I’ve been quiet for a few days. I should probably be quiet tonight too, as I don’t have a lot to say.
But, the beast must be fed. So, a couple of words on the earworm that’s owned my head for the past 36 hours or so. It’s a relic from an artist on his way down, but not yet bereft of talent.
(It also happens to be 40 years old this year; that’s not particularly why I’m writing about it, but since it’s convenient, I’ll mention it.)
Looking back, 1973 was pretty much the start of Elvis Presley’s final decline. After his successful Aloha from Hawaii concert in January, Elvis’ agenda for the rest of the year included a divorce; several drug overdoses; hospitalization; and being bum-rushed on stage by a group of fans, an incident that greatly unsettled him.
The year also marked the start of a decline in Elvis’ chart fortunes. After reaching No. 2 with “Burning Love” in the fall of ’72, Elvis spent the next two or three years issuing a stream of singles that limped into the Top 20 and expired.
(Elvis remained a successful concert attraction, as well as a strong performer on the country charts. Even 1974’s infamous spoken-word outing Having Fun with Elvis On Stage was a Top 10 country album. However, he would not have another pop Top 10 single in his lifetime.)
During a burst of recording in December 1973, Elvis managed to put down one song that outshone the others in atmosphere and intent, if not in chart success.
“If You Talk In Your Sleep (Don’t Mention My Name)” was co-written by Johnny Christopher and Red West, Elvis’ bodyguard-turned-biographer.
It’s a cheatin’ song, drawn from the endless well of honky-tonk-tinged country songs that owe their existence mostly to a clever bit of wordplay in the chorus.
It’s not the finest of those songs: “Someone else is waiting / And he owns you” is cringe-worthy even by 1973 standards. And Elvis’ pillowy baritone doesn’t have the power to lift the song over its less inspired moments.
America agreed: The song topped out at No. 17 on the national pop charts in the summer of ’74, and local airplay charts don’t show it catching fire in any regional markets.
And yet … there’s a certain backstreets smolder to it, an ominous quality of lust-driven paranoia that’s perceptible but only hinted at. (Our narrator isn’t breaking off with his married lover, even though he’s far enough gone to worry about what she says in her sleep.)
Someday a singer will come along who scorches where Elvis only simmered, and in so doing, makes the song theirs forever.
(That singer was not Little Milton, shown here giving the song his best B.B. King, except that B.B. is probably a more dutiful lip-syncher.)
Until then, we have the King, standing in the shadows of love and waving an admonitory finger: