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.)

 

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE SIXTIES

At least according to Terry Teachout, this idea has been going around. Terry’s own list is here (it’s a pretty good one). The idea is to take each year of your life and list your favorite film from that year.

For me, “favorite” is a simple concept. It’s whatever resides at the matrix of what I like the best and what has meant the most. I tend to emphasize this quality over what I think is “great” anyway (though, unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap…we tend to elevate what we like, though I also like to believe that what we like can elevate us).

I want to drill down a bit, though (including links to those films I’ve written about at length and mentioning the close competition, when it exists), so I’m going to post these by decade…starting conveniently enough with the decade I was born in and am most fascinated by…

1960 The Apartment (Billy Wilder) (over Swiss Family Robinson and Psycho)

1961 The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson…and, for once, truth in advertising)

1962 The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn) (over The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, Cape Fear, The Manchurian Candidate…I could go on. Easily the strongest film year of my lifetime.)

1963 Charade (Stanley Donen)  (over The Great Escape and Hud)

1964 The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve Binder) (Actually a strong year, but….no competition)

1965 A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick) (over That Darn Cat and The Truth About Spring)

1966 Gambit  (Ronald Neame) (over A Man For All Seasons and El Dorado)

1967 The Graduate (Mike Nichols) (over Wait Until Dark, Hombre, Don’t Look Back and the Soviet version of War and Peace)

1968 Monterrey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker) (over Where Eagles Dare…Interesting decision if I took one of those liberties I’m prone to take and considered Elvis’ Comeback Special a film. Glad I don’t have to make it.)

1969 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler) (over Support Your Local Sheriff...it was a very strange year.)

Overall, a strong decade. As will be the 70s. After that….dicey.

 

 

 

 

 

HAVING FUN WITH THE CELLULOID SIXTIES

TAMITICKET

Sheila O’Malley recently participated in–and linked to–an interesting poll of best/favorite movies from the 60’s that posted here.

I don’t do a lot of these, but this concept was pretty interesting, mostly because, well, the sixties are always interesting. Besides I haven’t done any autobiography for a while (and that’s what such lists always amount to) and this was something I could get my head around. There weren’t so many contenders it made my head swim (as would be the case in the forties or fifties or probably even the thirties). And there were enough that I cared about to make it worthwhile (as would not be the case from the eighties onward). The poll (which I recommend as interesting reading) had everyone put their choices in order, so I’ll do the same…albeit with commentary:

1) The T.A.M.I. Show (1964–Steve Binder): Greater in every conceivable way than A Hard Day’s Night, which is pretty great on its own. Binder, who directed Elvis’ comeback special among many other things, should absolutely be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This would be a huge cultural touchstone if only for preserving a visual record of James Brown’s stage show, but it’s much, much more than that.

2) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962–John Ford): The source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “You don’t own me,” “Print the legend,” and “Aren’t you proud?” As far as I can tell, everyone who wasn’t aiming for Lesley Gore’s demo pile mistook it for a film about the past.

3) The Miracle Worker (1962–Arthur Penn): For reasons I discussed at length here.

4) Medium Cool (1968)–Haskell Wexler): “The whole world is watching” side of the sixties rendered with harrowing immediacy.

5) The Graduate (1968)–Mike Nichols): “Plastics!” Funny line, sure, but it also feels more like the future we live in than anything else anyone was predicting at the time.

6) Swiss Family Robinson (1960–Ken Annakin): Laugh if you want. But Annakin spent the fifties honing a laughs-n-thrills approach that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made fortunes and legends from a generation later. They’ve given him plenty of kudos and paid plenty of homage (including a lot of direct scene steals and, of course, Darth Vader’s real name). All to the good, but one thing they didn’t ever do was beat his time. (Besides which, Janet Munro was my first movie love, so leaving it off would obviously make me a churl and a cad.)

7) The Apartment (1960–Billy Wilder): I never quite bought that Shirley McClaine’s character would fall for a creep like Fred McMurray hard enough to attempt suicide over him, but, if it’s not quite perfect, this is still the only truly poignant romantic comedy outside of the truly perfect Roman Holiday.

8) The Truth About Spring (1965–Richard Thorpe): There are those who can contemplate a list of what’s best about the sixties without including a Hayley Mills movie. I’m the wrong age and temperament to be one of them, so I’ll just add that if J. Lee Thompson had been able to snag her for Cape Fear–a Divine Intention that was thwarted by a conflict between God’s schedule and Hollywood’s (which was resolved, as these things so often are, in favor of the latter), stung him (Thompson, though probably God as well) for the rest of his life, and, of course, greatly hastened the decline of Western Civilization–it would be on this list instead, and no worse than fourth. (That said: “Tommy…if you shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!” still slays me.)

