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. 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 back-up 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 Guralnick 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 60’s, 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 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 has 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 come-back 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 Hometown,” “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 tin foil, 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, 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’ 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’ 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, other-worldly 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 undertaking 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.