AND THEN IT CAME TO ME….(Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #15)

Mostly, when I think about politics, it’s with a wry smile and a shake of the head. But this is a truly weird season, likely to get weirder. I’m not going to comment on anything specific, but it did occur to me that I could dedicate this song I suddenly can’t get out of my head to “the Establishment” wings of both major political parties.

I don’t know if it’s mere Serendipity or the Cosmos at work, but it’s from 1971, when the Great American Middle Class was just beginning to feel the first hard drops of rain before the flood (as in, 1946–1973, Total Economy doubled, Wages doubled; 1973–2016; Total Economy doubled again, Wages up 2%).

At least they told us it was rain….Here’s to the coming deluge, and the overlords who were certain the party would last forever. If the change ain’t this year, it ain’t long:

 

 

THE WOUNDS STILL BLEED…(Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #14)

My town’s local R&B station features America’s greatest dee-jay, Joe Bullard. That’s 96.1 Jamz in Tallahassee, FL, in case anyone ever wants to check him out.

Days like today he’s part minister, though, even on a day like today, I’ve never once heard him preach. He let’s the subtlest shift of tone in his usual patter do some of the work.

He let’s the music do the rest.

So, driving around doing errands this morning, the first piece of music I heard after I heard the news from Charleston was from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

Bear in mind there was a time when Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed and others crossed over to the American Pop Charts. Then hear me when I say this is the deepest blues singing to ever crease those charts, however briefly.

Triple deep in fact because it’s a collective.

The wordless, knife-in-the-heart falsetto is by Lloyd Parks, the long monologue by Melvin himself.

The lead is Teddy Pendergrass, about whom I had this to say a little while back.

And, here as there, it’s not the words (which are about something else entirely). It’s not even the music.

It’s the sound. The sound of mourning and, today, there was no sound to match it. Certainly not the babble coming from talk and news stations. It made a difference.

But you do have to wonder how long we can go on healing and patching before we bleed out.

 

RUNNING DOWN THE ROAD WITH THE SKYDOG (Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #13)

DUANEALLMAN1

Listen to just about any musical genius who lived ninety miles an hour and found death before it could find them and it’s easy to hear them chasing what they caught.

It’s a long list: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain. All carried deep desperation or (assuming the qualities can ever be disentangled) fatalism in their bones. They couldn’t have kept the devil’s laughter from being an essential part of how they sang or played if they had wanted to…which they wouldn’t have.

Listening to seven hours of Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective this week, four of them on the annual Florida-Alabama-Georgia loop that carries me past my mother’s graveside, what I heard was a man who had absorbed and mastered everything from Steve Cropper-style studio concision to deep, biting blues to epic guitar god soloing to do Clapton or Hendrix proud…and not only sounded like his own man on every note, but like he had all the time in the world.

He might have been the only live-fast-die-young icon who actually died on a motorcycle, but unlike everybody else I just listed, it’s easy to hear any piece of music he ever touched, from lightest brush…

to firm embrace…

to death-grip…

…and imagine him living another fifty years if he had only lived another day.

Thanks Duane.

When I make that annual pilgrimage in the future, I won’t have to worry anymore about which music to ride along with.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING I HEARD THIS CHRISTMAS…(Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #12)

Wish I knew the song in question but it’s worth noting anyway.

On my way home from my friend MG’s lovely Christmas brunch, I stopped at my local convenience store…Walking out, I heard the thump of a rap song–loud but not abusively so–coming from a white kid’s pickup. The white-haired black man walking towards me was humming along–almost as loudly–to the blues sample underneath.

Smiles all around.

Reminded me that it isn’t all gloom and doom in this world and somehow–maybe just as a measure of how much farther we really have come down the weary highway that seems to have no end–put me in mind of this week’s great discovery…from that Fame box again and 1971. Merry Christmas ya’ll…and a big thanks to all who stopped by and let me reach all my yearly goals for the blog several weeks early and coast into the new year:

 

OH YEAH, NOW I REMEMBER WHAT I WAS MAD ABOUT (Bob Dylan, the Coen Brothers and Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #11)

Inside Llewyn Davis–Coen Brothers, 2013

BOBDYLAN

One reason I keep listening to music–even really familiar music–is that it keeps paving the road to understanding (not to mention truth, beauty, peace, love and harmony, besides which, people who can dance can dance to it and make me smile).

