I wasn’t quite sure what to make of The Comeback: Elvis and the Story of the ’68 Special at first. I felt I already knew plenty about the event and circumstances surrounding it, even though I was barely a year old when this landmark NBC TV broadcast as good as saved Elvis Presley from the brink of cultural oblivion after a decade in the wilderness.
I’ve been put off in the past by the more intimate music and film biographies, unable to see old stars in quite the same light again. And there was a danger here that any rose-tinted shades-wearing vision of Elvis as mere innocent rock’n’roll sensation would be coloured purely negatively. But despite plenty of warts’n’all detail, I took from this book a degree of empathy and sympathy for the subject.
The ’68 Comeback Special was aired during an era that’s long since interested me, yet I’d not really put the whole picture together the way Simon Goddard does in this Omnibus Press publication. Not having truly experienced that scene first-hand, it hadn’t struck me to equate all that was happening in America and overseas at such a key time with the dwindling relevance of Elvis Aaron Presley, something of a yesterday man by then.
Before his GI service and early forays into Tinseltown, this kid from Tupelo, Missisippi, meant so much, but the promise of those seismic recordings at Sun Records in Memphis as a 19-year-old in 1954 and iconic early albums for RCA Victor were soon sacrificed in favour of a second-rate film career.
I first shelled out on the vinyl version of the ‘68 Comeback Special in the mid-‘80s, when I was around the same age as that truck driver who recorded for Sam Phillips, an extended CD version following sometime in that next decade, while a VHS version taped off the telly was later converted to DVD. Picking up this book, I expected little more than a companion piece. It is too, but 300-plus pages later I felt I better understood the subject matter, enriching that listening and viewing experience all the more, 50 years after the King’s triumphant return.
The younger, pre-Army, pre-Hollywood Elvis always interested me more, but this was a key part of the tale, signaling a masterful re-emergence of an icon of whom John Lennon bluntly asked three years earlier, ‘Why don’t you go back to making rock’n’roll records?’ And while Goddard’s colourful style had me unnerved initially, he’s as good as nailed it. I half-expected a straight rehash of what was already out there with extra historical hindsight, but this goes deeper, early perseverance with the style paying off.
It’s difficult now to imagine just how much of an impact Presley made on a captive nation … and world. According to Lennon, ‘Before Elvis there was nothing’. And as Goddard puts it, “The thing called Elvis Presley had blown up over 70 million American homes in the Great Cathode Ray Apocalypse of 1956. A white-hot fireball of thermonuclear sex, joy and abandon, turning the same television screen that once framed Lassie, Lucille Ball and The Lone Ranger into a weapon of mass destruction.”
By March ’58, however, he’d become ‘just another shaven-headed schmuck in khaki’, losing his mother ‘just four months after an Army barber sheared off her baby’s sideburns’. And as the author puts it, ‘Something of Elvis that would never grow back died with her. Her middle name was Love and he’d know no greater’.
By the time he’d left the Army, two years on, Elvis was well and truly off the pace, as seen in his somewhat awkward input for ‘It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling’ on The Frank Sinatra Show alongside the host and his daughter, Sammy Davis Jr., and comic Joey Bishop, a sergeant’s uniform seemingly not the sole reason for his stiff approach. As the author put it, ‘This was not Elvis Presley. This was his cadaver laid out in the wrong clothes. a confused zombie in military dress.’
While I agree with that, I’m rather partial to his duet with Ol’ Blue Eyes on the same show, Frank tackling ‘Love Me Tender’ with his own sense of swing, while Elvis pitches in with ‘It’s Witchcraft’. I’d say there’s chemistry there. As Sinatra put it, ‘We work in the same way, only in different areas.’ And I’m pretty sure you could go through those early ’60s years and find more examples of a performer occasionally on his game. But Goddard’s viewpoint still rings true.
Touted as a ‘genre-busting modernist rock’n’roll fable’, this claims to be ‘the definitive account of how it took Elvis eight years on the big screen to lose his crown, but just one magical hour on a small one to win it back’. That’s fair comment, and he certainly takes an original approach, often-hyperbolic imagery helping us become flies on the walls amid Presley’s palatial surroundings, immersed within that suffocating bubble, better able to examine just how it must have felt for the King of Rock’n’Roll to struggle to re-find his relevance amid an ocean of pill-popping wasted opportunity.
His was a stratospheric career climb strangled in its infancy by a dodgy Dutch immigrant turned despot – described herein as ‘the psychopath Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in his masterful disguise as Colonel Thomas Andrew Parker’ – who should never have been allowed past US customs, let alone beyond his circus freak-show roots and given access-all-areas opportunities to steal Elvis’ fortune from in front of his nose.
