Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 29 Jan 2017, and is filled under Uncategorised.

If I Can Dream

To the people who know Elvis as a fat man who wore jumpsuits and died on the toilet, parodied by people, both serious and mocking, on an almost hourly basis, I invite you to consider this.

At several points in his career and in a life marked by a titanic struggle with substance abuse and addictive behaviour of various kinds, years before people were allowed to discuss it openly, there were glimpses of another Elvis altogether. We forget that he was seen as a dangerously potent sexual force who would corrupt young girls and who looked both disturbingly androgynous and troublingly masculine, thirty years before David Bowie. And, for a brief instant in 1968, when a spate of assassinations rocked the world and the brief flowering of hope was all but extinguished, he did something amazing.

I’m not going to keep you waiting to find out what that amazing thing was, a well-used writer’s trick to make sure that you read to the end of the blog and one I’ve probably relied on more than I should. Instead, I’m going to tell you. What he did, as America was torn by division and strife was to stand up on a TV special that was, by turns, an eerie forerunner of MTV’s ‘Unplugged’ series and a fairly bizarre tribute to modern dance, and to sing a song called ‘If I Can Dream,’ a direct nod to Martin Luther King who had been gunned down in Memphis only a couple of months before.

This doesn’t seem like a big deal in 2017, but in America, in the late sixties, white people, let alone very famous white people from the South, didn’t ally themselves with the Civil Rights movement, let alone use a primetime TV show as a vehicle to advance the cause. Even now, Beyonce saying anything vaguely political is seized on as evidence of a strange, Marxist-driven desire to take over the USA and kill all white children, but back then, it was apocalyptically unlikely. When his three, black backing singers heard Elvis belt this one out at the top of his lungs like it was his last hour on Earth and looking like some supernatural avatar of human perfection, they cried.

Even the fact that he HAD three black backing singers he was prepared to appear on stage with and not seemingly think twice about would have seemed strange, but the fact that he was wearing a white suit and was, intentionally or otherwise, made to look ever so slightly like a Southern preacher standing at the pulpit exhorting his congregation to greater Godliness must have made white America crap in its chinos. Here was someone they thought had been made safe, first by the Army and then by a decade of strikingly anodyne films, each more glib and plastic than the last, playing a succession of racing drivers and helicopter pilots, and yet he’d risen from the swamp of mediocrity and was bringing Civil Rights into their homes.

For people that knew Elvis, perhaps its wasn’t surprising. He had grown up dirt poor, at a time when dirt poor whites often had the same status, in a segregated, unequal and barbarous South, as black people. His dad had served time in the penitentiary and had reportedly been whipped, which is thought to explain why he never took off his shirt for fear of revealing a scarred back. When Elvis grew up, he went to black churches, often sitting high up in the gallery so that nobody could see him because he enjoyed gospel music so much and frequented Beale Street in Memphis, where nice white boys really didn’t go. He dressed in whatever outlandish fashions he could find, favouring pink and black, marking him out from his contemporaries, and was bullied accordingly. By the white children, of course.

One of the criticisms levelled at him (by white people, yet again) was that he was encouraging a mixing of races and enslaving white people to his ‘jungle music,’ which Elvis himself must have found baffling. Brought up as a churchgoer, one of the first songs he performed on network TV, on the godawful Ed Sullivan show, was ‘Peace In The Valley,’ dedicated to his mother. This was someone who had his own moral compass, and its version of ‘north’ wasn’t necessarily the same as the white folks said it was. And in time, of course, Elvis would be proved right.

Note that I’m not advancing Elvis as an icon of the Civil Rights movement. Had he wanted to get involved, properly, and really shake things up, he could have done. Equally, having MLK flanked by Elvis would have been quite a sight, but we never saw it and his views on the subject are lost to memory and the idiot reminiscences of the gurning imbeciles called  the ‘Memphis mafia,’ but if art is, at least in part, about creating moments of transcendence, then the person who walked out on the stage at what is now known as the ’68 Comeback Special and sang ‘If I Can Dream’ managed

that from the first syllables to the last. Perhaps this is my own, cockeyed love of Elvis talking, but when I think about what happened in 1968 and where the world stood, I love him all the more and often find myself crying when I watch and re-watch it.

There’s one line in it that always makes me howl, and that’s ‘Where all my brothers walk hand in hand.’ I’m as sure as I can be that Elvis is talking in the universal sense of a brother as being another human being. He should definitely have said ‘sisters’ as well, but then it was 1968 and it might have arsed up the rhythm of the song. Either way, at a moment of tension, it was an honest and, to me, a rather beautiful paean to hopeful union. Here are the lyrics so you can judge yourself and I also urge you to check it out on YouTube, if you’re so inclined. For a man who spent much of his life bored and phoning in performances, there’s nothing less than total investment and, in that moment, complete belief.

There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue
If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can?t my dream come true

There must be peace and understanding sometime
Strong winds of promise that will blow away
All the doubt and fear
If I can dream of a warmer sun
Where hope keeps shining on everyone
Tell me why, oh why, oh why won’t that sun appear

We’re lost in a cloud
With too much rain
We’re trapped in a world
That’s troubled with pain
But as long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly

Deep in my heart there’s a trembling question
Still I am sure that the answer gonna come somehow
Out there in the dark, there’s a beckoning candle
And while I can think, while I can talk
While I can stand, while I can walk
While I can dream, please let my dream
Come true, right now
Let it come true right now

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