HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 12: “If I Can Dream”)

“If I Can Dream”
1968
Artist: Elvis Presley
Writer: Walter Edward Brown

The story behind “If I Can Dream” is well known.

Elvis Presley was filming a Christmas special in the summer of 1968 and the project had taken on a life of its own. Conceived as a traditional holiday special where Elvis would croon seasonal standards and cavort with the usual assortment of anonymous lovelies, much in the spirit of his increasingly lifeless movie career, it had turned out….unexpectedly.

Somehow, in the hands of producer Steve Binder, the genius behind The T.A.M.I. Show and much of the best rock and roll performance television footage of the era, with increasing support from Elvis himself, it had become something very different. When it aired late in ’68, the special would revive Elvis’ career and vault straight into the pantheon of his career-defining moments.

Having lost control of every other aspect of the project, Elvis’ infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, tried to put his foot down on the only thing left hanging loose–the show’s ending.

The Colonel wanted–insisted upon by most accounts–a Christmas carol.

Binder, aware of the world on fire around them, thought Elvis needed something more.

Walter Earl Brown, not an especially inspired songwriter before or after this moment, was commissioned to come up with something. This time, he was inspired. The lyrics and melody were hardly works of genius, but they were solid, thoughtful, inspirational, plenty strong enough to feed Elvis’ growing belief in himself, the project, and the possibilities the special had begun to represent.

It was a song to make him relevant again.

He must have known it at once. It summoned up Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington in 1963 and fed into Bobby Kennedy’s I dream things that never were and ask why not? moment. It was a natural sequel to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” itself a self-conscious response to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” all of which might have been unofficial sequels to Elvis’ own 1957 reading of Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” which dated from the 1930’s and had been composed in response to the war clouds then gathering over Europe.

If a song that evoked all that didn’t bring him up to date, nothing would.

One could argue that the rest of the special might have done the trick anyway.

It had its share of other iconic moments.

There was Elvis, opening the show in black leather, growling If you’re looking for trouble, you came to the right place, as though the space between 1956 and 1968 had collapsed in on itself.

There he was, in front of a wall of dancers paying homage to himself in Jailhouse Rock.

There he was, being a swingin’ little guitar man, in a song he managed to make sound autobiographical even if he had never come anywhere near picking out songs in Panama City bars.

And, most of all, there he was, working up a sweat with an informal, impromptu band, inventing the Unplugged format that wouldn’t take full flight until a decade after his death.

But there’s no evidence, then or now, that any of that would have put him back in the one place he could no longer afford not to be–high on the record charts.

Whether he heard “If I Can Dream” as the answer to that problem we’ll never know. It’s one of the many questions no one thought to ask, and part of the reason Elvis the Man remains an enigma.Another reason the Man remains an enigma is because the crit-illuminati have never quite got a handle on the Artist.

“If I Can Dream” is almost always described–when it is “described” at all (as opposed to being referred to or glopped upon)–as a song of uplift, a natural fit for Elvis the gospel singer.

Which isn’t even half-true.

The song is a song of uplift.

Elvis’ interpretation of the song is anything but.

He no more knew how to walk a straight line through “If I Can Dream” than he had known how to move like anybody else when he hit a television stage for the first time on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show in the early months of ’56. The key to Elvis at his best, from first to last, was that he looked at a confined conjunction of time and/or space–a TV stage, a recording studio, the length of a record, the meaning available in a lyric–and imagined it differently than anyone else did.

It was one reason Sam Phillips took such a long time getting a handle on him (a year or more, lest we forget–not Phillips’ usual modus operandi). And one reason Elvis could never take anything for granted, never really be at ease, no matter how far he rose, how much material success he achieved.

Most Big Thinkers have concluded it was the poverty–the fear it could return at any moment–that kept Elvis insecure, on edge, in need of a constant fix.

There’s not much to support that. From everything I’ve read, Elvis, once he made it, was generally contemptuous of the idea he wouldn’t keep making it.

The aw-shucks ritual, where he wondered aloud in front of microphones whether it would all be waiting for him if he had to go away for a while (like to the Army), was nothing more than that. Ritual. Self-deprecation. Recognizable to most of his core audience as a “Gee-I’m-no-better-than-the-next-fella routine,” delivered Southern American style.

I don’t think too many people who didn’t write journalism for a living really bought it.

What he clearly did worry about was whether he would fit into the next space–the next hole in the time-space continuum that he, and he alone, had opened up in American culture, but which, once he had punched through, could not stop expanding, or perhaps simply running way from the latest, fastest version of itself.

How many times can a man re-invent himself, after all…and still be a man?

Same for countries, as Elvis, too, must have known by the time he was deciding exactly what to do with the show-closer that had been handed him a day after Brown was commissioned to write it.

There were plenty of roads left to travel when Elvis confronted “If I Can Dream” for the first time, but he didn’t need to be any Master of Prescience to know that this turning point was special–that it wasn’t just another fork in the road.

So, faced with a song that fit squarely into existing traditions–he could take it as uplift (like King’s speech), as cautionary tale (like Dylan), as a means to look beyond the stars (like Kennedy), as the running of a secret tide that won’t be turned back (like Cooke) or even as an excuse to give in to the moment and re-orient the Protestant Reformation, with its promise of moving man’s Golden Age (which America now represented full-blown), from the past to the future, and simply realizing it in the Present–what was a poor boy to do?

The song would have fit any of those other interpretations. And the relative few who have taken it on since have chosen one of those conventional paths.

They’ve had to.

They weren’t Elvis.

Elvis, unlike anyone else, had a choice.

Standing square in the middle of 1968, the most volatile year in American history since the end of the Civil War, standing there, according to many, as a curiously moribund icon, waiting for his wax statue, with his place as a permanently employed Entertainer set out neatly and securely before him, he did what he always did at a crisis….the unexpected.

He seized the song by the throat.

And he didn’t let it go.

You could listen a long time and miss just how he went about it–or even become fully aware that he had done it at all.

It took me until the conclusion of the fine Elvis mini-series in 2005, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, before I heard it myself.

But I first heard it here…

…which is where I first heard a lot of Elvis. (Bought it for my mother for the Christmas of 1978. She liked it, liked his gospel better, let me keep it in my room, where the only working record player was and where she could hear it anyway. I took requests, but she didn’t place many. I figure it was because I played it often enough without prompting…but I’ll leave all that for my anniversary re-post, come tomorrow. Anyway, when I left for college in the fall of 1980, I took it with me. No sense leaving it in a house with no record player. I told her if she ever got one she could have it back. She smiled and said she knew. We both knew she would never ask for it back, even in the unlikely event she bought a record player.)

It was a four album set–my first box.

“If I Can Dream” sat at the top of the last side. Near as I’ve been able to tell, the version was the one heard here.

By the time he cut this, or any version, of the song, Elvis had already made his famous statement that he would never record another song he didn’t believe in (a clear shot at the movie soundtracks, the worst of which contained the only songs he’d ever not believed in, though, to be fair, by 1968, there has been a lot of them–enough, at any rate, to make a man doubt even the most fundamental truths about himself).

There was little more soundtrack material in his future and, by his lights and mine, I think he kept his promise, even in the face of constant reassurance from rock’s burgeoning crit-illuminati that they would love him again if he’d only forget what he–or his fans–wanted and live up to their dreams instead.

All that might have taken more courage than we know. Perhaps even more than he knew when the made the promise, not to himself, but out loud, to an audience of insiders he must have hoped would hold his feet to the fire–or at least allow him to continually remind himself that someone, at least, was watching, perhaps even waiting for him to quit his own promise.

Who knows what it was really like, in Elvis World?

If I could have his ear for a moment now, though, the question I’d ask, is whether, by the time he made his soon to be famous promise, he already knew what he was going to do with the song?

Because it was not a song that invited the interpretation he gave it.

It was not a song that was asking to be grabbed by the throat.

Commitment would have been enough.

Elvis was a non-pareil vocalist. He could always do things no one else could do, form connections no one else could form, build bridges no one else could build.

“If I Can Dream” was a good enough song, he could have taken the easy way out–any of several forms of reassurance or what’s-this-life-really-all-about wistfulness that the lyric made available and the melody reinforced. He could have done any of the things such songs are almost inherently meant to do, and got away with it.

We’d be none the wiser.

It might still have been a hit.

I’d almost bet it would have been a bigger hit–#1 maybe, instead of #12.

If he had chosen not to invest it with a particular kind of anger, the only person who would have known, would have been him. We don’t have to speculate whether anyone else would have found that quality in it, because, even with his example before them, no one else has.

If he had chosen not to sing, in any version you hear, a line like the answer’s gonna come, somehow, not exactly with a sneer in his voice, but with no hint of a plea either, would we know what we had missed?

If it’s possible now to hear it rather as a demand, delivered in the voice of a man who is tired of his life’s worth of New Testament style asking and has replaced himself, instead, with an Old Testament Prophet demanding–knowing full well that the change cannot be walked away from, either by him or any audience he might command, then or in the future–then it’s only because he made it possible.

You can still choose not to hear it.

No one, not even Elvis, can make that sort of demand and expect it to be heard by all. It is enormous after all, the very idea of it.

And Elvis was the only man left standing in American life by the summer of 1968 who could have made it.

Left as a dream–as the series of questions contained within the lyrics–and delivered with the tried and true delicacy of “Crying in the Chapel,” the only Top Ten hit he’d had since the Beatles arrived in America (and that recorded years before, just after he came out of the Army), it might have been that natural #1 I mentioned. Same for the careful phrasing and straightforward empathy of “In the Ghetto” which would return him to the Top Ten the following year.

But it wouldn’t have been true.

Not coming from the heart of 1968 it wouldn’t.

Coming from that place–and coming from Elvis Presley–only Old Testament anger would do.

It was his dream after all, that was falling apart at his feet in 1968.

Oh, yes, others had dreamed it, too. By the millions.

And better men than Elvis had called upon the dream in the years since. We know they were better men because so many have told us so. It isn’t hard, in America, to be a better man than a Tennessee hillbilly.

Only he had made the dream common, though. Only he had brought it within what seemed such easy reach when he walked into those recording studios, or strode those television stages, in the mid-fifties, and made it sound like everything fit. Made it sound like rhythm and blues and country were really one thing (why, hadn’t blacks and hillbillies always gotten along?…playing to teenagers no less?….well, sure they had!). And not only that, but Tin Pan Alley and gut-bucket gospel and white church music and light opera and show tunes and “Old Shep” could be thrown right in there, too.

Just like everybody had suspected, right along.

Why once a Tennessee hillbilly showed it could be done, wasn’t it obvious that it was an idea whose time had simply come?

On the surface, there was never any need to acknowledge Elvis, the teenage truck driver from Nowheresville, had seen past everyone else, even the black ministers fueling the Civil Rights movement.

Underneath, everyone knew.

Underneath, It was like John Lennon said.

“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Like a lot of what John Lennon said, it was utter nonsense on its face. Also, like more than a little of what John Lennon said, it was true without being anyway factual.

Underneath, without anyone needing to do a white paper on it, Elvis–and no one else–had called forth the most dangerous and exhilarating parts of the good old, American Dream.

What if our differences could be laid aside for a bit?

What if we could….dance together?

Just once?

What then?

Standing in Los Angeles, in the burning hot summer of 1968, Elvis could not have missed knowing what everyone else knew–that the world he had dreamed into being, the one where we might find out what was possible once it was proven we could dance together, the world that transcended the politics which had put boundaries around everyone from John Adams to Martin Luther King, was crashing down around him, accompanied by a mocking chorus of history’s oldest rhyme–mayhem.

And he had just been handed a song called “If I Can Dream.”

There was a choice to be made and he made it.

He sang it angry–he sang it in the voice of a man who was pleading for everyone around him to stop and take a look at what they were throwing away.

And he sang it knowing no one would listen. Knowing that even his own future self wouldn’t listen–because his own self wouldn’t be able to bear it any more than anyone else could bear it.

He closed those endless concerts that stretched on and on into what remained of his future with “The Impossible Dream” or “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” If he’d tried that with “If I Can Dream”–and put into it what he put into it the one time he did close with it–he’d have been dead in a year.

Dead because he’d have known by then what we all know now–that the Dream had died on his watch. That we would never walk away from 1968 That he was, after all, a prophet not for this time, but for another time–the one that will be born out of what we’re watching die around us now.

One that will be worthy of an ice cream suit, covering a man who still moved like nobody else.

….If we’re lucky.

(NOTE: Tomorrow, on the 40th anniversary of Elvis’ death, I’ll repost the lengthy reminiscence of that day which I originally posted here on the 35th anniversary.)

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 11: “People Get Ready”)

“People Get Ready”
1965
Artist: The Impressions
Writer: Curtis Mayfield

impressions1

The Impressions in 1965. Curtis Mayfield at far right.

“That was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church. Like there’s no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.”

(Source: Liner notes from Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: The Anthology 1961-1977, MCA, 1992)

“My mother always liked symphony music, and even as a youngster my foundation was out of the church, whereas my grandmother was the minister of the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church….When I wrote ‘People Get Ready,’ I was of a spiritual mind I suppose. I can’t quite recall what I was doing but the honesty of my gospel upbringing probably had a lot to do with it. I’m so pleased that it can please all who might listen to it. It doesn’t matter what faith you may have, the lyrics are of value to everybody.”

(Source: Liner notes from The Curtis Mayfield Story, Rhino box set, 1996)

Back in 1985 I was working for an ad agency and the owner liked to keep MTV running in his office because that was where the cutting edge of the soap-selling business was in those days. One evening before heading out I dropped by the office to say my good night and he and one of the layout artists were sitting in there critiquing the hot MTV item of the moment which was Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck’s cover of “People Get Ready.”

“This is great!” my boss said. The layout artist, who was in a rock band in his spare time, agreed. “Great guitar,” he said.

“It’s based on an old Negro spiritual,” my boss said.

“Well,” I said. “It’s really not that old. Curtis Mayfield wrote it. It’s from 1965.”

Now I wasn’t the known entity I later became, the guy who knew stuff about music from the sixties. I mean, I could have even told them the Impressions’ original hit #14 in Billboard--in those days I was very good with chart numbersbut there seemed little point since they didn’t even believe me about the Curtis Mayfield part or the 1965 part.

“Wait…the guy who did ‘Superfly’?” one of them finally said, after we had gone round and round for a bit.

“Yeah,” I said. “Same guy.”

That clinched it. I was crazy. Prone to making stuff up. Any chance of them believing me went by the wayside.

No way the Superfly Guy wrote that old Negro Spiritual, “People Get Ready.”

I told them it was okay. If I hadn’t known better I wouldn’t have believed it myself.

*  *  *  *

“People Get Ready” is one of those songs, like “Peace in the Valley,” (written by Thomas Dorsey in the 1930s), which doesn’t feel like it could have been written less than a few centuries ago. It feels honed out of some kind of folk tradition, passed from balladeer to minstrel and back again. Usually, these songs have some kind of gospel overtone, and that attendant “feel” of permanence, of having been inspired by something more than commerce, is, like religion itself, counted exotic among the crit-illuminati and all unduly influenced by them.

The nonbelievers are never quite so hard to impress as they make out.

I’m guessing Curtis Mayfield understood that. Like most of the early rock and soul pioneers, he was a believer. He grew up in church. His grandmother was a minister. His singing group, the Impressions, was modeled on a specific style of black gospel called “jubilee.” (His original group was The Northern Jubilees so the linkage was more than usually specific.)

All of that mattered to who Curtis Mayfield became in the context of both the Civil Rights movement and the soul music of the sixties and seventies. His catalog is shot through with Christian imagery and just about all the nonbelievers were impressed by his commitment even though exactly none of them–including the legion of black and white vocalists who have covered the song in the nonbelieving style of Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck–ever gave evidence of understanding the belief system that commitment rested on.

People get ready, there’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.

Despite Mayfield’s own later suggestion (quoted above) that this was a universalist message, it’s really only “universal” in the sense that New Testament Christianity is indeed open to all.

All you need is faith, open the doors and board ’em
Don’t need no ticket you just thank the Lord.

Four lines in, and we’re already deep in the weeds of New Testament arguments worthy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The old fights have been closed down…faith is for all, Calvinism, the underpinning of both American individualism (good) and America slavery (bad), has been rejected for something higher. It’s a transformation Harriet Beecher Stowe, raised Calvinist, converted to Congregationalism and, after a beloved son’s death, a dabbler in forms of Spiritualism Curtis Mayfield’s grandmother would doubtless have recognized.

In the heat of the sixties, as “Uncle Tom” was being re-jiggered yet again to signify collaboration and weakness, Mayfield was now squarely in the middle of debates that were no longer going to be left to his own traditions. Not to Spiritualism. Not to Congregationalism. Not even to Christianity itself. As Greil Marcus would later write:

“With the Impressions and later as a soloist, Mayfield had been exploring a somewhat bland, Martin Luther King-style progressivism, for years, complete with open heart, boundless optimism, tortured lyrics, and brotherhood speeches to nightclub audiences.”

Tomming, in other words. Rather like Martin Luther King himself before his common honorific was transformed from the spiritual “Reverend” to the secular “Doctor” (and before the “Reverend” was subsequently transferred to Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, the better to mock the belief the honorific was meant to represent).

Funny how, in the world of the nonbeliever, it’s always optimism that’s uncomplicated.

And easy to identify.

Marcus’s  seventies-era cynicism (he was juxtaposing Mayfield’s Negro Spiritual mode with his Superfly mode) was later replaced with rank sentimentalism. Cynicism–the rejection of optimism’s naturally complicated state in juxtaposition to the inherent cruelty of faith’s alternatives in time, space, nature, “reality”–usually turns out that way.

That’s the trick to throwing down with the Sermon on the Mount.

Once you claim it, you’re either on the train or not.

So people get ready, for the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers, coast to coast.
Faith is the key, open the doors and board ’em
There’s hope for all, among the loved the most.

And that’s what keeps throwing the torch-bearers of Left (New or Old) and Right (Alt or Old).

Faith is the key.

And within that context–and that context only–there’s hope.

There’s no in between for the believer. The in between is for those Mayfield took on next, those whom all practitioners of the New Testament’s evangelizing faith, Spiritualist, Congregationalist and Calvinist alike, know Jesus promised to spew from his mouth:

There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner.
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own….Believe me now!

