REMEMBERING THE MAESTRO (Memory Lane: 1976, 2000)

For me, 1976 was the year.

I started listening to the radio, I started buying records (45s anyway), I started wondering what I had possibly missed. If what I was hearing every day was so overwhelming what had the past yielded?

Soon after, I started tracking backwards, searching.

Soon after that, tracking backwards became about the only thing worth doing. The present began to yield less and less. The future held no promise.

But there was a sweet spot, right there in the first half of 1976 (such a terrible year, I was later told, over and over, that it made punk necessary) when I couldn’t keep up with what went by, hour after hour, right there on Top 40 radio beaming out of southern Alabama.

I certainly didn’t have the money to buy more than a tiny fraction of what I loved.

So, for that brief little window of time, I stored musical memories. Songs I heard a handful of times played in my head, sometimes for years, until I could track them down on records. I might write about some of those songs later–I’m sure the whole “Diamonds in the Shade” concept sprang from that experience, the moment when I realized great things could come and go on the radio without leaving an impact on seemingly anyone but me.

I learned not to talk about it. People worried enough about me as it was. But I kept them in my head.

I kept looking.

As the years went by, and I tracked down literally every single one of those records: Kiki Dee’s “Once A Fool,” Billy Ocean’s “Love Really Hurts Without You,” and “L.O.D.,” Marmalade’s “Walking a Tightrope,” and oh so many more, I had a variety of deja vu experiences. Some were as great as I remembered, some almost so, some not at all.

But, whatever the final outcome, I always had one advantage aiding musical memory: I actually had a name attached to the records.

It helps. Believe me.

There was one record on that list which did not come attached with a name.

It didn’t come attached with a name because, the only time I heard it, the dee-jay didn’t say who it was by.

I didn’t worry too much at first. I remembered a line. I would recognize the song the next time it came on. Dee-jays usually gave out names with songs back then (almost the last moment when they did so). I would catch it later.

And there would be a later, because there was no way that song wasn’t going to be a hit! It was catchy and it didn’t quite sound like anything else. In those days (again, almost the last days when this was so) that was the way of hit-making. Make it catchy. Make it not quite like anything else.

I never heard the song on the radio again. I never heard anybody say who it was by.

So, as the years went by, I only had that single line, playing in my head. Thirteen words and a snatch of melody.

“You see the trouble with me,” the line went, “I can’t do nothin’ without my baby.”

Yeah, that was it. That was all of it.

You try setting out after a song based on that.

It wasn’t the words that were not quite like anything else. The words were exactly like everything else. And you can’t look up much based on a bit of sound pressed to your brain stem. Not in this world.

I accepted that those thirteen words may or may not have formed part of the record’s title. Over time, I somehow convinced myself they didn’t, maybe because looking under the “Y” (in case it started with “You See”), “T” (in case it started with “The Trouble”) and “I” (in case it started with “I Can’t”) sections of literally hundreds of alphabetized 45 bins across a good portion of the United States didn’t yield a single bite.

Eventually, I gave up. The CD revolution came along. The few on my “mystery list from ’76” that I hadn’t tracked down on 45 became available on disc. A beach music collection here, a bubble gum collection there. Turned out there were more fellow obsessives out there than I thought. Almost every one of those records had fans who had ended up working for small reissue labels catering to their fellow wanderers.

The world moved on. That melody would still come in my head now and again, but it happened less and less. To be honest, there came a moment when I didn’t bother looking anymore. I didn’t exactly give up hope–I just lost faith in my ability to make a discovery happen.

I might hear it again some day, I might not. Nothing unusual in that. Everybody who chases sounds has had some sort of similar experience. Sometimes it ends happily, sometimes it doesn’t end at all (which is the definition of “unhappily” when you are chasing sounds).

That was the state of my little buried memory in the Year of Our Lord, 2000 A.D. when I purchased a greatest hits package by an artist who had, in fact, been far more famous than any of the others I chased. Had, in fact, had a solid three-year run of smashes going back when I started listening to the radio in December of 1975.

I’m guessing that was why the dee-jay felt no need to identify his new release, back in the first few month’s of 1976. Surely, anybody who was listening to the Top 40 in those days didn’t need to be told who this guy was.

Probably they didn’t. Unless they had only started listening to the radio a few months before. Then they might need a little help.

Of course, even so, the dee-jay could hardly be blamed. There was no way to know that particular record was going to break the singer’s string of nine straight top ten R&B hits, and fail to reach the American pop chart at all (as each of the previous nine had done, with most reaching the top ten). There was no way to know that the singer’s incredible hot streak (hot by any standard, incredibly hot for a three-hundred-pound black man who sold himself as a Love God) was going to end with that record– a record that was capable of sticking deep enough in the mind of a teenage white boy that, a quarter of a century later, when he heard the first chords of the lost sound (chords he did not remember until that very moment) coming through the speakers on the other side of the house (whence he was folding towels whilst listening to the new stack of CDs), he started running towards the sound, laughing maniacally, shouting “That’ s it! That’s it!” long before Barry White sang “You see the trouble with me, I can’t do nothin’ without my baby!”

History takes strange turns. These days, I can look on the internet and see that “You See the Trouble With Me” was a hit all over Europe, #2 in the UK, even #14 on the American R&B chart. I can also see that it failed to make the Hot 100 on the U.S. pop chart.

