DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Wilbert Harrison Up)

“Let’s Work Together”
Wilbert Harrison (1969)
Billboard: #32
Recommended source: Let’s Work Together

As “Let’s Stick Together,” this number started life as an early sixties’ side by it’s composer, Wilbert Harrison, which paired the odd rhythm and Harrison’s characteristic dry vocal with a standard lover’s plea.

It was one of those records that sounded like it ought to be a big hit some time, for somebody, under some name or other.

In the UK, eight years later, it was. Canned Heat (who held off releasing their version in the States–where it made #26–while Harrison’s was still on the chart) took it to #2 across the pond and, a few years later, Bryan Ferry took it to #12.

Here at home, Harrison’s plaintive turn, by 1969 re-purposed as a call to brotherhood and released as “Let’s Work Together,” stalled outside the Top 30.

It’s probably more famous than most records that suffer a similar mid-charting fate. If so, that’s partly because its quality (rooted in duality–a celebration of the late sixties’ communal ethos by a black man who had more to gain from its acceptance and application than most of its more celebrated practitioners and, perhaps as a result, could not deliver the uplifting lyric with the expected bound-for-the-top smile in his throat) could not quite be denied and partly because, over the years, big name critics like Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus have harkened back to it in famous forums.

I’m glad they did, because that’s how I found it (I wrote about the fine album Harrison made around it here).

What specifically brought it back to mind this week (besides the times we live in, of course…the humor of it all) was running across Canned Heat’s version, also terrific, on YouTube. I post it here for comparison’s sake (it couldn’t qualify as a Diamond fully in the Shade itself because it made the Top Ten in the UK). I promise it’s a treat musically, from a too-often forgotten band. That it features a bunch of Top of the Pops young lovelies (a couple of whom can actually dance, not always a given in these scenarios, then or now) is, I assure you, entirely beside the point. My purpose here is purely educational.

THE SECRET LIVES OF THE NOT QUITE YET RICH AND FAMOUS (Segue of the Day: 1/31/18)

This was actually from a week or so back, but, hey, my blog, my rules. I’m not above toying with the time/space continuum.

Thus…a week or so back….

I was resetting my radio channels after I had an airbag recall replacement in my car and left the new setting on a local channel that plays semi-offbeat music from yesteryear. Most of the stuff is by famous artists, but not necessarily the familiar hits. My internet being out a day or two later, I found myself cruising to the local college theater one evening on a work night to catch When Harry Met Sally, which I had never seen on the big screen (it was worth it…I almost posted about that).

And, in the new dark, I heard this…and I kept thinking, if it’s her, it can’t be from her solo career or her post-Tusk Fleetwood Mac career. Leaving what? An outtake? Thought I’d heard all those too.

Well, I couldn’t find a parking space in time to make the 7:00 show, which meant I had a chance to stop and write down a piece of the lyrics, making it easy enough to find on the net when I got home. Ah, yes, Buckingham Nicks. How could I have forgotten!

I might not have considered it more than a nice find–another fine piece of Stevie’s secret career (a subject that’s probably worth its own post some day) to be tucked away for a rainy day.

Except when 9:00 rolled around, my internet still wasn’t working, so I headed back to the college to catch the 10:00 showing (there’s always plenty of parking that late, after class lets out), and on the way, on the same station, I ran into this….which I’ve never heard on the radio anywhere….

…which, in addition to reminding me of how much Elvis Costello used to hate Stevie Nicks (maybe not as much as he hated Linda Ronstadt, but there was definitely a theme there…if Stevie had dared to cover a few his songs, the gap would have closed in an eye-blink, though of course he would not have failed to cash the royalty check), and how great he was once upon a time, also set me to wondering how different either career might have been if these records had been the hits they deserved to be.

I kept the station tuned all week, waiting for another revelation.

No such luck.

This evening, on the way to the grocery store, I switched back to Classic Rock. Nothing revelatory there, either, but at least I could sing along. I even got to use my Freddie Mercury voice (don’t worry folks, unless the Security State has my car bugged, no one will ever hear my Freddie Mercury voice).

