ENGINEER ON THE FREEDOM TRAIN (Fats Domino, R.I.P.)

People argue about the origins of Rock ‘n’ Roll and especially about the “first” Rock ‘n’ Roll record.

People have a thousand ways of making themselves stupid.

As music, culture or anything else that marked the moment when the future diverged from the past, Rock ‘n’ Roll–and, hence, Rock and Roll (think Elvis) and Rock (think Beatles)…and Anti-Rock (think Punk) and Post Rock (think Hip Hop)–began the first time Fats Domino’s left hand, a piano, and a recording microphone were in the same room all at once.

We’ve got an exact date for that: December 10, 1949.

We’ve got an exact place for that: Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio on Rampart Street, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Where else?

You can go back a whole lot further than the beginnings of the recording industry–and range much further afield than Rampart Street–and find elements of what became Rock ‘n’ Roll (and then all those other things). You can find them all over the timeline and all over the map.

But the train didn’t leave the station until Antoine Domino recorded “The Fat Man” and unleashed it on a half-suspecting, and perhaps more than half-expecting world.

And once the train left, there was no turning it back. When Elvis pulled a then nearly-forgotten Fats into the press conference kicking off his Vegas comeback and introduced him as “the real King of Rock and Roll” he was acknowledging the enormity of Domino’s influence, but also his status as the biggest R&B act of the formative fifties, the real “revolution.”

As the only fifties’ R&B star, in fact, bigger than Elvis.

Time had already forgotten what Elvis reminded everyone of in 1969 (when most of the press present had to be informed of who, exactly, this Fats Domino really was.)

Time forgot again in the long years since, reminded only on those rare occasions when Fats made national news–a presidential honor here, a Katrina-sized flood in the New Orleans neighborhood he increasingly refused to leave there.

Once his passing–today, at 89–leaves the front page, Time will forget again, even if it never stops patting its foot.

Some of the forgetting was his own doing. I never came across any written or video evidence of Fats promoting himself as the Originator. He left that to the likes of Richard and Chuck and Jerry Lee–and the ever-insidious crit-illuminati who listened to them, rather than to Elvis.  Fats himself was more likely to shrug and say rock ‘n’ roll was just something they had been doing in New Orleans since forever.

Maybe.

But you can listen to “Blueberry Hill” being done by someone as great and visionary as Louis Armstrong and then listen to Fats, and decide that his humble take might be disputable.

You can also listen to a real New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll precursor like “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (perhaps Armstrong’s greatest rhythm record, from all the way back in the twenties) and reach the same conclusion.

Fats Domino was the man who, as singer, songwriter, ivory tickler, drove the Engine that rolled down the track until it couldn’t be stopped. It ended up running straight through the last–and best–cultural explosion “America” will ever know.

Time forgot.

White America forgot.

Black America forgot.

I ain’t forgot.

THE POET BEFORE AND AFTER (Segue of the Day: 10/22/17)

Smokey Robinson: The Solo Anthology (2001)

Smokey Robinson left the Miracles in 1972, by which time he was already fading to the nether reaches of White America’s radar.

He re-emerged seven years later with the release of “Cruisin’,” which went top five on the Pop charts. After that he hit the higher reaches of the pop charts pretty regularly for another decade or so and clinched his place on the short list for things like Kennedy Center honors and Gershwin Awards and various and sundry other well-deserved lifetime achievement recognition which he had earned before he left the Miracles and almost certainly never would have received if he had left it at that.

Black America never forgot. The extent to which they never forgot becomes evident near the end of the first disc of this fine compilation, as the seventies come to a close.

It’s not as though Smokey had exactly taken the decade off. The tracks that clinched his comeback were preceded by records as monumental as “Sweet Harmony” and “Baby That’s Backatcha,” (the closest he had come to breaking pop in the wilderness years). Beyond that, all he had done was name–and define–a radio format (Quiet Storm) and remain one of the great vocalists of the age.

But the sequence that closes the first disc is still a breathtaking blast-off back into the mainstream….it makes one wonder if the reception he got live was finally what gave him the strength to carry on until the world, however briefly, reawakened.

