Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way

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*Image taken from the internet and probably subject to copyright

I’ve been a Springsteen fan for as long as I’ve been a rock and roll fan. The first LP I bought of his was The River, a double-album which at the time was a huge financial commitment on my part… there are only so many lawns you can mow or tables you can bus to feed a vinyl habit when you’re in high school. That album quickly led me backwards in his catalog, through Darkness On The Edge of Town to Born To Run to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (which is frankly my favorite of his albums). Since that time I have been on this journey with him. He likes to describe his body of work as a dialogue between an artist and his fans. When I heard he was taking a 1-man show to Broadway, I thought it was a natural progression of that very conversation.

Springsteen On Broadway is indeed just that – a dialogue. One might describe it as a recap of the entire dialogue we, his fans and Bruce have been having all along. I had really wanted to try and get tickets and fly to New York to see the show live, like my friend Judy did (name changed to protect the guilty). But like most people, watching the Netflix special was how I got to see the show. I am sure the opportunity to see this show live, in the intimate Walter Kerr Theater would have completely changed the experience. I finally caught it on Netflix yesterday and I was deeply moved. I will admit freely, that despite being a huge fan, I never did read Springsteen’s highly acclaimed autobiography fittingly named, Born To Run. Unfortunately, rock autobiography has been destroyed for me forever by Keith Richards’ Life. I didn’t need to read Keef comparing dick size with Mick.

Despite my not reading the autobiography, I realized right away it was the source material for much of the show. But that was probably because I’m a huge fan. I’m not sure a casual Springsteen fan can connect with this performance without reading his autobiography. Springsteen writes in such an epic, poetic style that it’s no wonder his story was a perfect fit for the stage. There’s a theatrical nature to all things Springsteen. And like all things Springsteen, On Broadway was long – two and half hours long. After seeing the show, I wondered to myself how often I would return to the soundtrack to listen again. I’m glad I saw it and heard it, but like reading a book, I’m not sure I’d go back to it, and again, I’m HUGE Bruce fan. For once I might have to actually say, this Bruce Springsteen performance may be only for the true fans. And there are plenty of us out here.

Over the years Springsteen’s legend has grown so huge – as a performer, writer, activist, it’s nice to see him cut loose and spend a little time debunking the legend. He begins by explaining that he’s from a boardwalk town, where everything is based on a little magic and deceit. Despite being considered the champion of the working man, he’s never “held an honest job.” He’s never worked in a factory. To the Rock Chick’s great amusement, despite being known as the foremost writer of car songs, he couldn’t drive a car until he was in his 20s. He expresses a host of emotions as he tells the stories he chose and it’s quite a ride. I was happy to hear Springsteen cuss, which I think was also meant to undercut some of the “Saint of Rock N Roll” legend. Then there are times when Bruce goes into, what I describe as “The Reverend of Rock n Roll” act which also made me feel a little like Bruce was playing a character named Bruce Springsteen.

For the true Springsteen fans, there are a host of stories that touch on all the important points of his story. Each story (and some are quite long and revealing) is accompanied by a song and they compliment each other very well. To be clear, the songs are there to compliment the dialogue and not the other way around. He starts off, of course, with “Growing Up” and a story about Elvis and his first guitar. It’s clear, like most of us, Elvis had a big impact on Bruce. Looming even larger was Springsteen’s father and the relationship between them. The most moving pieces of this show were about Bruce and his dad. I was pleased to hear him play “The Wish,” a song about his mother. It’s a deep cut off Tracks. It’s wonderful that his catalog has a song for almost everything he’s been through. His real life completely informs his art which is probably why the legend has grown.

The performance here of Born In the USA is stunning. It follows Bruce talking about Vietnam and how it affected his generation and more personally some of his friends and Jersey idols. He spoke of meeting Ron Kovic and reading his book, ‘Born On the Fourth of July’ and what an effect it had on him. I think that was probably the birth of Springsteen the activist. When he speaks of Clarence Clemons and everything that friendship meant to him I got tears in my eyes. I love the version of “10th Avenue Freeze Out” that he plays in tribute.

Patti Scialfa Springsteen comes out and sings a couple of the most personal songs, (love songs naturally), “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.” Both of those performances were definite highlights. They are not only married, they harmonize spectacularly. “Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Land of Hope And Dreams” are two of the more political moments and Springsteen handled them both deftly – both the songs and the things he said prior.

