Elvis Presley: Elvis At Stax (2013)
Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky (2009)
Time and place sometimes make for very strange bedfellows. By chance, I spent a good portion of the last few days listening–with varying degrees of intensity–to these two box sets, both recorded in Memphis at around the same time.
Elvis At Stax has the complete masters (27 in all, plus numerous illuminating outtakes) of the two sessions he cut at the legendary Memphis studio in 1973 (one of the neat bits of anecdotal information found in the liner notes is that Stax’ reigning superstar, Isaac Hayes, moved a recording date to give Elvis his time slot…another is that Elvis made scant use of the label’s legendary house band).
Keep An Eye On The Sky has every completed master that various versions of the godfathering indie band Big Star (and affiliated side projects…plus, yes, more outtakes, demos, etc.) cut between 1973 and a date that is rather hard for me to pin down in my current scatter-brained state, but probably reached into early 1975 or so.
A lot of the music from both sets was able to snap into focus for me this week, in part because, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading a new biography of Big Star co-leader Alex Chilton (who also had a run of hits with the blue-eyed soul garage band, the Box Tops, a few years prior).
One of the bio’s best aspects–very much aided and abetted by the excellent notes of these two very disparate sets–is its worm’s-eye view of the mid-seventies’ collapse of the Memphis music industry in general, and Stax in particular, (Stax, in addition to being a soul giant throughout most of the period when that meant something, also distributed Big Star’s boutique label, Ardent–the kind of over-reach that assisted greatly in its demise), and the devastating effects that collapse had on both the local music scene and the lives of so many who depended on it for something more than a paycheck.
The serendipity of it all (I pulled the Big Star set out for background music during my reading times, though it’s hardly like I need an excuse, while the Elvis set was, by complete coincidence, a cheap grab off of Amazon last week) might have me reading too much into all this, but, at least this time around, I didn’t have any trouble hearing the world fall apart on these two records that could hardly be less alike in every other respect.
In 1973, Elvis was doing what he had always done and always would do–searching for the convergence of excluded voices–white and black–which almost nobody has ever really wanted to hear actually converging, no matter how many somebodies insist they do so!
And, in 1973, like most every other year he recorded something other than his lesser movie soundtracks, he found a version of that convergence.
I wouldn’t say the Stax sessions are always his most convincing in this respect. His voice was in pretty rough shape much of the time–rough in the center instead of around the edges and not always in a good way.
But “almost there” Elvis is still more interesting than most other great artists at their very best and the better half of these sides are prime in any case. One can listen to him and feel his own demise lurking (this was around the time when more than a few people started predicting it) but that just makes the ache in his voice and the joy that’s found most especially in some of the outtakes all the more resonant and, finally, poignant. He sounds like a man who knows the way things should have been is behind him and there’s nothing left in front but regrets.
Big Star, on the other hand, still sound–at least on the first two discs of Rhino’s four disc set–like they will beat all odds and bring about at least a tiny part of that better future. Though they had no interest whatsoever in any sort of convergence–their respect for Black America’s music was real but entirely rhetorical, after the manner of bohemians everywhere–they were nonetheless carving out that rarest of achievements: a new thing.
Despite the band’s enormous, almost insidious, influence, their best music still sounds new and never newer than when it’s all in one place like this. Where Elvis’ unease and disappointment are palpable but contained–the sound of a man who has reached his personal limits and knows they are probably the future’s limits too–Big Star (their name not yet rendered ironic by the public’s indifference, let alone redeemed by a future that wasn’t too limited to let them set the direction for most of white rock’s very few remaining interesting developments) sound almost desperate to matter, as if they can’t believe the future won’t embrace them.
All the outtakes and studio chatter–neatly organized on Elvis At Stax, strung about hither and yon on Keep An Eye On The Sky–only reinforce the sense of both artists being taken under, of spirits treading water to keep from drowning.
Of course we know now there were to be no happy endings. No arrivals at some safe shore.
Elvis would die at his home in Graceland in less than forty-eight months, by which time Stax was shuttered and Ardent cast adrift.
Big Star founder Chris Bell would wrap his car around a tree a few miles from the famous recording studios he had haunted even in life a mere sixteen months after that.
Alex Chilton–fragile to begin with and badly shaken by both deaths–would, coincidentally or not, retreat ever more relentlessly into the exhausting realms of dilettantish cult-hood and die in New Orleans in 2010 at the age of fifty-eight.
What they left behind, on the tracks collected here, now represents the sound that dreams make when they die–in this case on the very streets where they had been born twenty years before.
It might be that the voices Elvis heard in his head in the fifties–and was still hearing in 1973–will yet converge. It might even be that the land that the rock and roll revolution brought heaving into view–and which could still be seen plainly off the bow when these records were made–can still be glimpsed, somewhere not quite over the horizon.
If so, I’ll sure be happy if and when we get there.
In the meantime, I know this much about the long years since.
They haven’t brought that shore-line any closer.