THE NIGHT CYNDI LAUPER TRIED TO SAVE ROCK AND ROLL (Memory Lane….1989)

I must have been channel surfing. I usually preferred somebody jabbing at my eyeballs with red-hot needles to watching David Letterman define a-holery. Once in a while, though, there was a decent musical guest. There weren’t enough of them for me to check the listings or anything, but if I tuned in at just the right moment, I might linger.

That night I lingered. Cyndi Lauper was on.

It had been two years since her last sizable hit–and that had been a cover of “What’s Going On” that nobody seemed to like but me (and plenty of people thought was sacreligious). I had heard and liked her new one, which would turn out to be her last sizable hit ever, a few times on the radio.

It’s hard now, to describe just how bleak the musical landscape felt then, when, unlike now, a glorious past was still so near that it seemed impossible it could be gone.

Still, the possibility was real: Whitney Houston had defined the new ballad style and it owed more to Kate Smith than Bessie Smith. The seventies’ era artists who had defined the eighties–Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince–had all gone a bit stale for everyone but their most devoted fans (of which I wasn’t one, though I liked them all). Any chance that the old New Wave might change the world had gone a-wasting because the big talents–Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde–either didn’t care about being stars (their excuse) or were afraid of the burden (the stronger likelihood).

Cyndi herself had clearly lost the fake battle the media staged between her and Madonna.

It was the eighties. Selling twenty-five million albums was chump change.

Of course, I wanted her to defy the odds and go on and on–for this one to spark a massive comeback.

So I wouldn’t have changed that dial, no matter what.

But the thing that had me holding my breath was waiting for the answer to the really big question.

Could she hold….that note?

I don’t remember what I thought while I waited. In memory, for years after, she stood still for the whole performance. When I finally thought to pull it up on YouTube a few years back, I guess I was surprised–maybe even shocked–that she bopped around for most of the song. I say I guess I was surprised because, in the memory I had built since, she was still standing in one spot.

So when I pulled it up again today, I was surprised all over.

I imagine if I wait a few more years, I’ll be surprised again.

I don’t think I really saw her the first time even though I had my eyes open. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember how, or even if, she moves.

Because whenever I watch it, then or now, the question is still the same.

Can she really, on live television, sans production tricks, hold that note?

I mean, she can…

But can she really?

I know she can. I know she’ll do it every time, but it still sends a tingle down my spine. Not just because it was her last big hit, and I somehow knew it would be as I watched her that night. But because, even as I imagined her standing still as a stone, I felt like I was watching somebody fight to keep the last ember lit, in the vain hope that it could reignite the fire.

Fight, you know, with every breath. Including the last one.

 

MY FAVORITE MURDER BALLAD (Not So Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

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Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits [Columbia, 1975]
As if recalling Appalachian roots, the youngest superstar and sex symbol in country music history adds rape, murder, and bastardy to familiar themes like drunkeness, poverty, abandonment, and love-is-the-answer. Kid stuff it ain’t. Her burred contralto is an American dream, some weird hybrid of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Marilyn Monroe, and Will Rogers–dirty plainsong. But though I enjoy almost everything she does as soap opera–the bloodier the better–I don’t believe a word. B+ (Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the ’70s)

As if?

It’s funny. Growing up among a bunch of transplanted Appalachians (including my parents) in Florida, I found that the general reaction to Tanya Tucker songs was along the lines of “sounds like Cousin Jimmy’s side of the family.”

I suspect it was more or less the same everywhere from West Virginia to West Texas.

We believed every word

Not literally of course.

Just spiritually.

We believed she knew what we knew. And we believed she knew who we knew.

We believed she knew of whence she sang.

I still believe we were right.

Robert Christgau can go suck an egg.

I don’t mean to say that Tanya was universally beloved. Even when she started out and was still prone to at least saying all the things everybody from West Virginia to West Texas was trained to expect, “wild child” was still the phrase that was made to fit. It didn’t take her too long to make it fit literally. But she had one quality from the beginning that every real country star needs for long term acceptance: the ability to get people who never met her to talk about her as if she was one of the family.

The black sheep maybe, the one you had to keep an eye on maybe, but still.

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Given all that, it was actually kind of reasonable she would get to sing a murder song or two, no matter how young she was.

Murder songs aren’t unheard of in American music, of course. One even makes the charts now and then. Country has maybe had a few more than its share, though not nearly as many as your average Ivy Leaguer  who loves his bluegrass collection might assume. As hits go, they aren’t really as common as other kinds of death songs: suicide songs, accident songs, I feel like I’m gonna die songs.

It takes a very special kind of singer to pull off a straightforward, ice-cold murder song and leave the camp out of it–to make it sound like something that seeped out of the air as naturally as the weather. Bessie Smith used to do it. Ralph Stanley used to do it. Hank Williams could have done it if he had put his mind to it.

None of them were fifteen.

That makes a difference. Fifteen-year-olds who are born performers don’t tend to have a filter. They develop one, eventually. It’s necessary to their own survival and maybe more necessary if they’ve come out of the gates selling millions of records. But there tends to be a phase in there where everything inessential is cut away and whatever they really invest in goes straight from their brain to your brain, if you’re willing to let down your guard and meet them on their own level.

So it was with my favorite murder ballad…

Considering the number of folks in my neighborhood who spoke wistfully of the days (several months before) when she sang stuff like “The Jamestown Ferry,” where she merely chased her man “through his kingdom of honky-tonks and bars,” remembering all the great sex they had back in the days when he swore he’d never leave her, it wasn’t a slam dunk that such a song would be a hit, let alone become the permanent most requested number on Goth Night in The Hall of the Mountain Kings.