When I saw this in the theater I considered writing a long, semi-angry piece on its shortcomings (while acknowledging it had some of the Coen Brothers’ usual strengths). Time and circumstance intervened and I basically abandoned the idea.

But, this being Bob Dylan week at my house and all, I found a moment from his eponymous first album that crystalized why I thought the movie failed.

I already knew (and, had I managed to finish that original piece, would certainly have emphasized), that this (see below!) was faster, funnier, more melodic and, you know, TRUER (not to mention autobiographical, though I hasten to add that is not always the same thing as “true,” since autobiography can lie its shiny white posterior off as fast as anything else in this god-almighty-world) than any single element of Inside Llewyn Davis, forget the whole mish-mashed thing.

But “Creeque Alley” was told looking back, from the standpoint of what turned out to be not-very-stable fame and fortune which did not yet know quite how very-unstable it was going to be.

Meaning it maybe had an unfair advantage over a fictional film that was set in the days just before the Greenwich Village folk scene became a big, freaking deal.

Catching up with Dylan’s first this week, though, I was taken back to the heart of the moment–the very point in time which the Coens were trying to recapture (albeit for purposes that remained obscure both while I was watching the film and, later, wondering what I might have missed).

And, this time, it was the man whose ascendance would be part and parcel with all the reasons why anyone would want to make a film about that moment fifty years later, who brought the point home.

By being–you guessed it–faster, funnier, (at least a bit) more melodic, and, you know, TRUER (not to mention autobiographical in ways that almost certainly amounted to Robert Zimmerman lying his shiny white posterior off).

The point is, you can listen to either one of these records for the five hundredth time and still have no doubt the people who wrote and sang those words had lived lives worth making movies about–and that they were the tip of a communal iceberg.

I left Inside Llewyn Davis wondering if the early sixties’ folk scene had even happened at all–let alone how the world I had just seen depicted (if it really did exist) could have ever amounted to anything anyone might care about.

I probably took the smug nature of the film’s failures a little more personally than usual because those failures were, for me, a tad personal. I didn’t feel defensive about what the film mocked, because none of the things (or people) it mocked came anywhere near representing anything (or anyone) remotely realistic.

But I did care about what it ignored–which was the music itself.

I mean, they didn’t get any of it right. Some of it was pretty, some of it was “authentic,” some of it was “poetic,” some of it was obviously meant to be parodic. But the stuff that worked didn’t work the way commercial folk music worked and the stuff that failed (which was almost all of it) didn’t fail in the ways commercial folk did either.

If I took all this a little too hard, it was perhaps because commercial folk music–the music of big city Leftists–was my first musical love. It was my first musical love because it found its way to my conservative Christian world by virtue of the very good hearts so many of the folkies wore so proudly on their sleeves–conscientious hearts which seemed very much in tune with the world I knew.

And if that didn’t give me enough of a stake, there was the added fact that encountering the music that grew out of that scene–the folk rock of the Byrds specifically–was the first great leap to freedom I ever found in art (and, not at all incidentally, fully at one with the leap I had long since found in faith).

In other words, if somebody was going to make a movie about Greenwich Village in the early sixties, I wanted it to be skillful, sure (which Inside Llewyn Davis certainly is), but I also wanted it to be, you know…

True.

By which I very specifically do not mean merely “factual.”

What I really wanted was for it to maybe, just maybe, catch the spirit–in what is very likely to be the most high profile film ever made about this “scene”–of at least one of the thousand or so great records that (directly and indirectly) went forth from it and changed the world just a little bit for the better.

Like this, maybe:

And this–the thing that would have been worth doing, if you were going to make a film about that particular time and place which could not have been set in any other time or place because it honored what was unique about its subject matter–is something Inside Llewyn Davis, sadly, did not even attempt.

Fortunately, we do still have all those records. So maybe I’ll just keep listening.

WHY IT REALLY IS IMPOSSIBLE TO RANK ART (Why I Need Rock and Roll, Session #10)

This week I did something I used to do on an almost obsessive basis and rarely do at all anymore.

Amidst a lot of exhaustion and hurly-burly, I sat in my den and listened to four straight albums.

