THE PHOTOGRAPHER HAS LEFT THE BUILDING (Alfred Wertheimer, R.I.P.)

Alfred Wertheimer, the only photographer given full access to Elvis Presley during his rise to stardom (or any other time), and whose images form much of that seminal event’s iconography, has passed away at age 84.

The images he shot while traveling with Elvis for several heady months in 1956–months when Presley crossed more cultural barriers and traveled further and faster than anyone before or since–have been reproduced many times, many ways. I had the privilege of seeing a traveling show devoted to those images when it stopped at the inimitable Pink Palace in Memphis in 2012. No internet grab or coffee table book can capture the full force of those photographs, blown up life-size, hanging on walls in a town as ghost-haunted as the one that produced Elvis (and that Elvis left in his wake).

But my two favorites are instructive, in any form.

For anyone who really believes that the “Elvis Moment” was restricted to the responses of teen-aged white girls (however vital a component those were)…

ELVISWERT1

And for anyone who believes walking the path Elvis walked means you’ll only be lonely “in the middle of a crowd”….

ELVISWERT2

Even if you’re history’s greatest performance artist…

 

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW….NEW YORK CITY: 1956 (Great Quotations)

“When I heard his voice….I moved in and listened.”

Arlene Smith, on hearing thirteen-year-old Frankie Lymon for the first time on Alan Freed’s New York radio show.

(A nice sequel to Richard Barrett hearing Arlene, which I posted about here…quote is also from the linked interview)

 

 

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Ninth Maxim)

I’m still debating whether to do a full review of Greil Marcus’ latest, which I posted about here. If/when I do, I’ll doubtless be speaking yet again of the good and the bad.

For the good….

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs has a lot of the best sustained writing Marcus has done in years. The piece on Buddy Holly and the Beatles ranks with his best ever. The essay on “Money/Money Changes Everything” had me hearing new things in Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual after years of obsessive listening (and deepening my long-held conviction that it was the finest album released in the eighties and likely the greatest debut released by a solo artist in the rock and roll era). It turned me on to John Kaye’s The Dead Circus, which is the most fun I’ve had reading a modern novel in I don’t know how long.

He even admitted to now knowing Marge Ganser was long dead when he and Robert Christgau slandered her a few years back (see the link above) in the notes for a fine essay on Amy Winehouse and the Shangri-Las.

Then, for the rest….

Following up on my George Goldner post, there’s this:

“There would have been no rock & roll without him,” Phil Spector said when Goldner died, in 1970. Just months before, Goldner told the Rolling Stone writer Langdon Winner the story of how he got Arlene Smith, the seventeen-year-old lead singer of the Bronx quintet the Chantels, to do what she did–to go into the depths of doo-wop ballads like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods. Winner had published a retrospective review of The Chantels, issued on Goldner’s End label in 1958, raving about Arlene Smith: “What’s so great about her voice? Well, to be frank, it starts where all the other voices in rock stop…When she reaches for a high note she just keeps going. There is never a hint of strain. Nothing drops out. Her tone expands in breadth to match the requirements of high pitch…Like a three-thousand dollar stereo system playing Beethoven’s Ninth, the highs, lows and mid range extend into infinity.”

“Shortly after the review appeared,” Winner wrote me in 2013, “I received a telephone call from George Goldner, legendary New York City record producer and businessman who’d recorded a number of early R&B, doo-wop and rock groups including the Chantels. He said he was coming to San Francisco on business and invited me to dinner. During a two-hour conversation, Goldner told a number of marvelous stories about Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Crows, the Flamingos, and other groups he’d produced over the years. It was clear that he was happy to be getting some notice in the pages of Rolling Stone and wanted to make sure he was receiving sufficient credit for his contributions to rock and roll. At one point, for example, he proudly explained that the ‘boy’ celebrated in the Ad Libs 1965 hit ‘The Boy from New York City’ was actually he himself.

