CONGRATULATIONS TO 2014 COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES

I don’t really give enough attention to country music here. Some day, when there’s world enough and time, I’ll do better. For now, I’ll just say that it is sort of a relief every year to hear about people who are grateful to be recognized, even it it’s only by an imperfect, human institution. No whining from the likes of Kiss or the Sex Pistols, etc. (as we often see and hear with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

This year’s inductees are Ronnie Milsap, Mac Wiseman and the late, great songwriter Hank Cochran…Samples below, beginning with Ronnie telling about how “Smoky Mountain Rain” came from his session work with Elvis on a certain other “rain” song:

And here’s an “undubbed” (i.e., no strings or chorus) version of one of Cochran’s signature songs, from you-know-who…

Plus Hank’s own version, very nice:

And the lovely sound of a lost world (courtesy of another Cochran signature song, written not too long after the demise of his collaboration with the (unrelated) Eddie Cochran in a duo called the Cochran Brothers…sung here by another you-know-who):

Again, congratulations to all–richly deserved.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Rock and Roll Through the Ages….As Bottomless as I Always Suspected)

Item #1: The local “path” station, which tries to be free-form and fresh and, every once in a while, succeeds, ran the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (a hit in 1984 and a radio staple ever since) into the Clash’s “London Calling” (title track to their epochal 1980 album). It felt exhilarating and also–after the manner of good free-form listening across the board–like a bit of a competition. Go-Go’s won of course. Not so much because they could play rings around everybody (not just the Clash) or any one of their five members could take over any record they made at any second (a rock and roll ideal if ever there was one) as because “Been running so fast, I nearly lost all track of time” and “The whole world’s out of sync” and “I waited so long, so long to play this part” all feel a lot more appropo of the modern malaise than “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” or “the Ice Age is coming” or, especially “I have no fear.” Look, the Clash were great. Really great. I broke more rulers banging to “Death or Glory” than any other record in existence back when I still had my share of youthful angst. But music and politics are funny things and, sooner or later, in rock and roll, you have to be able to stomp and you have to tell a truth that won’ t wear out. Both bands did their share of that. But, great as Joe Strummer and the boys were, they couldn’t quite stomp or tell the truth like the band that had Belinda Carlisle for a lead singer. Probably because they strained just a little too much for those very effects. Passing strange that. And very rock and roll. (All apologies: There is no half-way decent audio on ANY of the versions of “Head Over Heels” on YouTube at present and I’m way too swamped to upload it myself…so, in this case, you’ll just have to take my word for it, that, when it’s cranked up loud, it’s even better than this:)

Item #2: Caught Cyndi Lauper’s Live At Last concert from 2004 (Thanks YouTube–Nice makeup!). Just FYI: It took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 16 years to induct the epic white female vocalist of the sixties (Brenda Lee). It took them 22 years (and the announcement of a debilitating disease) for them to induct the epic white female vocalist of the seventies (Linda Ronstadt). How long for the epic white female vocalist of the eighties I wonder? 30 years? 40? Who knows. (I mean, I like the Hall. And, eventually, they get most things right. But it would be nice if they got on the stick for once.) In other words, how long before race and gender really don’t matter? You know, the way it was supposed to be. Now…where was I? Oh yeah, the Cyndi Lauper concert from 2004. Jaw-dropping. But then her concerts pretty much always are.

Item #3: Johnny Ace: Aces Wild. (Fantastic Voyage, 2012). Speaking of jaw-dropping. I’ve had the Johnny Ace Memorial Album for decades and I’ve gotten to know it pretty well but not exactly inside and out. This greatly expanded 2-CD look at his career came up cheap in a sealed copy on Amazon so I took a tumble. It’s got one of those seemingly grab-bag formats that almost never work but somehow comes together here: All Johnny’s solo stuff for most of Disc One (great..and revelatory…never knew, for instance, that he did a duet with Big Mama Thornton). Then five (count ‘em, five!) tribute records released in the immediate aftermath of his Christmas, 1955, murder/suicide/accident (depends on who’s doing the telling). Not the greatest records (nor is the additional one at the end of the second disc), but solid enough, and their very existence tells a lot about the mans’ impact.