I’ve got a sort of running theme in my head which this blog allows me to indulge. It concerns the search for “where it all went wrong.”

Barry White actually went on to have a few more big hits, even a couple of big pop hits.

But in the “where it all went wrong” debate, you could do worse than start right here with this record going nowhere. Because it still doesn’t make one bit of sense.

And if you’re wondering whether Barry himself knew the record’s value (this if from 1990)…

Barry White’s still waiting for his first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nomination. Just in case you think nothing ever really went wrong to begin with.

MILEY CYRUS AT THE CROSSROADS, WHERE SHE’S HARDLY ALONE (Memory Lane: 2009, 2006 and Yesterday)

I remember hearing this on the radio exactly once when it came out and thinking: “Jesus, she’s got a chance to be Brenda Lee.”

I wasn’t thinking about record sales (by Billboard‘s count, Lee was the highest  charting and bestselling female vocalist of the 1960s). Once Hannah Montana broke, there was never any question about Cyrus selling records. The new model of fame generates it’s own momentum more reliably than even the previous quite reliable models.

Which meant record sales were a matter of course.

I was thinking, instead, that she could be the next in the straight, firm line that had, sticking only to the dead center, stretched from Jackie DeShannon to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow and, moving just a little outside the center, included nearly every important female rock or country singer for four decades running and produced literally hundreds of great records.

It’s a great, undervalued tradition and when I heard “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” riding around in my car in 2009, I had assumed it was dying out.

That it might be rescued by Hannah Montana brought a smile.

After that brief moment of hope, though, Miley started making “adult” records that were, of course, no better than the records all the other adults make these days. She also started selling a lot of them, pro forma, and I basically lost interest on the basis of my single, unyielding criteria: You don’t make great records, I don’t care about your shtick.

So, frankly, until this week, I assumed Miley had abandoned her talent in favor of the proper Show Biz model for the twenty-first century, as defined by John Lydon and perfected by Madonna and Donald Trump.

Make all your safe moves look like “risks.”

Or, as Hannah Montana would have it…

Understandable enough. I don’t begrudge anybody their success and there’s a reason why the easy road is easy and the tough road is tough.

But then Sheila O’Malley posted this a few days ago…

…and complicated my own easy, comfortable analysis.

I’m not sure about the reigning “let ’em do what they want, haters-gonna-hate” aesthetic either as a social model in general or a usual exception for celebrities who get to ignore the rules anyway. I don’t find the line between what I owe myself and what I owe the world to be quite so stark and I’m a little suspicious of those who do.

And, based on the YouTube surfing I did after I watched Sheila’s video link, I’m not sure Miley Cyrus is all that clear about it either.

The main problem I’ve had with her “in your face” act is that, on her, it has always felt forced and faked, by which I mean even more forced and faked than the usual forced fakery (most recently exemplified by Beyonce’s Super Bowl appearance, where the politics were faked right along with the idea that she can dance any better than oh, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus and produced the usual predictably fake outrage and seriously unfaked legion of yawns).

While it felt like that with David Bowie and Madonna sometimes, too, they were genius record-makers, in charge of every facet of their careers and their personas. And if, say, John Lydon couldn’t say the former, he could at least pretend to the latter long enough and well enough to make it stick as a kind of perverse integrity.

All these years later, it feels like Miley Cyrus, hiding back there somewhere behind the butch haircut and the hilariously (or, depending on your view, pathetically) bad twerking, is still trying to have the best of both worlds. That, for all the attempts to conform, there’s still some part of her that doesn’t quite fit and yearns to breathe free.

I suspect that part is called a singer.

Ten years after Britney Spears came to the same crossroads, she’s a footnote. If Cyrus, a much bigger talent, doesn’t want to be left beside the same highway, she’ll have to make up her mind soon.

I wonder if the choice she makes will say more about her or about us.

 

GIVING IN TO THE RUSH HOUR (Memory Lane: 1988, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002 and, yeah, just yesterday)

Soon after I checked the index of Real Life Rock, the new compilation of Greil Marcus’s “Real Life” columns from 1986 to 2014, I started reading it. Good idea. I’m fifty pages in and it’s already blown past Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces as valuable cultural history.

I might pull that judgment back a bit later, but since I’m still in the Reagan Years and he’s only fallen into the “I’m so edgy” trap a few times (my usual peeve with him…No Greil, Laraine Newman’s nose job was not more tragic than John Belushi’s death), I won’t be surprised if it sustains. We’ll see if I can stand up to the inevitable “Bill Clinton made me feel like an American again” tongue jobs as well, but, for now, I have high hopes and look forward to many happy reading hours.

But speaking of cultural history, one of the things the book is reminding me of is the great CD vs. Vinyl debate of the late eighties. Of course that debate still goes on, albeit in much more muted form, and, by now, I’m pretty much comme ci comme ca. But I was a fierce defender of vinyl back then and a very slow convert to the new order.

There was a reason beyond nostalgia and the fact that CDs were clearly a means to jack up prices, a decision that, following along with the entire eighties-and-beyond approach to the political economy, prized short term profit over not merely long term profit but long term survival. (Worked like a charm, incidentally. Record companies and their multi-corp overlords made out like bandits for about fifteen years. Another fifteen years later, the music industry is toast.)

