Thursday, February 23, 2012

Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Elvis Presley: "In The Ghetto"

And now, a year after he staged a dramatic comeback - as if to remind everyone, including himself, that he was the King and there could be no doubt about it - Elvis nearly reaches #1 again, stopped only by a song that was automatically taken up by the IRA as their anthem. What is going on here? The top two songs in the land are classics - anyone who hears them can tell that - and neither are love songs? Some might find this odd, but this is just what pop music can do - bend and alter to address what the public wants and needs, and from Elvis they had had enough of the songs about girls for now.

This is the King addressing his subjects, singing as if he has to be persuaded to do so, sombre and compassionate, narrating a story that (without having to explain) he knows all too well himself. Elvis grew up poor, he was looked down upon, he didn't fit in - but he had his music as a shield and an escape. A way out: and his way out turned out to be an open door, a door so many walked or ran through afterwards.

If his comeback was all about showing he still could rock the house, this song came afterwards, written by one Mac Davis*. Its original title was "The Vicious Circle" and it depicts a life of misery, first for the mother who doesn't need another child and then for the violent and early end for the young man, who learns about violence young and ends up a victim of it, not even being able to get out of the ghetto, and as he is mourned another boy is born to a mournful woman, possibly his own, though that's not directly inferred...

And yet some don't like this song! Maybe they think beneath it all it's kind of cheesy; there is some distinctly American pathos about it just because it's Elvis and in the real world Elvis is rich and has been for some time, and oh look here he is condescending towards social commentary. But that line of thinking ignores what Elvis actually did, which was rebel and make money on his own terms, and if that let him make a bunch of rather silly movies which barely had any real rock 'n' roll in them, well, he could always make a great gospel album (he did, in 1967), then show everyone that he was still able to justify his wealth by getting down in a way that revived rock 'n' roll all by itself.

If Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper's "Elvis is Everywhere" states that "Elvis is everybody" then it's only rock logic to conclude that Elvis himself had a bit of everyone in him, including this poor ghetto boy who got a gun and a car one night and had high ambitions and desperation, just as Elvis had himself, once upon a time...Elvis mourns that ambition as much as anything else, that waste, and while this song is set in Chicago there are ghettos everywhere, and thus the song resonated in the UK as well, where Belfast was ever in the back of people's minds, and this song too could be seen as an anthem of sorts, a lament, of what had happened before and was now happening again, rooted in sectarianism, this time.

All this has been heard and comprehended from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (a cover of it was their first single) to Three Six Mafia, from Dolly Parton to Cartman from South Park. In truth the song does have a streak of pathos in it, in that the story itself never ends (and is thus pathetic) and yet Elvis is able to take the song on as his own, maybe because he's experienced his own pathetic 60s, as epitomized by his increasingly unnecessary movies; and so he looks at himself here obliquely, remembering his own daring ambition and mourning the death of a symbolic young man. It is like he has come back to first prove he can rock, and then recognize the fact that all are not as lucky as he is, and that this is a cycle which should end, as it brings nothing but misery to those who experience it. And yet it reflects the lives of so many of his audience; he is coming to them, so to speak, to show he does understand, even if in his own life he is removed from the circumstances...that there is a bit of himself here, a bowing down to those who still struggle, a recognition that what separates them isn't that wide a gap as you'd expect. The explosive power of Elvis is toned down here, as if to say: there but for the grace of God...and so it is also a hymn, though a different one from before.

Next up: a bedroom in Montreal and a 'happening' caught on tape, for all time.

*Who also wrote the the "satisfactionin'" "A Little Less Conversation" for Elvis and went on to fame for himself in the 70s, with songs like "Baby Don't Get Hooked On Me" and "Stop And Smell The Roses."

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