Goddard tells the story in often-garish detail, the reader strapped into one of Presley’s dodgems as he suffers his great fall from rock’n’roll sensation to GI drop-out, a miserable existence proving the notion of riches not bringing happiness. We follow the trail from Army discharge to iconic black leather resurrection, the horror of all those poor movies finally discarded as a truly special performer got back to what he did best, re-discovering his freedom in the process and ultimately disarming the Colonel.
Elvis was never strong enough to do that on his own though, and that’s where the true heroes of the tale come in, with director Steve Binder and producer Dayton ‘Bones’ Howe prime players in a TV production team – also including exec. producer Bob Finkel, plus writers Allan Blye and Chris Beard – that somehow managed to hoodwink Parker into believing he was getting what he asked for while privately inspiring performances of a lifetime from the man himself. For it was this NBC collective that had the bottle to somehow work their way into the cold heart of the Presley enterprise and cajole the King into returning to the place where he rightfully belonged.
Many probably felt it a lost cause. The world had moved on a few cogs. Surely there was no place for this poor white Southern boy and ‘50s relic in a world where we’d just lost the inspirational Martin Luther King and influential Bobby Kennedy, and where the likes of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte and major players in hippie culture and the Civil Rights movement were redefining expectations in late-‘60s America, a vast nation soon unravelling and waking up to the horror of Vietnam and backward domestic policies, its regional racist identity finally challenged.
Amid all that Elvis had become – to use more modern parlance – a tribute act to himself, piling on the pounds, increasingly popping those pills, alienating his young bride while bedding co-stars and generally drifting, working his way towards an early grave, confused en route in his bid to find answers and true meaning, growing less and less relevant.
Various factors are given due credence in examining Elvis’ slip away from the real world, not least increased habit-forming reliance on pharmaceutical help – his uppers and downers going with him everywhere. The author writes, ‘Elvis picked the colours of his chemical rainbow with a scholar’s care but a gastronome’s appetite’.
While acting roles continued to roll in, one he truly craved – West Side Story, playing Tony alongside his ex, Natalie Wood – was denied him by the Colonel at a time when ‘The Sixties were becoming THE SIXTIES’, Elvis instead ‘stood in Studio B of Radio Recorders on Santa Monica Boulevard singing about marsupials’ (referring to 1963’s ‘How Would You Like To Be?’ from It Happened at the World’s Fair).
He continued to look elsewhere for kicks, a love of reading blossoming, favourite books including Bette Davis’ The Lonely Life, ‘because it sounded a lot like his own’. Meanwhile, ‘The Girl He Left Behind’ at the Rhein-Main airbase in Germany was now at Graceland but largely ignored, Elvis’ extra-curricular activity including plenty of time with Ann-Margaret (‘the sex of a thousand bordellos concentrated in four foot and four inches of Swedish-American’), who secured his lustful attention after being cast as ‘Rusty’ in Viva Las Vegas. Yet while ‘they peeped and hid and purred and crawled in their infatuated Eden, in the real world they’d left behind half a million feet marched towards the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC,’ where Dr King delivered his historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Then came November 22nd, 1963, and JFK’s murder, Goddard remarking how ‘six days later the film Fun in Acapulco opened its invitation to Americans pole-axed with grief, to take what solace they could from Elvis Presley singing ‘(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car’.
Meanwhile, a continued search for definitive answers and true meaning saw Elvis seek out a new guru, stylist Larry Geller, while escalating interest in communing with God, the King barely 30 yet already suffering mid-life crises while the Fab Four stole his thunder, considered in some circles ‘bigger than Jesus’ and accordingly inspiring a cherry-bomb firecracker attack during a visit to Elvis’s adopted home city, Memphis, the Liverpudlian visitors quickly convinced of a need to retire from live performances.
Every few pages new Elvis obsessions are introduced, the animals he collected notoriously including Scatter the chimp, aka Coconut Head, Goddard earlier musing over the shallow sadness of ‘a 27-year-old millionaire film star getting his kicks from watching a sex-crazed alcoholic chimpanzee made to hump a stripper on his living room floor’.
As time went on Elvis was knocking out even worse movies, songs like ‘Old Macdonald’, ‘Yoga is as Yoga Does’ and ‘Smorgasbord’ seeing him sink to new depths. But Goddard concedes that there was the odd gem, rightly citing his take on Bob Dylan’s ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’, the South Wales-born writer also stressing the importance of the emerging Tom Jones’ own stage presence on Presley’s road back to relevance.
