IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN….THOUGHTS ON THE 2017 ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES

This year’s performing nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced last week. I always like to put in my two cents and I try to come up with a new approach each year. This year, with artists I have strong feelings about being in short supply on the ballot, I’ve decided to list the actual nominees next to the artist they most resemble (spiritually or temporally) who is more deserving.

You know. According to me.

And rock and roll. Let’s not forget rock and roll.

It’s a long ballot this year, so be sure to strap on your seat-belt. And please, if your sphincter is, as Ferris Bueller might have it, prone to making diamonds from charcoal, proceed with caution…

Actual Nominee: Bad Brains. I don’t really know much about them, but, listening on YouTube, they sound like every other hardcore band except the Minutemen. Like most such bands (not the Minutemen), they started out pretentious (jazz fusion according to Wikipedia and who is surprised?) until they found out where the true belief they could ,milk a ready-made cult career from lay. I only listened to a few cuts, but they certainly sound as if they always knew which side of the bread the butter was on.

Dream Ballot: The Minutemen. I listened to one of their albums all the way through once when I was in my twenties. I’m in my fifties now and I’m still waiting to reach an emotionally secure place before I listen again. I don’t know much about hardcore but I know real genius and the sound of nerves being scraped raw when I hear it.

Actual Nominee: Chaka Khan. Fine. Unlike most rock and roll narrativists, and most of the Hall’s voters, I’m not ready to forget about black people in the seventies. Speaking of which…

Dream Ballot: Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan. Yes, Chaka should be in. She should be in with her great interracial funk band, and they should pave the way for the other great funk bands, interracial (War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band), and otherwise (Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players, Commodores). It seems like the more the nominating committee screws these things up, the more things stay the same.

Actual Nominee: Chic. They should be in. They’ve been consistently nominated for years but can’t overcome the disco hatred. No surprise there. Donna Summer had to die to get in. Even so, they aren’t the most deserving in this genre. That would be…

Dream Ballot: Barry White. Chic has been on the ballot ten times. You’d think they could nominate an even more popular, more innovative and more iconic artist from the same basic gene pool at least once. Come on people. Let’s at least try to make it look like we know what we’re doing!

Actual Nominee: Depeche Mode.Drone music. Admittedly, not my thing. Lots of hits in England and I don’t like to step on other people’s tastes, let alone their passions, but If somebody asked for indisputable evidence of why Britannia no longer rules the waves and soon won’t rule Britannia, I’d play them Depeche Mode music all night long. They could make up their own minds about whether that’s a good thing. Might be more useful if they at least pointed to something better, instead of a black hole.

Dream Ballot: Roxette. I was gonna go with Eurythmics, though they aren’t of the same ilk either (and might actually get on the real ballot some day). But, broadly, this is all Europop, and if there is going to be Europop, then there ought to at least be a fun single every now and then.

Actual Nominee: Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). The early lineup included Roy Wood, and the RRHOF is including Wood in the lineup that will be inducted if they get the votes. They aren’t including Roy Wood for what he did in ELO,  which means they are tacitly acknowledging that this really ought to be…

Dream Ballot: The Move/ELO. They did this for Faces/Small Faces which actually made less sense (The Faces were a much cleaner break from the Small Faces than ELO were from the Move) but certainly opened up nominating possibilities. If you have two borderline deserving bands linked by shared membership, why not just put them together? We could have Free/Bad Company or Manfred Mann/Earth Band, maybe one or two others I’m not thinking of right now. It makes more sense than a lot of other sins of commission/omission presently on the Hall’s head. The Move were probably deserving on their own, despite their lack of success in America. ELO are marginally deserving anyway, and not just because of their massive success in America. Why oh why does the Hall continually shadow box. You had a good idea there a few years back. Run with it.

Actual Nominee: The J. Geils Band. It’s not that the J. Geils Band aren’t deserving. They are. And it’s getting late. They’ve been eligible for a long time. But if we’re mining the White Boy Stomp vein, then let’s go with my old standby…

Dream Ballot: Paul Revere and the Raiders. One of my criteria is that if you either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one, you should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Raiders had a hand in inventing what came to be called garage rock. They certainly helped define it, ergo it doesn’t matter if you call garage rock major or minor. And they were the only band that fits well within even the narrowest definition of the ethos to have a major run of hits. That they’ve never been on the ballot for a hall that includes the Dave Clark Five and the Hollies (both deserving, but still) is silly, really. [Alternate pick: Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.]

