8 A DATE WITH ELVIS
Released in the USA July 24 1959
The summer months in Paris are warm, and the pavement cafes are pleasant. June in 1959 was the month Elvis used his leave from the Army to visit the French capital. A month later the album A Date With Elvis was released in the United States. The trip to Paris by Elvis included an evening at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Pictures were snapped and, like most photographs, soon forgotten by the sightseers that had taken them. The photos from the visit by Elvis to the nightclub only emerged after his death. Elvis was remarkably open that evening in Paris. He joined the routine club band and performed a couple of songs. After the show Elvis posed for the photographs. Although it had fame and tourist respectability the Moulin Rouge nightclub celebrated a shabby history. Patrons were entertained with music and exotic dancing. In the photographs that were subsequently discovered, Elvis poses not only with musicians but also ladies who look as if their histories are no less exotic than their stage performances. If the narcissistic traits in the personality of Elvis encouraged him to be particular about his appearance and dress, he was never inhibited about posing for a photo with anyone. Elvis often shared his image with fans whose physical and social limitations were obvious. In those moments Elvis was always willing to have his own carefully groomed image reduced by those who wore the mark of failure. Posing with strippers and whores, though, has to be considered reckless. Most people in his position would have made an excuse and left.
Music and literary critic Greil Marcus reacted to seeing the photos taken in the Moulin Rouge by comparing these images of Elvis to Dick Diver, the main character in the Scott Fitzgerald masterpiece Tender Is The Night. Dick Diver is an accomplished psychiatrist when he marries one of his patients and adapts to her affluent way of life. During the marriage Diver enjoys his new wealth but wastes his talent and potential. The couple are surrounded by sophisticated rich Americans. Diver is the superior character but his compromises mean that his friends, whom he initially indulged, become stronger while he becomes weaker. Instead of being assertive, Diver is passive. A man of merit is reduced. Most of this happens while Dick Diver and his wife Nicole are renting a villa in France. The European location of the novel is important. Amidst European decadence informed by extended history Diver loses his American innocence, energy and strength. Whatever happened to Elvis in Europe to perhaps change him would have occurred in more than one evening but the photographs of him inside the Moulin Rouge are both revealing and disturbing. The American innocent from Tennessee looks hopeless, unaware and vulnerable. He is a man, like Dick Diver, who appears to misunderstand his exceptionalism.
A Date With Elvis was a compilation album and even in the summer of 1959 the record was a far from contemporary collection of recent achievements. But, because five of the tracks included in the album were recorded at Sun Studios, a young American innocent was remembered. In what was becoming the norm in the States the album has just ten tracks. The British version of the album has fourteen. Not only do Europeans have a decadence informed by history we also have different appetites or we did back then. Six performances feature on both versions of the album. These consist of the four of the Sun tracks that feature on the American album, a RCA recording from 1957 and a song from the movie Love Me Tender. On the British album there are eight tracks that are not present on the American release. Not included in the British album are the Sun track I Forgot To Remember To Forget and three songs from the movie Jailhouse Rock. Instead there are three other tracks from Sun, four early recordings from sessions at RCA and an additional song from Love Me Tender. It is complicated.
There is an irony. As in the cities of previously war damaged Europe, there was also a Hollywood tradition of undermining innocence. The European edition of A Date With Elvis focuses on the innocence and talent that made Elvis a radical force in the 1950s. The American alternative is distinguished by not only offering less value for money but also by its cynical presentation of the complex brand that a certain decadent European called Colonel Parker had desired. Nothing quite proclaims the supposed benefit of American imperialism like the cover of A Date With Elvis. A handsome and uniformed American soldier sits in what looks like a Cadillac convertible. The red leather bench seat that Elvis leans over suggests superior consumerism. No doubt Parker approved of an image that hinted at wealth and conformity. The back cover consists of a 1960 calendar. I have read that the date Elvis was due to leave the Army was circled on the calendar. But I have seen various vinyl releases and CD reproductions and have yet to to locate a date that was circled. Nor have I seen on the vinyl album covers the gatefold that opens to reveal a thank you message by Elvis and a collection of photographs from the press conference that preceded Presley departing for Germany. I assume that was added for American fans.
