Friday, April 3, 2015

Elvis Presley's "The Last Farewell": A Consideration.


 
I have been listening to nothing but Elvis Presley since last October, but out of all of the songs in his catalog (& I've listened to them all), I don't think I've listened to any as much as "The Last Farewell." According to my iTunes Library, I've heard it some 75 times, although that doesn't count times where I listened to part of it but got interrupted before it finished. I imagine the number is closer to 100.

I am not sure why that is.

There are songs that draw you in for obvious reasons--their melody, arrangement, instrumentation, etc.--but this is not one of those songs. It is a fair-to-poor Elvis song off of a fair-to-poor Elvis album, the cumbersomely-titled From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee, which was a polite way for his label RCA to name it He Is So Disillusioned, Unmotivated, & Depressed, We've Moved The Recording Equipment Into His House, But He Still Barely Uses It. Even Elvis-obsessed aficionados usually dismiss it along with the disappointing music at the end of his career; most treatises on Elvis fail to mention it at all.

When Elvis recorded "The Last Farewell" in February 1976, it was in his first night of recording sessions in the "Jungle Room" of Graceland. By that point, he was generally disinterested about anything relating to recording or producing music, but "The Last Farewell" seemed to be an exception.

Sometime in the summer of 1975, Elvis got a 45 of the song, originally written & recorded in 1971 by the English folksinger Roger Whittaker. Although the song was never much of a hit, it got some airplay some 4 years after its initial release, & was re-released. To date, it is one of the few songs to sell over 10 million copies worldwide.

"The Last Farewell" was not the greatest song ever written. It was maudlin & cliched, telling the tale of a nineteenth-century British maritime soldier returning home on a ship to England to fight in a war. Whittaker's vocal was competent, but not outstanding, & the production values were cheesy, even in the world of 1970s easy listening radio. Still, there was something unique that Elvis heard in it, & he listened to it over & over again, some 20 times a row, trying (& failing) to get his then-girlfriend Melissa Blackwood to appreciate it. "I just kind of like that song," Elvis told her.

He seemed anxious to cut his own version of it, & it was one of the first songs he tried in the Jungle Room. But, as Peter Guralnick described in the second volume of his definitive biography of Elvis, "the musicians were no more able to grasp its fascination than Melissa had been." They worked their way through the arrangement, largely basing it on Whittaker's original--the soaring strings & synthesizers, the dramatic musical flourishes, the small army of backing vocalists, only adding more of each, as though to mask the song with orchestration & flash.

For a man whose finest music sounds utterly timeless--say, "That's All Right," "Mystery Train," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Suspicious Minds," & "Burning Love"--Elvis's cover of "The Last Farewell" is painfully dated. The production values sound like they were conceived in Rick Wakeman's head & the tone is much closer to adult contemporary pop than rock & roll. If not for Elvis's vocal, you'd think it was tailor-made for a Reprise-era Frank Sinatra.

Lyrically, it was one of the strangest things Elvis ever sang. The song is sung from the perspective of a British soldier heading back to his home in England in the nineteenth century; Elvis may have not always been the best match for his lyrical content (just check out "The Edge Of Reality" or "Raised On Rock"--or better yet, don't), but the idea of Elvis as a colonial-era British sailor is bizarre to the point of distraction. Indeed, hearing Elvis sing about returning "safe home again to England" where he "shall watch the English mist roll through the dell" is kind of ridiculous. & thrown into a musical score that sounds like it was written for a PBS Nova special, it is rendered even stranger.

Despite all of this, in the subdued, melancholy context of From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee, the song jumps out to the listener with its tender refrain:

For you are beautiful
I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell.

& again:

For you are beautiful
I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell.

When Roger Whittaker sang these lines, he did it solo, singing just behind the beat to give it a slight swing (or as much as a Roger Whittaker song can swing). Elvis, on the other hand, keeps the melody directly on the beat & sings with a small entourage--most noticeably his frequent co-harmonizer, Charlie Hodges. It is the one part of the sea-inspired song that actually sounds like a sea-shanty, & it is the part that will stick in your head long after the song has ended, more saccharine than sweet, more cloying than beautiful.

If you listen to it enough times, you might notice that it sounds oddly familiar, & indeed, I find that it sounds just like the refrain of James Taylor's "Carolina In My Mind," originally released a few years before Whittaker's "The Last Farewell":

Can't you see the sunshine?
Can't you just feel the moonshine?

Did Whittaker accidentally lift the melody from Taylor? Or come with it on his own? & did Elvis, who knew James Taylor from covering his "Steamroller Blues" as part of his Aloha From Hawaii concert, hear this familiarity as well? If one connects the dots, a song like the down-home celebration of "Carolina In My Mind" is far closer to the kind of music Elvis liked to cut: All-American, country music-tinged anthems, unabashed with no irony. Did Elvis hear this song about British naval history & catch a melody at its center that brought everything home to the good ol' USA? If so, the vessel he sails is rooted in Carolina.

Perhaps this is what Elvis heard when he listened to it endlessly & tried to get his friends & band-mates interested in it, even if he couldn't exactly articulate why. I just kind of like that song.

If nothing else, it was all worth it if only because it allowed him to sing these lines, which hide in plain sight at the center of the song:

I have no fear of death, it brings no sorrow
But how bitter will be this last farewell?

As with any song that Elvis liked, he put his stamp on the music, which is to say that he sung the words like he meant them. Just as the melody of the refrain raised questions about its meaning for Elvis, so too does the lyric of the verse. Was he drawn to "The Last Farewell" because it was a rare song that looked death in the face but didn't flinch? As he was spending his days in bed & gaining weight on a diet of deep-fried food & prescription drugs, was it a statement about his current living condition (or lack thereof)?

& for us, as listeners, to hear Elvis sing these words, buried at the heart of an otherwise forgettable song on an otherwise forgettable album, what does it mean? They sound brave, but also offhanded, & ultimately prescient.

Furthermore, they are directly followed by the refrain:

For you are beautiful
I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell

The fact that Elvis often called his audiences "beautiful" in his 1970s concerts towards the end of his life only seems to reinforce the idea that he is singing directly to us, his audience. & in so doing, it is the only love of his life that has stayed true through his musical career.

The song itself ultimately becomes a last farewell--& with all of its messiness & imperfections, it's a bitter one.

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