Actual Nominee: Jane’s Addiction. A sort of thrash band with sort of Power Pop vocals. They started in the mid-eighties and you can feel them giving in to the awfulness of the times on just about any record I’ve heard (which I confess isn’t all that many, those I’ve heard not making me feel like I’ve missed anything except more dreariness, more unearned angst, more acceptance of defeat as the natural and permanent human condition we should all just learn to live with). Again, I realize these punk/alternative/alt metal//indie/thrash/etc. bands have had a profound impact on somebody’s life. I hate having to dis anybody’s taste. Still….nobody should take the world this hard unless they’ve been in a war.

Dream Ballot: Big Star. It doesn’t even matter who you (or I) like. The RRHOF has a responsibility to history. Putting Jane’s Addiction on a ballot where Big Star have never appeared amounts to criminal negligence.

Actual Nominee: Janet Jackson. No problem here. Miss Jackson had an enormous career and deserves to be in, maybe even on this ballot. But I’m curious…

Dream Ballot: Cyndi Lauper. Leaving aside why Dionne Warwick–Dionne Warwick!–has never appeared on a ballot, and sticking to the same era, why not do the all the way right thing and go with Cyndi?  She made the best album of the eighties, was the last truly inventive vocalist of the rock and roll era (just before the suits allowed the machines to take over–and at a loss on the profit sheet, too–because the machines never talk back), and her acceptance speech would likely be even more priceless than her average interview.

Actual Nominee: Joan Baez. Inducting Joan Baez into the RRHOF as a performer would be a joke. She’s never made anything resembling a great rock and roll record. She’s a perfect candidate, however, for my long-running common sense proposal to have a “Contemporary Influence” category, especially now that the “Early Influence” category is running dry. Other worthy candidates for a concept which could acknowledge great artists who influenced their rock and roll contemporaries without being quite “of” them, would be oft-mentioned names like Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson (country), the Kingston Trio (folk), or even Barbra Streisand or Dean Martin (pop). It would have also been the right category for Miles Davis (already inducted as a performer) and a number of blues acts. But, if this category is not to exist, then at least go with….

Dream Ballot: Peter, Paul and Mary. They were the ones who put Bob Dylan on the charts, two years before the Byrds. If you think this–or Dylan becoming a major star–was merely inevitable, you weren’t quite paying attention. Woody Guthrie never made it…and don’t think he couldn’t have, if PP&M had been there to provide the bridge to the mainstream (whether he would have accepted it is another question, but my guess is he would have). Besides, unlike most of the people who would properly belong in a Contemporary Influence category, they actually made a great rock and roll record…which is not nothing, even if they just did it to prove they could to people who thought “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” was only a joke.

Actual Nominee: Joe Tex. No complaints. No arguments. Joe Tex is the last of the first-rank soul men not to be inducted. He should be.

Dream Ballot: Joe Tex.

Actual Nominee: Journey. I love, without irony or reservation, “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin.” It’s a great record, period. And I don’t hate the stuff everybody else hates. i don’t listen to it, but I don’t run screaming from the room if it’s on either, or get a knot in my stomach that makes me want to start ranting about the decline and fall of civilization (and you know I can find endless reasons to do that). Plus, they sold a bajillion records. Still….Seriously?

Dream Ballot: Three Dog Night. The only reason Three Dog Night weren’t in a long time ago is they didn’t write their hits. If you follow along here, you know that’s not a good reason. Especially when, on average, their hits were a lot greater than Journey’s. (Alternate pick: Def Leppard…they have the advantage of being better than Journey and a more direct replacement. They just weren’t as good as Three Dog Night.)

Actual Nominee: Kraftwerk. Another good candidate for Contemporary Influence, especially since the Nominating Committee, which would control such a category, seems to love them. Again, this not being the case…

Dream Ballot: Roxy Music. Actually, I’m not the best person to make a case for them, but at least they had some hits and a tangential connection to rock and roll. This would also tacitly acknowledge and directly honor the fine work from Brian Eno’s and Bryan Ferry’s solo careers. And does anyone really believe they were less influential than Kraftwerk?

Actual Nominee: MC5. I let my MC5 CDs go in the great CD selloff of 2002. I liked them pretty well, but I never got around to buying them back. As one of the six great bands (The Stooges, Big Star, The Ramones, Mott the Hoople and one I’m about to mention were the others) who bridged the garage band ethos to punk, they should be in. I’d pick them last, mind you (The Stooges and the Ramones, the two I might have picked them ahead of, are already in), but they should be in. Some day. Meanwhile…

Dream Ballot: The New York Dolls. I wonder what might have happened if they had lasted longer. I always loved this performance on The Midnight Special (that they were even on tells you how great The Midnight Special was), where they start with about six fans and end with about eight. I don’t know how far another five years would have taken them…to a hundred maybe? a thousand?….but I bet they’d be in the Hall already if they had made it that far.