From Elvis, to his dad, to his mother, to Clarence, to Vietnam, to being a parent, to our current political situation, Springsteen covers it all. He does so with at times good humor and other times deep, sorrowful feeling. This was a great performance and I really regret not making it to Broadway to see it in person. I will say, this one is just for us in the cult of Springsteen.

Life is a long ride… Turn up the radio and try to be good to each other.

 

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Playlist: Memories of and A Requiem For Rock And Roll Radio

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“I like to listen to music, I like the way that it sounds on the radio…” – Joe Walsh, “The Radio Song”

When I was a young kid, before the hormonal-overdose party that is puberty began, I had a clock radio on my nightstand. I rarely, if ever, turned the “radio” part on. Well, that’s not really true. I was a huge KC Royals fan when I was a kid and in the summer I’d fall asleep listening to baseball games. I can remember using the Royals’ exploits as an excuse to get out of bed and walk to the landing on the stairs to tell my dad, “Amos Otis hit a home run!” “Shut up and go back to bed…” ah, dad. So my clock radio was merely the miserable howling siren that pulled me from sweet unconsciousness to a startled wakefulness that signaled, yes… it was time to load the “yellow death wagons” and head off to the dreaded “pit of misery”, er, I mean school. With that as a backdrop maybe it’s not so hard to understand why I never turned the radio on… classical conditioning, baby.

It wasn’t until a fateful day riding in my mother’s Oldsmobile when all that changed. Somehow, I ended up in the backseat and my brother was riding up front with mom. My brother had latched onto the Beatles (and later, tellingly about his personality, the quiet Beatle George Harrison), and was a huge rock and roll music fan. I was probably 13 around this time which means he was just ten. How the younger of us ended up in the front seat with me in the back is one of those unsolvable mysteries of my childhood. Anyway, my brother immediately commandeered control of the radio and was bouncing back and forth between the bubble gum pop of Q104 (with Johnny “Rockin'” Rollins, who is still around as a traffic-helicopter guy) which left me cold and the rock station, KY/102. I was only half paying attention when they played the Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” I remember lunging forward and saying, “Turn that up, man…” which surprised me almost as much as it did my brother. It’s kind of how I discovered sex, accidentally…it just sort of snuck up on me.

My clock radio, whose speaker beforehand had never been tested, was suddenly constantly tuned into KY/102 and cranked up loud. I realized I’d been missing out on a lot of really cool shit. Instead of a shrill alarm, my clock radio now awoke me to the sounds of rock and roll and morning DJs. That was one thing I really loved about radio, the DJs. KY had a great stable of talent who made me feel like I was part of a larger dysfunctional family. They had a comedy duo, Dick and Jay in the mornings. The afternoon guy was General Max Floyd of the Rock N Roll army. He’d use faux explosion noises while “blowing up” disco records. At night it was Katie McGuckin (sp?) who falsely announced that Rod Stewart had collapsed on stage and had to have his stomach pumped because… well, best leave that story aside, it was a slanderous lie. The overnight guy was named Vaughn Mack and he always sounded like the most stoned man on the planet. Vaughn was always famous for saying in his dull monotone, “Yeah man, uh, stay tuned, I’ve got some Boston, Van Halen and then some Stones coming right up…” and then he’d play everything but Boston, Van Halen and some Stones. Stay high Vaughn, stay high.

Suddenly instead of a shrill alarm, a portal to the world had opened up on my nightstand. Listening to the radio is where I got my PHD in classic rock. I learned about all the bands that had come before and all the bands that were current. I would leave the radio on even when I left my room and padded down the hall to shower and try to tame my crazy mane of feathered-hair… I didn’t want to miss a thing. Instead of dreading that morning wake up, at least now it had become a lot more tolerable. I can still hear a song today, all these years later, and close my eyes and see my old room from the vantage point of sitting on my bed, pulling my socks on. The wallpaper is more atrocious in my mind than it probably really was… It was from listening intently to the radio that I started to become interested in where this music came from… it inspired me to start buying vinyl and reading liner notes. It’s where I first heard there were these things called concerts, where the bands I was hearing on the radio actually performed, live in person. I could be in the same room as Mick Jagger for two hours (albeit very far away from him)? Fuck yes, sign me up.

