Daniel Wolff --> "Elvis In The Dark"

Wed Mar 17, 2010 11:47 pm

Here's an incredible, fresh look at "Are You Lonesome To-night?" -- Elvis' #1 1960 single -- by author Daniel Wolff.

Wolff also lets this piece serve as a subtle, less-than-raving review of Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, the second and final volume of his Presley biography.



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Image courtesy of the essential Elvis record research database, elvisrecords.us


Elvis in the Dark
----------
Daniel Wolff


Careless Love:
The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

by Peter Guralnick.
Little Brown, 1999
$27.95 cloth.



It is April 4, 1960, a little after four in the morning, in a recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee, and Elvis Presley is sitting in the dark. Since his first record, “That’s All Right,” appeared on the tiny Sun label, six years earlier, he’s had a string of more than thirty hit singles. Ahead of him lie another seventy, but he can’t know that. In fact, the twenty-five-year-old doesn’t know for sure if or how his career will continue. He’s just back from a two-year hitch in the army. Yes, his new record is doing amazingly well, and, yes, he’s fresh from a triumphant appearance on a Frank Sinatra TV special. But as he sits in the dark, there’s no reason to think that his phenomenal success—or rock & roll itself, for that matter—will last. Using Sinatra as an example, he’s recently told Life magazine, “I want to become a good actor, because you can’t build a whole career on just singing.”

For some, Presley’s military induction did, indeed, mark the end of an era. “Elvis died the day he went into the army,” John Lennon would declare. According to this mythic version of rock & roll history, the music was born in a blinding flash in July 1954, when country-western, blues, and gospel music mutated in the body of a truck driver from Memphis. The resulting strain lasted four years. Then Elvis was drafted, Jerry Lee Lewis gutted his career by marrying his fourteen-year-old cousin, and Buddy Holly went down in a plane crash in early 1959: “the day the music died.”

This version goes on to claim a resurrection, four years later, when the Beatles release “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” But, the legend continues, Elvis never again equals the quality of his first, wild, revolutionary sound. He becomes, instead, an institution, carefully handled by his manager, the crafty but crass Colonel Tom Parker. The rest of his career amounts to bad movies, bombastic music, and self-parody (with the brief exception of his 1968 Comeback Special). Various excesses follow, and an early, drug-induced death caps the story.

This familiar narrative forms the basic structure of Careless Love, the second volume in Peter Guralnick’s biography of the King. Where the first covered music Guralnick cared about, this book’s subtitle sums up the story: “The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.” According to the author’s note, that process “could almost be called the vanishing of Elvis Presley” (author’s italics). And, indeed, as the young star sits in the Nashville studio, he has literally disappeared. “I turned around,” reports the session’s coproducer, Chet Atkins, “and the lights were all out, and I couldn’t see what the hell was going on, and then I hear the guitar and the bass and the Jordanaires humming a little bit, and Elvis started to sing.”

The song they’re working on is worth looking at in some detail, not only because it typifies a kind of music Presley would pursue in the last half of his life, but also because it seems to support Guralnick’s central thesis. It’s a ridiculously old-fashioned and inappropriate ballad, which had first been a hit for Al Jolson(!?) more than thirty years earlier. Supposedly, Presley agreed to record it only because it was one of Colonel Parker’s favorites. If you buy the thesis put forward in Careless Love, here’s a beginning to the downward slide: Elvis as the Colonel’s puppet, the wild boy tamed.

The trouble is “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is a great record—and a great rock & roll record. It not only shows an astonishing young singer at work, but its popularity on the various segregated music charts suggests that it struck many of the same chords that Presley’s early Sun sides had. On the mainstream pop charts, it made the biggest one-week Top 40 jump in history, going from #35 to #2, and Presley’s fans helped keep it at #1 for six weeks. Over on the country charts, where the audience was typically seen as white, rural, and conservative, it became a #22 hit. And on the rhythm & blues chart, designed to track Negro music, the white Southerner singing an antique ballad reached #3. The record also went to #1 in England, with worldwide sales estimated at four million.

The song begins with an acoustic guitar and a simple stand-up bass line, then the harmonized “oooo’s” of the backup singers, the Jordanaires. The rest of the musicians—drums, electric guitar, saxophone—sit out. This, clearly, isn’t the Elvis who tore it up with “That’s All Right [Mama]” or “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” songs which Gural-nick lavishly praised in his first volume, citing “a sense of daring, high-flying good times almost in defiance of societal norms.” Here, Elvis enters low in his range and, within the first line—the title line—ascends to a near-falsetto. To Guralnick, this kind of singing is “Italianate” and defines “pop” rather than rock & roll music.

