ARETHA ARRIVES (Segue of the Day 12/19/14)

File under “Genius in Context”:

FAMEBOX

Fame was both a studio (in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and a record label. It had the usual southern-soul dynamic–blues-drenched whites (led by owner Rick Hall) running the business end, an inter-racial mix of writers and session players, mostly black vocalists (a dynamic well demonstrated by the cover of Ace’s three-disc box pictured above).

The box is–no surprise–epochal. There are a few pedestrian sides on the first disc (early on, when the sound was still developing). After a few hits and misses, it kicks in and, from there, the set never flags.

There’s no shortage of stunning individual moments among the awe-inspring embarrassment of riches, not a few of them deriving from vocalists like Joe Tex (whose importance in the development of Southern Soul is fully demonstrated here by the quantum leap his first Fame-recorded hit “Hold What You’ve Got” represents over what came before) and Otis Redding (impossibly warm and winning on his version of “You Left the Water Running”) who were generally associated with other labels and/or studios (Dial, Stax, etc.)

On the third disc, there’s even a segue that would have been the peak of practically any other day: Clarence Carter’s “Patches” (about a poor black sharecropper’s son hanging on and pulling the family through because of a promise made at his daddy’s dying bed) sliding straight into Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” (about a poor “white trash” girl taking her mama’s death bed advice and getting out the only way she can–by becoming a prostitute). All that, plus a nice soul version of “Double Lovin’,” courtesy of originator George Jackson, which actually proves how great the Osmond boys really were and how foolish they (or their management) were to leave a studio that would have allowed them to compete with the J5 right down the line.

Right in the middle of all that–about a third of the way through the second disc, with the flood-tide of the era’s soul talent flowing freely–another quantum leap occurs.

It shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man,” was her first big hit, and everybody familiar with the period knows it represented lift-off–for her and for soul generally–after years of being a perpetually underachieving pop-oriented second-stringer at Columbia.

It was also the only master she completed on her contentious visit to Muscle Shoals (a visit specifically inspired by the success of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which as I’ve written elsewhere, makes Sledge one of the most important artists of the era all by itself). When it became the title track of her first monumental album on Atlantic, it was the third side. Thus, the permanent context was a slot following “Respect” and “Drown In My Own Tears.”

Not that it ever sounded less than great–there, on the radio, on the various greatest hits packages it so often led off–but nothing on earth would sound truly startling following those cuts.

So this was the moment when I was able to finally gauge its impact in its own time. Coming straight out of two of the greatest soul/funk go-rillas ever made (Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and Clarence and Calvin’s “Thread the Needle,” this version featuring studio chatter to die for, not to mention copious amounts of Clarence Carter’s inimitable laugh of freedom), “I Never Loved a Man” raises the vocal stakes from the very first breath.

Stepping into a scene that was already producing some of the greatest music of the century–and represented the most exciting development in one of the most far-reaching artistic movements in the history of man, the very height of what I call “the revolution”–the voice alone sweeps everything before it.

“Here, now,” it says, “get ready to stand on the next mountain.”

Just like that. One minute, the mountain was somewhere around here:

Next minute it was just about here (sans chatter, unfortunately not available on-line)…

Then, in an instant, it was, definitively….here…where it stayed:

 

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (A Brief History of White Boy Stomp….From Garage Bands to Quentin Tarantino)

Mojo Workout Paul Revere and the Raiders (Recorded 1964, Released 2000)

MOJOWORKOUT

This two-disc set was released by Sundazed in 2000. Basically, it sets out to demonstrate that, before they were the Ultimate Garage Band Made Good, Paul Revere and the Raiders (who came out of the Ultimate Garage Band Scene in the Pacific Northwest) were, well, the Ultimate Garage Band.

Most of Disc 2 is studio material from their early days on Columbia Records (where they were the first rock and roll band signed to the high-falutin’ home of folk, blues, jazz and other “adult” forms). I’d heard most of it before, and the repackaging is just fine–especially nice hearing all the gutbucket stuff in one handy, hard-hitting place.

But the real ear-opener is Disc 1, which captures a show the label arranged for the band to perform in front of a teenage audience in Columbia’s own studio.

According to the liner notes, this came about because, after an initial dry run–made dry in part because famous ass-dragger Mitch Miller (whose sing-a-longs were, of course, the contemporary standard of “maturity”) had scotched proper promotion of the band’s version of “Louie, Louie” which was subsequently stomped by the Kingsmen–some of the honchos were having a hard time remembering exactly why they had signed the band in the first place.

I don’t know if the resulting explosion of atomic level noise and energy made the suits any happier. I can bet it didn’t make Miller any happier and, certainly, little of the show saw the light of day at the time (though the band did soon thereafter proceed with its glorious near-decade run of hit singles).

But, however it came to pass, it now stands as a true signifier of the garage-band ethos as it has come down to us in the present day. It’s a kind of pure (or impure) reminder that “garage” bands–so called because there was a perception, which, to my knowledge has never been proved or dispoved, rather like the existence of the Deity, that many of them had formed in garages–were a phenomenon that could only have been produced by a Land of Garages, i.e., a culture that was just beginning to glimpse the possible end of its five hundred year winning streak.

To that end, it’s a joyful noise, reveling in its complete and utter abandon (to steal a phrase and turn it into a paraphrase) to an extent that can only be achieved by not giving a rip about winning streaks, cultural or otherwise. The Raiders came from a place that epitomized an attitude that wasn’t so much committed to either stealing or honoring black music as stomping all over it. Whether the object was to replace one America with another (and whether the new America would be whiter or blacker), or simply level it all into a great fruited plain shared by all is unknowable. There may have been some up-and-comers in the scenes the Raiders both participated in and inspired who contemplated such questions, but this particular band became Ultimate by leaving all of that to one side most of the time and most especially here.

