SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN AMERICA…(Why I Need Rock and Roll Session #8)

I try–not always successfully–to avoid topical politics here. I do sometimes hint at a philosophy of sorts. If I were to do more than hint, I would simply list the Bill of Rights complete and print I BELIEVE IN ALL TEN! underneath.

Take that as you will and I’ll keep any deep thoughts I might have about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case to myself.

But I will admit that, via radio, television and internet, I monitored the various reactions around the country today with more than casual interest.

The best response by far was on the local R&B station.

I’ve mentioned here before that Joe Bullard has a fair claim to being the best dee-jay in America and his Sunday afternoon show emphasizes requests and classic soul. I only make this assertion because I can’t imagine anybody being better.

Today, he started playing James Brown at one point. And then he just kept on playing him. For forty-five minutes straight. “The Big Payback,” “Hot Pants” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Sex Machine,” and, yeah, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” One classic after another. There was no stoppage for birthday shout-outs or community service announcements or local advertisements or weather reports. Bullard just rapped them over the instrumental breaks and eased in and out of them by trading call and response choruses with James himself.

And neither Brown nor Bullard ever said a truly topical word concerning the hallucinatory mixture of tragedy and absurdism that White America keeps finding a thousand ways to visit on Black America fifty years after Jim Crow supposedly passed on.

This particular Sunday afternoon, neither Brown nor Bullard needed to. Would have been superfluous anyway. The only thing that was required today–the only message that was absolutely necessary–was yet another reminder that tragedy and absurdism aren’t the only inevitabilities.

As long as James Brown has some piece of the air, Bullard seemed to be saying–all the more powerfully for leaving it between the lines–there will always be something better to keep them company.

Next to that, the endless reams of political “commentary” meant far, far less than nothing.

 

I’M A CHRISTIAN AND AND ALL…(Why I Need Rock and Roll, Session #7)

…So I can’t actually wish a visit to hell on anyone, the consignment being so permanent and all.

Wouldn’t be gentlemanly in any case.

However, if I could at least send a little message to the present highly interventionist Supreme Court in the wake of its attempt to turn back the clock on one of the very few “government actions” of the post-war era that actually worked, it would probably go something like this:

Brenda Lee and Clarence Clemons “That’s All You Gotta Do” (Live on Television…Make that Live and Scorching…Tear Down the Wall as they used to say)

(Also in honor of Kanye West’s “Bound 2,” which closes his latest album Yeezus, likely to hit the top of the charts this week, featuring a prominent sample from Brenda’s  1959 recording, “Sweet Nothings,” a hit when the revolution was new.)

 

SO WHAT WAS 1960 REALLY LIKE?….I MEAN, JUST MUSICALLY SPEAKING.

“Nineteen hundred and sixty was probably the worst year that pop has been through. Everyone had gone to the moon. Elvis had been penned off in the army and came back to appal us with ballads. Little Richard had got religion. Chuck Berry was in jail. Buddy Holly was dead. Very soon, Eddie Cochran was killed in his car crash. It was a wholesale plague, a wipeout.”

(The always prone to understatement, but undeniably trenchant, Nik Cohn’s opening paragraph to the chapter titled “Rue Morgue, 1960″ in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, 1970)

When Cohn wrote these words he was basically summing up what a lot of third-rate romancers–mostly male, mostly white, mostly collegiate whether or not they had yet been to college (or would ever go)–had been saying and writing since, well, 1960.

1960 sucked and blew. Well, really that whole 1958 (the fall!) to 1963 (waiting for the Beatles to save us all!) period had sucked and blown.

But 1960?

That was the worst, the nadir (good collegiate word), the pits (as the actual greasers might have put it).

1960 was spiritual death. The bottom that had to be reached some time before the resurrection (Beatlemania!…or more accurately, the highly inventive new-chord-progressions-and-the-truth music and supremely witty collective style of the Beatles demonstrated in their respective persons, since mania was a highly unstable state, particularly redolent of suspicion as it was likely to be the specific province of screaming girls, who collegians and greasers both knew could give you cooties) could properly occur.

So the story goes. Give Cohn credit. He nailed the entire ethos in a few clipped lines.

Like I said. Trenchant.

That’s what you call controlling the narrative.

