Tuesday 5 January 2010

Elvis PRESLEY: From Elvis In Memphis

(#70: 30 August 1969, 1 week)

Track listing: Wearin’ That Loved On Look/Only The Strong Survive/I’ll Hold You In My Heart/Long Black Limousine/It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’/I’m Movin’ On/Power Of My Love/Gentle On My Mind/After Loving You/True Love Travels On A Gravel Road/Any Day Now/In The Ghetto

In truth he wasn’t enjoying the sixties as much as he had the fifties. The decade didn’t seem as open to him as the previous one had been. Whereas once he’d fearlessly kick down doors, now they all appeared to be spontaneously reassembling and systematically closing on him.

It had started well enough, or as well as could have been expected; he’d done his time in the Army, had seen things, lost others, been introduced by his commanding sergeant to amphetamines, fallen in love with a fourteen-year-old girl (but, unlike his old pal Jerry Lee, waited seven years before marrying her), and came back a not entirely unwilling convert to the notion of All-Round Entertainer. There was that dormant electricity which had suddenly reawakened – see entry #19 for fervent proof – but once he had got being back out of his system he quickly settled down to what everyone else around him wanted (or so he was given to think); the Neapolitan ballads, the rapid turnover movies, the tuxedo. There were heartfelt gospel performances, private solo recordings, but gradually the brand took over the being.

Did he even want to think about the Beatles? Oh, they’d met and got on reasonably/diplomatically well, but he didn’t feel any direct connection, was slightly suspicious and increasingly resentful of their takeover – how much easier it was for him to break bread with his jukebox favourite Tom Jones; now there was a man as he knew him – and overall felt what must have resembled a gradual and not particularly painless descent into an airy nothingness. Pot Luck – see entry #29 – had been his last non-soundtrack, non-gospel, non-random bits and pieces album and perhaps the effort thereafter became too great. Far easier to drift agreeably and lunkheadedly into a world populated by the less complicated likes of Bill Bixby and Stella Stevens. It relieved him of the pressure of having to think.

But pressure was getting to him in different ways – well, maybe not as much as some people liked to think, since his priorities eventually changed. Nevertheless, where exactly did he stand in the world of 1967? He married Priscilla that year, and she gave birth to Lisa Marie in early 1968; as with Dylan, he was now a husband and father, but unlike Dylan, his new contentment – surely there must have been immense contentment – was not initially reflected in his music of the period. A look at his singles schedule for 1967 reveals, among numerous interchangeable others, such items as “Indescribably Blue,” the double A-side “You Gotta Stop/The Love Machine” and “Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On).” None did very much commercially, and hardly any of them were even noticed; no one was mad about them, but then again they drove no one mad. Did these records even exist, in any meaningful sense? Was he simply sick of the endlessly rotating hamster’s wheel which he thought himself compelled to tread?

Something had to give, and after his daughter’s birth, and following a few words with a record company concerned about his now minimal sales, he slowly strove to reform, if not remake, himself. The Jerry Reed songs “US Male” and “Guitar Man” got him back on the lists; they didn’t quite convince of a new tungsten toughness but they were certainly more than creditable attempts. Then NBC producer Steve Binder came through with an offer of a Christmas TV special. Col Parker wanted the tuxedo, Bing Crosby sentiments, fluff around the Christmas tree, a Santa Claus outfit (and attached beard?), “Jailhouse Rock” with a flute solo.

But finally, and ultimately, Presley said no. He wanted to reclaim, not just his leathery roots, but rock itself. The Beatles had had it all to themselves while he had been roboting his way through Hollywood, reduced to making films about “Swinging London” which had about as much to do with London as Antarctica. He felt humiliated and enraged. These Limey schoolboy fuckers, he thought to himself, still scrubbing behind their ears and sniffing the classroom inkwells while he was busy inventing their future – the jibes he aims at the group in his TV show have a bitterness which takes them above Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast level. Christ, even Dean, the man he had once – perhaps, deep down, still – wanted to be, had come through the sixties infinitely hipper than him, by means of doing little more than slouching on his stool on TV every week, sending up crooning and essaying gags of antique corn. Dino had a much securer grasp on his own journey to blissful nothingness. Elvis was apt to become a little confused about what was and wasn’t there, or here.