Because when this comes on–recorded and released a year before “Cruisin’,” with his career at its nadir–you can hear who he was to the audience who had hung with him.

To them, he was Elvis.

After which, bang…

bang…

bang…

…He was Everybody’s Poet again.

On the second disc, you can hear him go to war with the Frozen Silence.

He barely holds on. But then, he was Smokey Robinson, and you know the lesson was learned by everyone else: If we, the Suits and Machines, can do this to him, just think what we can do to you.

By the end he’s duetting with Kenny G.

I think by then the nineties had arrived. If you want to listen to all that, you’re on your own.

PROPHETS IN THE SUN (The Mamas & the Papas: Vocalist(s) of the Month 9/17)

“We had so much fun in two years, there was no more fun to be had.”

John Phillips (from A Gathering of Flowers, intro to “California Dreamin'”)

mamasandpapas8

The career of the Mamas & the Papas played out with a kind of classical purity. They embodied the dark and the light of “the Sixties” by living lives that were consummately hedonistic and making music that was almost completely self-referential.

“Don’t worry,” their best music said, and says, ” if you aren’t here yet, you will be.”

Come hither.

“It’s also entirely possible,” that same music said, and says, “that we’ll have moved on by then.”

Nah-na-na-na-nah!

To make it work, they needed to carry off a style of organic arrogance that made the Rolling Stones look like supplicants.

They made it work.

Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.

Funny thing, though.

I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.

Come hither….

And I can’t.

Nah-na-na-na-nah!

Oh sure, there were greater groups. Greater artists. And I have no idea how they seemed in their own time. I was in second grade.

I know how they seem now, from this time: Unfathomable.

And what better description of their time can you get?

Their backstory became famous. In “Creeque Alley” they even made it sound famously typical, which, except for selling millions of records, it maybe was.

But, when I say there were greater artists, I really only mean there were artists whose greatness the Great Narratives imposed by others accepted more readily.

Because whenever I want to cast myself back there–and boy do I–there’s nobody I listen to more, nobody more dangerous, more unsettling, more….thrilling. Their time was the time worth understanding, the time we never walked away from in either dream or (more’s the pity) reality.

And, in memory at least, they are the ones who held it in their hands, more one with that time than literally anyone, one of exactly two sixties’ acts–two any-era acts really–who might have had a deal with the Devil in place.

They were different than the Stones, though. Mick and Keith (well, mostly Mick) just went ahead and made a straight deal. Why not? What did it cost them?

Send Brian Jones to the funeral pyre he was already bound for and tweak John Lennon’s nose now and again and what riches might await!

Who wouldn’t take that deal?

Besides, they were Brits and there was never going to be any more England anyway. Big whoop.

But to have punched a hole in the American boat, to have had your wings melt so close to that sun, ah, now we’re talking subversion–and arrogance–of truly epic proportions.

Come hither, their deal said, and you’ll be the only act alive who can (as the liner notes for one of their many anthologies had it) bridge Rodgers & Hart and Monterey Pop.

Who wouldn’t take that deal?

Well, somebody like me maybe. But that’s different. I was in second grade.

When I was in fourth grade, a couple of years after the Mamas & the Papas broke up (their two years of so much fun there was no more to be had having run out), I took the other deal, the Christian believer deal. I took it, knowing even then, that the biggest part of the deal lay in knowing I’d never be safe from the Devil who makes the deals (he doesn’t bother with the nonbelievers once they make their deal, why would he?) and never have so much fun there’d be no more to be had.

That’s as much as I ever knew about the deal. What my background and choices did prepare me for was understanding singers and their power.

And, oh what singers they were, those four, when they were together in their time. Nobody like them. And it wasn’t like they didn’t know it. Their knowing it is evident in pretty much every photograph they ever sat for.

…and pretty much every line they ever sung.

How they got together was famous even in their own time. They didn’t have to wait for biographers, which was just as well, since there’s never been a good one.

Naomi Cohen reimagined herself as Cass Elliot, then Mama Cass. Then she hung around until the others took her in, or on, or…something.

John Phillips reimagined himself as the type of erstwhile folkie who could end up with Michelle Gilliam, who soon reimagined herself as Mrs. Phillips (“I liked folk music,” she said much, much later, “but what I really liked were folk musicians!”)

