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

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

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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:

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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.

VISIONARY (Maurice White, R.I.P.)

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I skipped Paul Kantner, in part because I didn’t have much to add to what was already being said, in part because I was enduring my annual Australian Open hangover (just now clearing), in part because I kept hoping the Death Train would pull in for a rest.

Alas, it rolls on, and now it’s coming for the prophets.

By the time he stepped out in front of Earth, Wind and Fire, one of the three or four greatest funk bands (and twenty or so greatest rock and roll bands) ever, Maurice White was really just claiming a space he had helped create.

As a Memphis-born, Chicago-bound session drummer, he played on lots of seminal records in the sixties, none more so than Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me,” the 1965 smash that paved the way for Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough two years later (Dave Marsh once accurately dubbed it “the greatest non-Aretha Aretha ever,” and, as he also noted, the more remarkable for coming first). After that, White joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio and, across a number of albums, laid down the bottom for the funk-oriented jazz that EWF would one day turn into jazz-oriented funk.

Thereafter, along with leading one of rock’s essential bands, he also found time to be one of the era’s most formidable record men, kicking off the career of Deniece Williams and making perhaps his finest record with the previously fair-to-middling Emotions.

But it with his great band that he left his deepest mark. As a quadruple in-house dynamo (singer/songwriter/drummer/producer) he was probably matched in the seventies only by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham–and even Buckingham shouldered a bit less of the load than White did.

Eventually, there were a slew of Grammys and the usual assortment of additional honors, plus 15 gold or platinum albums between 1973 and 1988–impressive for anyone, staggering for a funk band.

Above all that, there was an over-arching message, one that began in troubled times, lasted through the false “morning” of the eighties and still calls out to the future we threw away. Just in case we don’t manage to snatch it back, I hope the music will still be around to remind whoever’s up next of just what is possible.

Maurice White moved to the  next plane yesterday after losing a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

All he left behind, out of Africa and America, was a past worth reclaiming here and now and a future worth living for anywhere and any time.

As session man:

As proto-fusionist:

As producer and record man:

And as Mighty Mighty Man (singer, bandleader, front-man, record man, soul man):

Ah well, the train rolls on down here, but I have it on good authority that they’re dancing in heaven tonight.

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THE LASTEST UPDATE (NOT A REPEAT!) FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS …

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I’m up to 1991 in Greil Marcus’s Real Life Top Ten. It’s still running like a freight train most of the time. Then, every once in a while, the Shangri-Las drift in from left field and everything grinds to a halt:

3) Ed Sanders, The Family: The Manson Group and its Aftermath (Signet/NAL) reissue, 1971)….

Here sex can seem uglier than murder, murder more casual than sex, sex so often ritual, dog blood poured on copulating bodies a logical extension of the standard Family initiation or its everyday, California, do-your-own-thing version of Adamite and Free Spirit beliefs and practices that went back almost a thousand years. Even without the material on the Process Church of the Final Judgment and the Solar Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, removed after the first edition because of lawsuits (that’s what libraries are for), Sanders’ narrative casts a spell so strong it can suck in almost anything. I saw the Shangri-Las in a TV nostalgia clip doing “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”  and in their blithe teenage nihilism they could have been from Manson’s harem…

So, to previous descriptions/assumptions of Mary Weiss as…

Dead: (“The In Between Years,” Mark Sten, included in Rock Almanac, Stephen Nugent and Charlie Gillett, eds., Anchor Press, 1978)

Black: (James Brown, 1964. Also numerous YouTube commenters of recent vintage)

Jewish: (Are You There God, It’s Me Mary: The Shangri-Las and the Punk Rock Love Song, Tracy Landecker, Rhino Kindle, 2012…it was released on Sept. 11. proving somebody, somewhere has a sense of humor; Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton, Ashgate, 2009, along with numerous articles/comments that can be found on-line, whether feeding the “research,” herein or drawing upon it is anyone’s guess.)

Catholic: (Most everyone else. Of course, one can be ethnically Jewish and of the Catholic faith. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that Mary Weiss is neither.)