9) Monterey Pop (1968–D.A. Pennebaker): The pinnacle of what The T.A.M.I. Show promised–and, with the soon-to-follow deaths of its most dynamic performers (Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin–the latter two already operating at a pace that any rational person watching this at the time must have known could not possibly be sustained)–the first step in the long fall from the mountain-top of the sixties’ dream.

10) Age of Consent (1969–Michael Powell): Features a very young Helen Mirren running around some South Sea paradise with little to no clothing on. Whether God or Satan was responsible for this particular aesthetic choice (which, as far as I’m concerned redeems the sixties all by itself) is obviously a matter for each person to decide in consultation with their own conscience. However, just “artistically” speaking, the beauty is that, either way, that single aspect surely redeems any and all shortcomings–real or imagined–for which this film (or this list!) might ever conceivably be held otherwise responsible.

60sAGEOFCONSENT

 

Honorable Mentions That At Least Crossed My Mind (In No Particular Order): Gambit (1966–Ronald Neame); El Dorado (1967–Howard Hawks); Charade (1963–Stanley Donen); Psycho (1960–Alfred Hitchcock); Ride the High Country (1962–Sam Peckinpah); Cape Fear (1962–J. Lee Thompson); The Great Escape (1963–John Sturges); The Guns of Navarone (1961–J. Lee Thompson); The Best Man (1964–Franklin Shaffner); Don’t Look Back (1967–D.A. Pennebaker); The Americanization of Emily (1964–Arthur Hiller): Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964–Stanley Kubrick); The L-Shaped Room (1962–Bryan Forbes)

LET THE GLORIOUS ART OF NITPICKING BEGIN….

They Shoot Pictures Don’t They has released their latest roundup of the 1,000 greatest movies as judged by ALL of the various polls taken around the world. This is by far the most comprehensive effort I know of but, alas, grave injustices still abound, so I’ve made a short list of six films I really don’t think any list of a thousand should be without (PLEASE NOTE: My complaint is not with TSPDT–they just collect the data, an invaluable and no doubt monumental task. The fault, as usual, is with the professionals who overlook the obvious when compiling their lists!):

1) The T.A.M.I. Show (1964, Steve Binder) I never trust any Top Ten that doesn’t include this, the greatest concert film ever made by miles and miles. Hence, I’ve never trusted any Top Ten that has ever been compiled by a professional critics’ or directors’ poll. You can imagine what I think about it being left out of the top freaking thousand!

2) The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn) Despite Penn’s considerable presence, an actor’s movie and therefore (at least unofficially) ineligible. That’s all I can figure. And, hey, I know some exceptions are still sneaking on there. But don’t worry. The way things are trending, they should have A Streetcar Named Desire booted from this list within a year or two. I think we all know the computers will win in the end.

3) 3:10 to Yuma (1957, Delmer Daves) Speaking of actor’s movies…

4) The Long Good Friday (1980, John MacKenzie) The greatest gangster picture ever made, with two of the finest performances (by Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren) ever caught on film–and, incidentally, that’s what they feel like…caught. It kicks the original Scarface and White Heat to pieces at the gut level, and beats the first two Godfather films rather handily as Shakespearan drama. Had it been made in America, where gangster classics are supposed to be made–and helmed by a pantheon director, the way classics of every sort are supposed to be–it would be resting comfortably in the top fifty at the very least.

5) WInchester ’73 (1950, Anthony Mann) Mann, who is certainly one of the dozen or so greatest American directors, and probably one of the top half-dozen, should have at least seven or eight on this list–most in the upper half. Instead, he barely scraped onto the list twice, and very near the bottom. Weird. Somebody should tell the world’s film critics that John Ford and Howard Hawks, incomparable and unassailable as they are, weren’t the only people in Golden Age Hollywood who made truly great films that happened to be westerns.

6) The Americanization of Emily (1966, Arthur Hiller) A writer’s movie (Paddy Chayevsky as it happens). They tend to get even less credit than actors. I mean, when you can’t make it onto a list of a thousand compiled almost entirely by liberals with a pitch-black anti-war comedy made just as the Vietnam War got going hot and heavy, (and with James Garner, Julie Andrews, James Coburn and especially Melvyn Douglas all at their very, very best) it really does make me wonder what this world is coming to!

Please do click through to the list and feel free to add your own comments here. TSPDT does a great job of breaking their lists down every which a way so it’s a feast for film buffs of every stripe.

