Elvis Is Everywhere: Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise

A Lonely Life Ends on Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis Press Scimitar headline August 17, 1977

“There’ll never be another one like him. He was the king of everyone and especially of our people. He was the king of gypsies. He was ours.”

 

“Elvis Presley doesn’t die. I die, you die, but he doesn’t. And he damn sure did.”

By Ryan Hilligoss, August 2012

The Promise of Rock and Roll: 35 years burning down that road; A great American artist dies and a young American musician comes to terms with his childhood dreams and the reality of adult life

On May 28th, 1977, after a legal dispute that kept him from making records for over a year, Bruce Springsteen finally wrested control of his music and career by formally settling the dispute with former manager Mike Appel.On that same date, Springsteen attended an Elvis Presley concert in Philadelphia, and it was not one of Elvis’ better performances according to reviews and fan accounts, including Bruce’s own account, as he related it to Ed Sciaky…”that wasn’t a very good night.” Within days, Springsteen entered the recording studio for the first time in nearly two years and began recording material that would make up one of his greatest albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town, released in 1978.

During those sessions, Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded over seventy songs, of which only ten made it onto the Darkness album. Two of the new songs were given away to other artists. A partially completed version of  Because the Night was given to Patti Smith, who was also working on a new album at the time that was being produced by Springsteen’s then recording engineer, Jimmy Iovine. The song Fire was given to Robert Gordon. More than thirty years later, twenty-one more of those songs were released as The Promise: The Lost Sessions – Darkness on The Edge of Town.

At the time Springsteen was recording songs for Darkness, a tell-all book on Elvis Presley, Elvis: What Happened?,based on material presented by three of his former body guards, was being readied for publication. What many had been whispering about Presley for years regarding pharmaceutical drug abuse and sometimes bizarre behavior was soon to be affirmed as partial truth by those who knew him the best, including Red West who had been a high school classmate of Elvis at Humes High School in Memphis, a close friend, bodyguard and sometimes even a songwriter for Presley (“Separate Ways,” “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and “Indescribably Blue.”)

According to Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, “Intrigued by the hero others saw in him, Bruce also took a closer look at his own role models. In July, soon after moving to the Record Plant, Bruce and the band found some advance copies of  Elvis: What Happened?, Steve Dunleavy’s muckracking book about Presley, in a bookshop around the corner. The influence of the King clicked back in, and for several weeks, the studio took on the look of an Elvis shrine. Bruce identified with Elvis’s career, the way it seemed totally in the artist’s control at one moment, and careening without guidance the next.”

Just a few weeks after the book was published and just as he was getting ready for yet another tour, Elvis Presley died on August 16th, 1977 at the age of forty-two. Elvis Presley was born on January 8th, 1935 to Gladys and Vernon Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi in a one room shotgun shack (Wrecking Ball “…from the shotgun shack to the Superdome”) The Presleys lived economically troubled and Vernon was actually sent to prison for three years for trying to forge a check to buy the family groceries. During his formative years living in mostly black, east Tupelo, in a part of town called Shake Rag, Presley was exposed to myriad musical styles: hard, rough blues, gospel at church every Sunday and country and western while listening to the radio. Presley then forged his musical tastes into a new sound that revolutionized American popular music which reverberated around the world.

As the keynote speaker this year at the South by Southwest music festival in Autstin, Tx, Springsteen said, “Remember, it wasn’t just the way Elvis looked; it was the way he moved that made people crazy, pissed off, driven to screaming ecstasy and profane revulsion. That was television. When they made an attempt to censor him from the waist down, it was because of what you could see happening in his pants. Elvis was the first modern 20th-century man, the precursor of the sexual revolution, of the Civil Rights revolution, drawn from the same Memphis as Martin Luther King, creating fundamental outsider art that would be embraced by a mainstream popular culture.

Television and Elvis gave us full access to a new language; a new form of communication; a new way of being; a new way of looking; a new way of thinking about sex, about race, about identity, about life; a new way of being an American, a human being and a new way of hearing music. Once Elvis came across the airwaves, once he was heard and seen in action, you could not put the genie back in the bottle. After that moment, there was yesterday, and there was today, and there was a red-hot, rockabilly forging of a new tomorrow before your very eyes.”

