CHASING OLIVIA…

Greil Marcus’s excellent website has an “Ask Greil” feature which is a lot of fun. You asks your question and (sometimes) you gets your answer.

Most of the site consists of re-posting Marcus’s half-century worth of writing, a fair bit of it consisting of uncollected periodical writing like a post that went up a few weeks ago and read:

 “City Recommends: That you check out page 31 of the May (1975) issue of Creem magazine for a picture of Olivia Newton-John that will knock your eyes out and possibly even make you change your mind about her music.”

Which led me to ask:

Just curious. Did it change your mind about her music? If so, I’d love to hear more.

He responded thus (and here’s where it gets interesting):

The picture of her pop-eyes put her on top of my Good People chart and I started paying more attention. When “You’re the One That I Want” came out pic and song were the one that I wanted.

I have since seen the picture (having spent last month’s entertainment budget on an E-bay copy of the magazine in question…always wanted to get hold of an old Creem anyway and figured I’d never find a better excuse.) Unfortunately I can’t find a copy of it on-line and I don’t have the means of scanning it. Suffice it to say “pop-eyes” is on the right path, though it doesn’t quite do it justice.

It certainly isn’t like any picture of ONJ I’ve seen before and, boy, have I made a point of seeing a lot of ONJ pictures in my time.

[NOTE: I’m the right age for it. The rumors that swirled around her in my high school years were….interesting. Actual conversation held among the male kitchen staff at a certain Baptist Girls’ Camp, circa 1979:

Old Hippie Cook (well, he was 31, which seemed old to us): “Rrrrwwwrrr.”

JK (aka “The Mississippi Kid,” aka “Mornin’ Glory,” aka “Future Minister of Youth at the First Baptist of your choice and/or Traveling Evangelist”): “Aw man, she’s a lesbian.”

Old Hippie Cook: “That don’t bother me. Long as she’ll let me watch.”

Just so you know, I never heard these kind of conversations about any other seventies siren, not even Stevie Nicks. And, unless the subject was Olivia Newton-John, I never heard them at Baptist Camp either.]

What interested me in GM’s answer, though, was his statement that seeing a picture–any picture–of a woman he didn’t know, put her on top of his “Good People chart.”

Now, I’m shallow myself. Shallow as in: Liv, you’re on my Good People chart. I don’t care if you just shot a puppy…..Which, now that I’ve seen that other picture, and I look more closely at these, I think you just may have.

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I’m sure that’s not what GM meant. I’m sure he was being other than shallow.

Which leads me to a place where I ask myself if, visual creatures that we are, we all do this sort of thing, whether we like it or not and whether we admit it or not? I know most of us tell ourselves we don’t…that, in the long run, we develop defenses against judging books by their covers. That we sort out the Good People from the Puppy Shooters a little too automatically at the beginning but get beyond it as we grow older and wiser.

And I’m sure we do, to some degree.

But I suspect it’s not to the degree we think it is.

Then again, the experience of seeing that picture in Creem (which I’ll gladly post if I ever find a means), is somewhat further complicated by a caption which Marcus does not mention (and may well have forgotten if he hasn’t seen the picture in a while). It reads:

The Creem Dreem: Olivia Newton-John. Contrary to rumor, Olivia’s yum-bum is not made of ice cream. In fact she is in private life not a mere truffle but a red-hot mama who could leave even hot honchos like Gregg Allman wilt chamber lain but begging for more. Here in an exclusive CREEM Hot Shot we see her leering at her next hapless conquered root, Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators.

Got it?

That’s in line, actually, with a review of Liv’s latest album in the same issue that begins:

What female singer would ya like most to sit in yr lap?

Got it now?

Actually, to me, she looks more like an ax murderess who enjoys her work in the “Creem Dreem” photo. Which is maybe why I’m leery of either including or excluding anyone from my Good People chart based on a photograph….or even whether I like their records.

Then again, I always did like her music anyway, especially her voice. Even if, as I always suspected, it had little to with her getting to sign a big record contract and more to do with the notion that a lot of young men, liberated and otherwise, would be asking themselves which female singer they would most like to sit in their lap.

More fool them.

The Overlords know we dream in pictures, though. That’s how they got to be them and we got to be us.

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(I’m sure he’s dead. He certainly looked dead….When’s my next session?)

Still on my Good People chart, though. God help me.

THE RISING….1975, WHAT A CONCEPT (Sixth Memo: Mixed Race Edition)

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As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.

