Last week Sarah and I spent two evenings surprising ourselves by watching a two-part Netflix documentary about Elvis Presley. “Surprising” because neither of us had ever much liked him, until we watched this brilliantly done story of his life. Since when I’ve thought a lot about Elvis. And gone and got the music I’m listening to while I type this, which I’d broadly categorise as his gospel and Memphis music.
I remember when I was growing up in the 1960s that the singers I most liked, John Lennon and Paul McCartney I mean, would talk about the “Elvis moment” that first inspired them. Which used to mystify me more than a bit. Because while I could more than empathise with Paul’s similarly credited “Little Richard moment,” by the time the Beatles were into their stride Elvis had begun his dull Hollywood movie years. And so I never did have my own Elvis moment until last week watching Netflix.
And actually it was a whole sequence of moments throughout the two evenings. That happened every time Elvis started singing one of his gospel and Memphis songs. Not the formulaic movie songs. And not his Great American songbook attempts either. Because the Elvis we watched last week wasn’t that sort of singer. Instead, every time we watched him plug himself back into his home traditions of Mississippi and Memphis we saw him come back to life. Like he did even late into the 1960s and early 70s when the dull-eyed has been of the movie years suddenly shrugs all that off and re-emerges, briefly at least, as the same Elvis that John and Paul had so revered.
What I also noticed was that at these moments, his own “Elvis moments”maybe, he’d go off and make one of the three purely gospel albums of his life that I’ve been listening to all weekend. Not because I’m any kind of Christian, but because when I listen to Elvis singing these songs of his deep South self I can hear him being part of the same tradition that Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Mavis Staples, Jesse Winchester and Marvin Gaye also came from. The Memphis gospel country-blues where Elvis belonged and only ever truly thrived in.
But thrive he does in every Memphis gospel country-blues section of these two lovely films. His eyes come alive and his whole body is once again his singing instrument, like it had been back in the rock’n’roll getting going days, when American TV wouldn’t even show the bottom half of him for fear of offending the nation’s morals.
That good. And of course “The Searcher” shows Elvis getting lost again in the slow tragedy of his final Vegas years. But nothing undoes the thrill of his Elvis moments. “God bless you kid” as The Blue Nile would sing in their own eulogy for him in the 1990s:
“I drive all over townThe Blue Nile
To the bars without a name,
And it feels like Memphis after Elvis
There’s nothing going on.
When you get to the top
Does it all work out?
You want to start again,
With hope in your heart.
God bless you kid
And everything you did, yeah God bless you kid”
God bless you kid. Now I’m off to listen to those gospel songs again.
“Elvis Presley: The Searcher” is on Netflix now. Maybe you’ll have your own Elvis moment?