HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume Fourteen: “Indiana Wants Me”)

“Indiana Wants Me”
(1970)
Artist: R. Dean Taylor
Writer: R. Dean Taylor

Existential question:

When the crit-illuminati mock, is it because they don’t understand….or because they do?

Just wondering…

From March 21, 2006:

Where have all the tear-jerking story songs gone? Unless “It’s hard out here for a pimp” qualifies, I think the genre’s mostly dead. Good riddance. I’m not sure where they began – you could trace them back to 50s tunes about drag races and dead girlfriends, or back to blues / jazz tunes with simple story lines like “Frankie and Johnny” [Cliff Notes versions: she shot him, inasmuch as he had done, and was doing, and presumably would continue to do, her wrong.] But the late 60s and early 70s had a spate of them, and for some reason “Indiana Wants Me” had a special place in our junior-high hearts – it ended with sirens and a policeman calling “This is the police. You are surrounded. Give yourself up. ” Poor guy! And what had he done wrong, really? Well, he killed a guy – but the lug had it coming, since “No one had the right to say the things he said.” What? That pi was actually a finite number? White shoes could be worn in March? “Catsup” was the preferred spelling, not “Ketchup”? Whatever it was, shooting seemed a rather drastic response. Then again, I never understood why Big Bad John got into a fight over a Caging Queen. Lyrics were a boundless source of mystery.

Come to think of it, “Indiana Wants Me” probably doesn’t take place in Indiana at all, since the singer is a fugitive. Wonder why he chose that state. “Minnesota Wants Me” sounds like a tourist promotion; “Iowa wants me” sounds like you’re being invited to an elderly aunt’s house for tea. “North Dakota wants me” is rather obvious, given the population decline. “Indiana” has that flat Charlie-Starkweather Midwestern vibe, I guess. [Yes, yes, I know, he was a Nebraskan. And if ever there is a word that describes the feeling of the wind in the Midwest in late December, it’s that: Nebraskan Starkweather. On the other hand, put a Roman numeral after it, and it sounds all WASPy and country-clubbed: Nebraskan Starkweather III]

(James Lileks, Blog Post from March 21, 2006)

Well, that’s one way of putting it.

Here’s another way.

Story songs have all but disappeared because “story” needs communal norms (what used to be called Civilization) to communicate. Go to your local bookstore (if you have one–they needed Civilization too), pick up any literary magazine (yes, they still have them) and read any two paragraphs of any entry published within. I can’t say what all you might find. What you won’t find is anything resembling a story.

“Indiana Wants Me” is one of the great story songs–great in part because of its refusal to give any of those unnecessary details Lileks pretends to miss. Its assumption that, in a communal setting with shared assumptions, you can fill in the blanks.

A man kills another man because that man insulted his wife (we know they’re married because no hanger on would kill a man for insulting a woman–any woman).

The man knows what the consequences of his decision are.

It means he’ll die in a standoff with the police.

That’s the story.

Bruce Springsteen (following fellow Great Artists like Woodie Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard) has spent his entire career chasing that story–and not just the whole story, but that perfect phrase about a man who needed dying.

And, just like all the others, including those who were dust before “Indiana Wants Me” existed, he’ll die trying to catch up, trying to give it a new dimension.

Like all the others, he’ll fail.

The world has moved on.

Stories are no more. No common assumptions (about who “needs” dying, or anything else), no stories.

It’s possible R. Dean Taylor–a white Motown staffer (part of the staff that wrote, among others “Love Child” for the Supremes and “All I Need” for the Temptations) who wrote “Indiana Wants Me” as a response to seeing Bonnie and Clyde and eventually recorded its superb country lyric as a self-produced Tommy James soundalike for Motown’s Rare Earth subsidiary and watched it become that label’s biggest international hit–didn’t know his story songs were a mere generation from going out of style.

It’s also possible he did.