Then again, there’s the music.

That’s trickier.

The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.

What a happy journey that’s been!

I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.

Or maybe politics.

I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?

I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.

I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?

Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?

I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.

And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.

Yeah. That’s always fun.

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(Linda Ronstadt and band, on the road in ’75)

Track 1: “You’re No Good” Linda Ronstadt

The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.

All very typical.

Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of  the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.

All still pretty typical.

Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.

It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.

Good start.

Leg up to ’75.

Track 2: “Jackie Blue” Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

By 1975, “Southern Rock” was a sufficiently big deal for some marketing genius to decide the form needed its own version of the Eagles.

Perverse genius? Or merely perverse?

Like so much else back then, and so little now, that’s for each person to decide.

Track 3: “That’s the Way (I Like It)” KC and the Sunshine Band

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Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.

[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]

Track 4: “Must of Got Lost” J. Geils Band

From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”

And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.

Track 5: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” War

Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.

Track 6: “Sister Golden Hair” America

What’s that you say? 1975 deserves every kick you can give it?

“Too, too hard to find?” you say?

Okay. Maybe.

But you know, I just say, “You’re no good, Jackie Blue, and that’s the way I like it, so I must of got lost and just why can’t we be friends sister golden hair?”

I also sing along every single damn time it comes on the radio.

Track 7: “Philadelphia Freedom” Elton John

Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?

Of course it was.

But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.

Track 8: “Black Water”The Doobie Brothers

Slick West Coasters channeling Mark Twain. Literally. We’re riding along easily now. The spirit of AM Gold is achieving a touch of somnolence. Maybe the world really did need a wake up call?

Track 9: “Love is a Rose” Linda Ronstadt

Maybe. And perfectly fine. But it’s no “You’re No Good.”

Track 10: “How Long” Ace

Yes, I feel myself fading. Bobby Womack and Rod Stewart were among the many who later tried to kick this to life. They, too, were defeated.

Track 11: “Dance With Me” Orleans

And if I’m asleep, this isn’t likely to wake me.

Not that sleep is a bad thing. Necessarily.

Track 12: “Freebird” Lynyrd Skynyrd

A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.

Track 13: “You Are So Beautiful” Joe Cocker

Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.

Wish they had gone with Tanya Tucker’s version.

Track 14: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” Bad Company

A true taste divider. To some, meh. To others, the incarnation of every-wrong-mid-seventies-thing.

What I hear is a great white blues and a natural answer record to Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” which had gone top ten R&B in the fall of ’73.

Track 15: “Lady Marmalade” LaBelle

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And while we’re at it, why not a natural #1 (Pop and R&B) about a hooker suckering a chump down in old New Orleans? (And if you only link one video here…)

Track 16: “Pick Up the Pieces” Average White Band

Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?

The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing  was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.

Track 17: “Island Girl” Elton John

A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.

Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.

Of course it was.

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Track 18: “Some Kind of Wonderful” Grand Funk

Yes, they had dropped the “Railroad.”

A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.

Get away from me ’75!

Track 19: “The Hustle” Van McCoy

Okay. Come back ’75. Let Van McCoy celebrate his career by naming an era-defining dance after it and tripping the light fantastic.

Track 20: “Let’s Do It Again” The Staple Singers

Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.

By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.

Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.

Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.

Speak to me ’75!

And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.

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(The Staple Singers…reaching for higher ground)

PATRIARCH (Steven Hill, R.I.P.)

stevenhill1One of the original fifty admitted to the first class at the Actor’s Studio in 1947 (along with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift), he was thought by some to be the comer in the group. Despite steady work, he never came close to achieving that level of iconography.

He was certainly held back, in his middle years, by a devotion to Orthodox Judaism that kept him from working regular theater hours and even, occasionally, filming hours. He left steady work as the original star of Mission Impossible after its first season and walked into a ten-year “retirement.” When he emerged again in the late seventies, it was to play the patriarchal roles that led, finally, to a ten- year stint on the original Law and Order, where his DA and Jerry Orbach’s beat cop provided the sour mash whiskey notes that balanced the show’s tendency towards wine-and-cheese sermonizing. For that alone, his memory should be blessed.

I’m sure he gave plenty of other fine performances, though I’m not all that familiar with his filmography.