Well, you know I like to put these little narratives under a microscope once in a while, so I can’t really say if it was entirely a coincidence that–having just completed a re-read of Cohn’s classic account of rock’s early years–I took the occasion of my weekend drive (itself, the occasion for laying a Mother’s Day rose on a headstone) to pull out the mighty Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse: 31 R&B Classics That Rocked the Jukebox In 1960 for company.

Let me just say that if 1960 was the bottom of the pop barrel (as opposed to the political barrel, which really was dire in many respects) I wish we could go back there.

Bobby Bland, Jerry Butler, James Brown, Etta James, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Ike and Tina, Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimmy Reed, Jackie Wilson, one-offs the likes of “Stay,” or “Something’s On Your Mind,” or “Let the Little Girl Dance,” or “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (wait til the spell checker get’s hold of that one!).

And all of that’s before you get to the real kicker, which involves Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” (the only cut here that wasn’t an R&B hit, and virtually the only one that didn’t cross over to the Pop charts) running straight into the Shirelles’ “Tonight’s the Night,” followed by a teen-ager named Jimmy Charles giving a perfect imitation of the era’s white teen idols on “A Million to One” and a young woman who called herself Sugar Pie DeSanto (whose then producer/hustler husband went on to become a bank robber after they divorced–baby that was rock and roll) doing a straight cop, arrangement wise, on the Everly Brothers (who, of course, were still crossing over regularly to the R&B charts, though these sort of collections never acknowledge such things–not even when they are done by the Bear Family. The Nik Cohn’s of the world have had their effect).

1960, incidentally, was the year Cash Box, the other major trade magazine that competed with Billboard, suspended it’s R&B Chart for a time because the overlap between R&B and Pop, barely noticeable before rock and roll, was by then so great there seemed little point in keeping them separated. (Billboard would follow with a similar experiment in late 1963–that experiment lasted a bit longer than Cash Box‘s but was  nonetheless ended a little over a year later once the Beatles and the British Invasion had safely re-segregated the charts and more or less ended the post-racial dream which had caused so much panic sweat to rise from the thin, tender skin of Nik Cohn and the Future of Rock Criticism in the dread days of 1960, when black people and girls and, well, black girl people, were starting to litter up the pop charts and the hallways of the Brill Building like nobody’s business.)

Oh well. I guess one man’s “worst year that pop has been through” is another man’s extremely interesting times.

But the next time you hear that America needed the Beatles because of the Kennedy assassination or some such rigmarole (or better yet, to “rediscover” the black music which the British Invasion in fact shoved back to the sideline), just remember the carefully modulated warning later rendered by Pete Townshend, that most British of all prophets, when he said something to the effect of not getting fooled again.

Sugar Pie DeSanto “I Want to Know” (Studio recording…Reaching the bottom no doubt.)

I NORMALLY DON’T DO POLITICS…(WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL, Session #6)

…But it’s an amazing day in America when a million people (in this case in Watertown, MA and surrounding environs) are told–absent a declaration of martial law or any evidence of properly obtained search warrants–to first stay inside and then get out of their homes, one by one, while “law enforcement” storms through.

So far as I know, no one has objected.

Of course, I just spent the night flipping between CNN, FoxNews and MSNBC, desperately searching for signs of journalism–or at least the absence of brain death.

Came up empty, alas.

So if martial law has been declared, or search warrants have been obtained, or someone is objecting, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t know.

Because, to a man and woman, every television reporter on the scene knows the real reason for the excitement is their own presence.

And to think just a week or two back I was on the very tip of becoming really, really concerned because one of them (it happened to be Wolf Blitzer, back then, but no sense picking on him as it could have been anyone) got all shivery over the prospect of North Korea launching some nukes because–and I think I have this quote exact–“it would certainly be an interesting story!”

Yes, Wolf, nuclear war would be interesting! Even more interesting than a couple of mad bombers getting spooked when the FBI–ever vigilant–releases their photographs and they end up panicking and murdering a police officer (who’d a thunk it?…not us, the FBI assured everyone, using NBC’s Pete Williams as the conduit for covering their incompetence just as though he, or anyone else involved, would ever have thought to question it–let us not say that secret police forces lack cunning!).

Pretty good stuff.

Nuclear war, though….That’s a whole other level.

You would get mad screen time!

