Friday, March 19, 2021

From Elvis In Memphis: The Eric Wolfson Interview (Part 2)

Interview with Eric Wolfson about his book From Elvis In Memphis (part 2 of 2).

Eric Wolfson is the author of From Elvis In Memphis, the first stand-alone book about an Elvis album ever written. Here follows the second part of an interview about the making of the book.

You describe the recording of the songs in a very vivid way. How would you characterize your style of writing?

Well, there’s that old adage (attributed to Frank Zappa, among others, depending on who you ask) that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Describing something as intrinsically ephemeral and ethereal as music is hard enough, but then also being limited by copyright in terms of the amount of lyrics you can legally quote makes it even harder.

So I really just try to learn from the greats. For me, that would be Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick (both of who have not coincidentally written definitive tomes on Elvis in Mystery Train and Last Train to Memphis, respectively); Marcus as the rare ability to not just describe a song, but also how it feels to listen to it. Guralnick is more journalistic, but he can be subtly dramatic in ways that help set the scene. I also had a friend who was a journalist and music critic for several major newspapers and she once told me that you have to figure out how to describe the sound in a concrete way; whenever I’d give her my writing to look at, she’d say, “OK, but tell me how this sounds. I can’t hear how it sounds.” So I keep that in the back of my head too.

I have never thought of characterizing my style of writing other than that I think it’s somewhat romantic (lower-case “r”) and attempts to walk the line between scholarly but accessible. Part of the magic of Greil Marcus’s writing is how he can juxtapose two things that seem completely unrelated at first but then tie everything together, shifting gears with a masterstroke of words so that you never think of either thing in quite the same way again. I tried in my own way to use that idea by seeing each song as a sort of portal to reach out to something else that may not be entirely obvious and related—like Richard Nixon, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Charley Patton—to help enrich the cultural narrative. I see America as a big messy mash-up of a lot of interrelated things and try to capture that in my writing. So maybe I’m an Americana romantic, if that’s a thing? I’m going to have to keep thinking on that.

You also include chapters about “Stranger In My Own Home Town” and “Suspicious Minds” Why? Do you think they should also have been included on the album?

“Stranger in My Own Home Town” is a marvelous track that captures so many vital themes of the sessions—the idea of the singer as a stranger even though they’re in their own hometown, the fact it’s a one-take studio jam where you can hear The Memphis Boys feeling out the corners of the sound, the flashes of success and failure in the lyrics that are only deepened by the fact they are informed by what one might hear as Elvis’s own story—it was simply too perfect not to include. It’s almost like a theme song for the sessions. As a document of Elvis facing the strange new world of rock and roll in 1969, the only other song that comes close is “Wearin’ That Loved on Look.” So since it was recorded pretty much exactly in the middle of the sessions, I used it as an interlude between the first and second sides in my book.

“Suspicious Minds” also seemed too good to pass up. In this case though, it’s because the song is the official masterpiece of the sessions, the most instantly-recognizable song, and Elvis’s final #1 Billboard Pop hit of his lifetime. It was released after From Elvis in Memphis, of course, but it was the next thing released (as a summer single), so it worked as a sort of epilogue to the narrative. All throughout the sessions, Elvis is trying to claw his way back on top to this new era of rock and roll that has left him behind, and more than any other song, “Suspicious Minds” is the commercial homecoming he was seeking. And it was a true #1, the only Elvis hit that made the top of the three national US charts (Billboard, CashBox, and Record World) outside of his 1956-1962 commercial peak.

I’m torn about whether they should have been included on the album because From Elvis in Memphis is such a perfect record that stands on its own ground. Historically, it also came at a bit of a crossroads in the music industry where singles and albums were not being as segregated as they were a decade earlier. In fact, it was somewhat unusual that From Elvis in Memphis contained its lead single, “In the Ghetto.” Chips Moman was adamant about only releasing one album of great stuff and not follow it up with one of more mediocre stuff. (He of course was overruled as a sequel studio album, eventually titled Back in Memphis, came out later that year with a few highs that matched From Elvis in Memphis—namely “Inherit the Wind,” “Stranger in My Own Home Town,” “You’ll Think of Me,” and “Without Love (There Is Nothing)”—but otherwise sounded like the leftovers that it was.) At the same time, Chips understood the value of a potential hit single, so “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” and “Kentucky Rain” were also all held back and the single versions of none of these songs would appear on any album until compilation boxed sets in the early 1970s. 