The second disc consists of Ace’s fine piano session work for three other artists: A good solid R&B cat named Earl Forest, who would probably sound really, really good in pretty much any other context, but sounds pretty pedestrian here because he’s splitting time with a couple of guys named B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And not just any old B.B. and Bobby, but young, hungry haven’t-quite-made-it versions of same and man do they smoke.

One thing, though. B.B. King and Bobby Bland were greater–I’d even say much greater–singers than Johnny Ace. But they couldn’t match him for weirdness. And they didn’t end up on the wrong end of a gun on Christmas day. So Johnny Ace, morose, affected, stranded at the bottom of a well, at times nearly toneless, has one thing on those greater artists who can’t help breathing fire and presence into the room: He can’t really be explained. That’s probably why, even after an hour’s worth of truly scorching sides from his pals bringing their very best, it was still “The Clock” and “Pledging My Love” that hung in the air when I retired for the night and got ready for a very Happy Easter!

 

SEGUE OF THE DAY (4/16/14)–(Baby That Was Rock and Roll…So Saith Mr. Williams and Mr. Cochran)

TIMELIFE1959

 

Lately, with oldies stations going out of business, I’ve been trying to gather up some of the old Time-Life “Rock N’ Roll Era” collections which bring the experience of radio-style pleasure and surprise as close to my CD player as anything can these days.

By “lately” I basically mean the last three or four years. I started with the “Roots of Rock” collections (which cover the early fifties) and I just completed the fifties this week when I finally acquired the second volume from 1959.

The sixties can wait, I guess. I got a limited budget to say the least.

But these things really are marvelous.

1959 is supposed to be one of rock’s “lost” years–part of the long stretch between Elvis going in the Army and the Beatles arriving on Sullivan (a faked up narrative–not entirely discredited even today–that I wrote about a bit here).

Some lost year: “La Bamba,” the Coasters, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the Drifters,, “Since I Don’t Have You,” and on and on, with these twenty-two mostly classic sides representing barely a drop in the ocean.

But not much under the sun speaks to how far “rock ‘n’ roll” had come–and how fast and wide-ranging the journey into culture shock had been–like the segue here from the Platters to Eddie Cochran at tracks 6 and 7.

Just those names alone: The Platters….Eddie Cochran, are bound to call up a head-swiveling, neck-snapping series of associations. Smooth crooning to rockabilly rebellion. But, in that moment and every moment since, they were/are connected at the hip.

And the two songs included here weren’t just any Platters or any Eddie Cochran–they were “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “C’mon Everybody.”

Talk about traveling some.

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” was one of many examples where rock ‘n’ rollers took classic Tin Pan Alley material and improved it a thousand fold over any and all previous takes (some of which were plenty great themselves). And, without doing anything as radical as, for instance, what the Marcels would shortly thereafter achieve with “Blue Moon,” the Platters’ re-imagining is still breath-taking.

It also is one of hundreds of examples of early rock ‘n’ roll records (you know, what people actually bought and listened to) laying waste to the notion that it was, more or less exclusively, “teen” music.

Not that there was/is anything wrong with being a teen and making (or listening to) age specific music. Eddie Cochran singing about the good time he’s gonna have while the folks are out of the house isn’t less valid (or less brilliant) than classic pop at its best.

But–coming straight out of Tony Williams’ spine-tingling build at the end of “Smoke” (a climax which, in terms of combining pop’s version of operatic discipline and rock’s very specific version of what Lester Bangs used to call “passion expressed,” has not been matched by anyone but Roy Orbison in the long years since)–it really does help set the wide, wide boundaries of the revolution.