But I’ve seen the file, tucked away in the bowels of the Security State, and, even if that’s a whole other story, I promise I wouldn’t lie to you.

And just FYI: I’m giving it the slightest nod over “No Man’s Land” because it was a hit and because about ten years back, on the only occasion I’ve heard it on the radio since the seventies, it wasted everything programmed within ten miles of it in any direction I cared to turn.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Harmony Group Singer: Rock and Roll Division….Probably preceded by my carefully considered definition of a rock and roll harmony group).

DRILLING DOWN…BLUES AND ELVIS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #58)

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Blues isn’t really a narrow form. Sometimes it can seem that way, but any proper definition of blues singing would, for instance include not just the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, but  Louis Armstrong, Hank and Lefty, Haggard and Jones, Ronnie Van Zant, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, Patty Loveless, Otis Redding, sixties’ era Charlie Rich, Percy Sledge, not to mention Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis. My own favorite unlikely blues LP is the soundtrack to Young Man With a Horn, a collaboration between Harry James and Doris Day which is as It’s-Always-3:00 A.M.-in-the-Dark-Night-of-the-Soul as any record you can name even if you go way further than I’m going here and drill down deeper than the top of your head.

That being said, any collection from the Bear Family titled The Roots of it All: Acoustic Blues is bound to be as thin as a hatpin stylistically. When the set runs to four 2-disc volumes that contain about twelve hours of music, you might think it would slog a bit.

I didn’t find it so.

I didn’t find it so, even though the set wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting when I picked it up cheap a while back. Having only perused the set list on the first two volumes to see what I was getting into, I assumed “the roots of it all” meant sticking to the narrow form’s heyday of the twenties through the mid-forties after which even the Delta moved to the city and electric guitars took center stage. Boy was I wrong.

Turned out the eight discs are dedicated to the decades stretching from the twenties to the nineties, with each decade treated in roughly equal measure.

And here’s the really amazing thing. Except for a small stretch at the end of disc seven, when Taj Mahal’s version of  “Fishing Blues” (not as warm or engaging as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s light-electric version from back in the sixties) ushers in a stretch of blues academia that isn’t entirely ushered out until Keb Mo’s “You Can Love Yourself” (a first cousin of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” speaking of unlikely blues) starts a strong closing run nine cuts later, it never, ever flags.

There are too many highlights to mention. If you like classic blues, you should just track down the sets and carve out some time and space to fully engage. I found the scariest stuff on Volume 3, which had versions of Muddy’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Skip James’ “Sickbed Blues” I hadn’t heard before plus a live version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” from his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, whence the “no electricity” rule was evidently still in full force!

So I was going to hook you up with that, at least, (and I will), but when I went looking, I also found this…

..and was reminded that, until Spike Lee and Chuck D came along, it was almost never the artists who said stupid stuff about Elvis.

And, in case you think the world was ever simple, here’s the version from 1960….

,…with Hooker being accompanied by Spike’s dad on acoustic bass.

That’s just in case you ever wondered whether Spike actually has good reason to know better.

I MET A GIRL WHO DIDN’T ALWAYS SING THE BLUES (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #55)

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(Janis Joplin with her family)

We all contain multitudes and so on and so forth. Janis Joplin probably contained more than most, so many that about half the gorgeous actresses in Hollywood over the last twenty years have been in line to play her in a biopic before something or other derailed it. The last two I heard about were Zooey Deschanel and Amy Adams…both fine actresses, but if the mere fact that they’ve been mentioned doesn’t prove nobody is ever going to remotely remind us of Janis Joplin except Janis Joplin, nothing does.

If they ever do make that movie, I hope that, along with all the inevitable narrative angst, there will be time to remember the Janis who (along with Juanita Green), paid to put this on an unmarked grave, more than thirty years after ever how many other hundreds of famous musicians had neglected to do so…

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

…or the Janis who was capable of this, as long as no one was watching…

Chet Flippo: Did Janis ever have many friends in Port Arthur?

Seth Joplin (Janis’ father): No, she never had many local friends. People were kind of afraid of her, they didn’t know what she might do. Apparently since her death more people here were her friends than she knew. We didn’t have any idea of all the friends she had everywhere. We’ve gotten flowers and messages from all over the world. Something strange, we got as many cards from North Carolina as from Port Arthur. Just like with anybody else-while you’re alive people remember the bad things. When you’re dead, they remember the good things. She said so much bad about Port Arthur, the people and the media here didn’t like her. You’d be surprised at the number of obscene phone calls. While she was alive, we’d get them mostly after she was on TV. Since her death, they’ve mostly been persons laughing or just silent callers.

We got one call from a girl in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She had run away to Los Angeles to be an actress and she was working as a waitress there when she met Janis in a restaurant, she waited on her. They got to talking and Janis told her to get back home. Janis took her to the bus station, bought her a ticket, and put her on a bus for Lake Charles. She called us up to say how much she appreciated that. She’s now married and has a child and she said she would have gone wrong if she had stayed in L.A.

CF:That’s not the sort of thing that was usually associated with Janis.

SJ: No. That’s a side of Janis no one saw. She would only do that if no one was around that she knew, if none of her friends were around. She didn’t want to reveal her true feelings.

(from an interview published on Nov. 12, 1970, full text here)

Frankly, that would make its own movie: The girl Janis sent back to the life she herself had left behind, to some family like the one pictured above, maybe because she recognized how few people are cut out to be Janis Joplin, even for a little while.

Yeah, I’d pay to see that.

Since that’s probably too much to hope for, I’ll settle for, by all means, celebrating and remembering and lionizing this after the conventional fashion…(for those who haven’t seen it, be sure to stay to the end for Cass Elliot’s famous reaction)…

…Just please don’t forget the roads she knew weren’t going to be taken…