He was, as many liked to claim, the boy who stole the blues. But of course the endless cycles of love and theft have been around as American culture itself, when blackface minstrelsy first reared its ugly (to a modern audience, anyway) head around the same time that Lincoln was winning his first major public office as a state congressman for Illinois.
There’s a straight line that can be drawn from Al Jolson and Jimmie Rodgers on down through the Beastie Boys and Eminem; Elvis stands in the middle, breaking the line in two as he turns black into white, blues into country, underground into pop, and perhaps love into theft.
But this is not all; it may not even be half. Elvis’s true gift was his sense of conviction, and this was something that transcended any lines of color, time, or space. When the material was good, and Elvis gave it his all, he made you believe what he was singing like few performers before or since. It is said that Elvis wanted to be an actor most of all – a real, respected actor like James Dean, as opposed to the cinematic punchline he became – and somewhat ironically, you can hear it in the music long before you can get it from one of his films. He throws himself into the song like a Brando or DeNiro throws himself into a role, taking it as far as it can go.
At his best – think “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” for one extreme, “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” for the other – Elvis brings the song (and, by extension, its listeners) to a near-Platonian ideal; at his worst – think “Yoga Is as Yoga Does” or “Mama Liked the Roses” – he either distances himself from the material by phoning it in with a hollow gusto that denies the sound of his voice and often creates music that is as fascinating as it is dreadful (put on “Poison Ivy League” and give me a call), or gets so far into the feeling of the song, he loses us along the way, resulting in a recording that is flat and maudlin.
If Elvis is to be thought of as some sort of actor in song, many would hold that “Mystery Train” is his finest performance. It is certainly his best idea: As Greil Marcus has famously theorized, “Mystery Train” is a blues song written and first performed by Junior Parker that adapts its central verse – “Train I ride, sixteen coaches long/That long black train got my baby and gone” – from the old Carter Family tune “Worried Man Blues.” For Elvis, who surely would’ve known both the Parker and the Carter versions, this set up an interesting conundrum: Unlike his other music, which was safely divided between the blues songs, where he “left home,” and the country songs, where he “came back,” here was a song where the country song was embedded into the blues song, which threw Elvis’s world off its axis, and resulted in a one-of-a-kind performance.
All of which is well and good – and I believe, rather brilliant and fascinating – but for me it only tells part of the story. “Mystery Train” is one of those amazing songs (the Jaynettes’ “Sally Go ’Round the Roses” is another) that sound totally normal when you first hear it, but gets stranger and stranger the more you think about it. In time, one cannot help but wonder if the long black train the singer rides that has his baby and is never coming back, that took his baby but never will again, is death itself, with the singer jumping on to see if he can somehow turn the train back on itself, cheat death, and escape into freedom. The record is all tension and intensity, the sound of a man literally trying to stare down a freight train. But then, right as the song begins to fade away and you’re beginning to assume that the standoff is a draw, you can hear the singer give a cry of “Whooo-OOOO–W’HOOOOO!” and laugh in a pure burst of joy that lets you know that he has indeed escaped the mystery train.
With so much going on musically, lyrically, and ideologically, you can almost miss that this is a song about a corpse.
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This same mistake could not be made on what I consider to be Elvis’s finest performance of all-time, “Long Black Limousine.” The song opens with tolling church bells as the singer sets the scene:There’s a long line of mourners driving down our little street
A drum roll shifts the song’s pace into an easy funk as the singer tells us the back story. It’s a tale we’ve all heard before: A young girl leaves the small town to make it in the big city and promises that when she returns, it will be in a limousine. The song cuts back to the present as the singer acknowledges that the girl has finally gotten her dream.
The bridge fills in the crucial missing information in telling sketches that read like headlines: The party, the fatal crash, the highway race, the unseen curve. Elvis sings the titular phrase strongly, bravely, and repeated by a chorus of female gospel singers whose “ooooo”s push the song up to the next level – literally, as the song jumps up to a higher key, further building the tension and forcing Elvis’s voice to a higher, more desperate register.
And as in his finest performances, Elvis more than rises to the occasion, singing with the sentimentality of country, the grit of blues, and the soul of rock and roll:Through tear-filled eyes I watch as you ride by, oh yeah
I once read a piece about such a movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, in a collection of film essays by the Scottish author and film critic Gilbert Adair. He argued that, in the famous scene in which Clarence shows George Bailey what his wife Mary would be doing if George had never been born – “She’s about to close the library!” Clarence chokes, before taking him to a bespeckled, spinster parallel-universe version of Mary –It’s a Wonderful Life portrays what could be the greatest love ever captured on film: Mary would have never wed another even if George had never been born. It’s the kind of moment that passes by without notice, but the more you think about it, the deeper it becomes.
A similar sense of finality frames “Long Black Limousine,” only instead of being proven by someone never being born, it is proven by someone’s death. But given the ambiguity of the song’s central characters, as coupled with the singer’s stark romanticism, I cannot help but wonder if the girl’s death caused the singer’s love, as opposed to a situation like It’s a Wonderful Life, where the love is tested by life, and not the other way around. That is, if the girl hadn’t been killed, would the singer be declaring his love for her in such an epic, final way? Is it possible that, from the singer’s perspective, the girl was always a bit out of reach, especially once she became a big star, such that her death merely seals the unrequited love that would have been felt anyway? And with this most extreme version of a love lost – that is, death – the singer’s response is in its own way equally fatal: Her physical death sparks his emotional one; his heart and his dreams were indeed riding with her in a long black limousine.
All of which is certainly dramatic enough, but when you throw on the layer of the real world, things become even more complicated. For Elvis, the most famous performer of his time, to be singing the song of an anonymous small town nobody invites his audience to switch places with him. Part of the song’s power derives from it being sung in the second person – “You know, when you left, you know you told me,” that’s four you’s in less than one line – which invites us, the audience, to play the part of the deceased movie star. We are the ones riding in a long black limousine, and we are the ones who in death receive the eternal love of the singer’s life.
But of course to a modern audience, it is Elvis who is dead. He’s the one who left his small hometown to make it big in Hollywood, and eventually came home to us as a corpse. Elvis’s death looms so large that it almost overtakes the song, which is no small feat considering it is a direct contradiction of it. In the end, Elvis is dead and we are alive, giving him a love that is as big, powerful, and all-encompassing as he was.
He may have cheated the long black Mystery Train in his youth, but in the end, he rode in his own long black limousine.