1970 was almost the exact turning point from a world where “if a man ever needed dying he did, no on had the right to say what he said….about you” (that pause is everything, until that pause and the two words that follow, the killer and the man he leaves dead might be any sort, after that pause, and those two words, they are fixed in a moral universe with unalterable rules) went from a statement understood by all (even those who mocked or disagreed or professed ignorance of honor codes or horror at their application) to a world where such statements, and the sentiments behind them, are incomprehensible.

Lileks is a self-styled conservative BTW. And re-reading his piece last week, I was reminded of the flurry of bloggers who gained traction in the wake of Donald Trump’s candidacy and soon became labeled “Alt-Right.”

They have a lot of fun mocking the Lileks–style mockers and one point they’ve made ad nauseum (a point in keeping with my own early-and-often categorization of Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate and Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve): “Conservatives” have conserved nothing.

The difference between the Alt-Righters and me, regarding the collapse, over the last half-century, of the millennia-old traditions that under-gird Liberal Democracy–and, with it, all the traditions that forbade us from doing whatever we liked, from eating the wrong foods to mowing down rooms full of school kids, “just because”–is two-fold.

One is, they think Liberal Democracy has failed for mechanical reasons–that nature has reasserted itself over men’s better angels, rather than men making unwise choices of conscience. Like Reactionaries of all stripes, Left and Right, they believe barbarism, and its attendant cycle of chaos and tyranny, are inevitable and we best get on with the supreme duty of the cycle’s proper management.

Two is: They’re happy about it–about a world where everything is called into question.

Like, for instance…why Indiana?

Because it sings, moron. Your version of “conservativism” is deader than the traditions of story, song and Civilization your devotion to nihilism was designed to destroy.

Good riddance.

EPIC B-SIDES…A HANDY TEN

This is the flip-side to my post on obscure b-sides (and sorry for the borken links–YouTube giveth and YouTube taketh away). As I noted before, three acts could easily qualify for their own “Handy Ten”–Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys. I left them off this list, too. Ten is such a measly number anyway. No need to make it harder.

I also left off b-sides that were hits (think Ricky Nelson’s “Helly Mary Lou,” which definitely would have been here otherwise, or Bruce Springsteen’s  “Pink Cadillac” which might have been). I also limited myself to one record per artist (else the Shangri-Las would have three or four).

And because I already covered the true obscurities, these are all by successful artists (as opposed to one-hit wonders)–most people know the acts, even if they don’t know the records.

What’s left is still a weird and beautiful secret history of rock and roll. If these were the biggest/best hits these acts ever had, the world would not have been the worse for it.

1959–“What About Us” (A-side: “Run Red Run”)
The Coasters

The Coasters/Robins were not exactly slouches in the B-side department themselves. I picked this one because, in combo with “Run Red Run” it’s an early example of the concept single, which a lot of crit-illuminati types think couldn’t possibly have existed before “Strawberry Fields” or, at the very outside, “Don’t Worry Baby.”

1964–“Silence is Golden” (A-Side: “Rag Doll”)
The 4 Seasons

I first heard this on a Seasons’ comp in the late seventies. I remember being shocked–I don’t think benumbed is too strong a word–to learn it was never promoted as a single (i.e., that there had once been a world where this could be relegated to a B-side because the A-side was only “Rag Doll”…and that, little more than a decade later, such a world no longer existed). Then I found out it had been a hit for an English group called the Tremeloes. Then I heard the Tremeloes’ version. Good God.

1966–“I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (A-Side: “Sunny Afternoon”)
The Kinks

This is in the conversation for the greatest record the Kinks ever made. If the conversation is with me, it’s not even a conversation. And yes, I’m aware of the extreme competition.

1967–“I’ll Never Learn” (A-Side: “Sweet Sounds of Summer”)
The Shangri-Las

Speaking of being shocked and benumbed…The record I think of first when I think of all that’s been lost in the fifty years since. Mainly the future that never arrived…and I don’t just mean Mary Weiss’s career.