Marriage to Priscilla followed, influential players in Presley’s life seeing fearing conservative America might turn against him if she ‘continued living with Elvis in ungodly sin’. Yet Elvis’ version of settling down involved ‘impulsive horse-buying’, building ‘a seven-room house at the rear of Graceland’ for a stable barn. Goddard writes, ‘He called it his ranch but it was more a retreat, a landlocked ark to fill with friends and horses, away from the flood of unbearable reality.’
Around then the idea of the TV special was floated, Nancy Sinatra’s Christmas ’67 special, Movin’ With Nancy, leaving the Colonel imagining his own boy’s version, involving ‘Silent Night’, fake snow and carol singers, Elvis in the glow of a hearth, hanging a bauble on a branch, smiling at the camera and wishing viewers a wonderful New Year. One hour of old rope. Goddamit, for a million dollars if they wanted he’d even make the boy dress like Santa Claus’.
And yet his co-star in that year’s Speedway had moved on some distance, Goddard noting, ‘Seven years earlier Nancy had been there at Fort Dix to welcome him home from Germany: a decorous daddy’s girl with short brown hair and modest make-up dressed like a Fifth Avenue secretary. Now she was the Summer of Love’s Pussy Galore; a platinum-blonde sex kitten purring sly putdowns in dominatrix boots’.
A big-money deal followed, but Parker’s safe, cliched vision was far from the end product. For 1968 was around the corner, Goddard setting the scene perfectly, homing in on Dr King and Bobby Kennedy’s murders, and examining in detail an earlier example of Binder’s behind-the-scenes influence, working on a show with Petula Clark and guest Harry Belafonte, the pair’s duet and Pet’s spontaneous arm-linking with the Civil Rights activist for ‘On the Path to Glory’ leading to issues with Plymouth Motors’ ad manager, in turn provoking a creative stand by the artists and director to defy their racist sponsor’s attempt to throw the scene out. Yet all too soon, events overtook, the world rocked days later by a far bigger moment, the murder of Martin Luther King’s murder.
One of the more intriguing scenes retold is of Binder encouraging Elvis during the planning stage for his show to leave their office suite and take an unsupervised walk on the Strip, the King incredulous at the fact that he wasn’t subsequently mobbed, seemingly going unrecognised, Binder’s gamble paying off, providing all the ammunition needed to ensure this fallen star had a point to prove on national TV, the ‘Ghost of Sunset Strip’ vanquished.
By the time they were ready to film, Bobby Kennedy was gone too, nine weeks after Dr King and four and a half years after his brother. I’ll shy away from the detail from there, but there’s plenty more technicolour detail to come, not least the story behind Earl Brown’s ‘If I Can Dream’, the songwriter – to the Colonel’s chagrin – perfectly taking up Binder’s brief ‘to write something with a social message, much like he’d done for Harry on Petula, strong enough to make its point yet not so strong that it wouldn’t get past the nervy network censor and even nervier sponsor’. And he adds, ‘Earl knew exactly what Steve wanted, and what Elvis needed’.
Goddard gives insight into the recording too, not least the importance of a reunion with Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, and throughout this story the author tells it all in such detail that you get the idea he might actually have been there at Graceland and on the studio set. Yes, I found the style jarring at first – obsessive, almost drooling at times in describing the main man’s sex-god status – but that’s a key part of it all, and you get real insight into the shabby detail, picturing Priscilla mooning around this vast tomb of a property while Elvis is up to no good with his hangers-on, yes-men and various leading ladies he shared much more than those film sets with.
Somehow though, I ended up appreciating Elvis as much as before. Even when wincing at his misguided and misled actions, he generally has your sympathy, however many wrong turns are taken, coming over as a victim and underdog you’re willing to back rather than some distant, vaguely-notioned, easily-led, ignorant yet powerful demi-god, right as that description is too.
We’re talking cries for help, from a vulnerable character still grieving for his mother and flailing around in a desperate attempt to find that elusive true purpose. And thankfully that amazing voice was heard again. I’m not sure if it was properly heard beyond ’68 in quite the same way (although the From Elvis in Memphis LP that followed stands up to inspection), the whole story famously over within another decade. But it was heard all the same, despite those damaging years in which chances were that he might not even have come out of his creative coma.
Both the restored film and audio versions are testament to the fact that this did all actually happen, and those performances still ring true. And now we have the underbelly of that story examined, enough to leave me keen to catch up on Goddard’s own back-catalogue, which also includes works on David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Morrissey and The Smiths, and Simply Thrilled, his take on the Postcard Records story.