Denny Doherty, a touch uncomfortable imagining himself as settling for the title of Mister Cass Elliot, soon reimagined himself as somebody who could have an affair with Mrs. Phillips and was lucky–or was it unlucky?–enough to find her willing to share his illusion, be it ever so briefly.

That was just the personal stuff.

Out of that, the music.

John Phillips said, as often as anyone would listen, that he couldn’t write from anything but experience. So they had experiences. That whole thing about a lifetime’s worth in two years was just an excuse to make hits and money. No experiences, no hits. No hits, no money. The legend only came about because they were so good at living lives so many others wished they could live, and even better at singing about it. They reeled off a dozen radio classics in short order and four albums that stagger about a bit, but never quit yielding surprises when you stop and listen close enough. (A fifth, from a contractually obligated “reunion” gig a few years later, was desultory….there was no more fun to be had.)

Their own rise, their own Zeitgeist, their own fall, their own destruction: all right there in the music that came out of the experiences.

For about twenty-five or thirty perfect months (depending on who’s counting and who’s defining perfect), they lived more dreams than four mere lifetimes could hold.

But in order to get the loot, they had to let the world in on it, and from the release of “Go Where You Wanna Go” (instantly pulled in favor of the just-as-perfect “California Dreamin’,” which somebody had initially made the very weird mistake of imagining as a Barry McGuire record) to having the commercial failure of “Safe In My Garden” assured by their sudden absence from their own lives (no more touring, no more television appearances, no more pretending everything, or even anything, was all right) the world grabbed hold. You could say the world has never let go.

And the arc was perfect.

“Go Where You Wanna Go” can’t be plumbed. Don’t even try. Even if you make a definitive decision on You don’t understand, that a girl like me can/can’t have just one man–that is, whether you want to stick with the lyric sheet (the groupie/muse’s ultimate lament) or what the ear can’t help hearing (Women’s Lib on speed!) at least some of the time–it doesn’t really help, so there’s no need to get all balled up about it. I’ve gone there for you and my sincere advice is to go right on thinking it’s simple. It’s not. It’s not even complicated in any ordinary dictionary sense of the word. More like kaleidoscopic.There’s so much going on that if you stop believing it’s simple or go on pretending that it’s complicated but only in the usual ways, it will eat your mind out from the inside.

It will make it like the good part of the Sixties never even happened except in dreams.

You don’t want that!

Better to just go on a journey. “California Dreamin'” so to speak.

It’s a journey only they can take you on and the magic’s in the music for sure–the mostly sharp writing, the Wrecking Crew time and again measuring up to the instrumental challenge of matching and underpinning the vocals, the formal elements of the bottomless harmonies.

But mostly the magic’s in the elements there is no real vocabulary for, musical or otherwise.

It’s not in the come hither. It’s in the nah-na-na-na-nah.

..Which starts right there in “California Dreamin’.”

I mean, from this distance you can hear the fear in it–and you can hear it overridden, stomped on. Put out to pasture. it was the sound that mattered and it was the sound that did it.

We’re so close, the sound said, that the obvious–and fierce to the point of at least metaphorical bloodletting–competition going on, can be turned on its head. They were so determined to be as one that all the counterpointing in the harmonies, all the “yeah’s” that meant “no” and all the “no’s” that meant “yeah”–or “yeah?”–were as nothing. I mean, just listen to them! And, as Lou Adler would have it (naming their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, easily the best-ever album title, after his first audio/visual impressions of the group) just look at them.

The imagery was perfect, almost as if it had been guided into existence by the unique, unsurpassable blend of their voices.

Or perhaps those voices demanded the acceptance of any old imagery they chose as the new definition of perfection.

The dream of the “Sixties” is, after all, right there.

Today will be what we want it to be.

You know, go where you wanna go.

Even the drugs will be cool. I mean….especially the drugs will be cool…

And, by extension, if today will be just what we want it to be, tomorrow will be even better!