“Eventually,” Winner went on, “I asked Goldner about the extraordinary intensity in Arlene Smith’s vocals. ‘Obviously, she has great natural ability and control of her voice,’ I said. ‘But she sings in a way that often seems right on the brink of emotional break down. Where did that come from?’ ‘You see,’ he said, ‘the Chantels were always very well prepared and sang beautifully. The first take of any of their songs was usually just about perfect. But I realized what a phenomenal talent Arlene Smith was. I wanted to push her to reach for something more. My strategy was to record two or three takes of a song and then storm out of the booth and start ranting. “This is horrible! Your singing today is lifeless, sloppy. Haven’t you been rehearsing? We’re just wasting our time here! What the hell’s the matter with you?” I’d look Arlene right in the eye and yell at her until she was nearly in tears, and then finally say, “OK, I give up. Let’s try it again.” The next cut was always the one I was looking for. The edge you hear in her voice, the tone of desperation approaching hysteria is what I was trying to pull out of her. And sometimes I succeeded.”

Marcus seems to swallow this version of events whole and–to some extent at least–view it with some approval.

That Arlene Smith herself might have a different view (as evinced in the link I provided in my last post, which has an hour-long interview with her from 2009 where, among other things, she goes to some lengths to stress that, while Goldner was sometimes present at her sessions, Richard Barrett discovered her, actually ran the sessions and approved final takes), seems to have never occurred to either Marcus or Langdon Winner.

Later in the book, Marcus says that Shadow Morton’s later history with the Shangri-Las sounds srikingly similar:

In the obituary (Morton’s) “Yeah, Well I Hear He’s Bad…” the journalist David Kamp recalled a conversation with Morton in the 1990s. “He kept talking about ‘the Ba-CAH-di’ that did him in…[He] seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them”–to my mind, the kind of things George Goldner did to Arlene Smith.

If, as seems likely, Goldner was feeding Langdon Winner a lot of hooey in 1970–doing what a lot of record producers (and movie directors) have done when a young woman is involved and transferring most of the credit for any magical results to himself–then, of course, it is not impossible that he patterned his memory after what he observed going on between Morton and Weiss (which Weiss, incidentally, has pushed back on to some degree on other occasions–not so much as to what happened [she did cry in the studio] as to why–personal pain, not harassment).

But what’s key here is that Marcus swallows the narrative he finds most appealing–does not question it or do due diligence in finding out whether this version of the story might be false, or at very least, incomplete. It’s not the first time he’s been guilty of same (I wrote about another instance here). But this time, it’s springing from a mind set that’s uncomfortably close to the one he evinces in the next quote– a sort of dark continuum from Goldner to his most famous protégé, Phil Spector:

Since 2009, when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of the nightclub hostess, unsuccessful actress, and sometime blackface Little Richard impersonator Lana Clarkson at his mansion in Alhambra, California, Phil Spector has been serving nineteen years to life at a division of Corcoran State Prison. Amy Winehouse has been dead since 2011. If you listen to the Teddy Bears’ record now, and ignore what Spector did with the rest of his life, or even what he did in the few years after he made “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” his fate may not seem like such a tragedy. If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.

Now we’ve gone from the dubious to the unconscionable. From swallowing George Goldner’s brag about making Arlene Smith cry (for her own good of course–isn’t it always?), to Lana Clarkson being the cause of a tragedy that belongs not to her, a murder victim, but to her murderer–who wouldn’t have been a tragedy either if he hadn’t made such great records.

And, of course, to “hating” Amy Winehouse, for what “she withheld from the world.”

Bear in mind that this is what passes for serious discourse–and it’s nested rather casually inside writing that actually is serious discourse, like a snake hiding in the garden. The two things become indistinguishable, redolent of a spirit that is searching for some sort of emotional high and doesn’t care where it finds it.

If it can be found in the mystical link between Buddy Holly and the Beatles that’s wonderful.

If it can be found by de facto blaming Lana Clarkson for her own murder, because she was “unsuccessful” and did a bad Little Richard imitation, or hating Amy Winehouse for her suicide, while reserving the word “tragedy” for Phil Spector’s fate….well, evidently, that will do just as well.

