Well, more like multiplied to the nth power.
Coming down from my groovy birthday last night, I decided to kick off the Christmas season by re-starting an old tradition I dropped about ten years ago, which is making a point to watch the first sit-down show from the 68 Comeback Special.
That show has been available since way back in the olden times, the days of VHS dominance. I had it copied off of something or other, along with a bootleg of Elvis’ original fifties’ TV appearances, all in order. The combo always made for a nice jolt during the holidays. I still have the tapes, but I basically left off when the VCR became obsolete at my place.
A couple of years back I finally got hold of the DVD box set that has the entire package for the special–the original show, both stand up shows, both sit down shows, a bunch of outtakes. I watched most of it when I bought it (not the outtakes but the rest, or so I had thought) but, if I watched the second sit down it was late and I was obviously groggy because it left no impression whatsoever.
That may have been because a couple of years before that, I bought the CD version of the sit down shows and was a little disappointed that Elvis repeated a lot of the same jokes between versions of the same songs that were sometimes as good as the first show’s but, to my wet, lazy ears, no better.
In the wee hours of this morning, awake at last, I found out how wrong I was.
I was high on the first show by then. It had been so long since I really sat down and watched it straight through it felt like I was seeing it again for the first time and it’s never been less than electrifying–Elvis yet again making up something new or, even harder, finding something entirely new in a set of possibilities the limits of which were supposedly long defined. A generation later, they came up with MTV Unplugged and then they spent another generation trying to catch him without ever coming close.
It was fair, in other words, to pull up the second set with properly lowered expectations.
Being finally awake, the first thing I noticed was that the original show’s one weakness–a tepid audience–was now a strength. The crowd was lively, the women both fully engaged and in on the watch-me-close-now-because-I-still-might-be-up-to-something jokes. And the vocal high points had changed: “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Love Me,” merely excellent in the first show, now surged up to the level set by Baby What You Want Me To Do and One Night (while those numbers themselves dropped back a bit). Lawdy Miss Clawdy wasn’t quite as great the second time around (though still greater than whatever a hundred others, including Lloyd Price in his fantastic original, ever did with it), but that only left room for this little shocker…
…which reinforced everything I always thought was most important about the first show and the “Special” in general.
Elvis was an artist who had little patience for convention, the so-called proprieties. There’s no better evidence anywhere than the way he handles the pre-defined, written down “set list” in both shows. He was bored with it the first time around, scornful of the waste of time it represented. In the second show, he’s downright contemptuous.
Which leads to the second thing I noticed. The butterflies were gone. That’s a double-edged sword. Having butterflies–real butterflies–and controlling them can take you to a special place, maybe the place where you make the greatest music of your life or anyone else’s. There’s nothing quite like the sound of the Lion in the moment he’s overcoming his fear.
But the moment after, which that second show represents, has it’s own sort of glow. It may not burn quite as hot, but it can light up hidden places, shine into new corners, redistribute the shadows. The effect is all over that second show, best rendered by the gut-level raunch of “Santa Claus is Back in Town” segueing perfectly into the bluest “Blue Christmas” ever, which, in turn, reaches a level of delicacy and beauty it could only contain in the doing, the reaching, never in the “thinking” about what it might hold.
That impatience with convention I mentioned was nearly always present throughout Elvis’ life and career. Sometimes it stayed in the margins, a song here or there satisfying the itch. Sometimes it translated as pure eccentricity, maybe mundane (a fried-banana-sandwich-and-pill habit), maybe epic (see his visit to Nixon).
Every few years–in 1954, 1956, 1960, throughout 1968 and 1969, in the studio, on stage, on television, in Vegas–it exploded full force.
But the impulse to remake absolutely everything anew was always there, lurking, from beginning to end, from “That’s All Right” to “Hurt,” and it was never so entirely incendiary, or completely engaged, as here, in these two shows, which I now finally understand are of a piece, and where no propriety, small or large, was left standing.
Now I’m left waiting for the sun to set.
Midnight I need you.
You and a moon to howl at.