Not only were my mornings transformed. The ride home from high school had completely changed. My buddy Brewster would generously drive me to/from school and the radio was always on. I can still remember hearing “Another Brick In The Wall” the day it came out, in the back back of Brewster’s car heading home from school. He was a hard working guy and always had a pocket full of coin and his car stereo was fucking amazing. If I’d ever had a heart attack you’d need only throw me on his speakers and crank the drum solo on “In The Air Tonight” and I’d recover. When I was looking for my first car, I went looking for wheels with my dad who would ask questions about mileage, price, condition of the car – all I wanted to know was if it had a stereo and could play cassette tapes. I also quietly wondered if two people could fit in the backseat, but I kept that to myself.

I listened to KY every night in my room while I did my homework. My dad yelled, “Turn that down” so often that I thought my parents had changed my name. When I went away to college, two hours down I-70 to Kansas State, my friends and I from KC were distraught we couldn’t get the KC rock radio stations. The radio in Manhattan, Kansas was all Top 40 – Madonna, Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul. God, how did we survive the 80s? When Rock Line with Bob Coburn came on, an interview show where rock bands would come on and talk about upcoming albums and tours, I can remember my roommate Matthew and I going up to a room on the top floor of our building where a guy we knew had strung a coat hanger as an antenna out onto the roof so we could get KY102 and hear Diamond David Lee Roth dispense his rare brand of wisdom… he lit a joint while the interview was going on and called it a “behavior modification device.” Huddled around the static-filled sound of our friend’s radio, we howled with laughter.

There was just so much joy we all associated with listening to the radio. Whether it was blasting tunes while driving down the highway or tuning in over lunch as the DJ put on the new album from Springsteen, there was so much we learned from radio. When I was driving back home, either from college or during my exile years in Arkansas, as soon as I heard KY, I knew I was home… But then, during the late 90s, early 00s, something happened. The FCC changed the rules and allowed big media companies to start consolidating radio station ownership. Everything went corporate. Budgets and playlists shrank. Radio stations had to adhere to strict formats. KY disappeared, they went off the air. The classic rock station in KC doesn’t even play new stuff by the older artists any more. You have to seek that out in other places. Any new rock in the 90s got classified as “alternative rock” for one station or “heavy metal/hard rock” for a different station. These days, if it weren’t for Satellite Radio, I wouldn’t even turn my car radio on. At the risk of sounding cranky like my grandfather near the end of his life, without the casual generational, casual racism, rock and roll radio just isn’t the same anymore. Radio isn’t the same anymore.

I heard a song the other day, that gave me one of those flashback moments. I was a high school kid and I was sitting on the edge of my bed. I could close my eyes and see my old bedroom…jeez, I forgot I had a bean bag chair… It made me miss those good ol’ days, listening to rock and roll. I’m like Joe Walsh, I like the way the music sounded on the radio. I put together the following playlist, as a way to honor those memories. My thoughts on the tracks below.