Which made me think about when Dave Marsh, expecting to be taken seriously, called Queen “fascist rock.” I think that meant he either didn’t like them or just couldn’t keep Pauline Kael and Greil Marcus out of his head, kind of a crit-illuminati version of the way Norman Bates couldn’t keep his mother out of his head.

Calling anyone you didn’t like a fascist was very big back then.

The lesson as always: The seventies drove people crazy.

I’m just thankful such things never, ever happen now.

TRACK-BY-TRACK: Hot Rocks 1964-71

Hot Rocks 1964-71
The Rolling Stones (1971)

Starting something new…

[NOTE: The links below are a mix of studio and live cuts….I just picked a version that conveyed the mood.]

As my long-time readers will have guessed by now, I’m not fond of doing straight up record reviews. I’ve done a few, but not as many as might be expected given the concerns of this blog. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, and unlike movies and books, traditional record reviews seem to lack easy connections to the broader context I prefer.

But more of my free time is spent listening to music than anything else so it makes sense for me to find a way to comment more on individual records.

I’m not giving up on highlighting singles in the How Much Can One Record Mean category (“Brown Sugar” really is due), or singers in the Vocalist of the Month category. But those essays require maximum effort and concentration. Any writer only has so much of that to give.

Especially with a large part of mine going to fiction (and a fifty-hour-a-week job  on the side to pay bills and such), I’ve been looking for a way to get more music writing on here in a focused, album-oriented form. Upshot is a new category called Track-by-Track, whereby I just roll out the tracks from some classic album and say whatever comes to mind during a latest listen.

Unfiltered, I hope….

History: Hot Rocks 1964-71 is by far the biggest selling album in the Rolling Stones’ catalog, moving twelve million copies to date. The album was meant to grab money and did. The Stones had just fallen out with their manager, Allen Klein, who had reportedly duped them out of their early catalog. Mick’s deal with Beelzebub evidently didn’t prepare him for Business Mangers.

Knowing he wouldn’t have access to the band’s future material, Klein’s label (ABKCO) released Hot Rocks to cash in on the moment .

I’m sure the mercenary nature of the release was well known to the rock press of the time, and I assume it helps explain the opinions ranging from a decided coolness (see Dave Marsh in the Rolling Stone Record Guide) to outright hostility (see Robert Christgau’s contemporary B- review in the Village Voice, since collected in Christgau’s Record Guide to Rock Albums of the 70s).

Whatever their real objections, the basic stated objections to the album as a Rolling Stones’ record, was that it was both too skimpy to convey the Stones’ real significance and too obvious to be of any use to those who already understood that significance.

Well, maybe.

But Hot Rocks, while not everything it might have been, is still an essential album. All these years later, you can learn things from it.

In the “not perfect” column:

-A pedestrian front cover. The picture on the back–a Dark Angel surrounded by Cro-Magnons–is the essence of the early and mid-period Stones represented on the tracks within. As a front cover it would have been one of the best ever. The Five Haircuts look that’s there instead is neither here nor there. Not terrible but certainly not memorable. Mostly, it’s appropo of nothing. That’s something no album cover–let alone one representing the cream of a great band’s greatest period–should ever be.

-Track selection: Though it was a big hit, I’d of dropped the atypical “As Tears Go By” (done better by Marianne Faithfull anyway) and added “It’s All Over Now.” “Play With Fire,” “Ruby Tuesday”  and “Wild Horses” are all great and plenty enough to represent Mick’s ballad singing.

-And a bit of bad luck: The band co-owned the Sticky Fingers tracks with Klein/ABKCO, so “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” were available to close out the album. But one more album (Exile on Main Street) and one more year and this could have closed with “Tumbling Dice”….which would have been perfect in every way. That not being an option, whoever was making the track selection and sequencing decisions for ABKCO should have reversed the final two tracks and concluded with “Brown Sugar.” The greatest side opener in the history of albums would have made an even greater closer here…and a perfect capstone on the themes the Stones had explored from the beginning and were to become trapped by in the long years to come.