And, oh, just one final thought:

William Wellman, William Wellman, wherefore art thou William Wellman?

I mean….not one? On a list of thousand? Seriously?

Whoo boy.

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN….(Volume Five)

“In the Ghetto”
1969
Artist: Elvis Presley
Writer: Mac Davis

Elvis Presley “In the Ghetto” (Studio track with video)

“‘In The Ghetto’ was not without its own troubles….the song’s political content (gentle, almost vapid by today’s standards) unnerved some of Elvis’ friends…” (Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams. Source: Liner notes to From Elvis In Memphis Legacy Edition, 2009)

Elvis Presley’s monumental comeback in the late sixties has been parsed a thousand ways. He was restless after a decade of lifeless movies and dead-end soundtracks. He realized his career was at stake and decided he better get off his lazy hillbilly bottom and crank it up one more time. The Colonel let him out of the Zombie Pad on a twenty-four month pass. He had a cold. Steve Binder (the ’68 Comeback Special’s admittedly wonderful producer) caught him in a good mood and used some clever voodoo to get him interested again.

The moon was about to be in the seventh house and Jupiter was about to align with Mars.

I’m paraphrasing, of course.

There’s no point in digging up the exact quotes. They’re too familiar to those who know the Elvis Narrative to be worth repeating and too lazy and haphazard to be worth dignifying for those who don’t.

The basic drill is the usual one: If Elvis did anything so transcendent that it can’t quite be denied, we must rest eternally reassured that he was the last person responsible for it.

The way “In the Ghetto” has been generally handled–as a subset of the 1969 Memphis sessions–is typical.

It’s ignored. Or it’s sidelined. It’s good but it’s not….important! Maybe as a piece of the overall moment, but not for itself.

It’s “gentle, almost vapid by today’s standards,” and Elvis really, really had to be talked into recording it even so. (Read: “Whatever he meant by it, don’t worry, because he didn’t really mean anything.”)

I guess I’ll have to say I beg to differ.

Recording and releasing “In the Ghetto” in the early months of 1969 may have constituted the single most important series of decisions in Elvis Presley’s career.

I know nearly everyone who is old enough to remember that particular year has been trying to embalm it ever since–it’s a dread, apocalyptic moment for some, a moment-when-all-things-seemed-possible happy pill for others and one state of denial is just about as thorough (and delusional) as another.

It’s useful, I think, to try and view it from Elvis’ perspective.

I know this requires taking liberties. Elvis probably held his views about art, politics and the world in general closer to the vest than any artist in his century who had both a legitimate claim to the last level of greatness and a fair opportunity to share what he thought about it all if he so desired.

So we don’t know much of what he was really feeling–even quotes we can trust to be accurate carry little real weight or context because Elvis was a lot of things to a lot of people, including the people closest to him and trying to guess who really “got” him at any given moment is a fool’s errand.

But at least some things can be rationally assumed. Perhaps the most important is that, circa the late sixties, Elvis had kept himself in the game–something that ought to give pause to those who off-handedly dismiss his movie career.

The brief revivalist period of the early seventies, when Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson could have big hits (well, one apiece anyway), was still several years off–and would owe a great deal to Elvis’ own resurgence in any case.

The Everly Brothers had released Roots, one of the great albums of the century, the year before and got exactly nowhere with it.

Ray Charles was becoming best known as a regular guest on TV variety shows, and was already three and half years removed from the last top ten Pop hit of his career.

Bo Diddley was twenty years away from the Nike commercials that would give his nightly performance fee its one remaining bump.

Jerry Lee Lewis was a rather safe, successful mainstream country act and, despite his own far-reaching network variety show, so was Johnny Cash.
Brenda Lee wasn’t even that (though she would have a comeback on the country charts in the seventies).

Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke were dead.

James Brown was still relevant, but he had only really broken through to the commercial mainstream in the mid-sixties and wouldn’t really stay there much longer.

Within a few months, on the occasion of his epic Vegas opening, Elvis himself would grab fellow headliner Fats Domino–by then even further marginalized than most of the others–and introduce him as “the real king of rock and roll,” a pronouncement that was met with bafflement by the press corps at the time and has, along with dozens of other similarly expressed sentiments, been dropped down the memory hole by those bent on propagating a certain narrative ever since.

Compared to every single one of his important contemporaries, then, Elvis was in decent shape. He was on the sidelines while they were in the cheap seats on their way to being ushered quickly and quietly to the parking lot.

Compared to the giants who had come to the fore as his contemporaries faded, however, he was nowhere. They were engaged, he was distant. They were speaking to the times, he was a thing of the past. They were making the music “relevant,” he was the symbol of a phase that had to be passed through (rock ’n’ roll, the fifties) before the really important stuff (Rock, The Sixties) could happen.