Brunette: (The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh, 1989…He mixed the Weiss sisters with the Gansers so he specifically had her in a beehive. Mary Ann Ganser was identified as the lead: “a straight-haired blonde.”  The error was not corrected in the 2nd edition).

Betty Weiss: (Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las, Phillips International, 1966, and various liner notes to a number of other comps over the years.)

Marge Ganser: (A book on Rock and Roll Death I picked up and thumbed through in a book store once. I couldn’t afford to buy it and I never saw it again. Today, the internet yields no solid clues as to the book’s actual existence. But I swear it happened. It’s out there. No, really. On any bible you want!)

Patty Hearst’s soul mate: (“How the Other Half Lived,” Greil Marcus, Village Voice, Sept. 8, 1975...I had my say about that here.)

We can now add…

Manson girl…not to mention teenage nihilist: (Real Life Rock, Marcus, Yale Press, 2015. Reprinting a column from March, 1991, originally published in Artforum)

There are at least six different versions of the Shangri-Las performing “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” on YouTube, but the “TV nostalgia clip” Marcus encountered was likely this one, which I’m almost certain is the only one that has ever been “officially” released (and thus the only one licensed to be on television) and which, when I first saw a piece of it in the 1983 documentary Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound, I took as a sign from Heaven that life on Earth was indeed worth living. Different strokes for different folks, I guess:

And, no, all these years later, I still don’t see Susan Atkins or Patricia Krenwinkle in there. Quite the opposite in fact. Call it joy. Call it knowing. Call it the joy of knowing….something. Something not everybody knows.

Call it “nihilism” and I’m liable to think you are making stuff up.

Me not being a certified psychoanalyst, there is clearly way-y-y-y too much disturbance in the male psyche going on in Marcus’s piece for me to be comfortable with any further speculation on which of us might have a screw loose somewhere.

But I will say none of it matches what I still consider the weirdest description of Weiss I’ve ever come across.

It’s from the 1983 updated edition of Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City (the original 1970 version did not contain it). He described Mary Weiss’s voice thus:

“Deadpan.”

I ain’t going anywhere near that.

UPDATE: One thing I should have mentioned is that, in the liner notes of her (very fine) 2007 solo album, Dangerous Game, Weiss included Marcus in the list of those she thanked for their “encouragement and support.” His reaching out to her for a response via email to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks may well have been one of the stepping stones that lured her back into the studio. Greil Marcus does some very good things. Which may be why I find his own nihilistic streak very disorienting.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #7: The Impressions–The Vintage Years, 1976)

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Modernity brings us a lot of nice things and preserves a lot of other nice things.

It doesn’t preserve everything…or get everything just right all the time.

That picture above is the best I could find on the net of the classic compilation released on vinyl in 1976 by Sire Records (who did similar comps on a number of other acts around that time).

Most record junkies and list makers have their “go to” album. Call it the greatest, the best, your favorite, your “desert island” disc, the “one you’d save if the house caught on fire.” Whatever.

This one’s mine and neither it nor any close equivalent has been released on CD.

Like I say, lots of nice things are preserved. But not everything.

I’m not crying. If I really want to, I can collect up all the music on this record from various digital sources, load them on my computer and put them on a disc myself with the running order preserved. Not quite the same, of course, but at least the purely musical part of the experience can be recreated at home.

The only thing that would be lost is the psychic experience. The connection to my own past and the role this or any record with it’s own history plays in it.

Hardly the biggest deal in the world in and of itself. But I wonder if the small things (and I’d hardly call this the smallest), aren’t representative of something larger.

The Vintage Years isn’t on CD. No big deal

The record store where I bought it moved. No big deal.

The record store where I bought it moved from a hole in the wall next to a bowling alley (circa 1981) to bigger hole in the wall halfway across town (next to a hole in the wall book store, circa 1985) then moved to a giant warehouse down the street (the book store moved to a still bigger hole in the wall halfway across town in the other direction, circa some time in the 1990’s). No big deal.

The record store went out of business five or six years back. No big deal.

The book store went out of business last year. No big deal.

They haven’t been replaced. And they won’t be.

No big deal.

We still got the internet. Better deals anyway. Amazon, E-Bay, Gemm.com.