1967–“I’ll Turn to Stone” (A-Side: “7-Rooms of Gloom”)
The Four Tops

No way a handy ten of epic B-Sides would be complete without Motown, but this is a new discovery for me. I came across it when I was researching a possible post on co-writer R. Dean Taylor. To think: “7-Rooms of Gloom” as the upbeat, radio-ready side! (And FWIW it replaced the Go-Go’s “Surfing and Spying” which is the proof that Charlotte Caffey was a walking encyclopedia of surf guitar and sadly missed. Like I said, ten is a measly number.)

1968–“Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” (A-Side: “Abraham, Martin and John”)
Dion

I love “Abraham, Martin and John” unreservedly. But I can only imagine the shock that must have occurred to anyone who turned it over in 1968. It’s still shocking.

1969–“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” (A-Side: “Snatching It Back”)
Clarence Carter

A sermon on sex. Guilt-free, too. Until the end. Starts funny as Richard Pryor. Ends deep as James Carr.

1973–“Something” (A-Side: James’ nine hundredth version of “Think,” all necessary.)
James Brown

George Harrison’s favorite version….of hundreds.

1977–“Silver Springs” (A-Side: “Go Your Own Way”)
Fleetwood Mac

Left off Rumours as a casualty of the permanent psychodrama that was Buckingham/Nicks. Else they just didn’t have room (hahahahaha!). Restored to various versions of the album in the CD-era, with stunning outtakes added on the multi-disc release. The rare song left off a classic album which, when restored to its original running order (at the top of the second side), doesn’t just improve the album but force-multiplies its power.

1981–“Psycho” (A-Side: “Sweet Dreams.” What else?)
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

I was gonna go with Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land,” which is scarier, but I decided to keep this an all rock and roll affair.

Love the cheering at the end. What else should one do after “Mama why don’t you get up?”

That seems an appropriate place to end this.

BEAST OF WHAT NOW? THE HELL YOU SAY! (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #128)

I’ve always been fascinated by acts who have exactly one great rock and roll record in them. It happened a lot in rock’s first two decades, when amateurs or quasi-pros or wannabes often caught lightning in a bottle. Of such things were doo wop, girl groups and surf and garage band legends made.

Then there were the pros. Barbra Streisand singing “Stoney End” comes to mind. It really was just the one studio moment, as she’s camped up every performance of the song since the day she cut it.

In some ways even stranger is Bette Midler’s take on “Beast of Burden.” She recorded it as a replacement for Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” when he blocked her from releasing her version because it “wasn’t a girl’s song” and it doesn’t so much smoke the Rolling Stones as stomp a hole through their rotting carcass.

Stranger still because, unlike Streisand, rock and roll seemed like it should have been Midler’s forte. But, except for this, it wasn’t. I can see how the Stones never quite recovered from the shock. It’s one thing if Linda Ronstadt goes toe-to-toe with you. It’s another thing when someone whose entire career has careened from camp to sentiment and back again (sometimes, as on “The Rose” or her cover of John Prine’s “Hello In There,” earned sentiment, more often not quite), just flat out kicks you to the curb like it’s all in a day’s work.

Based on “Beast of Burden” you’d have thought she could be a better Pat Benetar without breaking a sweat.

I thought I had covered all this a few years back when I posted the MTV video of Midler and Jagger having a ball with it. There’s a cleaner version of the video available now–still the only proof I’ve seen that Mick has a sense of humor (as opposed to recognizing the uses of appearing to have one–that came with the Lucifer Lessons).

Even here, though, the Spirit of Camp is hovering nearby. Elsewhere, when Midler performed the song, live or synched, that Spirit always moved in and took over.

Except for once.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether its angry dispersal here–and Midler’s total immersion in a synched performance, as if she and the song had fused into something no recording studio could contain–had anything at all to do with a nice Jewish girl refusing to camp it up in the home of Weimar decadence, a stone’s throw from the death camps.

