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One For The Money

Thirty years ago Elvis restaked his claim to the throne of rock-and-roll.

by Chris Herrington

n college I had a professor who taught post-World War II U.S. history almost entirely as a succession of video images, or clips, as he called them. Cold War Chrysler commercials would lead into a Pepsi spot from the previous year’s Super Bowl into a televised wrestling match from the ’50s into Jaws’ ejaculatory conclusion.

Elvis’ ’68 Comeback was an eloquent reminder to fans of just who it was that invented rock-and-roll.
Since it was a cultural-studies view of recent U.S. history, Elvis was well-represented. Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train was even assigned reading. But when it came time to choose a “favorite clip” from the scores of images we’d been bombarded with, I ended up going with Bob Dylan’s Gulf War-era Grammy performance, because the King’s greatest video clip, in my mind the best clip ever, was left out. I’m referring to a quiet little moment recorded for the ’68 Comeback special, simply titled Elvis, that seems to have slipped into the dustbin of history.

That TV special from December 3, 1968 – or, more specifically, the informal, proto-Unplugged concert footage that is mixed in among the production numbers – is one of pop’s most talked about public performances. Much has been written about it; perhaps most notably in the “Presliad” chapter from Mystery Train, where Marcus calls it “the finest music of his life.” But even Marcus skips over the moment that stops me cold every time. You’ll have to catch it on the unedited One Night With You, because the TV special edited it into meaninglessness, but, in mid-performance, Elvis pauses and addresses the audience in a serious manner, speaking to a young crowd for whom the Beatles are more popular than Jesus.

“I’d like to talk a little about music … very little,” he says.

“There’s been a change in the music field in the last 10 or 12 years,” he continues, sounding ancient at 33. “And I think everything’s improved; the sound’s improved and the musicians have improved and the engineers have certainly improved. I like a lot of the new groups. You know, the Beatles and the Byrds [he pronounces it Beards] and....”

Then he smirks, nods, revealing how perfunctory this little spiel is, and continues, “...whoever, but I really like a lot of the new music.”

Then, with a hint of reluctance (fear?), he gets to his point: “But a lot of it is basically … music is basically … rock-and-roll music is basically gospel and rhythm-and-blues and ..., or it sprang from that, and people have been adding to it, adding instruments to it, experimenting with it. But it all boils down to just .. uh ...”

And there he loses it.

“I don’t know what I’m talking about, really,” he says.

Then he starts rambling, “So I told ’em, man you can do anything you wanna do... .”

What is he talking about?

“You can do anything you wanna do, baby ... I said: Well, it’s a one for the money ....”

And he launches into “Blue Suede Shoes,” the ultimate rock-and-roll song. What’s this all about? What is it that he can’t bring himself to say and why? With Sgt. Pepper’s crowned as the greatest achievement in the history of music the year before and with Woodstock on the horizon, I think it’s this: Don’t forget. Don’t forget that this music which now cradles a counterculture and is considered art originally belonged to us – poor, uncouth Southerners, outsiders by birth instead of choice, who made the world listen. It belongs to Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins and Little Richard and me. And don’t forget it.

And why does he pull back? Maybe he can’t find the words. Elvis was a force of nature, not a theorist. Maybe he was unsure of how he would be received. He was used to being surrounded by sycophants, and this performance was perhaps his most vulnerable since the mid-’50s. More than likely he was too polite. His momma didn’t raise him to speak that way. Never mind, the song he then plays – Carl Perkins’ eternal gift to the planet – and the ferocity that this moment seems to pull from the rest of the show, accomplishes more than any words he could have spoken.

It may have been his finest moment, but, despite the seminal Memphis sessions that followed, it was a fluke, a glorious pit stop on the way to Vegas. It was a performance that fit the times; 1968 may have been the Age of Aquarius, but it was also the year of rock-and-roll’s first roots revival, the year of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, the Band’s Music From Big Pink, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s debut album, and the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. At a moment when rock-and-roll seemed on the verge of breaking with its history, and a movement emerged to reclaim those roots, Elvis was the ghost of rock-and-roll past, a forgotten King briefly returning to remind everyone of the kingdom he helped create.

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