Actual Nominee: Pearl Jam. Of course they’ll get in. All that cred. They can’t miss. And that’s fine. They helped define grunge. That’s vital, maybe even major. Well deserving of induction. But here’s the thing…

Dream Ballot: The Shangri-Las. Just curious, but besides turning up the amps and groaning a lot, what did Eddie Vedder do in a quarter-century that Mary Weiss didn’t do, without a trace of his trademark stridency, in three minutes on her first hit? What new place did he get to? Go ahead. Explain it to me. Please….

[NOTE: For any of my fellow Shangs’ aficionados, this link contains an intro I’ve never heard before, plus the extended finale that I’ve linked in the past. It’s the story that never ends.]

Actual Nominee: Steppenwolf. Is Biker Rock really a genre? Is introducing the phrase “heavy metal” to the world enough, in and of itself, to ensure enshrinement? I’m not sure, but if either of these be the case, Steppenwolf should be voted in immediately. Just in case it’s otherwise…

Dream Ballot: Lee Michaels. Why not? If we’ve come this far down the where-can-we-find-more-White-Boys-to-nominate road, aren’t we just messing with people? (Alternate pick: The Guess Who.)

Actual Nominee: The Cars. Cheap Trick got in last year and it’s nice to see to see Power Pop getting some love. The Cars were probably also the most successful New Wave band after Blondie (already in), so I’d always consider voting for them. However…

Dream Ballot: Raspberries. If you really started and/or mainstreamed the Power Pop thing (to the extent that somebody was going to be forced to give it a name), and if your best records are better than anything the thing produced afterwards (well, except for the Go-Go’s maybe), and your front man was the biggest single talent in the whole history of the thing, then shouldn’t you be first in line?

Actual Nominee: The Zombies. I like the Zombies plenty. But the depth of the Nominating Committee’s love for them is a little odd. A few great singles and a cult album (Odessey and Oracle) that has traveled the classic critical journey once outlined by Malcolm Cowley (it boiled down to everything now underrated will eventually be overrated and vice versa) is a borderline HOF career at best.

Dream Ballot: Manfred Mann. Especially if you include all its incarnations (and after the  Hall-approved Faces/Small Faces induction, why wouldn’t you?), the never-nominated Manfreds are more deserving on every level. The first version made greater singles and more of them. The second version morphed into Bob Dylan’s favorite interpreters of his music and, along the way, made an album (called The Mighty Quinn in the U.S.) which sounds better to these ears than Odessey and Oracle ever did. Then the third and fourth versions (called Chapter Three and Earth Band) became long running jazz fusion/classic rock troupers. (And yeah, I love their “Blinded By the Light” in both its single and album versions. We all have our heresies.) Mann’s greatest genius was for discovering standout vocalists to sell his concepts every step of the way. And, whatever gets played from the stage of next year’s induction ceremony, I bet it won’t be as good as this…

Actual Nominee: Tupac Shakur. If this is going to re-open the door for pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa or LL Cool J or Eric B. and Rakim, then fine and dandy. They’ve all been on the ballot before. I hope they won’t be forgotten in the coming years, when pressure to induct more modern hip-hop acts grows and when five will get you twenty the Hall’s obvious but never acknowledged penchant for quotas and tokenism remains firmly in place. Still, for me…

Dream Ballot: Naughty By Nature. Yes, even above all the rest. I still think “O.P.P.” is the greatest hip-hop record. I still think “Mourn You Til I Join You,” is the greatest tribute record in a genre that has required far too many. I still think “How will I do it, how will I make it? I won’t, that’s how,” is the finest rap line, (just ahead of Ice-T’s “How can there be justice on stolen land?”) Plenty of early rockabilly stars made it in on less (and deservedly). So sue me.

Actual Nominee: Yes. Prog rock. Yes, of course. That will be very useful in the days to come. Most helpful.

Dream Ballot: Fairport Convention. This year, of all years, we really should find every excuse to listen close. Admittedly, next year promises to be worse.

Happy Holidays ya’ll…Don’t let the Grim Reaper get ya’!

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Nineteenth)

Haven’t done one of these in a while. One has to take a break sometimes…but, as the world insists on turning round and the sun insists on shining, so to do the crit-illuminati continue in their ceaseless quest to rearrange reality…Ergo:

Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock ‘n’ roll.

No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Hibbing, Minnesota, would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world’s first and greatest rock ‘n’ roll beatnik bard and then—having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning—vanish into a folk tradition of his own making.