Like I say, it needs it own essay…

But against all that, there’s this. Far from being inessential to people who loved the Stones (because, per Christgau, it offered nothing not already available on their great albums), Hot Rocks had much to offer even the acolyte, then and now. “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “Honky Tonk Women”–all huge hits and three of their (or anyone’s) most essential–weren’t on any original album. “Mother’s Little Helper” hadn’t been on any original US album. The live version of “Midnight Rambler” was stronger than the (still great) studio version on Let It Bleed and only available on a live album Christgau did not recommend. That meant nearly twenty percent of what Hot Rocks placed in the company of the band’s greatest and most iconic music was, at the time, either not available on albums of similar quality…or any album at all.

Sounds like a bargain to me.

It’s still a bargain.

1st Disc:

“Time Is On My Side”–Perfect. The Stones’ first American top ten. Irma Thomas still claims they swiped it from her and that it was her big chance for a pop hit. That’s nonsense. It was her B-side of an A-Side that went #52 Pop. Anyway, she had swiped it from Kai Winding, the whiter-than-white big band leader who recorded the original the previous year. Her version was fine, (love the spoken word part). But even if they’d gone head-to-head, the Stones would have won the old-fashioned way–by being better. Especially great here, because you don’t have to hold your breath waiting to find out if it’s one of Mick’s epic fails–which were not infrequent in the days when he was learning Black American English phonetically.

“Heart Of Stone”–The Great Theme arrives, best summed up as: Just Try It Bitch. With a searing guitar break, of course. Those were already the band’s other great theme.

“Play With Fire”–Did I mention a Theme? The boy’s quick, too. Only took him a heart-of-stone beat to move up from Street Lollies to the Aristocracy. Minor Aristocracy maybe, but still. He hates her worse, too. Just like a poor boy should. Especially if the poor part was faux.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”–The great leap, especially the vocal. Servants to the Blues no longer. From now on, they would play master. Or, if they felt like it, “Massa.” Just try and stop them. And, of course, they did it with a lyric that pretended they weren’t getting what everybody knew you weren’t getting, even if you made it with three chicks the week they (or was it their chick?) were on a losing streak. Didn’t tell any of your chicks not to play with fire, did you? No matter how bad you wanted to? Didn’t think so.

“As Tears Go By”–The closest thing to a weak track. Not really weak, but no aspect of it–lyrics, music, vocal–fit the Stones’ ethos and that makes it a drag on any album, even it it always sounded okay on the radio.

“Get Off Of My Cloud”–Lethal. Just Try It Bitch switched out for hare-brained politics. Just Try It World! I’ll make you feel so-o-o-o-o bad. And who lives on the ninety-ninth floor anyway? Surely not the Aristocracy.

“Mother’s Little Helper”–Their side-wipe at Middle Class Hypocrisy. Mom whines about the kids and everything else, but is on her way to OD’ing on Tranquilizers. Ha, ha, ha!. A touch obvious and nothing Shaw hadn’t done better decades before. But they sounded exactly like an addled American garage band catching their one moment of inspiration and that was a huge part of their cachet.  Also a neat sideways bend into the folk rock that would define them in ’66 and ’67 as Brian Jones set out to prove that you didn’t have to be a hypocrite to wind up in the bottom of the swimming pool, not breathing.

“19th Nervous Breakdown”–A perfect fusion of their purely musical R&B roots and their lyrical misogyny, which was just left-field enough for those who needed them to be something other than louts to project as irony…or, better yet, “irony.” You know, the kind no one gets but you. But they really did walk a fine line between empathy and assault….for a while.

“Paint It Black”–A whisper-to-a-scream call to the stalker lurking inside Everyman. Shaded by the possibility that, in 1966, Everyman was, like as not, a nineteen-year-old clearing a rice paddy with an M-16.

“Under My Thumb”–The Aristocracy nailed. Then ruled. Not by you….but you could dream, if you were so inclined. This is probably what Harvey Weinstein–fourteen in the summer of ’66–meant when he said things were different when he was growing up.

“Ruby Tuesday”–A rare and beautiful exception to the rule, perhaps because Keith wrote the lyrics about someone (a Show Biz kid named Linda Keith) for whom he had enough affection to alert her English actor dad when she was on the verge of disappearing forever. Into the underbelly of New York city and the arms of Jimi Hendrix as it happened. A rescue operation was launched. She was saved. Whether it was written before, during or after, this is about the hope that she–and the thousands like her who were a new phenomenon of the culture that enabled the Stones, and which they enabled in turn–would be. That’s still what it’s about.