Now it’s getting specific. Now it’s down to cases, where belief is the hardest master and true tolerance, the New Testament kind, is the hardest master of all. All those nonbelievers who thought they didn’t need the ticket just because it couldn’t be bought now find themselves right where the Spiritualist minister’s gently remonstrating, jubilee singing grandson wants them: between the rock of “hopeless sin” (i.e., all sin not specifically forgiven by faith in the one God) and the hard place of the belief they might have been forgiven for thinking could be purchased without cost, what with not needing any baggage and all.

Easier still, to get confused, considering that Mayfield and his soulmates (Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, now swapping leads, now in close harmony) have remained cool in the face of Pentecostal transcendence. The sound is seductive, backing the spirit of the original promise.

The sound remains so.

The promise does not.

Have pity on those, whose chances grow thinner
For there’s no hiding place, against the kingdom’s throne

Yes, find the pity within yourself, just before you remind the sinner how pitiless his fate is–a fate that knows no hiding place.

No hiding place from what again?

The kingdom’s throne. That’s what.

The one that brooks no hiding place.

So now the first verse repeats, not as an assurance, but a warning. The nonbelievers who jumped on the train in the first verse are invited to jump off.

So said the prophet in 1965, even if, in later years, he sometimes forgot the force of his own warning….in interviews if not his music.

In 1965, there was a world coming where elections, let alone “debates,” would become affairs devoid of meaning, a jousting between sets of nonbelievers who think paradise, having been transferred by the Reformation (it’s unfair to call it “Protestant” since a Catholic Reformation accompanied it, each multiplying the force of the other into Christian Europes’ five-hundred-year winning streak, for which the slave trade that brought Curtis Mayfield’s ancestors to the New World–and the New Testament–would stand as the serpent in the garden) from the Golden Past to the Golden Future, can now be claimed in the Golden Present, if only we vote the right party to power…or, better yet, eliminate all its opposition!

Curtis Mayfield would have other songs that spoke to the dangers of all that. The Superfly soundtrack wasn’t nearly as far from “there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne” as either Greil Marcus or my Reagan-lovin’ boss at the ad agency thought.

Sad part is, being nonbelievers, they probably still think there’s a hiding place, somewhere, waiting just for them.

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 10: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”)

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (U.S. Version-1965)
Artist: The Animals
Writers: (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil)

CIRCA 1966: Songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil pose for a portrait circa 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

(Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, circa, mid-sixties)

You’ve got to start somewhere.

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” seems to have started as an extra beat in Barry Mann’s ambitious heart.

Barry Mann the wannabe singer that is.

Barry had a big hit in the early sixties with “Who Put the Bomp” one of those great half-serious, half-goofy odes to rock and roll transcendence that occasionally lit up the charts back then. It wasn’t quite as great as Johnny Cymbal’s “Mr. Bass Man,” but it was still pretty darn great. That said, even “Mr. Bass Man” wasn’t quite the sort of record for a singer to build a career on. Too much competition in those halcyon days for “now what” to be the logical question about a follow up.

Besides, everybody knew who Barry Mann was. Barry Mann was a songwriter, and, especially after he met his soulmate, Cynthia Weil, a very great songwriter. (Of the three marriage/partner teams around whom the Brill Building was built, Mann and Weill were the ones who wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the ones whose marriage lasted–they call it art for a reason)

But Mann didn’t exactly give up on his idea of being both a singer and a songwriter. After the advent of the Beatles and the rise of Bob Dylan, he probably started getting ideas. And who could blame him?

If they can do it, why not me?

So he planned and schemed and wrote and used his contacts and his talent to put pressure on the powers-that-be. It wasn’t too long before he secured a recording contract with Red Bird records and decided the demo he was shopping to the Righteous Brothers (as a followup to “Lovin’ Feeling”…there’s run for you) would make his own perfect debut.

Thus he recorded this:

Not bad. Kinda different, which wasn’t the curse in those days it is now. A little murky on the production end, maybe, and Barry Mann wasn’t a Righteous Brother, let alone, two Righteous Brothers. But lots of records of similar quality found their way up the charts even in that hyper-competitive era. It could have happened for Barry.

Certainly what happened next had to leave him wondering if it was his singing career’s great might-have-been.

animals

The Animals, whose producer, Mickie Most, had been slipped a demo by the era’s most ubiquitous hustler, Allen Klein (he’d later end up managing both the Beatles and the Stones), had recorded their own version for the UK market. It had been released there days before Mann’s record was set to be released in the U.S. Mann and Weil’s overseer and friend, Brill Building honcho Don Kirshner came to break the news.

The Animals’ version had come out that week and smashed high on the British charts.

Cynthia Weil had one question.

“How do we keep it from coming out over here?”

Answer:

“We can’t.”

The Animals eventually hit #2 in the UK, with this, the “correct” official version.

Better. It was kept out of the UK top spot by the Beatles’ “Help,” which was the kind of record it took in those days to keep a record like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from climbing all the way up the mountain. In the UK, at least.

If this were the only version that existed, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” might still have become all the things it did become: a trans-Atlantic smash; a permanent oldies’ staple in both countries; something close to the official anthem of Viet Nam grunts stuck in the jungle mud, forever being asked to take some plot of ground which the brass already fully intended to give back at all costs.

Something funny happened, though, along the way.

Somehow or other, a version that was never meant to see the light of day ended up being shipped to the States and becoming the American hit.

Remarkably, what became to be known as the “U.S. version” was the stronger record (and I’m sure I’m not just saying that because I heard it first and most). The rhythm was tighter. Eric Burdon’s fine original vocal was replaced by one of his fiercest yowls. The slightly langorous space around the beat was squeezed out. The distance between lament and fury was squeezed out along with it.

More than all that, two key lyric changes were made (they’d already improved slightly on Mann’s original). One of the changes was real: “Watch my daddy in bed a dyin'” became “See my daddy in bed a dyin'” which was, as Mark Twain might have had it, the lightning bug turned into lightning, not to mention a lot more singable.

But I have to confess it was the other lyric change, the “imaginary” one, that always grabbed me.

At the top of Mann’s version, the “real” lyric was clearly “In this dirty old part of the city,” and, in the subsequent UK and “live” versions, Eric Burdon clearly sang those words.

But what I heard for years, in the “U.S.” version–and what I hear now, is the far more forceful and poetic “In the still eye of the city.”

Or, if you like:

“in the still-l-l-l EYE of the city…”

Now, I know those aren’t the real words. No lyric sheet anywhere on the internet suggests such a change. No live version Burdon has sung, from the mid-sixties to yesterday, that I can find on YouTube, suggests he ever so much as thought of singing any words except “In this dirty old part of the city.”

Even the recorded UK version doesn’t quite suggest it, though if you listen close you could almost get confused.

But the U.S. version–the one most Americans heard for two decades, before the CD releases began and Klein, still owning the master, began insisting on the “proper” version being the only version–exchanges all that clarity for another sort of clarity.

Namely, that, whatever technological trick (or malfunction) was applied to the accidental release–whatever splicing or compression gave my ear “still eye” where “dirty old part” should have been, doubled the record’s power and turned “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from a really good record into something that actually deserved everything it became.

These days, you can find the “U.S.” version on a comp or two (2004’s Retrospective has it for sure). You can also hear it on YouTube…

..and, of course, you are free to hear it any way you want. Just don’t think you’re gonna change what I hear.

That’s hardly where the story ends. In whatever version,  “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” went as many places, affected as many lives, as any record ever has.

The most interesting story I ever heard was some years back on Public Radio. Mann and Weil were being interviewed by Terry Gross, and, inevitably, the subject of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” came up. Gross was well aware of the song’s history and pressed them for details on their feelings about having what was supposed to have been Mann’s big shot at a solo career effectively pulled from under him by a twist of fate.

About that, Mann waxed philosophical. Regrets, sure, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t had a great life.

Then Gross asked if he preferred his own version to the Animals. Mann danced around the question for maybe two minutes before conceding that, yes, maybe the Animals’ version was better. It became the hit, after all.

Eventually, he quit talking.

Without being asked, Cynthia Weil immediately added:

“I prefer the version by Barry Mann.”

After which I no longer needed to wonder why theirs was the marriage–and the partnership–that lasted.

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 9: “(He’s) The Great Imposter”)

“(He’s) The Great Imposter”
1961
Artist: The Fleetwoods
Writers: Sharon Sheeley, Jackie DeShannon

GREATIMPOSTER1

(NOTE: This might also be titled “More Scenes from an Actual Boyhood,” in keeping with my series of occasional push-backs against the incipient nihilism that, for me, defined the movie Boyhood. It now surpasses my Patty Loveless piece as the longest I’ve written for this blog…never say I didn’t warn you!)

In the spring of 1974, in the space of a single school day, I got my friend Bryan elected president of our middle school and hooked him up with the hottest girl in seventh grade.

The last words he said to me as we were being separated by the kids crowding toward the buses were:

“I’m gonna kill you!”

Coincidentally or not, I left both politics and matchmaking the following day, never to return.

Best to quit while you’re ahead.

Oddly enough, that wasn’t even close to the strangest thing that happened to me that day.

And therein lies a tale.

*   *   *   *

Sometimes the way you know somebody is complicated.

The way I knew Bryan was this:

When I was a very small child–four, five, six, like that–my dad, between his careers as a carny and a preacher, was a paint contractor. Somewhere around that time, he landed an ongoing arrangement with a local architect. That’s a nice deal for a contractor. Plenty of guaranteed work, especially in those halcyon days when the NASA-fueled Space Coast was up and coming (this was the early to mid-sixties) and the Old Florida was being consumed by the New Florida at gerbil-wheel speed and with about as much sense of proportion or higher purpose.

Anywhere from Titusville to Cocoa Beach to Melbourne, condos and housing developments were sprouting like spring violets, only faster and year round.

Hence, for a paint contractor, a prominent architect’s contract was nothing to sneeze at.

The architect had a son, Craig. He and I were the same age and my mother was already in poor enough health to make looking after me a trial, so it was deemed a good thing all around for me to spend a lot of the days when my dad was working for Craig’s dad at their very cool and very large River Road house. We got tight, Craig and me. Our families even got tight, as much as could happen across white collar/blue collar lines in that time and place, given that Craig’s mom was something of a social climber. And, for a few years, so it went.

Then, one day, when I was maybe six, my dad came home and told my mom that Craig’s dad had asked him to paint up some condemned houses he had somehow acquired because that way he could get a buddy of his at the county inspection office to give them a wink-and-nod clean bill of health and sell them at a profit as opposed to bearing the expense of knocking them down. This was probably business as usual for that time and place, but my dad was troubled enough to run the proposition by my mom.

As anyone who ever knew my mother could have told anyone who didn’t: That was the end of that.

No more contracts from Craig’s dad. No more family visits. No more playing with Craig.

So the years went by.

I probably thought about Craig once in a while, but I had lots of friends in those days, and he went to private school (expensive!) and I went to public school (free!), so I got over it soon enough. First grade came and went and then so did second and third and fourth grades.

Then fifth grade came along and I showed up for the first day of school and went out to P.E. for second period and looked across the old school yard and, lo and behold, there was somebody who looked an awful lot like…Craig?

So I said: “Craig?”

And he said: “John?”

And, as kids will sometimes do, we picked up right where we left off.

This wasn’t necessarily a given. Kids can change a lot between 5/6 and 10/11. And who knew what he had been told about what went down between our fathers?

Plus, he was a whiz kid. And a natural leader.

I was just a guy. But I did get good grades. I had my mom to thank for that. She couldn’t keep up with me when I started running around so she had me sit still and taught me to read and write when I was three. By the time I got to school, I was able to give a stronger impression of book smarts than just about anyone who lived in my neighborhood and, in those days, that was how they separated you at school. By test scores and grades and such–and, not surprisingly, those qualities broke down pretty closely along neighborhood lines.

The upshot of this was that I spent the first four grades hanging with the NASA kids at school. NASA kids came from NASA parents, or, more specifically, NASA dads–a type known everywhere, but especially highly concentrated in this time and place of whence I speak–and they were under what you might call a very particular kind of pressure.

You didn’t hear too much about Type A personalities back then, but, on the proving grounds lying between Titusville and Cocoa Beach and Melbourne, we were familiar with the concept.

I mean, if you heard about an umpire and a Little League manager getting into a heated discussion over whether the manager’s ten-year-old bat boy was removing the bats from the field of play with sufficient speed and efficiency, and if the umpire was said to have then picked up one of the offending bats and heaved it over the nearest fence (reports varied as to whether he had taken any real care to make sure it didn’t hit anybody) and the umpire and the manager were said to have soon afterwards ended up throwing punches and rolling on the ground, you pretty much just shrugged and said, “Yep, NASA dads.” (My first-year Little League manager and my second-year Little League coach, both gone on to higher things by then, pulled this off in my third year. The Bad News Bears had nothing on us!)

If some girl in our fourth-grade class went home with an A+ on an Earth Science exam and her parents showed up at the principal’s office the next day demanding to know how the school that was being supported with their tax dollars could possibly give an A+ on an Earth Science test to a little girl who couldn’t answer any of the questions they had naturally put to her in order to see how much she was really learning, you pretty much just went, “Yep, NASA parents.”

If some “visiting” coach showed up at your Babe Ruth field and made you (and by “you” I mean me) practice turning the double-play seventy-two times in a row while all the kids he didn’t like stood around and watched….well, you just had to keep reminding yourself we didn’t beat the Russkies to the moon by sending a bunch of shirkers across the Indian River every morning!

I guess what I’m saying is, we thought the NASA kids were driven. Very tough stuff. Very high end.

And they were.

But it wasn’t until the private school kids showed up that we understood what max-driven really meant.

The reason the private school kids suddenly showed up at our school was that their parents all had contracts with the private school (grades one through six) when the private school found itself in budgetary straights. This caused the private school to renege (or so all the parents said) on the contracts, which had stipulated that if you had two kids in the school at the same time, the second one was half-price (or maybe it was free–the memory hazes) until the first one graduated. When the school changed the contracts, the parents, who were mostly doctors and lawyers and, yes, architects, decided if they all stuck together they could get the school to back down. They stuck together, alright, and those budgetary restraints must have been real, because the school did not back down. That was how Craig and David and A.J. and Julie and Lea and Bryan and all their little brothers and sisters ended up in public school at the start of the fifth grade.

And, because I had been friends with Craig when we were four-five-six, I was suddenly more or less friends with most of them, too.

Including, of course, Bryan, who I would one day do such great things for….

*    *   *   *

In those days–four, five, six right on up to eleven, twelve, thirteen–I belonged everywhere.

I belonged in the neighborhood. I belonged at church. I belonged at the ball park. I belonged at my friend Paul’s house. I belonged in whatever trailer park was in walking distance if it had a kid my age who liked to shoot hoops or throw any sort of ball around. I belonged with the NASA kids and I even belonged, finally, with the private school kids.

I pretty much took all that for granted in those days, though I realize in retrospect it wasn’t something just anybody could have pulled off. I was counted shy and that actually worked to my advantage, because I was one of those who was counted shy, “until you get to know him.”

Which everybody did, eventually, because if you stuck me anywhere in the matrix of neighborhood-school-church-ball park, there was enough overlap for me to just about always have an in by virtue of knowing somebody from another part of the matrix. The thing with Craig was mere serendipity, but the rest was more or less inevitable, given who I was and where I was.

So I can’t say “belonging” with the private school kids felt other than natural, even if it was a little weird sometimes to be the only one at the lunch table who had taken a hundred and six on an extra credit test when a hundred and ten was available. (Even if I only heard, “So, uh, what’s the problem there Ross?” twice a year, it was, all of a sudden, two more times than my previously laid-back self wanted to hear it.)

If anything nonplussed me, it was the constant maintenance of different veneers, depending on circumstances, while holding on to my basic personality. I managed it well enough, probably because I didn’t actually know any other way to be. Of course, there were awkward moments here and there, but I didn’t really think about it unless I had to. (The toughest instance of being forced up against it–of “having to”–came in junior high, when it became increasingly evident to the others in the private school gang that I wasn’t being invited to my friend Craig’s cool house on the River Road for various social events that tended to gather there because even the other private school kids didn’t have, you know, a cool house on the River Road. I’m sure some of them had swimming pools–I’m betting none had a dock. Finally, one day, somebody–my friend Bryan if memory serves–ended a long discussion at the Monday lunch table of how much trouble they had finding a sixth to make an even number for a bowling party that had launched from Craig’s cool house the Saturday before by suddenly giving me a very quizzical look and asking “Why didn’t we just call John?” Seeing that my friend Craig looked as though he wanted to dig a hole in the lunch room tile and crawl in, I quickly conjured a white lie about not being able to come anyway because I was doing such and such that day, implying that Craig knew all about this beforehand. We never talked about it, then or later, but a few months later my friend Craig signed my yearbook, “To my life-long friend” and underlined “life-long,” so, if I never knew what he had been told about what happened between our dads, I knew, and always had, the only thing worth knowing. He didn’t care any more than I did. When it came to belonging everywhere, I’d have to say the good generally far outweighed the bad.)

*   *   *   *

I bring up this history to give you some idea of what my world was like when my friend Bryan showed up in our afternoon typing class on the first day of the second semester of the eighth grade and started mooning over “the new girl in chorus.”

Even being the one who belonged everywhere–the one who could move easily between worlds, who could needle and be needled mercilessly without dropping the usual stitch or tramping on the usual nerve-endings, the only one, really, in any of my worlds, who truly got along with everybody in any given world, let alone betwixt and between–I still couldn’t see where this one was headed.

Since the time I had first known Bryan in the fifth grade, I’m pretty sure he had never been without a girlfriend for more than a few weeks at a stretch. Even if it wasn’t really that way, it seemed that way. Bryan always had a girlfriend and she was never anybody we went to school with. It wasn’t something he bragged about, or even talked about much. You just always knew he had one. (Okay, he tended to talk about not having a girlfriend when he didn’t have one–he just didn’t talk about the ones he actually had when he had them. With my friend Bryan, having a girlfriend was actually normal. Not having a girlfriend seemed as weird to him as having one would have seemed to the rest of us.) When he broke up with his latest, just before Christmas break in the eighth grade, our friend Bob, who we had met in the seventh grade (different elementary schools, though I had played baseball against him in Little League), wanted to bet me–or somebody–that Bryan would have a girlfriend by the time we came back to school.

The rest of us had known Bryan a lot longer than Bob had. No takers.

So it was wild enough that Bryan had even arrived at the beginning of the second semester of the eighth grade bereft of a current squeeze. But to hear him talking that way about a girl who actually went to our school and apparently had just moved there was almost surreal. Naturally, we wanted details!

