The ‘most original Elvis book ever’ tells how the legendary singer wrested back control of his career to triumph again, writes James McNair
Book review: The Comeback: Elvis And The Story Of The 68 Special by Simon Goddard
“The same mystic power Michelangelo held in his hands, Elvis held in his windpipe”, writes Simon Goddard in The Comeback: Elvis and the Story of the 68 Special. “[It was] a power nobody should have been allowed to put a price on. But for the love of the ‘ching!’ they did.”
The gross commodification of Elvis Presley, Goddard explains, began in earnest when the singer returned to American soil in March 1960 after service in the 3rd Armoured Division of the US Army in Friedberg, Germany. It was Elvis’s famously conniving manager Colonel Tom Parker, who, keen to maximise his 50 per cent share of all Presley earnings, pushed the returning GI into a new log-jam of almost interchangeable roles in a string of vacuous but lucrative Hollywood movies.
Naturally, these films had music, but the songs Presley sung in them were largely terrible. Things troughed with Smorgasbord, a musical turkey from the 1966 film Spinout that found The King comparing different women to a selection of snacks from a Scandinavian buffet.
Still grieving for his recently deceased mother Gladys, and already some way down the path of amphetamine addiction, Presley was particularly susceptible to The Colonel’s latest manipulations. Thus began his slow drift away from his potent, late-1950s rock ’n’ roll prime and into mid-1960s, Beatles invasion-exacerbated musical irrelevance. Thanks to songs such as Smorgasbord, he had lost all credibility.
Brilliantly written against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassinations, that of Martin Luther King, The Watts Race Riots and Presley’s extremely complicated love life, The Comeback: Elvis and the Story of the 68 Special tells how he eventually wrested back control of his career from The Colonel to triumph again.
Re-engaging with his primal rock ’n’ roll-gospel roots, he did so via an extraordinary, black-leather-jumpsuit-clad performance that aired on the NBC television network on December 3, 1968. In one of his book’s countless memorable descriptions, Goddard describes the fallout for excitable female Presley fans watching the 1968 special as “oestrogen Hiroshima”. The Colonel had wanted something rather different: a Yuletide special in which Presley sang Christmas carols dressed as Santa Claus.
Though Goddard’s prose is firmly grounded in the hard facts of Presley’s life, his book is also a “genre-busting modernist rock ‘n’ roll fable”. Its fascinating exploration of both Presley and The Colonel’s internal thought processes necessitates an element of supposition, but almost everything in the book rings true, or at least appears to be highly plausible.
In the book’s preface, the author invites readers to take a seat in the Memphian, the cinema in Memphis, Tennessee that Presley would rent for private screenings of his favourite movies. We are thus primed for the coming pages: “A Technicolor drama with scripted dialogue … a picture, not a lecture.” Not for Goddard, the dry, dot-to-dot approach that can hamstring even the most mouth-watering story.
To explain exactly how, before the 1968 TV special, Presley had become “the man from yesterday trapped in a today of tomorrows”, the author writes. Presley’s survivor guilt when contemplating the death of his stillborn twin brother Jesse, his ultimately platonic marriage with wife Priscilla, his esoteric book-fuelled search for enlightenment and his fear of returning to poverty and obscurity are all thoughtfully explored. So, too, is his cosseted existence with a team of yes men behind wrought iron gates decorated with his own guitar-strumming silhouette.
Elsewhere, chapters detailing Presley’s many marital infidelities and his fetishisation of/addiction to the prescription drugs he bought by the quart jar ensure that Goddard’s book is no hagiography, and the passage in which the (just) pre-comeback singer is shocked to discover that a rare stroll on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles without bodyguards draws no attention from adoring fans is a neat illustration of fame’s bubble.
It’s for The Colonel, though, that Goddard reserves some of his best prose. At one point, he describes the Dutch con man born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk as: “A crooked-lipped Humpty Dumpty with a patty of mince for a head, asphalt for eyes, a medieval torture device for a brain, a stack of casino chips for a heart and blood of ice cold [urine] he wouldn’t spill to save a burning orphanage.”
All told, The Comeback: Elvis and the Story of the 68 Special lives up to its billing as “possibly the most original Elvis book ever written”. As the Cardiff-born author behind acclaimed Morrissey study Mozipedia and The Smiths book Songs that Saved Your Life, Goddard certainly has form as a music biographer, but this audacious and pacey study of The King goes further. Timed to concicide with the 50th anniversary of the event in question, it broaches exciting new ground.