Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Last Song Elvis Presley Ever Released.

On July 19, 1977, Elvis Presley released Moody Blue, a somewhat slipshod album of recent singles, live recordings, & a few new studio recordings.

Within a month, he was dead.

One of the new studio recordings was a solid, if unremarkable, read-through of Jim Reeves' crossover country smash from late 1959, "He'll Have To Go." The other was a new song written specifically for Elvis by Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice, called "It's Easy For You." It closed the album, & as fate would have it, his living recording career.


"It's Easy For You" was recorded on October 29, 1976. At the time, Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" was the Number 1 song in America, having recently displaced Rick Dees' "Disco Duck (Part 1)." Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life was in the midst of a 13-week reign atop of the Billboard Album chart, establishing itself as an instant American masterpiece. & somewhere in the basement of his Graceland home in downtown Memphis, Elvis Presley was pacing around, showing off guns, & talking about spirituality--doing everything but cutting a song. He finally got down to it, starting these last sessions with "It's Easy For You," which might imply that he was more interested in it than the others.

Exactly 23 years & 1 day before the release of "It's Easy For You," on July 18, 1953, a young Elvis Presley was chomping at the bit to record, going into Sun Records to make an acetate of "My Happiness"--for his mother's birthday, he claimed (it was in April). Everything was fresh, & new, & open, & you can hear it in the recording, which resurfaced in the early 1990s. It is the closest thing we have to knowing how Elvis sounded before he was Elvis.

But by the mid-'70s, recording had become such a chore for Elvis that his record label RCA set up a professional studio in the basement "Jungle Room" of Graceland; all Elvis had to cut a record was literally go downstairs. He instead chose to spend most of his time in his bedroom.

Elvis's later years have been both over-analyzed & completely lost in a haze of drugs, laziness, & missed opportunity. "Mark now, the supreme Elvis gesture," wrote Greil Marcus in "Elvis: Presliad," the final essay in his 1975 book, Mystery Train.


He takes the stage with a retinue of bodyguards, servants, singers, a band, an orchstra; he applies himself vaguely to the hits of the past, prostrates himself before songs of awesome ickiness; he acknowledges the applause & the gasps that greet his every moment (applause that comes thundering with such force you think the audience merely suffers the music as an excuse for its ovations); he closes with an act of show-biz love that still warms the heart; but above all, he throws away the entire performance.

Mystery Train was the first serious cultural study of rock & roll, & "Elvis: Presliad" is still the finest thing anyone has ever written about Elvis Presley. Marcus uses the above description passage to juxtapose a study into his early singles at Sun Records, which at the time was relatively unknown to the mass audience. (RCA rectified this the following year with Sun Sessions, a long-out-of-print LP that is so influential that it made #11 on Rolling Stone's 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All-Time.) The whole essay deserves to be read in full, but for these purposes, I will skip ahead to the ending:

All in all, there is only one remaining moment I want to see; one epiphany that would somehow bring his story home. Elvis would take the stage, as he always has; the roar of the audience would surround him, as it always will. After a time, he would begin a song by Bob Dylan. Singing slowly, Elvis would give it everything he has. "I must have been mad," he would cry, "I didn't know what I had--until I threw it all away."

& then, with love in his heart, he would laugh.

I quote this passage at length because I can't help but wonder if someone--or, more specifically, a young Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice--had read this essay before writing "It's Easy For You" a year later.

"I had a wife, & I had children," Elvis sings in the bridge, "I threw them all away."

My ears perked up--what is going on here?


* * *

"It's Easy For You" is a weird song. Its verse is in the form of a romantic country ballad & its bridge takes on a now-dated disco rhythm; the song then pushes itself out into a series of slow triplets that seem to be lifted from the "smile is my makeup I've worn since my breakup" couplet of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' classic "The Tracks Of My Tears." But where Smokey's song is effortless, "It's Easy For You" feels more like 3 songs cobbled together, one melancholy, one funky, & one over-the-top. Once I learned that it was Webber & Rice who wrote this--they would later pen Phantom Of The Opera, Cats, & Evita--the latter part fit into place: It was pure musical theater.

Adding to the song's strange vibe is its lyric. Elvis may have recorded 2 completely different songs called "Fool" (1971's "The Fool" & 1973's "Fool"), but never before has he sounded like such a complete loser. His later-period music is littered with songs about parents lamenting being separated from their spouses & young children--just check out "You Gave Me A Mountain," "Separate Ways," & "My Boy"--it was clearly a realm that Elvis was more than comfortable in. Given his own recent separation & divorce from his own wife & daughter, this overwrought music seemed to provide a genuine outlet for his emotions.

But "You Gave Me A Mountain" finds strength in God, "Separate Ways" looks ahead to a better future, & "My Boy" seems to have a happy ending in which the singer decides to stay put after all. In other words, they each find hope.

In contrast, "It's Easy For You" is void of any such hope.

It is the tale of a man who is left with absolutely nothing, having left his wife & children for a woman who now is no longer interested in him. She all but shrugs him off, blithely suggesting he should just go to the family he abandoned. It may be his song, but she clearly has always had the upper-hand.

The song's finest & most poignant part comes towards the end: "If you ever tire of the good life," Elvis sings, "Call me in a year or two." He sings it with a sweet nostalgia, as though he is thinking of his own rags-to-riches story. Only now the tables are turned--he's the one living the good life, but it is also he who has grown tired of it.

For by the time Elvis recorded these words, he was divorced from his wife, away from his daughter, & cut off in his own world, living somewhere between laziness & irrelevance. It sounds less like a song than a return back to the nothingness from which he had come.


* * *

But perhaps most odd is the song's opening lines: "You may not think that it's over, but I have a different point of view."

Just like how Hank Williams' final single was "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" & Kurt Cobain's final studio release of his lifetime was "I Hate Myself & I Want To Die," the last song that Elvis Presley ever released is seemingly framed by a simple message: It's over.

So it turns out that Greil Marcus was half right--there was indeed the act of throwing away, but there was no laughter.

1 comment:

  1. This may seem a minor matter, but since you brought it up as a matter of chronology, I have to point it out: Only 'Evita' pre-dates "It's Easy For You." The other two are from 1981 and 1986 respectively. Also, since you talk about the poignancy of the words of 'Easy', Tim Rice wrote the lyrics of 'Evita' but had no part in 'Phantom' or 'Cats' at all. All of this aside, I still think it's a great performance, especially in the 'Jungle Room' version without the overdubbed strings. It's also great trivia to note that the last song released by Elvis was by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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