In one fell swoop, the Folkies from Everywhere–Mexico, So-Cal, No-Cal, Nova Scotia, Alexandria (Virginia, but it might as well have been Egypt), the Hungry I and the Village and the Virgin Islands, fusing into one–had re-formatted the Protestant Reformation’s promise of a future Golden Age (itself the rejection of the age-old idea that the Golden Age lay in the past, a rejection that set Europe’s Ice People on a staggering five-hundred-year winning streak of which, as of 1966, “Go Where You Wanna Go” seemed like no more or less than the natural conclusion and justification–yes it meant, and means, that much–your refusal to believe in it doesn’t negate its refusal to acknowledge your silly refusals).

There was, of course, no direction to head from there except Utopia or the Long Fall.

We know–perhaps they even knew–where that fork in the road always leads.

You can have the greatest vocal group in history and just happen to include among your number one of the Rock Era’s two or three finest vocal arrangers who just happens to be an ace songwriter.

You can hook up with a great producer and have unlimited access to the best session players in the world–the only people, perhaps, who could ever hope to match your Utopian vocal and visual presence to sounds worthy of comparison (and, believe me, if you ever get around to listening to what’s going on behind the vocals, you’ll find the Wrecking Crew at the far edge of their own weighty experience–not even for Pet Sounds or Frank Sinatra did they reach further). You can be the only group of any era to have great male and female lead singers, breathtaking close and counterpoint harmonies, the ability to answer male and/or female calls with male and/or female responses, and to have the answers be vocal/lyrical affirmations and/or refusals.

You can hold all that in your hand while you take the coolest drugs, ride around in the fastest cars, sleep in the biggest, spookiest movie star mansions with the partners of your choice under the world’s most beautiful skies.

You can even promise to share it with your listening audience–to transport them into your world, three golden minutes at at time.

And you can deliver over and over again.

But that choice between the Garden you found and the Mean Old World you couldn’t quite leave behind will linger on.

For you and the world.

That deal you made with the Devil will still have a payoff–and a due date.

For you….and the world.

In their case the payoff was in a run of gold records. Hell, they even sold albums like hotcakes, in an age when not many did.

The due date was the same as America’s. And the world’s.

1968.

By the time it was done, they were done.

Then the Mean Old World moved on–or pretended to.

They didn’t.

They gave up and disbanded, the first of the great Utopian Sixties’ groups to do so. (The Byrds never really disbanded–pieces just kept falling off until nothing was left but the name. A very different process, but those were the two paradigms. Break up…or linger on. When the Doors and the Beatles broke up, they were copping the Mamas & Papas’ style. When everybody else lingered on, the pieces just kept falling off and they ended up being worse than nothing.)

That left the question of who got it and who didn’t.

Time has given us the answers, even if nearly everyone is reluctant to admit it.

We need not speak of what Lyndon Johnson, lingering on in the White House, understood. But in the Pop World that existed in the summer of ’68, it turned out that only Elvis Presley, reporting to a series of TV sound stages and with God on his side, and the Mamas & the Papas, cooped up in John and Michelle’s mansion a few miles away, concluding their deal with the Master of this world, understood that we would never walk away from 1968.

From a Pop Political standpoint, the Beatles now sound like clever children, the Stones like mere cynics. Bob Dylan was already retreating into the rusticism his great mid-sixties albums had promised an escape from. The Byrds lay in pieces on the ground and Brian Wilson had already blown his mind.

And, as Pop Prophets went, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were finally only self-destructive.

But at least they made great music.

Never mind the Thinkers. No need to pay even a modicum of attention to them.

Whoever you thought they were, time has already washed them away.

We’re left with who got it. Who looked around at the world of 1968 and said: We’ll never walk away from this.

Well, these people:

Naomi Cohen (32) died of heart failure in a London hotel in 1974.

John Phillips died in 2001 (65) never having emerged from the drug-induced haze produced by having so much fun in two years there was no more to be had.

Denny Doherty (66) died in  Mssissauga, Ontario in 2007, worn down by years of alcoholism.

Michelle Philips will still show up to defend her group’s legacy. She probably hopes you won’t ask too many questions about the incest allegations John’s oldest daughter has made.

It all seems so very long ago.

And so very present.

Today, you might go on the internet and find an essay that describes “Safe In My Garden” as “happy” and “bucolic,” as though it represents an ode to a safe space replete with milk and cookies and teddy bears.