And we got them. You know, at least to the limits the average eighth grade vocabulary can accommodate such.

We got that she had long brown hair and gorgeous brown eyes and a slammin’ body and, was, you know, just generally a fox (the word we used then, which these days has been replaced in the common parlance by words like “hottie”–yet more proof, if anyone needs it, that God has turned His back).

Hey, what else did we need to know?

Nothing, that’s what.

Well, maybe find out her name. Just to help out our friend Bryan of course.

So it did put us on a mission. Any girl who had impressed Bryan at all, let alone so profoundly, was definitely worth going on a mission for.

It turned out, though, that discovering her name was no easy task.

Eighth Grade Chorus was too big for roll call (the teacher checked a seating chart), so that was no good. None of the girls Bryan was tight with (not a few, though they were mostly uptown types) seemed to know who she was or where she had come from. And, of course, he didn’t want to lose any all-important cool points–with us, with himself, but especially with the fox herself–by being seen to act too eager.

So, for a time, we were stuck.

Certainly none of the rest of us had noticed any mysterious brown-eyed foxes walking the halls or showing up in our other classes. We had a bona fide mystery on our hands.

The mystery went on for a while. I’m gonna say until some time in February at the very least. Day after day, Bryan would walk through the door of the typing room. Day after day, we would eagerly crane our necks, hoping for a sign. Day after day, we would be met with a glum shake of the head. No further intelligence. Day after day, then, of desultorily working our way through our typing assignments before convening to the corner where the fast-typing kids could gather and converse if they kept it quiet while the slow-typing kids finished their assignments. Day after day of Bryan assuring us, in his world-wise manner, that this girl “just has something!”

What can I say? We were stuck in the Florida public school system, being experimented on with classes like “Worthy Use of Leisure Time” (I only wish I was making that up). We needed something to keep us going. Conjecturing about the brown-eyed goddess in Bryan’s Eighth Grade Chorus class beat anything else available.

And then, one day, patience was rewarded! The glum shake of the head was replaced by a can-do smile and a firm nod. There was palpable excitement. Some sort of breakthrough had clearly occurred. We raced through our assignments (well, the boys anyway…Lea, Cheryl, Nanette? Not so interested.) Whoever got there first, Bryan made him wait. David, Bob, me, we all had to be there for the “announcement.”

“I found out her name!” he said when we were at last fully assembled. Big news. How did he find out? “Well, she was walking out the door after class and somebody called her name and she turned around and answered so I know it was her!”

And….

“Her name is Michelle!”

And then I got a very funny feeling. What you might call rather conflicted emotions.

Things I very much wanted to be true and things I wished very much were not true all washed together in a roiling sea. When it came to dealing with the absurdities of life on the eighth grade level, I suddenly found I was not as far above the average as I liked to think.

Nonetheless, if what I thought was true was really true, I knew I had to come clean.

Maybe if my friend Bryan had walked into typing class back in the first week of January and thrown this name at me I could have teased him a bit, led him on. But with all this water under the bridge, I knew I had responsibilities. Sometimes belonging everywhere carries some burdens along with the rewards.

First, though, I had to be sure of my information.

So I said:

“Uh, what was she wearing?”

Very slight incredulous pause…Then:

“You know her?…You know her!”

Boy, my friend Bryan. He was quick on the uptake.

“Well, maybe…Uh, what was she wearing?”

Now, I don’t remember anymore what she was wearing, my friend Michelle, but whatever information that my friend Bryan relayed on the subject, it did indeed fit the description of what she was wearing when she got on the bus that morning.

So I said: “Bryan, there’s good news and there’s bad news….”

*    *    *    *

Sometimes, the way you know somebody is extremely complicated.

The way I knew my friend Michelle was this:

When I was maybe ten (or could it have been nine? surely it wasn’t eight–the memory hazes), Michelle’s mother brought her five kids to our church. Her mother had a problem of sorts, the fact of which, not the specifics, was somehow conveyed to my mother, as all problems in our church or neighborhood tended to be if they involved needing a spiritual rock to lean on.

I gathered pretty quickly that part of the problem might have involved food and clothing.

Shelter they had, if squeezing a woman and five kids (oldest something like twelve, youngest something like four) into a seventeen-foot Airstream parked fifty feet from US 1 could be called shelter. “Money problems” was probably the fairest way to put it. I also gathered my mother might have helped them with this in some way or other. It’s possible that, if she did, they themselves never knew it as that was how she preferred to operate. It’s also possible they knew it very well. Certainly from that very first day they would hear no word against her.

Beyond that, they could sing. My mother was a choir director (adult all the time, youth when nobody else could be found, which was most of the time) and she loved anybody who wanted to sing–who didn’t need to be coaxed and cajoled.

Michelle’s family liked to sing and they were very good at it. They were all very good at it and they all liked it, but Michelle was a good bit better than very good and liked it best of all. So, once it was pretty well established that they were going to be around for a while, there was a lot of rehearsing going on at my house. Solos, duets, trios, mother-daughter, sister-sister, Michelle’s mother and my mother, Michelle and her mother, Michelle and my mother and so on and so forth.

A few years down the road, of course, that singing talent got Michelle promoted from the seventh grade chorus to the eighth grade chorus over Christmas break.

It turned out the brown-eyed goddess was Michelle from the neighborhood, whose older brother had gotten along with Bryan like a cat and a dog back in the fifth grade before he got moved up a grade.

Had to tell Bryan that part right off. No hiding it.

Then I had to make some decisions about what else to tell him.

I figured it was safe to share that the goddess was actually a month older than me, though a grade behind. (“She’s not stupid is she?” Bryan asked somewhat incredulously. I was able to answer in the negative. Honor roll in fact. Probably better grades than him or me. “She got kept back a grade because her family moved around a lot,” I said and left it at that. If Bryan got the idea her family was military or NASA or some other standard narrative of constant moving about with which we were all too familiar, then it was an idea I let him keep. I had my friend Michelle to consider at this point and I realized, maybe for the first time, that I wasn’t the only one who had to work at belonging everywhere.)

There were some things I didn’t share, then.

If you were playing touch football and she got by you there was no sense chasing her. She was gone.

Figured he could find that out for himself.

Her family still lived in a trailer park, though in a much nicer one (her mom had remarried). Nothing anybody needed to know there. Bryan was a private school kid but I didn’t think he cared. If he did, I didn’t want to find out (turned out he didn’t, by the way).

Oh, and one other thing.

About a year after they had moved in up the road from us and I started going up there in the afternoons to play those football games with her and her brothers and whoever else was interested on any given day–about a year after they took me in as one of their own, a degree of trust they extended to me and my mother and, so far as I could tell, no one else–Michelle’s mother came to my house one afternoon when I wasn’t there and told my mother what the real problem (the problem behind all the “money problems”) was, after which, Michelle’s brothers were free to come play at my house, but I wasn’t to go to the trailer park again until further notice.

Naturally, I asked why, and was told two things: First, I didn’t need to know just now and my mother would tell me when she could. Second, I wasn’t to tell anyone else about this new arrangement.

It all had to do with their father showing up a week or two before.

I had seen him a couple of times already, before “the visit” from Michelle’s mom. And he was a sight to behold.

Michelle’s mother was probably in her late thirties–a tall, dark, handsome woman with five gonna-be tall, dark and handsome kids (including, of course, one goddess-in-the-making). Her father looked to be about five feet four and easily sixty, though, of course, he could have been a good deal younger. No telling what chain-smoking and stress will do to the complexion and, as it turned out, he had some real good reasons for experiencing stress. He had extremely watery, pale blue eyes which were greatly magnified by coke-bottle lenses. His hands were palsied and his breathing had an even worse version of my mother’s occasional death rattle in it, except his were not occasional. He seemed like a decent stick to me, the time or two I saw him. And he clearly loved his kids to death and they clearly loved him no less.

The story I got eventually–not right away, but long before I was in a position to decide just what my friend Bryan strictly needed to be told about my friend Michelle–was that he was a top counterfeit man (or maybe accountant) for some crime syndicate.

The memory hazes and the original information wasn’t exactly crystal clear but it was something along those lines.

Evidently, he was wanted by the FBI or the Treasury Department or the Secret Service. One of those. Anyway, he had come above ground because he was dying of emphysema or lung cancer–one of those–and he wanted to see his kids one last time.

Michelle’s mother had warned my mother to keep me away because she didn’t want to risk my being caught up in the inevitable visit from the Federales, which, not too long after, did indeed come to pass, conducted by whatever service was in charge of catching him (Treasury, if memory serves).

He died not long after. Whether in prison or at home on bail is, you guessed it, hazed by memory and, I now find, beyond the powers of Google to recover. After which Michelle’s mother got on with her life.

How much of the story I got was really true?

Who knows.

Some of it certainly. Maybe a good bit of it. Probably not all of it (how rarely, after all, at ten or any other age, do we get the whole truth and nothing but the truth). But, true or not–whole or not–it was what I knew at the time and it was one more thing I figured my friend Bryan did not need to know several years down the line.

Not from me anyway.

After that, back there in the typing room, it was all logistics.

Mainly: Did I just know her, or did I really know her?

“Trust me,” I said. “I really know her. That’s the good news.”

“Okay,” Bryan said. “So what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is she has a boyfriend.”

Boy, nothing crushes the old can-do spirit like the specter of the hottest girl in the seventh grade turning out to be tight with one of your best friends and then discovering, just a breath or two later, that she might be tied down for life, because, as we all know, those junior high romances are forever!

Well, we all do know that, in junior high, they feel like forever, at least when they involve the object of your particular desire.

We had come a long way down this road. I felt the need to offer Bryan some hope, and to make it sound like real hope, springing forth from a fount of hard-earned wisdom, even though it was really just a hunch.

I was in the eighth grade myself after all.

So when Bryan said, inevitably:

“So who is he?” which, of course, in the eighth grade and beyond, is always code for “Who is he and what can we do about him?” I was able to say, “Well, he’s this kid named Drew. He lives down in Melbourne and I don’t think you have much to worry about because he’s a jerk,”–at which point my friend Bryan perked up a bit, as if to say more, more and I was able to add, confidentially–“Look, I know Michelle. She’s been going with him for a couple of months and the only reason she hasn’t seen through him yet is because she only sees him on Sundays at church and then she goes over to his house for dinner or something. He’s one of those who puts on a show for the grownups and the girls.”

“So you think there’s a chance she’ll break up with him?” Bryan said, very cheery all of a sudden.

“Yeah,” I said. And I suddenly realized that I actually believed it. I did know Drew and I certainly knew Michelle and there was no way it was going to last. “Give it another month, maybe two.”

“And you’ll let me know right?”

Naturally, at this point, I looked around the table and kept my expression dead pan.

“No, Bryan,” I said. “I’ll do everything in my power to keep you from ever finding out.”

We had all been under a lot of strain. Highly irrational, eighth grade-style hilarity ensued.

*    *   *   *

So March came around and Michelle, for reasons she certainly did not discuss with me (I was very careful not to ask, she was equally careful not to tell), broke up with Drew the Jerk.

And then things got complicated.

Maybe Bryan got cold feet. Sure there had been lots of girlfriends but this was the brown-eyed goddess! This, it seemed, was different. None of that just having me put in a good word for him. No simple junior high wing-man stuff. Too risky. There had to be some grander, utterly foolproof plan. Failure was not an option!

Whether or not this in any way affected his decision to run for president of the school-wide, very-big-deal, mock political convention our social studies’ teachers had latched onto as a proper means of teaching us about the true value of the political process in the Age of Watergate, I have no idea. I mean, I assured him that Michelle was not the sort to be impressed by such things–and he actually liked hearing that even if he may not have quite believed it–but I’m not really sure I got through to him.

Besides, he and I had a track record of success, politically speaking.

As I mentioned above, we had gotten tight in the fifth grade. In the sixth grade he ran, successfully, for president of the student council (which was the closest thing to being president of our elementary school) and I had been his campaign manager.

The fact that I belonged everywhere had come in very handy in the sixth grade. I think Bryan had an idea it would come in very handy again.

There’s no need to go into too much detail on this front, because, of course, this post is really about a song by the Fleetwoods called “(He’s) The Great Imposter.”

Suffice it to say that my belonging everywhere mattered a lot less in our middle school that was fed by five elementary schools, three of which didn’t come anywhere near overlapping with any of my other worlds, than it had in our own elementary school. What did matter, as it turned out, was that Bryan was a popular kid and I just happened to discover a hidden gift for being a hellacious political operative, a rare combination of practical math whiz and go-for-the-jugular, bare-knuckled dirty tricks groin-puncher who, once I had the math nailed down as the first ballot droned on (and it became evident that Bryan was going to come second to another popular kid from a bigger elementary school, but a runoff would be required for a majority), started hanging around the Teachers-In-Charge (the day’s equivalent of back room political bosses) over by The Big Table (our version of the proverbial smoke-filled room).

The big bosses were very concerned that we wouldn’t have a winner before the day was out.

This was a rather big deal, since the school board had only approved letting everyone out of class for the entire day on the condition that the day ended precisely on time. Given that the local paper had the weekend section reserved for us and local television and radio were there to, you know, announce and interview the winner, let’s just say the specter of school-wide embarrassment loomed. Not to mention the end of all similar future projects!

We had a Secretary and a Treasurer and a Veep.

It wasn’t going to look too good if the victory picture had a blank spot where the Prez was supposed to be.

Knowing this much, and spying the enemy’s (the civilized notion of “opponent” was long gone by then) campaign manager wandering about trying to gather up stray votes in states where his candidate already had large, solid majorities, I spent my energies getting the bosses to enact a small rules change. Whoever got the majority in a particular state got the entire state. Block voting would replace proportional voting. Probably not exactly the way the Bull Moosers (for whom our convention had been named) had done it, but the Bull Moosers never had to be on the bus home by 3:30 either!

It would definitely make things go faster. They could announce the change between the first and second ballots.

Good. Because, by then, I would have the swing states who had voted for the candidates who wouldn’t be on the second ballot–and the states Bryan had won only by a vote or two–all wrapped up.

It took some legwork. I started following the bosses–er, teachers–who were spreading out to inform the various state chairmen of the impending rule change, suggested by me, and I kept on following them until I had the headcount I needed.

Then I went back to the head boss (Mrs. C, this is such an unfair description of you!) and said, oh yeah, one other thing.

And what was that?

Well, if we wanted to be sure we were done on time, we better also make it against the rules for anybody who had already committed to either candidate to change their mind.

Fair enough. Made sense.

Votes promised were votes delivered!

As the results of the first ballot were being announced I did a quick recount of what the second ballot was going to look like.

Various party chairpersons had already promised me enough votes to win.

The people had spoken!

After that, I repaired to the back of the gym, put my feet up and smiled beatifically whilst my friend Bryan, stuck on the podium with no idea whatsoever as to what I had been up to, gave me various incarnations of the evil eye.

 *    *    *    *

And that is where my friend Michelle came looking for me about an hour later as my candidate, aka her not-quite-secret admirer, rolled toward victory.

“So,” she said, after she had sat next to me for a few minutes and we asked about each other’s moms and so forth. “It looks like your candidate’s gonna win.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”

Then she congratulated me or something along those lines and I accepted it with a weary smile.

I didn’t brag about my shenanigans.

I had a pretty good idea she wasn’t there to talk about me.

“I hear he’s interested in me,” she said pretty soon after that.

At which point I was able to smile again and say, yes, he was very definitely interested in her.

“Does he really want to go steady?”

Easier and easier.

“Yep, he really does.”

“Well,” she said, “what kind of guy is he?”

I liked that she trusted me.

It was only a long time after that I realized this trust might be an especially valuable thing, given what I knew and what she knew that I knew and given that we were each, in our own way, tasked with belonging everywhere.

Whatever I failed to realize at the time, though, it made me genuinely happy to tell her that my friend Bryan was indeed a good guy. And to mean it. And to know that she knew I meant it. That I, who had teased her relentlessly on a thousand other days, wouldn’t put her on about a thing like that.

I figured that was it. Last hurdle cleared. She had finally gotten to know Bryan a little bit in chorus (or to put it more accurately, Bryan had finally gotten to know her). Just the week before, he had told me that he brought my name up for the first time and mentioned that he was a friend of mine and that this little revelation had gone over very well. It all had the feeling of tumblers clicking into place. It probably wasn’t the way I would have gone about it, but I figured–correctly no doubt–that my friend Bryan knew a lot more about this romance stuff than I did.

So I was a little surprised to find that there was one more hurdle.

Right out of the blue, she said:

“He’s not anything like Drew is he?”

I mean, of course I assured her he was nothing like Drew. And, of course this was true.

And, of course, this turned out to be the thing she really wanted to know–and that she really wanted to hear from me.

By which I mean from me, specifically.

As in: I wouldn’t have expected it from anybody else regarding the whole Drew thing, but you should have warned me.

Maybe that wasn’t exactly the way she meant it, tone-wise, but that was the way I heard it.

Which was odd, because, to tell the truth, there was no way for her to know that I knew anything at all about Drew. I knew Bryan didn’t tell her, because there was no way he was on that kind of footing with her yet. (Given that the footing in question was the kind where you feel comfortable enough to start talking about your junior high crush’s old boyfriends, he probably never would be, if he knew what was good for him. But, in any case, he certainly wasn’t there yet.)

I knew I hadn’t told her.

I knew Bryan didn’t know anybody in the worlds Michelle and I shared–the neighborhood, our church–well enough to have leaked anything accidentally.

I certainly hadn’t told anyone else who could have told her.

And God knows she had never seen me hanging around with Drew himself because, well, that had never happened.

And yet, somehow, she knew that I knew.

About Drew.

You know: The Great Imposter.

*    *    *   *

Sometimes, the way you get to know somebody is by glancing off each other at the slightest of tangential angles, barely leaving a mark.

The way I got to know Drew was this:

Our church had a revival.

Not in name only. Those happen all the time. At least once a year in any self-respecting Southern Baptist congregation.

Usually, a “revival” is a ritual. A chance to hear a different preacher than your own for a few days. Maybe take up an extra offering or two. Put a few conversions and rededications on the books. Possibly even add a new member or two.

This particular revival was different. It was the only revival I was ever part of that was actually a revival–the Holy Ghost sweeping in, allowing no one present to indulge the safety of denial.

Ours was a small church, pulling maybe sixty people a week at the time.