I want to note his passing, though, for  a single five-minute scene he played with Christine Lahti in Running On Empty. It’s a running theme of this blog that we never walked away from ’68 and never will. I’ve never encountered anything that drove this unpleasant idea home as forcefully as that scene, which consists of Lahti’s on-the-run radical daughter meeting with Hill’s unforgiving, old guard, father, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years, to beg a favor for her son. It’s one of the most devastating moments in any American narrative and makes the rest of the very fine film around it, not to mention the last thirty years of American history, fade to black. If we still had a culture, two actors of such quality would have had a chance to play a hundred more like it. As it stands, one will have to do.

Geyn mit got.

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DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE…THE LOST YEARS OF THE GO-GO’S EDITION

“Cool Jerk”
The Go-Go’s (1990)
#60 UK
Recommended source: Greatest

“The Whole World Lost Its Head”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
#108 Billboard
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

“Good Girl”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
Did not make the charts
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

“Beautiful”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
Album Track
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

Weird.

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Every once in a while when I’m noodling around, doing nothing in particular, I think of something from days gone by and then, being now properly programmed by modernity, I naturally think again. What I tend to think the second time is “I wonder if it’s on YouTube?”

One of the things I still can’t believe is not on YouTube, no matter how often I’ve thought “surely it must be there by now,” is the Go-Go’s’ MTV video for “Turn to You,” the last great single of their original incarnation, which ended in 1984. One reason I keep hoping it will be there is so I can do a “Not Quite Random Favorites” edition titled “My Favorite Video” because nothing else comes within a thousand miles. (That’s the one where they played a band at a sock-hop…and their own dates. Maybe they really did need a break.)

Anyway, last night I went looking for it yet again and found it still wasn’t there. There’s a mini-doc on the making of “Turn to You”–of course there is–but not the actual video.

Story of my life and all that.

But, this time, clicking around, I started thinking of other things that should be there, none of which I ever thought to look for before.

By which I mean videos from “the lost years”….those years between 1984’s Talk Show and 2001’s God Bless the Go-Go’s, when they popped in and out a couple of times and did what they always did, which was be perfect.

Sometimes, what other people did with and to them wasn’t perfect. Whoever put the extra disco-fied ‘effects’ on this wasn’t perfect. But I’m sure it wasn’t their idea. They were barely paying attention to themselves or each other when this came out in 1990. But having the video finally makes sense of it (in a way its inclusion on their first greatest hits package didn’t). What’s clear hearing–and seeing–it now, at least to me, is that Belinda Carlisle had turned from a singer who was right for her band to a singer who could carry any band. I missed that at the time so a mea culpa is in order.

They were paying a little more attention when they got together and recorded three new songs of their own for 1994’s full-blown retrospective Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s. Almost inconceivably, I had never even wondered if they made any videos attending that little project, so I went searching deeper and found this, for the lead single from the project….which isn’t much of a video (not nearly as good as “Cool Jerk,” let alone what they had done in their heyday) but is a fabulous record. Even if the faint tang of my disappointment in finally realizing that “Boston girls are getting down in bikinis” (a touch of poetry) was really “Muslim girls” (meh) remains, it’s failure to break out still serves as one of the Seven Signs of the Apocalypse…

…And it wasn’t even the best of the three sides they cut for Return.

This, for which they released a single but didn’t make a real video, was better, and has the new-and-improved Carlisle’s finest vocal…

..and I’m not even sure it was the best…depends on the mood I guess. It’s worth reading the quotes at the beginning of each song, but they won’t break any ties.

All in all, that should have been enough to re-start their career.

But it wasn’t.

God Bless the Go-Go’s came out a full seven years later and, instead of really promising more, its final track sealed the whole deal. Years of summer reunion gigs, Kathy Valentine’s departure, and one of those “farewell tours” (at least I think there was only one) formalized it.

But the end was right there in that final track, now commemorated in my favorite “homemade” video.

For some perspective, here’s a nice piece from Goldmine, circa 2011, before Valentine left the band, where, among other things, they debunk any notion that being an all-female band was actually some kind of advantage, post-punk. Turns out that, through no fault of their own, Fanny and the Runaways (both signed by big labels and given major publicity pushes in the decade prior) hadn’t so much blazed a trail as crapped the table.

I’m reading between the lines, of course.

Just more fuel for the argument I made at the time and have made ever since: they didn’t blaze all those trails because it was, as so many argued, “time” for an all-female band. They blazed all those trails because they were the Go-Go’s. It’s only in critical theory that the theories count. In the real world, it’s always the people who matter.