  1. 1. Autograph, “Turn Up The Radio” – A one-hit wonder that sums up that moment I discovered rock n roll radio.
  2. Rush, “The Spirit of Radio” – One of my all time favorite Rush tracks.
  3. The Clash, “Radio Clash” – A groovy missive from one of the greatest bands of all time.
  4. Ramones, “Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio” – God, do I!
  5. Jet, “Rollover DJ” – I always wonder what happened to all those great disc jockeys.
  6. Cheap Trick, “Radio Lover” – A great tune from their last album. These guys are still putting out great music.
  7. Warren Zevon, “Mohammed’s Radio” – There’s also a great cover of this track by Linda Rondstadt.
  8. Smashing Pumpkins, “I Of The Mourning” – “Radio, radio, play my favorite song.”
  9. Green Day, “Kill the DJ” – A tad violent, but such a great tune.
  10. Talking Heads, “Radio Head” – The song Radiohead got their name from.
  11. The Firm, “Radioactive” – Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page’s ill fated super group with their tongue firmly in their cheek.
  12. George Harrison, “Devil’s Radio” – George being preachy… still a great tune.
  13. Van Morrison, “Hey Mr. DJ” – Van grooving.
  14. ZZ Top, “Heard It On the X” – They pay homage to a great Houston radio station.
  15. Elvis Costello, “Radio, Radio” – It’s the point of the playlist.
  16. Hole, “Boys On the Radio” – Push through the crazy and Courtney Love put out some great stuff with Hole.
  17. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Last DJ” – From Tom’s “angry” album.
  18. Roger Waters, “Radio Waves” – No one likes this album but me…
  19. Journey, “Raised On Radio” – Who better to celebrate the anachronism of radio than this band.
  20. R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe” – The first track from their first album.
  21. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Supernatural Radio” – Petty on a slow jam from a soundtrack album.
  22. Cheap Trick, “On The Radio” – Another great, early track from Cheap Trick.
  23. Queen, “Radio Ga Ga” – Not my favorite Queen track, but I dug the performance at Live Aid in the movie…
  24. Jet, “Radio Song” – I loved that first album by Jet but then they disappeared… I probably shouldn’t have bought the t-shirt.
  25. R.E.M., “Radio Song” – “I can’t find nothing on the radio…” It’s how I feel these days.
  26. David Bowie, “D.J.” – “I’ve got believers, believe in me…”
  27. Green Day, “Revolution Radio” – The title track from their great, most recent record.
  28. Bruce Springsteen, “Radio Nowhere” – Great late period Springsteen where he laments the death of radio.
  29. Steely Dan, “FM” – “No static at all…” unless you’re on the top floor of a building in Manhattan, KS.
  30. R.E.M., “I’m Gonna DJ” – It seems R.E.M. are as obsessed with radio as I was.
  31. Joe Walsh, “The Radio Song” – Joe was kind of losing it by the time this track came out, but I was still drawn to it…

I probably forgot a few great radio-centric tracks so please feel free to add in the comments section. Cheers… signing off now…

 

LP Review: Van Morrison Returns (Already) With the Bluesy Jazz of ‘The Prophet Speaks’

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“When the prophet speaks, you’ve got to listen” – Van Morrison “The Prophet Speaks”

I never dreamed, when I posted my thoughts in September of 2016 on Van Morrison’s brilliant late-period album Keep Me Singing, that it was going to be the beginning of one of the most prolific periods of his career. His previous album of all new material had come in 2012, four years prior (Born to Sing: No Plan B). The guy has been really busy since then. Since Keep Me Singing, he’s released four albums in the span of 15 months. This prolific period began with the exceptional Roll With the Punches, which I described as a laid-back blues party. Van had some friends jamming with him on that album, which included Jeff Beck on guitar, an inspired choice. He went on to release Versatile (a jazz and standards heavy record) three months after Roll With the Punches. He then recorded the jazzy You’re Driving Me Crazy with the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet last April. Now he’s already back with a new album, The Prophet Speaks, a mere 8 months later. He’s on a 2 album/year pace… Back in the sixties the record companies were always pressing their artists for new product. The feeling back then was you had to stay in front of the public with new stuff… The Beatles and Stones, early in their careers, put out 2 albums/year. These days, this kind of pace/output is unheard of.

As long as Van keeps putting out quality albums like The Prophet Speaks, I say, keep them coming. Van has always been a prolific songwriter, but I believe one of the reasons he’s been able to put out albums every few months is that since Roll With the Punches his records have been heavy on covers. For Van, who can literally sing anything – folk, blues jazz, Irish, soul, rock and roll – doing covers isn’t a bad thing. Van may not be the singer he was in his 20s, like Geddy Lee or Robert Plant these days he’s singing more from his diaphragm than shredding his vocal cords, he can still sing with nuance and great feeling. He’s also got spectacular taste in material, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the reasons I loved Roll With the Punches was that it was deeply rooted in the blues. As anyone who have read this blog for any time knows, everything we love at B&V springs from the blues. I will admit, I shied away from Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy as they were more jazz leaning than I’m typically drawn too. For years I felt I wasn’t smart enough for Jazz. It’s very cerebral music. Last year I went to a ClassicAlbumSunday event (an afternoon featuring a certain album, curated by experts) and heard John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I’m still not smart enough for jazz, but that album blew my mind. The curator of that afternoon explained a lot about jazz and at least now I can groove on wonderful saxophone driven music that was here-to-fore a mystery to me. Still, Van’s Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy just didn’t hit me the way Roll With the Punches did.