All of which leads us, in a rather roundabout way, to the Ninth Maxim:

NO SYMPATHY FOR THE MURDERER.

No, not even if the murderer once lived the rock and roll dream so transcendently that he transformed himself from this…

Philspectorfirst

to this…

philspectorsecond

And, no, not even if, in the last moment before his genius gave way to his monstrous demons, he was responsible for this:

 

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW….NEW YORK CITY: CIRCA, 1957 (Great Quotations)

“He just stood there with his mouth open.”

The Chantels’ Arlene Smith, on the reaction of record man Richard Barrett (who was producer/label owner George Goldner’s talent scout/right hand man) when–at fifteen and on her way to creating an entirely new ethos in American culture–she auditioned for him on the streets of New York.

I’ll be pursuing this a bit in the next few days (Goldner, Smith, the Record Biz, that is) when I get back to some problems I had with Greil Marcus’ The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs.

In the meantime, I highly recommend the lengthy interview link below to anyone who is remotely interested in rock and roll in the fifties. From the street level, you might say:

 

 

LIFE AND DEATH….IN A SHANGRI-LAS RECORD, WHERE ELSE? (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #33)

You think you know….You don’t know…

SHANGSSubject: The Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”

How many times have I listened to this song? A thousand maybe.

And how many times have I listened close…I dunno. Nine hundred and ninety-seven maybe.

I don’t use the Shangri-Las for wall paper or “background” music. I’m not sure I could if I tried. And even if I did use them for background music, I certainly wouldn’t try it with this.

But, as I like to say, with these young women, the story never ends.

So last week I’m listening for that thousandth time–just another night with the fantastic (if unfortunately named) Myrmidons of Melodrama set that RPM put out some years back (a godsend that finally–finally!–collected all of their classic Red Bird sides in one place).

Basically, RPM put out the album twice. The first was released in 1995, acquired by me some time in the late nineties and one of about three (out of a thousand) that survived the great CD sell-off of 2002.

Then, in that same year of 2002 (and unbeknownst to me at the time–when you see me selling my CD collection, you know my life is at stake and my mind is, er, occupied), they released a slightly altered version, which it took me some years to acquire. Frankly, with so many items to replace or upgrade (still not done yet by the way), there didn’t seem much urgency.

Still, I knew it had a couple of things that weren’t on the first one. Nothing major, just a couple of pre-Red Bird sides replacing the other pre-Red Bird sides (all good, but none of which Mary Weiss sang lead on) and “stereo” mixes on ten songs, including the big hits (of which “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” was one). There were also, as it turned out, a few magical extra seconds of “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” which I didn’t know about and which therefore came as both a pleasant surprise and reason enough to be happy I had sprung for what even I–a Shangs’ fanatic–considered a luxury item.

There were other reasons to be happy. RPM had already done a better job of remastering this music than anyone else, and–surprisingly, because mono is the watchword for records from this period–the stereo mixes were vastly superior to any previous release of these endlessly repackaged songs, most of which I have in a dozen or more sources.

So, in all that, I missed this…

At the end of the bridge of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”–a bridge that is the peak moment in rock and roll arranging (I rank the overall arrangement slightly behind “Midnight Train to Georgia,” where Gladys and the Pips spend four minutes finishing each other’s breaths, but the bridge here is unmatchable) and ups the already impossible emotional stakes five times in twenty-seconds.

Only it turns out that in this mix–and no other–it’s six times in twenty-three seconds.

And that extra three seconds lifts the song to a whole other plane.

Mind you, I say this as someone who, before last week, would have sworn such a thing wasn’t possible.

Shoulda’ known better than to ever underestimate Mary Weiss.

Because, here, after one of the Gansers (I think) shouts Mama! and the strings soar past her (and every opera aria in history) and the group croons/chants You can never go home anymore like a tolling church bell and somebody (Marge? Mary Ann? Mary?…I can’t find out and it’s driving me crazy) shouts MAMA! and Mary cuts her off with No I can never go home anymore, she then tops herself–or make that, tops herself topping all the other crazy stuff that has gone on for two and half minutes and been taken to whole new levels of craziness those five times in twenty seconds.