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(Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, Jane Wiedlin, Kathy Valentine)

MENSCH (Arthur Hiller, R.I.P.)

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He was that sort of non-auteurish director who was entrusted with “projects,” one of which, Love Story, became his biggest hit. But on a long list of films that left my memory bank with a full wreath of smiles (The MIracle of the White Stallions, The Wheeler-Dealers, Promise Her Anything, The Out of Towners, Silver Streak, W.C. Fields and Me, The Lonely Guy), two went above and beyond.

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With Paddy Chayefsky, at high-tide, he made The Americanization of Emily (1964), one of the great movies about the madness of war. With an up-and-coming Andrew Bergman, he made The In-Laws, one of the great movies mocking the madness of the security state (not to mention the fragility of middle-class security).

The former provided James Garner and Julie Andrews with their best movie roles. The latter did the same for Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. They both made anyone clued in to their sensibilities laugh until it hurt.ahiller4

Hiller’s passing was announced today. He outlived his wife of sixty-eight years by eight weeks.

Peace be upon them tonight.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 29: Director Arthur Hiller attends AMPAS' tribute to Alan and Marilyn Bergman on May 29, 2009 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take 7: Grease)

Grease (1978)
Director: Randal Kaiser

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Or, as someone said on some appropriately famous occasion: Oh the humanity!

Well, so some people think. I’ll just have to set them straight.

First off, I like that they didn’t call it Grease! That was a stroke of genius right there. Somebody must have thought, If we’re gonna underplay one thing and one thing only, let’s have it be the title. Leave off the *&^# exclamation point why don’t ya?”

Second off: Here’s the plot of Grease in seven frames.

Sandy…

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Danny…

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Sandy and Danny…

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I was a jerk…will you go with me?

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…No, but, will you go with me?

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And if you do, can we live happily ever after?

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Yes…Yes we can!…In our flying car.

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That’s a classic structure folks. Shakespeare didn’t do better with Romeo and Juliet...or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

There are, admittedly, several subplots, all done in equally primary colors–the drag race, the pregnancy that turns out to be a false alarm, the dropout who goes back to school, and so on and so forth. Not a spot of nuance anywhere, or a dropped stitch…or a missed opportunity to mock something or other that probably meant a lot to somebody once upon a time. Add in that the leads were 24-year-old John Travolta and 29-year-old Olivia Newton-John, backed up by 28-year-old Jeff Conaway and 24-year-old Stockard Channing, all playing high school seniors, and the result should have been as slick and empty as the title (! or no !), and as sterile as the show’s Broadway-Does-Rock-N-Roll roots.

But it’s not. It’s way too goofy for any of that and just because everybody’s a little long in the tooth for their parts doesn’t mean they’re not perfect. Complaining that they’re a little too perfect–as in so perfect no mere Broadway casting call could have matched them in a thousand years–misses the point. If these characters had been played as anybody identifiably human the whole thing would would have gone poof, probably accompanied by a socially impolite noise that would have ripped every Dolby speaker in America apart along about the summer of ’78.

Instead it went over like gangbusters.

I confess I missed it. The phenomenon, I mean. I saw the movie in the theater that very summer. In high school, I used to take my mom to afternoon movies because she couldn’t drive and my dad didn’t like going to movies (especially the part where you had to pay to get in). She loved Grease, thought it was a hoot. I was an English major in training, possessed of superior taste, so I admitted I liked it okay (which I did), but I didn’t see what the big deal was.

Twenty years later, when the anniversary edition was released to theaters, I went to see it again, mostly out of affection for the memory of one of her last uncomplicated happy experiences and, even in an empty theater, with nobody to share the laughter, I found myself enjoying it immensely. And the main reason was that I finally got it. When I saw it in ’78, I didn’t know Edd “Kookie” Burns from Adam or Eve Arden from the original Eve. I had heard Sid Caesar’s name and Frankie Avalon’s, too, but I didn’t know either of them by sight. I didn’t get half the in-jokes or verbal puns. With all that I was missing, I’m not even sure I got the truly perfect Dinah Manoff’s Marty being asked her last name by Byrnes’ on-the-make dee-jay, and saying, “Maraschino…You know. Like in cherry?”

