Elvis in the Dark

1955_Ray_Johnson_Elvis1.jpg 

Elvis Presley would have been 72 today. To acknowledge the occasion, I want to add to The Reading List what I believe is one of the finest essays ever written about Presley: Daniel Wolff’s “Elvis in the Dark.”

Wolff is the author of the excellent You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke and of Fourth of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land. He has also collaborated a few times with photographer Ernest Withers, including on the wonderful The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photography. (You can read my review of that book on Living in Stereo’s The Bookshelf.)

Originally published in the Fall 1999 issue of Threepenny Review“Elvis in the Dark” is ostensibly a review of Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. More than that, however, the piece makes an argument for a particular sort of criticism even as it demonstrates what great criticism can be: “Elvis in the Dark” is a model of humanist values, of close listening and of the value in establishing a context that is not only personal but public, social, political. The result is revisionist in the best sense: Wolff lets us see fresh what we were already certain we knew by heart.

Elvis in the Dark

by Daniel Wolff

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 14-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 co-producer, 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… 

Read the rest of Elvis in the Dark, here.

3 Responses to “Elvis in the Dark”

  1. Barry Says:

    Yeah Dave; thumbs up on Wolff, his writing in general, his basic point here. (Greil Marcus makes a related poiint about Guralnick’s Elvis take–in advance of the appearance of the Big books–in “Dead Elvis.” It is often, still, easier to get praised for NOT making a pint about, uh, pop matters, than for making one.

    On the oher hand, there’s the upside of Peter G. being careful about the facts, as such. They matter. That was not Al jolson (with or without exclamation point) that the Colonel loved and raised the topic of “Are You lonesome?” about. It was Gene Austin–and the Colonel’s wife had loved it when Austn did it live. He never recorded it. Also, in fairness to Guralnicks overall 2-book structure: I don’t think it’s exactly fair o characterize the take as “when Elvis was in charge, it was by instinct; someone else was doing the thinking.” There are too many examples in the book of Ekvis working things out–epecially and most imporabtly, in the studio. Iw as in fact struck by how clear that was made. Volume one reads ike “elvis takes charge and responsibility” and vo;lume two “Elvis gives it up”.

    But Wolff cerainly has a point that Peter G responds much more to music HE takes as being “from the roots” and “from the gut” in general., rather than crafted popular art. The critical error in the Elvis books-in keepinf with this– may be underestimating hte degree to which Elvis Part One music is carefully considered and manufactured pop ; it’s on purpose. But he doesn’t much LIKE it to be so. Better that “Do the Clam” was the deliberate stuff

    BTW, I’ve been reading the oncoming biography of Doc Pomus and was surprised to learn that, with interception by the Colonel to keep it that way ,Doc Pomus and Elvis never met! They might ahve had a nice talk about what theings they shared and tried to do, on purpose, if they had.

    BBarry M

  2. David Cantwell Says:

    Barry, When did Austin record his version of Are You Lonesome? I’d wondered about the Jolson reference in Daniel’s piece (I was thinking I might have thr track, and could post it here. Obviously I didn’t….), so I went to Whitburn’s Pop Memories, a book that “recreates,” as it were, record charts that never existed at the time. He lists popular versions of the song by Vaughan Deleath and Henry Burr both in 1927. But there’s no version there by either Austin or Jolson, which I guess just means their versions weren’t nearly as popular as the ones I just listed. I guess…

  3. Barry Says:

    As mentioned above, Gene Austin NEVER recorded the song, contrary to what you read in some places. But it was a staple in his live act, and apparently Mrs. Parker loved it. , having heard it there, and The Colonel asked for a specific song “just that one time” for that reason.

    There are multiple accounts that agree on that. I doubt that there’s a Jolson version eithe; Doesn’t seem like his sort of material! I will await the chance to hear Vaughan Deleath. Till just now, I’d never even heard OF him!

Leave a Reply