That represents real fear, I think. An understanding–an awareness of the terror abiding within the song’s formal beauty, right down to its meandering close-out, as though the group–and the world–have literally run out of places to wanna go and things to wanna do and whoevers to wanna do it with.

Else oblivion. An almost insanely pure ability to resist the obvious–the persistence in demanding that, contra Philip K. Dick, if you stop believing in reality, it will stop believing in you.

Reality still believes. The Mamas & the Papas are still the ones who recognized and sang about it, half-shouting, half-crooning, straight from the heart of the dying dream.

The world’s on fire, they sang.

We know, because we struck the match. they did not have to sing.

Nah-na-na-na-nah…

Come hither!

 

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ELVIS…

Well, all kinds of things, really, but Neal Umphred has some very specific deeper thoughts about my Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis category (and has done some further digging on at least one of the offenders–well worth reading for that bit alone). He’s also graciously pointed folks back here for, as they say, “the rest of the story” so we’re in full one-hand-washes-the-other mode!

I’ve always thought the underestimated Elvis Neal and I have both gone on about at length was rooted in the misunderstood Elvis and that the misunderstanding was largely willful ignorance. So, as a small bonus, I present a reminder of Elvis’ most misunderstood side–the Pentecostal Christian part which every believer knows is the largest part (with the additional note that the rise-to-the-mountaintop in the final chorus is the first full flowering of Elvis’ mature ballad style, not to mention his mature arranging style, both of which, perhaps not coincidentally, have also remained deeply, and willfully, misunderstood):

 

TO “AMERICA” (A LATE NIGHT DEDICATION….ON SATURDAY MORNING AT THE END OF ELVIS WEEK)

Elvis week is closing down. So far as I know there haven’t yet been any efforts to remove or deface any of these….


Since the Confederate Statue removal “movement” has now extended, in short order, to campaigns of removal/defacement against Vladimir Lenin (in Seattle–hilariously, the statue may be preserved because it’s on private property and it’s only the State that wants it removed), Walt Disney (at Disneyland, where else?), Joan of Arc (in New Orleans) and, courtesy of the ever-crafty Al Sharpton, Thomas Jefferson (in Washington D.C.–Reverend Al says we should “defund it,” which is code for having law enforcement stand down when the mob shows up to topple it), I think it’s safe to assume Elvis’ monuments are now living on borrowed time.

I will, however, be interested in the reaction of all the Good Liberals who almost universally celebrated the Rising of the Masses in Durham this week when it turns to someone they aren’t entirely sure they’re supposed to hate. (Warning–if you watch this all the way through, you’re going to witness some Liberated People having the best sex of their lives. They’re as awkward as you’d expect, so it’s not a pretty sight, and, if you are tempted to sorrow on their behalf, remember the only way they’ll ever top it is to substitute people for statues).

Don’t worry, though, when the Glorious Future arrives, I’m sure they’ll only stomp the heads of the Bad People….and in Self Defense….Isn’t that the way it always happens?

I mean, you can tell they’re rational.

Look, monuments to Elvis, like those to Washington, Jefferson and their ilk will not survive the coming deluge. The only question now is the order of disappearance.

So here’s to you America…Need to get to it before irony dies along with everything else, so take it Gene:

 

LINKS, LINKS, LINKS…

I don’t do this often (maybe I should) but serendipity demands it this week:

Please read Sheila O’Malley on Elvis the Actor….

Neal Umphred on Elvis at the Edge of Reality….

And David Cantwell, then and now, on Glen Campbell….

Believe me, you’ll be a better person.

And, for whatever reason, this is the Elvis song that’s been running through my head all week, so you might as well do yourself a favor and share some space in my head…

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 12: “If I Can Dream”)

“If I Can Dream”
1968
Artist: Elvis Presley
Writer: Walter Edward Brown

The story behind “If I Can Dream” is well known.

Elvis Presley was filming a Christmas special in the summer of 1968 and the project had taken on a life of its own. Conceived as a traditional holiday special where Elvis would croon seasonal standards and cavort with the usual assortment of anonymous lovelies, much in the spirit of his increasingly lifeless movie career, it had turned out….unexpectedly.