That definition only makes sense if you’re willing to exclude from the rock pantheon Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, the Platters, Roy Hamilton, the Everly Brothers, Jackie Wilson, and a number of other artists who produced melodic, sophisticated hits in the early Sixties, after the music “died.” Their songs were not only good for slow dancing (as essential to the rock & roll phenomenon as the rip-’em-up sound), but they had a bravura emotional quality that could, indeed, be traced back to Jolson by way of Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, and—one of Presley’s favorites—Dean Martin. For a purist, this doesn’t count as rock history. What’s it got to do, after all, with leather jackets and shaking up the staid Eisenhower years?

By the end of the second line, Elvis has established his right to this ballad legacy. Listen to how he phrases “Do you miss me tonight?” ending in a breathy tenderness that’s almost scary in its intimacy. With the song barely begun, the quality and conviction of his voice have pulled you into the darkness and answered each question as it’s asked: yes, you’re lonesome; yes, you’ve missed him.

It is an antique vehicle he’s trying to ride, and that becomes obvious in the first verse, when he sings about the “chairs in your parlor.” But if the King of Rock & Roll sees anything ludicrous or inappropriate about this setting, he overcomes it with a hint of anger, a low growl to his voice, which passes so quickly you can’t be sure it was there. What you do know, by now, is the basic structure of the song. Each line goes from this low range (which reads, if not as rage, certainly as deep passion) to a high note of vulnerability and tenderness. And the sense follows the sound, as each line asks an increasingly emotional question, culminating in the ultimate—“Shall I come back, again?” —before returning to wondering if you/she/we are lonesome tonight.

Any song directed towards an unnamed “you” works on several levels. There’s the specific person the singer seems to be addressing, a “sweetheart” he kissed “one bright summer day,” now departed. Then, there’s the listener who puts her or himself into the role. For the screaming Elvis fans or the casual listener spinning the radio dial, this intimate voice makes a direct connection. But the “you” is general enough to include more than that. If we accept that Elvis is an artist (something that even his fans and admirers have often found hard to do), then we can conceive that the singer, sitting there in the darkened studio, might be addressing that amorphous thing, his public. Choosing to record this ballad and to do it straight, with almost embarrassing conviction, was bound to send a message. He’s been gone two years, the papers have been full of speculation on whether he’ll be able to regain his rock & roll crown, and he sings, “Shall I come back, again? / Tell me, dear, are you lonesome, tonight?”

The singer Guralnick describes would never be that self-aware. Part and parcel of the myth is that Elvis didn’t really know what he was doing; he just was. Those early Sun years were the product of an astonishing, inexplicable, instinctual creativity. If there was someone with a vision, Guralnick argued in Volume One of his biography, it was Sam Phillips, the owner and producer at Sun Records. It’s Phillips and Chester Burnett (a.k.a. Howling Wolf) who are, according to Guralnick’s dedication to an earlier book, “the real heroes of rock ‘n’ roll.” In Careless Love, that position is filled by the Colonel. Guralnick doesn’t always agree with his decisions, but he regularly refers to Parker’s “carefully conceived strategy” surrounding this or that career move. He’s the brains of the operation.

In contrast, when Guralnick praises Presley, it’s usually Elvis reverting to his feeling, unthinking self. In a 1961 performance in Hawaii, Guralnick says, “he forgets the words, even loses the structure of the song, but embraces the moment with pure, uninhibited feeling.” When Presley succeeds within a song’s structure, it’s because he “poured himself into it in a way that had nothing to do with craftsmanship, nothing to do with professionalism…” While the performances that Guralnick finds to commend in the last nineteen years of Presley’s life are rare enough (“Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is not one of them), the criterion—Elvis as an unselfconscious force of nature—is remarkably consistent. So, “If I Can Dream,” the stunning conclusion to the 1968 comeback TV special, is “one of those rare instances where Elvis pays no attention to formal boundaries.” The special itself “all comes down to that one moment in which not just self-consciousness, but consciousness itself, is lost…” And as the star ages, Guralnick reminds us that “honesty, sincerity, the purely instinctual gut-level response—that was what his music was all about, it was what it had always been about” (author’s italics).

In later years, Presley would make fun of the next part of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and it’s certainly ripe for it. Just when his sweet, secure singing has won us over, he drops it for a spoken recitation. “You know,” he intones, “someone said, ‘The world’s a stage, and each must play a part.’” The melancholy Jacques, in As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, actually says: “All the world’s a stage, // And all the men and women merely players…” Never mind. We get that it’s the metaphor of life as a scripted, fated thing, with an additional hint of falseness—of acting as opposed to feeling. It’s our first indication that the song might be about more than lovesickness.