And it does that even before Cochran’s own climactic “Who cares?” takes his beat-driven story of suburban good times–which up to then is a pretty clear descendant of Mickey and Judy scheming to put on a show with the other kids that will end with the grown-ups tapping their feet to the new sound–into a new and dangerously giddy place.

Funny, but nothing quite explains why rock ‘n’ roll was not–and is not–quite like other music the way actually listening to it does.

 

THERE ARE SOME THINGS I JUST NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT AS HAVING ACTUALLY HAPPENED…(Found In The Connection: Rattling Loose End #24)

But, for completely mysterious reasons, I’m really glad they did:

VIVIENANDRINGO

Vivien Leigh…and Ringo?

Yep.

Please feel free to supply your own thought balloons!

(Mine’s over Ringo: “After this, that audience with the Queen will be a piece of cake!”

SIXTY YEARS AGO…ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SNEAKS IN THE BACK DOOR…AND THEN BREAKS WIDE OPEN (Found In The Connection: Rattling Loose End #23)

This week marks the sixtieth anniversary of Bill Haley and the Comets’ recording “Rock Around the Clock.” It took a year or so and a lot of twists and turns for the record to reach #1 in Billboard and serve as the more or less “official” announcement of the revolution’s arrival to mainstream America. In honor thereof, Mark Steyn, a conservative columnist who usually stays as far away from rock ‘n’ roll as he can, has designated it as his “Song of the Week” and written a fantastic essay on the song’s (and the record’s) origin which can be linked here.

 

 

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Pet Peeve Fulfillment!)

No maxim–just an excuse to rub my hands and cackle with life-affirming glee!

I guess it’s one of human nature’s moderately perverse traits: The satisfaction to be had from finding a perfect example of a pet peeve. (My just-found example of this one can be read here, if you have sufficient patience.)

One of my very major pet peeves happens to be book reviewers who insert their own opinions about the subject of a book in place of what they are presumably being paid for, which is their opinion of the book itself. (This happens a lot with biographies in particular: i.e., “I’m a huge fan of Olivier (or Churchill, or whoever) and here’s what I know and love about him. Oh, by the way, so-and-so has just written a book on the subject, which makes me very happy because it gives me a chance to share with you what I, myself, happen to think about the eminent significance of this very book-worthy subject.”)

One of my other very major pet peeves is book reviewers who simply recite information they have gleaned from the book itself as filler in place of actual analysis concerning the general value of this information or the manner in which it has been presented by the author of the book in question.

Now, Philip French’s recent review of Mark Harris’ Five Came Back (which I found while I was scouring the net for general opinion after my own review was published at Broadway World) may not be a truly “perfect” example of these two peeves: He does mention Harris’ name three times in a 1,000 word review and I suppose real perfection would involve reaching a point where absolutely no mention of the author is deemed necessary at all. This name-dropping (in a review of an author’s own book) is no doubt a sacrifice for French’s sort. After all, there are at least three words here he could have used putting forth his own views of the whole affair had he not felt obligated to mention the book’s mere author a time or three.

Still, I think it’s likely as close to this kind of peeve-fulfillment as one can hope to get. (Just for comparison’s sake, incidentally, I counted up my own stats and found I mentioned Harris sixteen times in 2,300 words, which I think means I can, at least this once–and laying aside my pet peeve concerning those who investigate themselves!–absolve myself of blatant hypocrisy….Okay, I better move on. I suddenly feel like a government agency.)

However, French has gone the usual nonsense one better.

He turned up yet another major pet peeve–one which I didn’t even know I had because I had not previously run across such a glaring example of it.

This involves inserting one’s own opinions on the book’s subject by supplying a quote which is not actually in the book and pretending that it is–and doing so to make a false point.

To wit:

“None, however, made a real success as an independent producer, and this excellent book is ultimately a tale of disappointment and disillusionment. But there is a heartening moment in 1950 at the height of the McCarthy era, as vindictive rightwing investigators descended on Hollywood. The deeply conservative Cecil B DeMille and his reactionary cronies from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals attempted to depose the liberal Joseph L Mankiewicz as president of the Screen Writers Guild and impose a loyalty oath on all members. Wyler, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Capra came together in a grand reunion to oppose the move and they carried the day. This was the famous meeting at which Ford stood up and began by identifying himself: ‘My name is John Ford and I make westerns. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B DeMille–and he certainly knows how to give it to them… But I don’t like you, CB, I don’t like what you stand for, and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.’

“None made a more direct and subtle statement about the prospects before them.”

[NOTE: I’ll refrain from twisting my fragile mind and spirit in knots trying to suss out the possibilities of a single statement being both direct (which Ford’s statement certainly was) and subtle (which it certainly was not). There’s a lot of that sort of evil genius at work in this review, but I’ve got more important fish to fry just now. So....]

To put it bluntly, the Ford quote–quite famous in its own right–is not in Harris’ book.

Maybe it should have been. French certainly seems to think so. But to pretend that it is, so that one can also pretend that the five directors Harris wrote about, in his “excellent book” concerning their war experiences, came back to lead lives of “disappointment and disillusionment,” in which the only really memorable event was not any of the numerous Oscars they subsequently won or classic, era-defining films they subsequently made, but a single political meeting which Harris mentions only in passing and does not quote from at all (as French clearly implies), or attach any singular importance to (as French also implies), is, well….

Perfect!

 

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #4: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears)

MAMASANDPAPAS

“Barry (McGuire) had said that he had some friends coming through San Francisco, could I take a listen to ‘em. I had a habit of when I listened to a new group I tried not to look at the group, so not to be influenced in any way by the way they looked, but hear them as I would hear them on a record. And so they went through the four or five songs and I opened my eyes, looked up at ‘em, and that’s how I got the title of the first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, after hearing how fantastic it was and then to see what they looked like. I mean they were just back from the Caribbean, and they were scruffy as could be and Michelle was as beautiful as could be and Cass was as big as she could be and John was as tall as he could be…”

Producer/Label Owner Lou Adler (Source–California Dreamin’: The Songs Of The Mamas & The Papas DVD (2005))

I have no idea how it came across in 1966. From this distance it’s the cynosure of cool (and, yes, I kind of have a feeling it was then, too).

Weird, but I never noticed the apostrophes before. I was probably too busy worrying about the toilet (which was covered up when the album started to sell).

Or maybe Michelle’s boots.

Or what was in them.

Perfect in any case, because it was such a transcendent blend of Show Biz and Counter Culture–kind of like the music that was waiting inside.

 

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Fifteenth)

“‘‘I Got a Woman’ appeared on Elvis Presley’s first album,’ Fagen says in a tiny but packed essay about Ray Charles. ‘Elvis wasn’t the white Ray Charles, though. Tennessee Williams, maybe, comes closer.’ Are we still producing musicians who can think and talk like that?”

(Nick Hornby, reviewing Eminent Hipsters, a memoir by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, in The Believer, March/April 2014.)

I could be snarky and suggest that admitting the white guy who was completely full of himself did indeed have more in common with the black guy who was completely full of himself than the white guy who was a truly restless seeker and a truly artful dodger had in common with either is maybe not the precise combination of praise and put-downs Fagen intended or Hornby salutes.

But why get complicated?

This thing’s juicy enough on its own. It’s certainly the first instance I’ve come across that could fit equally well in the “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” and the “It Isn’t Only Elvis They Say Stupid Stuff About” categories.

And it’s also the first instance–in either category–where two men are struggling for the right to have their names entered as permanent additions to the “Stupid Stuff” file and I find myself struggling to choose between them.

Well, Fagen is “that guy from Steely Dan,” and they always were patting themselves on the back for squaring and cubing things that would have otherwise been completely beneath them. (That’s the long way of saying they were jazzbos, though I hasten to add they were also the kind of jazzbos who were way too smart to play, write, arrange, produce or sing like jazzbos until they had made a run of brilliant albums, a name for themselves and a boatload of dough–naturally they called this integrity.)