It turned out my lack of common culture knowledge–subsequently filled in by my later obsessions–had cost me a few dozen laughs. By 1998, time had made up the difference and a few dozen laughs (most of which still make me laugh again every time I watch it now, whether because anything is actually funny or because I feel a little guilty for not sharing the laughs with mom while she was still here or just because looking back on my ignorance is liable to make me shake my head a little in wonder, I don’t know) are the difference between not knowing what the big deal was and understanding it perfectly.

So while I recognize every possible objection my taste-filter should have to something that can so easily pass for “camp” (a concept I normally find contemptible), I still have to admit that, when it’s time to watch Grease, I always get a slightly giddy, light-headed feeling, not unlike the once-a-year ritual where I sink into happy oblivion and watch Abba videos for half-a-day. It’s a feeling of glad anticipation, and specifically the knowledge that my jaded soul will be skipping by the time the last two numbers play…And the wait’s always worth it…

…Oh, forgot. It’s a triple high when you add the closing theme. It was by Frankie Valli. Him I knew. Even in ’78.

Edd Byrnes or Frankie Avalon, he was not.

DYLAN BECOMES DYLAN (Segue of the Day: 8/15/16)

Or maybe just…becomes.

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I’ve never listened all that close to Bob Dylan’s first two albums until here recently. What changed is that I acquired The Original Mono Recordings box set a couple of years back and I’ve since been able to listen to the legend “busy being born” in clear crystal sound instead of my old battered used vinyl copies.

Even so, I never really bore down on the experience until this week, when I decided to try and put my finger on why I like the first album, simply titled Bob Dylan,  which sold 5,000 copies when it was released, so much better than the second, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.That’s the one that set Greenwich Village on fire on the way to changing the world and all.

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It’s certainly not the covers. The cover is the best thing about the second album. It even sort of promises that what’s inside will be the main thing it’s not, which is “freewheein’.”

Even decades of general familiarity (you could end up knowing a lot about Dylan’s second album–like the lyrics to a lot of the songs–just by being alive for the last fifty years) left me unprepared for how safe the newly minted “Bob Dylan” was prepared to play it after that first album flopped.

And, by safe, I mean, of course, vocally. Which, as most of you know, is what matters around here.

Getting to know that first LP in the last year or so has been a revelation, so much so that I wonder how I could have possibly missed it before, irrespective of the quality of my old, used vinyl. It wouldn’t be fair to say Dylan made it sound like he was breathing a revolution (the quality that made so many intellectual gatekeepers underestimate the art that went into the early efforts of Fats and Elvis and Little Richard). But he was still the freest voice to enter popular music since the mid-fifties. And he was mostly singing other people’s songs. As so often happens–as it had happened with Hank Williams and Chuck Berry, among others–you start out thinking it’s the songs, but it’s really the voice.

Nearly as startling as Dylan’s first voice–and the way he used that voice–was his harmonica playing. Not just the fire and dexterity he put into it, but the way he wove it into his singing, as though it were simply an extension of his singing, constantly challenging and enlarging itself.

I know all this is hardly news to long-time Dylanistas who have followed him since whenever. But, however much I’ve loved his mid-sixties music since it first whopped me up side the head in the late seventies, I wasn’t prepared to have what I had imagined to be Dylan-the-Burgeoning-Folkie make such a purely vocal impression and then sustain it for the length of that first album.

And that, in turn, might be why I was/am so unprepared for the restrictions he put on himself when it came time to make his second album. On the first four tracks (which only include “Blowin’ In the Wind,” and “Masters of War”), he doesn’t sound so much like he put his harp in his pocket as somebody shoved it up his sphincter. Sorry, but this doesn’t sound like a man breaking free. Maybe it did then. Maybe the mere fact that he didn’t “sing pretty” was liberating and forward-looking. These days, it sounds almost impossibly affected, the epitome of everything every note of his first album had been prepared to mock–the sound of freedom reduced to the sound of surrender.

And, except for his always cutting way with a talking blues (though he cut even deeper on live shows from the period), he sounds like he’s sleepwalking through the whole thing.

Given what I know about both the purely cynical crony capitalists who are forever lingering somewhere in the background of every inexplicable thing and the highly gullible earnest folkies who snatched up Freewheelin’ and then carried Dylan right up to the moment he stabbed them in the face by “going electric,” I suspect this is the sound of a supremely calculating young man who has judged the odds and accepted what must be done to get where he is going from where he’s been.

It’s also the sound of a man who might be harboring a grudge against more than just the masters of war–a grudge that would carry him right past his core audience when it was finally time to merge the various “Dylans” of these first two LPs into the full might and fury of Highway 61 Revisited.