Ours was also a wounded church. Deeply wounded.

We had been founded as a mission by a larger church in the early sixties (a church whose pastor through most of my childhood, eventually to be referred to by my mother as simply, “that puke,” would one day be a leader in the unholy movement that bound evangelical bodies to the Republican Party, an unmitigated disaster for both sides, but that’s another story for another day). After we became a full-fledged congregation, officially part of the Southern Baptist Convention, with my mother (though not my father, who converted only years later) as a charter member, the church grew for a while and then it split.

Then it reformed and began growing again. And it grew for a while and then it split.

Then it reformed and…well, you know what happened next.

Only the last time it happened, this most recent time, had only been a couple of years earlier and it had been the most painful of all, in part because we thought we had been experiencing a genuine revival then!

We had fallen for the oldest trick in the book–a charismatic preacher with something to gain!

That part might have been easy to guess. But the part we didn’t get right was that we thought we were the gain.

It turned out he had other fish to fry, but in order to fry them properly he had to hook them first.

So hook us he did.

He was Brother Herbert (actually Dr. Herbert but, for some reason “Doctor” always went with a last name–I never once heard anyone call him Dr. Herbert–and I’m not going with last names here because this thing called the internet has a long reach and, even though I know for a fact he’s now gone to his reward, I don’t want to dignify his memory with honorifics) and, like I said, he was charismatic.

Charismatic enough to double the membership (yet again). Charismatic enough to lead my father back to Christ. Charismatic enough to lead me to Christ. Charismatic enough to bring Michelle’s whole family into the fold. Charismatic enough to baptize us all.

Charismatic enough to lead my father into the ministry and get him ordained by our deacons.

Very, very charismatic.

Savvy, too.

He waited until he thought he had a solid majority before he made his big move, which was to convince the congregation to change our affiliation from Southern to Independent Baptist.

He probably did have a majority too. A solid majority.

He only had one problem.

He didn’t have my mother.

And, if he didn’t have my mother, then he didn’t quite have all those women like Michelle’s mother who had, one time or another, needed a rock to lean on.

And that meant he didn’t have a majority after all. Any majority.

Which meant we weren’t going to vote to change our affiliation.

Southern Baptist we would remain.

And that meant Brother Herbert was going to be moving on and taking enough of us with him that we were cut deeper than we had ever been cut before.

The cut was deeper in part because of the sheer numbers–maybe forty people, which is a lot when you start with a hundred.

But it was deeper than that because now, unlike those other times, there was a cult of personality involved. Now, people who had been the closest of friends weren’t merely going to separate churches. They weren’t speaking to each other.

A few of them weren’t even speaking to my mother.

Which meant that, for some of them, there was no more rock to lean on the next time the wind blew.

And the wind will blow.

Life goes on.

Charismatic preachers look around one day and conclude that their work is done. The new flock that broke away from the old flock isn’t meeting in the fire hall any more. They’ve got their own auditorium now and their new affiliation is secure and–as part of a head count designed strictly to increase a flock–they’ve probably reached their limit.

All of which means it’s time to move on and be charismatic somewhere else.

So Brother Herbert left the flock he tore away from us and went somewhere else to carry on with his mission to grow the Independents and the new Independents were left with a new church that was fighting even harder to survive than our church was.

And the wind blew harder. It blew into all their lives and all of ours, but it blew hardest into the life of my mother’s friend Doris, who had left to be part of the new flock and hadn’t spoken to my mother for two years until she called on the phone one day and my mother answered and Doris was crying.

She was crying from pain–because her husband had just been diagnosed with cancer. And she was crying from shame–because she had followed a charismatic preacher to another church and fallen so far under his spell that she had stopped speaking to my mother.

And she was crying from desperation–because she was going to have to live in Orlando while her husband was getting treatments and she had a friend who could take in one of her boys who was in junior high, but no one who could take in the other because he was still in elementary school and had to maintain residence in our school district to avoid being transferred to another school at mid-year, only to be transferred back when her husband either recovered or didn’t.

Above all that, she was crying because she had poured her heart out to someone else who hadn’t spoken to my mother for a couple of years and they had said “Call Barbara,” meaning my can-hardly-breathe, hardly-stand, hardly-see mother, and Doris couldn’t bear the thought of it, because the one thing worse than not having the rock to lean on anymore would have been to crawl back to the rock and find that it was no longer there.

She was crying, then, because she couldn’t possibly see how my mother could take her back.

The only thing my mother couldn’t understand was how Doris could have ever thought she wouldn’t.

“But Doris,” my mother said, when it was clear Doris couldn’t quite believe there was nothing to forgive. “I never left you. I never would.”

When she realized that my mother truly didn’t understand what the fuss was, Doris started crying so hard she had to hang up and call back later.

The upshot was that Doris’ son, Jimmy, several years younger than me, came to live with us for a couple of months.

And from there, from my mother insisting there was nothing to forgive, the healing began.

People began speaking to each other once more, calling each other on the phone, asking for personal forgiveness and the Lord’s. There were shared services.

But there were still two churches. Two buildings. Two congregations.

The wound was too deep to overcome that.

So when Brother Dan–so charismatic he made Brother Herbert seem like a dead jellyfish washed up on one of our beaches–came up from Big City Baptist (I’m being coy, because I’m not naming names, but let’s just say it wasn’t very “big”–or even “city”–except in comparison to us), to preach that year’s revival at our church, we were maybe a little more prepared than usual for that once in a generation arrival of the real thing–the moment when the air comes truly alive.

Whether we were extra well prepared or not, we certainly knew one thing. The Spirit was upon us like never before. And, even when you’ve been fooled before, when it really happens, it is not mistakable for anything else.

Brother Dan preached up a storm and what he preached we were ready–desperate–to hear.

It’s probably safe to say he was of fundamentalist stock, which was a bit unusual for us (though hardly unheard of). He laid down the law, kept it straight and simple, and people flocked forward.

Then they told their friends and family and the friends and the families came in droves and they flocked forward, too. There were conversions and rededications  and new memberships by the score.

The first dreary, ritualistic night Brother Dan took to the pulpit, in the Summer of ‘73 (or thereabouts–the memory hazes), we were pulling fifty of our own (though he brought at least that many more with him.)

Within a week we were breaking a hundred and within a few months we were pushing past two hundred, setting attendance records right and left.

And we had a new sister church in Big City Baptist. A new congregation to meet with, pray with, congregate with, fellowship with and raise our consciousness with.

One of the ways we Baptists like to raise consciousness is by prayer retreats and pretty soon we had one. Our congregation (all ages) and Big City Baptist’s (all ages) retreated to a place called Lake Yale for a weekend of reflection.

At Lake Yale, the grown-ups had their own cabins and the kids had theirs.

The kids had theirs divided by age groups.

And, of course, gender.

That wasn’t exactly where I met Drew. I’d seen him around in all the group-mixing between his church and mine.

But that was where I got to know him. Just a little.

Just enough to know I didn’t need to know him any better.

It wasn’t any big deal really. Drew was a classic say-anything, do-anything, live wire kind of natural leader (a lot like my my friend Craig in that he was a natural, but completely different in that he was also looking for the job, as opposed to having it fall to him in the course of human events). Within the 12–14 age boys’ group at Big City Baptist he was the King, the straw that stirred the drink.

Within our group of boys the same age, we didn’t have a King, or a straw, or a natural leader. We probably all knew each other a little too well for any of that.

At least that’s what I thought.

Drew seemed to think otherwise. Because when he had his Big Idea, there in the boys cabin at Lake Yale, it seemed more than usually important that I, of all people, go along with it.

Or else that my own boys, the boys I had known my whole life, turn on me.

One of those.

Natural leaders who look for the job instead of having it just fall to them are kind of like that. They don’t much care for the idea that somebody–anybody–is going their own way, unless maybe it’s them, in some carefully arranged snit designed to test the Court’s loyalty and, ultimately, draw it closer around.

It was all supremely ridiculous, of course.

And supremely serious.

Another of boyhood’s inevitable tests.

Drew’s Big Idea, which I didn’t so much resist as roll my eyes at, was a Lake Yale Panty Raid to bond us beyond mere fellowship rituals and bible studies.

I have to confess that, to this day, I don’t quite know what a “panty raid” is for. Is the object to see panties? Steal them? Scare the girls who are wearing them?

I swear I didn’t know then and I swear I don’t know now.

If you know, please don’t tell me.

The main thing to bear in mind about panty raids, for the purpose of following this story about “(He’s) The Great Imposter,” is that Drew wanted very badly to lead one.

As a matter of fact he was going to lead one. Anybody who didn’t want to follow clearly risked not achieving favored status at the Court of Drew.

So he tried me on and I yawned him down for two basic reasons.

One was that I wasn’t interested. It sounded kind of stupid and pointless even before Drew announced the target was not the cabin with girls our own age but–rise Spartacus!–the cabin with the high school girls!

Now, I didn’t know much about the high school girls who went to Big City Baptist. But I knew the high school girls who went to our church. I had known them my whole life, too. And I knew if we showed up looking for their panties, the only thing that would keep them from wearing us out, both physically and verbally, was if they died laughing first.

So there was that.

But there was also a second reason–one which might be recognizable to those who have known me since–and that was my natural tendency to belong everywhere having a limit.

All the places I belonged, there was one place I never belonged even a little.

I never belonged to anyone’s Court.

Let’s just say that, when the moment of truth came, the boys I had grown up with–under Drew’s spell to a man, except for me and my friend Ricky–basically told Drew, “You might as well give it up.”

It would be a long time before most of them saw through Drew. But they knew me.

They knew if I said I wasn’t going, the usual taunts weren’t going to make me.

There were some huddled conversations.

I heard the word “chicken.”

Or maybe it was “chicken?”

I heard the word “Naw-w-w-w.”

I heard “He’s just….”

I didn’t hear the rest, if there was any “rest.”

Me and Ricky stayed behind.

The rest of them, Drew’s old Court and his new one, went on the Panty Raid.

Me and Ricky spent half an hour assuring ourselves that we weren’t missing anything, mostly by not talking about it. If I know me and Ricky, we probably talked about baseball instead.

Then we went to sleep.

I didn’t wake up when Drew and his various Courts returned.

I had to wait and hear about the Panty Raid the next morning.

“So how’d it go?” I asked my friends Carson and Bruce, though, judging from the mournful expressions all around, and Drew’s own highly uncharacteristic reticence, I could make a pretty good guess.

“Aw-w,” Carson said. “They locked the doors and shut the windows….We couldn’t get in.”

Bruce nodded. Or grimaced.

“Oh,” I said.

There was no sense pointing out the obvious.

I hadn’t thought of it the night before. It had played no part in my resistance. But in the cold light of day, something besides the morning sun shone clear.

On top of everything else, Drew was a loud-mouth. The kind who gives things away. Apparently, the only people who hadn’t known about the “panty raid” a full day ahead of schedule, were the boys in Drew’s Courts, who had followed so faithfully along the night before.

That’s the grown-ups for you. Always doing reconnaissance. Always keeping an eye out.

Always knowing kids better than they know themselves.

At least that’s how it was back then, when there was still such a thing as a “grown-up.”

It had evidently been decided that the best punishment for Drew was a full day’s worth of high school girls asking him if he had gotten a good night’s sleep and junior high girls assuring everybody that if they thought what the high school girls had in store was something you should have heard what they had cooked up.

If only Michelle had been there.

But she wasn’t. I don’t know why, but I know she wasn’t there because there’s no way she would have been going with Drew a scant few months later if she’d had the glimpse of who he really was that was available for just the briefest of moments that following day.

She never saw that Drew–Drew in defeat, hanging his head, snapping at his Court, looking for scapegoats.

Truth be told, he stayed away from me. But I kept an eye on him. Just for that day. Just to see if he was any better than I thought he was.

He wasn’t.

So, from then on, I knew who he was. But I didn’t tell anyone. I certainly didn’t tell Michelle. Not before she started going with him, which–in the mysterious manner of certain attractive females everywhere, came about without her seeming to be the least bit interested until the day he was walking into church with his arm around her.

And, until the thing with Bryan came along, I never gave it much thought.

Six months, I thought. Tops.

I knew Drew. And I knew Michelle.

I knew Michelle was a good kid, like me, and she’d see through him soon enough.

I also knew half the girls in our church, the ones who had been at Lake Yale and should have therefore known better, were what you might call green with envy.

See, if you didn’t know Drew as anything but the King of his Court–if you weren’t paying close attention that one day he let the mask slip just a little–he was considered quite a catch.

I could hardly begrudge Michelle a catch–a “take that” in the face of all those girls she was competing with who had never given her the time of day because….Well, because she wasn’t really one of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “us.”

She was the second of five kids who had showed up in our church with a single mother who turned out not to really be single but a criminal’s wife (and, believe me, the years hadn’t made him any less of a criminal, or her any less single, second husband or no second husband!)

Somewhere in there, I realized that Michelle, who seemed so naturally sociable, had it harder than me.

Odd a duck as I was, I belonged. At least in the neighborhood and the church, I belonged as much as anyone.

I could choose to join in or stand apart. She could only choose to stand apart. Any joining in had to come by way of an extended hand.

Which never came from anyone but my mother or–by extension–my mother’s son.

I suppose that absence of true belonging might have been part of why Michelle wasn’t on that retreat with the rest of us. Part of why she didn’t get to see Drew at his worst in the Summer of ’73 and had to wait until she saw whatever made her break up with him in the Spring of ’74.

It might not have seemed like so much fun to be on a retreat and stuck in one of the girls’ cabins if you weren’t one of the girls.

There had, in fact, been only one very brief moment when Michelle was such.

It came after one of Brother Dan’s very first sermons–one of those sermons that lit the fire that very first week he came to us a solid year before.

It was the night he preached about pants and dresses.

It was an aside really. He wasn’t the kind to make an entire sermon about men wearing pants and women wearing dresses. He wasn’t the kind that was ineffective and comical in other words.

No, he slipped it in.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said in the middle of his real preaching. “God frowns upon it.”

Men wearing dresses, he meant. And long hair.

And women wearing pants, he meant. And short hair.

“God frowns upon it and I believe it’s wrong.”

Just that. No more. Straight back to preaching.

I honestly didn’t think anything about it. I didn’t imagine that anyone would, what with the Spirit moving through us in so many truly profound ways.

I was not, however, a teenage girl faced with the dread prospect of having to wear dresses to school. Every day. In Florida. In 1973. Like Quakers or something.

So I didn’t take much notice of the knot of girls who gathered outside in the dark after the invitation that night and were whispering, whispering, whispering among themselves with what was obviously far greater urgency than usual.

I did note that it was an odd grouping. Odd because it included all the usuals…plus Michelle.

For once, included, and–not unusual for her in any group where she was included–animated.

A shrinking violet she was not.

But, as I say, I didn’t think much of it, even so.

A quirk. Nothing more.

Who knew what girls got excited about?

Not me, certainly.

I was standing beside my mother, though, and they kept looking over at us. We were gonna be there for a while (my mother and me and probably some of the girls as well) because the leading men of the church (who, by now, included my fully ordained father) were still in the auditorium, down front, counseling the night’s tidal wave of converts and re-commitments and new memberships.

Finally, they fell silent and began moving towards us in one body.

I won’t say their names. It doesn’t matter. They were good kids, too, and if they didn’t take to Michelle beyond the requirements of Christian duty simply because she had dropped in from a world so utterly alien to ours and their mothers weren’t my mother, that’s nothing I can hold them accountable for in that moment or any other.

But I can remember them. I can see them as clearly as I can see the hand in front of my face.

And I can hear them, too.

To a person, they might not have noticed I was alive. They were fixated on my
mother.

“Mrs. Ross,” one of them said, to my mother, the barely-breathing, barely-seeing, barely-standing rock. “Are you gonna wear pants?”

My mother didn’t miss a beat.

She probably knew what they were going to ask before they did. And she probably knew that the one who did the asking would be the very one who resented her most for being a such a hard-ass about things like choir practice.

Anyway she had her answer ready.

“Well,” she said. “I just bought a beautiful new pants suit last week. And I’m sure the Lord wouldn’t want the money I spent on it to go to waste.”

I can see them now, spreading like a flock of sparrows. And I can hear the voices–whispered a moment before, now bold and confident, like they were proclaiming a new  and much-improved Gospel.

“Mrs. Ross says it’s fine.”

“Mrs. Ross is gonna wear pants!”

“Mrs. Ross….”

The case was closed.

Brother Dan held a lot of sway in that moment and rightly so. He had brought the fire.

But his influence only stretched so far.

No mother was going to have to make her daughter quit wearing pants–or quit wearing pants herself.

The real authority had spoken.

And every teenage girl in our church had known–as I, until that moment, had not–who the real authority was.

So, for one moment, Michelle, who loved to sing and was the apple of my mother’s eye, and all those girls who privately, or not so privately, thought my mother was a hard-ass for making them practice so much, were one.

It didn’t last. And I’m guessing that even if it had, there was enough water under the bridge for Michelle to watch Drew the King watching her and think: “Why not?”

Why not have her mother take her down the road to Big City Baptist every Sunday morning? Why not make half the girls in our church (and I do not doubt half the girls in his) jealous?

Why not believe he was who he seemed to be when he was putting on a show for the grown-ups and the girls?

And why not feel like I should have told her who he really was–if indeed I read her right, when she said:

“He’s not anything like Drew is he?”

“No,” I said, knowing my word would count, that we both knew what we both knew, about a lot of things. “He’s nothing like Drew.”

She left it at that. We talked a little while longer, about this and that. Then, eventually, as the vote count mounted ever higher for Bryan–stuck on the podium the while, trying so hard not to pay us the slightest bit of attention and, if you don’t count having his eyes sticking out about a foot from his head and not being able to turn away from us or pay the least bit of attention to his impending victory in the closest thing the school had ever had to a school-wide election, succeeding admirably–she stood up.

“Well,” she said, just before she strolled away. “You can tell him if he asks me, I’ll say yes.

*    *    *    *

So Bryan won the election.

He gave his victory speech. He stayed after for pictures. I think he had to talk to the guy from the radio.

The memory hazes.

Kids kept filing out. Including Michelle.

I stayed, of course.

I thought Bryan might want to thank me or something.

Plus, I figured he would want to hear the news.

You know. The real news.

The whole thing wrapped up around 3:25.

Five minutes to spare!

There were maybe fifty kids left by then. Enough to make a crowd when we all made for the exit.