That additional reason was simple and good: early digital mastering and re-mastering was highly variable in quality. At best, which was seldom, it didn’t improve anything. At worst, which was often, it dispersed sounds that were meant to be fully integrated and sucked the life out of everything it touched.

Over time, this problem was addressed and, if there’s still nothing quite like virgin vinyl, the distance between that and a well-mastered CD (of which there are now many) has long ceased to be any kind of deal killer for me.

But it was tough hump to get over there at the first. Marcus brought the memories flooding back because, in the first part of the book, he frequently writes about the lifeless nature of the wave of poorly conceived and executed oldies’ packages that accompanied the rise of digital technology. I can well remember hearing “Kentucky Rain” on a radio station’s CD player for the first time and saying: “Never!”

I was still young then (how young you’ll find out if you stick with me another minute). I did have a vague idea that never was a long time. CDs were the coming thing, even by 1986. I managed to hold out for four whole years.

Somewhere in there, I accumulated a CD ready receiver. It didn’t mean much at first because, well, I didn’t have a CD player and I certainly didn’t have any CDs.

If you’ve been around here a while, or just know me from the outside world, you probably won’t have any trouble guessing which I bought first.

Ah, but which CD? Which CD made me cough up a few bucks, knowing good and well it might be months yet (or, in my fevered imagination) even years before I actually possessed a CD player?

Don’t even bother guessing. No matter how well you know me, you wouldn’t get it. I wouldn’t even get it myself, just by knowing me.

I had to be there.

There used to be a southern record chain called Turtle’s. In the late eighties/early nineties, something, maybe the CD boom itself, helped them expand beyond their Atlanta base and they opened an outlet in Tallahassee. As record stores went, it wasn’t anything special. Better than the mall stores. Not as good as the old Record Bar. Nowhere near as good as local legend Vinyl Fever.

Still, just about every record store has its merits. At Turtle’s they had a pretty good bargain bin. Along about 1990, I don’t recall if they were carrying any vinyl or not. But I was in there for some reason, maybe just because it was handy to the town’s good video store at the time (both to be shortly subsumed by Blockbuster, may it rest in shattered pieces…in one of life’s rare good jokes, the video store survived by moving to a new location and actually outlasted the giant by some years, though it, too, is now gone).

Whatever the reason for me being there, I happened to start browsing the bargain bin for CDs.

Well, not really browse.

It was more like I stood there, asking myself if it was any way humanly possible that some good could come of just stepping over there and going back to my roots, shuffling through cheap CDs the way I used to shuffle through cheap records. Did I still have the endless patience required to find the occasional nugget among the dross? If not, could I re-acquire it?

Were there any nuggets among this particular pile of dross?

Not much new stuff was getting released on vinyl by then. Maybe nothing was. The memory hazes.

So I stood there, hooked on the horns of a classic dilemma. Not much of a way forward. Certainly no way back.

Then my eye fell on something in particular, sitting up at the front of the bin, and I gave myself a little shake, like I was dispensing with a haint, and took the fateful step that brought me within arm’s reach.

What I saw was this:

JANEWIEDLIN

Who remembers the cost on the shrink-wrap’s price tag? $3.97 maybe? Sure, let’s go with that. Anyway it was remaindered. Its one big hit hadn’t been enough to keep it from the very large cutout bin at Turtle’s.

Once I determined the hit was on the CD, I tried to put it back. Honestly.

But it kept sticking to my hand, probably because that one big hit kept sticking in my head.

I think I was still sweating when I exited the place, my first CD purchase in hand.

I had paid money, for what I was pretty sure was going to be one song (about that I was right), that I couldn’t play for God knew how long because I didn’t have anything to play it on.

A line had definitely been crossed.

Twelve years later, when the great CD selloff of 2002 occurred, I held back exactly three items. One was the Shangri-Las’ Myrmidons of Melodrama. I’m sure you don’t need me to go on about that. One was a beach music comp that had Billy Ocean’s “Love Really Hurts Without You” on it. I missed it on 45 in 1976 and spent more than twenty years tracking it down. That one I wasn’t letting go.

And one was Jane Wiedlin’s Fur.

Which I held on to for some of the same reasons I had once held on to vinyl for so long that Fur ended up being my first CD.

I had missed “Rush Hour” on 45 in 1988. Assuming it was even on a 45. In any case, I had found it there in Turtle’s in 1990, by which time I had already decided “cassingles” would not be any kind of long term solution to my burgeoning problem–How to get hold of that one song that will drive you crazy if you can’t play it when you want to?

I had missed out on “Rush Hour” and then found it a mere two years later.

On a cheap CD.

Good thing. Because vinyl-wise, I had a better chance of tracking down “Love Really Hurts Without You.”

So I gave in, there in Turtle’s in 1990, and, really, I know it was for the best.

When the old battles finally can’t be won, you develop new strategies. Or let the kids do it. (They have, which is probably why vinyl is still around. Heck they even sell it in places like Books-A-Million now, where it tends to cost more than the CDs.)

Out of my then-new strategy one very peculiar phenomenon arose.

I developed a habit of getting up in front of my speakers whenever I played “Rush Hour” and, more or less, dancing.

The only other song that ever occasionally made me want to do anything similar was the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” The dance I used to do to that–very occasionally–was long past me by 1990. I mean, I turned thirty that year. Unless you’ve stayed in top training, you can’t run in place and clap your hands between your knees when you’re thirty. At least you can’t do it in perfect time for three choruses.

You might still be able to just do the running in place bit, though. Hence, was born the Rush Hour Dance at the Ross apartment.

It went something like this: You run in place for about the first three and half minutes, varying your toe-tap speed in time with the music, but gradually gaining intensity throughout. Then, with about forty-five seconds to go, you move out of “place” and start moving around the apartment in a circle. Short up-and-down steps at first, then longer strides as the record nears the final climax.

Then, if you are at the Ross apartment (as you’ll see in a moment, this should never be tried anywhere else), you come up behind the solid oak table with the slate top that sits between your two recliners, leap into the air and land on the beat, preferably with a windmill or two from the right arm.

And when the song is over, you hop down.

I’m not going to pretend this was some every day occurrence.

But every few months or so, for a few years, it did happen. Mostly it was for private consumption. I have a sterling reputation as a wallflower and I generally prefer to uphold it. Too much pressure, I’ve found, in leaving the world with confused and exalted expectations if you start hinting at previously hidden possibilities.

I can therefore swear that the only time any portion of the Rush Hour Dance was witnessed by other human beings was in 1994, at Doak Campbell Stadium, after Florida State scored a touchdown to tie Florida at 31-31 in the waning minutes of the game.

There was plenty of room to run in place on the row in front of me, because the people sitting all along it had shown perfectly good common sense and departed twelve minutes earlier when the score was 31-3.

If we had gone for two and made it, who knows? I might have added the leap.

As it happened, the leap was not long for the world and neither was the Rush Hour Dance.

There came a day in 1998 (or so), when I realized I hadn’t done it in a while. In fact, I hadn’t really done it since I moved to my house in 1995.

So it began to bug me a bit. Could the Rush Hour Dance be transferred?

It was one of those questions that could not go long unanswered.

Cue Fur.

Punch in Track Two.

Start running in place. Play air guitar. (Oh, did I forget to mention that? That’s important. You have to play air guitar. Otherwise you just feel stupid.)

Keep it up for three minutes plus. Feel the music. Feel the need to break out.

Start running in your circle.

Move out to the left, around the second recliner, just like always.

Become lost in ecstasy, as though time has stood still.

Realize that time has not really stood still, because your legs never used to burn like this.

Sing along. (Oh yeah, did I mention that while you’re running in place, and then just running, and playing air guitar, you have to sing? Otherwise what’s the point?)

Run along behind the recliner. Move toward the table.

Don’t look at it.

No fair looking.

Judge the leap. Get in perfect time, with “Rush Hour” and the universe.

Leap and turn at the same time.

Rise into the air.

Reach the peak.

Smile as it comes back to you that this elevation you somehow achieve during the Rush Hour Dance is at least a foot higher than you can jump normally.

Look down.

Recall at that very instant, that your solid oak, slate topped table, has been replaced by a cheap piece of plaster board and plastic tubing that will be crushed like a grape if anything larger than a marble lands on it from your present height.

Imagine yourself in traction.

Think fast, at the hyper-speed which, in fact, only the Rush Hour Dance permits.

Point your toe like a freaking ballerina.

Continue soaring through the air.

Pray.

Skim lightly over the surface with a single skip you could never repeat in a thousand years and land safely and squarely on your feet in front your speakers.

In perfect time.

Fall into one of your recliners, who cares which one, laughing hysterically like a man who just escaped being shot at.

Take ten minutes to fully catch your breath.

Resolve to retire the Rush Hour Dance. Forever.

Know that you, and the dance, went out on top, with Jane Wiedlin whispering in your own ear, and that of every Rio-t-t-t Girl and Pop Tart ever born: “We’re still the Go-Go’s. And you’re still not.”

Have a nice weekend. I have to get back to reading.

 

AND BY THEN, I KNEW THE COLLAPSE WAS UPON US (Memory Lane, September 11, 2002)

My memories of September 11, 2001 are the common ones. Shock. Disgust. Horror. Sadness. Anger.

My memories of September 11, 2002 might be a bit more singular.

By then I had long since emailed a friend, after George W. Bush’s pathetic speech to Congress (universally lauded at the time by the entire political class and their coterie of media bootlickers, with a few professors thrown in for good measure). The email said:

“I hope we don’t need a leader in this fight we’re about to have, because that sure wasn’t Churchill up there.”

I have a knack, it seems, for being right only about the things I really wish I was wrong about.

By then, I had also seen all the memorial services/concerts etc. and been moved by an occasional performance, the most memorable being Limp Bizkit’s version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” which never made me want to listen to Limp Bizkit but did light a warm place in my heart for the original which had not previously existed but has not diminished in the long dreary years since.

By then, I had heard “W” tell us we should go shopping. Things would be alright.

By then, I had been reminded, way more than once and by chillingly, dishearteningly, real world events, of Franklin Roosevelt, breaking into “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” on the Firesign Theater’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once, When You’re Not Anywhere at All, to announce our complete and unconditional surrender.

By then, I knew, in my heart, which is the only truly knowing place, that the United States was beyond satire, that we might last another thousand years as a political economy or a name in a World Atlas, but we’re done as an idea and an idea is all we ever were that was worth anything.

By then, not to get all gloomy or anything, I had already decided it was time to start devoting such energies as I had left for this sort of navel gazing to figuring out where we went wrong–how Rock and Roll America had turned into Lay Down and Die America.