Given that dynamic, it’s not impossible to imagine “I’ll never be your beast of burden” took on a whole new meaning. She didn’t do anything like this in Sweden.

**A few years later Natalie Cole’s version of “Pink Cadillac” scorched up the charts and no one was heard to complain. Midler’s live version on YouTube suggests she was better off with “Beast of Burden” but, given what she did with other live versions of “Beast” who knows? Maybe she had two great rock and roll records in her after all. Hope I get to hear her studio version some day, just in case.

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.

 

SHY GIRL FINDS NEW SELF…IN UNLIKELIEST OF PLACES (Segue of the Day: 6/29/17)

Interviewer: Now growing up in that house (in Tucson), you had a very, very good friend, who taught you a lot–

Linda Ronstadt: The radio.

(YouTube interview with Dan Guerrero, Northridge, CA Sept. 29, 2015)

One of the YouTube rabbit holes I go down most frequently is the “Linda Ronstadt Live” rabbit hole. She could be stiff, she could be sing-songy…or she could be electrifying. Sometimes all in the same song. What she never was, was anything less than professional or perfectionist. You’re guaranteed a certain quality, then…but you have to search for more.

So, with Greil Marcus’ long ago mention of being “knocked out” by a version of “Back in the U.S.A.” in front of a big audience (30,000) in Oakland, (he doesn’t mention the venue), wandering around in my head, I thought “Live in Concert Linda Ronstadt San Diego, CA” sounded intriguing.

The performance Marcus mentions isn’t available, alas. But you can probably bet some idea of what he heard by listening to (and, just as importantly, watching) this, where she finally gets all the way inside “Heat Wave”…

…in front of the whitest audience ever assembled in any venue that wasn’t featuring Bruce Springsteen or Lawrence Welk (can’t any of these people clap on the beat?)…and leaves the stage with the happiest look I’ve ever seen on her face in however many hundred hours I’ve spent down her rabbit hole.

It’s almost like she has discovered…something.

Maybe just that the chubby girl from the back row, who only got through high school by “keeping a record player going constantly in my mind”…a record player that no doubt received many recommendations from her friend the radio, could no longer disbelieve in her ability to hold a stadium (the size of which is more evident in the only other available video from that concert) in the palm of her hand…

..singing a song she never had the least trouble getting inside of.

WHAT IS POLITICS?

Here’s three post-election attempts to understand “those people” through a pop culture lens:

From Observer:

How Bruce Springsteen cost Hillary the Election.

Key quote:

“Imagine this:

“What if Bruce Springsteen had gotten into a van and trailed Donald Trump to every campaign stop over the last four weeks (or even the last two). Imagine if every time Donald Trump set up to speak, Bruce got out of his van, strolled to a street corner or park a few blocks away, strapped on an acoustic guitar, and began to sing. Maybe he would sing songs about the working men and women who have always been his constituency, or maybe he would sign songs of Boardwalks or Vietnam, or maybe he would sing the old songs of freedom and unity that Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger sang.

“Imagine that.”

From Slate:

How Miranda Lambert could save us all.

Key quote:

:If you have any curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with, how they become jaded day by day, Lambert can tell you.”

From The Federalist:

When the ghost of Ronnie Van Zant stalked New York.

Key quote:

Libby and I both stopped and looked at each other. “Seriously?” said my wife, a very disappointed Clinton supporter. She started gripping her soft Tomme Crayeuse a little too hard. By the time Ronnie Van Zant’s drawl started in with “Big wheels keep on turnin’,” everyone in the store was standing in shock. Brows were furrowed, people mumbled to each other. The song seemed to get louder as one of those New York moments happened, when everyone was thinking the exact the same thing.

One reason I’ve always tried to read across a broad spectrum of political views is so I don’t forget anyone’s existence. If I keep myself sufficiently up-to-date, I find the world holds very few surprises.

So none of this is surprising.

But boy is a lot of it dumb. I linked the full articles. You can read them and make your own judgments.