Bryan fought through the crowd to get to me.

I’m pretty sure a Red Sea full of Egyptian chariots would have constituted no credible barrier at that point.

When we were finally face to face, he had a look on his face I had never seen before.

“Congratulations man,” I said.

He grabbed my shoulder.

“What did she say?”

I decided to keep it simple. It wasn’t my style, but I had a sense of occasion.

“She said yes.”

His eyes narrowed.

“Yes to what?”

The other kids moved around us and we were, at last, alone.

“She asked what kind of guy you were and I told her,” I said. “And she said if you ask her to go steady, she’ll say yes.”

He dropped his hand from my shoulder and that expression I had never seen before deepened. His lips got very tight and he looked me straight in the eye in that way that boys almost never do.

I looked back, smiling.

“You’re lying,” he said.

I laughed. Which was probably the wrong thing to do.

“Bryan,” I said, “I’m not lying. Believe me.”

“You think I can’t tell,” he said. “But I can tell.”

“Bryan, I promise I wouldn’t lie about a thing like this.”

For just a moment–one brief, flickering instant–he seemed almost assured.

“That’s really what she said?”

“Yeah, that’s really what she said.”

He refused to look away and I refused to stop smiling.

I mean, come on. You gotta have a little fun in this life.

He sighed.

“You can’t fool me,” he said. “I know when you’re lying.”

“Bryan….”

It was time to go to the bus.

He pointed his finger in my smiling face, more in sorrow, it seemed, than anger.

“If I find out you’re lying,” he said, “I’m gonna kill you.”

*    *    *   *

Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley–the first truly great and truly successful all-female song-writing partnership in the history of American music (if anyone has joined them since, I haven’t heard about it)–wrote “(He’s) the Great Imposter” in the very early sixties.

It became a modest hit (#30 in Billboard) for the mighty Fleetwoods in 1961.

From which point it has never quite left whatever is left of the nation’s collective conscious.

I probably first heard it in, yes, 1973, when my sister and my brother-in-law took me to see what was, after Gone With the Wind (courtesy my parents) and 2001 Space Odyssey (courtesy my brother who had to explain the ending to me after I fell asleep, hahahahaha!) my first “adult” movie.

americangraffiti3

There was a modest, though I imagine serious, discussion about whether my twelve-year-old self should be allowed to go. It had some cursing in it, apparently, and I think the deal was that my sister would hustle me out of there if anything crossed the line. Or maybe I was just supposed to cover my ears.

Anyway, it turned out there was nothing in it I didn’t hear on the junior high bus (the one I rode with Michelle) every day. Nobody had to cover my ears and I liked the movie very much–I even thought I recognized a lot of the characters as types who went to my own school, maybe saw a little of my future self in the Ron Howard character, was knocked out by Cindy Williams, and genuinely moved by the famous ending.

I was just old enough to wish they’d shown more of the blonde in the Cadillac!

americangraffiti1

One thing that didn’t make much of an impression on me was the music.

By which I mean it really made no impression at all. No song stood out. If anything, I probably found a few spots annoying because I couldn’t hear the dialogue.

That’s a funny admission now. It would have seemed a strange reaction to anyone who knew me even three or four years later.

But in those days, I didn’t know from the fifties–or 1962. I had been born at the tail end of 1960 and, if you don’t count Peter, Paul and Mary, I doubt I knew the chorus to ten “pop” songs that had hit in my lifetime.

In some ways that was good. I certainly missed a lot. But when my personal floodgates finally opened a few years later I was ready to be swept away.

I mention this because I can’t pretend the snatch of “(He’s) The Great Imposter” that plays in American Graffiti made any impression on me at all–even though it’s one of relatively few songs I can say for certain where and when I first heard it.

When did it make an impression? That I know.

It was when the radio died (to my ears anyway) a year or two after I started listening to it in 1975-76. That was when I started haunting bargain bins in places like Woolco or Woolworth’s for the few records I could afford and, modern radio being dead to me, I started moving backwards in time.

Beyond guaranteeing it very definitely wasn’t the cover that grabbed me, I don’t know exactly when this album came home with me….or, beyond me knowing it contained a couple of hits, exactly why:

fleetwoods3

I do know it was sometime in the very late seventies. And that, while I loved the big hits like “Mr. Blue,” and “Come Softly To Me” and “Runaround” and liked all of it, the song that really grabbed me, in that way that never really lets go, was “(He’s) the Great Imposter.”

The song is sung from the perspective of a romantic male who has lost his love to….well, somebody like Drew. I didn’t think about Drew when I heard it. I’d met a few Drews by then. And I had never lost anyone to somebody like Drew because there had never been anyone to lose (and, as it turned out, never really would be, though I didn’t imagine that part then).

But it’s right there in the first line, as it’s written and as it’s sung, everything you need to know about how you will feel, if it’s really love and she really does fall for him when she could have, should have, fallen for you.

Now I went and lost her
To the Great Imposter

This was so completely me–not even the real me, but the imagined me that would actually never come to be–that if you had told me S. Sheeley and J. DeShannon were women (and very young women, at that) when they wrote it, I would have immediately assumed they were geniuses of the first order.

Which, as it turned out, they were, but my point is, I didn’t need to know anything else about them to know that they were already my idea of genius.

I’ve never been able to find out anything at all about the inspiration for the song, or the specific circumstances in which it was written. Did it spring from personal experience? Sharp observation? Theoretical discussion?

Professional diligence?

A deadline maybe?

I really don’t have any clue.

But this is a song, written by very young women, which is telling a story from a very specific male perspective.

Most love songs, whatever their angle, can be sung from the perspective of either gender. Sure some make more sense coming from a woman (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” comes to mind, so does “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” which acquires a stalker edge when sung by a male). But they can still be sung credibly by a man, just by changing a word or two. Same for most songs that make more sense coming from a man (“This Guy’s In Love With You” for example).

Very few make total sense–both lyrically and emotionally–from one perspective and virtually no sense at all from the other. “(He’s) The Great Imposter” is one of those few. And it goes a lot deeper than “her” rhyme-flowing a lot easier than “him.”

I stood and watched her fall,
Couldn’t help her at all”

Oh can’t she see,
tomorrow’s misery?
Soon she’ll learn her fate
But it will be too late

All her friends they just watch her
For they know the Great Imposter.

Note her friends.

Believe me, “all his friends” don’t stand around watching him fall for some girl and pine about it. Maybe one does, if there’s a man-crush thing going on (and a Drew will tend to have one of those lingering about, it’s true, but then, he is the Great Imposter, not the man in the shadows), but not the whole gang. Not even if the whole gang is the actual Imposter’s own Court. It’s not the way boys think. And it’s certainly not the way they admit they think.

And, of course, “he” isn’t going to “fall” and find “misery” in the way a girl will, i.e. by getting pregnant out of wedlock, which is the lyric’s clear implication, even if it couldn’t be spoken when the song was written and first recorded. And that implication would be a thousand times less potent for being made explicit even if the times had allowed it.

So a song that’s less than two minutes long and seems to have one, very direct, perspective, really encompasses a world deep enough to qualify for true, and deep, narrative. Lots of very fine films and novels have offered less.

It’s one of those high school setups, common in early rock and roll but never done better than here, that sets you up for a life time. Anyone with any perception at all can find a way in. Even the Imposter, if, by chance, he ever grows up.

If that’s all “(He’s) the Great Imposter” was, it would just be a great song, written by a couple of great song-writers, and a great record, recorded by a great vocal group.

But that’s not all it is.

That’s just the beginning

*   *   *    *

Listen, I’ve heard the record a thousand times. The first few times I heard it, it cut me to pieces. Any time I laid the record down, I would deliberately let my fingers fall limp, faux causal, pretending I wasn’t going to let it reach me. Every time I lied to myself. Every time it reached me and every time I knew it would. I wanted to stop listening and I wouldn’t have stopped for the world.

Then, one of those early times, I thought of Drew and Michelle and, yeah, maybe me.

And ever since then–thirty-five years or more–it has always cut me to pieces…and always made me smile.

The song has no ending.

There’s doom and finality in some of the lines and, certainly as the Fleetwoods sang it, in that way of theirs that nobody should ever bother trying to follow, in the very air of the thing.

She won’t see through the Imposter in time. The misery will be deep and permanent. The narrator will never find another like her because, well, there is no one like her.

If he does find another, he’ll go around the world to avoid admitting it, even to himself.

But, since the song has no ending, it doesn’t have to remain static, or even abstract.

It could play out a thousand ways.

I knew that by the time I really heard it.

*    *    *    *

A lot had gone by, by then.

The day after Michelle told me she would say yes and Bryan said he would kill me if she didn’t, she said yes.

They were still going steady a few months later when I moved away.

They were still going steady the following summer when I came back for a visit and saw Michelle for the last time.

As far as I ever knew they were still going steady when she moved a few months after that.

And that was that.

We all moved on. Most of us, in the modern American fashion, moved quite literally.

I’m sure Bryan didn’t have too much trouble finding another girl friend, but, for the record, I never saw him again after that spring.

Except for Michelle and the kids at my church I never saw any of them again. After the following two summers I never saw any of them at all.

Last I heard, my friend Craig’s parents still had their cool house on the River Road but, our family relations being what they were, I never dropped in.

Last I heard, some time in the late seventies maybe, my friend Ricky was pitching for a small college in Texas and had just thrown his arm out after going 5-1 with an ERA under 2.00. After that, no word.

Last I heard, my friend Carson’s family had put a chain across their property to separate it from the falling-down trailer park where my friend Bruce used to live when it wasn’t falling down at all. I don’t know if Carson or his family were home. There house was a long way behind that chain. I didn’t bother to honk the horn. I just drove away.

Last I heard, my friend Bruce won a college baseball game on a fine spring night in South Florida with a last inning home run some time in the early eighties. Instead of taking the team bus from Central Florida, he had driven down so he could stay after the game and have dinner with his South Florida girlfriend. On his way home he evidently fell asleep at the wheel and drove full speed into the back of a semi. I heard his parents moved away about a year later because they couldn’t stand the memories looking back at them everywhere. I doubt that the trailer park in front of my friend Carson’s gate going straight downhill thereafter was entirely a coincidence.

I certainly never saw Drew again.

Except in my mind’s eye, whenever “(He’s) the Great Imposter” plays.

I changed and the world changed.

I went from belonging everywhere to belonging nowhere, a status that would ultimately maintain.

I survived. I ain’t complaining.

But sometimes a song is a way back. A way back into the life you had–not as memory but as shared feeling. But, more significantly, a way back into the life you didn’t have and didn’t miss until you realized it had passed you by. Into the roads not taken as the poet famously said. At which point you realize you’d like to have certain chances again, but also realize you probably wouldn’t do anything different because you are who you are, stuck in the same old skin.

Drew was a Great Imposter and Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley nailed him to a tee.

But Michelle wasn’t really the girl in the song. She didn’t really fall (except just hard enough that she might have written a song about it, if she’d grown up to be a songwriter, like maybe Sharon Sheeley or Jackie DeShannon).

Bryan certainly wasn’t the boy in the shadows.

And, like I said before, I wasn’t really the boy in the shadows either. Just the boy who would be, metaphorically speaking. Because I was the boy with the blinders on.

Around the time I really began to hear “(He’s) the Great Imposter” the road turned in such a way that my father, who had, by then, graduated from the bible school that had pulled us away from the Space Coast to begin with in the summer of ’74 and, along with my mother, been appointed a Southern Baptist Home Missionary for North Florida, found himself speaking at the church Michelle’s family attended, somewhere around Jacksonville. They invited him home for Sunday dinner and to spend the afternoon. When Michelle, who was working her way through college, came in, she asked if he had a recent picture of me. It happened that he did. My senior picture.

I won’t say what my dad said she said about me when he showed it to her. It doesn’t matter.

I’ll just say that if I had possessed enough sense to get in the car and drive three hours, instead of sloughing it off, (even though I knew, from the weird, bemused expression in my father’s voice when he repeated what she said, as if he couldn’t quite believe it, that, for once, he wasn’t exaggerating, things he didn’t quite believe being the only things that had that effect on him), I might have gained a whole different perspective on the range of perspectives that make up “(He’s) the Great Imposter.”

That’s how I know it’s greater than anything Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin ever wrote.

Not better. I’m a rock and roller, but I’ll concede nothing’s better than them.

Just greater.

It has space in it. Space for any of its three characters, who might be any of us at one time or another, to grow into.

Sometimes the only reason the boy in the shadows isn’t pining is because he’s too stupid to see what’s in front of his face. I was never in love with Michelle–was happy to play wing-man for someone else and not think twice about it–for the stupidest of all reasons.

She was Michelle from the neighborhood.

I was too blind to see.

It took a decade and Sharon Sheeley and Jackie DeShannon and the Fleetwoods and the Woolco bargain bin and my eighty-dollar turntable to open my eyes.

By then it was too late to do anything but listen to the record one more time and be cut to pieces.

And smile.

Because it wasn’t so much that they–all of them, Sharon, Jackie, Michelle, The Fleetwoods, my mother–knew so much more than I did about guys like Drew, the Great Imposter.

It was that they knew so much more than I did about guys like me.

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 8: “Wake Up Everybody”)

“Wake Up Everybody” (Full-length Version)
Artist: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Writers: John Whitehead, Gene McFadden, Victor Carstarphen

(NOTE: One of my New Year’s resolutions is to renew my commitment to some of my neglected categories here. This particular category was one of my principal reasons for starting this blog and I’m a little taken aback to discover I haven’t added any new entries for over a year. I’ve got the usual excuse: So much to do, so little time, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah! But I hereby resolve to do better…starting now!)

“Wake Up Everybody” is the closest anyone has ever come to putting a full-blown sermon on the charts.

There’s not a lot of critical exegesis available on the song so Dave Marsh’s take in his invaluable The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made is probably as good a place to start as any:

If uniting opposites appeals to you, then you’ll love this fusion of (producers) Gamble and Huff’s spit-polished and intoxicated disco narcissism and Teddy Pendergrass’s gravelly post-gospel sermonizing. Pendergrass’s insistence that “the world won’t get no better if we just let it be” in the face of the arrangement’s full-blown hedonism amounts to a doctoral thesis discrepancy. None of which implies an effective synthesis, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t get one. For instance, that guitar is fiddling with blues figures and Teddy’s singing matter-of-factly modulates between the Temptations’ David Ruffin and the Dells’ Marvin Junior.

Now there’s a lot I disagree with in that paragraph (though I give Marsh enormous credit for taking on what has never been a fashionable assignment–writing about singles, singers generally, and black singers in particular, as though they are deserving of serious exegesis). But the main place the analysis falls apart is in its clear misunderstanding of what, exactly constitutes “sermonizing.”

Because it’s not narcissism–“intoxicated” or otherwise–that’s at work during this winding-and-building seven minute epic (nor, I should add, in the edited-for-45 version which Marsh was specifically critiquing).

The pursuit of healing-through-ecstasy is not the same thing as hedonism and it’s not the same thing as narcissism.

At all.

Teddy Pendergrass’ vocal isn’t at odds with the production, even on the shorter version. And, in the long version, he uses that production as a springboard to vault both himself and anybody who cares to listen into something higher and purer.

Of all the things rock critics tend to misunderstand about the music they cover, their utter incomprehension of “gospel”–as either musical style, life experience or, you know, expression of actual religious faith–surely runs deepest.

When you are after redeeming a lost world, bringing light to the darkness, sustaining hope in the face of personal, communal or societal despair–when you carry the specific personal and communal burden of knowing none of this higher ground will be reached by anyone, ever, unless you reach it first–there are times when you have to abandon sense.

Occasionally, a preacher trying to reach his flock, simply has to find some way of saying, “Free your heart, and your mind will follow.”

So “Wake Up Everybody” is one of the deepest spiritual records ever made despite a lyric that sustains a complete and almost studied absence of profundity.

Intellectual profundity that is.

Preachers are not philosophers. They have to wed the message to the heart.

It’s only then that the head has a chance to follow.

Consider 1976, when this record peaked on the charts.

America had entered a period when peace and prosperity should have reigned but which had, instead, become a kind of national hangover from the nightmares of war and riot and assassination and scandal.

The seeds of our current rot had been planted, most of them (especially the economic ones) quite deliberately and with malice aforethought.

And what Blue Notes’ lead singer Pendergrass was tasked with, on what is arguably Gamble and Huff’s greatest production and Philadelphia International’s surest statement of visionary purpose, was facing down the future.

Blow by blow.

“Wake-up-everybody-no-more-sleeping-in-bed” flows like an old Chuck Berry line, with gospel (not “post-gospel” which is a nonsense phrase) fervor and desperation substituted for wit and wordplay.

And, lyrically at least, the song doesn’t get much deeper or more complicated than that opening line.

That’s because when you are facing down a future that will be very bleak indeed if hearts and minds are not moved in concert (and nowTODAY), there isn’t time for all that. Wit and wordplay are privileges for other times. Those times (say Chuck Berry’s fifties) may not be “better,” but they afford an inherent leisure. Play, “word” and otherwise, is a luxury the evangelist cannot afford.

The world might have been blown to smithereens in those other times, but a world blown to smithereens is an abstraction.

In the pulpit, the preacher cannot always and forever deal in abstractions. Some of the time, his message has to be about the here and now. And the here and now must be attacked fiercely, devoid of irony, that quality which, however sublime, has little mercy and cannot heal the sickness now being confronted.

Hence, this sermon, titled “Wake Up Everybody,” is concrete in its banalities: “Dope dealers….Stop pushing that dope! Dope users….Stop using the dope!”

And, from there, it proceeds to the abandonment of even literal sense.

“Preachers…stop teaching what you preach!”

Or is it, stop preaching what you teach?

Or start teaching what you preach?

Pendergrass’ choked reading is barely decipherable. I can never quite hold it in my mind, would trust no lyric sheet to set me straight, because, however I hear it–or remember it–I always find a disorienting absence of linear sense.

But I know exactly what he means.

And I suspect “everybody” else does, too.

Even the people who saw a world where the ripe fruit of the American Experiment was sucked to a dry husk–you know, the America they’ve made come to pass–as a dream to be fulfilled rather than a nightmare to be avoided.

They might turn their heads–boy did they, boy do they–but they can still hear.

So Teddy Pendergrass, the preacher, keeps shouting.

The way he lifts off in the temporizing part of this record–the part that makes for the “long edit” which, in those days, was usually understood to be strictly for dancers–makes it harder to ignore at the very moment most “disco” records have the non-dancer in me either nodding out or focusing strictly on what the bass player is getting up to.