(J. Hoberman, “Like a Complete Unknown: I’m Not There and the Changing Face of Bob Dylan on Film” Village Voice, November 13, 2007)

Now that, “never been born” bit is maybe a touch too illuminating. It trades the subtler forms of thought control for wish fulfillment.

But as the world’s foremost interpreter of crit-illuminati speak, let me translate the whole thing for you.

Elvis is not one of us. (If we can’t make him go away, we can at least make that point perfectly clear!)

Bob Dylan…he is one of us!

See how simple that is?

One thing I’ve never been clear on is whether there is some sort of entrance exam required for either entry to crit-illuminati circles or promotion therein.

If there is one, I’m pretty sure extra credit must be given for being able to say stupid stuff about Elvis and Bob Dylan at the same time.

HEY, NOBODY’S PERFECT…

…Certainly not the Nobel Prize committees, including the one that picks winners for “literature.”

But, for once, somebody deserving has won something, namely Robert Zimmerman, the now and again Poet Laureate of Hibbing, Minnesota, Greenwich Village, and Enlightened People Everywhere.

Kinda weird in one way, though, because even Bob Dylan knows who America’s “greatest living poet,” is.

Lest we forget…

…or some member of the illuminati wants to be useful for once and start a campaign for next year.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Smokey Robinson Up)

“Sweet Harmony”
Smokey Robinson (1973)
#48 Billboard
# 31 Billboard R&B
Recommended source: The 35th Anniversary Collection

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When Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.” I think the general assumption was that he was referring to Smokey’s way with words and hence being modest in granting the title to someone else that so many had, rather justifiably, bestowed upon him.

And were it only a matter of words, I suppose there still might be an argument. I wouldn’t want to say a wordsmith responsible for, say, “Tracks of My Tears” or “The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage” ever had to take a back seat to anyone.

But words were only a fraction of what the words “Smokey Robinson” meant. If by “poet” one assumes the totality of an artist–in Robinson’s case, artistry that included words, melodies, arrangements, productions (of his own records and many others), vocals, iconography, performances (both live and in studios), assignations with the Cosmos, generosity of the spirit–then one does not need to reckon with Dylan’s modesty or his tendency to play mind games. The phrase “America’s greatest living poet” becomes literal enough and true almost to the point of inarguability.

All of that was well established by the time Smokey decided to quit the Miracles in 1973. Within a couple of years, he would define, and name, Quiet Storm, a new approach to adult ballad singing that would become the last important classic R&B radio format. Sort of what poets do.

In between, though, he released “Sweet Harmony” as his first solo single.

It should have been a natural smash: The most beautiful song ever written by the guy who had written so many of the era’s other “most”-whatever songs, sung to both break and lift the heart, as a tribute to his best friends.

For whatever reason, it wasn’t. The reason I recommend encountering it on the box set I linked above is that it means something different bleeding out of the fifteen years of  genius and sweat that preceded it. It’s gorgeous in any context, almost unbearably so in that one, where, more than ever, it sounds both a tribute to the entire era of soul music, just then beginning to pass into the night, and an attempt to heal the new divisions rising within, divisions that rend us still.

Those southern soul horn charts from the master of Motown couldn’t be there by accident. Not when the master was our greatest living poet they couldn’t.

 

DYLAN BECOMES DYLAN (Segue of the Day: 8/15/16)

Or maybe just…becomes.

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I’ve never listened all that close to Bob Dylan’s first two albums until here recently. What changed is that I acquired The Original Mono Recordings box set a couple of years back and I’ve since been able to listen to the legend “busy being born” in clear crystal sound instead of my old battered used vinyl copies.

Even so, I never really bore down on the experience until this week, when I decided to try and put my finger on why I like the first album, simply titled Bob Dylan,  which sold 5,000 copies when it was released, so much better than the second, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.That’s the one that set Greenwich Village on fire on the way to changing the world and all.

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It’s certainly not the covers. The cover is the best thing about the second album. It even sort of promises that what’s inside will be the main thing it’s not, which is “freewheein’.”

Even decades of general familiarity (you could end up knowing a lot about Dylan’s second album–like the lyrics to a lot of the songs–just by being alive for the last fifty years) left me unprepared for how safe the newly minted “Bob Dylan” was prepared to play it after that first album flopped.

And, by safe, I mean, of course, vocally. Which, as most of you know, is what matters around here.

