From Aug. 16, 2012…Redux
And one thing I forgot.
Perhaps the most recognizable (and toughest) of the Memphis Mafia, Red West was also one of the few who had appreciable musical talent, talent that came out in “If Every Day Was Like Christmas,” “Separate Ways,” “If You Talk in Your Sleep,” among others.
Near the boss’s end, he got fired and co-wrote a scandalous book which I haven’t read (one of these days, one of these days). The boss didn’t live long enough for reconciliation. Some said the book was the last punch to an already weakened heart–that it was having Red’s name on it that really hurt.
I always said only two people knew and they probably only half-knew.
I guess they can worry about working all that out now.
As some of you know, I have contacts on the other side so I wasn’t surprised when a certain familiar voice showed up in my head and asked for a late night dedication.
“What?” I said. “‘Unfaithful Servant?'”
I wasn’t thinking it had to be one of Red’s, or even one of his.
“Naw man,” the boss said. “Up here, it’s all about forgiveness…You do alright. Just play what you feel.”
“You mean the same one I’m gonna play next month, when I re-post for the big 40th?”
“Oh yeah. That’ll get it.”
So I have it on good authority.
However things were, they’re okay tonight.
I think “What would Elvis do?” has become a handy substitute for “What would Jesus do?” the difference being Jesus (or at least his followers) left a well-defined set of instructions to guide our speculation, while Elvis was as obscure as any person can be who achieves enough fame to make wondering what they would do occur to anyone in the first place.
Over at Greil Marcus’ website, he just received the inevitable question “Would Elvis have voted for Trump?”
Marcus took it for granted that the question referred to Elvis Presley (perhaps Elvis Costello is not, per Steven Van Zandt, the “real” Elvis after all) and answered at length. You can read his answer under the May 29, 2017 mailbag at his site (link available on my blogroll at the right–sorry, I can’t link to individual questions inside the mailbag itself).
In summary, it’s the usual mishmash: The Elvis who died in 1977 “probably… would have” voted for Trump, but if he had lived another forty years he might have turned into a good person, unlike the millions who actually voted for Trump because he represents the kind of evil country they want to live in. I’ll just point out that Marcus does not address the key demographic of the 2016 election, the several million people–many of them concentrated in the industrial swing states which crumbled the Blue Wall and decided the election–who voted for Trump after voting for Obama twice.
Did they suddenly change their minds about which kind of country they wanted to live in? Did Obama simply fail to deliver the evil country they thought he had promised? Or was Trump seen as more likely than Hillary Clinton to maintain the country they wanted to live in when they voted for Obama?
I encourage you to read Marcus’ response, but, in short, he doesn’t say.
What I really want to do though is answer the question.
Would Elvis have voted for Trump?
I wonder why we only wonder who Elvis would have voted for? Does anybody (well, any white boy critic or wannabe) ask themselves whether Ray Charles or James Brown–both much further to the right on the public record than Elvis ever was–would have voted for Trump? If they don’t, why not? I’m sure it’s not because they don’t think Mr. Charles or Mr. Brown lacked moral or intellectual agency. I mean, that would be sorta racist wouldn’t it?
Comes to that, why don’t we wonder who the more-or-less still living “Johnny Rotten” would have voted for if he were an American? Is it because all the cool people might not like the answer? (Just an aside: Marcus was recently asked about this one as well and basically gave Lydon a pass–and not because Trump is as an inevitable part of Lydon’s legacy as he is a rejection of the real Elvis’.)
I don’t have the least clue who the real Elvis–who at least tacitly endorsed both Adlai Stevenson and George Wallace whilst he was living–would have voted for.
Neither do you. Neither does anyone.
I know what he did when it mattered. When it mattered he sang “If I Can Dream” into the teeth of the anti-Enlightenment forces, Left and Right, that were dismantling the Dream he had done as much as any man to make real. And he put more pure anger into it than anyone has ever conveyed on a record that reached the Top 40. (Listen again, with headphones and your eyes closed if you can. You’ll hear it, right there from the heart of ’68.) When it mattered, he did things like this.
There were reasons why James Brown, who, like many an ornery American liable to vote for Obama one time and Trump the next, preferred dying on his feet to living on his knees, wept over Elvis’ coffin. Seeing around the corner, where the Dream would shatter, and the post-Carter political class–yes, all of them–would crawl from the wreckage, was no doubt foremost among them.
Recent Christmas seasons, my “shopping” consists of a trip to the local antique mall, where I can usually find what I need for the one or two people I still exchange actual gifts with. This little spree is usually accompanied by sitting down for lunch somewhere, a few errands, riding around in the car, the kind of activities that expose you to Christmas music.
I’m not saying I never hear anything good, but even if I do, it’s an awful lot of the same old same old. Which made coming into contact with the Christmas Elvis–the later incarnation, not the “Blue Christmas” one–was a jolt to the system as I browsed the book stall, looking for what I was going to get myself (the rest was already bought).
