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The terrible beauty of I'm Leavin' by Paul Simpson

By Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
November 3, 2011 - 7:23:38 PM

Every so often in the 1970s Elvis Presley would walk into a recording studio and cut a song that revealed as much about the state of his soul as the later self-portraits of Vincent van Gogh, typified by manic brushwork, said about the Dutch artist's torment. In songs like It's Midnight, For Ol' Times Sake,
Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley
and Elvis Presley Lyrics I'm Leavin', this legendarily reclusive figure showed us the suffering behind the image, using music to acknowledge realities he tried to ignore outside the studio. For me, the greatest of these performances - which now, with all we know about his life, feel almost like entries in Elvis' private journal - is his chilling rendition of the haunting Michael Jarrett/Sonny Charles ballad I'm Leavin'.

Watching Elvis sing I'm Leavin' in concert, biographer WA Harbinson wrote: 'If he sings of the spirit, he imbues it with the flesh, if he sings of desire he speaks of love. 'Who will I find to lie beside me?' he sings and the words, which are simple, which are quite simply desolate, are filled with the tragedy, with the crystalline grief of a flesh that might never be touched. 'Leavin' me lonely', he adds and the last word is a killer, a knife through all hope, a common word transformed to pure poetry by its tone of delivery'.

The song's unusual blend of quiet horror, utter weariness, inexorable sadness and subtle rebuke is a tribute to the craft of Jarrett who, as he revealed in an interview published on created the song on a 12-string guitar in the LA home of his old friend Sonny Charles. Jarrett had given up life on the road to write and record his own songs and was shocked to hear his girlfriend ask: 'What if your songs aren't good enough?' Realising they didn't share the same dream, they went their separate ways: the girl stayed in Portland, Jarrett headed for LA where - still haunted by his failed marriage and angry at his girlfriend's lack of faith - he wrote I'm Leavin'.

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley
Apart from kickstarting the brainstorming session that produced the bridge, Charles' major contribution was to suggest the song's unusual structure. This unforgettable ballad begins with a repeated refrain of 'la la la', segues into the two short verses and reaches an anguished crescendo with the bridge before fading out by returning to the first refrain. This unorthodox arrangement is the making of the song - it would be far less compelling if it built to the traditional big finish. The singer/narrator is confronting the emptiness of his life and, as impassioned as he becomes when conveying the agony of 'living from day to day, chasing a dream', he knows his reflections will resolve nothing. He is leaving but no matter who lies beside him, the emptiness will never be eased.

You can see why, struggling with the song in a fabulously productive session in RCA's Studio B in Nashville in May 1971, Elvis remarked: 'Phew man it's tough. But the thing is worth working on'.

He likes the song so much he changes the inflection in his voice. As it starts, he leads the vocal ensemble setting the scene with the 'la la la' refrain but as the verses start, his voice deepens and he is more recognisably Elvis as he asks the terrible questions: 'Where will I go? Who will I have to lie beside me?' Here his voice is almost naked, stripped of the mannerisms his impersonators have made careers out of, yet rich with emotion. There is no histrionic overstatement here - the desolation mounts in the middle of the second verse but the shift in his tone is slight and telling.

As the tempo accelerates, building to the emotional and vocal climax of the bridge, the mood is of impassioned regret and bafflement - for all the singer's efforts he just can't make it. And then as the drums signal a shift to a gentler rhythm, Elvis' voice swoops beautifully to the resigned pathos of I'm leavin''.

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley
The beautiful interplay between Elvis and the backing singers, the subtle guitar work, the melancholic keyboards and the soft, yet relentless precision of Kenneth Buttery's drumming create an unforgettable sound as distinctive, in its way, as the sound Chips Moman created at the Memphis sessions.

He returned to I'm Leavin' relatively frequently in concert - memorably in Las Vegas in 1974 and Huntsville, Alabama in 1975 - and usually showed care and commitment as he tried to get the mood right. Unfortunately, live shows all but dictate a faster tempo and on the live performances I have heard the backing never quite recaptures the authority of the studio original. That said, his vocal could still, as Harbinson's reaction shows, be very moving.

I'm Leavin's two short, stark verses must have felt like lines Elvis could have written. Like his father, he had always suffered from bouts of devastating loneliness. His marriage was already foundering - he would be separated from Priscilla within 14 months of this recording - and his romantic life would subsequently be full of women he had arrived too late to know, who didn't have the time to show him who they were. (The one glorious exception to that rule would be Linda Thompson.) And ultimately, despite being the most famous man in the world, he would be left lonely in Graceland.

Perhaps that is what gives I'm Leavin' what WB Yeats might have called its 'terrible beauty'. In this magical, desolate three minutes and fifty three seconds, Elvis confronts one possible version of his future. The tragedy - as he may have already feared as he perfected the song in Nashville - was that this possibility came true.

Elvis Presley Boulevard became his lonely street.

CD Find I'm Leavin' on CD

Note! Interview with Michael Jarrett

Buy I'm Leavin' on CD

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