36 FROM MEMPHIS TO VEGAS
FROM VEGAS TO MEMPHIS
Released in the USA October 14 1969
Elvis returned to performing live on stage in August 1969. Five years before that happened American philosopher Herbert Marcuse had defined state capitalism and state communism as repressive societies that produced robotic humans. Marcuse in his book One Dimensional Man dismissed the post-war affluence as an exploitative economic system that was dependent on the creation of consumerism and false needs. In the 1960s many University students liked to put paperbacks in their jacket pockets and have the book title showing. Two books that could be seen more than the others were One Dimensional Man by Marcuse and The Divided Self by R D Laing. Marcuse advocated ‘the great refusal’ as the only honourable response to consumer capitalism, and Laing argued that schizophrenia was nothing more than a defence mechanism against an insane society.
I was not as impressed with the 1960s youth movement as some but I read both books. Marcuse and Laing were not the catalysts for the social revolution of the 1960s but they would have influenced key participants. Radicalism not only affected political debates but fashions. Hair was grown, skirts became shorter, trousers had bell bottoms and pop music became rock. The guitar solos were longer, and pisspot bards brooded. Rock albums became thematic, and some of the covers referred to hallucinatory experiences. The artistic ambition of our favourite strummers and warblers ran hot. Freshly minted auteurs needed double albums to reveal not just their talent but Marcusian independence. Bob Dylan released the double album Blonde On Blonde in 1966. The Beatles followed with The White Album. Jimi Hendrix released Electric Ladyland. George Harrison had sampled his share of hallucinatory drugs and he swallowed as much mystical nonsense as anyone. He released a triple album.
There is little to hint that Colonel Parker ever read Marcuse or Laing. His resistance to consumer capitalism was limited to an aversion to paying his way. In 1969 the British journalist Ray Connolly had breakfast with Parker in Las Vegas. At the end of the meal skinflint Parker walked away and left Connolly to pay the bill. The From Memphis To Vegas double album by Elvis might have been an attempt to redefine Elvis as fashionable and hip or nothing more than an attempt by a record company to increase the profit margin on the units of record sales. The album cover was a departure from previous efforts. All the previous post-army albums had colour photos of a groomed Elvis posing for the camera. This time he was on stage and unkempt and sweating. The photographs were in black and white.
In 1969 the rock establishment was sniffy about musicians appearing in Las Vegas. John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival created music that honoured 1950s rock and roll and he was also an Elvis fan. When interviewed in 1969 in, believe it or not, the American pop magazine Tiger Beat, rockabilly man Fogerty was adamant. No way would he visit Las Vegas and be tarnished with corrupt consumer capitalism. Well, times change, we acquire extra years and talk of the great refusal has been forgotten. These days Fogerty is one of many musicians that appear in Las Vegas. But despite what was considered not hip in 1969 the performances of Elvis in the Nevada desert were lauded by both the traditional and countercultural critics. His show even earned a decent review from the anarchists at The Village Voice although the sometimes resident columnist Norman Mailer passed on the opportunity.
Marcuse in his book One Dimensional Man included a citation from the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. ‘It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.’ The news in 1969 of a double album from Elvis inspired hope amongst those that somewhere around the release of Harum Scarum had lost all. In the summer of 1969 I was not just short of the stuff but well overdrawn. But the Elvis TV Special and From Elvis In Memphis albums had at least given me hope for Elvis. I wanted the double album to be great. The double albums of Dylan, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix had longueurs that had been conveniently ignored by their fans but I also recognised that those albums represented progress and achievement. I wanted Elvis to have similar ambition and perhaps again redefine the world for me as he had done when I first heard Hound Dog in 1956.
The folk singer Phil Ochs had been invited to the opening show by Elvis in Las Vegas. Ochs belonged to the radical left and had argued that American capitalism would only ever be reformed if Presley was accepted as a cheerleader and his revolutionary potential understood. If I had little faith in my peers, I was not against a social and economic revolution. In fact, like many of my generation, I was rather fatalistic about it occurring. The question back in 1969 was not if but when. I suppose I wanted Elvis to conquer and justify my advocacy of his worth. The choice of a double album that consisted of a live performance and more studio tracks from the Chips Moman sessions felt inspired.
