BEFORE WE MOVE ALONG….TURNS OUT GREIL MARCUS PUNKING THE SHANGRI-LAS IS NOTHING NEW (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #34)

…Why am I not surprised.

I’m still ruminating on a review of Marcus’ latest (much of which, as I’ve repeatedly written, I liked).

Meanwhile I came across this (while researching a link between Maria McKee and Patty Loveless…the internet is a very strange place).

Summarizing for those who don’t want to read the whole thing (which I do recommend as a valuable insight into the “standard rock narrative” echo chamber): It’s a lengthy essay on the Girl Group ethos (in which Marcus first conveniently limits the form to his own preconceptions, then repeats–or perhaps invents…it’s from 1975–the canard that this consummate singers’ music is “producers’ music”….and must be, because the singers are, well, girls). And he concludes with this:

Is there something that will wrap up the social, political, and sexual meaning of girl group rock? I’m not sure there is. Every time I try to draw a lesson from these wonderful records, it seems to defraud them, to be beside the point. At least, my points are beside theirs. What do they all come to? I don’t know.

But I do know this. If you listen to the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Any­more,” cut in 1965, you will find that the lead singer’s voice, from its tone to its phrasing, exactly matches, down to the most subtle inflection, the voice of Patty Hearst, on the tapes she made with the SLA.

(Source: Greil Marcus: “Girl Groups: How the Other Half Lived,” The Village Voice, September 8, 1975)

I confess I had never heard the Patty Hearst tapes before. So I followed the link (which I’ve re-created below) and…..

I’ve heard them now.

From its tone to its phrasing, it is as far removed from “the lead singer’s voice” (i.e., Mary Weiss) as two members of the same species can be.

To get this…

from this…

…is to truly “defraud” oneself.

Not to mention others.

I mean, what Marcus is essentially saying here is that the great “girl group” singers (a phrase nearly all of them detest, in part because it feeds the logic Marcus perpetrates in this piece) were on a spiritual plane with a brainwashed hostage of a terror group.

That’s not just stupid, it’s vile.

I know I’ve been coming back to these themes a lot lately and I do plan to move on (if the world and the internet will let me!)

Meanwhile….Good God.

THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME: 2015 NOMINEES

It’s that time again: Anyone wishing to participate in fan ballots can go HERE or HERE (second one actually has a small impact on the official voting).

Angst-Is-Me (meaning, me-me-me-me-me-me-me!): That’s one of the three main themes for this year’s ballot. Regrettable, but I suppose inevitable, given the direction “rock and roll” took once the rock and roll coalition fell apart in the late eighties. This will no doubt be a running theme in the future.

Anyway, count me uninformed on an era where Green Day (who I do sort of like) could pass for comic relief. I tried You-Tubing some Nine Inch Nails and Smiths. Really I did try–just couldn’t get all the way through any of their songs. But at least they seem to have struck a deep chord with their fans and I never begrudge anyone their own Shining Path.

“Sting,” on the other hand, has always struck me as a likely product of some government conspiracy–which government I’m not sure, but the Dark Arts must surely be involved. Anyway, I’m loathe to vote for a solo artist who is already in as a member of a group.

That leaves out the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, too. He’s far more deserving than Sting. I don’t even doubt that he’s Hall worthy–you know, once all the deserving people who aren’t already in have been taken care of.

Before I get to that, I’ll address the second major theme: Catch-As-Catch-Can.

This would include two “blues-rock” acts (the seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the sturdy Stevie Ray Vaughan), the by-now obligatory rap act (N.W.A., a good one at least), a hard rock act (Joan Jett) and those fun-lovin’ auteurs of trance music (Kraftwerk).

So, in order:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Fine. They would fit perfectly in my proposed category of Contemporary Influence. That would be a category where the Hall’s Nominating Committee, which already decides on Nonperformers, Musical Excellence, Sidemen, Early Influences and the like, induct artists who clearly influenced rock and roll during the rock and roll era, but don’t easily fit the Rock and Roll Performer category. It’s probably too late for this to happen, with perfect candidates like Miles Davis, Albert King and Muddy Waters already inducted as performers. The PBBB aren’t anywhere near as epic as those acts (or Patsy Cline or Peter, Paul and Mary, to mention a couple who could define my proposal). That being the case, they are basically taking up a spot on the ballot that would be better filled by far greater sixties’ “cult” acts like Love or Fairport Convention…or popular ones like Manfred Mann or Paul Revere and the Raiders.