On every other version I’ve heard, Weiss then cuts straight to the last verse.

Here (listen close!) she says:

“Listen…I’m not finished.”

When I finally heard that last week (maybe the sixth or seventh or tenth time I’ve “listened” to this particular mix), it was like having my own life grab me by the throat.

Because that’s the essence of everything the Shangri-Las stood for in the rock and roll revolution.

Sixteen-year-old working class kids who were born to be kicked saying: “Listen…I’m not finished.”

From there, you can go anywhere you want.

Amy Winehouse used this music to drink herself to death.

I’ve been using it for thirty-five years to stay alive.

Different strokes for different folks I guess.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations are out and I’ll have plenty to say about that later in the week.

Had to get this–by a group that recorded barely thirty sides and is more deserving than thirteen of this year’s fifteen nominees (and not behind the other two)–in here first.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (James Brown at the Multiplex)

Get On Up–2013

(Photo: Imagine Entertainment)

I managed to catch Get On Up this week and it was more than well worth the wait, the price of the ticket and the after-dark flat tire I got on the way home.

As a biopic of James Brown–musician, tyrant, savant, striver, mystery–it’s excellent.

As an essay on “the funk”–the man’s music from across several decades woven seamlessly into the compelling story up top while creating and sustaining its own steadily rising pulse underneath–it’s brilliant.

As a mirror-filled, winding journey through the traps that reside inside Black America’s mighty attempt to both belong to the American Experiment and retain a meaningful personal or collective identity separate and apart from it, it’s genuinely scarifying.

Chadwick Boseman’s performance has been widely praised and, even so, probably not enough. I haven’t seen all of the musical biopics based on rock/soul musicians (Ray being the biggest gap in my viewing). But I’ve seen a lot of them, and nothing–not even the fantastic double-team Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix did on June and Johnny–matches what Boseman does here, which is fix this nonlinear journey (Robert Christgau, whose positive review finally got me to the theater, called it time-traveling, referencing Jonathan Lethem’s take on Brown from several years back–I’d call it time-warping) firmly around his center, while withholding just enough of Brown’s essence to preclude the usual easy assumptions such a narrative generally fails to avoid in any context, let alone a Hollywood film.

I spent the movie waiting for Boseman to either fall off his high-wire or give in to cliche, so certain it was bound to happen that the failure of any such to arrive came as slow relief rather than exhilaration. Not saying I didn’t also have fun, but I’ll enjoy it better next time around, knowing that neither Boseman or the film ever give in.

To the extent that the film has any conventional structure, it’s centered around the love story between Brown and his long-time sideman Bobby Byrd. Playing Brown’s alter-ego–the brother he never had–Nelsan Ellis matches Boseman’s quality and commitment step for jagged step. At least one of their scenes on stage (recreating a show in Paris) matches the excitement Brown and Byrd created night after night in real life and Ellis’ quiet evocation of the joy and pain a performer experiences at the moment when he realizes he isn’t going to be the man because his best friend is going to be the man is as heartbreaking a scene as any I can recall.

JAMESBROWNRSTONES

So much being to the good, the film’s one real weakness is the portrayal of all white people (including those pictured above, which by itself is fine, especially since Mick Jagger produced and is probably responsible for this being made at all, the best thing he’s done in decades) as clueless, shuck-and-jive minstrels. Reversing history’s bad taste (and depriving it of any of the subversive elements real minstrels, from Stepin Fetchit on back, often brought to the table) gets us nowhere. The notion that one race–any race–defines virtue at the expense of another isn’t so much ridiculous as dangerous, summoning as it does the false comforts that derive from a matrix of deadly assumptions: that the worm White America once rode to glory has turned, that it can never turn back and so what if it did.

Whatever his faults as a man (and one reason Get On Up isn’t likely to generate much Oscar buzz is that it does not skimp on those genuinely disturbing faults) James Brown the artist certainly knew better–knew the way to oneness is oneness, not cheap corn or, among other things, misrepresenting The T.A.M.I. Show as an all-white venue where Brown was the lone soulful interloper.