Time moves on. Heck, if you read about something now, say the way I read about The Vintage Years in 1980 (in Dave Marsh and John Swenson’s original Rolling Stone Record Guide, the one with the red cover as it happens), you don’t have to spend three or four (or ten or twenty) years looking for a playable, affordable copy. You can just look it up. If somebody in the world doesn’t have it this week, somebody in the world will probably have it next week.

In any case, it’s not really likely you’ll have to wait three or four years.

Or flip through piles of used record bins.

Or wonder if what you’ll hear when you finally do track it down will really be worth  the wait.

If it will hit you like this when you do whatever the modern equivalent of dropping the needle is:

And then take you on a journey from this:

to this…

to this…

to this…

to this…

Because, of course, now you can just go on YouTube, or come to somebody’s clever little website. If you’re really interested you can probably pull up every single song and sample it for free.

Take the mystery out of the thing.

Believe me, this is not entirely a bad thing. It’s probably not even mostly a bad thing.

But it’s not entirely a good thing either.

Because there’s no way you can surf the net and re-create what it’s like to walk out of grocery store and see somebody has opened a little hole in the wall record shop in the Winn Dixie strip mall, in a space about as big as your efficiency apartment, and walk in there and realize the guy is not only selling stuff you’ve only heard about but selling it for three, four, five bucks apiece.

And you can’t therefore know what it’s like to have one of the very first things you find in that store be The Impressions: The Vintage Years, an album which, when you get it home and slide it on your cheap-o turntable, will discover crosses fifteen years and five distinct phases of three brilliant careers (not just the doo-wop and soul years of the Impressions, but the two major phases of Jerry Butler’s solo career and the beginning of Curtis Mayfield’s) so seamlessly they constitute a mind-blowing journey from the street corner where Mayfield,  Butler, and their mates, figuratively if not literally, conceived both “Your Precious Love” and a way out of the lives History had assigned for them in the late fifties, to a doomed junkie running scared in the seventies as Mayfield, now alone, literally if not figuratively, sings “Freddie’s on the corner now, you want to be a junkie wow, remember Freddie’s dead,” and first circumscribes, then transports, the pain and fear from a life that might have easily been his if he hadn’t once upon a time happened to find his own genius on that same street corner or one so much like it the difference hardly matters.

In the New Gilded Age that came after (soon accompanied by the New Jim Crow, the New Puritanism, the New Dada, et al…no truly bad idea ever dies), all this music is far more readily available, the world over. There are better and fuller compilations of any one of those five “phases” I mentioned. I’ve got them. I listen to them. I even wrote about one of them at length. And, to tell the truth, my very favorite Impressions’ record isn’t even on this particular album:

But there’s no single shared experience that’s quite the same as this vinyl comp that’s unlikely to ever be reproduced for the modern age…Nothing, for my money, quite as satisfying, quite as simultaneously uplifting and gut-wrenching as The Impressions: The Vintage Years.

I’m mostly glad I don’t have to spend years tracking things down. Really I am.

But there are some experiences I wouldn’t trade.

THE THREAT: ELVIS IN THE FIFTIES, VOLUME 7….“HOUND DOG” RISING

Volumes 1–6 can be accessed under the “Elvis In The Fifties” category at the right

hounddog2

Before Elvis’ eightieth birthday recedes, here’s a reminder of just how much the sands of history–and its shady cousin, memory–can slip and slide.

NOTES are mine….quotes are sourced as notated.

I actually assembled this series of quotes about fifteen years ago as part of a larger piece I wrote in response to a friend of mine making the standard claim that Elvis basically “stole everything” (including, of course, “Hound Dog”) from black people and, more generally, to a strain of then prominent “scholarship” (mostly found in left leaning magazines and, to be  fair, mostly refuted there, too) which frequently asserted, among other things, that Big Mama Thornton had not only recorded the original version (true) but had written it (false).

So, for a messy, complicated story of one little record…

Speak memory….I leave it to each reader to decide who to believe!

hounddog3bigmama

….On August 13, 1952, (Jerry) Leiber and (Mike) Stoller became de facto producers when they supervised, from the studio control booth, Big Mama Thornton’s recording of their song “Hound Dog.”