The sermon goes on and on, then. It ebbs and flows.

But the spiritual underpinning never dissipates.

Instead, it starts firming up.

Then it starts rising, lifting the listener–he who WILL LISTEN RIGHT NOW–to the preacher’s own higher ground.

Teddy Pendergrass was the rare urban singer who was completely at home with southern-style testifying. Here, Gamble and Huff add to this already electrifying blend by double-voicing the lead (i.e., overlapping the end of one line with the beginning of another without switching vocalists–a form of speaking in tongues, by then becoming commonly available to modern studio wizardry, which every Pentecostal preacher then living might have benefited from investigating had they not been so busy denouncing both the music and the technology as tools of the Devil, often while seeking corporate sponsorship, of course). This has the effect of riveting we, the listeners–locking us into the message–at the very moment when we could reasonably expect a release to shout “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!”

So, yeah, it’s a sermon. Sure it is.

But none of the folks involved here ever forget they’re also making a record.

A record they expect to be a hit, even if–black radio having no real equivalent of white radio’s long formats, something that would, say, allow a bit of Celtic mysticism like “Stairway to Heaven” to be played as incessantly as a three-minute hit single and keep on being played (all nine minutes of it) for forty years and counting–they have to chop part of it off.

A hit record just the same, though, and one that will have a chance to bridge gaps in understanding. In this case, a hit record that constitutes a call, from the mouth of a Black America forever seeking existential justice (here, as so often, rooted in the New Testament evangelism which is the closest thing the two races have to a truly core, truly common culture), to the ear of a White America which has permanent difficulty getting past the particulars of whatever individual case is presently in question.

Hello, this year’s headlines.

This past year’s, of course.

But, really, any year.

Because, after double-voiced Teddy Pendergrass and the classically trained white orchestras Gamble and Huff arranged so seamlessly and magnificently into the sound of their street level politics (and, yes, Sunday morning sermonizing), have journeyed to the mountain top and taken us along–after somebody (lyricist, producer, singer, Holy Ghost) has nailed “You businessmen” with the one hammer blow (“Stop cheatin’!”) amongst all these “simple” remedies to evil that keeps repeating (six times to be exact–this after even dope got no more than a double-blow), because somebody wants to remind “everybody” just where the root of all that evil lies–this seven-and-a-half-minute record comes down, in its final minute, to Pendergrass alone, sounding like a man who can’t lie down and can’t take another step, caught between Heaven and Earth, Faith and Sin, looking yonder into the Promised Land, which is close enough to touch and a thousand miles away, saying just this:

It don’t matter…

Oh, what race…

Creed or color…

Everybody…

We need each other.

Here on Earth, there’s no more powerful reminder of the gospel’s twin purpose–to search for higher ground while providing shelter from the storm–than this record, which reached #12 on the Pop chart and #1 R&B, in 1976, when it must have seemed that we wouldn’t–couldn’t–possibly ever need its message more.

These days, when we’re living with the consequences of not having listened, I guess the hopeful New Testament evangelists of “we need each other” could wearily add an Old Testament coda.

“Don’t say you weren’t warned.”

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 7: “When A Man Loves A Woman”)

“When A Man Loves A Woman”
1966
Artist: Percy Sledge
Writers: Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright (Percy Sledge uncredited)

Percy Sledge “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Live and Scorching on Television)

Shifting sands:

“It was shortly after (Wilson) Pickett’s first session that Fame’s studio musicians cut a record behind an unknown local singer named Percy Sledge. That record was ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ which, with its Bach-like organ, soaring vocal, and frequently imitated church feel might be defined as the quintessential soul sound. Then in February 1967, Jerry Wexler brought down a newly signed artist for her first Atlantic recording session….although she had been in the business all her life, she had never, it was said, lived up to her potential. The artist was Aretha Franklin…”

(Peter Guralnick, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976)

“As Clarence (Carter) prepares for his set, Percy Sledge is recalling how he came to compose his biggest hit…

“He was moonlighting from his job as a hospital orderly, singing with a local band at a club in Sheffield, Alabama, and he was so low with woman troubles he couldn’t even make it through the Smokey Robinson and Beatles songs he had been doing at dances and clubs. He turned to bass player Cameron Lewis and organ player Andrew Wright and just asked them to give him a key, any damned key. He half sang, half bawled along in his mammoth, achy baritone, just a bunch of stray thoughts on the blindness and paralysis of love: ‘If she’s bad, he can’t see it….’

“‘Wasn’t no heavy thought in it,’ he says. ‘I was just so damned sad.’

“Sometime later, when he had calmed down and refined the thing into a slow, anguished ballad, he gave Lewis and Wright songwriters’ credit. By then Percy had won an Atlantic recording contract by auditioning in a record shop in Sheffield for a local producer named Quin Ivy. The song was cut there, in Ivy’s South Camp Studios, with some personnel borrowed from Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in nearby Muscle Shoals. Percy grew up in Leighton, not ten miles from the Fame operation. So he says it all felt right–the musicians, the place, and the song. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was Percy’s debut on Atlantic, and it sold more than 1 million copies in the spring of 1966 and stayed at number one on the pop charts for two weeks.”

(Gerri Hirshey, Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, 1984)

“Muscle Shoals burst upon the consciousness of the world at large in the spring of 1966 with a single record that was homegrown, home-produced, and would forever eliminate the necessity of Jimmy Johnson finding his way to Athens or anywhere else. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ established Muscle Shoals as a national recording center, brought Jerry Wexler directly from Memphis to Fame, and became the first Southern soul number actually to top the pop charts. It was also as significant an integrating factor in its way as Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s All Right,’ Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti,’ or Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham of two years before. The artist was Jimmy Hughes’s cousin, Percy Sledge, from nearby Leighton; the engineer was Jimmy Johnson, who also played on the date along with the rest of the new rhythm section; the session, oddly enough, though, was neither recorded by Rick Hall nor put out on the Fame label, despite the fact that Rick played a major role in its release and reaped most of the benefits from it….

“‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ completed the process begun, really, by Joe Tex’s success of the previous year….Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song, the kind of song that affected its fans so powerfully that, as Jimmy Johnson says, ‘I’ve heard stories of people driving off the road when they heard that record come on the air.’”

(Peter Guralnick, upping the ante, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 1986)

If one goes to the liner notes of Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, the story takes on even more complicated and far-ranging dimensions which are beyond the scope of this essay (hey, anyone who has the money should get hold of the box anyhow).

The main reason I posted the quotes above is to show how stories surrounding certain records evolve–note especially the distance between the Peter Guralnick of 1975 and the Peter Guralnick of 1986–the difference between a passing thought and a consuming passion.

Well, that and to open the discussion of course…

*    *    *    *

Percy Sledge was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Ever since, he’s been a favorite whipping boy for anyone who thinks the Hall is too big, its membership requirements too lenient and/or vague, its methods insufficiently transparent, or that its very existence is a blight on the face of humanity.

Of course, just about everybody thinks Percy’s signature record is wonderful but…it was just one record!

And it wasn’t all that important!

And he wasn’t really rock and roll!

And he’s a journeyman!…At best!!!

And, and, and…

Well you get the drift.

As a result, Sledge routinely shows up on the lists of the undeserving–or of those who should be kicked out…or just excluded from alternative Halls developed in the imagination.

Mind you, he’s not the only artist so treated. But he seems to be the one about whom there is almost universal acceptance of his general unworthiness for such high honor (which most of those complaining are quick to point out is not really a high honor at all, since it extends to artists the caliber of, well….Percy Sledge! The crit-illuminati did not get where they are–in a position to bend so many impressionable minds–without developing a certain ability to frustrate the resistance.)

Alas, I’m part of that resistance, so I have to give it a try.

I think Percy Sledge belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think if he’s a “journeyman” then pretty much all soul singers who aren’t Aretha Franklin or Al Green are the same. Heck, I think he’s a no-brainer and always was.

I thought he always was, because I used to listen to his old Greatest Hits collection pretty religiously and knew he was a fantastic singer with a nice run of R&B and Pop hits (he had a dozen or so chart hits, including four that went top twenty on the Pop chart and top ten on the R&B chart so he wasn’t quite the one hit wonder (or no hit wonder) that many of his (mostly white) Hall contemporaries who don’t get complained about were.

Besides, anybody who can leave a deathless “best of” behind is Hall of Fame material in my book.

But in case I might have wavered, Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, which includes everything he recorded for the label from 1966 to 1973, laid any doubts to rest–because there you have a hundred or so sides that, with no more than half-dozen exceptions, live up to the quality of the dozen I already knew inside and out.

Anybody who could lay down seven years worth of great music while the revolution was still going strong is Hall of Fame material no matter how exclusive you want to make the membership.

In my book.

But actually none of that really matters.

Like Orson Welles used to say about great movies: “You only need one.”

Percy Sledge made a lot of great records. Some might have even been greater than “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

So he didn’t really make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of one record. That’s a club reserved for fifties-era hard rock gods (Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Ritchie Valens, Gene Vincent…all richly deserving, by the way…I’d make similar arguments for them if they needed defending).

Sledge made it because his voice is one of those special few that creates its own club.

He might not strike you at all, but if he does, he’s liable to strike deep.

That’s how mild-mannered black guys who sing ballads get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But if he really had made it on the strength of just one record, and that one record was “When A Man Loves A Woman,” he’d still be worthy.

*   *   *   *

For one thing, it is one of the rare great records that rose from quasi-mystical processes.

You can read the entry quotes above and get a taste of how that process works–how perfunctory “explanations” acquire depth and nuance (as I mentioned above, the liner notes of the box set take the story even further and make it far too complicated to pare down to a handy quote or two–highly recommended reading).

Pared down to bare bones, however, the story goes something like this:

Somewhere, some time, in the mid-sixties, a virtually unknown club singer was on a stage, feeling lousy about a romantic breakup and he started riffing and making up some words.

Somehow, over the next several months he and his band-mates worked up an actual song and recorded it in a place that was about as out of the way as any place could be.

Then his producer sent it to a not-so-out-of-the-way place (New York) and a really big time record man (Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler) who gave said producer a call and said it was promising but they needed to re-record it to give it a more professional feel (or something).

After which, said producer (Quin Ivy) re-recorded the record, didn’t much like what he heard and re-sent the original disguised as the new recording.

Then Jerry Wexler called back and said something along the lines of “that’s more like it!”

Then the record was released on somebody or other’s label (Wexler’s, Fame owner Rick Hall’s, Quin Ivy’s….hard to say, for certain, but everybody seems to agree that Hall got most of the money and it was certainly his studio that benefited most directly).

However it got released, the record went to Number One on the Pop and R&B charts and has stayed on the radio for nearly half a century and counting.

And, as Peter Guralnick points out, it became a signature record of a specifically Southern brand of soul music, which was instantly and forever deemed more “authentic” than its northern counterparts (specifically Detroit’s Motown).

Dubious assertions of authenticity aside (Black America always preferred Motown, actually, and the margin was never close), the ripple effect was enormous.

Next thing you know, Detroit native and newly signed Atlantic artist Aretha Franklin came south and in one brief, rather chaotic session at Muscle Shoals, found her voice.

However the story gets told, it seems generally agreed upon that she came south looking for what Percy Sledge had found: a vibe, a sound, a group of musicians, the magic of a special place, a song.

Something.

And, however the story gets told, we have the music she made, which formed the basis of her national breakout and the core of her legend, to remind us of just how successful this unlikely process was.

But “When a Man Loves a Woman” doesn’t really need that sort of long shadow to justify it’s importance.

All it needs is itself.

These days we tend to think of “southern” soul as being half of that north/south equation I mentioned–one which usually gets boiled down to the phrase “Motown and Stax” (with “Stax” standing in for the entire swath of labels running along the Memphis-to-Muscle Shoals axis). That common phrase makes it sound like there was some kind of real balance between the two aesthetics in both art and commerce.

Well, the art thing can be debated, but there was a time when nobody had any illusions about the commerce aspect.

That time ended (and the illusions began) when Percy Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman,”–as deep a soul sound as anyone would ever wax–and it shot straight to the top of the charts.

Maybe it would have ended (and begun) some other way.

Maybe “Stax” would still have become a true cultural–and economic–counterweight to Motown by some other means. Heck, maybe those means would have even come by way of a record actually recorded on the Stax label.

God knows there was enough talent around. Maybe even some bigger talents than Percy Sledge (few as those would be).

Then again…maybe not.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” wasn’t the first deep soul record to gain national success, but it took the game to new heights–and those very heights, reached at a moment when, for a series of complicated reasons, black music that wasn’t recorded by Motown was having more trouble denting the white charts than at any time since Elvis broke out nationally, were what soul (all of soul, not just the southern brand) could and would aspire to for the next decade.

There are reasons we give credit to those who do, as opposed to those who might have done. The most important reasons revolve around just how slippery alternate universes can be.

But another reason is that those who do ultimately create and define reality.

The reality in this case is that the cosmic success (all time classic, #1 Pop, #1 R&B, still inspiring blog essays nearly fifty years later!) of Percy Sledge’s ultimate feel-good-about-feeling-bad record more or less directly brought Aretha Franklin to what may very well have been the one circumstance in the world that could allow her to tap what became transcendental genius.

And that reality is not unrelated to the specific genius of Sledge’s actual recording.

These days, it might not be too much a stretch to say that “When a Man Loves a Woman” is the “blackest” record to top the charts during the hey-day of what I tend to refer to around here as “the revolution”**

Of course, thanks in no small part to the revolution’s real, if ultimately limited, successes, we now have a rather different (though not necessarily more expansive) definition of what “blackness” means–in culture, in music, in the general phantasmagoria of intellectual life in a struggling democracy which really ought to be thriving by now. Once any record as black as “When a Man Loves a Woman” could actually top the Pop charts, the coming rearrangement of the Cosmos was inevitable even if the degree to which this particular monumental record informed–or was informed by–the overarching process is strictly chicken-and-egg, you-said-I-said, let’s-convene-an-all-expenses-paid-scholarly-panel-to-bat-this-about-on-CSPAN-shall-we affair.

What’s rather more clear is just why this particular record had the liberating impact it did.

It meant basically that the man who stood lowest on the political ecomony’s carefully constructed totem pole–a poor African-American from the dreaded rural south–could sing in a voice that called up centuries of pain, real and imagined, personal and cultural, intimate and epic–and channel it into a masterpiece of both technique (once you let go of the false notion that technique can and should be defined only in classical terms, a notion Percy Sledge had quite a bit to do with exposing as rather limited) and emotion (the very thing classical technique was developed to reign in).

The resolution between Sledge’s perfect discipline and deep reserve on the one hand and his access to liberating ecstasy on the other is the very definition of what the American experiment has always aspired to at its best. The idea that we’ll be better tomorrow if–and only if–we remember every single good and bad thing that happened yesterday only has a few transcendent definitions in art.

I don’t know of one better than Percy Sledge singing from the bottom of the well without ever losing his claim to the top of the mountain.

[**NOTE: That is, the musical and cultural revolution that began–as a revolution–the first time Fats Domino’s left hand touched a piano within range of a recording device and ended–as a revolution–the day Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. Others use different markers. Those are mine.]

 

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN….(Volume Six)

“Rock And Roll Lullaby”
1972
Artist: B.J. Thomas
Writers: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

B.J. Thomas “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (Studio recording)

“According to one theory, punk rock all goes back to Ritchie Valens’s ‘La Bamba.’ Just consider Valens’s three-chord mariachi squawk up in the light of ‘Louie, Louie’ by the Kingsmen, then consider “Louie, Louie’ in the light of ‘You Really Got Me’ by the Kinks, then ‘You Really Got Me’ in the light of ‘No Fun’ by the Stooges, then ‘No Fun’ in the light of ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by the Ramones, and finally note that ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ sounds a lot like ‘La Bamba.’ There: twenty years of rock & roll history in three chords, played more primitively each time they are recycled.”

(Lester Bangs, “Protopunk: The Garage Bands,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1980 edition)

“Like I said, that’s the saddest song I’ve ever sung. It’s supposed to be a true song, too. And I believe it. Back when I was a boy, if a girl got pregnant, she never did return home. Not pregnant and single. She just wasn’t welcome….It was the first song I learned, but I can’t hardly sing it now, because it’s so possible. Because it happened then, and it could still happen now.”

(Charlie Louvin, describing his childhood experience of learning to harmonize “Mary of the Wild Moor” with his brother Ira, Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, 2011)

In 1972, attempts to limit the world’s understanding of what “rock and roll” was, were becoming more self-conscious by the day. The paragraph above–written a few years later by the only rock critic with a legitimate claim on genius–exemplified these attempts as neatly as anyone ever could. Note how a “theory” of “punk rock” at the beginning of one sentence moves swiftly and inexorably to “rock & roll history” at the beginning of the next. Given the dubiousness of the premise–three-chord “primitivism” as the only rock and roll that matters–you can’t get any neater than that.

*  *  *  *

In 1972, everyone also knew what to think about girls who got themselves pregnant without catching a husband.

For the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve (who dominated the North Alabama world Charlie Louvin grew up in), she was a fallen woman.

For the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate (who dominated the world Lester Bangs operated in as a critic) she was a social project.

For the vast Middle-Which-Does-Not-Rock-The-Boat-Ever (the world most of us live in, toiling along, forever getting the government we deserve) she was best left unnoticed. Out of sight, out of mind. To be spoken of in whispers if at all.

She had an ongoing place in the history of popular music to be sure–and one did not have to reach back to “Mary of the Wild Moor” to know where she stood.

As recently as 1969, Dolly Parton, just then establishing herself as a legitimate genius of country music, had written what would turn out to be likely the most powerful song of her career about the very subject. It was called “Down From Dover,” and Parton matched the death-dealing, heart-clutching lyric to one of her greatest vocals. She updated the social and musical traditions she had grown up on with the tenderest of all possible care. She brought all the pathos of the mountain ballads, mournful and endless, often stretching to dozens of verses, down to a manageable commercial length without sacrificing anything vital in the way of emotional impact or telling descriptive detail. She took a decided leap in a brilliant songwriting career that already included “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” and “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy.”

What she did not do, was release it as a single.

What she also did not do–and which was probably related to relegating what she must have known was a song she would never better to an album cut–was break the cycle of pain and death inherent in the tradition.