And a chance to cover really interesting stories. Like what can happen if somebody does object:

The Isley Brothers “Ohio/Machine Gun” (Studio Recording)

[NOTE: Part of me wishes I had transcribed the truly vile manner in which CNN’s Jake Tapper and one of his cohorts whose name I’ve blissfully forgotten trivialized the police officer’s murder on the way to breathlessly discussing, ad nauseum, the truly “big deal” of the subsequent man-hunt. Another part of me is glad I turned away….to Fox News, where some other titan whose name I’ve forgotten, managed a “shot a police officer, who, tragically, died” in the midst of a five minute monologue about his own feelings as he was covering this really awesome event!…Whew! For a minute there, I thought the bottom had been reached. This summer I hear the drumming indeed. Goodbye us.]

 

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #5)

“Likewise it is hard to imagine the War on Terror having been waged without four-star commanders such as David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, John Allen, and James Mattis. They are among the most illustrious generals produced by the last decade of fighting. They are the stars of their generation. From Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, they emerged from anonymity to orchestrate campaigns that, after initial setbacks, have given the United States a chance to salvage a decent outcome from protracted counterinsurgencies; they have also literally rewritten the book on how to wage modern war successfully.”

(Source: Max Boot, “How America Lost Its Four Great Generals” Commentary, April 2013)

Sometimes it’s worth remembering that the crit-illuminati do not confine themselves to putting cross-generational choke holds on the meaning of art. They also speak of other things and lick other boots.

And, as I think I’ve mentioned before, they are nothing if not thorough.

I’m sure nothing, after all, strikes fear into the enemy–or comforts the soldiers who have made the most terrible sacrifices–like knowing that we have “a chance to salvage a decent outcome from protracted counterinsurgencies.” That we have, in short, figured out how to “wage modern war successfully.”

So, with the nuanced language of Pravda now warmly embraced, perfectly emulated and safely embedded among the “hawks”–sufficiently invested in pretending their heroes can do no wrong that they are willing to change the definitions of words like “war” or “success” or “decent” or “outcome” with little more effort or thought than most of us put into breathing–I find myself yearning for a past when LBJ’s Viet Nam-era advisors were telling him to declare victory and get the hell out of there and at least some people had an idea that–even then–it was already too late.

That we were, in effect, headed for now…Sorry to say that the sound is a bit muddied in this (visually tremendous) live version, but, then again, I didn’t have any trouble making out “waters of oblivion.” And that’s probably all you really need to hear:

Peter, Paul and Mary “Too Much of Nothing” (Live Television Performance)

[NOTE: Just for the record, I have no opinion on the military expertise or performance of the generals Boot is lauding. In the context of his own language concepts like expertise and performance have no value or meaning.]

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #4)

First two songs that feed each other:

The O’Jays “Love Train” (Television Performance)

The O’Jays “Backstabbers” (Television Performance)

Then on to things that feed only themselves:

I have to confess that what is now called “serious” television tends to leave me cold. I’ve taken various, multiple shots at letting The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood and Breaking Bad, among others, into my brain and basically come up with some version of “life’s too short” after half an hour or so each and every time.

The one show of this high-falutin’ sort that I have occasionally managed to sit through entire episodes of is Justified. No idea why. I’m not a hater–like I said, life’s too short–so I only have three basic, if rather wide-ranging, reactions to any sort of art and those are basically as follows:

“This is great!”

“This is fun.”

“Meh.”

Somehow, Justified, like a lot of things Elmore Leonard has been involved in since he left westerns (where he was sometimes great and nearly always fun–or at least unpretentious), occasionally nudges over the line from the upper reaches of “meh” to the lowest level of “fun.” And Justified manages to do that even though its white trash chic (an approach that usually has my one and only deeply felt, bound-to-take-it-somewhat-personally version of “meh” encoded in its DNA–ask anybody who has ever lived among “white trash” and we/they will tell you “yeah I/we know somebody like that,” all the while wondering–like every other tramped-on “out” group–why it’s only the fools the rest of ya’ll are interested in).

So once in a while when I’m clicking around and nothing else is on I find myself watching all or part of an episode and this week the one I stopped on featured one of those “hey, let’s play a cool tune everybody knows as the soundtrack for some gruesome violence” scenes. In this case it involved the O’Jays’ “Love Train” playing behind a scenario where an assassin was trying to beat some information out of a dopey-looking deputy sheriff who was (surprise, surprise!) tougher than he looked and (shock and awe!) somehow managed to get hold of a weapon and slay his deadly tormentor.