As it turns out, the narrator has been betrayed. His sweetheart never really cared about him; she’s been “reading her lines” from the first. And, hokey as the technique might be, the song calls for Presley to illustrate that she’s been acting by acting himself. He drops the seductive quality of singing to speak directly to her. Which means, of course, directly to us. A month after this recording session, Elvis is scheduled to go out to Hollywood to shoot G.I. Blues, the first in a series of post-army movies that will occupy him for much of the next decade. Like Sinatra, he’s going to sustain his career by becoming an actor. Here, in this song, is a sample of how it might work: a combination of dramatics and singing.

In Guralnick’s scenario of the vanishing Elvis, the movies are more than just awful. They are the Colonel’s idea, done against Presley’s will, and add up to “a trivialization of his music,” as Guralnick writes of Blue Hawaii, where “he is forced to publicly repudiate his commitment to rock ‘n’ roll.” Many of his movies were terrible; they were also very successful. In the United States, Blue Hawaii was the second highest grossing film the week of its release and ended at fourteenth overall for 1962. Overseas, where Presley never toured, his films had an immense influence on how people thought rock & roll looked and acted. Over and over again, he played charismatic, moderately rebellious heroes, who pushed the limits of acceptable behavior without breaking them. To Guralnick, this goes against “the very image of rebellion that had always defined” Elvis, although he has to admit that it was “not really all that removed from the aspects of the real Elvis Presley that aspired to middle-class respectability.” It’s this “real Elvis” that keeps disappointing his biographer.

In “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Elvis fashions a performance which deals specifically with this issue: the dangers of acting, in particular, and of being manipulated, in general. “You read your lines so cleverly,” he says in the monologue, “and never missed a cue.” Then, after a weighted pause, Presley gets to the actual moment of betrayal: “Honey, you lied.” From here on, everything he says or sings includes this betrayal. The way he puts across that awareness is by rolling out his Mississippi accent on the word “lied.” We hear the country in his voice, and it creates a strange disturbance in the middle of the song, as if he were suddenly drawing attention to himself, to the Southerner saying the lines. As a listener and a fan, if you’re still enjoying the fantasy that Elvis is speaking directly to you—that you are the sweetheart—it’s a disturbing moment.

Your heart-throb has just turned. The switch in his speaking voice comes right at the moment when there’s a shift in the logic of the song: now, he’s calling you a liar, and you have to either accept that idea, or quickly decide he’s not really talking to you. But if you look for relief in the notion that he’s actually addressing that broader “you,” the general public, the song is about the relationship between the star and his audience. And the star is saying the world out there, beyond the darkened studio, not only can turn and drop its idols as quickly as it embraced them, but that it never really cared. “Honey, you lied when you said you loved me.”

People often cite as proof of the “unmaking” of Elvis the songs he chose to record in later years. “Suspicious Minds,” “Stranger In My Own Home-town,” “There Goes My Everything” become evidence of the star “caught in a trap,” whether his failed marriage and isolated lifestyle, or his fading career. But “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” argues that Presley was interested in the theme of betrayal early on and in a larger context. Faced with deceit, the singer strikes a bargain. “I’d rather go on hearing your lies,” he says, “than to go on living without you.” It’s quite a confession to make to your audience.

It leaves the narrator on a bare stage, the illusion of truth and love gone, “emptiness all around.” Here, in a line, is the picture Careless Love spends 750 pages painting. Here is the artist betrayed, isolated, compromised past the point of understanding. It foreshadows all the images we have of Presley, years later, holed up in his bedroom, the windows covered with tinfoil, seeing only his women and a hand-picked group of insiders, the Memphis Mafia. Except the myth would have it that the poor, drugged Southern boy had no idea what hit him, where the song stands as evidence to the contrary. In “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” the narrator knows what reality is and knows that he’s giving it up.

Careless Love paints a picture of a man who is virtually unaware of the outside world. When we’re told that Presley wept at JFK’s assassination and stayed in front of the TV for days to watch the aftermath, that common response comes as a shock. Given this book’s portrait, we’re surprised that Elvis even knew who Kennedy was. Careless Love covers the years 1960 through 1977 but manages to mention Dr. Martin Luther King only once, and the civil rights movement, the Summer of Love, and the Vietnam War only in passing. Arguably, this is because Guralnick has tried, as he says in his introduction, “to tell the story as much as possible from Elvis’s point of view.” But the result is a narrative disconnected from history and culture.

Elvis may have ended up, as the song puts it, with emptiness all around, but it was a particularly Southern emptiness. Presley’s taste for peanut butter and banana sandwiches didn’t come out of nowhere. Nor did his passion for pink Cadillacs, gospel music, and amusement parks. One way to understand Presley’s life is as a regional and generational dream writ large. Of course, if you’re trying to make the argument that he was an inexplicable original, an aberration, then context only hurts your cause. In Careless Love, everything from Presley’s loyalty towards his relatives to his collection of sheriff’s badges happens in a void.