Somehow, in the hands of producer Steve Binder, the genius behind The T.A.M.I. Show and much of the best rock and roll performance television footage of the era, with increasing support from Elvis himself, it had become something very different. When it aired late in ’68, the special would revive Elvis’ career and vault straight into the pantheon of his career-defining moments.

Having lost control of every other aspect of the project, Elvis’ infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, tried to put his foot down on the only thing left hanging loose–the show’s ending.

The Colonel wanted–insisted upon by most accounts–a Christmas carol.

Binder, aware of the world on fire around them, thought Elvis needed something more.

Walter Earl Brown, not an especially inspired songwriter before or after this moment, was commissioned to come up with something. This time, he was inspired. The lyrics and melody were hardly works of genius, but they were solid, thoughtful, inspirational, plenty strong enough to feed Elvis’ growing belief in himself, the project, and the possibilities the special had begun to represent.

It was a song to make him relevant again.

He must have known it at once. It summoned up Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington in 1963 and fed into Bobby Kennedy’s I dream things that never were and ask why not? moment. It was a natural sequel to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” itself a self-conscious response to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” all of which might have been unofficial sequels to Elvis’ own 1957 reading of Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” which dated from the 1930’s and had been composed in response to the war clouds then gathering over Europe.

If a song that evoked all that didn’t bring him up to date, nothing would.

One could argue that the rest of the special might have done the trick anyway.

It had its share of other iconic moments.

There was Elvis, opening the show in black leather, growling If you’re looking for trouble, you came to the right place, as though the space between 1956 and 1968 had collapsed in on itself.

There he was, in front of a wall of dancers paying homage to himself in Jailhouse Rock.

There he was, being a swingin’ little guitar man, in a song he managed to make sound autobiographical even if he had never come anywhere near picking out songs in Panama City bars.

And, most of all, there he was, working up a sweat with an informal, impromptu band, inventing the Unplugged format that wouldn’t take full flight until a decade after his death.

But there’s no evidence, then or now, that any of that would have put him back in the one place he could no longer afford not to be–high on the record charts.

Whether he heard “If I Can Dream” as the answer to that problem we’ll never know. It’s one of the many questions no one thought to ask, and part of the reason Elvis the Man remains an enigma.Another reason the Man remains an enigma is because the crit-illuminati have never quite got a handle on the Artist.

“If I Can Dream” is almost always described–when it is “described” at all (as opposed to being referred to or glopped upon)–as a song of uplift, a natural fit for Elvis the gospel singer.

Which isn’t even half-true.

The song is a song of uplift.

Elvis’ interpretation of the song is anything but.

He no more knew how to walk a straight line through “If I Can Dream” than he had known how to move like anybody else when he hit a television stage for the first time on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show in the early months of ’56. The key to Elvis at his best, from first to last, was that he looked at a confined conjunction of time and/or space–a TV stage, a recording studio, the length of a record, the meaning available in a lyric–and imagined it differently than anyone else did.

It was one reason Sam Phillips took such a long time getting a handle on him (a year or more, lest we forget–not Phillips’ usual modus operandi). And one reason Elvis could never take anything for granted, never really be at ease, no matter how far he rose, how much material success he achieved.

Most Big Thinkers have concluded it was the poverty–the fear it could return at any moment–that kept Elvis insecure, on edge, in need of a constant fix.

There’s not much to support that. From everything I’ve read, Elvis, once he made it, was generally contemptuous of the idea he wouldn’t keep making it.

The aw-shucks ritual, where he wondered aloud in front of microphones whether it would all be waiting for him if he had to go away for a while (like to the Army), was nothing more than that. Ritual. Self-deprecation. Recognizable to most of his core audience as a “Gee-I’m-no-better-than-the-next-fella routine,” delivered Southern American style.

I don’t think too many people who didn’t write journalism for a living really bought it.

What he clearly did worry about was whether he would fit into the next space–the next hole in the time-space continuum that he, and he alone, had opened up in American culture, but which, once he had punched through, could not stop expanding, or perhaps simply running way from the latest, fastest version of itself.

How many times can a man re-invent himself, after all…and still be a man?