“Let’s Spend The Night Together”–Ode to a one night stand with someone who is probably not Ruby Tuesday. Back on track, back on the sly, and a perfect close–musically, lyrically, spiritually–to the first period.

2nd Disc:

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”–The end draws near for the Brian Jones era with (coincidentally or not) the first entry in the Stones’ advanced efforts to find (or was it create? and from what?) the perfect rock and roll record by fusing straight up rape-and-pillage music with a stance on the era’s politics that had something for everyone. You could be one with them (by pretending they were merely being “ironic”) or you could be appalled by them (by believing they meant what they said, even if they remained at arm’s length from everyone, including themselves). But good luck trying to ignore them.

“Street Fighting Man”–And then they doubled down…Worth remembering they turned the sixties back on themselves before Altamont.

“Sympathy For The Devil”–Brian Jones now reduced to “backing vocalist.” On Wikipedia, this is referred to as “samba rock.” Of course it is. Is that why I can still hear Satan laughing? Then again, if ever a record could constitute its own category….

“Honky Tonk Women”–MIck Taylor introduces himself, and, unbelievably, a harder edge, abetted here by Reparata and the Delrons, among others. The Shangri-Las, alas, were not available. Just as well. If they had been, the world might have cracked open. Not especially memorable in its “Country Honk” incarnation on Let It Bleed (where it didn’t bleed a bit). Here it bleeds. And, for those counting that’s four “most perfect ever rock and roll records in a row”…and, for once, just possibly ironic, no matter how often MIck and/or Keith had ever met a gin-soaked barroom queen, in Memphis or anywhere else.

“Gimme Shelter”–Make that five in a row….irony grows distant. It can’t keep company with dread. If it’s not really a celebration of rape (and the destruction of everything)–or at least of the victim learning to want what the rapist wants (which is one way for everything to end)–it’s not really scary is it? But at least they hired a woman to talk back.

“Midnight Rambler (Live)”–Longer, looser and tougher than the excellent version on Let It Bleed. And if “I’ll stick my knife right down your throat” has ever sounded “ironic” anywhere, it certainly isn’t here. The theme seems fully formed by now….As though there could be no further developments. There were to be further developments.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”–Donald Trump’s theme song, from Day One of his campaign to date. It’s now obvious they wrote it for him…and only him. Steve Bannon he sent packing. Not this. There are those who believe its selection could only have been focus-grouped. They’re the same people who have spent thirty straight months getting their teeth kicked in and promising tomorrow will be different. Somewhere or other, somebody once said “Childhood living is easy to do…” I’ll keep listening. It’ll come to me.

“Brown Sugar”–Further developments. Slave rape. The irresistible joy of it no less. Top Five all over the English-speaking world in 1971. #1 in the U.S. (I have no idea what this says about them, or us). And, if irony, meaningless. I still expect them to play it with gusto at Trump’s second inaugural. Not only that, it has a good beat and you can dance to it! This probably should have closed…but it sounds great coming from the fade of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” as if they were re-purposing themselves for one last great thrust.

“Wild Horses”–And, finally, the rapist wants what the victim wants…”Now you’ve decided to show me the same.” Lolly? Aristocrat? Super model? Royalty? I still wonder.

Maybe it’s just as well it closes here.

NOT HAVING A TV….GOOD THING? BAD THING? (CD Review)

The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)

I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).

But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.

First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.

Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?

Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?

I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.

But, my God, what a missed opportunity.

Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”

One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.

That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.”  That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Well, none of that happened.

Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)

Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).

And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”

Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.

One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.

Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.

Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.

Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.

Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.

Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.

And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.

Take it Mavis:

 

 

FAKE NEWS AIN’T NOTHIN’ NEW (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #105)

One can still hear people as informed and intelligent as Little Steven Van Zandt opine that the Beatles invented the rock band, because, in addition to writing most of their own songs, they played their instruments in the studio while certain other bands (well, one particular band) only sang over tracks laid down by super-skilled session musicians. So many people have said something similar over the years I had almost taken to believing it myself. Propaganda works on you that way**

But every once in a while the internet is good for something.