More than one critic and Elvis biographer has explained the failures and wrong steps in the career of Elvis by referring to how he coped with challenges and the routine. The notion is that Elvis could respond to a challenge but struggled with self-motivation when he had to deal with schedules and repeated demands. This explanation contains a truth but ignores the personality trait that shaped the malaise. Elvis had both masculine and feminine dimensions to his personality. The masculine expressed itself through aggression and a desire to be a warrior. He studied karate and collected guns and police badges. He was good in battle but, like Coriolanus in the play by Shakespeare, less impressive when he had to re-establish routine and order in his empire or the recording studio. Elvis needed to conquer, and it was this dependency rather than creating a consistent music catalogue that inspired him. The appearance in Las Vegas in 1969 was his third battle in just over a year. The NBC TV Special and the From Elvis in Memphis album were his previous two. In each venture the uniform of the warrior had been important, Elvis had worn the black leather suit on TV and he even dressed up for the Memphis sessions. For his Vegas show he wore a black karate suit.
I may have been what Benjamin describes as one of those without hope but what was odd was just how many wanted Elvis to triumph in Las Vegas in 1969. The positive reviews celebrate the return of the super slim, handsome and energetic conqueror as much as the music. The spectacle of Elvis on stage was impressive and that was confirmed when the third season of Elvis in Las Vegas was filmed for the documentary That’s The Way It Is. The live Vegas album in From Memphis To Vegas From Vegas To Memphis is called Elvis In Person. The album fails to capture the excitement that had impressed the critics and reviewers. Somehow the conqueror, apart from during the seven and a half minutes version of Suspicious Minds, is lost between the grooves. The single vinyl album format has limits. Since the death of Elvis various CDs have contained whole shows and been successful in sharing what made Elvis special on stage in the early years of his comeback. One of the best concert performances from Las Vegas is included in the extended three CD release of That’s The Way It Is.
For the double album to have conquered in the way his live performances had with witnesses there had to be evidence of Elvis moving to a higher level after the stunning return in the TV Special and From Elvis In Memphis. That does not occur. For different reasons the two albums in From Memphis To Vegas From Vegas To Memphis are both unbalanced. The rock and roll of the first side of Elvis In Person is dragged down by a self-conscious and less than committed rendition of Are You Lonesome Tonight. Johnny B Goode and I Can’t Stop Loving You hit hard but the 1950s hits of Elvis are taken too fast and fail to convince. Yet Mystery Train and Tiger Man which are combined in a medley are excellent. My Babe is given an original treatment and reinforces the commitment to the blues but without the live spectacle the treatment sounds crude. The subtlety of Little Walter is lost, and the energy of Elvis has failed to complete the journey from the Hilton Showroom. My Babe demonstrates the difference between what works on stage and what is needed for those listening to records. In The Ghetto is an even better example. Listen at home to the live version and the rhythm sounds clunky and the tempo too quick. Watch him sing it live and one is impressed by how Elvis has changed the tone and style of the song to connect with a live audience. What has been a weakness has become a dazzling strength.
The title From Memphis To Vegas From Vegas To Memphis is, like the title of the studio album Back In Memphis, a deceit. Elvis had not returned to Memphis to make records. It is harsh to describe the studio album Back In Memphis as consisting of From Elvis In Memphis leftovers. Half the tracks are marvellous, and the rest also have inspired performances. If the live version of Suspicious Minds lifts Elvis to a higher level on the Elvis In Person album, then his inspired version of the Percy Mayfield blues Stranger In My Own Home Town does the same on Back In Memphis. The rhythmic talent that once galvanised Sun Records is harnessed to a heavy, original and complex production. Today the double album is available as a single CD. Without needing Elvis to conquer or operate as a cultural compass in the way I did in 1969, From Memphis To Vegas From Vegas To Memphis sounds fine and confirms the existence of an exceptional talent. And if more care had been taken over song selections the double album would have been regarded as a classic. Including the singles Suspicious Minds and Kentucky Rain would have transformed Back In Memphis. Not adding the driving I Got A Woman to Elvis In Person was a crime. More crimes would be committed 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.