Same for countries, as Elvis, too, must have known by the time he was deciding exactly what to do with the show-closer that had been handed him a day after Brown was commissioned to write it.

There were plenty of roads left to travel when Elvis confronted “If I Can Dream” for the first time, but he didn’t need to be any Master of Prescience to know that this turning point was special–that it wasn’t just another fork in the road.

So, faced with a song that fit squarely into existing traditions–he could take it as uplift (like King’s speech), as cautionary tale (like Dylan), as a means to look beyond the stars (like Kennedy), as the running of a secret tide that won’t be turned back (like Cooke) or even as an excuse to give in to the moment and re-orient the Protestant Reformation, with its promise of moving man’s Golden Age (which America now represented full-blown), from the past to the future, and simply realizing it in the Present–what was a poor boy to do?

The song would have fit any of those other interpretations. And the relative few who have taken it on since have chosen one of those conventional paths.

They’ve had to.

They weren’t Elvis.

Elvis, unlike anyone else, had a choice.

Standing square in the middle of 1968, the most volatile year in American history since the end of the Civil War, standing there, according to many, as a curiously moribund icon, waiting for his wax statue, with his place as a permanently employed Entertainer set out neatly and securely before him, he did what he always did at a crisis….the unexpected.

He seized the song by the throat.

And he didn’t let it go.

You could listen a long time and miss just how he went about it–or even become fully aware that he had done it at all.

It took me until the conclusion of the fine Elvis mini-series in 2005, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, before I heard it myself.

But I first heard it here…

…which is where I first heard a lot of Elvis. (Bought it for my mother for the Christmas of 1978. She liked it, liked his gospel better, let me keep it in my room, where the only working record player was and where she could hear it anyway. I took requests, but she didn’t place many. I figure it was because I played it often enough without prompting…but I’ll leave all that for my anniversary re-post, come tomorrow. Anyway, when I left for college in the fall of 1980, I took it with me. No sense leaving it in a house with no record player. I told her if she ever got one she could have it back. She smiled and said she knew. We both knew she would never ask for it back, even in the unlikely event she bought a record player.)

It was a four album set–my first box.

“If I Can Dream” sat at the top of the last side. Near as I’ve been able to tell, the version was the one heard here.

By the time he cut this, or any version, of the song, Elvis had already made his famous statement that he would never record another song he didn’t believe in (a clear shot at the movie soundtracks, the worst of which contained the only songs he’d ever not believed in, though, to be fair, by 1968, there has been a lot of them–enough, at any rate, to make a man doubt even the most fundamental truths about himself).

There was little more soundtrack material in his future and, by his lights and mine, I think he kept his promise, even in the face of constant reassurance from rock’s burgeoning crit-illuminati that they would love him again if he’d only forget what he–or his fans–wanted and live up to their dreams instead.

All that might have taken more courage than we know. Perhaps even more than he knew when the made the promise, not to himself, but out loud, to an audience of insiders he must have hoped would hold his feet to the fire–or at least allow him to continually remind himself that someone, at least, was watching, perhaps even waiting for him to quit his own promise.

Who knows what it was really like, in Elvis World?

If I could have his ear for a moment now, though, the question I’d ask, is whether, by the time he made his soon to be famous promise, he already knew what he was going to do with the song?

Because it was not a song that invited the interpretation he gave it.

It was not a song that was asking to be grabbed by the throat.

Commitment would have been enough.

Elvis was a non-pareil vocalist. He could always do things no one else could do, form connections no one else could form, build bridges no one else could build.

“If I Can Dream” was a good enough song, he could have taken the easy way out–any of several forms of reassurance or what’s-this-life-really-all-about wistfulness that the lyric made available and the melody reinforced. He could have done any of the things such songs are almost inherently meant to do, and got away with it.

We’d be none the wiser.

It might still have been a hit.

I’d almost bet it would have been a bigger hit–#1 maybe, instead of #12.

If he had chosen not to invest it with a particular kind of anger, the only person who would have known, would have been him. We don’t have to speculate whether anyone else would have found that quality in it, because, even with his example before them, no one else has.