Just like that.

Propped up a chair some time after midnight, set a coke on the coaster behind me (that’s the way the den is set up…to have the coaster behind me when I’m sitting in front of my speakers…it’s best not to inquire too closely into why, but one of the main reasons is because, well, I don’t sit and listen to four albums in a row much anymore.)

There are practical and impractical reasons why I used to do it a lot–the salient one being that I was chasing both healing and understanding, two concepts that are not necessarily bound to cooperate with each other.

And there are practical and impractical reasons why I don’t do it much anymore–the salient one being that, at my age, I’ve probably given up on understanding as much as I once hoped to and achieved as much healing as is likely to occur on this particular plane of existence.

The four albums I ended up listening to were not chosen entirely at random. I really did listen after the old fashion. I picked the first one because something (I honestly don’t recall what) had brought it up this week (oh, wait, now I remember, it was Dave Marsh’s appreciation of Lou Reed in the latest, far-too-long-in-coming edition of Rock and Rap Confidential) and made me want to do that thing I do far too seldom anymore, which is grab a great record and JUST SIT AND LISTEN.

So I pulled out the Velvet Underground’s Loaded (that was Reed’s final album with his original band for those who might be wondering) and, like I said, pulled up the chair and let myself feel the music and enjoy it after the style of days gone by.

It definitely helped that Loaded is an album I know front to back. I could sing along or pick a little air guitar or tap my thighs to the rhythm (bass or drums….or both) as the mood struck me.

And the whole while, I’m thinking what I always think (what I assume most people think) when I’m in the presence of something that is both bottomless and perfect–something that reveals itself anew after hundreds of encounters and which forges (and then constantly reinforces) a logic so powerful it’s hard to conceive of a moment when it didn’t exist or a moment when anyone would imagine wanting to change a single small element of it.

By all of which I mean I’m thinking: “What could possibly be better than this?”

But I was also thinking (again after the old fashion): “Oh man, what’s next?”

So my mind, which barely operates on one track these days, was suddenly alive enough to run on two tracks and somewhere in there it became completely obvious that the next album I had to listen to was Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays (a record I know pretty well, though not nearly as well as Loaded) and the album I had to listen to after that was Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks (an album I really only got into in the last year or so and don’t know that well at all).

And some time during What We Did On Our Holidays, it became obvious that the album I wanted to listen to after Blood On the Tracks was that one by the Isley Brothers I got not too long ago that starts with a stunning medley of Neil Young’s “Ohio” (which, in its original, sounds like a Neil Young record and was released under the aegis of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and ends with a stunning cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” (which, in its original, sounds like a Crosby, Stills and Nash record and was released as a Stephen Stills’ solo), the journey–any journey–between those two things amounting to my idea of a “concept” record all by itself.

I had to look up that last one because I got it in a box set of five cheap Isley Brothers LPs from the late sixties/early seventies and–I cannot tell a lie–I can’t yet tell one title from another.

Turned out it was called Givin’ It Back.

I went ahead and dug it up between Holidays and Blood on the Tracks–you know, just in case I forgot and then had to spend the rest of the night trying to remember which album I knew I wanted to listen to next!

Having pulled it out of its little 5-LP box (guessed it on the second try) I almost put it on first (sorry I still use record player terminology–I know the proper phrase for the digital age is to put it “in”). Then I resisted the temptation to mess with my preconceptions and played the albums in the order I had originally thought I would.

And what did I learn, exactly?

Or, more accurately, of what great, standing truth was I thus reminded?

The fragility of both Fate and Judgment, I’m afraid.

See, if you asked me to “rate” or, better yet, “rank” these four albums, I would put them in the order I played them:

1. Loaded
2. What We Did On Our Holidays
3. Blood On the Tracks
4. Givin’ It Back

And I would know–after listening to them all running together in one night–that such a ranking is arbitrary if not downright silly.

I’d put Loaded first because it’s the one I know best. I know it best because I’ve known it longest. I’ve known it longest because I happened to be in the mood to try it one night thirty years ago (or so) and picked it over any one of dozens of other records I could have chosen that same night.

Simple as that.