Johnny Otis, a white drummer and vibraphonist, was the leader of a popular black blues band. He asked Leiber and Stoller to write some material for several of the singers in his band. Little Esther and Big Mama among them. “We went down to a rehearsal,” says Leiber, “and watched Big Mama perform. She must have weighed three hundred pounds and she was the saltiest chick we’d ever seen. We went home to write for her and out came “Hound Dog.”

Otis supervised the recording session first with Leard Bell, who worked with him on the road, playing the drums. The tune had been conceived by Jerry and Mike as a kind of country blues, with the drums playing a loping figure such as one might hear in Louisiana music. Bell had trouble finding a groove, and Jerry and Mike told Otis he had to play drums to save the song. “Who’s gonna’ sit in the booth?” Otis asked. “We will,” answered Jerry and Mike. And with Otis on the drums, his snares turned off so the drum kit got an unusual hollow ring, “Hound Dog” was recorded in two takes. “That was the first time,” Leiber says, “that we actually took over some authority and asked for a little bit more of this, a little bit less of that.” The record was number one on the national rhythm-and-blues charts for three months, eclipsing the success of Leiber and Stoller’s first r&b hit, “Hard Times” by Charles Brown. But since the charts were still segregated, few of Jerry and Mike’s remaining white friends heard either tune.

[From Baby That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller–Robert Palmer (1978)]

….Mike Stoller: “Johnny Otis called us in August 1952, and asked us to come over to his house. We knew Johnny because we’d written songs for Mel Williams and Little Esther, who worked with his band. He said, “I’ve got this singer, Willie Mae Thornton, who I’m going to produce. I want you to come by and listen to her and write a song for her.’ That’s how we meet her. I’d seen her name on something prior to that, but I didn’t know what she looked like. And to my knowledge I’d never heard her. Just knew the name.

“We went to this house in West L.A.–it was in the West Adams area. Beneath the living quarters of the house was a garage which he’d converted into a kind of rehearsal studio. I remember it was a warm afternoon, so the doors were open and it was sort of a half-inside, house-out rehearsal. And that’s when we first saw Big Mama. We were kind of….she was very imposing. [Laughs.] We ran back to my house and wrote “Hound Dog” in about eight or nine minutes. I started playing the piano with a beat that was kind of angry-sounding, because she seemed to be an imposing and salty kind of woman. She appeared to be close to 300 pounds and strong as an ox–she used to lift the microphone, with its heavy steel base, with one hand and sing into it while the base was up in the air. That’s what came through when I played the piano. And Jerry just started rambling and shouting and all of a sudden came out with, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.’ And it became a song about a gigolo. We took it back over to the garage that same day, and that was it. We sang it to her and she said, ‘Uh-huh.’ [Laughs.] [Referring to other printed versions of the story:] I don’t think we wrote it on a paper bag; it was probably a piece of lined paper.

“I remember we walked into the studio the next day and Jerry said, ‘Willie Mae, growl that opening line.’ And she said, ‘Don’t tell me how the sing the blues.’ Of course, the idea stuck, though. There was just two takes. When we’d rehearsed it at Johnny’s house, Johnny was sitting in on the drums. He’d had the snares turned off and was playing an old southern-style beat that sounded like something from an Alan Lomax recording–like they’d just come back from the fields. In the studio, his drummer, K.C. Bell, was on the drums. He had a regular, good-sounding set of traps you know, a regular crisp-sounding snare, and it just wasn’t happening. We told Johnny to get on the drums, and he said ‘Who’s going to run this thing?’ We said, ‘We will.’ It was actually the first time we had been fully in charge in the studio. Big Mama gave two incredible performances; the second one was better. It was a killer.”

[From Behind the Hits: Inside Stories of Classic Pop and Rock and Roll–Bob Shannon and John Javna (1986)]

[NOTE: “Hound Dog” became Big Mama Thornton’s only hit of any kind on any national chart, reaching #1 on the R&B charts in April, 1953.]