No one knows for sure exactly when, but sometime during the Nixon administration, Elvis lost the fire to give it his best effort and became lost in a fog of “nothing running through his veins”, loneliness and depression.  In 1976, Elvis told his recording producer Felton Jarvis, “I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley.” But the never ending carnival of constant touring, playing extended stands at Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, and recording low rent songs like Three Corn Patches and a self-parody, self-referential Raised on Rock, was the only way he knew to keep himself and those around him afloat financially. On August 16th, 1977, Springsteen’s first and most powerful rock inspirations, broke that promise in the most ultimate and final way. Elvis dreamed and sang about the ‘Impossible Dream’, but once he obtained it, or at least his own idea of the American Dream, he didn’t know what to do with it other than to give some of it away to friends, family and strangers in the forms of cars, houses and jewelry, or by renting out the local amusement park at night.The greatest lesson Springsteen learned from his idol was that “it’s easy to let the best of yourself slip away and dreams don’t mean nothin’ unless you’re strong enough to fight for them.”

If you listen to the Born To Run album and many of the songs on The Promise, they play as love letters to the nostalgia of musical influences of Springsteen’s childhood and early days of playing swim clubs and Jersey shore bars. Listen to these songs,  and you can hear the influence of Duane Eddy’s guitar on Save My Love, Roy Orbison’s It’s Over drum beat on Breakaway, Buddy Holly drum beat and rhythm guitar on Outside Looking In, and Beach Boy and The Crystals background harmonies on many songs. After Elvis died, the past was over and dark times were here in America and “calling out around the world” and Darkness was a refutation of those earlier sounds.

“When Elvis died, the event was a kind of explosion that went off silently in minds and hearts; out of that explosion came many fragments, edging slowly into the light and taking shape, changing shape again and again as the years went by,” wrote Greil Marcus in Dead Elvis. Springsteen, in many ways, both consciously and unconsciously, proved Marcus’ theorem true in the work he completed at the time of Darkness recording sessions which begat both Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise. 35 years later, if you listen hard enough to the music and the lyrics within that work, you can clearly hear the influence of Elvis Presley’s music and Presley’s death everywhere.

Rock and Roll as The Promise:Two things happened during Darkness: the punk explosion and Elvis died. It was the beginning and ending and a fascinating moment. Everything shifted at that moment.” Bruce Springsteen, 2010 E Street Radio interview with fans

It’s also hard not to hear the next comment from Springsteen, speaking in Thom Zimny’s film The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, as anything but a direct statement on Elvis’ death: “The success of Born To Run brought me an audience. It also separated me from all the things in life I had been trying to make connections to my whole life. And it frightened me because I understood what I had of value at my core was rooted in the place that I had grown up, the people I had known, the experiences I had. And if I moved away from those things into a sphere of just freedom as pure license, to go about your life as you desire, without connection. That’s where a lot of people I admired had drifted away from the essential things that made them great. And more than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great.”

Below, I’m going to describe some of the connections that I hear as an Elvis and Springsteen fan in the music that Bruce made during this very important period of his career, a period that also happened to coincide with the tragic death of his original musical inspiration. The beauty of any art, whether it be music, painting, photography, or literature, is that it is open to the interpretation of each and every individual. This is what I hear in my own head. It’s not necessarily what Bruce intended for listeners to hear, either consciously or unconsciously. It’s also not all that I think these songs are “about.” Of course, if you don’t hear the same connections or hear variations of the same, that’s okay, too.

The Promise: This song’s writing started in 1976 but was not completed until 1978 and the lyrics vary throughout the various recorded versions. Yes, it was partially written well before Elvis died, but again, these are the images that come to my mind as a fan of both artists.

The Promise is a song Springsteen described at a concert in March,1977 in Boston as “a song I wrote about a year ago and kind of a return to Thunder Road.”

Terry works in a rock and roll band

Searching for that million dollar sound 

The name Terry can stand as a metaphor for many American pop musicians, many of whom came from a background of hard lives. Musicians ranging from Elvis, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Springsteen himself  and everyone in between. Rock and roll has become for both artists and listeners, a ‘Mystery Train’  steaming through a ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’.

Some nights I go the drive-in, some nights I stay home

I followed that dream just like those guys do way up on the screen

As a teenager growing up poor in Memphis, Elvis worked various jobs to help support the family, then living in the Lauderdale Courts public housing projects. One of those jobs was an usher at Loew’s State movie theater in downtown Memphis. He worked from 5-10, 5 nights a week for $12.50/week. He would watch the movies on the screen during showings and repeat the lines of his favorite actors like Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando and dreamed of being up on that screen one day ‘just like those guys do’.