Despite what many rock historians and writers have suggested over the years, the instrumental track for this enduring classic features just the Beach Boys themselves: Brian on piano, Al on bass, Carl on guitar and Dennis on drums. Like many songs from this period, the background vocals were recorded and doubled first before Brian sang the lead…

The “enduring classic” was only this…which, once you’ve heard it a thousand times, only emerges as one of the greatest (and subtlest) instrumental tracks on any rock and roll record…on top of all the other things that made you listen a thousand times to begin with:

Somewhere in that piece they suggest (or is it assert?) that “Don’t Worry Baby” was conceived as an answer record to “Be My Baby”

Now that I think of it, this sounds true spiritually, even if it’s debatable as literal fact.

And it makes both records larger….which I admit I didn’t think was humanly possible.

**Wonder if Dave Marsh still thinks (as he asserted in The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul) that Tommy Tedesco played the guitar on “Surfin’ U.S.A.”?

Or “Fun, Fun, Fun”?

Or “I Get Around”?

For the record….Tedesco did play on this one:

THE VISION THING (Buck Ormsby, R.I.P.)

buckormsby1

The Fabulous Wailers, circa early sixties. Buck Ormsby, far left

Guitar player, producer, label owner, raconteur, talent scout and record hound. And, yeah, visionary.

If anyone could be said to have “invented” the garage band ethos, Buck Ormsby, who passed on October 29th of this relentlessly horrible year, has as much claim as anyone. Much as I”m certain he’d disagree, maybe it’s just as well that, he, of all people, will not live to see what’s coming next, as the things he did as much as anyone could to prevent inevitably wash over us. If his contributions are the among the traces left behind–and you can bet they’ll be among the first things the new Overlords try to erase from human memory–then the future will at least have a chance.

The folks at the “Louie, Louie” website, The Louie Report and Ormsby pal, Dave Marsh, (full post below) have done a better job than I could of conveying Ormsby’s specific material and spiritual contributions:

RRC Extra No. 58: Buck Ormsby

SPANISH CASTLE WIZARD…. Dave Marsh writes: Buck Ormsby was the guitar player in the Wailers of “Tall Cool One” and the leader of all the madhouse rock that came after him and his great band that rescued “Louie Louie” from a trash-heap.

Now, this won’t mean a damned thing to anyone not fully steeped — soaked to the DNA — in Pacific Northwest rock’n’roll lore. But without Buck, and the shows he did with the Wailers and other bands he was in, at the Spanish Castle (not a figment of Jimi Hendrix’s imagination but a true crazoid rocker hatchery) and elsewhere in Seattle and Tacoma and Portland, that whole area, there would not have been the Kingsmen doing “Louie Louie” (because they were only doing it ‘cause they’d seen the Wailers do it), there would not have been any of the Sonics, etc. powerhouse garage punk music, there wouldn’t be any memory of “Louie” at all.

He was a pioneer in having a band own its masters (and for that matter, its record company), he was a champion of the lost memory of Rockin’ Robin Roberts, of the blues and R&B musicians they copped all their licks from before warping them into teenage overdrive. He was one of the toughest guys I ever met and although I usually couldn’t deliver, I’m proud of the fact that he always at least tried to include me in all his over-ambitious projects. He had a vision, more vision than pretty much anybody out there, certainly more vision than anybody in his area until the grunge gangs evolved (and that wouldn’t have happened without the foundations he laid, and there’s nobody part of it I can think of it who was as visionary as Buck was on a bad day). And nobody outside of Seattle-Tacoma-Portland will remember him in a half inch of obituary.

But I can’t forget. He was my shepherd when I wrote the “Louie” book. But it wasn’t just that. He was a throwback to every indomitable rock’n’roll impresario I’ve known from Jeep Holland to Frank Barsalona. He was even in his own merciless way a prefiguration of Little Steven. I own no higher praise.