They were the Beatles and the Stones and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin and the Who and the Doors.

He was the ghost they–or at least the times–had transcended and kicked to the curb.

Then, in the summer of 1968–using a TV Christmas special that would air in December as his medium–he had “re-engaged” and voila! all that was swept away.

* * * *

Any serious student of Elvis Presley’s music knows this is a grossly oversimplified narrative. Elvis’ music career had been running on dual tracks ever since he left the army in the spring of 1960. This isn’t the place to discuss that journey in depth, but suffice it to say, the music he made in the Comeback Special and the subsequent Memphis sessions that produced “In the Ghetto” did not spring from a vacuum (I would recommend a close listen to “It Hurts Me,” from 1964 and his gospel sessions from 1966 as easy proof, though that still only scratches the surface).

Still, there was one place Elvis certainly had not gone and that was into the arena of topical protest music.

Again, it’s easy to oversimplify this. The notion of truly popular, overtly political “protest” music–not the working-man blues variety that was a staple of virtually every popular genre but rather issue-specific material that not only lamented injustice but suggested real possibilities of challenge and change–had been around forever. But it had actually only come to fruition in the folk movement of the early sixties (mostly with the dual emergence of the much-lauded songwriting of Bob Dylan and the seldom fully appreciated singing of Peter, Paul and Mary which actually put it on the charts). Great as some of that music was, by the late sixties topical music had more or less broken down into a handful of basic categories: pleas for universal tolerance and brotherhood, depictions of social unrest or injustice (usually racial), war protest.

What was seldom addressed–and what remained essentially unspoken on records meant to compete for high positions on the Pop charts–was any condemnation of the kind of cruel, cyclical, working-class poverty in which Elvis himself had been born and raised.

And, since there was no role model for this kind of protest record having any kind of commercial success, it’s worth taking an extra-hard look at just where Elvis’ career stood at the moment it showed up on his radar.

* * * *

Yes, the Comeback Special had been a triumph. Yes, the TV show’s first single “If I Can Dream,” had been a big (though not monumental) hit–reaching #12 on the Pop chart.

But the second release, “Memories,” got only to #35, not much better than average for Presley’s post 1965 singles.

Hence, the first single release from the Memphis Sessions was a huge decision.

If it didn’t meet or exceed the success of “If I Can Dream,” then the momentum built by the critical and ratings success of the television special would be effectively broken–Elvis would run the very real risk of finding himself back on the sidelines for good.

Looking back now, it’s very easy to see the remaining arc of Presley’s career from 1968 onward as a series of successful assaults on one citadel after another: Christmas special-dom, the Top 40, Vegas, Madison Square Garden, Global-concert-via-satellite and, finally, the Pearly Gates all falling down like dominoes.

Where it all might have gone if the first single from the Memphis Sessions had flopped–or even just done moderately well–is pure speculation.

My own best guess is that it probably would have gone just about the same.
But the important thing to remember is that Elvis could not make any such safe assumptions.

For all he knew–even with a string of what, with benefit of hindsight, we know were surefire hits and permanent radio staples in the can (“Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” “Kentucky Rain”)–that first release might make or break his future.

Was he going to get back in the game or be unceremoniously benched? Was he going to regain the throne, or spend the rest of his career swapping variety show bills with Ray Charles or “back to the country” tours with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash?

Those possibilities may seem absurd now, but they must have seemed very real to Elvis in the early months of 1969 when he made–or at least approved–the decision to release “In the Ghetto” as his next single.

* * * *

Before I talk about the record itself, I’ll cast my own memory back.

I don’t remember a whole lot specifically about 1969. I was eight years old. But I remember the period.

I remember the general atmosphere in the working class South throughout the late sixties and early seventies.

I remember school bus rides and backyard football games and lunchroom breaks where the boys’ talk occasionally got around to “who your parents voted for” in both the ‘68 and ‘72 elections.

I’m not saying it was an everyday occurrence. Hardly. But once, maybe twice a year, something or other brought it up.

So I can tell you this: I was always in the small minority of those who had to admit his parents voted for Nixon.

And what this mostly met with was not so much hostility or scorn as puzzlement.

The ten or twelve or fourteen-year-old boys I went to school with and played pick-up football with in seventy and seventy-one and seventy-two didn’t especially have anything against Richard Nixon. They had heard he wasn’t so bad. But they really didn’t understand why any white person would vote for anybody but George Wallace.

I mean, didn’t my parents know that Wallace had promised to send all the black people back to Africa? (And no, they didn’t say “black people.”)

