Back in Black

Elvis, seated.Photo: Elvis Presley Enterprises

Some years back, I rented a VHS copy of the Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special from a Times Square video store. The tape was staticky, and the show itself was far from complete (the singer’s intimidatingly named estate, Elvis Presley Enterprises, had long held onto the full footage of the special), but what I saw permanently altered my perception of Presley.

What startled me was Presley’s profound sense of humor, particularly about himself. Onstage, Presley ridiculed his curled-lip sneer. (“Hold it,” he said, cutting short the campily menacing “Trouble.” “I got my lip hung on the microphone.”) He sent up law-enforcement scrutiny of his fifties performances and gently mocked his Sun Records–era band. The special was intended as a Christmas show, but at its center were four concerts taped in front of a studio audience. And if the DVD format tends to treat everything as an event, the release of the ’68 Special truly is one: It’s a monumental three-disc collection complete with footage of the entire quartet of concerts, labeled, with hilarious literalism, the “Black Leather Sit-Down Shows” and the “Black Leather Stand-Up Shows”—performances that are intimate in a way that I don’t think any pop icon has ever approximated.

In the “Stand-Up Shows,” Presley prowls the tiny stage like a pugilist (the overhead shots of the stage reinforce the boxing-match feel). Yet he’s totally at ease, such a physically powerful performer that his body seems to ricochet across the frame; during “All Shook Up,” Presley swivels his hips with such intensity that he falls onto the floor, just inches from the face of a female fan, who throws her hands up and lets out a piercing scream. It should come off like a clichéd crowd reaction, but instead it’s a visceral display of his sexual power.

As astounding as the “Stand-Up Shows” are, the “Sit-Down Shows” with his bandmates are even more potent, if only because of the seemingly trivial fact that the singer is seated. Even a slight movement from Presley (shifting in his chair, adjusting his guitar strap) feels like a tectonic plate moving. By the end of the first show, Presley himself seems to come undone; during a ferocious rendition of “One Night,” he is so overcome that he actually rises from his chair. The audience screams—but it’s more out of a shock than appreciation. Presley quickly sits down again; he seems to realize that this level of intensity can’t be borne by him—or us.

The ’68 Comeback Special would be one of the greatest performances in pop history, but in the context of Elvis’s career, it is something even bigger, a cultural signpost along the lines of Dylan at Newport or the Band’s “Last Waltz.” Just when Elvis seemed to have been relegated to the dustbin of history, he created this portrait of an artist seeking relevance and finding it—capable of mocking his own legacy, all the while reclaiming his role as the creator of an entirely new cultural language.

Back in Black