The Devil in Elvis Presley

On September 9th, 1956 -- 57 years ago -- Elvis Presley made his first appearance on the CBS network's "Ed Sullivan Show," singing "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender," Little Richard's "Ready Teddy" and snatch of "Hound Dog'"for an estimated viewing audience of some 60 million folks, more than 80% of the national television audience.

The performance was as contentious as it was historic. Sullivan had been reported as saying he would never allow Presley -- a lewd and crude purveyor of rock 'n' roll, that new hybrid of "race" and hillbilly music -- to appear on the show. The host relented when he surveyed the stats from Elvis's earlier appearance on Steve Allen's show over on NBC. Besides, Sullivan reckoned, Presley's seditious hip-shake could be controlled by camera angles.

Scratch at the facts and some of the paint flakes away. Footage of that broadcast shows that Elvis was indeed depicted in much of his pelvic thrust, albeit fleetingly and from oblique or distant angles. Sullivan, who was recovering from a car accident, did not introduce Elvis that night. His place was taken by the British character actor and film-maker Charles Laughton, one of the most respected stage and screen performers of his generation, famed for his roles in "Mutiny On the Bounty" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Laughton was at the time still recovering from the poor reception accorded his first and only directorial achievement "Night of the Hunter," released the previous year, adapted from Davis Grubb's classic 1953 novel, and starring Robert Mitchum as the psychotic preacher Harry Powell, a widow-killer with the word "love" tattooed on his right hand and "hate" on his left. America might have been ready for Elvis but it was not ready for Harry Powell. The film's dark themes and expressionist atmospheres didn't go down well in an age of McCarthy witch-hunts and consumer boosterism. Like some evil elder half-brother, Harry Powell lurked and fumed in America's subconscious while the callow Elvis became a god.

You know the rest: Presley dominated the charts with a slew of rowdy rockabilly sides and tenderized ballads, joined the army, got defanged and shorn, became a family-friendly entertainer and made his '68 comeback, all in the span of a dozen years. By the mid 70s he was a caped superhero stranded in Las Vegas's International Hotel, his powers steadily kryptonited by pills, junk food and flunkies. A new generation blooded on glam-rock and punk had written him off as an oldies act favored by aging Teddy Boys who displayed no ability to distinguish between evil rockabilly apocalypsers like Gene Vincent and phony show-band acts like Alvin Stardust. You never heard the Sun recordings on the radio. There was no Youtube; the seismic Ed Sullivan appearance seemed as distant as the Civil War.

But in the years after his death, Elvis Apocrypha began to circulate, some of it National Enquirer standard, some of it more serious stuff like Greil Marcus's Dead Elvis. More often now we caught glances of the original devil-Elvis. His was the spirit invoked on the cover of The Clash's London Calling, in Nick Cave's "Tupelo" and Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train." It was summoned in David Lynch's "Wild at Heart," the scene where Sailor proclaims to a dumbstruck thrash-band in a bar: "You guys have a lot of the same power he did," Nicholas Cage's delivery letting you know that that "he" should be capitalized. Then Val Kilmer played him as Christian Slater's guardian angel in "True Romance." Kilmer also played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's "The Doors" -- it took the video release of the '68 Comeback Special to remind us that Elvis too was a lizard King in a leather suit.

Or maybe a werewolf. Listen to that uncanny Sun version of "Blue Moon," a consensual hallucination of a song in which the clean-cut all-American boy of Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis takes his fuzzy-sweatered sweetheart to the high-school prom only to realize, just as a magnetic and weirdly-hued moon emerges from behind a cloud, that those recurring lycanthropic dreams weren't dreams at all. Presley's skinny body warps into a werewolf intent on making beef chow-mein of his pretty prom queen, and as the sirens approach the beast changes back into an innocent young man, standing shocked and lovelorn in the lunar light, viscera dripping from his fingers.

This is the old, evil Elvis expunged from the later records. The seminal "Mystery Train," written by Junior Parker and Sam Phillips, released by Elvis the same year as Laughton's Night of the Hunter, is a song whose refrain derives from a Carter Family tune entitled "Worried Man Blues," described by Greil Marcus as "the story of a man who lays down to sleep by a river and wakes up in chains." No further explanation, just that strange neo-noir image.

The Elvis version of "Mystery Train" is charged with anger, as if he means to derail with his bare hands the long black train that carried his sweetheart away. Through the supernatural slap-back echo effect of the Sun recordings -- the spook in Sam Phillips's machines -- we envision that old devil-Elvis in blood-red technicolor.

"What makes that song so astonishing is the transformation of the American Gothic into the American Pastoral," Marcus once told me, "from a bad ending to a happy ending without cheating, without cutting anything out, without narrowing the story at all. It is much more explicitly weird in the Elvis Presley version in terms of the lyric, what's actually going on in the song, than it is anywhere else, and yet this is the only time when the singer doesn't give in, when the song is not a piece of fatalism, it's a call to action. It's not easy to sing something like that and make you feel that the world is full of possibility and nothing significant has been done yet, it's all up to you."

The 60 million folks who watched the Ed Sullivan Show live felt that possibility, that promise. Review the footage now: Elvis, wearing a garish check jacket, seems in the grip of some medieval dancing madness. His hair, to quote Warren Zevon, is perfect. He is possessed by the spirit of a Harry Powell who, denied mass exposure on the big screen, jumped from Charles Laughton's mouth into Elvis's mouth and infected America through the medium of the cathode ray.

It is this devil-Elvis, a deranged preacher spouting Corinthians and shooting at the TV set, who appears in my novel "The River and Enoch O'Reilly" as a surrogate father to the tormented Irish radiovangelist of the title. Enoch, on learning of Elvis's death, gets blitzed on whiskey and writes "Devil" on his left hand, "Elvis" on his right. He does this knowing that the King is dead, but the devil-Elvis will always return, reincarnated in the digital ether, again and again, until the end of time.