TRYIN’ TO GET TO ELVIS
In the library today I put on the Sun Sessions to cheer me up while I was working. When it came around to the bridge of “Tryin’ To Get To You” I found myself spontaneously weeping. Curious. I couldn’t think of any concrete reason for this. I had already become quite emotional during “Milkcow Blues Boogie” – specifically the point where he sings:
“In the evenin’, don’t that sun look good goin’ down
But don’t that ol’ moon look lonesome when your baby’s not around"
But that’s the beauty of the poetry of the blues. Isn’t it?
I thought about Elvis. How enigmatic a figure he really was, and is. How long after his death his power remains completely undiminished. How, if anything, it has increased and codified. There are places in the South where he is prayed to as a saint. But what does that prayer represent?
There’s something about him, something that has never been fathomed, even now. So many people have written about him, so much verbiage. Yet the secret is untouched. One can point out how innovatory he was in terms of race – a white man on his first record singing black music as white music, and then, on the other side, singing white music as black music – and certainly it’s true that he was completely unique in this respect. But there’s something else. The existence of this something is universally acknowledged by those interested in pop culture and it’s history, but nobody has ever got to the bottom of what it really is. It’s a fact that first editions of the Sun singles (there were only five of them) are among the most prized collector’s items, regularly selling at auction for upwards of three to five thousand dollars each – even in less than mint condition. And it’s a fact that they apparently meant little or nothing to Elvis himself: one felt he regarded them as slightly embarrassing. In an interview clip I saw from ’69 where a journalist asks him about the Sun sessions Elvis’s only response is: “They sure got a lotta echo”. Yet, seemingly completely effortlessly, Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black created a sound that resonates just as perfectly and mysteriously now as it did the day they made it. The perfection part is easy to nail: perfect recordings perfectly capturing perfect performances. But the mysterious aspect continues to elude explanation. The recipe for the atmosphere on those records is so superficially easy to conjure: three Southern musicians – two of them seasoned professionals, one, the singer, a fresh new talent - having a good time “goosing up” some country standards and some black r’n’b. The music is wonderful, fresh, vibrant etc. But that’s not it. What is it about those records that is so unique? It’s something to do with America. Some sort of genuine truth about America. I’m sure it is. But what is that?
If you don’t care about America, if Americana has no allure, chances are you don’t like Elvis anyway. But if, like me, you’re hooked on America, then there’s something in these records that tells you something about the place. Something that you need to know, that will predicate your conception of what America really is. Truths about America are everywhere, good and bad. But what kind of truth is this? A truth that actually tells you nothing but suggests a secret, a secret that contains the key to something of fundamental importance, that you knew but had somehow forgotten.
In cultural terms, it MUST be something really quite substantial when you consider that these records provided the foundation stone for the career of a man who brought about a complete revolution in the attitudes and behaviour of vast numbers of people in the Western world – without even thinking about it, without even being aware of having done it. On some very real levels, Elvis changed everything. And this revolution continues to reverberate, as if Elvis rang some deep primordial bell that, once sounded, just gets louder and louder forever, or until the civilisation finishes.
In 1977, in his obituary of Elvis, Lester Bangs wrote: “Elvis replaced ‘How Much Is That Doggie In the Window’ with ‘Let’s fuck’, and the world is still reeling from the implications of that”. What Lester couldn’t have known, dying as he did himself a mere five years after Elvis, is how completely Elvis’s power would remain undiminished, untouched. “Worship is a habit that’s hard to break”, wrote Nik Cohn of Elvis as far back as 1969. How completely he was right. Only the other day I heard on the radio an interview with a president of one of Elvis’s fan clubs in the UK, and the man was positively incandescent with worship.
Maybe it is just that animalistic call to carnal action that will always resonate with human beings under any circumstances. But isn’t it more than sex, isn’t it freedom as well? When Elvis sings that line I quoted earlier:
“In the evening, don’t that sun look good goin’ down”
there is something in his 19 year old voice that offers to the Southern sunset a distillation of yearning. It’s like a wish. A real wish. What is he wishing for? This young man made of the clay of rural America? Whatever it is, it’s something to do with the deepest dreams and wishes of America itself.
Elvis made far more crappy records in his (relatively) brief career than good ones. Even mediocre ones shine like beacons throughout his post Sun discography. As early as 1957 he was already parodying himself on songs like “Teddy Bear”. Any fan will tell you of his “good” periods: but what that actually translates to are periods when he made fewer bad records than at other times. Yes, there are a few classics in there - “Suspicious Minds”, “Guitar Man” to name but two - but compared to the Sun sessions? Only “Stranger In My Own Home Town”, from the “In Memphis” album - where Elvis sings the title line over and over again into the long fade-out - THAT has the same air of mystery about it. But there it’s as if he is desperately searching for something he has lost. And what of the bad records? The terrible soundtrack albums, the abominable ballads from the dregs of Tin Pan Alley where Elvis sings like a man in a stupor of indifference. How could he have gone from such great artistic heights to such appalling depths of schlock without even seeming to notice?
There’s a clip I’ve seen of Elvis’s first Hollywood audition. He is handed a guitar with no strings on, just a prop. He looks at it in amazement before taking it and miming to “Blue Suede Shoes”. He does a fine job because he was always a professional but I wonder what he was thinking when he saw that the guitar had no strings. I mean, Elvis was never a great guitar player but subtract his contribution from the Sun sessions and they would fall apart. He played a vital role, he played it honestly and as well as he knew how. Following his success, that was taken away from him. He was made to feel that it wasn’t even remotely important. How that must have negated all those evenings spent alone in his bedroom in Memphis, strumming along to his favourite songs. All those Arthur Crudup songs, all that Hank Williams, and Wynonie Harris, and Junior Parker. Remember, in the 1968 TV special, how happy he looked to be actually playing the guitar again? Not miming, but really playing on a big old Gibson with a fat sound? In the prosaic terms of a career in showbusiness, Elvis had obviously only wanted to be a movie star. Singing came too easily for him to really have that much respect for it. But playing that Jimmy Reed song (“Baby What You Want Me To Do?”) over and over, as he did, playing the same turnaround at the end of every chorus with the delighted look of a child who has re-discovered a much loved toy that had been lost. Doesn’t he look great? Doesn’t your heart go out to him? Suppose Elvis had never met the Colonel, had never achieved much more than local success: the whole fabric of Western culture would have been different but, perhaps, Elvis Presley would still be alive.
Reading the biographies, it’s astounding that he lasted as long as he did. He punished his body so terribly. How valiantly his spirit must have fought against the abominable regimen of junk food and hideous chemicals its desperate owner forced it through. Talk about a soul in torment! Elvis gave his life. He really did. He was a king in a republic with no history or culture of kings. So when you listen to that music, that music that he made as a 19 year old truck driver from Memphis; then as a young god of 20, 21, don’t forget to genuflect a little. And then get “real, real gone for a change”. Because it’ll never, ever, ever be that way again.
Adam Blake. London