Well, enough was enough. The white tuxedo, the showbiz, the tinsel, were kept in their place, but he wanted Scotty and DJ back, he wanted to get back to the 1954 urge that had kicked him into tactility in the first place. And he burst, and did it with brilliant radiance. Few items of televisual pop have smouldered with such red rage and unapologised-for transcendence (as well as such unexpected, sun-raising exuberance) as the Sun Studios in a boxing ring experiential part of Presley’s ’68 Special. He goes back over Jimmy Reed and Smiley Lewis again and again, will not let go of songs, dips in and out of numbers as will and desire direct, can’t find a damned strap for that guitar of his but dammit, he stands up anyway, like an Atlas intent on preventing his disc from slipping. Then, after half an hour or so, he returns to the tuxedo, and to “Memories,” but something has not been extinguished, and right at the end he erupts into “If I Can Dream” – a clumsy song, but delivered with more balls and fervour than anything he’d done in nigh on nine years. There is a frightening certainty about his hoarse shriek of a betrayed voice, watching 1968 and the future dissolve in bullets before he could get to them and stop them – and suddenly he counted once more.

In early 1969 he went back to the studios in Memphis for the first time in nearly fourteen years. The musicians were respectful but wary, and if truth be told not exactly bowled over by the prospect of working with someone who – whisper it soft – they perhaps considered to be past it, over the hill. Not like that dynamic Neil Diamond guy who’d come by a couple of months before; now there was someone evidently happy to see a future unfold before him. But Elvis…it wasn’t a question of whether he still had it, but whether he was ready to recognise what “it” was? There was scepticism, not all of it unjustified.

That doubt evaporated the moment he got down to work. The album opens with his enraged voice over a rubato introduction. “I had to leave town for a little while,” he roars in the manner of a Ulysses newly returned to find the palace trashed, “You said you’d be good while I’m gone!” Prompted by a circus organ, the band strike up a furious undertow of beat while Presley laments about the wreckage of the decade upon which he has belatedly stumbled. He exclaims his bafflement over “a man downstairs with long, bushy hair.” She – if “she” can mean a decade, or a movement, rather than a specific, would-be lover – has been untrue to him, betrayed his dream, and he will spend most of the rest of the record coming to terms with this loss.

Jerry Butler’s “Only The Strong Survive,” then a relatively new song (co-written by future Philly Sound lords Gamble and Huff), is attacked by both singer and band with a strut and snap which, like many of these tracks, demonstrates a surprising attachment to Motown. It had been just over a decade since he’d lost his mother, and the grief is still sorely palpable in his performance of the song; his cry of “Don’t leave me!” after the first chorus, for instance. The choruses are noticeably faster than the verses but the singer’s pain is veering towards the extra-articulate; his “IwouldntletherKNOW!” scream heralds an abyss of strings as he stands on the precipice of non-existence. His climactic “YOU’D BETTER HOLD ON!” sounds like a self-projecting plea to be allowed to cling to the cliff edge.

But maybe the most startling of these dozen performances is the old Eddy Arnold chestnut “I’ll Hold You In My Heart.” Following a triple false start, Presley, seated at the piano, hurls himself into the song’s sentiments and hardens them up (“LOOOOOOKING for…”). On the first of several middle eights he proffers an octet of self in his “IIIIIII feel so blue” before hurtling into a hiccupping “Please-A wait-A for meeeee.” In the second middle eight he switches to a squealing falsetto (“You KNOW!”). The drums then accelerate into an unexpected third middle eight where he whines an extended “Why?” followed by four “I’m sorry”s, two “I said”s, an uncanny seven-syllable “heart,” and a resolving, James Brown-ish “UH!” But in the fourth middle eight, his grip on the song as tenacious as any dachshund’s jaw, he produces a sextet of “I”s – five hiccups and one resolving vibrato – before racing into “I’m away, I’M AWAY,” an orgasmic “YES!,” a recovering “Oh, oh, oh” and a final, devastating “Pulllleeeeaaaaasssse-AHHH!” Here he is as capable of deconstructing the language of sung song as effectively as Tim Buckley or Elizabeth Frazer.