Even if you’re willing to accept that Elvis existed in his own universe, that doesn’t mean that we, the readers, have to. In November 1960, when “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was released, Kennedy had just been elected president, and the social changes that rock & roll is often associated with—that Presley is often credited with beginning—were under way. The listeners who propelled the single to the top of the charts put down their money for this haunting, slightly antique tune in the midst of the Cold War, when pop music ran the gamut from the #1 song Presley’s single displaced—the r&b snap of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay”—to the tune that eventually bumped him—the lush cocktail music of “Wonderland by Night” by Bert Kaempfert & His Orchestra.

And a little context makes the song’s crossover strength into the r&b market even more extraordinary. “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” sold to a Negro audience that had begun its rebellion against the old South and the very “parlor” values that Presley’s song seems to embody. As he recites in the Nashville studio, sit-in protests have spread to thirty-one cities in eight Southern states. During the time the record is on the charts, the first Freedom Riders set out to desegregate Southern bus terminals. It isn’t that the song, or Presley’s performance, reflect these social changes. But the record spoke to people living through these times, and a biography that fails to mention this runs the risk of being more insular than its subject.

As the singer comes to the end of the spoken narrative, he melodramatically declares that if his sweetheart won’t come back, “they can bring the curtain down.” The song’s emotional ride could end on that note, with the grandiose, adolescent threat of suicide, but it doesn’t. The narrator, instead, returns to his singing voice and to the original series of questions. They’re changed, now, by what he’s been through—and put us through. “Is your heart,” he sings, “filled with pain?” The first time he gave us those lines it was with a sweet innocence. Now, on both the words “heart” and “pain,” his voice corkscrews up to the tremulous part of his range, as if he doubts she has a heart—or knows what real pain is.

Then he takes a deep breath, and, when he phrases the next question, it begins as almost a roar. Presley is in adult voice: a baritone that was occasionally in evidence on the early Sun sides and became more and more pronounced as he got older. It’s his way of conveying the bravery (and maybe stupidity) of someone deciding to walk back into a relationship based on a lie. “Shall I come back?” he asks: angry, ashamed, aware of what he’s asking. For the sweetheart, and for the listener/public, it’s a kind of challenge: are we going to enter into this deal with him? If we are, we’ll be just as aware, just as potentially self-destructive, as he is. The quality of his voice translates “Shall I come back?” into “Can you take it?” Can you accept the fact that we’re going to live with a lie, that this is the way the world works?

It’s this voice that will grow more pronounced during the last two-thirds of Presley’s recording career, and it’s this voice Guralnick can never quite embrace. His favorite description of songs like “It’s Now or Never,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” or “Suspicions” is “sentimental” and “melodramatic.” His opinion is that the roaring crescendo, often, “all but overwhelmed the song.” Any listener to middle and late Elvis knows what he means. There was a rolling, thunderous tone that came from deep in the singer’s chest and that he called up—complete with orchestra and back-up singers—to bring a song crashing to its end. When it works, it’s a sound of transcendence, as if he were trying to rise out of himself. Listen, especially, to Presley’s gospel recordings: “How Great Thou Art,” “Stand By Me.” When it doesn’t work, it rattles into bombast. But, either way, it’s the sound of a man. Not a rockabilly kid, not an innocent, not an untutored genius, but a grown-up.

It’s no coincidence that this voice works so well in gospel; its clearest antecedent is in the work of religious quartets like the Statesmen, the Stamps, the Harmonizing Four, and the Golden Gate Quartet. Elvis loved this kind of music, and, while Guralnick recognizes that, he never tells us why. He’s much more comfortable with how rock & roll ties into blues and country-western than these deep harmonies about Jesus. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that for those raised on gospel, white or black, this particular vocal quality equals spirituality. It is the instantly recognizable sound of a man trying to fill emptiness with faith.

Guralnick concedes that the session for Presley’s 1966 gospel album, How Great Thou Art, produced “some of Elvis’s warmest, most profoundly felt work,” but compare that to his praise for the early Sun sessions: “It was as if he were reborn.” And place it next to the insightful description of “How Great Thou Art” in Ernst Jorgensen’s Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, and you get the feeling that the best Guralnick can manage is to acknowledge the achievement. It isn’t simply that Jorgensen likes the music more, although that helps. He’s interested in where the singer is going and gives us a portrait of Presley as an artist: crafting his performance, rehearsing with his colleagues, refining a sound he heard in his head. Jorgensen writes:

In the studio it became clear that Elvis’s months of practice at home had paid off: he knew the song inside and out, instructing the singers on the powerful lead-in during a brief, fifteen-minute rehearsal before the final take. Elvis sang with sincerity and dedication, in a slower tempo than the Statesmen’s version that accentuated the spirituality of the material, and allowed him to build the song into a powerful anthem. He had crafted for himself an ad-hoc arrangement in which he took every part of the four-part vocal, from Big Chief’s bass intro to the soaring heights of the song’s operatic climax. In an extraordinary fulfillment of his vocal ambitions, he had become a kind of one-man quartet, making the song both a personal challenge and a tribute to the singing style he’d always loved.