By then, I knew the response of a handful of passengers on Flight 93 was the only meaningful response there would ever be.

So when I was riding around in my car on September 11, 2002, doing errands while listening to the Oldies Station (Oldies Stations being just one more thing that has disappeared in the years since, at least around here), I was prepared to feel nothing in the way of all the emotions I mentioned above.

Figured if no ranking member of the ruling elite was prepared to commit to anything more than somber statements and crocodile tears, there was no percentage in me remembering.

Then a particular song came on the radio, and it was exactly the last song in the universe that could have been connected to any abstract idea of forcing me out of myself, not allowing me to avoid feeling something, even if I could never quite know what it was.

Not even now.

Sometimes, things are just a mystery…So I won’t even try to explain why this made me feel something, on September 11, 2002, when nothing else, not even my Christian concern for the lost, could make me feel anything at all…

 

HEY, THERE’S ACTUAL PROOF I DIDN’T JUST START DEFENDING POP YESTERDAY (Memory Lane: 2006)

Terry Teachout (who can be followed on the “About Last Night” link in the blogroll) has a feature he calls Lookback, wherein he revisits posts of yesteryear. A day or so ago, he re-posted something from 2006 which can be found here.

If you follow the link inside the link you can read the whole piece from back when. Just FYI, the reader he is quoting is yours truly (which gives me a  feeling akin to something Steven Rubio–who can also be followed in the blogroll–has written about lately, wherein one goes looking for references or simply starts looking around….and runs into oneself).

Regarding Terry’s piece, I think any regular reader of this blog knows where I stand on the high/low/middlebrow thing. As in, I don’t think it means anything at all. It happens the song in question, Abba’s “SOS,” has always reached me. It reached me even in the days when I didn’t like much of anything else they did and it was probably the reason I kept coming back to them until quite a bit more actually sank in.

And it reaches me now. I like Terry’s picks for other not-so-guilty pleasures and really appreciate his thoughtful respons, but I’m not sure he got my main point (my fault, because I sort of danced around the subject).

What I really should have said was that I thought “SOS” was great and didn’t need even the slightest qualification or apology.

I still don’t.

And I swear on a stack of bibles I don’t care what Aggy’s wearing. No need to take my eye Lord. With me, it’s all about the music!

 

WHEN JIMMY STEWART RAN INTO NATALIE MERCHANT….ON THE WAY UP NO DOUBT (Memory Lane: 1997)

Mentions of Jimmy Stewart’s birthday around the internet today (he would have been 107), prompted a flashback to July 2, 1997. I was on my way to my sister’s house in South Florida, driving across Highway 40 (which connects I-75 to I-95 for those who want to avoid Orlando or the Florida Turnpike).

In those days, I still listened to radio on the road more often than not (of late, I generally try to have a good supply of CDs available for anything longer than a trip to town) and whatever station was playing, I was, in fact, just thinking about what tape I wanted to hear (cassette days for me back then…I’m notoriously resistant to technological change) when I hit Highway 40’s well known dead spots when the standard issue hip-hep-happy dee-jay’s voice suddenly took on a somber tone and announced that the iconic film actor James Stewart had passed away.

After a few lines of the usual bio and not-quite-canned remorse he faded to black and let the next song play without comment.

I’m sure it was just the next thing in the playlist, but, on July 2, 1997, I bet you could have searched a top 40 catalog for anything that had come out in the past five years (usually the furthest back anyone will ever reach for an “oldie” on a hip-hep-happy station in any era) and never found proof that sound sometimes matters more than words quite as convincing as this:

 

BANGLING (Memory Lane: The Bangles In the Eighties)

Back in the mid-eighties, some curmudgeonly grad-student who reviewed music for my local college newspaper (now long-defunct…I don’t know about these days, or even if they still have college newspapers anymore, but in those days curmudgeonly grad-students were pretty much standard issue for the music gig at a college paper), mentioned that the newly popular Bangles had left their best days behind them (as pretty much all bands do, of course, when they sell too many records to be a secret curmudgeons can keep to themselves anymore), and those of us not in the know should really hear their first LP, the one that hadn’t sold, or better yet, their one-and-only EP (which featured the standard “departed member”) or even better still, the truly obscure cover they had done of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”

I either already had, or soon acquired, that first LP which really is their best and also really is one of the greatest albums ever made.

Soon after that, I found their EP, which was pretty fine, too.

Then I spent the ensuing thirty years buying whatever else they made and keeping a permanently frustrated eye out for that elusive Dylan song.

Since I couldn’t find it–or even a reference to it–anywhere, even in the age of YouTube and the internet, I finally decided that the curmudgeon must have made a mistake and meant to refer to their non-LP version of the Grassroots’ Dylanesque knockoff “Where Were You When I Needed You,” which had showed up on the band’s various best ofs over the years.

In other words I thought I was done with it.

Then this week arrives and I’m idly searching for something or other that leads me to a Greil Marcus column which is posted at his website (and which I would have seen a few years ago if The Believer, God love ’em, had let out another entry or two from behind the firewall) and, lo and behold, I find I’m not done with it at all.

Turns out the Bangles (or maybe just Susanna Hoffs), had done a Dylan song in 1984. Only it wasn’t “I Shall Be Released,” but “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” meaning I either misread, misremembered, or relied a bit too foolishly on the reading or remembering skills of a curmudgeonly grad student way back when).