Getting to know that first LP in the last year or so has been a revelation, so much so that I wonder how I could have possibly missed it before, irrespective of the quality of my old, used vinyl. It wouldn’t be fair to say Dylan made it sound like he was breathing a revolution (the quality that made so many intellectual gatekeepers underestimate the art that went into the early efforts of Fats and Elvis and Little Richard). But he was still the freest voice to enter popular music since the mid-fifties. And he was mostly singing other people’s songs. As so often happens–as it had happened with Hank Williams and Chuck Berry, among others–you start out thinking it’s the songs, but it’s really the voice.

Nearly as startling as Dylan’s first voice–and the way he used that voice–was his harmonica playing. Not just the fire and dexterity he put into it, but the way he wove it into his singing, as though it were simply an extension of his singing, constantly challenging and enlarging itself.

I know all this is hardly news to long-time Dylanistas who have followed him since whenever. But, however much I’ve loved his mid-sixties music since it first whopped me up side the head in the late seventies, I wasn’t prepared to have what I had imagined to be Dylan-the-Burgeoning-Folkie make such a purely vocal impression and then sustain it for the length of that first album.

And that, in turn, might be why I was/am so unprepared for the restrictions he put on himself when it came time to make his second album. On the first four tracks (which only include “Blowin’ In the Wind,” and “Masters of War”), he doesn’t sound so much like he put his harp in his pocket as somebody shoved it up his sphincter. Sorry, but this doesn’t sound like a man breaking free. Maybe it did then. Maybe the mere fact that he didn’t “sing pretty” was liberating and forward-looking. These days, it sounds almost impossibly affected, the epitome of everything every note of his first album had been prepared to mock–the sound of freedom reduced to the sound of surrender.

And, except for his always cutting way with a talking blues (though he cut even deeper on live shows from the period), he sounds like he’s sleepwalking through the whole thing.

Given what I know about both the purely cynical crony capitalists who are forever lingering somewhere in the background of every inexplicable thing and the highly gullible earnest folkies who snatched up Freewheelin’ and then carried Dylan right up to the moment he stabbed them in the face by “going electric,” I suspect this is the sound of a supremely calculating young man who has judged the odds and accepted what must be done to get where he is going from where he’s been.

It’s also the sound of a man who might be harboring a grudge against more than just the masters of war–a grudge that would carry him right past his core audience when it was finally time to merge the various “Dylans” of these first two LPs into the full might and fury of Highway 61 Revisited.

Heard that way, Freewheelin’ becomes almost as subversive as either Bob Dylan or its own legend.

That’s how genius rolls, I guess–if you’re moving a little too fast…slow down and wait for the main chance.

And, as always, God bless Peter, Paul and Mary and/or Albert Grossman for hearing hits in “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

I not only wouldn’t have, I still don’t. Miracles happen.

HOSS OF HOSSES (Waylon Jennings, Vocalist of the Month: 8/16)

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 16: Country musician Waylon Jennings performs onstage with his Fender Telecaster electric guitar at the Palomino on June 16, 1970 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Near the end of Dawn at Socorro, one of those lean-as-a-tomcat westerns Hollywood turned out every other day in the fifties, Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-reform-and-waitin’-for-a-train gunfighter has somebody else’s gun handed to him at the station and is told destiny will be along “in two minutes.”

The station master pokes his head out of the office to ask if he knows who’s coming for him.

“My past,” Calhoun’s Brett Wade says, just before he steps into the street where he’ll gun down four men to keep a girl he met the day before from having to some day say the same. “Every dark, miserable day of it.”

Every great country singer’s voice carries some version of that lament within but Waylon Jennings was its most perfect embodiment.

Partly it was a matter of persona. But, regarding some matters, persona isn’t enough. Sometimes, you can’t even talk the talk without first walking the walk.

In the salons and “scenes” where the importance of everything is decided for the rest of us, Waylon’s old comrade-in-arms, Willie Nelson, is the hip one, the name-dropped one, the artiste, the one who nobody would want living in the neighborhood exactly (I mean, who’s so gauche he can’t even fox the taxman?), but who would definitely be fun at parties. If somebody’s on PBS right now talking about how they just love those “rough-voiced” eccentrics who didn’t sing too pretty, they might throw Willie in there with Louis Armstrong or Bob Dylan or even Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.

I only know this because I’ve heard them do it.

A lot.

They don’t throw in Waylon.

Oh, they’ll speak fondly of him if his name happens to come up.

Wasn’t he friends with Willie?

Such an outlaw, too. They started that whole thing, you know. Good for them!

I mean who at PBS or the Voice doesn’t love an outlaw?

They’re always a little reserved, though. Sure they love Waylon.

But they always want to get back to talking about Willie.

