Monday, March 31, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 90):"HEARTBREAK HOTEL" (1956) Elvis Presley

“And although it’s always crowded / You still can find some room / For broken-hearted lovers / To cry there in the gloom.”  Very appropriate, for today began very gloomy, gray and dull, then snow. Really. Maybe two inches or more before it ended.

Today’s song is the best Elvis Presley song. There was worry that the song was too “morbid” for a Top 40 hit, but a hit it was, in 1956. It left its mark on many who heard it then, people like Keith Richards and John Lennon, who would be major influences on their own generation. The song is stark and lean, sung with an amazing bravado that leaps out of the speakers and grabs you by whatever is grabbable: “Well, since my baby left me / I’ve found a new place to dwell.” We’re all ready to go along with him, to take a walk down lonely street.

The way Elvis slurs over the chorus “You make me so lonely, baby / Well, I’m so lonely / I’ll be so lonely I could die” is definitive. The cool mumble gets established right then, the elision of diction for the sake of effect. And I’ve always loved “The bellhop’s tears keep flowing / The desk clerk’s dressed in black”—it’s easy to imagine Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, maybe Peter Lorre, signing up for those roles. It’s not a funereal song but it definitely rocks with an eye on the end, we might say.

The song was memorably covered by John Cale on Slow Dazzle in 1975, with a vocal that reminds me of Karloff, and when Cale sings “we could die” he screams it as if he’s actually ready to. Elvis doesn’t go for such histrionics; he just rides that superb strum and lets the reverb do a lot of the work for him. The notion of a “heartbreak hotel” is quite an inspiration. There should be a place you can check into to wallow in your misery—“if your baby leaves you / And you need a new place to dwell.” And it’s like that, isn’t it? You check in and stay as long as you need to. Kind of like a soul asylum.

Today’s song is in honor of an “Elvis man” who departed this world way too soon—my brother-in-law, Leoance Simpson, who turned 8 the year this song came out, and died this month at age 65. He is deeply mourned and greatly missed.

So long, Leoance, it was good knowing you. Thanks for everything.

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