It was even more of a jolt to realize that the whole album was playing. I picked it up near the end, so I heard these three in a row, the last as I was checking out (when your pockets are short, it takes even less time to shop for yourself than for the few remaining others).
And I wondered, yet again, who could range so broadly across so much American space with so much off-handed ease–on three songs for a kinda-sorta throwaway Christmas album no less?
You know the answer to that.
Nobody. That’s who.
Wake up Putt….
I haven’t been able to listen to Elvis all year until this week.
Not even a little.
It wasn’t that he was irrelevant to the unfolding disaster befalling the American Experiment–a disaster which has nothing to do with the outcome of the election, that being just one more mile marker on the road down, though I’ll buy that it’s potentially a sign-worthy milestone at least. It was more that he was too relevant, too near, too obviously nagging the national consciousness, even as the fragile coalition between Appalachia’s version of the Celtic Imagination and the Delta’s version of the African Imagination that formed in his head in the mid-fifties and brought the Promised Land heaving into view off the bow, finally sank beneath the waves without anybody bothering to mention his name over much.
Maybe I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t listen.
Anyway, this week I started again and I started with the Fifties. Figured I’d just get the The Complete 50’s Masters out and let it roll over me, night after night.
Since this was probably the longest stretch I’ve gone without listening to any serious Elvis since the late seventies, re-engaging was an experience….like recovering a lost memory.
Along the lines of, “Oh yeah. That guy.”
I forgot how improbable it all was.
You tend to, if the music isn’t right there in your ear.
Anyway I do, what with all the white noise the world can make crowding in, day after day.
Toward the end of the second disc, just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be gobsmacked any harder, I ran into these three, right in a row:
Elvis the doo-wop singer, who, if that was all he had been, would have been in the conversation with Clyde McPhatter and Dion DiMucci as the greatest of all. (An amazing number of his records would fit the category if they had been recorded by some soundalike and been a career maker, the way “Be Bop A Lula” was for Gene Vincent, or “It’s Only Make Believe” was for Conway Twitty, to take only the most obvious examples.) This, the purest example, might not have become a hit for that imaginary soundalike. But it would have become a collector’s item, which, in doo-wop is maybe more to the point.
Followed by Elvis, the off-hand rockabilly, too smart to compete with Little Richard directly (though he could have, listen again to “Jailhouse Rock” or “Santa Claus is Back in Town” some time), too committed to treat it less than seriously…and a reminder that it was always the off-hand part that made Elvis the first and greatest rockabilly singer…
Followed by Elvis, the white gospel singer, who, if that was all he had been, would have been in the conversation with Jake Hess and James Blackwood as the greatest of all.
It’s been almost a given among the crit-illuminati, ever since his existence increased their value to the Overlords a thousand fold–made them not merely convenient but necessary–that “rock and roll” would have been just as big a deal, just as important, and moved to the center of the culture for three decades just as surely, if Elvis had failed to slip the noose and stayed a truck driver. (I created the “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” category to give just a small taste of their willful ignorance.)
All you ever have to do to make nonsense of that is listen to the actual records and ask yourself, “Who else. then?”
Who else covered that much territory with so much fluidity and ease that it seemed “natural.”
No one else.
The one cold comfort that will be available to the future is the assurance that the boot-lickers, having played their role all too well, will be going down with the rest of us.
The Overlords, too.
As Elvis, the inveterate Bible reader, might have told them:
For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
Among hundreds, Here’s the most interesting “exit” poll I’ve seen.
For those who don’t care to click over, it’s a Reuters poll (from what I can tell, they are no better or worse than any other organization that does this…which means it can be taken with a grain of salt but probably isn’t off by any wild number). The poll asked the respondents to agree/disagree with the following:
” I feel like a stranger in my own country”
19.2% UNDECIDED/DON’T KNOW
Another blogger, who evidently has access to deeper metrics, has a further breakdown, by race and party, which suggests that a strong majority of every demographic but one of the YES/NO respondents said YES. Even if you take the main poll at face value, though, it’s strange to contemplate. (For the record, the one exception is White Democrats. I’m not linking to the blogger because I don’t know how good his info is, but the numbers he posts are a logical enough conclusion.)
Nearly 50% of the voting public–i.e., the most politically engaged part of the populace–feels alienated, while another 20% are ambivalent on the question.
When, after decades of experiencing virtually unprecedented Peace, Prosperity and Progress while residing in the heart of the mightiest empire to ever bestride the Earth, nearly 70% of voters feel either alienated or disengaged, these United States of America are really just Memphis in ’69.
You know, without all the great music, or any Prophets roaming around, cursing (literally in this case) the darkness.
Not from me this time, but from Neal Umphred at his site Elvis – A Touch of Gold….link here, which I encourage all to pursue. (For those who haven’t visited before, there is much to learn there beyond this post.)
