47 HE TOUCHED ME
Released in the USA April 3 1972
Schōiki Yokoi was a sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army. In January 1972 he was discovered in a hideout in the jungles of Guam. The cave where for 27 years Yokoi hid from a victorious and willing to be gracious enemy has, a little like Graceland, become a tourist attraction. The existence of Yokoi and his circumstances evoke the famous question pondered by writer Ernest Hemingway. Yokoi either wasted twenty seven years of his life or fulfilled it in a way that was beyond all those that returned home. Hemingway believed that we would only be able to appreciate existence if we knew the date we would die. Without that knowledge we were obliged to fritter away precious time. In 1972 the working life of Elvis consisted of recording sessions, two month long seasons in Las Vegas and some touring. When it occurred the work was demanding but Elvis also had plenty of free time. In the diary accounts of his life there is nothing to indicate that he did anything constructive during his free days. Although Elvis could be obsessive the nearest thing he had to a hobby was the time he spent watching movies, collecting police badges and reading books on religion. His existence was not solitary like that of Sergeant Yokoi. Elvis may have been remote from his wife in 1972 but the boys in the Memphis Mafia were always around. They were paid to take the eyes of Elvis away from the time that was proceeding to an unspecified date. No one can deny the Memphis Mafia succeeded although the likelihood is that Elvis was a willing accomplice.
The album He Touched Me was on sale less than two months after the release of Elvis Now. Two months after He Touched Me appeared the album Elvis At Madison Square Garden was released. A third album would be in the record shops eight months later. Whatever was in the minds of the folk at RCA it did not constitute a timetable. These are not the kind of people one should trust with family planning. The recording sessions of 1971 had not been as successful as those of 1969 and 1970. The other two albums to emerge from the 1971 sessions rank amongst the weakest recorded by Elvis. He Touched Me is much superior to those efforts but it fails to match the achievements of the gospel albums that he recorded in 1960 and 1966. He Touched Me is not, though, without merit and the album has some fine tracks. The grammy award that it earned is deserved. But after the triumphs and perfection of His Hand In Mine and How Great Thou Art more than me were disappointed with its contents. If there is ambition in He Touched Me, there is also caution or examples of creative next steps being avoided.
The album mixes both contemporary and traditional gospel music. Inevitably it feels neither one thing nor the other. And Elvis in 1971 was beginning to feel weary. The superman that had appeared in Vegas in 1969 no longer felt so super. His commitment suffered and wavered between serious ambition, professional application which tilted too often towards the routine and more than a few what the hell moments when standards collapsed. He Touched Me captures that range of involvement or so it seems. The title track is a bold take on a song that was written in 1963 and is up there with the best of his gospel music. I’ve Got Confidence is modern gospel funk. Seeing Is Believing is less successful but each of these three tracks is an impressive example of Elvis being ambitious and singular. The routine professionalism on the He Touched Me album exists in his acceptable but unimaginative versions of Amazing Grace and Bosom Of Abraham. There is an alternative and bluesy version of Amazing Grace. This was not included in the album. Who is responsible for this censorship is not clear. It could be Elvis being timid or his masters insisting on the familiar. Or it could be general nervousness all round. Despite the timidity the voice of Elvis prevails .
The conversion of the country tune There Goes My Everything to the plodding gospel of He Is My Everything steps even further away from creativity and registers as a ‘we are all tired, this will do’ instance. After this track on which Elvis delivers an almost identical performance to his version of the same tune on Elvis Country the album never quite recovers. There Is No God But God and A Thing Called Love are obvious examples of contemporary gospel but they compare badly to the gospel music which belongs to the past and is rooted in unsophisticated and pious self-effacement. Without the inspiration from Elvis that secured greatness for his previous gospel albums these two tracks fail to be novel and distinguished. Instead they exist as nothing more than wayward selections. They are okay but, compared to what Elvis could have done, they are disturbingly modest. If that sounds overly critical then compare these songs to the stunning versions of How Great Thou Art that he delivered in his concerts of the 1970s. But as always there are those moments when Elvis is compelled to ignore the corporate entropy of RCA and discover his capabilities. An Evening Prayer and Reach Out To Jesus have compelling performances although the off key ending to the latter jars. I, John is also great and rocks in a way that is beyond the contemporary material.