Also, one of Presley’s 31 Hollywood films, not counting 2 full length documentaries, was entitled Follow That Dream, released in 1962 and contained a song of the same name. In the late 80’s, Springsteen began performing the song in concert, and his version had radically different lyrics including

Now every man has the right to live
The right to a chance, to give what he has to give
The right to fight for the things he believes
For the things that come to him in dreams

Watch Springsteen’s  live performance of his version of Presley’s Follow That Dream, , containing radically revised lyrics by using below link.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=9XgIqMV9rXA

When the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my own dreams

Well now I built that Challenger by myself

But I needed money and I sold it

Elvis built his “Challenger” by himself, i.e his version of rock and roll by incorporating all the various styles that formed early rock: rhythm and blues, blues, country, bluegrass, and gospel into one style. Elvis sold it by “selling out” his dreams by acting in sub-par movies, recording less than stellar material to meet demanding contracts from RCA and touring around the country playing, often times, half-hearted concerts. In the last four to five years of his performances, Elvis’ stage show played as pure paint by numbers with the occasional performance of a new song from the latest album such as Hurt, T-R-O-U-B-L-E, and Fairy Tales. If you listen to some of concert recordings released under the Follow That Dream label through EPE, you can hear the same songs, vocal stylings and arrangements from one show to another. While many bands have done this for years,  Elvis broke his ‘promise’ to his fans by forgetting the ultimate relationship all performers should have with their audience. This relationship is best summed up in Springsteen’s own words, “Part of what pop promised, what rock promised was the never-ending now. No no no, it’s about living right now. All of a sudden you were lifted up into a higher place of living and experience. There was this beautiful, ever-present now.”

Everyday it just gets harder to live

This dream I’m believing in

Springsteen said on jumping the wall at Graceland in 1976, “When I jumped over the wall that night, I didn’t know who I was gonna meet. And the guard who stopped me at the door did me the biggest favor of my life. I had misunderstood. It was innocent and I was having a ball, but it wasn’t right. In the end, you cannot live inside that dream.”

In an earlier version of The Promise, Springsteen sang, “Thunder Road, yeah I sit up every morning til it turns light, Thunder Road” in a plaintive, wail of pain.

Elvis’s “normal” sleep schedule was to stay up throughout the night and then sleep during the day. In hearing the wail of pain in Springsteen’s voice on this line, I can picture Elvis sitting up many nights, alone in his secluded room and imagining what his life and career could have become if he were able to play the movie roles he really wanted such as Robert Mitchum’s brother in Thunder Road which he was offered to play in 1958, or roles he was offered or wanted to play in films like The Rainmaker and A Star is Born. On the Born To Run album, Thunder Road was the road of hope, renewal and self-realization for the song’s characters. Elvis saw the role in the movie Thunder Road as an opportunity for ‘real acting” and developing his overall abilities as an artist. There Elvis sits in his bedroom, looking out the window off into the distance and yelling out Thunder Road into the dark of night, with no one to hear or help, as if him crying out could change anything, a dream deferred.

In the last live recorded version of The Promise before Springsteen and band entered the studio, the song contained the lyric,  ‘There’s something burning out on the highway tonight.’

The version of the song contained on The Promise album that was recorded after Presley’s death , has this revised lyric, ‘There’s something dying down on the highway tonight.’

Two things come to mind with searing power with this one line:

(1)Elvis’ recording of Long Black Limousine in 1969 which contained ‘There’s a long line of mourners driving down our little street/Their fancy cars such a sight to see/And now they finally brought you home/When you left me/ you said you’d be returning in a fancy car for all to see/Now everyone is watching you/You finally had your dream/Now you’re riding in a long black limousine‘. Also interesting to note that Elvis’ recording starts with ominous church bells and drum cymbal played in time that is very similar to drummer Max Weinberg’s time keeping rim shots during Racing in the Street that is supposed to signify the passage of time. On Racing’, the same time keeping is akin to Al Jackson’s drumming on Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness

(2)I have a “sound picture” of Elvis’s funeral procession with its’ long white limousine, as opposed to long black limousine Elvis sang about in 1969 recording, travelling down Elvis Presley Boulevard. Indeed, something is dying down on the highway tonight.