Or something.

Anything.

And that makes sense, because deep down, I don’t think even the dimmest pinot-sipper in the land fails to understand that if they ever find themselves in a hinterland roadhouse (presumably on some assignment roughly equivalent to reporting from the African bush), they’ll be in a world that sure does love old Willie and sure does know he’s great….and sure knows he ain’t Waylon.

When you cross that old Red River of the heart, boys, Waylon Jennings is still the king.

 *   *   *   *

How and why?

The outline of the tale is familiar. Buddy Holly’s band. Lost a coin flip for a seat on the plane.

I’ll be nice and warm at the next stop while you’re freezin’ your ass off on that bus son.

Yeah, well I hope your old plane crashes!

Words to that effect.

The future waiting to be born, son.

Every dark, miserable day of it.

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Then the rest. An all but inevitable guilt-and-recovery period in West Texas followed by the usual road to Nashville and as conventional a stardom as a genuine eccentric can have. Hits. The Opry. Whiskey river. Nicotine stains. Life on the road in a hillbilly band.

And, all along the way, a series of accumulations: of wisdom, hard knocks, gravitas, a catch in the throat. Always the spiritual and physical pull back to Texas, where, more or less inevitably, “outlaw” morphed from an attitude into what should have been a pretty disposable image, a way to sell records for a few years until the next thing came along.

Except with Waylon, it was more than just a phase. The word fit any number of people, but he was the only one who made it sound necessary, while also keeping a claim on the top of the country charts for as long as any of the perfectly respectable superstars aiming for the middle of the road. Between the “just try and make me give a shit” world represented by Billy Joe Shaver and the “send my regrets” aspirational world represented by someone as tough as even Merle Haggard, there was no guarantee of a fit–no guarantee that anyone could sing from the other side of the tracks without even pretending he wanted to cross over. Waylon Jennings was one of those singers the world didn’t know it needed–and who maybe didn’t know it needed him–until he found his true voice.

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You can hear every step of that journey, including the discomfort with form-and-formula’s easy promises that meant he would eventually have to strike out down his own path, and the disdain for form-and-formula’s easy rewards that meant no easy hat–not even the outlaw hat–would ever quite fit his head, on Nashville Rebel, the superb box set from 2006.

It’s a long way from being the only Waylon you’ll ever need, but it’s still a stunning overview, and with 93 cuts that stretch from 1958 to 1995, it’s a deep dive.

You could go deeper. Just for starters, this doesn’t have his originals of “Broken Promise Land” (an album cut that was later a fine hit for Mark Chestnutt) or “Where Corn Don’t Grow” (a stiff that was later an even finer hit for Travis Tritt). I mean when you can leave this of your four-disc box set, you’re catalog is pretty much bottomless:

A close listen to that cut goes some way toward explaining why the taste-makers have never quite been comfortable embracing Waylon’s music, however much they pretend to be enamored of his image. There’s a tremulous catch that’s forever threatening to break into a sob, a device he used more than occasionally on ballads. It’s a device familiar to Pentecostal Sunday mornings, where it’s used almost exclusively by rough-hewn males overcome by some regret, real or imagined.

And with Waylon, as with the sinners he was emulating–or honoring–it’s not always possible to extricate the real emotion from the professional showmanship. Is that a true catch in his throat, or one carefully summoned for the occasion?

This, too, is a common thread among country singers, one shared with white gospel singers the way shoutin’-n’-moanin’ is shared by black gospel and soul singers. On either side of that narrow divide, sometimes the raw emotion is too real for words, sometimes too synthetic for advertising. Either way, in the voices of of the greats, it’s always posited as a means of not merely striving to connect experiences, but of telling the true believers (that is, the ones who know which part of the fakery is meant only for them and is, oddly, therefore earned) from the deep-dyed poseurs (who are always certain their b.s. detector is superior to yours) .

Waylon Jennings, who could calculate a sloppy tear-in-the-beer as well as any pew-bound side-burned car salesman who ever lived, teased out the distinctions between hard truth (lived!) and careful constructs (imagined!…or “faked”) like no one else this side of Solomon Burke. It’s a quality Robert Christgau once summed up as “grease.”

But the audience Waylon sang for knew grease doesn’t always mean Brylcreem. Sometimes it means you’ve been working the gears. Sometimes it means you’re shiny with sweat. Yeah, it still means the word-slingers at the Village Voice are looking down on you. It means that, no matter how you cut it. But some of those definitions earn you the right to slough off the others. You sweat enough, work enough, and everybody who did the same will cut you some slack on the grease-stain your head leaves on the pillow case. There are places where your work ethic–finally inextricable from your willingness to continually put yourself on the line between art and showmanship–will earn you a sneer.