The album was not as successful in the States as in Britain. It reached number 31 in the Billboard charts. Many American fans would have ignored A Date With Elvis because they already owned the Jailhouse Rock songs on the successful five track extended play. In Britain the fans were able to purchase a record that honoured the rock and roll revolution without compromise. Every time differences had occurred between American and British versions of the 1950s’ albums of Elvis the British fans invariably were given the superior product. This might explain why the British fans of Elvis are noted for their devotion. These superior compilations convinced many Brits that Elvis was a creative genius.
Although neither of the alternative A Date With Elvis albums is as impressive as the previous compilation For LP Fans Only they both have merit. But because the American album appears to have prevailed and because I have already written too much about European decadence it is preferable to look at that album. Compared to the Sun classics the movie songs have their limitations. We’re Gonna Move from the movie Love Me Tender is okay but suffers from its Hollywood context. At least the songs from Jailhouse Rock benefit from the guidance and contribution of Leiber and Stoller. I Want To Be Free is a cynical novelty number but Elvis growls out the chorus and its best moments are impressive. Baby I Don’t Care is mannered, and Elvis again delivers but the performance and song are too self-conscious for it to qualify as classic rock and roll. The ballad Young And Beautiful is, though, inspired. It has a restrained but fabulous bass line and a performance that transforms lament into quiet bewildered protest. The other ballad on the album is the unforgettable Is It So Strange. Elvis takes an ordinary country tune and loads it with doubt and apprehension. He demands recognition for the alienated. These two ballads exist as alternative icons and are evidence of a singular and possibly tortured imagination. They also contradict the image of the relaxed soldier on the album cover.
The Sun classics are what we would expect. The weakest is I Forgot To Remember To Forget which plods but has an interesting change in tempo in the middle of the song. The vocal from Elvis is fine yet offers few surprises. All the rest from Sun are exceptional or would be if there were not five of them on the album. Baby Let’s Play House and Good Rockin’ Tonight are great rockers. Blue Moon Of Kentucky begins the album which is fitting because it was the B side of the very first Elvis single at Sun. Milkcow Blues Boogie had been adopted and reincarnated by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys as a Western Swing number. Elvis takes it back to its gut bucket blues roots and reveals that his musical heart is a lot more complex than that imagined by his manager, record company and Hollywood film producers.
In the Army the soldier Elvis was obliged to alter his hair style. Mine had been transformed in 1957. An elder cousin came to live with my grandmother and in the village outside Liverpool where I lived. The cousin that sought refuge had been set on fire by a gang. Both his legs had been badly burned. Outside the city he was able to recuperate and recover his nerves. No one was allowed to ask probing questions but the suspicion existed that the attack had been instigated by a boy jealous of the interest his girl showed in my cousin. Some considered my cousin handsome, and a few thought he looked a little like Elvis. He combed his hair in a similar fashion. Despite our age differences we became close. I acquired my first mentor. My cousin let me touch the burnt purple skin on his legs, and we talked about the records that were popular. My cousin took an interest in my grooming. I was trained in how to brush my hair back into a quiff. When my cousin left my grandmother to return home the Elvis hairstyle on my head was well established. I was nine years of age but my allegiance and ambition were obvious. No other boy in my primary school took his hair as seriously as I did but I had been encouraged. The hairstyle and loyalties remained throughout the rest of my school years. Of course nothing is permanent. In the 1960s radical change would impact fashion and taste. I had to choose between the hairstyle or being ignored by girls of my age. I lost the quiff. Changing circumstances and what happened to Elvis after he came out of the Army would eventually present a challenge to my loyalty. Before that, though, more good Elvis albums would appear. My allegiance and heart would be tested later.
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.