My take:

For starters, if Bruce Springsteen ever really was the voice of the working class that Tim Sommer seems to think he still is (and I’m not saying he wasn’t), he traded that status for standard Limousine Liberalism a long time ago. That no one ever worked harder at resisting the change (well, except maybe Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger) is proof of how seductive–maybe just plain inevitable–some changes are.

For Springsteen to connect with Donald Trump’s voters, would have meant sounding a lot like Donald Trump, no?

And who would trust him then?

Maybe Miranda Lambert’s fans?

Maybe. But who’s to say they aren’t Springsteen fans (i.e., not Trump supporters!) already?

If the audience Carl Wilson is writing for at Slate had any real “curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with” they would have made Miranda’s idol and dear friend, Patty Loveless, a crossover superstar twenty years ago. And if the Country Music Association has lauded Lambert with six Female Vocalist of the Year awards (which is six times more than they awarded it to Loveless), it’s precisely because its voting members know that she goes down well at The Village Voice and all the other organs of hipsterism that the people who buy most of Lambert’s records don’t give a rip about. Right or wrong, everybody at Slate is pretty sure they know who Miranda Lambert voted for. With Patty Loveless–the singer who caught the spirit of the “White Death,” which drove Trump’s support more than the next ten factors combined, two decades before it started showing up in statistical studies–who could ever tell?

I mean, could you trust her to toe the line?

May-y-y-y-be.

But then you never really know about these hillbillies, do you?

Which brings me to Ronnie Van Zant. The Federalist writer, David Marcus, attempts to explain that he personally gets it. There’s the usual stuff about how the origin of “Sweet Home Alabama” is way more complicated than is usually understood, etc. and more of the stuff you’d expect from someone who is more enlightened than his fellow good liberals because he thinks maybe the hicks have a point here and there, or that, at every least, the idea should be entertained. It’s all very familiar.

What Marcus does not quite do is admit–or perhaps understand–that Ronnie Van Zant would never be easily pigeon-holed into any neatly composed narrative. Not the way Bruce Springsteen and Miranda Lambert, for all their fine personal and artistic qualities, have been. Missing that, he’s really just substituting one easy formula for another. A really political moment in that Brooklyn boutique grocery store he’s describing would involve telling at least one person–his wife maybe–that you should listen to Ronnie Van Zant, the real life Huck Finn, a little more, not because it will help you understand Trump voters, but because, like listening to Bruce Springsteen or Miranda Lambert, it will help you understand the world.

Good luck with that.

LO-FI-NO-FI-RETRO-AMERICANA….ALL TRANSCENDED, ALL REDEEMED (CD Review: John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This)

John Mellencamp
No Better Than This (2010)

mellencamp1

I’m a Mellencamp fan and I’d heard good things about this when it came out, but it was only a year or so back that I acquired it. I gave it a couple of cursory listens and then filed it away as a subject for future investigation.

The future came this week and it hit me upside the head, maybe just about the time Mellencamp’s po’ boy loner–the kind of weary cliche that makes me throw up every defense I have and which no previous singer has so completely broken down–sings about the wife who takes a frying pan upside his head.

Except she isn’t his wife. She’s a woman he’s just spotted her on the street somewhere and exchanged a friendly glance with before spending a few moments describing to the listener–as if they’ve already happened–all the things he could imagine happening if that friendly glance led to matrimony and such. Naturally, by the end of the song, he’s ready to move on, leaving all the possibilities you thought were realities unexplored.

Upon the album’s release, Mellencamp got a lot of publicity out of its gimmick, which was recording the thirteen tracks he had written–every one of which sounds like a folk song or a blues pulled from the bottom of a stack of 78s no one ever heard of, let alone heard out loud–in the Sun Studio, the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson was recorded, and a slavery-era church in Savannah, Georgia.