Elvis Presley’s funeral procession leaving Graceland past musical gates, August 18, 1977

I won big once and I hit the coast

Elvis “hit it big” with Sun Studio recordings of Mystery Train and That’s All Right Mama and then signed with RCA and recorded in New York City

Inside I felt like I was carryin’ the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost

Elvis often times told people that he felt like he was living enough for two people because he was carrying the soul of his still-born twin brother Jesse Garon.

Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference

Elvis: What Happened? being published and the truth being spoken of his drug use and bizarre behavior, but it didn’t help as he died within weeks of advance copies hitting the streets.

The Promised Land, echoes of Presley and Chuck Berry

In 1973, amidst his devastating divorce from Priscilla, Elvis recorded a cover of Chuck Berry’s Promised Land. Berry wrote his version in 1963, ironically enough, while he was serving time in prison. Given that Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” was given in August of 1963  in which he talked about making it to the “promised land”, it is very possible that Berry was influenced by King. Elvis Presley covered many of Berry’s songs, both in concert and in recording studio. Presley’s recording of Promised Land stands as one of his finest rock recordings ever, driven by the core of his touring band musicians, and was almost a telling of Presley’s own story of a poor boy making his way to the golden state.  Given the influence of both Berry and Presley on Springsteen’s own music, it is not difficult to assume, his own Promised Land may have been inspired by their versions. In Springsteen’s indelible farewell to Elvis Presley, Johnny Bye Bye, he references Chuck Berry’s song in telling Elvis’ story: He left Memphis with a guitar in his hand/On a way one ticket to the Promised Land.

In Springsteen’s Promised Land, he wrote:

Blow away the dreams that tear you apart

Blow away the dreams that break your heart

Blow away the lies that leave you nothing

But lost and brokenhearted

After Elvis died, many of the dreams he had inspired in millions including a seven year-old boy growing up in Freehold, NJ, were shown to be false; ‘you can’t live inside those dreams.’ Bruce Springsteen was brokenhearted at the death of Elvis and was inspired to include the above lyrics in The Promised Land, one of his finest songs of his career. He was also inspired to write the song The Brokenhearted which has a vocal style and phrasing very similar to Elvis. The song’s atmosphere reminded me so much of Heartbreak Hotel that a more fitting title might be Heartbreak Hotel, Part II.

From The Promise documentary, Springsteen said of his Promised Land lyrics, “You had to lose your illusions while still holding onto some sense of possibilities. But more so, your illusions of adult life and a life without limitations. Which, I think, everyone dreams of and imagines at some point. The song that needs to be sung is one about how to deal with those things and move onto a creative life, a satisfying life and a life where you can get through the day and sleep at night. That is what most of those songs were about.”

The illusion of the dreams Bruce had, inspired by Elvis, were shattered when Elvis died.

Graceland: The original Darkness on the edge of town

As has been reported and discussed many times in the past, Springsteen went to Graceland in 1976 after playing a concert in Memphis. He wanted to see if Elvis was home and jumped over the wall and made a run up to the house before being stopped by a security guard.

This is the version Springsteen relayed to Rolling Stone in 1977, “When we played Memphis, we decided we wanted to get something to eat after the show. We told the cab driver, take us some place quiet. He said, ‘Are you guys celebrities?’ Yeah. So he said he’d take us out along the highway by Elvis’ house. I said, ‘You gotta take me to Elvis’ house.’ He says, ‘Do you mind if I call the dispatcher and tell him where we’re going?’ So he calls the guy and says, ‘We got some celebrities here. We got…’ and he shoves the mike in my face, so I say, ‘Bruce Springsteen.’ They didn’t know who I was, but they were pretending to, you know? He told the dispatcher, we were going to Elvis’ house; he was crackin’ up because the dispatcher thought we were going to drink coffee with Elvis.”

In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby would walk out into the darkness of his yard at night and stare off into the distance at a green light at the end of a far away pier that turned out to be the house of his long-lost love, Daisy. That green light symbolized his hopes and dreams of pure love for which he stretched his arms out in an attempt to make it real. In the novel, the green light plays a mysterious, recurring role and it comes to symbolize the American Dream itself. Jay Gatsby, originally from South Dakota, turned himself into a wealthy, cosmopolitan New Yorker. Gatsby’s life story and the green light created a new sense of identity in a new place reflected all individuals and the power of their dreams. On that night in April 1976 in Memphis, Tennessee, Springsteen said he saw a light in a room on the second floor and thought for sure that was Elvis sitting up reading and, just like Gatsby drawn to the green light, Bruce was drawn to Elvis’ light and his own dreams.