Elvis was nominated on fourteen occasions for Grammy awards during his lifetime. The three Grammys he received were all for gospel recordings. They included an award for a recording of How Great Thou Art that Elvis performed on stage in 1974 in Memphis. He did not attend any of the Grammy award ceremonies or any other ceremonies held by the music and movie industries in which he worked. If Parker had some expertise regarding how to maximise publicity opportunities, the notion of securing influence appears to have been beyond him. This is no surprise. Butch Dutch Parker was the conman that needed others to know they had been suckered. The fourteen Grammy award nominations for the records of Elvis are a pitiful handful when compared to the numerous classics Elvis did deliver but understandable when we consider his part-time impression of Sergeant Schōiki Yokoi.
In 1972 the Watergate scandal weakened previous notions of American exceptionalism and perhaps some of that pending darkness prevented Elvis from having the conviction needed for his best gospel music. The discovery that the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the DC Watergate building had been burgled by the cronies of Nixon led to the resignation of an American President. If something similar happened today, the likelihood is that the perpetrator would tough it out. Richard Nixon may not have been the number one model for integrity but he was willing to concede elections when he failed to win more votes than his opponent. Right now such principles are under threat in both the USA and the UK.
Back in 1972 both countries had governments that were right of centre. The utopian hope of the sixties had been replaced by an expectation that the future and people would be different but not in ways that would weaken existing economic systems. Protest continued but it fractured. The talk of revolution amongst student idealists had never prohibited discussion of the merits of violence. Urban terrorists appeared. The USA had the Weathermen, Britain had the Angry Brigade, and in Germany there was the Baader Meinhof gang. The Angry Brigade appeared in court in the UK in 1972. The roots of the Brigade were complicated but most of its members had been inspired by the debates about revolution that they had heard in their Universities. No students debated revolution more than those at Essex University. I was a student there from 1966 to 1969 and, though no aspiring capitalist, once sold beer to the organisers of a University Revolutionary Festival. Jean Luc Godard attended that event. I was disappointed it was not Jean Paul Sartre.
The mystery is not that some students set off bombs in order to weaken modern capitalism but why all the other campus conformists that had made grand plans and had violent political fantasies did not. I knew the two women that were members of the Angry Brigade and was surprised they became involved. Both had attended Essex University whilst I was there. I expected one of the women to be too serious to tolerate sloppy bohemians. The other I imagined as too hedonistic to connect utopian political thoughts. The serious woman is now dead. After she was released from prison she became a highly regarded poet. We first met when she was carrying a copy of Elvis’ Golden Records. Two people shared their enthusiasm for an unfashionable singer. The brief time I knew her I thought she was alright. Though much of my behaviour was best ignored, I liked the idea that she might like me. In 1972 the number of Elvis fans was diminishing fast. What was not needed was one of them being locked up.
My memories have wandered more than normal. But perhaps there is a connection between a poorly informed Japanese sergeant that lived in a cave and had to survive by eating rats and plants, students that could have so easily never been involved in the next revolutionary step that all their friends avoided and a singer and musician that became so famous his masters built a factory where he was as confused as anyone about what the factory was supposed to be making. What happens to people is so random it might even be inevitable. He Touched Me is worth a listen. The certainty of His Hand In Mine and the clarity of How Great Thou Art may have been replaced with confusion and anxiety but this all happened in 1972. Maybe the confusion and tension of He Touched Me are its strengths. There would be plenty of time to consider not just the significance of this third and final gospel album but also how the world cracked a little in 1972. This we did 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.