feels … dangerous, risky, a high-wire act. And I didn’t even see the broadcast originally since I was a newborn. :)

      // What an honor that he did it for us, the fans. //

      That is a very emotional concept and I think extremely accurate. That IS why he did it, and he MEANT it – like you said. It was the most important relationship of his life. It’s deadly serious stuff – and yet how FUN in execution, like in this particular clip.

      Oh, Elvis. Stop being so perfect and awe-inspiring. :)

    • sheila says:

      // My friends and I were of an age to be Beatles fans, but for me, there was something about Elvis. //

      I think even for the Beatles “there was something about Elvis.” :)

  21. sheila says:

    In re-reading this thread, I had forgotten that a person who actually attended one of these “concerts” showed up.

  22. Johnny says:

    Elvis sure knew how to have fun! How lucky that person was to be in that moment.. I can’t imagine being there at all.. He’s too good to be true that it feels like it happened in some far away galaxy.

    • sheila says:

      Way too huge for that small room. Even he seems to feel it. “I gotta stand up! Where’s a strap for my guitar? I gotta get UP!”

  23. Abigail says:

    It’s difficult to imagine Elvis as an 80 year old, isn’t it? And I just read that Joe Guercio, Elvis’s 1970s bandleader, died recently aged 87.

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