Other places it just means you are walking the walk

*   *   *  *

So Waylon Jennings, with the perfect name, perfect biography, perfect voice, perfect set of sins, walked the walk up one side of country stardom and down the other.

Up to Nashville…

Disc 1-4:

Disc 1-13:

Disc 1-19:

Where some part of him could never quite fit…

Disc 1-24:

And there was no choice except to keep shearing away everything that wasn’t strictly necessary, while he walked down the other side of the slippery slope where everybody expects you to take a header…

Disc 2-8 and 2-18:

Until, if you surprise everybody and manage to stay upright, somebody in the advertising department has to come up with the obvious and call you “Outlaw”…

Disc 2-22:

Which turns out to be just a way to hide in plain sight while you dig deeper…

Disc 2-20:

After which, you have a chance to do your schtick …

Disc 3-9:

Disc 3-20:

And then, having proved yourself four times over, you earn a chance, just every once in a while, to be free…

Disc 4-6:

Disc 4-15:

Like all the greatest singers in any genre, The Hoss carried the weight of everything he had done–for and to himself, for and to others–in even his slightest performances. More than most great singers, there came a time he had done enough for and to everybody that nothing was ever really slight. Which is why this box tracks all the way to the end.

Disc 4-20:

So long Slick.

Back in the land where most of us got called Hoss by somebody or other, we haven’t forgot who the real Hoss is….

Disc 3-1:

…or that the first requirement is the ability to laugh at yourself

Waylon Jennings: 1937-2002

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(Note: I’m going to make an extra effort to get the Vocalist of the Month category going again. As part of the new day, I’m going to recommend some good starting points for anyone not already familiar with the artist. As always, I ask you to consider clicking through my site’s icon if you want to buy anything from Amazon. I get a few pennies on the dollar and any proceeds go to supporting the site or purchasing material for review.)

Recommended:

Box Set:

Nashville Rebel (2006) A fantastic box, partially reviewed above, which stretches from the late fifties to the mid-nineties. There’s no better place to get a firm grasp on the scope of Jennings’ achievement. What I’ve linked above is a smattering.

Best of:

Time Life Legendary Country Singers (1996) On the other hand, if you want to limit yourself to the highlights, you can’t beat this collection, which is long out of print but tends to be readily available cheap and used.

Studio Albums:

Lonesome, On’ry and Mean (1973)
Dreaming My Dreams (1975)
Turn the Page (1985)

The pick of the litter from the half dozen or so I own. I imagine there are a dozen more of the same quality but these give a good sense of what was going on behind the hits.

Live Album:

Waylon Live! Expanded Edition (2003) A good bet for the greatest live country collection and a match for any live music released in any genre. This turns the excellent album he released in 1976 into a two-hour dream show that doesn’t quit. One of those moments (or series of related moments) when everything comes together…and everything clicks.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Dobie Gray Up)

“We Had It All”
Dobie Gray (1973)
Not released as a single.
Recommended source: Drift Away: A Decade of Dobie (1969-1979) (Highly recommended if you have the bucks. One of the era’s great undersung vocalists)

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This is a song that’s been done by Waylon Jennings (he had the country hit), Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones (as a late seventies outtake available on YouTube), Bob Dylan and a cast of thousands.

Like more than a few songs recorded by lots of people it was defined by Dobie Gray. Like every record defined by Dobie Gray that wasn’t “Drift Away” or “The In Crowd,” it was not a big hit. In this case, it was not even released as a single–probably because Waylon (or Waylon’s label) beat him to the punch.

It was a highlight of Gray’s debut LP for MCA, which was also his first attempt at cracking the black-man-in-Nashville code that, in eighty years of the town’s race-coded hegemony, has only been fully solved by Charley Pride and Darius Rucker.

When Dobie came to town, there was a whiff of unusual promise. The era saw established artists like the Pointer Sisters and Tina Turner (this was when she took her own fine crack at “We Had It All”) follow Ray Charles’ long-ago footsteps to the country capital. Better than that, fabulous singers with truly country roots and voices–Gray, Stoney Edwards, O.B. McClinton–came tantalizingly close to establishing themselves on country radio, a bond which, if ever fully formed, would have been bound to be long-lasting. No audience is quite as loyal as the country audience.

It didn’t happen.

I wonder where we’d be now if it had.

We can’t know, but Dobie Gray often sounded like a man who had already accepted the impossibility of catching the version of the American dream–the real American dream–he was chasing. Never more so than here, where every word smiles and every word aches.