….Somebody told me they were recording there at Sun and I just went. Everybody had been in there. Sam [Phillips] had a completely black stable then, no white artists in there at all. All black. I had cut a song in Sun in 1953 called “Bear Cat,” that was the first hit for Sun, but I had done some other songs before that. I think two songs. Then Sun leased some of my songs to Chess up in Chicago. All I wanted to do was make a record. I didn’t worry about the money, because at that time you’d only get a penny a record.

“Bear Cat” was a spin-off from Willie Mae Thornton’s “Hound Dog”–same background music and everything, just different words. Sort of an answer to “Hound Dog.” It was a big song. The first hit with a Sun label on it. I made maybe five, six hundred dollars off it. Sam made a bit more than that. But Sam wouldn’t hardly tell anyone I made the first record for him that got a hit until about three years ago. They’d put us on panels together and he never did mention it. But I’d always come back and say, ‘Sam didn’t tell you I made the first record.’

He was an arrogant bastard. He is today. Back then he had a big car, was maybe a foreign car, a Bentley, and he’d boast about the money he made that got him this car. I said, ‘Yeah, but if it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t have had that car.’

[Rufus Thomas, from Sun Records: An Oral History–John Floyd (1998)]

….Consider American popular culture in the moments just after 8:00 p.m. on January 28, 1956, as represented (quite accurately) by “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show.” The theme music is a large, bland was of strings and brass without discernible rhythmic accent. The male entertainers are decked out in tuxedos; suits and ties constitute casual wear except in the odd comedy skit. The only women are skimpily clad dancers. Everyone is white; no one speaks with an accent (except, perhaps, in an ethnic comedy sketch). The atmosphere is polished, sophisticated, slick, easy–nothing is difficult or challenging because there’s nothing at stake. Everyone has a role to play, entertainer and audience, assigned at birth and kept for life.

Enter Elvis, the living antithesis of this culture. Not unkempt but unruly, fresh, arrogant, surly, raw and powerful, his lip curling, hips shaking, knees swiveling. The music is streamlined and defined, his small band louder than the Dorseys’ huge orchestra. Elvis snaps into “Heartbreak Hotel.” He owns the song and the crowd immediately; the audience is stunned. This isn’t so much an “act” as an expose of the emptiness not only of most entertainment but of most lives. In the process of watching him, lives are changed.

Yet the reaction wasn’t national convulsion. “Heartbreak Hotel” came out the week Elvis’ first Dorsey show aired and, though the song soon topped national pop and country charts–even got to Number 5 in R&B–TV wasn’t decisive in its success. The Dorsey show wasn’t highly rated. Elvis had been booked because he might boost its ratings. Elvis had been spectacularly successful with his live show in the South and Southwest, radio programmers were becoming more open to rock & roll with each passing week and he now had a record with the promotional clout of RCA behind it from the day of release. All these factors contributed to Elvis’ national breakout.

All this while the band toured ceaselessly, flying into New York to do the TV appearances and to make an occasional record date. Elvis, Scotty [Moore], Bill [Black] and D.J. Fontana were selling out the honky-tonks and the arenas in the South and Southwest, making an occasional foray into the Middle West but basically avoiding the big cities. It was the country circuit they played. But Colonel Parker had bigger ideas.

On April 23, they began what was meant to be a two-week headline engagement at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It was an undiluted disaster. The crowd came to gawk and glare at the hillbilly freak. It sat on its hands, a middle-aged, middle-class wad that wanted nothing more threatening or challenging than a little diversion from its losses at the tables. After the first few days, Presley’s name dropped to second on the bill, below comedian Shecky Greene. Before the start of the second week, the Frontier agreed to tear up Elvis’ $8,500-per-week contract.

The Vegas dates did have one benefit. While watching a lounge act, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Elvis and the band heard a trumped-up version of Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 R&B hit, “Hound Dog,” an arrangement so wild and preposterously stagy that they immediately added it to their own stage show, where it became a sensation.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

….The Bellboys, a highly visual act who provided both action and comic relief, had had a minor hit the previous year with a song that had been a huge rhythm and blues success for Duke/Peacock artist Big Mama Thornton in 1953. “Hound Dog” had been written by two white teenagers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who specialized in rhythm and blues, and was a very odd choice for a male performer, since it was written from a female point of view. Nonetheless, it was the showstopper of Bell’s act, even retaining some of the original rhumba-flavored beat, and it sparked a determination on Elvis’ part to incorporate it into his own show. “We stole it straight from them,” said Scotty. “He already knew it, knew the song, but we were just looking on it as comic relief, if you will, just another number to do on stage.”