To be fair, at this stage of civilization’s devolution it’s pretty hard to write scenes the world hasn’t seen a hundred times before and this one was done about as well as a complete non-surprise can be. But it was the choice of music that woke me up enough to start me thinking.

I have no idea what thought process went into having “Love Train” play behind the scene and I honestly didn’t even catch whether the music was actually being experienced by the characters (on the radio perhaps) or was being used as background “scoring.”

Perhaps it was meant ironically. Watch the meanie beat the tough little deputy’s teeth in while “People all over the world, join hands” sings along. That sort of thing.

Or possibly it just fit the rhythm of the beat down.

Or maybe it was just catch-as-catch-can on somebody’s Ipod and seemed like it would get the job done.

Who knows?

I certainly don’t. But I found myself caring a little bit because the song took me out of the scene. And if I had to explain why, I’d probably say it was because every other scenario in which I’ve ever been likely to hear the song–on the radio in some free-form oldies’ or R&B format where America always seems like a very big place indeed; on the O’Jay’s own great Backstabbers LP; on the various AM Gold or Gamble and Huff comps that are scattered through my record collection–is part of a bigger, better, living, breathing, world than the one Justified’s creators keep trying to convince me they have a real handle on.

I made it through the rest of the episode, but the game was up. Either deliberately or otherwise (one problem with the nihilism-is-the-coolest-thing-going game is that you never can tell what’s deliberate–even the creators themselves aren’t that far inside) the show’s decision makers had made the mistake of pointing up their own phoniness.

I’m not saying I won’t watch Justified again. If it gets late enough and my brain has been reduced to crawling I’m sure there will be some night or other when it’s still the best thing on. It ain’t that hard to beat Erotic Shop commercials and CNN.

But there had been moments previously when the night-crawler part of my brain thought it might actually turn into real fun.

To quote another vintage prophet who had to compete with folks like Gamble and Huff on the radio back in the day and therefore didn’t have the option of wallowing in his own occasional tendency to make music that could be played without irony during a teeth-kicking if he wanted to keep up:

“Won’t get fooled again.”

 

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #3)

Just happened to run across these on the same day…

First, keeping up with my reading assignments whilst awaiting an oil change:

“Their conversation continued in the Oval Office, shortly after 6 p.m. on August 22, when they were joined by Maxwell Taylor, the general Kennedy trusted most. The president wanted to go over two other secret operations before discussing Cuba. The first was the developing plan to drop twenty Chinese Nationalist soldiers into mainland China during the coming week. The second was a plan for the CIA to wiretap members of the Washington press corps….

“The president told (CIA director) McCone to set up a domestic task force to stop the flow of secrets from the government to the newspapers. The order violated the agency’s charter, which specifically prohibits domestic spying. Long before Nixon created his ‘plumbers’ unit of CIA veterans to stop news leaks, Kennedy used the agency to spy on Americans.”

(Source: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner, 2007)

Then, following the headlines on the internet…

“So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell’s physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime – at most, they had a case of “cyber-harassment” more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people – and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court.”

(Source: The ever invaluable Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, Nov. 13, 2012, read the whole thing here)

Boy, how I wish Raymond Chandler Speaking wasn’t packed away right now. Would love to get his exact quote on Hoover’s FBI circa the McCarthy era. Anyway, it was something to the effect that secret police forces all come to the same thing in the end.

Fortunately, other philosophers who aren’t packed away have been on the case all along. Keep me sane, they do:

Little Richard “Slippin’ and Slidin'” (Studio)

Bob Dylan “Talkin’ John BIrch Paranoid Blues” (Live Recording)

Aretha Franklin “Chain of Fools” (Television Performance)

 

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL…ELECTION DAY SPECIAL (Session #2)

“Don’t look back–something might be gaining on you.”

Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Collier’s, June 13, 1953.

Usually when a quote is too good to be true, it’s too good to be true. One of the nice things about Satchel Paige was that his too-good-to-be-true quotes were almost always things he actually said.

The phrase “don’t look back” has an interesting history in popular music. Before 1964, it was never used as the title of a hit song on any American chart and was undoubtedly rare as either a direct quote or a common sentiment in American music or American life.

I don’t mean to say the idea wasn’t around or even that the common language hadn’t already made some sort of place for it. Hard to judge that. What does seem evident is that it hadn’t made its way far enough into the nation’s everyday speech to become insidious. When that happens, we know what happens next.