And because we live in an age when YouTube is pretty much the only step forward mankind has made since at least 1980, I was even able to follow the link and hear the actual song, which, at least when you listen to the video version Marcus recommends, is everything he says it is and everything I might have wanted it to be after thirty years of waiting. (And in case you don’t care to follow the link, you can see and hear it in it’s all-everything-ness right here and now…)

Then you can go back, pre-fame, pre- anything but the naked ambition to forget the seventies ever happened and pick up the thread everybody else had let go and see where it could take them….

..or you can go forward, to five minutes before the standard-issue acrimonious breakup, when they were everything they ever wanted to be, including quite possibly the best rock and roll band in the world….I mean, laugh if you want, but do you really think anybody else could have come this close to proving it by way of Simon and Garfunkel?

Yeah, me neither….

 

GINA’S TRIPTYCH (Memory Lane: 1988)

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My then twenty-seven-year old self wandered around in the wasteland that was 1988 filled with a kind of wary optimism. I wasn’t exactly inundated with it. Gee, the presidential choice that year (should one put the air quotes around presidential?…or choice?…or both?….sorry, the mind stiffens and refuses to commit) was between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.

But if it had been Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln it wouldn’t have been all that much different. Let’s just say that unwary optimism wouldn’t exactly be me.

Well, the intervening years have dispensed with those particular fine distinctions. I’m unburdened by any sort of purely political optimism these days. Goodbye us and all that.

One reason I was still, improbably, optimistic in 1988 was that I was still hearing quasi-subliminal messages in popular music.

Well, really I was only hearing quasi-subliminal messages (that is messages that spoke to the moment and could be read purely and solely between the lines of songs that, for folks living on the standard, government approved wavelength, were certainly about some very ordinary other thing) in music made by ex-Go-Go’s drummer Gina Schock that was only trying to be popular.

One reason it wasn’t too terribly successful at being what it was trying to be might have been its too-numerous mundane aspects: airless, cookie-cutter production (from original Go-Go’s producer Richard Gottehrer, who had been good at this stuff since the Angel’s “My Boyfriend’s Back” and really should have known better), anonymous riffing (where the Go-Go’s–especially Gina Schock–had always substituted personality) and lyrics that were mostly straight from songwriting class, mid-semester, freshman year.

Another reason might have been luck. Because all that other stuff, minus what was good about House of Schock, was all over the airwaves in 1988, not to mention every year since and every year now stretching before us down the long dark road into the deep black night.

See. I told you got rid of all that optimism!

And, what may you ask, was good about House of Shock (which was the name of the band as well as their one and only album)?

Three really good songs (all written, like the bulk of the album, by Schock and band-mate Vance DeGeneres*) and Gina Schock’s voice, that was what.

In those three songs and her nothing-special-except-it-got-under-my-skin voice, I heard enough to write the only fan letter of my life. I don’t remember much about the letter (though I remember enough to really, really hope she never read it!…fan letters are bound to be like that, I suspect, if you are older than twelve at the time of composition and subsequently live long enough to look back from a safely objective twenty-twenty distance). And one thing I very specifically don’t remember is whether I mentioned my curious but heartfelt reading of those particular songs–all that between-the-lines stuff.

I suspect not. My twenty-seven-year old self was cautious about sharing unlikely, far-fetched theories. Not like my fifty-four-year old self at all.

Which leaves us (well, me anyway) with what exactly it was I that I did hear.

Simple enough.

Wary optimism. Fellow traveler (spiritual sense, not dread phony political sense).

That’s what.

An assurance the singer would not only survive but would do so precisely because she possessed an abundance of the old “can-do” spirit that was waiting to be reborn in the national soul.

Coming from just about anyone else in 1988 (let alone now) that would have sounded like a very big pile of what the bull leaves in the pasture.

But it wasn’t coming from just anyone.

It was coming from the woman who had thrown her possessions in the car and driven from Baltimore to L.A. and then walked into a punk club where one of the anonymous thousands of that (or any) era’s wannabe bands was playing out a contract before they broke up and went their separate ways and talked them into staying together, into taking her on as the drummer, into rehearsing (and rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing), into literally battling their way to the cover of Rolling Stone twenty-something months later….some time after said Richard Gottehrer had told bassist Kathy Valentine to watch what the drummer did and the “accidental” result had been the first (and, a mere thirty-four years down the line, so far only) album by a self-contained all-female band to reach #1 in Billboard.

So, for me at least, the can-do spirit coming from that woman was bound to mean….something.

Something more than songs to dedicate to every fourth year’s crop of major party candidates (though boy do they work on that level, then and now).

And under the cover of darkness, where the rebirth of the old “can-do” will now have to occur, if it occurs at all, it still does.

So here’s to the old optimism…

The spirit of the open road…

the spit in the eye…(and one of my favorite vocals of the decade)

and the all purpose dedication to the deceivers among us and those who survive them….

 

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*Yes, he’s Ellen’s brother. And no, she wasn’t yet famous. I’m sure I was one of at least four people on the planet who, when I first heard of her, thought “Gee, I wonder if she’s related to Vance!”

 

 

TRACEY ULLMAN TAKES ME ACROSS A BRIDGE (Memory Lane: 2006)

First, a look at the picture sleeve of a forty-five:

TraceyULLMAN

Then the memory:

Between 2003 and 2007 I had what you might call problems.

