Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Elvis Presley - Always On My Mind

So, it's the fortieth anniversary today of Elvis Presley's death. I remember the news breaking in 1977. It came as something of a relief, for he seemed to have gone fatally downhill and the news wasn't at all unexpected. Now it was over. We could breathe again. But also a matter for profound regret, as you felt that if only he could have pulled himself together, got fit, and reinvented himself, he would be all set for a new phase in his already long career. For in 1977 he was still only forty-two.

Almost instantly there was a tribute record in the charts, by someone called Danny Mirror - clearly a made-up name! - titled I Remember Elvis Presley. I bought the single. I still have it in my attic. It may be a collector's item now, even though the single caught the mood and sold very well, quickly reaching number 4 in the UK pop charts. But I don't think many copies will have come through the last forty years.

Coincidentally I was playing the mp3 version only yesterday morning on my phone, in the bathroom, while at my ablutions. This is my unfailing daily habit, to play each morning a little of the pop music that has soundtracked my life. I have 1,500-odd tracks installed on my phone, and play them in alphabetical order, not at random, and not bothering with playlists. It takes about two months to work through the song titles from A to Z, and each time it's different, because I will have added a few new tracks, making it impossible to guess what comes next. I'd heard A to H over the last month, and was now part-way through I. It was a pleasurable surprise to hear the Danny Mirror song while cleaning my teeth. And now even more of a surprise, when realising the significance of today.

The Danny Mirror song is unashamedly sentimental about Elvis Presley, but it's well done. It's basically a set of nostalgic lyrics built upon a pastiche of Elvis's earlier songs. The words are these:

[Spoken]
Last night I turned the radio on for the midnight news.
Suddenly I thought I died of a broken heart
When I heard the announcer say:

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE KING IS DEAD.
ELVIS PRESLEY JUST DIED IN A HOSPITAL IN MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE.
FORTY-TWO YEARS ON THIS PLANET, BUT HE'LL BE HERE FOREVER.

[Singing now]
I remember Elvis Presley,
Lord, how I love to hear him sing!
So I'll adore him just forever,
For he's the one and only King.

I remember Elvis Presley,
And he won't ever set me free.
Like he was singing 'Now Or Never',
He's just a golden memory.

Good luck charm is not forever.
Good luck songs we need 'em ever.
Again, again I'll play your songs,
'Cause in my mind you haven't gone.

Are you lonesome tonight?
Do you miss him tonight?
Tell me, dear, are you lonesome tonight?

I remember Elvis Presley,
Lord, how I love to hear him sing!
So I'll adore him just forever,
For he's the one and only King

I remember Elvis Presley,
And he won't ever set me free,
Like he was singing 'Now Or Never'
He's just a golden memory.

My dear friend, I won't forget you.
When I need you I can hear you.
King, though I don't know where or when,
There'll be a day we'll meet again.

Wise man say
Only fools rush in.
But I can't help falling in love again...

[Spoken]
Elvis Presley,
I wanna thank you for all the happiness you gave so many people
All over the world during many, many years.
I remember the DJ was playing 'Jailhouse Rock'
When I had my first date with a beautiful girl,
And since that evening you've been my friend, Elvis.

[Singing again]
I remember Elvis Presley,
Lord, how I love to hear him sing!
So I'll adore him just forever,
He's just a golden memory.

Personally, I think Danny Mirror sings 'Mighty friend...' and not 'My dear friend...' in the seventh verse. Either work well, of course. He mimics Elvis's voice extremely well. It's all utterly commercial, but nevertheless one of the best tribute recordings I have ever heard.