I told Eric Predoehl, the “Louie” archivist who’s been close to finishing a Louie Louie documentary for the past 25 years that my reaction to the news was “Aw fuck” because I figured that was what Buck would have said. They tore down the Castle to widen the highway, or something equally useless. They will never tear down Buck Ormsby because they can’t even reach that high.

Take it from Jimi, who was there, up front copping licks from all those heroes, and didn’t neglect them as he became one:

Hang on, My Darling, Yeah
Hang on if you want to go
It puts everything else on the shelf
With just a little bit of Spanish Castle Magic
Just a little bit of daydream here and there.

Though, in the end, the musicians he aided and abetted on the road to freedom did the best job of all:

buckormsby2

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Bobby Fuller Four Up)

“Let Her Dance”
The Bobby Fuller Four (1965)
#133 Billboard
Recommended source: Never To Be Forgotten – The Mustang Years

bobbyfuller4

Dave Marsh has written that the Bobby Fuller Four had a claim on being the best rock and roll band in America in the mid-sixties. If you want to start such an argument, you can find enough evidence on the two small box sets that collect all the group’s work (especially the one recommended above) to get it going, though not enough to finish it. For that, Fuller would have needed to live a little longer and keep up the pace.

bobbyfuller3

Whether he could have, we’ll never know. He was found dead in his car a few months after “I Fought the Law” became a breakout hit in 1966. Among the wilder rumors that floated around in the years after the L.A. coroner checked both “accident” and “suicide” on his death certificate was that Elvis had him killed for refusing to sell that same car. For a more plausible explanation of Bobby’s death–and much else–I highly recommend John Kaye’s great novel The Dead Circus, which I reviewed here.

For my own take on just how good the Bobby Fuller Four was at high tide, you can go here.

But if you just needed one record to get you thinking about what might have been, “Let Her Dance” might do the trick. The world moved faster back then. What I like to call Pop Time moved at lightning speed. Who knows where Fuller’s career might have been twelve months later if “Let Her Dance” had broken out as it should have in the summer of ’65. Probably nowhere significantly different than where it was. But maybe, just maybe, it would have moved his life a hair to two to the left or right on the Dial of Fate–and just maybe it would have been the hair’s difference that would have let him live to old age.

Keith Richards has spoken about late night parties in Swinging London where John Lennon would get in his cups and say things like “If only Buddy had lived!” the kind of drunken philosophy which means absolutely nothing literally and absolutely everything spiritually.

Bobby Fuller was the closest anyone came to taking Buddy Holly’s place, literally or spiritually. Unfortunately, the proximation was bit too literal. But if you wonder where the ceiling was, try sticking “Let Her Dance” between “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and “London’s Burning”  on the Universe of Stomp’s supremo mix-disc some time.

Then crank it to the max.

You might be surprised who sounds like the genius then.

 

MY FAVORITE TRULY OBSCURE B-SIDE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Easy Part: Define “B-Side.”

“The side of a 45 that was not meant for primary radio promotion…at least until some enterprising dee-jay turned the boring A-Side over and his audience started lighting up the switchboard.”

The most famous case of this was probably the process that, by means I can’t seem to track down in precise detail, led to this UK release…

LULU1

Being turned into this US release….

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and leading (many years after “To Sir With Love” failed to chart in Britain and was the number one American record for the year 1967 in Billboard) to the Scottish Lass’s priceless quote re American dee-jays: “Bless their cotton socks.”

Now here’s a trick.

Define “obscure.”

Then define “truly obscure.”

You’re liable to get deep in the weeds before you find any real agreement on that last. Your gem of obscurity, held close to the heart (or, if you’re a little paranoid, the vest, right next to your pearl-handled revolver), and heard by only a precious few in the History of Man, will be somebody else’s “Pfah! I’ve got five copies of that in my basement and I didn’t even start looking until I was twelve!”

But I’m a sucker for punishment so I’ll have a go.

First Rule: It can’t be anything by the B-Side kings: Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. They all routinely turned out B-sides that would have been career makers for anybody else. But even their worst or scarcest material isn’t obscure. So “I’m Down” and “Kiss Me Baby” don’t qualify. And neither does anything that doesn’t reek of genius.