With The Prophet Speaks, we find Van recording with the same crew as You’re Driving Me Crazy, the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet. Joey plays keyboards (most notably organ) and horns. He’s accompanied by Michael Ode on drums, Dan Wilson on guitar and Troy Roberts on bass and saxophones. This is a big, brassy album with a lot of great organ fills. When I hear this music, it transports me back to the old days when the Plaza III had a jazz club in the basement. If you knew somebody you could slip in after hours and listen to the old jazz guys, done with their paying gigs, jam until the wee hours. Nowadays to hear music like this, I grab the Rock Chick and head down to the Green Lady Lounge, order martinis and swing, baby. While this album is jazzy, it’s more like blues or R&B filtered through a jazz lens than straight up jazz. It’s very accessible music. As mentioned, this album swings. It is very apparent that Van, one of rock’s original curmudgeons, is having a blast here. You can hear him call out for sax solos, or moan, “Whoa” in reaction to a solo. He’s into this album and he should be, it’s great.

Van’s selection of artists to cover would make a great blues and soul record collection. He does a great, albeit less bluesy cover of “Dimples” by his old pal John Lee Hooker. He also does Willie Dixon’s “Love The Life I Live” made famous by Muddy Waters. While this version couldn’t sound more different from Gregg Allman’s recent cover of the same track, I still dig it. We also hear Van do “Worried Blues/Rollin’ And Tumblin'”… I think Van is the third artist to do that song this year (Billy Gibbons, Rod Stewart). Another highlight is the old traditional, “Teardrops” that finds Van and the band jamming in fine form. Van does a couple of great soul standards as well. “Gotta Get You Off Of My Mind” by Solomon Burke has a nice harmony vocal by Van’s daughter Shana Morrison. Another soul cover, and perhaps my favorite, is Sam Cooke’s “Laughin’ And Clownin’.” Sam’s influence is so broad, I need to write about him.

Beside all those great covers, Van blends in a number of originals. My favorites are probably “5 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time,” the story of a guy walking home at 5 a.m… and yes, it’s been a while since I’ve done that but we’ve all been there. Another great, bluesy tune is “Ain’t Gonna Moan No More.” It’s just a great Van Morrison song. Another great vamp is “Got To Get Where the Love Is,” Van’s first original on the album. The record ends with two songs more based in spirituality, “Spirit Will Provide” and title track. What would a Van album be without a little spirituality.¬†

If you’re a fan of Van’s, and admittedly, I am (I’m currently reading a book on the recording of Astral Weeks), you’ll love this album. Don’t let the word “jazz” in this post scare you away. This is a great, loose, groove record and I highly recommend it. To paraphrase, when Van sings, you’ve got to listen…

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Review: Elvis Presley – ‘The Complete ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition’ – The Return Of The King

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My parents weren’t very musical. They didn’t even own a stereo until we moved to Kansas City when I was five. I don’t know why they even bought a stereo, they only owned a handful of albums. I never actually remember the stereo being turned on, other than once a year for Christmas music. Later, when I started collecting vinyl my father once asked me why I had so many different albums. Uh, there are different bands with different music on each record, dad. I don’t know what had happened to my father. When my dad was a kid, he collected a bunch of 45s that my brother, who was turned onto rock and roll long before I was, snatched up and probably still owns. There’s some cash in that little singles rack. But during my youth there was no evidence of my father’s early interest in music… sports had supplanted everything. My dad was one of those set-up-three-tv’s on New Years Day to watch every college Bowl game simultaneously kinda guy. Dad didn’t want to spring for cable.

My parents were very much a product of the 50s. My uncle who was three years younger and my aunt who was seven years younger than my father (I think), were very much a product of the 60s. Think of it this way: my parents were very Eisenhower, my aunt/uncle were very JFK. My parents are only moderately into music even now, despite having two music addicts as kids. Every once in a while they’ll add a Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison greatest hits album to their Christmas list. I shudder when I think about them dropping Roy in the CD player and attempting to dance and shuffle around in the basement on wobbly knees and bad ankles. At least no hospital has called me yet…”Sir, your parents have fallen victim to boogie fever.”