By the time Presley uses this gospel voice, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is about to end. But there’s one more twist. When he asks the final question—the song’s title question—he produces a sound that we haven’t heard before. As he sits in the dark, the Jordanaires humming behind him, he rises to the word “lonesome” and attacks it in a nasal quiver. He’s way up in his high range, past choir-boy tenderness and into an eerie near-falsetto. You might recognize the tone from Buddy Holly, who used it on “Peggy Sue” and “Rave On”: an edgy, rebellious, otherworldly sound. It passes in an instant, but, in that instant, what we get is an unmistakable sneer.

“I bet you’re lonesome tonight,” Presley seems to be saying, and this is a different kind of anger—a sarcastic rage, like Bob Dylan asking Mr. Jones if he knows what’s happening here. It’s not only a long way from the character who began singing the song, but a long way from the Elvis Presley Guralnick most admires, the one who “represented the innocence that had made the country great…” (author’s italics). It’s a knowing voice, an accusatory voice, which only makes sense now that we’ve come to the end. “Are you lonesome?” has become a question posed to someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word, who never really loved, who’s been acting all along.

That someone is us. “Fate,” Presley told us in an earlier section of the song, had him “playing in love,” just as fate made him an icon for millions of adoring fans. But it isn’t fate, now. We’ve struck a bargain with the singer: a whole, complicated tangle we’re not particularly willing to take apart. He uses a rock & roll voice to point it out, because it’s a particularly rock & roll moment, piercing the conventions of the old ballad. “Lonesome?” he asks, and the edge to his voice cuts the question wide open.

The New York Times has all but crowned Careless Love Presley’s official biography. “[It] is not simply the finest rock-and-roll biography ever written. It must be ranked among the most ambitious and crucial biographical undertakings yet devoted to a major American figure of the second half of the 20th century.” There’s no question that Guralnick’s done a fine job of pulling together a myriad of sources. His extensive research offers us exhaustive (if often exhausting) detail. On the occasions when Guralnick seems authentically excited by what Elvis is doing—his Comeback Special, a performance in Hawaii—he offers vivid description. His portraits of the Colonel, of Priscilla, of the atmosphere around Graceland, though not new, are well done. The net result is a useful but not very compelling book for those who want all the facts in one place.

But “ambitious and crucial?” That suggests a degree of analysis that Guralnick never even attempts. He makes his main point when he divides the biography into two volumes, supporting the questionable distinction between the young Elvis and the old while coming down heavily on the side of the former. The best of Elvis (like the best of rock & roll?) was adolescent: a “purely instinctual gut level response.” The result is that Careless Love becomes a kind of morality tale. Our hero is born with a magical talent that breaks all the rules and makes him King, but he is (inevitably?) punished for it. The Times is praising an approach to Presley which successfully neutralizes whatever threat he posed to “societal norms.” “If only,” the biographer writes, “he had been able to approach recording consistently as an art.” Instead, the rebel with his “innocent transparency” ends up fat and dead.

Whether or not you like the music Presley produced in the last half of his life, millions of listeners loved it. To dismiss the music is to dismiss them, and arguing that Elvis couldn’t grow up (he could only “unmake”) implies the same about his audience. But a close listen to recordings such as “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” reveals that they are anything but innocent or immature. In fact, they offer a far more complicated look at what it means to be an adult than does Careless Love. Which is why Jorgensen’s volume—even though it’s essentially an expanded discography—offers the more interesting and convincing portrait. Published to much less fanfare, Elvis Presley: A Life In Music describes a creative, troubled artist at work. Here is a dangerous man, dangerous because of his ability, even towards the sad end of his life, to inflame emotions and create beauty.

In his later years, Elvis spoke of his mission as simply trying to “make people happy with music.” It’s a humble enough goal, a lot more difficult than it sounds, and he worked hard to make himself successful at it. Careless Love may leave us in the dark as to how and why the last twenty years of Presley’s music touched so many. But, luckily, Elvis doesn’t. Out of the darkness comes his voice.


Daniel Wolff is the author of You Send Me, a biography of Sam Cooke.
He lives in Nyack, New York, and writes frequently for The Threepenny Review.