That being said, until somebody has the nerve to do a two-man show where Elvis (sadly absent here) and James sit in a hotel room (maybe in Vegas) talking for two hours–ending with a coda where James says goodbye to E’s corpse–this will remain definitive, and more than fill the cup.

 

EVERYTHING I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM ROCK AND ROLL (Lesson #2: The George Goldner Story)

Weird.

Here’s a George Goldner time line, which I swear crystallized in my head for the first time last week, when I happened to pull some of his label-specific collections off the shelf where they reside, neatly, in chronological order.

For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Goldner was one of the truly great record men of early rock and roll. He was also what is, these days, most often described as an “inveterate gambler.” That’s a polite term for gambling addict, which is itself a polite term for gambling junkie which is itself a polite term for degenerate gambler, a phrase that is evidently no longer in use.

Hence–a little miniature history of rock and roll, seen through the prism of George Goldner’s career:

1947: Begins first record label, Tico, specializing in Latin music.

1953-4: Recognizing the rising popularity of R&B, he starts two new labels. The first is Rama. The second is Gee, named after Rama’s seminal hit recording with the Crows, which was one of the first R&B records to cross over to the white Pop chart.

1956: To pay off “inveterate” gambling debts, Goldner sells half interest in Tico, Rama and Gee to “mob associate” Joe Kolsky.

1957: Goldner and Kolsky partner with “mob associate” Morris Levy to start a new label. They call it Roulette (surely proving somebody–God perhaps–was not lacking for a sense of mordant humor). A few months later, Goldner, to pay more gambling debts, sells his interest in Roulette, plus his remaining interests in Tico, Rama and Gee, to Levy.

1957: After selling all his interests in the four successful labels he had already founded, Goldner begins two new labels. The first is called Gone. The second is called End. They are also successful.

1962: The inveterate gambler sells Gone and End. To Morris Levy.

1964: Goldner begins one last venture, becoming a founding partner, with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (two of the very few record men who were as accomplished as he was), in Red Bird records and its Blue Cat subsidiary. Like all of Goldner’s other labels, this one has hit records, makes lots of money.

1966: Leiber and Stoller are offered one dollar for their interest in Red Bird and Blue Cat. It is an offer they can’t refuse. Technically, they sell to Goldner, who promptly turns over his interest to Levy….to cover his inveterate gambling debts.

1970: Goldner dies of a heart attack.

1990: Morris Levy dies of cancer, two months before he is scheduled to report to prison, following conviction on two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion. The investigation which ultimately led to his conviction was begun as “ investigation into the alleged infiltration of organized crime into the record business.”. Of course it had.

Books have been written about this stuff (I just started Tommy James’ autobiography where he evidently describes his own relationship with Levy at length). There’s even an off-Broadway play about Goldner’s life.

But “The George Goldner Story”–and a large part of the history of corruption in modern America–really is in those first six label names.

Tico….Rama….Gee….

Roulette….

End….

Gone.

The loss was certainly not Goldner’s alone.

In the decade when the rock revolution’s enduring archetypes were being formed–roughly 1955 to 1965–there were four truly great sixteen-and-under vocalists.

One of them, Brenda Lee, ended up having a long run of hits and a mighty career as one of America’s greatest (if most unsung) vocalists.

The other three–Frankie Lymon, Arlene Smith and Mary Weiss–recorded for labels owned, in whole or part, by George Goldner.

They did not have careers.

Tico….Rama…..Gee….

Roulette….

End….

Gone.

I’ll be writing more about Goldner and his most famous protege–one Phil Spector–in the coming days. I just wanted to provide a little background for what I’ll have to say then.

For now I’ll just reiterate.

People make history.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

 

IN THE BEGINNING….(Paul Revere, R.I.P.)

