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 almost scary. The small space cannot contain him. At one point, he can’t contain himself, and he starts to stand up. Girls scream in fright in the audience. He’s that dynamic. A panther busting out of his cage. In this number in particular he appears to me to go a place primally private – his own huge private world from where he performed, what he drew on, whatever, private stuff – and also an exhibitionistic sense of his own power. He is completely unselfconscious in terms of his presence in both 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 do it, but vocal pyrotechnics, 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. 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.
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 this performance of “Trying to Get to You”. It’s fun, and everyone is whooping and hollering, 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. It’s electric. The various expressions on his face, the gearing-up moments, the smiles, the closed-eyes, the whole thing. There are moments when it does have that embarrassingly awesomely sexual energy that he brings into the light: you’re watching a guy having a private moment, but there is more here. More that makes the performance so memorable and borderline disturbing (in the best possible sense).
He is totally private and totally exposed, at the very same time.
For him, there was no other way.
It is almost impossible to believe, looking at him here, that he would be dead only 9 years later.