(NOTE: The only singer who gave Dobie a run for his money when he dug in was Elvis, who matched him on “Lovin’ Arms” and “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel (Who’ll Take Me Back In).” I’ll give a dollar on a nickel he knew a fellow dreamer when he heard one.)

IT WAS (UH, OH) THE EIGHTIES. AND THEN (UH, OH) IT WAS THE NINETIES. AND THEN? UH, OH. (Segue of the Day: 6/17/16)

The eighties were the first decade/generation/historical epoch/whatever when America started eating its young. It’s easy to forget now that the decade’s defining pop star (even without necessarily being it’s most successful–that was Michael Jackson) made her best records about the search for identity. Me, I remembered it just today, when this, from 1984, came on the nostalgia station.

It was the last moment when you could get away with that. Now, nobody has an identity. What we each have instead–especially the young–is our “space.” That’s what all those tattoos and body piercings are for. They’re what happens when there’s nothing left to reach for, no identity to dream of that might be connected to anything larger than your own physical dimension. We’ve arrived at an ending that was determined by the matrix of public and private decisions being made when “Borderline” was first on the radio. We went from “there but for the grace of God go I” to “I’ve got mine and if you don’t have yours you must be a sucker” in an eye blink. This isn’t one of those cases where I had to read about it. I was the right age to notice and the right age to remember what I saw.

How it happened–like whether Madonna, the “material girl,” was part of the problem or just offering herself up as a public warning–is a question I’ll have to wrestle with some other time, (like maybe when I list my “ten most important people in the history of rock and roll”).

Today, though, the nostalgia radio followed on with this, from 1993, an assurance that the damage was, by then, already done. Like “Borderline” it now works as both a memory-aid (how fresh our Road to Fail felt back then) and a discomfortingly cold eye cast on the present (how lived-in and blah it feels now). Like “Borderline,” it still cuts if you listen close. Like “Borderline” it cuts inside a much smaller space, the space where I mostly can’t hear you and you mostly can’t hear me. As always, I insist that we can’t say we weren’t warned.

After that, a commercial came on and I switched to another station in time to catch “Summer of ’69” and “Walk of Life,” big nostalgia-driven hits for Bryan Adams and Dire Straits in 1985, already insisting the past I had just missed was better than the present I was living. They weren’t exactly wrong, either. It wasn’t that the past was so great, of course. It’s just that it promised the possibility of something better than any present that arrived, in 1985 or now.

I do want to be clear, though. I had lots of fun singing along in my little personal space, where I also just read that biker gangs are now offering security for Trump events!

Gee, can’t wait til summer comes.

[Note: I let YouTube play after I linked Soul Asylum and it went straight to Bob Dylan’s son singing “One Headlight” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979.” Hah! A fresh segue. Lucky for me I have a rule about not doing more than one a day! Recommended listening though.]

“POSSESSOR OF THE MAGIC TOUCH” (Dave Swarbrick, R.I.P.)

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I guess the other side needed a rolling minstrel. Dave Swarbrick, famous player of violins, electric and otherwise, has passed at the age of 75. The highlight of a very long career came with his work on Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief, two of the finest albums ever made in any form. In a band that contained Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny at the height of their powers, Swarbrick was still essential, able to effortlessly immerse himself in the mix until, gently or fiercely as needed, it was time to take center stage. His persistently eerie and imaginative responses to Denny’s doomed siren call here form a perfect representation of Fairport’s ethos…

But my very favorite moment from him is probably the lattice-weave country fiddle played here…

That’s “If you gotta go, go now,” for those who may have forgotten their Dylan or their French.

Indeed.

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DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Jackie DeShannon Up)

“I Can Make It With You”
Jackie DeShannon (1966)
Billboard: #68
(Recommended Source: Come and Get Me: The Complete Liberty and Imperial Singles Volume 2)

jdeshannon1Except for her two big hits, “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “Put a Little Love In Your Heart,” Jackie DeShannon’s entire career might be described as one big diamond in the shade. She was half of the first successful all-female songwriting team in the history of American music, the godmother of what came to be called folk rock, likely the first rocker to cover Bob Dylan, the progenitor of the ethos that came to be called “singer-songwriter” and a Hall of Fame songwriter who scored hits on other people for thirty years. Before and after she was all that, she was one of the half-dozen greatest blue-eyed soul singers. So, in anticipation of a very long, semi-autobiographical piece inspired by one of her great compositions (“(He’s) The Great Imposter”), which I’ll have up in the next day or two, I’ll choose to honor this little piece of her today.