So I gotta give him the upper hand.

Okay, listen. Ray Charles was a genius. Tennessee Williams was a genius. Elvis was a genius.

None of them ever remotely tried to be–or remotely wanted to be–any of the others.

In point of fact, the only one who ever really tried to be somebody else at all was Charles, who started his career by trying very hard to be Nat “King” Cole, most especially the Nat Cole who appealed most readily to White America (and he was, incidentally, pretty darn good at it).

He gave that up soon enough, though, and went on to be something even better than a first class Nat Cole imitator or maybe even better than Nat Cole–which was, you know, Ray Charles.

After that (though before Charles began to appeal so readily to White America himself) came Elvis–who never tried to be Ray Charles or anybody but Elvis.

Before that came Tennessee Williams, who also never tried to be Ray Charles (not even all those years later, when he had actually heard of Ray Charles) or anybody but Tennessee Williams.

So the only remaining question–besides why Fagen is making such an ass of himself in the first place by acting as though he, “a musician who can think and talk like that,” really can’t think or talk at all–is why Tennessee Williams is “maybe closer” than Elvis to being “the white Ray Charles” rather than the other way around?

I mean, since Williams had already written the plays for which he is most remembered well before Ray Charles even got to the point of trying to be the new Nat Cole, why doesn’t Fagen ask whether the Ray Charles he is referring to–the one who did eventually become both himself and a genius–is “maybe” the black Tennessee Williams?

Is is maybe because then he would not only be a guy being praised–by the likes of Nick Hornby–for making stupid assumptions rather nakedly rooted in the notion that the black genius (more by dint of his blackness than his genius) must have been inherently superior to any white genius who walked the same turf (only with the distinct disadvantage of being white), even if the white guy walked it much earlier and it wasn’t even really the same turf at all, but also be a guy in danger of being accused of being, well, a racist or something?

Could that be it?

Well, he is Donald Fagen.

And he does like to cube things so that he won’t be caught looking down.

In this case he cubed himself into a corner–the corner where the benighted liberal intellectual makes curious assumptions which, under the surface, where it counts, are hardly distinguishable from those of the white (or black) supremacist.

Fagen’s statement–meant to assure us that he’s living up to the title of his book–is actually a return to the most primitive of the primitive basics–to the notion that race comes first and foremost in all considerations that seek to codify human character and (by extension) genius.

The sort of thinking, in other words, that the revolution Elvis led, Ray Charles sort of reluctantly (though also brilliantly–reluctance was his signature) participated in, and Tennessee Williams never really knew quite what to make of, sought–however naively, given the vicissitudes of human nature–to challenge and overturn.

Oh well.

That was the thing about jazzbos.

They always thought rock and roll was somewhere underneath them, when really they should have been looking up.

Case in point below…(Nice lyrics, though–and, hey, notice who constitutes his own category):

 

QUARTERLY BOOK REPORT: 3/14 (Walter Mosley Walks the Walk…and I Finally Catch Up)

(NOTE: Since most of my scant reading time is now devoted to material for BWW (all reviews accessible under that category at the right), the Monthly Book Report is, at least for now, going to have to become the Quarterly Book Report. I’ll change back if I start getting time to read more, but, for now, I’ll be lucky to read more than a book or two on my own stick in any given quarter.)

Black Betty

Black Betty (Walter Mosley–1994)

Whenever I start reading a new-to-me detective series written in the American vein (called “hard-boiled” for the usual mix of not-very-good reasons among which bleeding obviousness is actually far from the worst), the first question that always arises is whether it raises the game invented, refined and still (for my money) defined by the Big Three: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

Black Betty–the fourth of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins’ series and, as of this week, my introduction–doesn’t exactly lead me to believe that he has raised the game, but it certainly provides some strong evidence that he has at least broadened it.

