Elvis Presley was born on this day in 1935. Here is one of my favorite performances of his. 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.