At the time of Springsteen’s magical run while chasing his dream, the physical surroundings of the area would have been dark at 3:00 am. And, Graceland is on a hill and it was out on the edge of Memphis at the time. Graceland is in the Whitehaven part of Memphis on the south edge of town, several miles from Memphis proper. At one time, Whitehaven was its’ own municipality, but has been annexed by Memphis as the area has grown since Elvis passed away. So, it’s not difficult to imagine Graceland as being in the darkness on the edge of town.

Now I hear she’s got a house up in Fairview

Written to give the impression that the “she” is doing financially well and living in a nice area with a style she’s trying to maintain. To Elvis, buying Graceland in 1957 constituted fulfilling the dream of a better life and taking care of his parents. But when you look at the house and see beyond the four columns out front, it’s really just a big house that pales in comparison to the houses celebrities and power brokers live in today.

Everybody’s got a secret, sonny

Something they just can’t face

Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it

They carry it with them, every step that they take

In the recording, there is a discernible jump in music level and intensity, and plays as the wish that Elvis could have shaken his secret of drug abuse and cut it loose because it dragged him down and led to his untimely and premature death. After the second verse, Springsteen exhales a series of grunts along with jangle of a tambourine that sounds like chains and gives the impression of someone tied with chains struggling to walk, like they are carrying the ghost of their past and their sins up that hill. When Elvis started recording music and made his way up the hill of Graceland, he did so while carrying a lot of chains: the chains of prejudice, the chains of poverty, and the chains of self-doubt.  Also, Sonny West was Red West’s cousin and fellow friend/body guard to Elvis who co-authored Elvis: What Happened?. Perhaps Sonny West can be taken as the “sonny” in these lyrics.

Some folks are born into a good life

Other folks get it anyway, anyhow

Springsteen could be writing about both Elvis’ and his own very humble background and how they both worked to grab the good life, the American Dream through the only means they knew how, rock and roll.

I lost my money and I lost my wife

Elvis’ divorce of Priscilla and paying money as part of legal settlement haunted him daily and led to him picking very telling songs to record such as Hurt, It’s Midnight, I Miss You, and For Old Times Sake.

Of special note, Elvis’ last studio recording album, Moody Blue, was released in July 1977, just weeks before his death, and the last track is titled, ‘It’s Easy For You’ The song, written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, and recorded in 1976 amidst his traumatic breakup with long time companion Linda Thompson and the recent firing of long time friend and bodyguard Red West, contains lyrics that seem written just for Elvis. If you listen to the recording, you can hear Elvis’ voice literally cracking with emotion as he sings the story of couple’s breakup:

You might not mind that it’s over

But I’ve got a different point of view

Even though I am shattered

It’s easy for you

You don’t have to face the music

You don’t have to face the crowd

I had a wife, I had children

I threw it all away

I found it hard to leave them

The saddest thing I ever had to do

According to Ernest Jorgensen’s Elvis Presley a Life In Music, after the line “I threw it all away’ Elvis ad libed ‘I get carried away/Emotional son of a bitch’ Appears as self-effacing recognition of his own behavior and the effects it had on those closest to him. Listen for yourself by clicking on link below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HHqVPxvJQbw

Tonight, I’ll be on that hill, because I can’t stop

On the night Springsteen jumped the wall at Graceland, he said to Steven Van Zandt who rode with him in the cab, while they were standing by the music gates looking up at the house, that he “just had to go up there and see if Elvis was home.”

I’ll be on that hill with everything I got

Lives on the line where dreams are won and lost(literally as in Elvis dying)

I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost

ie riding in a taxi with the meter running being the time and the cost is the fare for cab ride out to Graceland. Springsteen is singing about both Elvis own journey up that hill to Graceland, literally and figuratively, and about Bruce jumping the wall and trying to follow in Elvis’ footsteps.

For wanting things that can only be found,

In the darkness on the edge of town

Taxi Cab, Taxi Cab, City of Night: Let’s cross that river, to the other side

I imagine that in the sequencing of The Promise, Springsteen recognized a need to end on a more uplifting note than the second to last track, The Promise song. After the  rock bottom despair of The Promise and ‘something dying down on the highway tonight’, City of Night ends on a more hopeful note with the line, ‘Some people wanna die young and gloriously/ Taxi cab driver, well that ain’t me’ . The recording begins with a sound of whirring distortion, akin to the Beatles’ use of guitar reverb on I Feel Fine, which comes across as purposeful fast forwarding in time to a better place, a wrinkle in time. Sonically, the music is pure Stax studio, based in Memphis, and Springsteen’s nod to the great backing musicians in studio and recording artists that greatly influenced him, ie Otis, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Arthur Conley. The music might as well have been played by Booker T and the MGs, including the Memphis Horns. This song plays to me as a coda, a light touch acknowledgment of riding in a cab to Graceland and one last love letter to the musicians who inspired him.

