Wednesday, 16 January 2008

ELVIS PRESLEY: Stranger In My Own Home Town

There is a terrifying sense of urgency about Presley's '69 Memphis sessions; his bark and bite are not signs of a spirit fierily renewed after ten full years of vertical cryogenic freezing, but the last desperate glare of a fading lightbulb, the last chance he's going to get to express his own self before it is fully subsumed in the service of showbusiness and the awkwardness of opulent existing. If "Long Black Limousine" now seems more than ever a frightening premonition of his own passing - and his screams are those of fear overriding rage - then his reading of the Percy Mayfield R&B reliable is his last and biggest fuck you to whoever didn't deserve fucking. His stance, from his off-mike hums and grunts emerging from the rhythm and orchestral masses at the beginning, is one of supreme defiance, an extended middle finger of a pelvis towards the kids on Sunset Strip who pushed past him into the topless bar and had no idea who or why he was. He's ridden back into town; its citizens either do not recognise him or choose to turn their eyes, if not their minds, away by lack of virtue of their self-imposed shame. If Mayfield "came home with good intentions/About five or six years ago" he could, and did, sing the buried reasons for his lack of acceptance - murder, or worse? - but with Elvis it's clear he's metaphorising about an all-round family entertainment hell which kept him from participating in any meaningful game (could a place for him ever have been imagined in anyone's 1967?). But despite the lack of welcome from his erstwhile peers, he snarls and winks "Oh but you can't keep a good man down" - he's not quite dead yet.

The performance overruns its natural end by double the time; you can sense the band preparing to wind down after Presley's "final" chorus two-and-a-half minutes in, but no, he won't, or can't, let it go; he drawls a beat behind the beat, he attacks each new repetition with reinforced dynamism until eventually he goes somewhere beyond words, now mere markers to guide us towards his comparatively naked emotion. Reggie Young dips in with that Joe South-patented lead guitar-as-sitar effect, but the most insistent respondent is drummer Gene Chrisman, who is a revelation throughout the entire record; he hammers, prods, nudges Presley insistently, turning up the intensity radar until everything - horns, strings, backing choirs - seems wholly improvised. It finally fades out at 4:39 but Elvis still won't let it lie; as the track disappears we hear his terrifying roar of "PLAY ON PLAY ON PLAY ON!" as though the band is his oxygen mask, as though he'll drop down lifeless if the song ever ends. The glory of that fade is that we can imagine it hasn't actually ended, nearly forty years on.