If some trick of fate–some impulse in that record store (or some other) thirty years ago had caused me to pick up Blood on the Tracks instead (I doubt the others would have been available in any record store I was likely to visit back then–I’m pretty surprised Loaded was) and I had put off picking up Loaded on CD until a couple of years ago because every time I was in a mood to try it, it wasn’t available (or was available in the far less than pristine, though definitely cheap, vinyl copy of Tracks I did pick up five or six years ago but then played only once because, well, it was cheap and used and I got what I paid for) and every time it was available I wasn’t in the mood for more Dylan–well then, there’s a real good chance (though by no means a certainty) that I would rate Blood On the Tracks higher now.

Simply because I knew it better.

I mean, I’ve heard it enough these last couple of years to know it’s a great album. Maybe no Highway 61 Revisited (not much is) but darn close.

And generally speaking, that’s what value comes down to–our very particular experience.

In a perfect world, I’d live long enough, have time enough, to let all these other albums I know less well than Loaded acquire the same sort of weight through repetition. In a perfect world, there would be enough time to know these four albums–and a few thousand others–well enough to know how they really stacked up against each other.

In a perfect world, I might know for certain whether or not the presence of “Who Loves the Sun?” (answer: “not everyone” of course) on the first album I listened to on a particular night led me not-so-coincidentally to an album which contained among other items (like “The Lord Is In This Place, How Dreadful Is This Place?” and “Nottamun Town,” the sound of the latter being way scarier than the title of the former), a song called “Tale In Hard Time” which begins with the line “Take the sun from my heart, let me learn to despise.” And that listening to a couple of albums filled (along with some good old rock and roll) with those and many other, rather similar sentiments, might lead me to an album which I know just well enough to know contains a song called “Shelter From the Storm.”

Yes, in a perfect world, I’d certainly have the kind of time on my hands required to figure all that out.

Then again–if the world was perfect–I probably wouldn’t need lists that ranked things or notions that linked things and neither would you (assuming you are, like me, the unenviable kind that has ever needed them at all).

These thoughts aren’t exactly new even with me–and they aren’t even close to new with lots of others.

But this week, they hit me a little harder than usual.

Maybe because, after all that, what came bleeding through with the greatest possible urgency and clarity wasn’t even Ohio native Ronnie Isley singing about the dead bodies at Kent State as though he’d been invited to their funeral (i.e., not at all the way Neil Young sang it, which was as a call to arms and appropo enough in the moment), but his singing–immediately after and maybe not by coincidence–James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”

It bled through–and kept on bleeding–even though the first minute and half is misconceived from a production standpoint and the final bit repeats the misconception. Misconceptions didn’t matter when I heard it this week. I don’t mean I was able to set them aside (as sometimes happens). I mean, they just plain didn’t matter.

Robert Christgau reviewed Givin’ It Back when it was released in 1970 and opined that “soul is wasted” on “Fire and Rain” and that the song was more powerful in its “understated” original.

That’s a very reasonable judgment, as long as you assume that Ronnie Isley was after the same thing James Taylor was after.

The judgment is less compelling if you suspect that Ronnie might have been after one of the things James Taylor couldn’t hope to reach for (or, very probably, even imagine).

That “thing” doesn’t necessarily have to be the voice of a freed slave searching for a lost relative after Appomattox, which is what I keep hearing in it, but it almost certainly isn’t the kind of expiation of purest self-pity Taylor intended (and which he, incidentally, very much achieved–I’ve been close enough to where Taylor reportedly was when he wrote the song to know how thoroughly he achieved it, though, believe me, my reasons were no better than his and I’m not nearly as proud of ever having gone there, let alone of having come back).

And it’s no knock on Christgau–or anyone–if they don’t hear that in the song.

But I think it does speak to just how fragile the notions of “what we hear” really are.

I mean, if Blood On the Tracks had been the first thing I reached for the other night–as it well might have been if I had started living with it thirty years ago instead of a year or two ago–I might not have played Givin’ It Back at all.

And who knows what I would have heard in “Fire and Rain” some other time?

And who knows if I’ll ever get close enough to either album (or even to What We Did On Our Holidays, which I am, in fact, already a lot closer to than I had previously thought) to move one or the other up on some ranking chart where I can call it an all-time favorite and sing every word?

You know. Like Loaded.

All I can say for certain is…I should live so long!