I got some money and I’m feeling fine

This is the post concert rush he was still coming down from at 3:00am when they took the cab ride out to the edge of town.

Some people want to die young and gloriously

Taxi cab driver, well that ain’t me

Springsteen is being ironic with Elvis Presley’s death as yes, Elvis was only 42, but it was not a glorious death.

Further Darkness and The Promise Elvis tie-ins: ‘I got my facts learned real good right now’

Badlands:

Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/and a king ain’t satisfied until he rules everything/ I wanna go out tonight/I wanna find out what I got

The first three lines are taken from Presley’s recording of King of The Whole Wide World from the Kid Galahad soundtrack.

Johnny Bye Bye , which appeared as the B side on I’m On Fire single, originally started as Come On(Let’s Go Tonight) and contains the lines

Hey little girl with the red dress on

There’s a party tonight down in Memphis town

I’ll be going down there if you need a ride

The man on the radio says Elvis Presley’s died

Echo of Elvis’ 1967 cover of Tommy Tucker’s Hi Heel Sneakers which includes the line ‘put on your red dress baby, cause we’re going out tonight’

Springsteen used the image of the red dress again on this years Wrecking Ball album on the song, Easy Money, with the line ‘Put on your red dress, looking real good honey’

Fire

Springsteen has stated he wrote it specifically for Elvis and wanted to try to get Elvis to record it. The song would have fit neatly among Elvis’ other ‘hot’ songs, Burning Love and Fever, Peggy Lee’s big hit. Springsteen’s Fire echoes the lyrics of Fever with use of Romeo and Juliet, but instead of Lee’s Captain Smith and Pocahontas, Springsteen inserts Samson and Delilah as famous lovers. The lines ‘My nerves all jumping acting like a fool’ and ‘Your kisses they burn but your heart stays cool’, while not directly from Presley’s earlier works All Shook Up and Burning Love’, are very similar in lyrics to Presley’s songs, but don’t directly borrow from them. Springsteen’s guitar solo in the middle of Fire is a very close approximation of how James Burton, Elvis’ regular tour guitarist in the TCB band and, often times, lead studio guitarist, would have played it if Elvis had recorded the song. In fact, the whole E Street Band is playing parts as if they were laying down a demo for Elvis’ band, as I can hear very distinct parts for how all of the TCB band would have played including bass lines of Jerry Scheff, Glen Hardin piano and Ronnie Tutt’s drums.

Wrong Side of the Street

Springsteen’s singing ‘darlin’ in line ‘We’ll bring an end darlin’ very similar to Elvis singing words ‘Oh my love, my darlin’ from Elvis’ version of Roy Hamilton’s classic, Unchained Melody. Elvis’ version was released on Moody Blue which came out in July 1977, weeks prior to death

Spanish Eyes

Has very similar sound and lyrics to Elvis’s cover of the Al Martino hit of the same title. Elvis recorded in 1974 for The Good Times release. Same Latin tinged samba beat, mariachi guitar and horns as other Presley songs such as It’s Now Or Never and Fools Rush In.

Be True: The Promise of Springsteen

In 1980, Springsteen told rock critic Robert Hilburn, “You can’t live on what you did yesterday, or what’s going to happen tomorrow. If you fall into that trap, you don’t belong on stage. That’s what rock and roll is: a promise, an oath. It’s about being as true as you can at any particular moment.” While Elvis began phoning it in on stage periodically in voice, mind and effort, and sometimes openly disdained his audience, Springsteen has been giving it all he can on stage, night after night. He pushes himself and the band, through three to four hours of non-stop performance which includes song after song rolling into each other with little to no break in between, jumping from pianos and amplifier stacks, and sliding across the stage from one side to the other. All the while, he sings, plays guitar and piano, leads the band, fires up the crowd and preaches to the congregation.