Admittedly, in “Down From Dover,” it’s only the “illegitimate” child that dies. That was a merciful step past “Mary of the Wild Moor,” which killed off the mother, the child, and the grandfather who leaves them to freeze to death in the snow when his daughter attempts to return home.

But it was evidently still too strong for country radio, which, in those days, always had a place for murder ballads and such. I mean, 1973 wasn’t very different and, in that year, Tanya Tucker could top the charts with a chilling, off-hand reading of “Blood Red and Going Down,” which tells the tender tale of a ten-year-old girl (Tucker herself was fourteen at the time) tagging along behind her Daddy while he tracks down his wife and her lover and leaves them “soaking up the sawdust on the floor” in an Augusta bar-room.

For that, there was room.

Just not for unwed mothers–at least not those rendered as sympathetically and realistically as Parton’s.

Over at Top 40 radio–from a few years earlier–there was another recent twist on the theme–told from the perspective of the Supremes’ “Love Child.”

Nobody dies in that one, but–#1 hit or not–it’s clear from the dread and shame in Diana Ross’ voice as she’s fending off the advances of a potential baby-daddy, that no possible good can come of it:

“No child of mine will be wearin’, this name of shame I been bearin’”….

That was how it was in 1966–not to mention 1966 B.C.

It was no different in 1972.

*  *  *  *

I’m not sure how much better it is now. Maybe we really are a little more thoughtful and forgiving. Maybe we are more empathetic and civilized. Maybe it only seems that way from certain carefully guarded perspectives. It’s hard to turn a tradition thousands of years in the making on its head in an instant. And the uglier the tradition the harder the turning often is.

But Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil gave it a try.

They took on the truly momentous rock and roll responsibility (if you want to call it the burden of the revolution you won’t get an argument from me) of giving voice to the voiceless and then had the nerve to give their song a title evidently designed to make advocates of punk primitivism as the only rock and roll that matters grind their filed teeth to paste.

Then they wrote a song so powerful almost no one has ever bothered to deny its classic status even if it does turn the most comfortable narratives sideways and upside down–complete with a wash of “sha-na-nas” lifted from rock’s oft-despised (by everyone from the old Tin Pan Alley crowd to the new-left folkies to the mock-intelligentsia forever gathering ’round the Beatles and such to today’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee) tradition of nonsense group vocals.

Mann told the song’s producer Steve Tyrell that he heard “old sounds” in the lyric and suggested they get the session guitarist to play like Duane Eddy.

Tyrell heard old sounds, too.

He said, “why not get Duane Eddy?”

Things only got more ambitious from there.

What they ended up with was a record that sounded absolutely constructed, layer by loving layer–not just Eddy’s bottomless guitar part, likely the emotional pinnacle of his monumental career, but background support from Darlene Love’s Blossoms and ex-Diamond Dave Somerville, carefully modulated dead-ringer early-and-late Beach Boy arrangements, Barry Mann himself on the piano, the lushest possible orchestration–and also as if it had been breathed into the world in an instant.

Why Mann and Weil chose to write a song redeeming abandoned single mothers and their children–to that moment, possibly the most doomed and despised sub-group in the history of doomed and despised sub-groups–I do not know. That they even thought it was possible seems a bit nervy and mysterious–unless, of course, you know (as they certainly did) the actual history of rock and roll, which, more than anything else, is the history of speaking up. The few interviews I’ve heard or read from them over the years have–perhaps understandably given the full weight of their accomplishments (they wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” among voluminous others)–bypassed this particular record.

So maybe they had some special attachment to the situation…or maybe they just figured it was time.

I could be wrong, but somehow, I don’t think it was just that week’s assignment.

It says something, for instance, that they chose to write it from the perspective of the fatherless child, now grown up. That deliberately placed “the event”–and the teenage mother’s dilemma–closer to the social realities of the nineteen fifties than of 1972, when there might at least have been a commune waiting for her somewhere. It thus very specifically and pointedly pushed the concept of “rock and roll” back to its own beginnings–when the audience, more so than any self-appointed intellectual class or marketing department or even the artists themselves–was deciding not so much what rock and roll was (as a form of music) as what it was going to mean to their lives (which they were determined to make matter).

In a rhyme scheme as tick-tock perfect as any Tin Pan Alley ever produced, the Brill Building grads inserted the key into the secret chambers of the rock and roll heart and said, in everything but words, that “Love Me Tender” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” were every bit as much “rock and roll” as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Tutti Frutti.” That the Platters and “In The Still Of The Nite” mattered just as much as Chuck Berry and “La Bamba.”

That, in fact, this had been the point.

So, in addition to pushing back against the cruel tide of human history, “things were bad and she was scared but whenever I would cry, she’d calm my fears and dry my tears with a rock and roll lullaby,” also pushed back even harder against the increasingly hide-bound–and increasingly suffocating–mantra of its own moment, and, in doing so, asserted in no uncertain terms that rock and roll, more than any art that preceded it, offered something very like salvation for its audience.

All of its audience–not just the part recognized by white boys fighting out its “meaning” in college dorm rooms and the pages of Rolling Stone.

What resulted was a record that seemed, on the surface, too perfect to not reach the top of the charts and take its place as a permanent staple at oldies’ radio.

Of course, surfaces often tantalize and delude and that sort of inevitability often rides a curse.

“Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” fate certainly proved all that.

Well on its way to the fate it richly deserved, its distribution was undone by the financial collapse of B.J. Thomas’ record company, Scepter–a fate Scepter shared with many of the other record labels which had turned out the doo-wop and girl group sounds “Lullaby” was invoking, including, most particularly, Red Bird, the failure of which had destroyed the career of the Shangri-Las, who had surely given Mann and Weil a Zeitgeist to play into if anyone had. (If anyone wants to hear how a sixteen-year-old girl with a backbone ends up alone–pregnant or otherwise–they can listen to Mary Weiss singing “Never Again”–that’s the one where she begins by telling the boy he better not walk out on her again and ends by walking out on him–and get a pretty direct idea.)

The record ultimately stalled at #15. Not bad, and plenty of records, including Thomas’ own “The Eyes of a New York Woman” (which had topped out at #29 a few years earlier) have stayed in heavy rotation for decades following even less initial success.

But none of those records were fighting history.

So “Rock And Roll Lullaby” fell in between the cracks. A bit too popular (and Populist) to be a true cult item, far too strong to fit easily into any nostalgia format. Doubtless there are stations somewhere that play it. Maybe even a few that play it a lot. But in thirty-five years of listening incessantly to oldies’ stations across the country, I’ve never heard it on the radio once.

I’ve played it enough at my house to know it doesn’t really matter. A thousand random encounters between here and the grocery store or in rental cars on the way to Cleveland or Fort Worth or Memphis or Winston-Salem couldn’t possibly have dimmed it.

*  *  *  *

There’s a special reason for that last, a reason why the record simply can’t fade. A reason why the only way to deny its power is to throw up deliberate defenses, which might include “oh, we’re past all that now”…defenses you can bet will be broken down the minute you stop minding them. A reason found in a quality that actually transcends the perfect song Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote–a reason that skips right past two swift verses, a luminous bridge and a simple chorus repeated three times, gently, gently, ever-so-gently telling anyone who ever turned their back on need: “Shame on you.”

That reason was specific to rock and roll as well. Simply put, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” was B.J. Thomas’ genius moment.

Now even in rock and roll, not every good singer gets one. But it does happen more often in rock and roll than anywhere else (and by “anywhere else” I don’t mean just other forms of music).

You have a career. You make some good records, maybe quite a few. You practice your craft honorably and well. You build a loyal following that sticks with you for years, or even decades.

But you aren’t a genius. Not really.

So far, you could be doing anything.

But if you sang rock and roll while the revolution was still on track, there was always a chance that once or twice, somewhere along the way, you would be better than that. That sooner (say Carly Simon on “You’re So Vain”) or later (say Neil Sedaka on “Bad Blood”) or somewhere in between (say Dobie Gray on “Drift Away”) you would, for three or four minutes, be as great as anybody has ever been or ever will be.

Heck, sometimes you didn’t even have to be good or honorable or anywhere near having a career.

Rock and roll did that, too (here, I’ll let you fill in the name of your choice–no sense ticking anybody off!) It was a bit rarer than the romantic legends would have it, but it did happen.

I’ve always been fascinated by that other main chance, though. The professional’s main chance.

In a way that was a greater, rarer moment, because while it’s possible to believe that “Louie, Louie” or “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love)” or “The Book of Love” (okay I went ahead and named some but surely nobody could be ticked of by those examples!) really could have happened for almost anyone, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” could only have happened for someone very like B.J. Thomas–or maybe only for B.J. Thomas specifically.

In The Heart of Rock and Soul, his mostly invaluable celebration of the old-fashioned single, where he gave “Rock And Roll Lullaby” a deservedly high place, Dave Marsh described Thomas as being “not much better than a B-level country-rock hack on every other record he made.”

Sorry, Marsh wrote a wonderful book, but on this particular point, he’s dead wrong.

Thomas was a first-rate vocalist in the greatest era of recorded vocal music we’ve yet heard. No, he wasn’t a genius. Not usually anyway. But he had kicked off his chart career with a cover of a Hank Williams’ song that was both commercially successful and emotionally true. The first guy who tried that, fifteen years earlier, had only managed the easier half of the equation and he only turned out to be Tony Bennett.

So no, B.J. Thomas was not a genius, but he was damn good.

No “hack” could have stood in front of all that was going on in “Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” production–or gotten behind all that was going on in back of its lyric–and made it so thoroughly his own.

Neither could any one-off.

Maybe a genius could have done it…but even a genius couldn’t have made it sound as if they knew this was their lasting moment. Geniuses can’t afford to feel that way. That’s part of how they get to be geniuses: by believing that they can always go further and higher, or, at very least come back, again and again, to the furthest, highest place.

For “Rock And Roll Lullaby” to be as great as it is, though, it almost certainly needed to be sung by someone who sensed (even if they didn’t care to admit it) that the moment might never come again for them–that they would never reach any higher than this.

It took a pro for that–the very kind of craftsman who has been so often written out of rock history by those who decided rock and roll would be better off in the margins, untainted by the wearing and tearing necessities of compromise and other impurities inherent in social (as opposed to personal) relevance, and who, incidentally, have seen their wish come true.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil have a claim on being geniuses. Duane Eddy has a claim on being a genius. So does Darlene Love.

They could all rightly, if arguably, claim this as the greatest record they ever worked on.

But of all the wonderful records that come from a particularly tricky place–the place where talent becomes genius for one precious, irreducible moment–“Rock And Roll Lullaby” is likely the greatest…and boldest.

And, though he has no other claim on being a genius himself, you can thank B.J. Thomas for that.

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN….(Volume Five)

“In the Ghetto”
1969
Artist: Elvis Presley
Writer: Mac Davis

Elvis Presley “In the Ghetto” (Studio track with video)

“‘In The Ghetto’ was not without its own troubles….the song’s political content (gentle, almost vapid by today’s standards) unnerved some of Elvis’ friends…” (Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams. Source: Liner notes to From Elvis In Memphis Legacy Edition, 2009)

Elvis Presley’s monumental comeback in the late sixties has been parsed a thousand ways. He was restless after a decade of lifeless movies and dead-end soundtracks. He realized his career was at stake and decided he better get off his lazy hillbilly bottom and crank it up one more time. The Colonel let him out of the Zombie Pad on a twenty-four month pass. He had a cold. Steve Binder (the ’68 Comeback Special’s admittedly wonderful producer) caught him in a good mood and used some clever voodoo to get him interested again.

The moon was about to be in the seventh house and Jupiter was about to align with Mars.

I’m paraphrasing, of course.

There’s no point in digging up the exact quotes. They’re too familiar to those who know the Elvis Narrative to be worth repeating and too lazy and haphazard to be worth dignifying for those who don’t.

The basic drill is the usual one: If Elvis did anything so transcendent that it can’t quite be denied, we must rest eternally reassured that he was the last person responsible for it.

The way “In the Ghetto” has been generally handled–as a subset of the 1969 Memphis sessions–is typical.

It’s ignored. Or it’s sidelined. It’s good but it’s not….important! Maybe as a piece of the overall moment, but not for itself.

It’s “gentle, almost vapid by today’s standards,” and Elvis really, really had to be talked into recording it even so. (Read: “Whatever he meant by it, don’t worry, because he didn’t really mean anything.”)

I guess I’ll have to say I beg to differ.

Recording and releasing “In the Ghetto” in the early months of 1969 may have constituted the single most important series of decisions in Elvis Presley’s career.

I know nearly everyone who is old enough to remember that particular year has been trying to embalm it ever since–it’s a dread, apocalyptic moment for some, a moment-when-all-things-seemed-possible happy pill for others and one state of denial is just about as thorough (and delusional) as another.

It’s useful, I think, to try and view it from Elvis’ perspective.

I know this requires taking liberties. Elvis probably held his views about art, politics and the world in general closer to the vest than any artist in his century who had both a legitimate claim to the last level of greatness and a fair opportunity to share what he thought about it all if he so desired.

So we don’t know much of what he was really feeling–even quotes we can trust to be accurate carry little real weight or context because Elvis was a lot of things to a lot of people, including the people closest to him and trying to guess who really “got” him at any given moment is a fool’s errand.

But at least some things can be rationally assumed. Perhaps the most important is that, circa the late sixties, Elvis had kept himself in the game–something that ought to give pause to those who off-handedly dismiss his movie career.

The brief revivalist period of the early seventies, when Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson could have big hits (well, one apiece anyway), was still several years off–and would owe a great deal to Elvis’ own resurgence in any case.

The Everly Brothers had released Roots, one of the great albums of the century, the year before and got exactly nowhere with it.

Ray Charles was becoming best known as a regular guest on TV variety shows, and was already three and half years removed from the last top ten Pop hit of his career.

Bo Diddley was twenty years away from the Nike commercials that would give his nightly performance fee its one remaining bump.

Jerry Lee Lewis was a rather safe, successful mainstream country act and, despite his own far-reaching network variety show, so was Johnny Cash.
Brenda Lee wasn’t even that (though she would have a comeback on the country charts in the seventies).

Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke were dead.

James Brown was still relevant, but he had only really broken through to the commercial mainstream in the mid-sixties and wouldn’t really stay there much longer.

Within a few months, on the occasion of his epic Vegas opening, Elvis himself would grab fellow headliner Fats Domino–by then even further marginalized than most of the others–and introduce him as “the real king of rock and roll,” a pronouncement that was met with bafflement by the press corps at the time and has, along with dozens of other similarly expressed sentiments, been dropped down the memory hole by those bent on propagating a certain narrative ever since.

Compared to every single one of his important contemporaries, then, Elvis was in decent shape. He was on the sidelines while they were in the cheap seats on their way to being ushered quickly and quietly to the parking lot.

Compared to the giants who had come to the fore as his contemporaries faded, however, he was nowhere. They were engaged, he was distant. They were speaking to the times, he was a thing of the past. They were making the music “relevant,” he was the symbol of a phase that had to be passed through (rock ’n’ roll, the fifties) before the really important stuff (Rock, The Sixties) could happen.

They were the Beatles and the Stones and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin and the Who and the Doors.

He was the ghost they–or at least the times–had transcended and kicked to the curb.

Then, in the summer of 1968–using a TV Christmas special that would air in December as his medium–he had “re-engaged” and voila! all that was swept away.

* * * *

Any serious student of Elvis Presley’s music knows this is a grossly oversimplified narrative. Elvis’ music career had been running on dual tracks ever since he left the army in the spring of 1960. This isn’t the place to discuss that journey in depth, but suffice it to say, the music he made in the Comeback Special and the subsequent Memphis sessions that produced “In the Ghetto” did not spring from a vacuum (I would recommend a close listen to “It Hurts Me,” from 1964 and his gospel sessions from 1966 as easy proof, though that still only scratches the surface).

Still, there was one place Elvis certainly had not gone and that was into the arena of topical protest music.

Again, it’s easy to oversimplify this. The notion of truly popular, overtly political “protest” music–not the working-man blues variety that was a staple of virtually every popular genre but rather issue-specific material that not only lamented injustice but suggested real possibilities of challenge and change–had been around forever. But it had actually only come to fruition in the folk movement of the early sixties (mostly with the dual emergence of the much-lauded songwriting of Bob Dylan and the seldom fully appreciated singing of Peter, Paul and Mary which actually put it on the charts). Great as some of that music was, by the late sixties topical music had more or less broken down into a handful of basic categories: pleas for universal tolerance and brotherhood, depictions of social unrest or injustice (usually racial), war protest.

What was seldom addressed–and what remained essentially unspoken on records meant to compete for high positions on the Pop charts–was any condemnation of the kind of cruel, cyclical, working-class poverty in which Elvis himself had been born and raised.

And, since there was no role model for this kind of protest record having any kind of commercial success, it’s worth taking an extra-hard look at just where Elvis’ career stood at the moment it showed up on his radar.

* * * *

Yes, the Comeback Special had been a triumph. Yes, the TV show’s first single “If I Can Dream,” had been a big (though not monumental) hit–reaching #12 on the Pop chart.

But the second release, “Memories,” got only to #35, not much better than average for Presley’s post 1965 singles.

Hence, the first single release from the Memphis Sessions was a huge decision.

If it didn’t meet or exceed the success of “If I Can Dream,” then the momentum built by the critical and ratings success of the television special would be effectively broken–Elvis would run the very real risk of finding himself back on the sidelines for good.

Looking back now, it’s very easy to see the remaining arc of Presley’s career from 1968 onward as a series of successful assaults on one citadel after another: Christmas special-dom, the Top 40, Vegas, Madison Square Garden, Global-concert-via-satellite and, finally, the Pearly Gates all falling down like dominoes.

Where it all might have gone if the first single from the Memphis Sessions had flopped–or even just done moderately well–is pure speculation.

My own best guess is that it probably would have gone just about the same.
But the important thing to remember is that Elvis could not make any such safe assumptions.

For all he knew–even with a string of what, with benefit of hindsight, we know were surefire hits and permanent radio staples in the can (“Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” “Kentucky Rain”)–that first release might make or break his future.

Was he going to get back in the game or be unceremoniously benched? Was he going to regain the throne, or spend the rest of his career swapping variety show bills with Ray Charles or “back to the country” tours with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash?

Those possibilities may seem absurd now, but they must have seemed very real to Elvis in the early months of 1969 when he made–or at least approved–the decision to release “In the Ghetto” as his next single.

* * * *

Before I talk about the record itself, I’ll cast my own memory back.