E vibrated to me on a different plane to express his feelings about it all (the stupid stuff, not Neal’s post). The conversation was private, of course, but he gave me permission to share this:
It’s never really about a place, not even if the place is Memphis. It’s always about the people:
Bill Black: b. 1926 Memphis, TN d. 1965, Memphis, TN
Dewey Phillips: b. 1926, Crump, TN d. 1968, Memphis, TN
Elvis Presley: b. 1935, Tupelo, MS d. 1977, Memphis, TN
Marion Keisker: b. 1917, Memphis, TN d. 1989, Memphis, TN
Sam Phillips: b. 1923, Florence, AL d. 2003, Memphis, TN
Scotty Moore: b. 1931, Gadsden, TN d. 2016, Nashville, TN
As of now, they’ve said all they have to say. The rest of us will just have to make of it what we will. And get along the best we can without them.
Well, more like multiplied to the nth power.
Coming down from my groovy birthday last night, I decided to kick off the Christmas season by re-starting an old tradition I dropped about ten years ago, which is making a point to watch the first sit-down show from the 68 Comeback Special.
That show has been available since way back in the olden times, the days of VHS dominance. I had it copied off of something or other, along with a bootleg of Elvis’ original fifties’ TV appearances, all in order. The combo always made for a nice jolt during the holidays. I still have the tapes, but I basically left off when the VCR became obsolete at my place.
A couple of years back I finally got hold of the DVD box set that has the entire package for the special–the original show, both stand up shows, both sit down shows, a bunch of outtakes. I watched most of it when I bought it (not the outtakes but the rest, or so I had thought) but, if I watched the second sit down it was late and I was obviously groggy because it left no impression whatsoever.
That may have been because a couple of years before that, I bought the CD version of the sit down shows and was a little disappointed that Elvis repeated a lot of the same jokes between versions of the same songs that were sometimes as good as the first show’s but, to my wet, lazy ears, no better.
In the wee hours of this morning, awake at last, I found out how wrong I was.
I was high on the first show by then. It had been so long since I really sat down and watched it straight through it felt like I was seeing it again for the first time and it’s never been less than electrifying–Elvis yet again making up something new or, even harder, finding something entirely new in a set of possibilities the limits of which were supposedly long defined. A generation later, they came up with MTV Unplugged and then they spent another generation trying to catch him without ever coming close.
It was fair, in other words, to pull up the second set with properly lowered expectations.
Being finally awake, the first thing I noticed was that the original show’s one weakness–a tepid audience–was now a strength. The crowd was lively, the women both fully engaged and in on the watch-me-close-now-because-I-still-might-be-up-to-something jokes. And the vocal high points had changed: “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Love Me,” merely excellent in the first show, now surged up to the level set by Baby What You Want Me To Do and One Night (while those numbers themselves dropped back a bit). Lawdy Miss Clawdy wasn’t quite as great the second time around (though still greater than whatever a hundred others, including Lloyd Price in his fantastic original, ever did with it), but that only left room for this little shocker…
…which reinforced everything I always thought was most important about the first show and the “Special” in general.
Elvis was an artist who had little patience for convention, the so-called proprieties. There’s no better evidence anywhere than the way he handles the pre-defined, written down “set list” in both shows. He was bored with it the first time around, scornful of the waste of time it represented. In the second show, he’s downright contemptuous.
Which leads to the second thing I noticed. The butterflies were gone. That’s a double-edged sword. Having butterflies–real butterflies–and controlling them can take you to a special place, maybe the place where you make the greatest music of your life or anyone else’s. There’s nothing quite like the sound of the Lion in the moment he’s overcoming his fear.
But the moment after, which that second show represents, has it’s own sort of glow. It may not burn quite as hot, but it can light up hidden places, shine into new corners, redistribute the shadows. The effect is all over that second show, best rendered by the gut-level raunch of “Santa Claus is Back in Town” segueing perfectly into the bluest “Blue Christmas” ever, which, in turn, reaches a level of delicacy and beauty it could only contain in the doing, the reaching, never in the “thinking” about what it might hold.
That impatience with convention I mentioned was nearly always present throughout Elvis’ life and career. Sometimes it stayed in the margins, a song here or there satisfying the itch. Sometimes it translated as pure eccentricity, maybe mundane (a fried-banana-sandwich-and-pill habit), maybe epic (see his visit to Nixon).
Every few years–in 1954, 1956, 1960, throughout 1968 and 1969, in the studio, on stage, on television, in Vegas–it exploded full force.
But the impulse to remake absolutely everything anew was always there, lurking, from beginning to end, from “That’s All Right” to “Hurt,” and it was never so entirely incendiary, or completely engaged, as here, in these two shows, which I now finally understand are of a piece, and where no propriety, small or large, was left standing.
Now I’m left waiting for the sun to set.
Midnight I need you.
You and a moon to howl at.