Saturday, August 16, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 228): "LONG BLACK LIMOUSINE" (1969) Elvis Presley

On today’s date in 1977, the King passed away. It was death day for Elvis. I turned 18 the next day and was on a road trip to Florida for the first (and only) time. So, yeah, it was “fitting,” in a sense that I was traveling through the south. My companion was old enough to remember when Elvis first hit, not me. He also told me about the Elvis comeback special in 1968 and the album From Elvis in Memphis, from which comes today’s song. I missed all that at the time. For me, Elvis was a very active performer in old black and white footage and kind of a clown in his movie roles. Then there was the most current phase at the time: sequined white jumpsuit and middle-aged fans getting all goosey in Las Vegas. What did that have to do with rock? At that time I was still rather indifferent to rock’n’roll per se. Well, except for The Rolling Stones. Everything I was into had more to do with folk and prog. Americana was something I tended to give a wide berth to, then. Except for Dylan.

Of course, everyone owes Elvis some debt. The Beatles covered him, Dylan tried too—“Blue Moon”—and Bruce has, Nick Cave too, John Cale did a unique take on “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Costello took his name and also covered him, Bono and U2 gave us “Elvis Presley and America,” and Neil Young “He Was the King,” and Richard Thompson “From Galway to Graceland,” and Paul Simon “Graceland,” and Kate Bush “King of the Mountain,” and I’m sure he crops up in lots more songs I’m not recalling at the moment. Not too long ago, I bought expanded CDs of his first album and Memphis.

That latter album gave us “In the Ghetto” which is a song I definitely remember from that time as we had the 45. A song apropos of the many comments hitting the internet about the killing of Michael Brown. The song, with some sentimental flourishes, takes a look at what growing up in the ghetto is like—it’s an attempt to create some context for blacks turning to crime, in desperation and in anger, and getting gunned down young. The point is to make white society see its complicity with the situation—poverty stemming from racism—that creates a threat of violence met with violence. But the song itself creates an image of the young black man with a gun in his hand being gunned down—as a threat to others. It helps sustain the idea that one should shoot first and determine the level of threat later, which leads to things like the Brown shooting. In other words, the situation that “In the Ghetto” describes has still not changed—enough—but the image it helped popularize is that of “armed black youths” out to take revenge for their socio-economic hardship. The song that would tell the tale of the death of the unarmed and unthreatening would have to look harder at the guy who actually pulls the trigger, especially in a culture that congratulates itself on its “free to bear firearms” mythology.

Consider that an aside, I guess, on a big hit Elvis had when I was still a kid, in a working-class white neighborhood, looking askance at those inner city blues that Elvis’s song—written by Mac Davis—tried to apprise us of. But I picked today’s song as a way of paying tribute to Elvis’s death and the mark he left. “Long Black Limousine” is one of those clever country songs sung by the gal left behind in Hicksville watching the Local Hero return in a long black limousine to where he hailed from. We soon grasp that the limo is a hearse. So it could either be wry or a tear-jerk. I’m inclined to view such things ironically, which is why I’m not a good audience for Country, generally. But I can imagine versions of the song that would aim to have us dissolve in tears over the trick played by fate—or a comeuppance from God? Whatever. Elvis plays it very soulful, giving a vocal that actually gets quite worked up, after starting with a subdued narrative delivery that sets up the “rich friends” and “fancy cars” in contrast to the hicks in the sticks.

The strength of From Elvis in Memphis is in combining the country rock stylings that were Elvis’s gift with “white soul” arrangements—horns, backup singers—that let Elvis show off his command of a repertoire that included the kind of inspired piety that made him a big Gospel draw. The song feels remarkably spiritual in its opening—then gets a bit more bop, with the “oh yeah” doing double business. The tune presses on, with a trumpet solo and the backups stepping forward, then Elvis gets the emotive catch in his voice and pushes into breathy confession—“I never, never owned my heart or my dreams / They’re with you in that long black limousine”—with that horn stepping up to make us think, maybe, the heavens will part.

I have to confess I always found too much corniness and commercialism in much of the King’s post-Beatles era work, which is just a way of saying that it was aimed for the stations my mom listened to—where Elvis and Neil Diamond and Frankie singing “My Way” would eventually give way to Billy Joel and Barry Manilow and Jim Croce. And always the threat of The Carpenters and Barbra.

And yet, all that said, I do like this song, and am growing to like the album (hell, I’m middle-aged, y’know, older than my dad was when he became a grand-dad thanks to yours truly). I like the figure of the “Long Black Limousine” as both the sign of stardom and the sign of death. And some stars are never so big as when they die, suddenly becoming saints, savants, fonts of healing wisdom, hearts that suffered for our sins. Elvis was swiftly deified, a latter-day Jesus able to heal and return from the dead at will. The obsession with Elvis Transfigured spawned a subculture I can only shake my head about, like I do about the legend of Boggy Creek. Perhaps the best treatment of the Elvis Cult, in music, is U2’s “Elvis Ate America.”

Elvis the pelvis / Elvis the psalmist / Elvis the genius / Elvis, generous / Elvis, forgive us / Elvis, pray for us

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