That’s no small feat.

Since it’s the first Rawlins (and the first Mosley) I’ve read, I can’t say where Black Betty stacks up in the series–whether it’s prime, low or middling. But it has enough good and interesting elements that I’m definitely eager to read more.

As many before me have doubtless pointed out, Mosley’s series is marked by two distinct departures from the Big Three (and from most of the rest of American detective fiction). First, he’s trying to make his main character three-dimensional. Second, he’s telling his stories from an African-American perspective.

On the first matter, I don’t think he’s terribly successful, at least not in this entry. Yes, Rawlins has more “character”–meaning more real history, family connections, childhood memories and so forth–than his standard models. Not that this requires much. Hammett’s Continental Op didn’t even have a name. Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe had a name and not much else. MacDonald’s Lew Archer had at least a few of the elements of a specific–as opposed to archetypal–character, but not so many that they intruded on, or, if you prefer, distracted from, the narrative. Unfortunately, while Easy Rawlins has a lot of dimension compared to his most obvious predecessors, I don’t think he has nearly enough to make him interesting in and of himself.

At least not in this one book, which has warm “humanizing” moments with Rawlins’ adopted children and random departures into civics’ lectures (the book is set during the early sixties) that are nowhere near strong enough to stand on their own and add nothing whatsoever to plot, character, theme, etc. I’ll have to suspend judgment on the overall effectiveness of this element until I’ve read some more of the series but here, at least, it landed with a series of small, annoying thuds.

I definitely will be reading more, however–probably the whole thing. Because Mosley’s second inventive feature–the perspective of Black America–is completely compelling.

This is literally Ross MacDonald’s turf–Mosley has even gone back to the same time period–seen from a completely and refreshingly different angle.

Going back to a few of MacDonald’s novels myself in recent years has given me a whole new appreciation for them, one which I wrote about briefly here. And Mosley has made a world that is every bit as compelling, even if Rawlins himself usually seems like the very sort of (admittedly morally ambiguous) narrative convenience that the Big Three always took their detectives to be. That’s not a bad thing. When Mosley leaves him alone–just a man with some sort of conscience trying to do a dirty job–the novel hums. It’s precisely when he tries to broaden the character that the thing begins to slog.

If that turns out to be typical of the series, that’ll be a bit of a shame because Mosley is very nearly MacDonald’s equal in terms of plotting (which is saying a mouthful). And, by presenting Black America’s version of this world, a world where the middle and lower classes are, of necessity, much more communal and far more tightly bound to each other than they are in White America’s version of same, he’s given himself a big, rich canvas to paint on.

Civics lessons and warm family moments–indifferently rendered as they are here, in a story that covers admittedly familiar tropes but is delivered with sufficient skill as to make familiarity beside the point and has a corker of a denouement to boot–can, ironically enough, only hold him back.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (PERCEPTION AND REALITY…BANG, BANG, SHOOT, SHOOT)

I wonder what kind of movie people expected to see in the late forties when they gazed upon this:

RAWHIDE1

A woman’s picture (i.e., romantic melodrama) with a western setting maybe?

Tyrone Power playing a bad guy, menacing Susan Hayward? (He certainly looks closer to raping her than sweeping her off her feet in this image.)

A remake of Duel in the Sun?

I don’t know, of course, but I find it hard to believe this would have prepared anybody for the film they would actually see, which is a taut, no-nonsense little western that has stood the test of time with a lot less strain than most of the period’s serious art (in film or elsewhere), and is better represented by this (with Jack Elam, playing an actual predator):

rawhide5

or this (a love, which might just be lasting, growing from shared hard experience rather than grand passion):

RAWHIDE2

Though, to be honest, if all you wanted to do was get me in a theater, you could have had me at this:

rawhide3

And you could have really had me at this:

rawhide4

I mean, okay, I probably would have wanted to see it, even if it was about what the poster would lead me to believe. But, jeez, don’t the suits ever know anything!