One of Elvis Presley’s biggest fans, Bruce Springsteen, has become one of the leading rock artists of his time, because he learned from all of his heroes throughout his life and career. Springsteen once said, “I believe that the life of a rock and roll band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself and your audience looks up at you and can see themselves, and as long as those reflections are human, realistic ones.” In 1965, Elvis met the Beatles  at his Bel Air home and the five of them spent  a few uncomfortable hours making small talk and playing a little music. Elvis was too racked with self-doubt and low self-esteem around the four Liverpool Lads who had stormed America, and the Beatles were in awe being in the same room with one of their idols. Springsteen has long played in concert with many of his inspirations such as Sam Moore, Darlene Love and Chuck Berry, and now, he is returning the favor to those who grew up idolizing him such as Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem, The Dropkick Murphy’s and Eddie Vedder to name a few. He allows those younger musicians an opportunity to make a human connection, to “make that dream real.”

That is the key difference between the two: Elvis’ artistry ended at a certain point in time, but Springsteen has continued to grow as an artist and as a performer. At the end of Elvis’ career, he could no longer look into the faces of his audience and see an accurate reflection because he could no longer see himself. Every night that he is on stage, Springsteen looks into the faces of his crowd and makes connections with the eyes and minds of his fans, brings fans onto stage to dance and sing, gets help on vocals from younger fans on Waiting on a Sunny Day, and in the penultimate connection, literally puts his body and faith in the hands of his people by crowd-surfing from the back of the pit area back to the stage.  Springsteen puts his faith in his fans, and as they pass him forward, hand over hand, they repay that faith and belief in the promise of rock and roll a thousand times over.

Long ago, Springsteen said of trying to meet Presley at his home, “Later on, I used to wonder what I would have said to him if I had knocked on the door and if Elvis had come to the door. Because it really wasn’t Elvis I was going to see, but it was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear and somehow we all dreamed it.” Just recently, Springsteen told David Remnick of the New Yorker of his performances,”It’s theater you know. I’m a theatrical performer. I’m whispering in your ear and you’re dreaming my dreams, and then I’m getting a feel for yours. I’ve been doing that for 40 years.” The student has learned well from his best teacher.

(Coda) Elvis Presley: ‘A man with a vision, in search of a vision’

“It was like he whispered a dream in our ears, and then we dreamed it,” the Elvis acolyte Bruce Springsteen once said. What was in that dream was the best part of us, the best of the American dream- which by the last 20th century had become a big part of the world’s dream too. You could declare that dream an impossible fantasy or you could accept it as a challenge, but either way, you knew going that route would cost you as much as you had in you. Reality got in its way for Elvis, just like for you and me. Still, he dreamed that dream, and more than that, he shared it with everyone else. Like a child, the dream went places its creator could not have imagined, fostered alliances Elvis might not have liked, took on a look he could not recognize as his own. Elvis’s greatest gift to the world may have been allowing us to see so much of him in ourselves.” Dave Marsh, Elvis

Elvis is Everywhere, Mojo Nixon

When I look out into your eyes out there,
When I look out into your faces,
You know what I see?
I see a little bit of Elvis
In each and every one of you out there.

Elvis is everywhere, man!
He’s in everything.
He’s in everybody…
He’s in the young, the old,
the fat, the skinny,
the white, the black
the brown and the blue
people got Elvis in ’em too

Elvis Presley Sings The Promise

In an alternate space-time continuum, back in March of 1976, Elvis wasn’t in Tahoe and was sitting in his room reading and met his young, ‘crazy fan’ downstairs in the kitchen and shared some coffee and cheeseburgers while they talked music. One thing led to another and pretty soon, Elvis was back in the studio and singing some new songs written by a young upstart rock and roll singer named Bruce Springsteen. The following are the songs from The Promise Album that seem perfect for Elvis’ mood, song selections, arrangements, production styles and vocal phrasing and style at the time:

The Book of Love

  1. The Brokenhearted(Heartbreak Hotel Part II)
  2. Fire
  3. Breakaway
  4. Someday(We’ll Be Together)
  5. One Way Street
  6. Gotta Get That Feeling
  7. Save My Love
  8. Rendevous
  9. Spanish Eyes
  10. Candy’s Boy- “..there are pictures of her heroes(Elvis?) on the wall….”
  11. Outside Looking In
  12. The Little Things(My Baby Does)
  13. The Promise(Upon hearing Elvis sing this song, this writer’s head just exploded)

Quotes and notes

“There is something magical in watching a man who had lost himself find his way home.” Jon Landau after watching NBC’s Elvis (The 68’ Comeback Special)

Springsteen on Presley, “That Elvis man, he is all there is. There ain’t no more. Everything starts and ends with him. He wrote the book. He is everything to do and not to do in the business.” Mike Greenblatt, The Return of the Native Son, 1978.