I don’t remember a whole lot specifically about 1969. I was eight years old. But I remember the period.

I remember the general atmosphere in the working class South throughout the late sixties and early seventies.

I remember school bus rides and backyard football games and lunchroom breaks where the boys’ talk occasionally got around to “who your parents voted for” in both the ‘68 and ‘72 elections.

I’m not saying it was an everyday occurrence. Hardly. But once, maybe twice a year, something or other brought it up.

So I can tell you this: I was always in the small minority of those who had to admit his parents voted for Nixon.

And what this mostly met with was not so much hostility or scorn as puzzlement.

The ten or twelve or fourteen-year-old boys I went to school with and played pick-up football with in seventy and seventy-one and seventy-two didn’t especially have anything against Richard Nixon. They had heard he wasn’t so bad. But they really didn’t understand why any white person would vote for anybody but George Wallace.

I mean, didn’t my parents know that Wallace had promised to send all the black people back to Africa? (And no, they didn’t say “black people.”)

Truth be told, I have no idea to this day what George Wallace promised in the ’68 or ’72 campaigns. It’s just one of those things I never got around to looking up.

But I know what the kids I rode buses with and ate lunch with and kicked the football around with thought he had promised. And, since I know how right they thought George Wallace was to make this promise, I know how right their parents thought he was, too.

So I also know this: For the most famous Southern white man since George Washington, to pull “In the Ghetto” out of his demo-pile in 1969 and spend twenty-three takes getting it right (more than twice his usual–for comparison with a couple of other big hits from the same sessions: “Suspicious Minds” took eight takes, “Kentucky Rain” ten) and then approve its release as a potential make-or-break single at one of the most crucial points of his career, meant something.

What it meant to history and the world at large, can be debated eternally.
But for what it meant to Elvis, I think all we need to do is listen.

* * * *

Backing up the statement at the top of this post, Elvis’ most assiduous biographer, Peter Guralnick, has called Mac Davis’ lyric “abstract, almost fairy tale” in form, while also suggesting that concerns with “the inevitable consequences of ghetto poverty and societal indifference and pleading for compassion for black youth…may well seem mild today.”

Actually such sentiments are more like nonexistent today and Davis’ lyric would be better described as trenchant and prophetic.

“Take a look at you and me,” Elvis sang in 1969, “are we too blind to see? Or do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?”

You couldn’t come up with a better description of America over the last forty years than a nation learning to turn its head and look the other way….and not just at poverty.

The Chicago streets that Davis–like Elvis, a southern white man raised breathing Pentecostal air–described so “mildly,” “abstractly,” “almost vapidly” are presently sufficiently awash in murder that it’s actually news.

And, hey, given the normal All-American murder rates that’s saying something.

But Elvis’ version of “In the Ghetto” doesn’t draw its last measure of power from its relevance to the headlines of 1969 or yesterday.

It still rings deep and true because, for all the master touches of what were then pop fundamentals–the quiet shine of the acoustic guitar, the soulful female backing chorus, the ominous, martial drumming at the close–Presley’s vocal cuts too close to the bone to be hemmed in by the hit-making standards of any particular period, even one as great at the late-sixties.

Let’s be honest. Protest lyrics date, even great ones like “In the Ghetto.” They date even if the underlying message does not.

Production methods date.

So do instrumental styles and fashions in soulful female choruses.

The only thing that doesn’t date are the great voices.

For all its broad, political portent, “In the Ghetto” was probably as personal for Elvis Presley as a confessional. Think what it meant for the boy, born in poverty himself, who had been walked to school by his own mother until he was a teenager, to contemplate a woman so destitute she can only dread the arrival of “another hungry mouth to feed,” and you can readily understand Elvis’ almost impossible commitment to nuance–his determination to make the connection complete.

Nowhere else did he draw on his always carefully parceled “southernisms” more adroitly or effectively. Over and over, for this performance as for virtually no other, he used the common language of blacks and working-class white southerners–“Mum-ma” for “mama,” the very slightly elongated “i” in chi-ld, the hard accent on the second syllable in “get-toe”–to draw the scenes of a northern ghetto closer and closer to himself and, by extension, to an audience–a very specific part of his audience–which certainly included at least some of the parents of the boys who thought it was weird my parents didn’t vote for George Wallace.

In a time and place where the word “ghetto” had long since been appropriated from its European origins and given the singular meaning it still retains for middle-class Americans–a place where poor blacks are kept separate from everybody else by any means necessary–the boy from the Tupelo shotgun shack by way of the Memphis housing projects took his sweet time and, without yielding to even a trace of false piety or self-righteous anger, wrung every last bit of meaning from a lyric that was closer to biblical parable than “fairy tale.”

The world’s a complicated place, of course. We shouldn’t forget that Elvis would eventually offer to hire a hit-man to take out George Wallace’s would-be assassin only to have Wallace gently rebuff him in the name of Christian forgiveness. We also shouldn’t forget that Elvis probably left a few fatherless, potentially “angry” young children roaming the earth himself.

But the thing about art is that it does offer an opportunity for transcendence.

In the moment when it counted–the moment when both the artist and the man had the most to lose–Elvis kept the deepest faith by very specifically picking up a song by a then little-known writer and putting the blame for the link between a child whose “hunger burns” and “an angry young man, face down on the street with a gun in his hand,” right where the now thoroughly neglected New Testament he had been raised on said it belonged.

On those too blind to see.

I don’t know if there will ever be a time when the world can’t use a little more of that, but I’m pretty sure we’re not there yet.

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN…VOLUME FOUR

watch?v=YTTVx–i3m0&feature=player_detailpage

 

“Bad Blood”

Recorded: 1975

Writers: Neil Sedaka, Phil Cody

Artist: Neil Sedaka

OR….

Why punk led me not into temptation even though I was an appropriately angst-ridden child of the seventies: Short theory

If you’re gonna start a revolution, you better be able to kick Neil Sedaka’s ass at least once.

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN…VOLUME THREE

“Then Came You”
Recorded: 1974
Writers: Sherman Marshall, Philip Pugh
Artist: Dionne Warwicke and Spinners

OR…

Why punk led me not into temptation even though I was an appropriately angst-ridden child of the seventies: Long Theory

At the recording sessions for “Then Came You,” which took place on March 26, 1974, at the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, Dionne Warwick voiced her displeasure with the proceedings to producer Thom Bell. Whether her problem was with the song, the manner of recording it or life in general has varied over the years depending on who does the telling. What everyone agrees on is that Bell bet Warwick a dollar that the record would reach number one. Then they each took half of a torn dollar bill and promised whoever lost the bet would mail their half to the other.

Warwick mailed her half of the dollar bill to Thom Bell shortly after October 26, 1974, which was the date “Then Came You” became the first number one pop hit for both her and Spinners.

About midway between those momentous occasions, my family moved from Central Florida to North Florida so that my father–already an ordained minister–could attend a bible college with an eye toward entering the ministry full time.

This turned out to be more than a little like moving from Southern California to Southern Alabama.

Momentous enough for me in other words.

I was a week late for the start of the ninth grade so any chance that my arrival would pass blessedly under the radar was doomed from the start. If you were ever in the ninth grade, you probably know what I mean. If you were ever the new kid in the ninth grade and arrived a week after school started–in the middle of second period–you definitely know what I mean.

It turned out in the long run that I took a liking to this part of the state and have lived here ever since. But during that first week the only thing that connected me to home–or any recognizable reality–was Sunday School.

Oh, I don’t mean my new church’s Sunday School looked or sounded or felt anything like my old church’s Sunday School.

Far from it.

For one thing, that first Sunday, there was no teacher. The regular was out sick that week. There was no replacement. Let’s just say that leaving the high schoolers to fend for themselves was not the way they did things where I came from!

No, the only thing that was really familiar was the girls’ skirts. Five girls, five skirts. Three minis–evidently the rough average for high school girls in Baptist Sunday Schools all over the state in 1974. So there was at least one thing that truly bound us together as a people in those halcyon days just before the latest aftershock of the enduring Fundamentalist-Enlightenment divide–which, along with the various issues troubling the rest of Western Civilization, had been rumbling underneath us for a decade or more–arrived to once more split us apart.

I wasn’t too worried about the history or future of Evangelical Protestantism that day. I was the new kid, a lone thirteen-year-old boy thrown into a teacherless room with five improbably attractive girls who, unlike the several improbably attractive girls who had attended my old church, I had not known my entire life.

Unless you’re a born Romeo–which I was about as far away from being as humanly possible–then the only thing your thirteen-year-old self is really thinking about in a situation like that is how to survive long enough for the golf balls to dissolve in your throat and the squirrels to lay down in your stomach so you can relearn the noble art of breathing.

You don’t care much about storing memories.

You do store them. And maybe–just maybe–a day or a week or thirty years later you’re even glad that you did.

But in the heady brew of the moment you don’t think about such things. So I was rather proud of myself for sufficiently overcoming the shock to my various systems–cultural, societal, hormonal–to glean some intelligence for later recall, and therefore discover I was just cognizant enough to conduct at least a pale imitation of what an actual Romeo would have called research.

So…

Along with the five skirts and three minis, the overall picture shaped up thusly:

A long, folding table, which for most of the next hour-that-seemed-like-ten had one set of forearms and an assortment of open purses and closed bibles on it.

I swear I did not drop anything that forced me to duck under the table. I can’t swear I didn’t think about it, only that I didn’t do it. I did not sink to perversion my first day in the new Sunday School.

I kept those forearms squarely in place.

Above the table then…

A senior, a junior, two sophomores and an eighth-grader.

Three blondes and two brunettes.

Two preacher’s daughters (sisters).

One visitor (guest of the preacher’s older daughter).

Three shag haircuts (one frosted–I tell you friend, it was a Golden Age, the likes of which we will not see again before the Last Days).

And one girl–the frosted-shag sophomore visitor wearing one of the minis–singing the chorus to “Then Came You” under her breath from time to time during the occasional awkward silences that are bound to occur when there’s a new boy and no teacher.

Good reconnaissance that.

Of course, it got me nowhere.

In those days I rarely listened to the radio. I didn’t know who sang “Then Came You”–had no clue it was a collaboration between the era’s greatest record man (producer-arranger Thom Bell), its greatest vocal group and one of the century’s most transcendent popular singers (born Dionne Warrick, by then so long famous as Dionne Warwick–the spelling variation supplied by a printing error on her first hit’s record label in 1962–that even I had heard of her, she added the extra “e” from 1971 to 1975 for reasons known only to her before reverting, for reasons also known only to her, to “Warwick”).

There was a lot more I didn’t know.

No way I knew what Thom Bell evidently knew–that, however she was spelling her name that year, if you wanted to pair a vocal group with Dionne Warwick in full flight, you’d better have at least two genuinely great lead singers on hand and one of them better be as close to a co-equal genius as Philippe Wynne.

I didn’t know that the record the sophomore in the mini-skirt kept singing and humming to herself was a work of genius, the pinnacle of Bell’s signature blend of the rhythmic and the harmonic, the grand statement and the incisive gesture, the conservatory and the street.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as symphonic intimacy, or that it could sometimes be heard on the radio.

I didn’t know “Sigma Sound” was a euphemism for a temple.

I didn’t know that America’s ever-derided “other”–blacks, women, immigrants, hillbillies–were on the verge of snatching back the rock and roll revolution that had been slid out from beneath them a decade earlier by something called the British Invasion. (Or, more properly, by white, suburban America’s specific and desperate embrace of the Beatles–an embrace that basically stretched from the average ten-year-old’s Dansette to the nether regions of academia and said, with one mighty voice, “please, please rescue us from these…other people“–and has distorted the way rock history is written and received ever since. And, no, that doesn’t mean the Beatles and the other great British acts weren’t all that. This stuff is never uncomplicated.) I didn’t know that, this time around–with only, say, Elton John and the Bee Gees to ride to the rescue–white, suburban America would eventually decide to pick up its marbles and go home.

There at the very first moment in the nation’s history when it seemed just barely possible for the foundational demons to be finally laid to rest, I blessedly did not know the lengths to which we-the-people would go to re-divide ourselves–nor did I understand the extent of the means available to the empire’s handlers to help us along the path to perdition because, as a faithful product of the public school system, I did not even suspect the empire’s existence.

Ignorance was bliss.

I didn’t know all those glorious sounds coming out of the radio in the mid-seventies, of which “Then Came You” was an absolute peak, were already driving the two white-boy demographics most likely to treat each other as dog and cat–punks and hard-hats–so crazy that for one dark, fleeting moment they would reach solidarity and agree that, at the very least, disco sucked.

“How did I live without you?” indeed.

I didn’t know that there would be a day when I actually did know such things.

There was a world of things, in other words–besides how to talk to long-legged, shag-haired sophomores in short skirts–that I didn’t know at the end of August in 1974.

But it didn’t surprise me later–when my family’s move to a distant land three hundred physical miles and a psychic galaxy from what I called home led me to seek increasing levels of solace in the bosom of Top 40 radio–to discover that “Then Came You, ” however encountered, was my idea of spiritual music.

This discovery was not exactly uncomplicated.

The next time I saw the long-legged sophomore (did I mention that she, like every other girl in my new Sunday School, was improbably attractive?–that I had moved to the actual south and that the actual south wasn’t lying when it bragged about its women?)–was a couple of days later. She was wearing a peasant blouse and blue jeans by then and she was walking in the middle of a crowd that was headed one direction in my new high school’s hallway while I was in the middle of a crowd that was moving in the other.

Just as she came opposite me, her face lit up and she said “Oh, hey!” to someone. A few crucial seconds later, after she had been swept out the door making a vaguely disgusted noise that I was just socially sophisticated enough to know was the standard civilized response to rudeness, I realized she had been talking to me.

Talk about improbable.

Look, I prefer to think I wasn’t the reason she never came back to Sunday School. I certainly never blamed her for not speaking to me again (not that there were many opportunities).

Tell the truth, I never got to know much about her, then or later.

I do know she stayed friends with the preacher’s older daughter.

I know that much because the preacher’s older daughter moved away about a year and a half later–by which time she was dating my nephew. It was pretty serious–as to both dating and general social linkage between our families. Her stoner brother stayed behind with us when the family moved away (he stayed until it became obvious that staying behind had not been the answer to his problems–I don’t know how it stands these days but, back then, the overlap between preacher’s sons and stoner brothers was substantial). She sent back actual tear-stained letters which I’m pretty sure my nephew was not supposed to be sharing with the likes of me and I know he was not supposed to be sharing with his grandmother.

Eventually…

The letters stopped. The stoner brother moved out. My nephew stopped getting letters–or at least stopped sharing them–and got married to someone else (all this within about a year or so–so I guess really not all that eventually, though time certainly seemed to move slower then).

The long-legged sophomore may or may not have become a junior. I never saw her at school after a certain point. She saw me once at a baseball game. I was fifteen then, the last year I played. I was sitting in the dugout during an exhibition game for a summer league I never actually played in because my family had to go back south for the summer to earn the money to stay in bible school another year. She came over and asked her cousin (who had gone out to meet her behind the dugout–if there was a signal I didn’t see it) who I was.

I heard that much.

I heard him tell her my name.

“Is he any good?” she said.

He assured her I was. (He was batting third, I was hitting cleanup.)

She made a noise that seemed to express both surprise and disappointment. Maybe even a little disbelief.

Then she turned around and left.

Never saw her again.

Never had that chance to explain that I had always assumed was bound to come some day in such a small town.

Where I had come from, I routinely passed people in the hallways at school who I had known my entire life without anybody even thinking about speaking to anybody. There was no rule about it. That’s just the way it was.

With me and with everybody else.

So it might as well have been a rule.

There were might-as-well-have-been-rules in the new place, too, but it took me a long time to get used to them. I’m not even sure I had really fully absorbed them nearly two years later, sitting there in that dugout, feeling like a heel all over again.

Funny the things that you learn from. Little, hidden mistakes mostly.

I think the reason I always regretted the misunderstanding so deeply, though, was rooted in that Sunday morning.

In her choice of music to hum–a choice she had no doubt long forgotten by then.

You see, when the storms came–in the world at large, in my church, in my country, in my own mixed-up head–and some sort of stance had to be taken internally even if I never announced it to the world, I was like everybody else.

Subject to my experiences.

On the surface, I should have been easy pickings for the coming punk bohemian ethos. Brother did I have the deep-seated self-loathing for it.

But I kept noticing that if they really meant what they said, these new messiahs, then they really were rejecting everything. That without that extremism, there was no there there.

And I kept thinking that if rejecting everything included, among many, many other good things, Dionne Warwick and Thom Bell and Spinners and Sigma Sound and girls who said “hey” to people they had only met once, then it wasn’t for me.

Oh, I know none of that was included, officially. Who didn’t think Philly Soul was cool? Who didn’t think Thom Bell was cool (he wasn’t really “disco” after all–just a bridge to it)? For that matter, who didn’t think girls who said “hey” were cool?

Nobody probably.

Problem was–and is–that ducked the issue.

Either Johnny Rotten meant what he said–or he didn’t. Either nothing mattered…or some things did.

And either way, I knew I was rejected too.

Mind you, none of that kept me from having my feet lifted off the ground by the Clash’s first album. I was made wary, not stupid.

It just meant I kept a weather eye, even on them.

Looking back, that was the right approach for me.

Other people had their lives saved by embracing punk and more power to them. I don’t begrudge anybody their taste, let alone their life. I certainly never saw punk as the enemy.

But I stayed alive by keeping it at arm’s length.

“Then Came You” wasn’t the whole reason for the stiff-arm–there were Sunday mornings and watching my parents become missionaries when they were pushing sixty and learning that stoner brothers needed prayer just like everybody else and finding out I really could adapt to small town life and not making the major leagues (or even my high school team) and realizing that the possibilities for a new Great Awakening that had once seemed so imminent had not only died on the vine but been perverted into the bitterest fruit imaginable and smashing rulers to the beat of  “Death or Glory” and four or five thousand other life lessons that I didn’t know were saving me until they did–but it was part of the reason.

And it was probably somewhere very near the core.

Quite possibly even the one irreducible moment that can’t be changed without changing everything else.

Or not.

I lean towards the Enlightenment myself.

Never was much of a strict Calvinist.

But if somebody gave me the chance to do it all over again and said the only thing different would be that the long-legged sophomore in Sunday School would be humming some other tune….I wouldn’t take them up on it.

Thus ends the Long Theory….Short Theory tomorrow!