Stevie Ray Vaughan: Solid, of course. I’d even call him rock and roll, since, by the time he came along, bringing straight blues to a mainstream audience was a kind of holy act. Not as holy as the Persuasions preserving–and modernizing–doo-wop into the seventies’ maybe, but honorable just the same. I could imagine voting for him, but only on a much weaker ballot than this one.

N.W.A.: Again, I could imagine voting for them (actually did vote for them the last time they were nominated), mainly as a way of honoring Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who ended up being far more consequential than their original group. Maybe next year.

Kraftwerk: If we must, shouldn’t it be Roxy Music?

Joan Jett: The thing about Joan Jett is that–except for a few sides–I’ve always liked the idea of her better than the actual music. And I can’t get this quote from Suzi Quatro (who’s never been anywhere near the ballot) out of my head, (re: how she finally got through a scene she kept muffing on the set of Happy Days): “I finally decided to imitate Joan Jett imitating me.” I guess there’s a theme here: I’m not anxious to vote for somebody when there’s a better somebody who keeps not getting nominated.

That brings me to the year’s third theme, which, thankfully, is the recognition of long overdue R&B acts from the actual rock and roll era and which made up my entire ballot:

War and Spinners: I wrote about both in depth in my previous post. They are, by far, the two most deserving acts on this ballot and two of the half dozen or so most embarrassing oversights on the Hall’s record to date. Time to end all that.

Chic: I’m actually fairly lukewarm on them. But it’s clear disco isn’t going to get any further respect–that more deserving acts like K.C. and the Sunshine Band and (especially) Barry White–aren’t getting on the ballot unless and until Chic gets in. They’ve reached double-digit nominations and they fit the year’s best theme so this was an easier-than-usual call.

The Marvelettes: No, they aren’t the Chantels or the Shangri-Las, who have been unable to breach the Induction wall because the moat of ignorance (or, just possibly, chauvinism) separating the Hall’s voters from their beholden duty is deep and wide. But they are deserving–they had Motown’s first #1 (symbolic but symbols matter) and a long string of truly great singles. Easy choice, even with the caveats.

Bill Withers: Uncategorizable (as I wrote about here). Too much his own man even to really fit in with The Rising (see the War/Spinners post for details). I suspect he’s been helped by the now easy availability of his once difficult-to-hear early catalog. But, whatever good vibes brought him from nowhere to buzz-worthy in the past year, (in the fan voting, he’s doing the best by far of the acts I’m recommending) I hope they last. His induction would represent real hope for thinking outside some of the Hall-defined boxes that have become far too small for comfort.

Or, putting it all a little more simply: This…

Over this…

I mean, the End is coming soon enough. Let’s not hit the accelerator just yet.

THE RISING–ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME EDITION (Second Memo)

This year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot was released recently. I’ll have a post on all the nominees and who I voted for in the fan ballots later. First I wanted to concentrate on the acts that are the year’s two most deserving by a wide margin (not that either is being treated that way in either the press or the fan polls–wrong color), who also played a big role in the category I recently started here.

I don’t know if War was the greatest American band of the seventies–I’d call it a close run between them and Lynyrd Skynyrd–and, depending on how one defines “the Seventies” (do Creedence or Sly and the Family Stone belong?) or “American” (does Fleetwood Mac belong?), there are other contenders. But they were certainly the most Cosmic–the same way the Byrds were the most Cosmic band of the Sixties.

Cosmic as in “boundless” or “limitless.”

Or just far-reaching.

Put another way, they were the perfect band for Cosmic times. Especially Cosmic times that were beginning to close down and leave us with the set of boundaries and limits within which we now live.

They’re just buzzwords now. A big, mixed up stew of psychic jolts barely detectable from each other.

Vietnam. Watergate. Woodstock. Altamont. Manson Family. Summer of Love. Love Generation. Weatherman. SDS. Kent State. Days of Rage.

Assassination. Riot. War (the socio-political concept, not the military one that involves the truly bloody and costly task of taking and holding ground and certainly not the Cosmic band).

Whatever.

It’s all in the past now. Part of the times.

Except “the times” still have a hand around our throat. Our ignoring it hasn’t made it go away–just led us here, to the place of lost opportunity.

The Rising was meant to warn us, to keep us off the wrong track.

War was The Rising’s strongest voice.