Springsteen on Presley, “I could not imagine that guy dying. He was so incredibly important to me, to go on and do what I want to do. When I heard the news it was like somebody took a piece out of me.

He was not primitive, like people think. He was an artist and he was into being an artist. Of course he was also into rockin’ his ass, but that was part of it. Onstage, he encompassed everything- he was laughing at the world, and he was laughing at himself but at the same time, he was dead serious.

To me, he was as big as the whole country itself, as big as the whole dream. He just embodied the essence of it and he was in mortal combat with the thing. It was horrible and, at the same time, it was fantastic. Nothing will ever take the place of that guy.” Rolling Stone, 1977

Interview with Bruce circa 1988, heard on George Klein’s radio show.

Interviewer: You usually end your concerts with the line, let freedom ring. Do you think a big, strong musical message can make that happen?

Springsteen: I think so. I think Elvis did. You can look around and say there’s still a lot of trouble in the world, and there’s still so much injustice. But I think Elvis did and I think it helped a lot of people. I know it helped me. It made me a different person.”

“The world awaits the next Elvis. We’re hoping to find a flesh and blood superhero. A regular guy who changes the world and, in the process, shows us all how to change with him.”  Dave Marsh

In the introduction to the Darkness box set, Springsteen writes, “Post ‘Born To Run’ I was still held in thrall by the towering pop records that had shaped my youth and early music education. Echoes of Elvis, Dylan, Roy Orbison, the full-voiced rockabilly ballad singers of the Fifties and Sixties along with my favorite soul artists and Phil Spector, thread throughout. As I page through my 37-year-old “Darkness” notebook, I see a young man filled with ambition, a local culture/B movie fueled florid imagination, and thrilled to be a rock’n’roll songwriter. The nights of listening to Lieber and Stoller. Goffin and King, Barry and Greenwich, Mann and Weil, the geniuses of early rock’n’roll songwriting had seeped into my bones. Their craft inspired me to a respect and love for my profession that’s been the cornerstone of the writing I’ve done for the E Street Band and my entire work life.”

Notes

Lead quote from Presley fan Myrtle Smith, Rolling Stone 9/22/77. She explained to the journalist why she and 30 of her friends had jumped in their car upon hearing the news and drove to Graceland

Man with a vision- In The Promise documentary, Jon Landau stated that, “Bruce is a man with a vision, but at the same time, he is in search of a vision. And that is what each album is.”

Elvis doesn’t die- “I’ve never been through anything like that before. Myrna(Smith of Sweet Inspirations) broke down and cried as hard as I’ve ever seen a woman cry. We were all so shocked.” quote from John Wilkinson, Elvis’ TCB Band rhythm guitarist on hearing the news of Elvis dying while the band was travelling to Portland, Maine for the first show of a new Presley tour.

Two things happened during Darkness- Taken from Darkness special 11/2010 on Sirius/XM E Street Radio when a fan asked what Elvis’ death impact had on the songs during recording “….that’s very interesting question because I think people forgot that Elvis died. The two things that happened were the punk explosion and Elvis died. It had a big impact on me at the time. No one has asked me that question in all the interviews I have done. I don’t think it affected the album in any way. The song ‘Come on, Let’s Go Tonight’ is a song about going to Memphis for Elvis’ funeral. So, I did begin to write something about it. And that song turned into Factory.

Elvis Presley’s boyhood home, Tupelo, Ms

7 thoughts on “Elvis Is Everywhere: Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise

  1. This is superb. Shows insight about Bruce and Elvis……and an understanding about both their journeys. Well done. Very well done.

    • Thank you for the kind words….Elvis and Bruce are two of my favorite artists and there are so many connections, both directly and indirectly. Thanks for reading

      • Glad the words touched. Hope you keep writing. You have a gift and bring music and stories together well. Elvis is my musical touchstone and has been since day one. Did my Masters and PhD on topics related to Elvis Presley. Grew up in Keansburg, New Jersey…..in Monmouth County……and Freehold, Bruce’s Home Town, is the County Seat. Our High Schools played each other in sports and Asbury Park is part of my life experiences as well. Yep, Bruce and Elvis both are part of my life. Thanks for such a good write.

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