I got diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 2002, and was, not long after, told I had probably had it my entire adult life (which was roughly twenty years at that point). I was then further told I had severe Diabetic Retinopathy which needed immediate and extensive laser treatments, etc.

Then there was a year of seeing what I’ll politely call the “wrong” doctor, after which I was told I would need major surgery and was, in fact, worse off than I had been to begin with (even though my Glucose numbers had long since normalized).

I ended up getting a second opinion and moving on to a real doctor, under whose care I got better, though not enough better to avoid having the surgeries eventually. Too much damage and too much recurrence as it turned out. Something called Vitrectomies ensued. One for each eye.

That’s where they cut an incision in the eyeball, suck out the vitreous fluid, replace it with a saline solution, and scrape any residual scar tissue off your blood vessels.

They keep you awake so you can move your eyes if necessary, which means you can also see them picking the scar tissue off the back of your eyeball.

it’s as pleasant as it sounds.

By the summer of 2006, one way and another, between the disease and the treatments, I had lost about twenty percent of my eyesight, mostly on the periphery, though there was also a permanent hole in my right eye’s field of vision.

I had also been told for a good two years, by then, that I should have stabilized by now.

And I hadn’t.

So I had no reason to believe that I wouldn’t continue to lose my sight at a similar rate in the years ahead.

I had gotten past breaking down over it–had managed to remind myself, yet again, that Faith is not for the good times–but it still wasn’t exactly the cheeriest period of my life. Faith moved the mountain of despair a little, but many more days than not, I was much more afraid than not.

Coming home from my sister’s house in South Florida after a 4th of July visit in that summer of 2006–three years into a pattern of deterioration that seemed more and more likely to be permanent–part of me wanted to just get on home, like usual, which would mean–like usual–I-95 or the Florida Turnpike.

Another part of me wanted to head up U.S. 1 and cruise the old neighborhood where I was born and partly raised, because who knew how many more chances there would be?

That nostalgic part won.

Now, it happens I had cruised my “old” neighborhood (we left in 1974) before.

There were some pretty good reasons I no longer did it very often.

The working class community I grew up in was run into the ground. The space-race jobs that fueled the local economy had long since dwindled to a fraction of their former numbers and left the place on life support. The people I knew (and loved more than I knew, as it turned out) were long gone or, at very least, lost to my circle of acquaintance. The church I was saved in, testified in, sang in, heard my mother sing in and saw my father ordained in, had–according to the sign anyhow–gone from Southern Baptist to some sort of utilitarian symbol which I assumed meant non-denominational though I never researched the matter fully.

Some things are better left undone.

For whatever reason, this particular day, I was willing to risk the company of an even blacker dog than the one that was already riding me to see just how much further things had gone downhill.

No explaining it. Maybe I just wanted to at least feel the place again.

After all, there was no way to know how many more times I would have the option of ignoring it.

Whichever direction I had gone that day, I had music for the occasion–a set of cassette tapes with a lot of my old 45s (none of them bought until I moved away and found I needed something to fill the space left by all the things I no longer belonged to, call it “community” if you like) captured on them.

I had recorded the tapes with no particular rhyme or reason. Just stuff I liked well enough, some time or other, to buy on a piece of plastic, and still liked well enough, all those years later, to record for driving music.

It was a true mix-tape.

All of which meant that I had little idea of what was coming next when I drove over a bridge just south of the hospital where I was born and a beautiful, peaceful view of the Indian River (which, to tell the truth, doesn’t often conjure romantic notions) on an early Sunday afternoon opened up.

Just as that view filled my somewhat impaired vision, what came up on the tape was Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know,” a tribute to the girl group era which she, having been born almost exactly a year before me, must have just missed (like me) and, given the improbable heart she put into both the single and the album it was drawn from (the oughta-be-immortal You Broke My Heart In 17 Places) must have also (like me) regretted missing on some very personal level.

It might have been just a nice moment, except that some combination of that song and that view of the river and that set of memories made me think, unbidden:

“If this is all there’s going to be, it’s okay.”

I didn’t really do much cruising of the old neighborhood that day, or any day since. And a year or so later, I figured out it was the diabetic medicine I was taking that was making my eyes bleed. I had to argue with a lot of doctors, of course, but I stopped taking the medicine. The round of laser treatments-shots-surgeries ended soon thereafter and hasn’t resumed.

To date, I haven’t lost any more eyesight. Well, not much anyway.

Things worked out, in other words. At least as much as they ever do. The mountain moved…just enough.

But those things that eventually worked themselves out–and which I had no way of knowing ever would in the summer of 2006–weren’t what brought me a last measure of peace.

What brought me that peace was driving over a bridge next to the Indian River, just south of the hospital where I was born, and, at that exact moment, hearing Tracey Ullman–a woman who got justifiably famous in the years hence by dint of a sheer, undaunted genius for never taking anything seriously (not even a talk show interview, which takes some doing in the Age of Narcissism)–put everything she had into a song that might have been designed to do any number of less-than-admirable, campy, things (and might have even accomplished some of them, these little bits of genius being what they are), but which she sang as though she fully intended to live up to Mary Weiss and Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love and didn’t much care who knew it.

And for one moment–luckily for me–live up to them she did.

(And, hey, it’s Tracey Ullman, so the video is hilarious…but, for a markedly different experience, don’t be afraid to put yourself in my shoes and close your eyes one time through.)