Second Rule: It can’t be anything by a popular artist which has been given extensive exposure by cover versions or inclusion on “best of” compilations. None of this, then:

Third Rule: It can’t have been talked about so much or praised by so many critics that any reasonably aware record collector knows it backwards and forwards.

None of this…

Or this…

Fourth Rule: It can’t be mentioned in some well-known bible of taste like Greil Marcus’ “Desert Island” section at the end of Stranded or Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Which is really too bad…

Fifth Rule: Of course to be really, truly obscure, the fifth rule is, if not a must, at least the first sub-rule of tie-breakers:

No official release on CD.

It’s not that hard to find B-Sides never released on CD. Way harder than it used to be, but still not beyond the pale.

What’s a little harder is to find something I really love that’s never been released on CD.

I thought I might have to settle for something that at least hasn’t been released often. Something like this…

or this…

…both of which lead straight into the second sub-rule of tiebreakers...

A record gets a leg up if I actually first experienced it as a B-Side, something that put a smile on my face once upon a time when I got home from the record store and played through the stack and realized I had gotten two for one.

What for instance, might have lain on the other side of this….?

Not another big hit because the Poppy Family, despite making a number of distinctively elegiac records, didn’t have any other big hits outside their native Canada, (though “That’s Where I Went Wrong” made the top thirty…and Greil Marcus’s “Island”).

Also not a record that’s ever been released on CD.

And not a record that was even released on a vinyl album.

Now we’re getting pretty close to “truly obscure.” You can go deeper–the way your average troll defines it, obscurity really is a bottomless concept–but probably not with somebody who had at least as much success as the Poppy Family.

And, even if you did go deeper, I bet you wouldn’t find a classic cover, in this case of a 1958 hit by Jody Reynolds, that doesn’t so much rewrite a great original as restore its initial meaning.

In the fifties, Reynolds was forced to rewrite the lyrics to a song he had called “Endless Sleep” before his record company would release it.

They wanted him to rewrite it because they wanted a happy ending….to a record called “Endless Sleep.”

So they could release it on Demon Records.

I mean, any time they try to tell you the fifties weren’t weird….

Hey, he made it work anyway. But I was a little shocked when I finally heard Jody’s version. It didn’t jibe at first. How could it? I’d already absorbed this version…which does not end happily.

As far as I know, everything else the Poppy Family recorded was on one of their two albums. I assume this was a consummate throwaway, a true B-Side done up on the spot to get the wannabe, gonnabe hit–which turned out to be a monster–out the door.

Not the sort of thing that happens anymore, as we’re all too busy making those other plans the old B-Side King John Lennon used to talk about.

Thin gruel this brave new world has turned out to be.

But I remember how crazy and full life, love and the recording industry used to be.

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MORE NOTES FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS–April 26, 2016 (The Shangri-Las, Greil Marcus and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

From Marcus’s latest “Real Life” column (and from whence, upon a little further research, came yesterday’s post):

8. The Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack” (Red Bird, 1964) Another shot on the Trump rally soundtrack—against the objections of Shangri-Las lead singer Mary Weiss. But really, Trump ought to know the song. He was 18 in New York when the New York group hit the top of the charts. Doesn’t he realize the leader of the pack dies?

(Source: Pitchfork, “Real Life Rock Top 10” 4/25/16)

The answer, incidentally, is you bet he does. Many sources have confirmed that Trump picks his own rally music. I believe them, and, however comforting the notion might be, I don’t believe anything is there by virtue of accident or misunderstanding.

As to what it means? Well Marcus took a stab at it, following on from his next entry, which turned on Steve Miller’s recent laudable call for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “to keep expanding your vision. To be more inclusive of women. And to be more transparent in your dealing with the public. And to do much more to provide music in our schools.”

Women: the Shangri-Las have never been nominated, let alone inducted. But maybe that’s why Donald Trump doesn’t really know “Leader of the Pack”—they’re losers, and he doesn’t truck with scum.

Well, maybe. But that’s only going skin-deep. Trump’s appeal isn’t exactly to the winners. If it were, he never would have gotten off the ground. The “winners” always have an embarrassment of lackeys to choose from and Trump’s one really fascinating quality is the fear he has struck into every one of the kingmakers. Frankly, I liked Weiss’s response (posted yesterday) better. It was angry and policy based, not merely contemptuous and dismissive. I don’t think Marcus even realizes how much he has in common with the overlords on this subject.