As Greil Marcus and a few others pointed out at the time, the gimmick shouldn’t work but does, because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. What nobody seems to have gotten around to fully explaining (I can’t say I read every review, but I read a bunch), is just why it doesn’t feel that way, which is because it’s the boldest example of a common conceit–that rare reach that actually qualifies as something nobody pulled off, or probably even thought of, before.

Starting somewhere in the mid-sixties–maybe with the Beach Boys’ Party! LP from 1965, there have been constant attempts of reach back to a mythic past, sometimes near, sometimes distant, and imagine what might have been if rock and roll had gone in a slightly different direction. At its best, in the early music of the Band, or Party! itself, this approach could be revelatory and break open spaces that would have otherwise lain fallow. At its worst, which was most of the time, it could be soul-crushing. Somewhere in between, it could be anything from heartfelt and detailed enough to qualify as honorable, smile-inducing homage (the best work of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids or Tracey Ullman) to earnest folk music (where I’ve always slotted the strain in Bruce Springsteen’s music that began, and peaked, with Nebraska).

Some of this music got called bold because it seemed to exist in a world where rock and roll never happened. Most of it existed only because rock and roll happened.

On No Better Than This, Mellencamp stretches both ideas past their logical extremes: In the real world, the one we actually live in, he’s a man who could never have been a star without rock and roll because no world but this one would have had him. In the world he creates on this record, he uses his real-world status to imagine–and perfect–a world not where rock and roll never happened (been done) but one where rock and roll is just about to happen. That difference, once it locks in, makes the difference. This week, starting with a casual listen that was different from my previous listenings because I put on headphones, I began to suspect something was up about midway through the first song. By the time Mellencamp closed with a wry chuckle, twelve and a half songs later, I had a new obsession, the kind that rarely happens to me anymore, because I almost never need to listen to something until I figure it out.

The leap between this and every bit of proto, in-the-moment, or retro Americana I’ve ever heard is that, in one key respect, Mellencamp remains who he is. He’s reaching back to the early fifties, not as a star-in-the-making, some great lost voice who would have taken rock and roll in a whole new direction if only some visionary producer or enlightened audience had understood his genius, but as a gifted journeyman with his own ideas about how things should be. He hasn’t gone back in time to be Woody Guthrie or LIttle Richard. He’s gone back to be Harmonica Frank or Lowell Fulson, or, better yet, a forgotten contemporary, with his own little weird niche, which may (Fulson) or may not (Harmonica Frank) one day lead to a modest career.

In other words Mellencamp has imagined the fix he’d be in if rock and roll hadn’t exploded into something that could make somebody like John Mellencamp a star.

How consciously he did this I don’t know, but sometimes–quite often really–the artist knows better than the man. This is an album that keeps asking: “What if this had been all there was?” and then supplies its own answer. Which is along the lines of: “We think we’re lucky we didn’t have to find out…but are we?”

Now you know we’re lucky (i.e. “better off”). And I know we’re lucky. And John Mellencamp sure knows we’re lucky.

But the guy on the record isn’t so sure. And for the length of this record, he stood in the place where John Mellencamp used to be.

I’m not sure any album has ever asked and answered this path-not-taken question in quite the same way before. More than thirty years into a career that could never have happened unless we, and he, have been very lucky indeed, John Mellencamp dared to raise the question of his own worth and the worth of the world we’ve made since rock and roll, with its unbounded promise, first danced out of the shadows.

And I’m going to play you a track now, but I guarantee there is no way to comprehend how exhilarating and disturbing this eerily quiet “mono” music is without getting hold of the album and finding some zone quiet enough and slow enough to absorb it whole, without interference from the modern world.

MY FAVORITE DOUBLE LP (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

fleetwoodmac3

I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”

It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.

Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:

Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)

Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)

The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)

Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)

Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)

Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)

Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)

The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)

London Calling The Clash (1979)

The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)

1999 Prince (1982)

Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)

Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)

I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.

That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.

So it goes.

My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dime for reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life,  The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.