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Last edited by drjohncarpenter on Wed Jan 02, 2013 10:38 pm, edited 2 times in total.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Thu Mar 18, 2010 12:34 am

Excellent article, thanks for posting! Always nice when there's some serious thought applied to Elvis and his work as an artist.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Thu Mar 18, 2010 12:55 am

Thanks for that, Doc !

He should write his own biography of our boy !

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Thu Mar 18, 2010 12:57 am

Has Matthew Stephens written or published anything about Elvis yet?
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Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Thu Mar 18, 2010 1:30 am

That's a very articulate piece of writing. However, even if he did produce his own biography of Elvis, the "die has been cast" with Guralnick's second volume, which reinforced the prevailing "rock critic's" view of Elvis' post 50s career. It is unlikely that anyone will be able to "unmake" this view.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Thu Mar 18, 2010 5:39 pm

When Guralnick spoke in London some years ago, he said that he only ever saw Elvis once and that was at the Boston concert of 10th November 1971, and that after that he knew he didn't want to see Elvis again. This to me was an extremely shocking confession, and threw an entirely different light on his attitude towards Elvis and the latter part of his career. I wondered in that case why he had bothered to devote all that time to the writing of Careless Love.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Thu Mar 18, 2010 5:40 pm

heathbarclay wrote:That's a very articulate piece of writing. However, even if he did produce his own biography of Elvis, the "die has been cast" with Guralnick's second volume, which reinforced the prevailing "rock critic's" view of Elvis' post 50s career. It is unlikely that anyone will be able to "unmake" this view.


Make interesting reading, though.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Thu Mar 18, 2010 11:08 pm

chris j wrote:When Guralnick spoke in London some years ago, he said that he only ever saw Elvis once and that was at the Boston concert of 10th November 1971, and that after that he knew he didn't want to see Elvis again. This to me was an extremely shocking confession, and threw an entirely different light on his attitude towards Elvis and the latter part of his career. I wondered in that case why he had bothered to devote all that time to the writing of Careless Love.



I like Guralnick (actually was always a big fan of his blues & country essays and reviews even before his Elvis bios) but this fact, if true, says it all and confirms a lot of what Wolff suggests.

What a read - thanks for the post, John Carpenter!

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 1:26 am

Gregory Nolan Jr. wrote:
chris j wrote:When Guralnick spoke in London some years ago, he said that he only ever saw Elvis once and that was at the Boston concert of 10th November 1971, and that after that he knew he didn't want to see Elvis again. This to me was an extremely shocking confession, and threw an entirely different light on his attitude towards Elvis and the latter part of his career. I wondered in that case why he had bothered to devote all that time to the writing of Careless Love.



I like Guralnick (actually was always a big fan of his blues & country essays and reviews even before his Elvis bios) but this fact, if true, says it all and confirms a lot of what Wolff suggests.

What a read - thanks for the post, John Carpenter!

Yeah, it was a great post by the Doc. Very insightful article. Wolff is spot-on with the following passage:

Which is why Jorgensen’s volume—even though it’s essentially an expanded discography—offers the more interesting and convincing portrait. Published to much less fanfare, Elvis Presley: A Life In Music describes a creative, troubled artist at work. Here is a dangerous man, dangerous because of his ability, even towards the sad end of his life, to inflame emotions and create beauty.

There is still a need for a well-balanced book on Elvis' post-Army career and life. However, even with the flaws in Guralnick's work, it still is a valuable place to explore.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 1:31 am

Wonderful reading. Thank you, Doc.

I don't think Guralnick's comments are that strange coming from a true rock'n'roll lover. By 1971, Elvis was changing, once again. It was the end of the comeback era and he was now focusing more and more on big pop balads, throwing away his 50's classics. Had Guralnick seen Elvis 2 years before, he surely would not have said the same thing.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 1:31 am

Yes, I remember the first time you posted this, Doc. Nice to finally see it in a thread of its own!

In addition to being a "subtle review" of Guralnick's second volume, it is also, I think, a fitting tribute to the vicissitudes of EP's voice in general. I don't recall Guralnick -- or anyone, really -- doing such a detailed dissection of a given performance on record. But that, in itself, raises an interesting point: Guralnick's great ability, showcased beautifully in "Last Train To Memphis", is to continually temper his enthusiasm with restraint. Take one of the quotations Wolff uses: "a sense of daring, high-flying good times almost in defiance of societal norms." A less-skilled writer might not have thought to write, "almost in defiance of". It may seem a slight come-down compared to the preceding bit, but I think it really complements the passion of, "a sense of daring, high-flying good times", without, in any sense, degrading or repudiating it. Guralnick is capable of lunging forward and then rolling back, as if what you just read or felt was fleeting or illusory, yet a strong impression is allowed to remain. He doesn't quite go all the way, so to speak, but makes you almost think he has. It's a very sophisticated treatment of Elvis, and consonant with what he, himself, was doing, in my estimation, and the sort of experience I have listening to him. Of course, "Last Train" doesn't really need any further recommendation, but I thought I'd throw that out.