But far more significant to me, is the Rock Hall part. I seem to remember that Marcus long ago turned down an opportunity to be on the Hall’s nominating committee, a place from whence he might have been enormously influential. As far as I know, he has mostly observed silence on the subject ever since. So for him to be making some much needed noise is highly welcome news. And it wasn’t in a vacuum, because all of this followed on his answer to a question about the Hall’s relevance on the “Ask Greil” feature of his website (which is fascinating in any case) from a few days ago:

I know this: regardless of what we may think of the white boys club, its myopia, its kitschiness, or the way they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel with Cheap Trick and Deep Purple to avoid the Shangri-Las, the Adverts, X-Ray Spex, the Mekons, the Chiffons—are the Shirelles in? How could they not be?—not to mention keeping NWA out as if they had to wait politely by the door like children or dogs, being in there means everything to the performers. It makes them think they did something good with their lives, and that they won’t be forgotten. That’s a lot.

I’ve been beating this drum since the early nineties, when it first became evident that women artists were clearly being shoved to one side in the Hall’s process. (I wrote a long-g-g-g-g letter to Dave Marsh at the time. He was then, and still is, on the nominating committee. Coincidentally or not, several of the acts I mentioned, including the Shirelles, got in over the next several years, though, of course, anyone who follows this blog knows that it remains, ahem, a problem). But Greil Marcus has a much bigger platform than I do and his assessment of why the Hall matters is perfect.

This is the most Hall buzz the Shangri-Las have had since right after the Ronettes were inducted in the wake of former nominating committee member Phil Spector being indicted for murder. It’s fair enough, since, perhaps inadvertently, the willingness of Marcus and so many other first generation rock critics to swallow anything “white boy” svengalis like Spector and George Goldner told them, helped set in stone the narrative that the producer was king.

The cracks in that stone continue to grow. I do my best to track every single one of them.

Because, believe me, when it’s finally rolled away, we’ll all be living in a better world.

THE RISING: BATTLE OF THE L.A. BANDS EDITION (Fifth Memo)

Los Angeles in the 70s: Who would you trust?

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WAR2

Steely Dan….or War?

H-m-m-m.

Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.

I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.

Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.

Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.

By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.

First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.

Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:

Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.

In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.

Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.

I’m not sure I could blame him.

It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.

I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer

The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.

About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.

Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.

*   *   *   *

They had a lot in common besides that.

They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:

War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.

Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)

That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.

I’ll lay into that in a bit.

But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:

Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).

Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).

Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).

Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.

Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.

Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).

And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.

So it goes.

None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.

So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.

It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.

Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.

How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?

Hm-m-m-m…Could be?

Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.

*   *   *   *

Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:

WARALLDAYMUSIC

CANTBUYATHRILL

I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.

Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.

I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.

Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?

All of the above?

None of the above?

Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).

And if it takes reading Donald Fagen’s biography to find out, I’m probably never gonna know.

A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.

In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.

This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.

The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.

Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.

Unless, of course, we just want to give up.

*   *   *   *

And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?

Maybe recognition of something elemental?

Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?

That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.

What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?

Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.

Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.

Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.

That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.

Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.

The way black people just naturally are.

On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the  Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.

They were thinkers by God!

Philosophers.

Artiste‘s even.

And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…

Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…

And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”

Ha, ha, ha.

That’s one side.

And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:

“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”

Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.

So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”

That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.

*  *  *  *

Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.

Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.

Ever.

Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.

They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.

Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.

It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)

And they did not do so “instinctively.”

They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.

Quite the opposite.

*    *    *   *

Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.

Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.

Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.

And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.

So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.

Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.

In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.

In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.

But War went further.

Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.

There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.

By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.

They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.

But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?

Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.

Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.

So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.

To be fair, War faded as well.

Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.

Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.

Hardly cosmic.

It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.

Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.

But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.

Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:

Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.

The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.

The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.

The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”

War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.

And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.

In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.

They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time

*   *   *   *

War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.

Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”

The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.

And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.

Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.

It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.

Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.

And if there is no judgment?

Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.

And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.