“Long Black Limousine” reverses the scenario of the opening track, though its bells are far more threatening; now she is coming back, in a fancy car as she had always promised, but she is not alive; the car crashed after a party, perhaps the same party about which the singer was initially so suspicious. After a solemn beginning the song speeds up to a mid-tempo lope from the second verse (and the drums make their belated entry, followed by a Last Post trumpet). He has been preaching, possibly only to himself, but again the hurt seeps out in his markedly hoarser delivery of the second middle eight. The contempt which he only suggested in his opening “rich friends who knew you in the scene” blossoms into unclenched hatred; “A CHAUFFEUR!” he exclaims, as baffled and insulted as Lady Bracknell, before an upward key change heralds three defiant cries of “YEAH!,” each higher than the last as backing singers, guitars and drums interlock in the manner of coffin nails. A decade down the road from “Old Shep,” this is as disturbing a death disc as Presley ever created; he appears to be sounding the toll for something far greater than one misguided individual having passed away. It is a lament for somebody whom he deeply wanted to have stayed, but also somebody with whom he had even more deeply wanted to escape. Or perhaps a stark projection of his future self onto a passion beyond reconsideration. The Worried Man has many guises.

His relatively restrained take on Johnny Tillotson’s 1962 country hit “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’” almost comes as light relief after the draining anti-catharsis of its two predecessors, even though he sings it as a song intended for the bereaved, having been left with nothing but a pillow and his million tears. There is little time to dwell on this mourning, however, as he is quick to proceed to “I’m Movin’ On,” the old Canadian country song by Hank Snow which had provided the model for Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” Beginning quietly with acoustic guitar, the band launches into a Tennessee Three triple beat wagon ride but this rhythm is soon overtaken by an amazing, pre-emptive conference between country and funk, Reggie Young’s wah-wah guitar anticipating “Theme From ‘Shaft’” by two years. The picture blossoms to full intensity before retreating back to piano and Gene Chrisman’s needle-sharp drums. But Presley won’t let it rest (since that would mean his having to rest, or be like the rest) and he forces the power to be built up again (“Move on, baby, move ON!”). Chrisman bears down on his ride cymbal, at times as abstract and overpowering as Sunny Murray’s, before the song breaks open and everybody cuts the dummies loose.

“Power Of My Love” is the album’s most unexpected track, far more surprising in its way than “Ghetto”; although the song was written in 1962, we are firmly in the land of 1969 blues rock, with hard-biting guitar and harmonica. But with one swipe Presley puts the winsome wannabes back in their humbled place. “CRUSH it! KICK it!” he roars. “And no baby you can’t LICK IT!” he sneers. He is now winning, and knows it. “You’ll never get away,” he hisses in the first middle eight as Ed Hollis’ harmonica erupts into screaming multiphonics worthy of Pharaoh Sanders before giving way to Young’s guitar. Brass enter into the song’s final, sturdy 6/8 straits and Presley grins as though having violently wiped the last eight years of compromise and smiles off the desk and into the incinerator.

Did he still want to be Dean? “Gentle On My Mind” had also been done by the lontano maestro in 1969, and to everyone’s surprise nearly made number one as a single in Britain that spring. But Presley hardly seems to notice Dean’s preceding presence, let alone those of John Hartford, Glen Campbell or even Aretha Franklin. In contrast to Martin’s throwaway, heck-I’m-a-wino-so-what lax loucheness, Presley reapplies the Motown touch and toughens the song up. The rhythm is taut R&B and the bass (Tommy Cogbill and/or Mike Leech) neatly echoes James Jamerson. Young’s guitar commentary, however, is pure Steve Cropper, and so the worlds of Motown and (the more obviously local) Stax unite. Presley, however, audibly crumbles with the prospect of no home, as evinced by his stifled sobs at “stain my face” and “’til I’m blind.” Chrisman drives his snare accents diagonally, and unlike Dino, you can visualise the junkyards through which Elvis is wandering, perhaps of his own making.

Then it’s back to Eddy Arnold (yet again from 1962; was Elvis trying to reverse history to free it of the Beatles?), although Presley’s take on “After Loving You” owes much more to Della Reese’s later version. There are handclaps, a marked dissonance of emotion between Presley’s “now” and “after,” and then, as with “I’ll Hold You In My Heart,” he moves beyond words, language. “That’s ‘cause I’m no good I’m NO GOOD TO ANYONE!” he curses. At one point he can be heard to roar what sounds remarkably like “I feel DERANGED!” Then he presses down on his heart-driven eraser with his “Era-a-a-a-a-ased.” He treats the ballad as though it were an unclenched “One Night” (sung on the TV Special as he had always wanted to sing it, in its uncleaned form). “IMNOGOODIMNOGOODIMNOGOOD!!!” he exclaims, followed by a balancing triple “to anyone”s. His voice descends in intensity, grows steadily quieter and, as we reach the fade, gradually more garbled; the mouth music in which he indulges in the song’s final moments resembles no one so much as Phil Minton (see the latter’s 1981 album A Doughnut In One Hand for corroboration).