Of those handful of albums my parents owned (for their dusty and unused turntable), one of course, was Elvis. The thing that was mind boggling about it was that the lone Elvis album they had was Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, which, lets face it, isn’t Elvis’ greatest album. I mean, it was a live album. Don’t get me wrong, I still remember being huddled around the TV in 1973 to watch Elvis perform via satellite (which was unheard of technology back then) from Hawaii and being mesmerized…but an obscure live record for the King of Rock and Roll? No greatest hits album? They at least had the blue Beatles greatest hits album, entitled 1967 to 1970. I always preferred the red one, 1962 to 1966.

All that said, it’s clear my exposure to Elvis was fairly limited. It wasn’t until that fateful day in August of 1977 – when I was in the backseat of Coach Taylor’s car, on the way to football practice with two other guys on the team, when we heard Elvis had died – that I realized his impact. I remember Coach Taylor turning to us and saying, “He’s my age…” with tears in his eyes. NBC re-aired the original 1968 special, which had been dubbed “the Comeback” special and that’s when I was hooked. It didn’t hurt that the special broadcast was hosted by Ann Margaret. It was then that I circled back to my brother’s room and started listening to some of those early singles. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and of course, my favorite, “Jailhouse Rock.” It was during that sad summer of ’77 that I realized we may all disagree on who the President should be, but we could at least all agree there is but one King. Elvis brought us together in our grief. What a tale his was…

Elvis’ life was an epic story, worthy of being written by a Greek tragedian like Sophocles or Euripides or perhaps by Shakespeare. There was our Hero, who rose from the Mississippi Delta town of Memphis, Tennessee, the walking embodiment of all the music that had come before him: rhythm and blues, soul, country and of course gospel. And of course every tragedy has to have a villain, in this case it was Colonel Tom Parker. Elvis’ career began at the famous Sun Studios after being discovered by producer Sam Phillips. Phillips sold his contract to RCA and Col Parker, a two-bit concert promoter who stepped forward to take Elvis as his only client. From then on it was Elvis the artist controlled by the Colonel (our Iago in this story) who was driven by nothing more than commerce.

Presley was becoming a phenomenon in the south when his contract was sold to RCA… it was then that he broke nationally. The world had never seen success like Elvis’. From 1956 to 1958 he absolutely dominated the new American art form known as rock and roll. No one sounded like Elvis. Strip away the image and just sit and listen to those early records… what a voice… the voice of the Delta with a dash of gospel. And when he performed live, nobody moved like Elvis. Of course that caused some backlash from the prudes and puritans of the era. Then, inexplicably, (although it was probably to control him), Elvis was drafted into the Army. Colonel Parker, rather than have Elvis record a bunch of material to keep him in the public eye, released music only sporadically during the two years Elvis was in the Army ’58-60… It was John Lennon who said, “that was the end of Elvis, when he went into the Army.”

When he finally got back in early 1961, he apparently surrendered all control of his career to the Colonel. After the smash success of his first studio album, Elvis Is Back! the Colonel turned his eye to Hollywood. Why every rock star wants to be a movie star and vice versa is a mystery I’ll never unravel. Elvis even stopped doing live shows after 1961. From ’61 to ’68 Elvis was seemingly trapped in formulaic, crappy rom-com musicals. Each movie had the inevitable soundtrack. The movie drove people to buy the soundtrack and the soundtrack drove ticket sales for the flick… rinse and repeat. Eventually what had been a very profitable enterprise fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. When you think about ’61 to ’68, a lot of things happened in music. The Beatles and the British Invasion changed everything. Motown and soul had become very prominent. It appeared that the music scene had completely passed Elvis by. He was a has-been, marginalized. The King, it seems, had been dethroned.

It was then that NBC approached Elvis about doing a TV special. The Colonel wanted it to be a Christmas special. He wanted Elvis to do a Christmas album. Elvis steadfastly refused. TV producer Bob Finkel suggested to Elvis that the network would be willing to do whatever Elvis wanted to creatively… Suddenly, like in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf frees the King of Rohan from the evil machinations of Wormtongue, Elvis was freed from the Colonel, if only momentarily. He took complete control of the special, including the music. He did concede to the Colonel’s wishes to perform one Christmas song, “Blue Christmas,” which is one of the few Christmas songs I can actually listen to without screaming. The special was conceived as Elvis on a sound stage performing songs. While they were rehearsing and filming, the music producer on the special, Steve Binder went to Elvis’ dressing room where Elvis was sitting around with the musicians, goofing around and loosely jamming on some of his old stuff. It was so powerful and natural Binder realized, that a concert had to be a part of the show.

