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.)