Heck, by the time they break into “Crisco Party” (all the boys on one side, all the girls on the other side, now everybody….disrobe) they even manage to make orgies sound like something they are inherently not.

Namely, democratic.

Baby that was one version of Rock and Roll that has gone the way of the dodo and taken democratic America right along with it.

And, while, they may or may not have been honoring the spirit that made the streak possible (stomping on things was certainly part of that spirit), I doubt they were threatening its continuance nearly as much as the purely cynical decisions being taken concurrently in the Corridors of Power regarding troop movements in South Viet Nam (to be announced immediately after the forthcoming election…still a few months hence when this was recorded!)

True Romance, 1993

TRUEROMANCE

Tony Scott (Ridley’s hackier brother) directed. That he did so with a little more distinction than usual was probably due to Quentin Tarantino’s script, which has plenty wrong with it, but also has some promising, non-nihilistic aspects which, aside from the anomalous Jackie Brown, (based on an Elmore Leonard story that, like this one, has a likable and unlikely couple emerging from the mayhem) his own directing career has never come close to realizing.

Too bad.

Yeah, the I’m-so-racist-I-can’t-possibly-be-an-actual-racist-because-no-actual-racist-would-think-he-could-get-away-with-this-hee-hee attitude is there, as is the cartoon violence masquerading as some kind of arty “statement” (or, more likely, the dread non-statement statement which is such a close cousin of the political world’s style of non-apology apology that emerged around the same time) and the mind-numbing ethnic/racial/regional stereotypes.

But there was still a lot to like. Yeah, Patricia Arquette is playing a Hollywood Southerner, and, because the script has her being from Tallahassee–a place I know something about–it was more than usually annoying to note that she did not remotely remind me of anyone I’ve ever known in my forty years of hanging about the place. That plus she’s called Alabama. Which, believe me, she wouldn’t be. Not if she was from around here. The only place you would be less likely to find somebody called Alabama than Tallahassee is Alabama.

Then again, she’s Patricia Arquette, so after a few minutes I didn’t care. Whatever comes in that package, I’ll gladly buy.

That, plus Christian Slater in his all-to-brief likeable phase, a few pretty good sub-Donald-Westlake plot twists and a handful of effective music interludes (something Tarantino became famous for elsewhere, though, except for Nancy Sinatra at the beginning of one of the Kill Bill movies, I’ve never for the life of me understood why–good Lord, the man muffed Santa Esmerelda’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which, until I saw/heard it with my own eyes/ears, I would have deemed beyond mere human capacity–I mean, with that playing, ten minutes of black screen should have been mesmerizing) kept the whole thing chugging along pretty well until the ending, which has a couple of genuinely clever and touching moments.

I’m not making any claims for it being a great movie or anything, but, if I’d seen it when it came out, I would have tagged the writer as having some genuine promise (I think I would have known Tony Scott wasn’t responsible for very much). And genuine promise he had, even after Pulp Fiction.

Shame he squandered it.

Bigger shame we rewarded him for not living up to his potential.

But you know what they say. All winning streaks–large and small–gotta end some time.

 

SEGUE OF THE DAY (3/30/13)

Bill Withers/Bill Withers

The revolution was/is a bit overwhelming. I’m always playing catch-up. The thing I caught up to this week was Bill Withers’ string of fantastic LPs from the seventies–the hard-to-find ones on Sussex and the more readily available ones on Columbia, all now neatly packaged in a nine-album box set you can pick up for twenty-five bucks on-line.

The box is a beautiful thing. Withers held a unique space which nobody ever bothered to name because nobody else lived in it. If it was soul and country and folk and funk and jazz and supper club pop all rolled into one without the least sign of strain, then “Bill Withers” was the only name it needed.

None of the albums are less than good, but the first two were the most consistently inspired–inspired enough to produce his forever-signature tunes and to garner him a gig at Carnegie Hall which was recorded for a scintillating live LP, the highlight of which was Wither’s “Viet Nam” song (lots of people had one in those days–not many had one this good) “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” about a vet who has had his right arm blown off.

I don’t know if the song lives on any other album. In any case I had not heard it until it caught me on the highway this week. And about half-way through, when it became obvious that the “war-is-harmful-to-children-and-other-living-things” element in Withers’ intro rap was a set-up–that he wasn’t putting gauze on the pain so much as easing into it from one of his patented sly, unique-unto-him angles, the better to draw it out on the other side–I started thinking….“If he goes straight into…”

Well, you don’t need to have been taking junior high chorus in 1972 to know what you want Bill Withers to go straight into when he finishes a funny, edgy, hauntingly matter-of-fact song about a Viet Nam vet who has had his arm blown off.

It wasn’t the first time “Lean On Me” threw a chill on me, but–even knowing it just might be coming–it was the first time it threw me off balance. The first time, I guess, that I heard the doubt in it–the doubt as to whether Bill Withers or anyone else could bear the weight the song asks for.

And ten times as powerful for all that–as if Bill Withers knew there would come a day when having a body part blown off just meant you were a handy means of becoming a poster boy for the miracles of modern medicine and keeping the death toll in these ‘wars” we fight now that the old -devil-Viet-Nam-Syndrome is sure enough licked from reaching a number that might make somebody nervous.

At which point, “I’ll help you carry on” would become an even more necessary last-line-of-defense against cynicism than it was in 1972.

Which is saying something.

Bill Withers “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” (Live Audio from Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall)

Bill Withers “Lean On Me” (Live from the BBC, 1973)