In theory, it’s possible to think seriously about popular music without dealing with Elvis Presley, but out here in the real world I’m not sure how. Greil Marcus spent a book running the changes on Elvis’s version of “Mystery Train.” For others it’s the Comeback Special and ‘From Elvis In Memphis.’
For me, it’s 48 seconds of music from the last few years of Elvis’s life, what’s called an ‘informal recording’ of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Elvis sings the chorus twice, a guitar far in the background and then the music stops and he says, very emphatically, “Dylan.” And it’s over.
Where to start? Here: to my ear, “Released” is not a great song. It suffers from being too big; it’s just right for end of concert star turns. I’m surprised when it isn’t a sing-along. I’ve gravitated over the years to versions that are as small as can be, like the one on Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II, and even then the song annoys. Who says you’re gonna be released, little man?
Which gets me to Elvis’s mostly a capella performance. It’s on the fourth disc of the collected 70s master takes, selected out-takes and live shots. It comes after a playful “Merry Christmas, Baby,” and before an authoritative reading of another Dylan song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” This moment – I’m reluctant to call something so brief a performance – is neither. This is Elvis working it out, considering a song. The first thing you might be struck by is the purity of his voice; it’s the sound, retrospectively, that you could hear a lot of over the last 20 or 30 years, the sound singers and bands use when they want to evoke authenticity or the old days or whatever. It’s the sound of ‘The Trinity Session,’ and it has become precious and studied and a warning that what you’re about to hear may well be the opposite of sincerity.
But that’s not what I hear with Elvis and “Released.” What I hear is someone, without setting out to do so, taking a song back to the drawing board. His 48 seconds of musing makes me imagine Dylan himself, strumming a guitar, trying out words, thinking his way through what the song should say. And that’s the paradox and power of the Elvis version; it’s as if he’s singing these words for the very first time but already knows them in his heart. Somehow, he makes the song humble for once – and sacred. The means of Elvis exactly match the ends of “Released.” It’s a lot to hang on 48 seconds of off the cuff recording, but believe me, it’s there. Or better yet, listen for yourself.