PAULREVERE1

 

PAULREVERE2

Born Paul Revere Dick, as keyboardist, hustler, entrepreneur and visionary, he ended up leading the most successful “garage” band in the history of rock and roll. It was right that they were the most successful, seeing as how they were the best and had basically helped invent the notion (he was already fronting a local band when he got together with lead singer Mark Lindsay in 1958…they had their first hit in 1961 and recorded their version of “Louie, Louie,” the same week as the Kingsmen and in the same studio, a sequence of events I wrote about here, on the eve of the British Invasion).

The revolutionary war costumes they wore were, of course, a play on his name–and a way to stand out from the crowd (not the mention the crown, as the Brits were certainly coming). Little Steven Van Zandt has repeatedly said on his great radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage that those costumes–so redolent of dread Show Biz–are the main reason the Raiders have never been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Since Little Steven’s on the nominating committee, I’ll assume he knows of whence he speaks.

So maybe, on the occasion of his passing, it’s worth remembering that Paul Revere was a conscientious objector–in 1959. (His assignment to help out on the psych ward at a mental hospital strikes a chord as it sounds very much along the lines of what happened to my father when he tried to register as a C.O. in World War II, though dad got to spend a few years fighting forest fires and a few months being a psych ward test subject first–at least that’s the way he told it some of the time).

That made Revere one of the very few sixties-era musicians who ever walked the walk, and probably the only one who did so long before it was cool to even talk the talk.

And maybe it’s also worth remembering that, however many very temporary diversions there were along the way, the bands he led for nearly sixty of his 76 years (he left the road only a few months before his death) had a single mission from first to last.

And the mission was…Aw, you know what the mission was.

STOMP!

 

MY NEW FAVORITE SCENE…FROM ANY BOOK EVER (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #32)

THEDEADCIRCUS

I’m gonna be ripping Greil Marcus a new one here pretty soon (make that another new one and don’t worry, he’s once again earned it), but first I have to thank him for recommending John Kaye’s The Dead Circus (his recommendations are like his insights–he’s wrong a lot, but, when he’s right, he’s right enough to make it worth all the angst).

The novel is one of those attempts to plumb the depths of “the Sixties.” My meat, then, and I’d never heard of it until I was perusing the notes of Marcus’ latest.

But it’s not just any old attempt at said theme: It’s a really good one.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through and–except for the laughably rote “serious” sex scenes (Doesn’t anybody know how to write something besides a schlock-porn fantasy? I mean, normally, I have such low expectations I don’t even care how clunky the “aren’t-I-such-a-slut!” scenes are or how many times a word like “throb” is deployed. The eyes merely glaze. But in a novel this good these scenes are real groaners.)–it’s consistently compelling to say the least.

The core of the novel is an attempt to unriddle the mystery of Bobby Fuller’s death (a subject I touched on here). From there it goes literally everywhere, with the Manson Family figuring prominently….but nothing so far has touched my favorite scene, which happens on page 6.

The scene has an off-duty cop (an L.A. native who will soon be investigating Fuller’s “suicide/accident” and will be haunted by it for twenty years) and his brother, sitting in PJ’s on the night the Bobby Fuller Four began their legend-making stint as the house band. At a table between them and the stage sits Nancy Sinatra. The brother (named Ray Burk) recalls a disastrous single date he had with Nancy when they were seniors in high school–a date which ended with him passed out at a wild party and her having to walk home because she couldn’t get a ride. Sitting in PJ’s–in a scene where Fuller’s manager has just been warned by a local mobster that “Frank” doesn’t like what’s going on between Bobby and his daughter–Ray Burk remembers:

At school on Monday Ray saw her in the cafeteria and tried to apologize, but she moved her head in denial, continuing to talk to her girlfriends as if he weren’t there. Then, just when he was about to give up, she turned her face toward him, and he could see the hostility in her stony eyes.

“Ray Burk,” she said, her icy smile only making his anguish worse, “you have no idea how lucky you are.”

“I don’t?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t tell my dad.”

A few pages later, a future Manson girl is backstage, telling an unknown starlet named Sharon Tate that she’ll definitely be a movie star…

Really, I can’t wait to see how it ends.

Like this…

or this…