For a half-decade plus–from backing Eric Burdon on 1970’s “Spill the Wine” (a far more subversive record than just about anybody has ever cared to admit–probably because it arrived at the only moment when a white man fantasizing about an orgy in the Hall of the Mountain Kings while the African Kings [albeit with a Danish harmonica player] of L.A.’s Chicano East Side laid down the funk and Miss Puerto Rico whispered sweet nothings in his ear, going #3 Billboard, seemed not all that far-fetched) on through “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World is a Ghetto” and “Cisco Kid” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”

Along the way, they had the best-selling album of 1973–a phenomenon (now mostly forgotten, along with the rest of The Rising) I wrote about here, plus a string of Go-rilla-sized radio hits that crossed every conceivable barrier (which I wrote about here).

So why aren’t War in the Hall already?

Well, I can only speculate–few voters or nominating committee members ever explain themselves, which is their right. But, if I had to guess, I’d say the obvious reason is the lack of a convenient hook: no charismatic leader like Sly Stone or George Clinton to attract the attention of the Radical Chic combo (black revolutionaries, white luminaries) that tends to excite intellectual discourse; no easily defined style (I read the phrase “Latin funk” a lot…er…okay); a complete misunderstanding of rock and roll history that allows those sitting in judgment to think War was “just another funk band,” ignoring how their unique style was forged from L.A. doo-wop and garage bands, late-sixties neo-soul and West Coast jazz, with respect for, but relatively little deference to, James Brown or Sly Stone (a process of assimilation which is best defined on Rhino’s great, little noted, three-volume collection Brown Eyed Soul which I can’t recommend too highly).

The greatest sin of all then.

No easy answers.

Or, to use a throwback cliche–prophets are often without honor in their own land.

More precisely and emphatically than anyone working in the seventies–in rock and roll or elsewhere–War were the prophets of the backlash present.

Hello “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World Is a Ghetto,” and “I hear you’re working for the C.I.A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” Hey White America…you didn’t listen then, how’s it feel to join us, here at the precipice of the long fall defined by the new buzzwords? Decline. Collapse. Credit Default. Drone Warfare. Air Strikes. Government Shutdown. Or, the best description of the American prison system–even better than the New Jim Crow–Gulag?

Should have listened I guess.

Probably still should….

War were West Coast–East L.A. and universal. Old Testament prophets informed by a wary version of New Testament grace.

Spinners were East Coast, Philly by way of Detroit (a long apprenticeship at Motown that ended when their great, Stevie Wonder-produced breakout hit “It’s A Shame” was followed by an even greater Stevie Wonder-produced wonder called “We’ll Have it Made” which failed to cement their success).

They weren’t prophets themselves, but they served one. His name was Thom Bell and, as arranger, producer and (most often with his great partner, Linda Creed) songwriter, he operated under the guise of a Romantic Poet.

Though he had hits with a lot of artists, Bell had three principal vehicles during The Rising. Spinners (there was properly no “the” in their prime period), were the pinnacle of a crescendo that rose from the Del-fonics (very fine) and the Stylistics (truly great, but, due to their reliance on Russell Thompkin’s Jr., ultimately held within limits which Spinners, with three great leads and the kind of harmonies that come only from years of finishing each others breaths, easily transcended).

Bell had a vision that seemed apolitical. It seemed that way even on something as direct as “Ghetto Child.” It seemed that way then, and, if you don’t pay the extra-close attention which those glorious arrangements and heart-stopping vocals can so easily deflect, it might seem that way now.

Don’t be fooled. Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade where that distinction meant anything. They were also the vehicle where Bell (with and without Creed) invested the best of himself.

What we want Bell and Spinners essentially said, over and over, is to belong.

If War were already counting the loss (even as they hoped for the best), Bell’s Spinners were exploring a promise that would never quite be kept…on the assumption that, even if it wasn’t, it would be worth articulating.

One of the other acts on this year’s ballot is N.W.A., the gangsta rap pioneers who eventually sprang from the Compton streets War long before warned were slipping away. I didn’t vote for N.W.A. this time around (though I think they are worthy and will get in at some point).

Put simply, the rejection of the visions War and Spinners offered during The Rising–our inability to hear and heed the warning they sometimes implied and sometimes stated openly–made N. W.A. inevitable, necessary, cathartic and nowhere near effective.

The legal barriers once confronted by the Civil Rights movement are down. They were down in 1970, when War and Spinners had their first big Pop hits.

The walls that divide the “modern” acts on this year’s ballot (indie acts like Green Day and Nine Inch Nails along with N.W.A.–page still white, ink still black, still no gettin’ together) from each other are still standing.

Higher than ever.

Really, really should have listened….Really, really still should.

 

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.

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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.