If he had chosen not to sing, in any version you hear, a line like the answer’s gonna come, somehow, not exactly with a sneer in his voice, but with no hint of a plea either, would we know what we had missed?

If it’s possible now to hear it rather as a demand, delivered in the voice of a man who is tired of his life’s worth of New Testament style asking and has replaced himself, instead, with an Old Testament Prophet demanding–knowing full well that the change cannot be walked away from, either by him or any audience he might command, then or in the future–then it’s only because he made it possible.

You can still choose not to hear it.

No one, not even Elvis, can make that sort of demand and expect it to be heard by all. It is enormous after all, the very idea of it.

And Elvis was the only man left standing in American life by the summer of 1968 who could have made it.

Left as a dream–as the series of questions contained within the lyrics–and delivered with the tried and true delicacy of “Crying in the Chapel,” the only Top Ten hit he’d had since the Beatles arrived in America (and that recorded years before, just after he came out of the Army), it might have been that natural #1 I mentioned. Same for the careful phrasing and straightforward empathy of “In the Ghetto” which would return him to the Top Ten the following year.

But it wouldn’t have been true.

Not coming from the heart of 1968 it wouldn’t.

Coming from that place–and coming from Elvis Presley–only Old Testament anger would do.

It was his dream after all, that was falling apart at his feet in 1968.

Oh, yes, others had dreamed it, too. By the millions.

And better men than Elvis had called upon the dream in the years since. We know they were better men because so many have told us so. It isn’t hard, in America, to be a better man than a Tennessee hillbilly.

Only he had made the dream common, though. Only he had brought it within what seemed such easy reach when he walked into those recording studios, or strode those television stages, in the mid-fifties, and made it sound like everything fit. Made it sound like rhythm and blues and country were really one thing (why, hadn’t blacks and hillbillies always gotten along?…playing to teenagers no less?….well, sure they had!). And not only that, but Tin Pan Alley and gut-bucket gospel and white church music and light opera and show tunes and “Old Shep” could be thrown right in there, too.

Just like everybody had suspected, right along.

Why once a Tennessee hillbilly showed it could be done, wasn’t it obvious that it was an idea whose time had simply come?

On the surface, there was never any need to acknowledge Elvis, the teenage truck driver from Nowheresville, had seen past everyone else, even the black ministers fueling the Civil Rights movement.

Underneath, everyone knew.

Underneath, It was like John Lennon said.

“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Like a lot of what John Lennon said, it was utter nonsense on its face. Also, like more than a little of what John Lennon said, it was true without being anyway factual.

Underneath, without anyone needing to do a white paper on it, Elvis–and no one else–had called forth the most dangerous and exhilarating parts of the good old, American Dream.

What if our differences could be laid aside for a bit?

What if we could….dance together?

Just once?

What then?

Standing in Los Angeles, in the burning hot summer of 1968, Elvis could not have missed knowing what everyone else knew–that the world he had dreamed into being, the one where we might find out what was possible once it was proven we could dance together, the world that transcended the politics which had put boundaries around everyone from John Adams to Martin Luther King, was crashing down around him, accompanied by a mocking chorus of history’s oldest rhyme–mayhem.

And he had just been handed a song called “If I Can Dream.”

There was a choice to be made and he made it.

He sang it angry–he sang it in the voice of a man who was pleading for everyone around him to stop and take a look at what they were throwing away.

And he sang it knowing no one would listen. Knowing that even his own future self wouldn’t listen–because his own self wouldn’t be able to bear it any more than anyone else could bear it.

He closed those endless concerts that stretched on and on into what remained of his future with “The Impossible Dream” or “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” If he’d tried that with “If I Can Dream”–and put into it what he put into it the one time he did close with it–he’d have been dead in a year.

Dead because he’d have known by then what we all know now–that the Dream had died on his watch. That we would never walk away from 1968 That he was, after all, a prophet not for this time, but for another time–the one that will be born out of what we’re watching die around us now.

One that will be worthy of an ice cream suit, covering a man who still moved like nobody else.

….If we’re lucky.

(NOTE: Tomorrow, on the 40th anniversary of Elvis’ death, I’ll repost the lengthy reminiscence of that day which I originally posted here on the 35th anniversary.)