Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Long Black Limousine

Elvis Presley is an epic American the way that few are – he towers over the 20th Century just like how Abraham Lincoln towers over the 19th and Benjamin Franklin the 18th. Each one was born poor, but by the middle of the century had worked their way up to a major (if not the major) influence of their day. They also each took a national stand on the tangled issues of race and freedom: Franklin’s final public act before his death was to call for the abolition of slavery; Lincoln finally did abolish slavery; Elvis took the drama from the political stage to the performing one.

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.

* * *

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
Their fancy cars are such a sight to see, oh yeah.
They’re all your rich friends who knew you in the city
And now they’ve finally brought, brought you home to me.

Like many of the finest firsthand narratives in American music – “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, “North Country Blues” by Bob Dylan, “Louisiana 1927” by Randy Newman, “The Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen – “Long Black Limousine” is told in a way that rings true for the song: a small town man who uses simple words to conjure quick, clear images. And yet, through the sound of the song – the way the tolling bells set the tempo of the first verse, the sad earnestness of the singer’s vocal, choosing each word carefully as he feels his way down the steps of the melody, the sense of death that has saturated the entire recording – we get a much clearer picture of what’s going on. The stage is set for an epic, and true to form, the song jumps back to reveal that it’s beginning was really the ending.

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
A chauffeur, a chauffer at the wheel dressed up so fine–
And I will NEVER, I’LL NEVER LOVE ANOTHER
Oooooooh– my heart, all my dreams–
They’re with you, in that long black, limousine.

It is this verse that makes the song: When Elvis sings that he will never love another, you believe him; this is less the sound of a man singing the lyrics to a song than it is a man living his words out. There is pain in his voice, but also anguish, fear, regret, and – to my ears, at least – some paradoxical sense of romantic satisfaction. This is a young man from a small town, one who presumably had little to show for his life except for the fact that he just happened to have crossed paths with this girl who became a very big star. Like Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, it is unclear just how well the two knew each other – interestingly, there is no mention of a young romance or a first kiss or another small-town clichés; all we know is that they were close enough to have a conversation in which she promised that she would return in a long black limousine. Given her apparent pluck and resolution, it is quite possible she had this conversation more than once, and perhaps with anyone who would listen in the town. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she said it to the singer, and in a way that was direct enough that he can recall it as her telling him. This gives the song an almost casual touch that belies its closed-off climax – everything feels open, alive, and airy. Yet there is still a sense of something grander waiting in the wings, like when watching the early scenes of an old movie and knowing full well that the sparring young guy and girl will end up together.

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.

3 comments:

  1. Dear Eric,

    Interesting, on-target take on the phenomenon that is still Elvis, as well as the song in question.

    Also, brilliant writing. Thank you!

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