We then reach the closing trilogy of understated, damaged but elegant ballads. “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road” is delivered initially stately, patiently. But, perhaps triggered by “and stand by her man” (remembering the then recent Tammy Wynette song), Presley blasts off again. “HOW MANY HEARTS?” he howls. The second verse is delivered loudly and forcefully. Once again the horns, strings and rhythm draw us back to Motown. In the third verse Presley’s lamenting is soundtracked by a tambourine, followed by handclaps and Chrisman’s bouldering drums. His “MMMMMMMMMMM” is extended to lands approximating infinity.

“Any Day Now” is possibly the only moment on the record where Presley is at real peace. Written by Burt Bacharach and a hit for Chuck Jackson in – you guessed it – 1962, the mood is fast, brassy, a more streamlined version of Motown. But again, after trying to keep his countenance (“You’ll be on your way”), Presley collapses and yells (“THEN MY WILD BEAUTIFUL BIRD!”). Behind him Young’s guitar is anxious and restless before strings take the centre stage and are in turn superseded in the middle eight by tambourine. His hoarse whimper of “I’ll be hoooooooolding on” is a terrible moment of self-realisation (since he’s holding on “for dear life”); she’s there with him, palpable and tactile, but already – and ahead of the apocalyptic “Suspicious Minds” – he’s anticipating her betrayal, her departure, knowing that if she comes back it will be in a long black limousine. “Love will let me down,” he confesses towards the end, in a perilously quiet last verse, as starkly as though he knew that the world was always going to let him down. “You’ll be aro-ound” he finally sobs before the dam bursts and he weeps. “DON’T FLY AWAY, MY BEAUTIFUL BIRD!” he screams, twice. Don’t let me bleed my life to nothing. Marcus called it “naked piety” but the sins are already in their, and possibly his, place. One eventually realises how close Presley’s hoarse cry is to that of Levi Stubbs, and how infinitely less settled it is.

But, in the end, Presley steps outside himself, remembering that his woes are purely his, and peers out into this strange 1969 world to find something he either can’t recognise, or something he knows only too well. Mac Davis – the author of “Memories” – came to him with the song; Presley was initially dubious about taking it on and meaning it but was eventually persuaded. He looks out onto a world already planned to be wrecked for some at the moment of conception…and the music is as hushed and reverent and wary as everything else on this album isn’t. The song keeps pausing and restarting, as though he is pacing the sidewalk, thinking, turning around and retracing his steps. There is a distant, martial snare drum and behind it an even more distant cymbal. The strings are “Ode To Billie Joe” woozy, the backing singers now carrying the song’s superficial emotional dynamic. Presley himself, however, remains utterly calm, though this calm may be but a mask for numbness; he tells the story and watches it spin around to the beginning of the same bloodied cycle, and he thinks of Tupelo in the thirties and forties, wonders if that could have been him, might still be him. “In The Ghetto” sees him move out, perhaps for the final time, into the larger world, and its imprint, its singer now a distant chimera, is the final impression which this record leaves.

On the cover there are multiple shadows behind him, as there once were in Jailhouse Rock; they may well be his own shadow multiplied to refill an emptying universe. It is telling that earlier in the summer of 1969, when budget-priced albums were incorporated into the main chart, he nearly reappeared in this tale with the long-delayed release of the soundtrack to Flaming Star, his best and least musical and certainly least glamorous film. And, as with Flaming Star, From Elvis In Memphis constitutes Presley’s most direct statement to his audience; in the Sun days he was still working out what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it, but now he knew exactly what and how. Yes, this was a King in exile, back to reclaim his rightful place (“You’ve GOT to be a man, you’ve GOT to take a stand!”), back to demonstrate that, damn you, he still counted (the key factor of the album is how nakedly physical it sounds). Some of his vibrati in “I’ll Hold You In My Heart” even – had he known it – anticipate Bryan Ferry. But he was temporarily back, back with his people, back with the songwriters, few of whom came from anything that could be described as a glamorous background. The door opened, just for a second, just a glimpse of light as yellow as the cardigan he wears on the album’s back cover – but it was enough for him, for anyone who still cared to listen (and, astonishingly, everyone still cared). The seventies were going to become a different kind of playground for him, and this tale will not revisit him until, for him, it is too late. For one brief but vital moment, the treadmill yielded.