In sequence then:

 

 

 

DID WE REALLY NEED ROCK AND ROLL?…UH, YEAH, I THINK WE DID.

I saw several posts last week that addressed the music that was on the charts at the time of John Kennedy’s assassination (Steven Rubio had a particularly nice take here)…But what might be at least as interesting is to take a look at the charts a year later.

For the record, the Supremes’ “Baby Love” was ending a month long run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 on the exact anniversary. But, perhaps more to the point, “Leader of the Pack” was set to take over at the top of the following week’s chart (officially, Nov. 28, 1964, so it was, in effect, the #1 record of the anniversary week, which, for chart purposes began on Nov. 22).

In some ways identifiably old-fashioned (especially in its evocation of fifties-era biker imagery), it was probably also the first record–certainly the first chart-topper–to really suggest the style of extremity that would become a touchstone for much of the rest of the decade and a good deal more that has happened since.

And, of course, all that extremity did not happen in a vacuum. Nothing ever does. Not even Shadow Morton and Mary Weiss.

Somebody has finally posted the full version of the game show clip where the Shangri-Las (uncharacteristically dressed like all the other girls) perform “Leader of the Pack.” As a pleasant coincidence, that sure looks and sounds like the Supremes’ Mary Wilson introducing the clip. As a not-so-pleasant anti-coincidence, it’s worth noting that, eight full years after Steve Allen humiliated Elvis by having him sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound, he’s still at it. Worth noting, too,  that Robert Goulet (Allen’s co-host, who also plays the “biker” here) became the main reason Elvis shot televisions.

And, finally, worth noting that the Shangri-Las were good sports in much the same way that Elvis had been (even if they weren’t subsequently known for blasting tv screens).

And that they didn’t blink. That, in addition to being pure rock and roll, they also–like all really great rock and rollers–remained professionals through and through even as the “adults” around them made fools of themselves.

(The first version below is the full ride…the video/audio isn’t very good, but it’s enlightening to see the whole thing and be confronted with the full depth of the culture clash that was looming even in the days when LBJ  was still promising to keep us out of Viet Nam…the second version doesn’t have the intro but has a much cleaner look and sound)

And, of course, I wouldn’t leave you with that, so here’s the Shangs–Cashbox‘s #1 New R&B Group for 1964 (Billboard didn’t keep an R&B chart that year) in their element, declaring–like all really great rock and rollers–for a future that returned to the Primitive (I’ll let you decide when) long before it ever caught up to them:

LEST WE NOT QUITE REALLY REMEMBER…(Why I Need Rock and Roll, Session #9)

I was alive on November 22, 1963 but have no memory of it.

Never cared much about “Camelot” one way or another.

Always thought he handled the Bay of Pigs and the Missiles of October with about the same degree of political competence. PR is everything.

Don’t think he would have been quite as good on Civil Rights as Lyndon Johnson (though we’ll never know).

Don’t think he would have kept us out of Viet Nam (though we’ll never know).

Don’t think he would have been a better war leader than LBJ (though we’ll never know).

Don’t think all those preppie college kids would have ever found themselves  chanting “JFK, JFK, how many kids did you kill today?” no matter how many kids he killed, even though “JFK” fits as well as the “LBJ” they did chant. (Though we’ll never know.)

Don’t think his death was the spur for Beatlemania. Always assumed the Beatles were the principal reason for Beatlemania. Though if you need another reason, the Civil Rights Movement and the concomitant Rise of Rock and Roll America and its burgeoning coalition of blacks, hillbillies and urban immigrants, was a far more realistic and existential threat to the Old Order than either Kennedy or the Kennedy Assassination. (Though, of course, we’ll never know).

Don’t think Oswald acted alone (though we’ll certainly never know).

I also don’t think the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination would resonate with anything like the same Lincolnian force if the assassination itself had happened in relative isolation after the manner of Garfield’s or McKinley’s (i.e., as a self-evident aberration of the sort that fill the course of human events.)

It did not happen in isolation, as exactly no one among the quite a lot of “someones” I saw or heard on television or radio today managed to say or even imply.

So, with the sun safely down, here’s Dion to remind us…singing “Abraham, Martin and John” as the straight blues it was perhaps always meant to be.