Immediately they decided to intersperse live concert footage of Elvis on a small, square stage surrounded by a small crowd in the special. The Colonel, who really was a fuckstain, was supposed to send out tickets to fans across the country but didn’t do so. There was a pretty small crowd lined up for the actual show, so the producers went across the street to a local diner and convinced some people to come over and watch Elvis perform. The Colonel was unhappy about it, but Elvis chose to wear fantastic, tight, black leather from head to toe. The Colonel always tried to down play Elvis’ powerful sexual charisma.¬† To make sure Elvis felt completely confident they brought back some of his early band, Scotty Moore on guitar and DJ Fontana on drums. The thought was to have Elvis come out and talk about the old days while he played in a real loose setting.

There was only one problem. Elvis wouldn’t come out of the dressing room. He wanted to cancel the concert scenes. He hadn’t been on a stage since 1961… his confidence was gone. The King had surrendered his throne. Binder insisted… Imagine being Elvis in that dressing room in that moment. He hadn’t performed live in 7 years, his confidence had been shaken. His last few records had flopped. The Beatles ruled the world now. He’d been hiding away in a Hollywood bubble… the self-doubt, the fear of failing. I wonder to this day what went through his mind. Finally, with a nod, Elvis agreed to Binder’s pleading and walked out on the stage… and something magical took place.

It’s a common trope in movies, especially bio pics, to have the hero rise, then fall and then rise again. This is that one uncommon case where it actually happened that way in real life. Elvis relaxed immediately upon taking the stage. He was sexy, he was powerful, he was self-deprecating (about his past, the Elvis the Pelvis stuff, about his movies) and it just worked. In one powerful performance, we as a nation witnessed not just rock and roll history, we witnessed a King retaking his throne. John, Paul, George and who? This was Elvis, baby, as big as America, as big as the fucking world.

The show was originally broadcast on NBC on December 3rd, 1968, exactly fifty years from tomorrow. While the concert footage is my favorite and the most powerful part of the show, the producers and writers had written a song specifically for Elvis to reflect how he felt about the world. America in 1968 was a tumultuous place… RFK and MLK had been assassinated. Elvis was particularly disturbed by MLK’s murder as it happened in his hometown of Memphis. Elvis was that rare breed of southerner who was completely color blind. He’d grown up listening to black musicians his whole life, including black church gospel. For me, the center-point of the special, beyond the concert stuff is the great, great track “If I Can Dream.” It’s a song meant to unify and bring people together and I believe it to be one of Elvis’ most towering achievements.

I heard Bruce Springsteen talk about the “Comeback Special,” as it has come to be known. He said the whole family was looking forward to watching it, but he confessed to being nervous. Could Elvis pull it off? Did he still have “it?” The answer, of course, is yes.

Now, on it’s 50th anniversary they’ve released The Complete ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition. It’s pretty spectacular. It’s everything. The original sound track is here. They even include the raw concert recordings. They even have the recordings of the rehearsals here. Everyone out there should own a copy of the Comeback Special¬†in some format. It’s a really important chapter in the life of the King and in the story that is rock and roll.

After the success of the special, riding high, Elvis told the Colonel he wanted to get back on the road. He also decided to return to Memphis, his home to record there. The sessions from Memphis produced two landmark albums, From Elvis In Memphis and later Back In Memphis. It also produced the smash single, “Suspicious Minds.” You can easily find all the Memphis sessions combined on 1 or 2 CDs. I’ve always recommended The Memphis Record as the definitive one. After the special, the success of “Suspicious Minds,” and the album From Elvis In Memphis, the King had returned.

This new box set is likely the definitive version of the Comeback Special. I highly recommend it and the Memphis stuff recorded right after… I said earlier that we could all agree that Elvis was the undisputed King of rock and roll. When he was asked by a reporter at a press conference about being the King of Rock N Roll, Elvis shook his head and said, “I’m not the King, he is…” and pointed to Fats Domino who happened to be there. So I guess I can’t really say he was the undisputed King…

Long Live the King!