Truth be told, I have no idea to this day what George Wallace promised in the ’68 or ’72 campaigns. It’s just one of those things I never got around to looking up.

But I know what the kids I rode buses with and ate lunch with and kicked the football around with thought he had promised. And, since I know how right they thought George Wallace was to make this promise, I know how right their parents thought he was, too.

So I also know this: For the most famous Southern white man since George Washington, to pull “In the Ghetto” out of his demo-pile in 1969 and spend twenty-three takes getting it right (more than twice his usual–for comparison with a couple of other big hits from the same sessions: “Suspicious Minds” took eight takes, “Kentucky Rain” ten) and then approve its release as a potential make-or-break single at one of the most crucial points of his career, meant something.

What it meant to history and the world at large, can be debated eternally.
But for what it meant to Elvis, I think all we need to do is listen.

* * * *

Backing up the statement at the top of this post, Elvis’ most assiduous biographer, Peter Guralnick, has called Mac Davis’ lyric “abstract, almost fairy tale” in form, while also suggesting that concerns with “the inevitable consequences of ghetto poverty and societal indifference and pleading for compassion for black youth…may well seem mild today.”

Actually such sentiments are more like nonexistent today and Davis’ lyric would be better described as trenchant and prophetic.

“Take a look at you and me,” Elvis sang in 1969, “are we too blind to see? Or do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?”

You couldn’t come up with a better description of America over the last forty years than a nation learning to turn its head and look the other way….and not just at poverty.

The Chicago streets that Davis–like Elvis, a southern white man raised breathing Pentecostal air–described so “mildly,” “abstractly,” “almost vapidly” are presently sufficiently awash in murder that it’s actually news.

And, hey, given the normal All-American murder rates that’s saying something.

But Elvis’ version of “In the Ghetto” doesn’t draw its last measure of power from its relevance to the headlines of 1969 or yesterday.

It still rings deep and true because, for all the master touches of what were then pop fundamentals–the quiet shine of the acoustic guitar, the soulful female backing chorus, the ominous, martial drumming at the close–Presley’s vocal cuts too close to the bone to be hemmed in by the hit-making standards of any particular period, even one as great at the late-sixties.

Let’s be honest. Protest lyrics date, even great ones like “In the Ghetto.” They date even if the underlying message does not.

Production methods date.

So do instrumental styles and fashions in soulful female choruses.

The only thing that doesn’t date are the great voices.

For all its broad, political portent, “In the Ghetto” was probably as personal for Elvis Presley as a confessional. Think what it meant for the boy, born in poverty himself, who had been walked to school by his own mother until he was a teenager, to contemplate a woman so destitute she can only dread the arrival of “another hungry mouth to feed,” and you can readily understand Elvis’ almost impossible commitment to nuance–his determination to make the connection complete.

Nowhere else did he draw on his always carefully parceled “southernisms” more adroitly or effectively. Over and over, for this performance as for virtually no other, he used the common language of blacks and working-class white southerners–“Mum-ma” for “mama,” the very slightly elongated “i” in chi-ld, the hard accent on the second syllable in “get-toe”–to draw the scenes of a northern ghetto closer and closer to himself and, by extension, to an audience–a very specific part of his audience–which certainly included at least some of the parents of the boys who thought it was weird my parents didn’t vote for George Wallace.

In a time and place where the word “ghetto” had long since been appropriated from its European origins and given the singular meaning it still retains for middle-class Americans–a place where poor blacks are kept separate from everybody else by any means necessary–the boy from the Tupelo shotgun shack by way of the Memphis housing projects took his sweet time and, without yielding to even a trace of false piety or self-righteous anger, wrung every last bit of meaning from a lyric that was closer to biblical parable than “fairy tale.”

The world’s a complicated place, of course. We shouldn’t forget that Elvis would eventually offer to hire a hit-man to take out George Wallace’s would-be assassin only to have Wallace gently rebuff him in the name of Christian forgiveness. We also shouldn’t forget that Elvis probably left a few fatherless, potentially “angry” young children roaming the earth himself.

But the thing about art is that it does offer an opportunity for transcendence.

In the moment when it counted–the moment when both the artist and the man had the most to lose–Elvis kept the deepest faith by very specifically picking up a song by a then little-known writer and putting the blame for the link between a child whose “hunger burns” and “an angry young man, face down on the street with a gun in his hand,” right where the now thoroughly neglected New Testament he had been raised on said it belonged.

On those too blind to see.

I don’t know if there will ever be a time when the world can’t use a little more of that, but I’m pretty sure we’re not there yet.