 

THE RETURN OF MARY WEISS (Memory Lane: 2007)

{NOTE: I’m kinda’ swamped at the moment so, to cap the week, I’m posting one from days gone by. Rock and Rap Confidential was kind enough to distribute a slightly edited version of this piece in their on-line newsletter at the time Mary Weiss’ solo album Dangerous Game was released in 2007. I don’t see any reason to alter any of its basic assumptions. Weiss, not surprisingly for someone who tends to let silence speak volumes, has recorded nothing since, though she has toured occasionally. For anyone new to the site, you can track some of my personal history with the Shangri-Las in the SHANGRI-LAS FOREVER category at the right. In any case, this is an accurate reflection of how things stood between me and Mary Weiss when she finally came out of the shadows. FYI: You can follow the Norton Records link below to find Weiss’ interview at the time, which I’ve linked before but can’t possibly be over-publicized.]

About fifteen years ago, driving through middle Georgia, I happened across a very small black gospel station of the sort that proliferate throughout the south. It was a Sunday afternoon and the programming consisted of a live, obviously local choir performance.

The choir featured a very young female soloist who sounded remarkably like….SOMEBODY. I drove along–slowly!–mentally riffing through dozens of favorite black female singers, trying to place the similarity. After about thirty minutes, hearing her off and on, I finally realized I had been on the wrong track. The striking resemblance wasn’t to a black woman at all. It was to a white teenager.

Just before I passed out of the tiny station’s limited range, never learning the young singer’s name, or even the name of the choir she was fronting, I realized she was a dead ringer for the Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss–Ah, yes, Queens and the Georgia plains, together again!

A few months back, at the Norton Records’ website, Weiss related a wonderful story about reverse-integrating a women’s bathroom while a Houston cop drew down on her during a show she played with James Brown. I certainly wasn’t surprised to learn that the lead singer of the Shangri-Las was not intimidated by racist cops. And because of that Sunday afternoon in Georgia, I wasn’t even surprised to learn that Augusta’s own James Brown had hired the Shangri-Las because he assumed from their records that they were black.

But Weiss’ return is far more than a nostalgia trip with a lot of great stories attached. This is one comeback that is tremendously important to both history and the moment.

As to history: In breaking a lifetime of silence regarding her career with the Shangri-Las, Weiss has driven about a hundred new nails in the coffin of Standard Rock Theology’s most damaging falsehood–that because they were female and often impossibly young, many of the greatest singers of the rock and roll era owed their success primarily to svengali-like male producers rather than their own drive and talent.

This lie is rooted in a deep, almost willful misunderstanding of singing as a creative process, fully equal to writing and producing. It has probably kept the Shangri-Las (and Arlene Smith and the Marvelettes and Mary Wells, among others) out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, if reading and hearing Weiss’ modest, convincing voice doesn’t kill it for good, nothing will

From her, we learn that the Shangri-Las’ revolutionary dress and stage manner–which instantly and permanently changed the way women could present themselves in popular culture and left a long, deep shadow on the New York street scenes that would eventually produce both punk and rap–were entirely their own. That they worked closely with their producers and arrangers at every stage concerning what they would record and how. That their impeccable, drop-dead harmonies, always a vastly under-appreciated aspect of the female group sound, were forged by years of practice in a hyper-competitive environment** where literally hundreds of fine groups never made it off the streets and only a handful ever had a hit (let alone the near-dozen chart records, including four top twenties, notched by the Shangri-Las).

As to the moment: Weiss’ new album–the first music in forty years by one of rock’s signature voices–has been consistently damned with faint praise that grows straight out of the old, false mindset. Most mainstream reviews have been content to convey two basic ideas: 1) Gee, the old girl sure does sound like herself and 2) it’s always nice to have an excuse to name-drop Shadow Morton.

Don’t be fooled.

On Dangerous Game, Weiss is backed by the fine southern garage band, Reigning Sound, whose Greg Cartwright supplied most of the first-rate songs. The sound and style are as far from Morton’s justifiably storied extravagance as you can get.

But after a dozen listens, I’m convinced this music is of a piece with Weiss’ long-ago greatness not because of her still unmistakable timbre, but because of her ability to bring her great themes–trust and betrayal–to bear on any situation anyone is ever likely to write a song about.

There’s no doubt either, that they are her themes. Morton’s wonderful songs–and Cartwright’s–have frequently emanated from the mouths of others without once acquiring the capacity to either wound or heal. Weiss has nearly always made them do one or the other. At her very best, as on “Remember” and “Never Again” forty years ago or “Cry About the Radio” and “Stitch in Time” here, she’s done both in the same song.

The inability of the modern rock press to address her in these terms–the terms due a singer who owns the idea that no relationship worth having can ever be entirely safe as surely as Roy Orbison owns romantic paranoia and John Fogerty owns righteous anger–simply reinforces their own irrelevance.

(**As a poignant footnote, when Weiss began touring and giving interviews shortly after this piece was published, she was asked why she was reluctant to sing some of her old songs on stage. Though she has, of course, sung at least some of her oldies live, her answer, essentially, as to why she preferred not to, was that those songs were arranged for particular voices and those voices–two of which belonged to the deceased Marge and Mary Ann Ganser–no longer existed.)

Mary Weiss “Cry About the Radio” (Audio Recording)