I have nine of Elvis's own songs on my phone - my 'Elvis Credentials' as it were:

Heartbreak Hotel (1956)
Love Me Tender (1956)
It's Now Or Never (1960)
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (1960)
If I Can Dream (1968)
In The Ghetto (1969)
Suspicious Minds (1969)
The Wonder Of You (1970)
Always On My Mind (1972)

To put this in personal context, I was only four in 1956, and still only eighteen in 1970. I was vaguely aware of Elvis by 1960, but his early songs really passed over my head. I was too young for Rock ' Roll, and too young for the first part of Elvis's singing career. By the late 1960s, he had already become a legend, though not entirely for the right reasons, as there were personal and career problems galore, and as ever the media bit into him like sharks. Another thing was that his dip into the film world hadn't done him any favours. A series of lightweight films with bubblegum plots had turned him into a cardboard figure. They made him seem ridiculous. I never saw any of them, not wishing to tarnish my personal respect for his singing talent. But the person I married back in 1983 was an admirer of his 1961 film Blue Hawaii, and once made a point of staying at the very hotel (the Coco Palms) that was used for the filming. It was all true: I saw the photos.

The later films did less well for his image. It became acceptable to poke fun at him. I remember listening to the Kenny Everett Show on BBC Radio 1 in 1969, and how Kenny mocked the ending of Suspicious Minds - a pretty good song, in my own estimation - because it faded, then returned again before a final fade. He thought that odd, and worth making a joke about. 'Well, there he goes...goodbye and good riddance, Elvis...oh no! He hasn't gone...he's coming back!' Clearly Kenny Everett did not revere the King. But then he was disrespectful of many a recording artist, calling Bobby Gentry 'Old Trouser-Suits' for instance.

It was good to see Elvis gain credibility again with a string of big hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is my favourite era for him. He seemed to have matured, and the songs dealt with some difficult relationship and societal issues. This was however a last flowering of his talent. The self-destruct button had already been pressed.

As he passed into his 'White Suit' phase - the white stage costume that all Elvis imitators and tribute performers now wear - he seemed like a man who was trying to burn himself out, reputedly fuelled by drugs. He wasn't so handsome when he died in 1977. He really was puffy and bloated, though this physical state surely wasn't irretrievable. A spot of rehab, a relaunch: it might have gone well. I can believe that millions were genuinely shocked by the awful news, even if deep down they had all seen it coming. I can also believe that many cried: the men who had (like Danny Mirror) admired and copied his smooth-faced but raunchy image when young, curled lipped smile included; and the women who had fallen for his smooth-faced but raunchy charms, curled lipped smile included, whether it was a contrived persona or not.

In the years that followed, his life was examined. It was already public knowledge that his manager, Colonel Parker, had over-controlled his career and had largely been responsible for how Elvis's public image had developed. His domestic troubles were also well-known. Rumours of other things were heard, such as Elvis's burning desire to be an agent for the FBI, odd things that might or might not be true. You got the impression of an uncomplicated man, an idealistic patriot who placed a simple but unwarranted trust in many people and institutions, but was still in the end killed off by the enormous stresses of his profession.

The legend, forty years on, must be fading somewhat. I don't see how modern young people can relate to Elvis, nor find anything in his career that would be relevant to their lives. Even the songs, as good as they are, probably can't strike a chord. You have to be old enough to have known him as a living performer to 'get' Elvis now. Unless you were actually around at the time, it's impossible to know what it was like when a new Elvis song entered the charts, or a new rumour about him gained currency. Certainly you can't recall the trauma of his death in 1977.

He is among that pantheon of artists who are famous as much for dying as for what they did while alive. People such as Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson. It's strange that the myth of his survival persists - that his 1977 death was faked - which suggests that something else is going on. This myth is generally treated nowadays as rather a joke, but not entirely in some quarters. You can indeed imagine someone famous beyond expectations or endurance wanting to quit, to drop out, to disappear, and live the second half of their life secretly - well away from show-biz and the demanding crowds. But Elvis? No, I don't think so. In any case, he'd be a frail eighty-two now, even if still alive. He won't have been in suspended animation, to emerge some day as he was in his prime, still raunchy and curled-lipped.

The songs, and therefore the distinctive voice, remain. Hmm. If I linger a long time in the bathroom today (yes, yes, it's nearly 10.00am, and I'm still sitting here in my nightie) I might get to hear If I Can Dream and In The Ghetto...

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