Besides Tusk, that leaves:

doubalbums1 doubalbums2 doubalbums3

goodbyeyellow2

doubalbums5

These, I’ve obsessed over.

Some time or other.

Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.

Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.

Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.

That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.

Boy, do I feel foolish.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?

Well, maybe.

One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.

And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.

You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.

But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?

Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.

And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).

For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.

Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.

There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,”  in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Before I have to put this knife in your throat.

All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.

That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.

Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.

Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.

It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.

But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.

Too bad for us and too bad for them.

And I really wish I could stop listening.

But I can’t.

(NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC)

THE DEATH OF POLITICS (Segue of the Day: 3/22/16)

Well the first death of American politics anyway. Whether politics ever have more than one death to die in any given culture is, I suppose, still an open question.

I actually heard these three songs in a row on the radio a few days ago but they’ve stayed with me because they formed a heart-stopping triptych and because there’s no way to understand what’s going on now without understanding what went on then.

What went on “then” (i.e. in the seventies and eighties) was a successful attempt by the overlords to take the politics out of politics. What’s going on now, in this “turbulent” political season is an attempt, in the candidacies of Trump and Sanders, to put the politics back in. If you see the “establishments” running, then you know they understand the degree to which their lives are at stake. If you see them landing much harder on Trump than on Sanders, it’s only because Trump actually has a chance at a nomination.

What has been noticeably missing is any contemporary cultural component. The attempts of major athletes and hip hop stars to associate themselves with Black Lives Matter, for instance, have come across as the crass commercial ploys they are. One can almost see the thought balloons floating above their heads: “Wonder if this is good for my shoe contract?”

Answer: “Yes it is!”

No surprise there. Radical chic has been a big seller for decades.

And it’s not as though the cultural component that existed the last time around was some kind of unqualified success. It certainly didn’t succeed in keeping the politics in politics.

But the whole point of remembering the revolution at this point–the main point of this blog–is to recall a sense of possibility. To remember that it’s not a given for people to have no voice in their culture or their governance (and, of course, not a given that we will choose wisely should such possibilities exist again…only that the current road is the way to dusty death).

It was not always thus. And perhaps. just perhaps, it need not always be thus:

 

And the killer…now almost forgotten by the radio:

We’ll leave music’s ability to stop or recapture time, and my memories of hearing the latter on the way home from the hospital the week my mother died out of this for now. Worrying about the country seems heavy enough.

THE BOSS REMINDS (Segue of the Day: 1/23/16)

I don’t write much about Bruce Springsteen because, though I like a lot of his music, I’m not close enough to it to say much of anything that hasn’t already been said. But careening around YouTube in the wee hours last night, I found his tributes (at separate shows) to David Bowie and Glenn Frey. Then I started asking myself if anyone else could have really done justice to both. After sleeping on it, I decided the answer was decidedly “no.”

Of the aging rockers on the road who offered tributes that have made it to YouTube so far, Jackson Browne did “Take It Easy” (which he co-wrote) and it’s beautiful. Madonna embarrassed herself on “Rebel, Rebel” but you could tell her heart was in it.

The thing is, it’s hard to imagine either being able to so much as wave a hand at the one who is outside their lane (Bowie in Browne’s case, Frey in Madonna’s), even if they cared to try.

I wouldn’t have bet either Frey or Bowie were exactly in Springsteen’s lane either. And, really, they weren’t. Until he showed, as I suppose he often has, just how wide his lane really is.

I’ll just add that the common narrative has always been that David Bowie fans and Eagles’ fans never had much, if anything, to say to each other.

I wonder if that might just have been  wishful thinking on the part of those who mean us harm and have now come so very close to bringing their dream to pass. Assuming a new David Bowie or a new Glenn Frey were to emerge tomorrow, what chance would there be that some contemporary who wanted to honor their passing forty years down the road would be able to sing their songs to crowds filled with people who knew every word?

Same chance that the future will be at least as good as the present, I suppose.

I’ll stay tuned. But I ain’t holding my breath.