Heard that way, Freewheelin’ becomes almost as subversive as either Bob Dylan or its own legend.

That’s how genius rolls, I guess–if you’re moving a little too fast…slow down and wait for the main chance.

And, as always, God bless Peter, Paul and Mary and/or Albert Grossman for hearing hits in “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

I not only wouldn’t have, I still don’t. Miracles happen.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Wet Willie Up)

“Street Corner Serenade”
Wet Willie (1977)
#30 Billboard
Recommended source: Southern Rock Gold

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By the time Wet Willie released their first effort on Epic Records, the bone-hard Southern rock they had helped bring to prominence was dying out. The form couldn’t survive the death of its two biggest talents. Duane Allman had been killed in a motorcycle accident just as the concept was taking off in 1971. Ronnie Van Zant had gone down in the plane crash that took the heart out what was left in the summer of 1977.

Time for something new–even for a band as tried and true as Wet Willie.

So, a few months after Van Zant’s death, they came up with this weird idea for a record and it became the greatest of its type: The Southern Rock Post-Doo Wop Blue-Eyed Soul Celebration Lament With a Slightly Caribbean Lilt.

Okay, so far as I know, it’s the only record of its type, but it could have withstood some pretty heavy competition. It played wistful or celebratory in its too-brief moment, depending on what you brought to it on a given day.

It still does. It’s the most completely faked record I know of that is also completely true. Wet Willie was from Mobile, Alabama. It’s a big enough city to have an Italian contingent. Still, I rather doubt any “street corner” singing Jimmy Hall and the boys may have done involved guys named Guido.

Except maybe in their own imaginations. And, since imagination was in short supply on the radio by December of 1977 when this was released, one could overlook a few incongruities. It played true back then, for the five minutes it was on the radio. It plays true now, when you have to dig it up on YouTube or Amazon.

And if you think a smile was cheap in those days, you either didn’t live them or don’t remember. A hundred more like “Street Corner Serenade” and we still couldn’t have restarted the revolution. But hey, a hundred more like it and we might not have needed to…

…IN FIFTY-EIGHT (Segue of the Day: 8/12/16)

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Slowly, slowly, as the budget allows, I continue to make my way through the Bear Family’s doo-wop series Street Corner Symphonies: The Complete Story of Doo Wop.

I’m up to 1958, which was just about when inspiration and formula (the nexus of art) became fully wed. The whole 34-track disc is staggering, from the Crests’ “16 Candles,” as familiar as an oldie can be, leading off, to the near-forgotten Kodoks’ “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh,”  featuring Pearl McKinnon, the world’s greatest Frankie Lymon soundalike, closing the show.

But the knock-you-off-your-feet moment comes early, when this third track, with eighteen-year-old Jerry Butler and his Cabrini Green pals sounding impossibly deep and languid, as though time has actually stopped….

snaps straight into this fourth track, from eighteen-year-old Dion DiMucci and his buddies from Belmont Avenue, which flies by at the speed of sound…

Whenever I want to be reminded that the history of the post-war era is the history of Rock and Roll America’s reach for freedom, defined by thousands of previously excluded voices from every corner of the land, and the inevitable reactions any such reach is bound to provoke, a listen to early rock and roll usually serves as a slap to my fading memory.

Nothing is ever likely to hit harder or cleaner than that combo, provided by what were arguably (in an argument that can stretch until the end of the time Jerry Butler stopped) the two greatest vocal talents in the richest vocal tradition we’ll ever have, being pushed to their limits by the friends they grew up with.

Can’t wait to see what ‘fifty-nine brings.

Something better than 2016, I bet.

(NOTE: Good article on just how the never-ending “reaction” is panning out in Cabrini Green these days can be found here.)

MY FAVORITE HAIRCUT (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

jfonda1It was called a “shag.” Some prefer “hairstyle” but don’t worry. Either way it’s nothing I ever had. This is not about me. Just about what I like.

There having been only three famous women who ever truly rocked it above and beyond the call of duty, I was just going to post some pictures of them. (I’m sure some of the many men who wore it, David Cassidy, Rod Stewart, et al, touched the souls of those of other persuasions, male and female. If so, peace be upon you. As for me, I am what I am and make no apologies.) But, in doing a little research, I found out my favorite haircut had a specific and pretty inspiring history.

