Infinite Play: Richard Thompson, “From Galway to Graceland”
I woke up this morning to hear that today would have been Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday. It wasn’t news to me, but I still liked hearing it on the radio. So to celebrate, I played a handful of my favorite Elvis songs, and then my favorite song about Elvis. No, it’s not “Black Velvet.”
I first heard of Richard Thompson in 1991. I was reading a lot of guitar mags at the time and every few months or so, one of them would have an article about “the best guitar player you’ve never heard.” When Rumor And Sigh came out, that became the easiest angle to take for them to spotlight the record. But the reason why Thompson’s music stayed with me longer than Roy Buchanan or Danny Gatton was because his solos, however flashy they may be, exist to serve the song, and Thompson can write a song like nobody else.
“From Galway to Graceland” was first released in a live version on Thompson’s 1993 three-CD retrospective, Watching The Dark. I don’t think a studio recording exists, but it’s been on a few other concert CDs and compilations over the past 15 years, and he frequently plays it in his acoustic shows. So I’ve heard it a bunch of different times, and it has never failed to leave me spellbound.
Thompson is never better when he allows a story to unfold slowly, revealing just enough detail in each verse to keep you interested and then leveling you as the song comes to a close. It starts innocently enough, a middle-aged woman who leaves her husband in the middle of the night to fly from Ireland to Memphis to visit Elvis’ home. But in the second, you learn that she’s more than a typical fan.
She was humming Suspicion, that’s the song she liked best
She had Elvis I Love You tattooed on her breast
I made my own pilgrimage to Memphis and Graceland seven years ago. And yes, there were plenty of people who dressed like one of those souvenir shops on Elvis Presley Boulevard exploded onto them. I distinctly remember one English guy with a mullet and a black party shirt with Elvis’ face down the left side. He was there by himself.
When you see people announcing their obsession in public like that, you keep your distance. And ever since I saw Big Fan, I’m a little more wary of making eye contact with them. But at Graceland, it’s kind of sweet. We’re all there to celebrate Presley’s life and his musical legacy, so why not go all out with it?
That question is answered by the end of the verse.
She was down by his graveside day after day
Come closing time they would pull her away
We all have our favorite artists and deal with them in our own way. We feel a connection to them that we don’t think anyone else shares. They understand us better than we do. That’s why “Killing Me Softly With His Song” resonates so deeply and why Bruce Springsteen’s cameo in High Fidelity is so funny. But for some, hero worship turns into delusion. And Thompson, in his typically unflinching style, blows the thing up as the song concludes.
Then they dragged her away it was handcuffs this time
She said, “My good man, are you out of your mind?
Don’t you know that we’re married? See, I’m wearing his ring.
I’ve come from Galway to Graceland to be with the King.”
I have to admit, when I was in the Meditation Garden, I wasn’t reflecting on Elvis’ impact on us all or the tragedy of his death the whole time. I was also thinking of this woman, looking around to see if there was anybody who matched her description. Fortunately, everybody around us was quiet and respectful. But I still wonder about that English dude.
Happy 75th birthday, Elvis.