Wolff's ideas are provocative, even scintillating -- and yet, in a way, almost blindingly obvious (see what I did there? :wink: ). If you consider the title of the album that "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" advertises, then it's a very clear statement, in its directness, and with that striking exclamation mark, about someone returning, and the significance of that someone and what he is already assumed to represent. Also, the structure of "Elvis Is Back!" rings out a message, bold and stark: the opener is "Make Me Know It", with suggestive lyrics and an almost-baroque vocal delivery, through which the singer both affirms his appetite for ecstatic love and makes a brazen invitation for others to make him know it, taking us back to the title in a neat circle; and the closer is "Reconsider Baby", in which the singer has almost totally liberated himself of doubt and angst, making one final invitation, this time in the name of fun, with a salacious (yet subliminal) promise of better things to come. Still, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" is, perhaps, the most auspicious of all the records, because, as Wolff identifies, its undisguised antiquity serves as a sort of linchpin for the album and Elvis' entire body of work, as a vehicle for Elvis to imply craftmanship and conscious intent, the very things Guralnick seems to distrust, dislike and deny.

Elvis managed to find a place for Wolff's spotlighted song -- again, quite willfully, I think -- in two of his television specials, in 1968 and 1977, respectively. Of course, those weren't the only occasions he performed it in front of a live audience; however, I wish to stick with the television versions because of the format. Elvis wasn't dumb. He had to have been aware of television's ubiquity and its dominance over film and theater as *the* audio-visual experience of the 20th Century, by the time he walked into Burbank, at the latest (even his three-1970s-TV arrangement in the TCB room of Graceland, however gimmicky, speaks to an innate recognition of the format's bewildering density of information [even if it's also a kind of visually-sick joke, in its self-defeating pragmatism, about the paucity of substance of that information]). And isn't it peculiar that Elvis "drops" or "botches" the AYLT monologue in both specials? In the two sit-down shows of the '68 special, IIRC, he simply cuts it loose, but not without giving an affected grunt or snigger. In the two big arena shows of the '77 special, he either changes it into a skit with Charlie Hodge (Omaha) or keeps interrupting himself once the monologue has started (Rapid City). Indeed, notice how, in the final "Elvis In Concert" edit (i.e. the Rapid City performance), he says, "Honey...", then immediately counters with, "who am I talking to?", and after reciting, "now the stage is bear, and I'm standing there", exactly where "with emptiness all around" should be, he dashes it out at the last second (though premeditated) and quips, "without any hair" (an old embellishment, but still), before seeming to close with seriousness, "and if you won't come back to me", but no, again changing, "then they can bring the curtain down", for, "ah, to heck with it!". These deflections and alterations exactly fit with Wolff's interpretation of Elvis' original treatment of the monologue. If Elvis did perceive the song as Wolff argues, then undercutting the pointed "honey" accusation, leaving out the nihilistic "with emptiness all around" for something lighter to awkwardly patch over the void (albeit, though, still a fear of Elvis' - his body's own abandonment of youth), and, finally, expurgating the "adolescent threat" of suicide ("curtain down"), are entirely cogent decisions, made by an artist with a deep sense of extra-literal meaning and the additional layers of communication that occur between people (cf. the Red West 1976 phone conversation where Elvis unironically says, "I do know that we are constantly sending and receiving, all the time").

Just some thoughts.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 2:17 am

Is that the same Daniel Wolff that wrote the Sam Cooke bio?

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 2:32 am

Daryl wrote:Is that the same Daniel Wolff that wrote the Sam Cooke bio?

Yup.

Daniel Wolff is the author of You Send Me, a biography of Sam Cooke.
He lives in Nyack, New York, and writes frequently for The Threepenny Review.
Last edited by drjohncarpenter on Wed Jan 02, 2013 10:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 9:24 am

Thanks for re-posting this John.
Ive added it to my favorites.
Too many in the media tend to dismiss Elvis-but how many have thought just how much music he managed to put into 22 years of recording,and also the emotional highs and lows he interpreted?

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 10:43 am

Thanks for posting this wonderful piece doc.

Nice additions Cryo.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 4:07 pm

Fabulous reading, thank you Doc

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 7:54 pm

For Gregory Nolan Jnr - I'm afraid it is a genuine remark from Guralnick, Greg. He spoke at one of the halls on London's South Bank on 7th July 1999. I got the first question in, and politely berated him for undervaluing Elvis's career in the 70s. That's when Guralnick said he knew he didn't want to see Elvis again after the Boston concert of 10th Nov 71.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Fri Mar 19, 2010 9:52 pm

chris j wrote:I got the first question in, and politely berated him for undervaluing Elvis's career in the 70s.

How did you qualify that comment?

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Sat Mar 20, 2010 7:25 am

Having seen Elvis on Nov 8,'71, I can only observe that Peter must have been tripping on LSD in Boston. It was and remains the single most unbelievable thing I have ever seen, heard or felt. All these years later, in quite reflection, I can still feel the combination of the charisma of a real star and the electricity of 18,000 people being shocked and awed. This article helps explain why i found Careless Love so flat and lifeless...and obviously now, i understand the bias-Elvis died in 1958. Yeah, right.

The great thing about Elvis is after all the experts have weighed in with their opinions, the music, all that glorious music, stands at the ready to silence the buffoons among them. Thanks for posting, Doc.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Sat Mar 20, 2010 7:26 pm

Dr JC, I said that I appreciated the way Guralnick had shown some understanding of the complexity of Elvis's life and character, and the difficulties he had faced, but that he did not reflect the maturity of Elvis later work - the emotion, experience, tone and richness of Elvis's vocal expression. I said that the 70s music was what I listened to more than anything and found there a very moving expression of Elvis's life experience. I also said that he dismissed Elvis's stage work and in fact said very very little about it, except to highlight what he described as Elvis's fading voice in one of the late shows, without acknowledging the beautiful developement of Elvis's mature voice, for example in 1975 when he did some of his best singing ever. I think possibly Guralnick was not very pleased, and maybe he hit back with the comment about the Boston show, although this remark did come after I asked whether he had ever met or seen Elvis.

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Mon May 02, 2011 7:59 am

Thanks Doc!
I have problems with BOTH volumes, actually. He just always looks down on him. It cannt be denied. He does not even see the true courage of the adolescent much less appreciate the extraodinarily complex young man he became. Even his childhood is given a weak treatment compared to the videography "Return To Tupelo."
Which is refreshing because the fuller richer picture is finally emerging. Gillian Gaar's Comeback book is genuinely moving and TRULY respectful, even whn she reveals something embarassing, its for good reason . . .
Guralnick was a corrective to Goldman. That's it. That is all. Which was always dissapointing to me. Against THAT it didn't matter what he said . . .

Re: "Elvis In The Dark" by Daniel Wolff

Mon May 02, 2011 8:35 am

This is one of the greatest pieces of writing on Elvis I have ever seen. I typically will defend Guralnick, because he brought prestige and a literary mind to his EP project, and has played a role in bringing more respect to his career. But I can't argue with anything in this post. Great article, thanks DJC.

Re: Daniel Wolff --> "Elvis In The Dark"

Wed Jan 02, 2013 5:20 pm

I read this after almost 2 years the thread began (I am a new member) and I was amazed. Fabulous, superb article. Thank you, Doc, I couldn't believe Mr. Wolf made such a masterpiece! I think he's right about Peter "Careless Love". Inspite of the huge work of corelating all the sources, he had some ideas I couldn't agree. For the very start to him Elvis is a changed man in the Army and for worse. He became selfish here and with a very strong ego, writes Peter citing Red, Lamar and Rex Mansfield. It's hard to prove that.

Re: Daniel Wolff --> "Elvis In The Dark"

Wed Jan 02, 2013 7:16 pm

Yes, a wonderful piece of writing and thanks to the Doc for bringing this to our attention, I really enjoyed it. I'm always disappointed hearing about fans who felt betrayed when Elvis moved in a different musical direction after the army. I don't recall him setting out to be a rebel or a figure head or the King of Rock N Roll. He just played and sang what he liked and the music world conveniently followed. John Lennon followed. Peter Guralnick followed. Etc. If Elvis then decided in his mid twenties that he wanted to move on and pursue another musical direction then that was up to him. How many successful artists played the same type of music all the way through their careers. Even the Beatles changed their musical style after a few years from mop top beat music to a more mature sound. Did everybody feel betrayed because they had moved on from Love Me Do?? Elvis just moved in a direction he enjoyed - it may not have been ground breaking like a lot of the music from the late sixties but it was an area he was comfortable with as an artist.

Re: Daniel Wolff --> "Elvis In The Dark"

Wed Jan 02, 2013 8:43 pm

Peter has a bias toward rhythm and blues. It's neither good nor bad, but it's a bias.

Some people don't want to listen to Elvis after Sun. Some leave him after 1958. Others, myself included, most enjoy the '68/Vegas/Tour period. I suppose some folks just love the movies.