Somebody writes a song about it.

Beginning in 1964, somebody did. And somebody or other has been re-writing it ever since.

It’s interesting to think about what happened in the interim between Paige’s quote–with its insinuation of paranoia-that-isn’t-really-paranoia-if-that’s-a-lynch-mob-on-your-trail camped squarely inside a good joke that everybody could relate to–and 1964.

1953 to 1964. H-m-m-m-m.

Too much to take in on election day, probably. So just think about what had happened recently, like maybe a March on Washington where the leader of the current manifestation of a century old Civil Rights movement, who happened not at all coincidentally to be a minister, had actually managed to address the nation’s central sin in such perfect language and in such a public fashion that it could not, at last, be ignored.

Then, of course, the sitting president took a bullet in the head, and the man who took his place–piggy-backing those two forever linked events–pushed through historic civil rights legislation in July of 1964.

During the middle of all that–I haven’t been able to trace the exact moment–a black man named John Lee Hooker, who happened to be one of the dozen or so blues singers the world can more or less inarguably call a genius (and who, in his very essence, represented the precise element of the population that has always made white America want to lock up its daughters, not to mention the element intellectuals are bound to call “primitive” when they suspect something is up that they better get a handle on and have to go fishing for a compliment that’s not really a compliment).

I don’t know if Hooker was channeling Paige or not but he was certainly onto something. As a cultural catch-phrase, “don’t look back” arrived within months of “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last.”

It has stuck around even longer.

Of course, the catch-phrase and the music that surrounded it got hollowed out with time. It’s never gone away, exactly. It’s just been co-opted. It was the title of a bland country hit for Gary Morris in the eighties. A party time cover for Teena Marie. A catchy classic rock number (with at least some of its original power retained) for Boston in the seventies. A UK number for Lucie Silvas a few years back, where it was finally indistinguishable from any other set of words that don’t mean anything (catch it on YouTube if you must).

That’s how it goes with catch-phrases that speak to wounds. What we can’t heal, we keep sticking gauze on.

Eventually, the gauze is the permanent feature. The wound goes back to being out of sight out of mind….Wound? What wound?

But there was a moment in the mid-sixties when Hooker’s phrase crept into the world in a new way.

Oh, it never quite “broke out.” I imagine we were still a bit leery of the notion being put so bluntly, even though it was supposed to be an indestructible part of our national ethos. I haven’t heard Hooker’s original version but it’s hard to believe it’s much better–or bleaker–than honorary American Van Morrison’s 1965 cover. Or that it contains much deeper paranoia than the Remains’ garage rock classic (different song, same title) from 1966.

None of those records made the charts. Maybe that was just the luck of the draw. There were other records as good as those by Morrison (then still with his original band, Them) or the Remains, which didn’t make the charts either. Not many, but some. Enough to make it barely plausible that some sort of underlying aura of suspicion or discomfort wasn’t the only possible explanation.

And, of course, there was D.A. Pennebaker’s monumental documentary of Bob Dylan’s trip to England in 1966–injected under the toe-nails of the national conscience, residing there like a thorn ever since.

Called it Don’t Look Back, they did.

Naturally.

In the last days, there will be warnings and rumors of warnings. Consider yourself warned.

The phrase found it’s apex, though, in 1965, when another African-American musical genius named Smokey Robinson collaborated with his fellow Miracle Ronnie White and came up with a B-side for the era’s (or maybe just history’s) greatest vocal group.

In a scenario as perfect as Satchel Paige’s original quote–and with the same mixture of hope and dread woven deeply into its aural fabric (all the more deeply for being conceived as filler and for being released just as we entered the quagmire in Viet Nam from which the national soul has never really emerged)–it reached #83 on the Pop chart, #15 on the R&B chart, and, riding a rare moment when the Temptations’ third lead, Paul Williams, left Eddie Kendricks and even David Ruffin in the dust, permanent status as a staple on the group’s compilations despite being rarely heard on the radio since….And as the go-to anthem for every election day that has come and gone ever after.

Tomorrow, half of America will wake up depressed, wondering how the country will possibly survive, and the other half will wake up relieved, thankful that catastrophe has been so narrowly averted, reminding themselves that treading water in a shark pool still beats drowning!

And rock and roll will still be the closest thing we have to something we can agree on.

Have a happy…

The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (Television Performance)