Monday, November 13, 2017

Comeback Elvis Is The Best Elvis

A couple of years ago one of my daughters was sick and I had to stay home from work to take care of her. She was three at the time, and she liked it when I would show her old clips of musical performances. I was exhausted and a little sick myself, so I decided to cue up a video of the complete center stage performances from Elvis’ comeback special. These performances, where he is clad head to toe in black leather, have more than outshined the big productions numbers from his 1968 special. My daughter was enraptured. I also tried to show her Elvis’ Aloha From Hawaii concert film, when he was in his 70s sequined jumpsuit period. My daughter would have none of it, exclaiming “I want rock and roll Elvis!”

She was channeling a feeling that I am sure was common in 1968. The rock and roll Elvis was back, snarling and sassy, ripping it up on songs like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” The years and years of stupid movies and worse soundtracks were over. This was not the smiling lug in a blow-dried haircut romancing a generic starlet with wholesome woo, but a dangerous, sexy molten hot hunk of burning love. Of course, by 1970 he was in Vegas and the fiery spark of the comeback had faded into the ochre tint of black velvet.

This gives his comeback music an elegiac quality, which is perhaps why I find myself listening to it in November, the month when all around is dying. The fall colors are nature’s most beautiful burst before going dormant, much like the comeback years were Elvis’ greatest music period, but came right before stasis and the end. So with that in mind, here are five songs that are not so much a top five but five reasons why comeback Elvis is the best Elvis.

"Don’t Cry Daddy"

“In The Ghetto” is probably Elvis’ most maudlin song, and it is positively cringe-worthy in 2017. Elvis makes the maudlin work better on “Don’t Cry Daddy,” a song sung from the perspective of a man who has lost his wife. (Both songs are written by Mac Davis, which is not a coincidence.) He wakes up in the morning, his son coming to him and giving him strength, telling him not to cry. Elvis was famously close with his own mother Gladys, who died soon after his rise to fame. I don’t think there’s another song where that lingering pain comes out stronger. The hiccups in his voice would be corny coming from someone else, but Elvis makes me believe this song.

"Suspicious Minds"

OK, this one is kinda obvious, but it’s obvious for a reason. Elvis really sank his teeth into this song about a collapsing relation, perhaps because it mirrored his own disintegrating marriage. It still sounds great. I mean, what kind of love song starts with “We’re caught in a trap”? It is a thoroughly adult song, a million miles away from the “That’s Alright Mama” abandon of the Sun years or the aw shucks romance of the movie years. One of the things I like best about his comeback music is that it is indeed so mature in its themes. As I get older it just gets better for that reason.

"Trouble-Guitar Man"

This is the song that started his comeback special. "If you're looking for trouble/You've come to the right place." BAM! Elvis snarls into the camera, blowing away the insipid image he had built in his movies in a matter of seconds. And sure, the jazzy, splashy arrangement of "Guitar Man" and the accompanying production number are very Hollywood, but Elvis is giving the song a rough layer of grunt and sweat. It has the vitality of his youthful music, but also the toughness of experience, a sense of the quiet confidence of an older man. I love it.

This comes from Back In Memphis, the lesser successor to From Elvis in Memphis, which is by far my favorite Elvis album. Nevertheless, it's really good. There's a real groove here and a toughness in his voice and an obvious connection to his own life. He had left Hollywood behind, but obviously felt ambivalent about his hometown of Memphis. It is one of the few times that Elvis really seemed to let his inner life come out in his music. You can hear it in other comeback era songs. 

"One Night With You"

The best part of the comeback special are the songs Elvis plays with his old bandmates, sitting on chairs. It's loose and fun and raw and he is having a hell of of a time, especially on this number. I will never ever forgive Colonel Tom Parker for hiding the lamp of his talent under the bushel basket of godawful movies and their insipid soundtracks.

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