To the extent such things can be spiritually copyrighted, it was invented by a Hollywood hairdresser named Paul McGregor for Jane Fonda’s character in 1971’s Klute. I encourage you to read the full story at the link, where, among other things, I learned that Warren Beatty, much to McGregor’s bemusement, claimed he modeled the lead character in Shampoo after him.

That might be another story for another day when I write about movies that defined the seventies. Klute and Shampoo will definitely be on the short list for consideration.

(And whether that was really where the shag began I don’t profess to know. Not my bailiwick. You got other ideas, feel free to share.)

For now, the part that interests me most is Fonda’s own reaction to the cut. Again, you can read the whole thing at the link, but basically, she saw it as a path to freedom, specifically freedom from her super-controlling husband/director Roger Vadim, who liked for her to wear hairstyles he approved.

I’ll buy that.

And, if so, it was not just mine and a lot of other people’s favorite haircut but maybe one of the more important cultural statements in modern history.

The Fonda who was perpetually cowed by men like Vadim could never have become Hanoi Jane. which, in itself, might have been a blessing. However pure her intentions, she did no worthy cause any favors in the role. And the less said about her eighties-era aerobics empire, the better. (Okay, I’ll say this much: those workout videos were as emblematic of Reagan-era ethics as visiting Hanoi was of counterculture ethics half a generation earlier–once unleashed, Jane got around.)

But she also never could have become, for a decade or so, starting with Klute itself, the bravest actress in Hollywood, a place where genuine bravery is always in short supply. She didn’t keep it up, but, while she was in flight, she went places nobody went before, at least not in big Hollywood productions that reached far outside the art-house circuit.

(For how far outside that circuit a Hollywood star can have an impact, I’ll just repeat something my mother told a woman on the phone who was going on about Jane’s political shortcomings right after we had seen 1978’s California Suite: “Well honey that may be true, but I’ll tell you one thing. She’s forty years old and she came out wearing a bikini and there was not one ounce of fat on her.” In our world, you always got credit for being a trouper. Next to that, being a commie didn’t seem so bad.)

For all the best and worst of it, out of Fonda’s own mouth, we can thank the shag.

Which leaves the real question hanging.

Did she who rocked it first rock it best?

Well….

Let me first say that, when it comes to haircuts, “shag” has developed a very fluid definition. So fluid it basically includes every shoulder length hairstyle you can think of, including the most famous post-shag hairstyle of ’em all “The Rachel.”

Nothing against the Rachel, but no matter how many millions donned it, it only ever really belonged to one person–and she hated it. Too much trouble. I’ve expressed my admiration for Jennifer Aniston plenty here before, but the Rachel is not a shag, let alone the shag.

The true shag, as befitting its source and inspiration, was both bold and democratic. If I’m giving it the strictest definition, I’m saying if I didn’t see it in the halls of my high school, circa 1974, it ain’t a shag.

Which brings me to Fonda’s competition.

Until recently (meaning this week) I always considered this competition to consist of one woman and one woman only–a woman who was really famous in England in 1974, but was completely unknown in my rural southern high school until she showed up on Happy Days a few years later.

That would be this woman:

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..who did not even cause a buzz in my part of the world when she made the cover of Rolling Stone in January, 1975. Believe me, if anybody had seen this, word would have gotten all the way around:

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So if nobody liked Jane, nobody had heard of Suzi, and nobody else wore the cut with sufficient flair to inspire imitation, why were so many girls sporting one? Utility maybe, but, in high school, that ain’t enough. In high school, at least for it to spread like that, somebody has to make it cool.

And, until this week, when I was searching around Pinterest on an unrelated topic, I had somehow completely forgotten who made the shag cool in my part of world in 1974. Then I happened across a few key photos that unlocked the memory gate.

Everybody in my high school knew who this woman was. And everybody liked her. Girls especially. Working class girls most especially. There was a reason she was the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1974. Country girls were her first major audience. And they didn’t just like her music.

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For the record: The girls in my part of the world kept on copying Olivia Newton-John’s hairstyles for the rest of the seventies.

Farrah Fawcett’s soon-to-be legendary do?

Never saw one anywhere but on television.

Now, as to who was the absolute best?

Come on. You think I’m gonna make that pick?

I’m country. Sort of.

I’m a lot of things. Sort of.

I ain’t stupid.

Kudos, though, to Suzi, for pretty much sticking with it, decade after decade.

And for always being a reminder that a thing of joy is beautiful forever.