The modern era of digital downloads, playlists, and bonus tracks has once again put the song above the album, so it’s irresistible to make a “what if” playlist. On one level, the 1987 compilation The Memphis Record was an attempt to do so, but it played around with running orders and used a few odd alternate takes and strange mixes of songs; far more successful in my opinion was the first disc of the 1999 Suspicious Minds anthology. I think it’s possible to take the dozen or so best songs from all the sessions and make what could have been an ultimate album of hits, and perhaps that would have been even better than From Elvis in Memphis. And as much as I’m an album purist, I believe that (unpopular opinion alert!) Pet Sounds would have been better if it had “Good Vibrations” and Sgt. Pepper would have been better if it had “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” And I’m sure someone could argue the same thing about From Elvis in Memphis and “Suspicious Minds.”

So I could go either way. But if someone put a gun to my head, I would say, yes, having “Stranger in My Own Home Town” and “Suspicious Minds” would make a stronger album than the two weakest songs on From Elvis in Memphis.

But then again, you’d be hard-pressed to find two people who could agree on what the same two weakest songs on From Elvis in Memphis.

Which of course is only a testimony to its greatness.

Elvis never returned to American Sound. Instead, he went to Nashville and recorded, among other things, Elvis Country. What do you think of that decision?

I think it’s a tragic missed opportunity. One of the great mysteries of Elvis’s Memphis sessions at American Sound was the fact that he was so engaged, successful, and productive—he got 32 masters from 12 days of work, his most productive sessions up to that point (with a full 12.5% of the songs hitting the Billboard Top 20)—yet he would never walk in the studio door again.

No one has a single good answer as to why, but it seems to me that it was a three-way standoff between three very strong personalities: Chips, the Colonel, and Elvis. Chips definitely felt burned about the way “Suspicious Minds” was treated in post-production and frustrated that there were no credits for himself or any of the musicians on the finished LP. For the many things Chips was, he was a man of principle and not the kind of person who would let themselves—or his friends at American Sound Studio—get double-crossed twice.

The fact that Elvis overruled the Colonel to record at American Sound, making it the second time in a year that Elvis had done so (the first was when he made “The ’68 Comeback Special” a rock and roll extravaganza instead of a tux-and-tails Christmas show), I’ve always imagined that if there was ever a time the Colonel felt like Elvis might be outgrowing him, this would have been it. As the sessions were wrapping up and post-production was humming along, the Colonel re-staked his claim on Elvis by setting up the next phase of his career: Las Vegas. This was a realm in which the Colonel could make the deals and call the shots. Elvis was initially engaged and did some great work, but it yielded diminishing returns as the ’70s wore on.

And I think even though Elvis was able to assert himself artistically with “The ’68 Comeback Special” and the American Sound Studio recordings, he never had the best track-record for extended engagement or self-assertion. Outside of the ’50s—when Elvis was really only commercially active as a recording artist for about four years all put together (yielding finished masters that comfortably fit onto four CDs)—Elvis had a way of showing initial engagement and then falling back on formula. You can sense it in his early films like Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, as opposed to, say, later films like Paradise, Hawaiian Style or Clambake. Same thing with his post-Army records. After throwing himself all in at the Elvis Is Back! sessions, he largely sleepwalked through his records like he did his movie soundtracks, until they basically stopped issuing non-soundtrack LPs altogether. (The obvious exceptions to this were his three gospel LPs, all of which found him fully engaged and passionate.) On one level, I wonder if Elvis would come across a challenge, give it his all and defy expectations, only to then rest on his laurels in the afterglow.

Don’t get me wrong—Elvis made phenomenal recordings nearly every year he was commercially active, but rarely in a full project like the sessions for Elvis Is Back!, “The ’68 Comeback Special,” or From Elvis in Memphis. The sheer intensity of this music stands with his timeless Sun and early RCA work. It is the music that is why we still call Elvis the King of Rock and Roll.

Can we expect more books about Elvis from you and if so what would they be about?

I would love to write more Elvis books. I’ve got some ideas for a book about his life as well as his discography. We shall see if anything comes together.

What other album would you like to write about?

In terms of Elvis’s discography, I would love to write about his 1956 self-titled debut, which is the first #1 rock and roll album (for 10 weeks!). Along with Here’s Little Richard, it’s one of the greatest and most historically important albums that no one really knows about. I would also put Chuck Berry Is on Top, Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg, Buddy Holly’s The “Chirping” Crickets, and Bo Diddley on that list. All are five-star albums that hold their own against any of the greatest rock albums since.

In a similar boat is Elvis’s original 1976 Sun Sessions, which made #11 on Rolling Stone’s original 2003 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time even though it had been out-of-print for roughly two decades. Blows my mind.

Some people have asked me if I will write more Elvis albums for the 33 1/3 series, but they have yet to repeat an author in their series, which I think is a good thing, since there are so many great albums and great writers out there. So if I were to write about another album, it would have to be in another venue. Which is totally fine by me.

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Mårten said...

A fantastic read, very interesting and thoughtful answers. Thank you!

Thomas said...

You're welcome Mårten. Eric Wolfson told me the questions were quite fun to answer, or else he wouldn't have written so much! I'm glad he did.