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….It was Elvis’ performance of “Hound Dog” the second time he appeared on “The Milton Berle Show” that created outrage in papers and pulpits across the land. “Hound Dog” itself, although written as an exercise in black vernacular by a pair of hustling white leftists from Hollywood, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was greeted as the worst kind of hillbilly barbarism. That is, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog/Cryin’ all the time” was regarded as culturally retarded by a nation that only months before had found “How much is that doggie in the window/The one with the waggly tail” perfectly acceptable.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

He opened (the Milton Berle Show appearance) with “Hound Dog,” the song with which he had been closing his act ever since Las Vegas. He was wearing a light-color checked jacket, dark pants, a two-tone polo shirt, and white socks, and for the first time, surprisingly, he was not even cradling a guitar. Perhaps to make up for its absence he seemed to have carefully worked out new moves, wrists splayed out almost limply in seeming contrast to the ferocity of his vocal attack, fingers fluttering, arms outspread. With Scotty’s solo he lurches backward in what might be interpreted as an upbeat adaptation of the shrugging, stuttering, existential hopelessness of a James Dean, there is a jittery fiddling with his mouth and nose, and as the song comes to an end he is dragging the microphone down to the floor, staggering almost to his knees. Scotty and D.J. and Bill keep their eyes glued on him, there is only the slightest flicker of surprise as he points at the audience and declared emphatically. You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, then goes into his patented half-time ending, gripping the mike, circling it sensuously, jack knifing his legs out as the audience half-screams, half-laughs, and he laughs, too–it is clearly all in good fun.

[From Last Train in Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….The biggest outcry was against the way Elvis moved. “Elvis the Pelvis” became an epithet on the lips of the nation’s adults, moving Elvis to a rare public expression of bitterness (in a TV Guide interview): “It’s one of the most childish expressions I ever heard, comin’ from an adult.” TV critics used Presley’s TV performances to argue their case against the decadence and boorishness of the medium; the ordinarily sober John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune called Elvis “unspeakably untalented and vulgar,” just short of true obscenity. It was an opinion seconded, often in stronger terms, by preachers, critics and educators across the land.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

…The attacks continued: In Nashville an effigy of him was hung, in St. Louis he was burned in absentia. Writing in the Catholic Sun the Reverend William Shannon complained that “Presley and his voodoo of frustrations and defiance have become symbols in our country.” Cardinal Spellman, in a sermon, quoted one of Jack Gould’s articles on Presley at length. The Reverend Charles Howard Graff of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village, New York, called the singer a “whirling dervish of sex.” The evangelist Billy Graham admitted he hadn’t met Presley and didn’t know much about him, but based on what he’d heard he wasn’t “so sure I’d want my children to see him.”

Reactions to Presley were not limited to the critics. One campaign was the brainchild of two Yale students who had become alarmed when they saw a lot of kids sporting “I Like Elvis” buttons. These two launched a counterattack on behalf of Beethoven and had a thousand “I Like Ludwig” buttons made up. A placard on the counter of a music store in Manhattan read, “Combat the Menace! Get Your Ludwig Button.” They sold them all in a matter of hours and within a few weeks claimed to be a national club with twenty thousand members across the country. Those who were seen with “Ludwig” buttons included such famous musicians as Isaac Stern, Eugene Ormandy, and Pablo Casals.

It seemed that everybody got in on the act, including one used car dealer in Cincinnati, who advertised that he would break fifty Presley records in the presence of anybody who bought one of his cars. He sold five cars in one day. In Toronto, Canada a columnist for the Toronto Telegram started a club for those who disliked Elvis and rock. It was called the Elvis Suppresley Club. On Canada’s west coast, columnist Jack Wasserman of the Vancouver Sun held a contest in which listeners were invited to complete, in fifty words or less, the following sentence: “I hate Elvis Presley because….” The winner got a Frank Sinatra record album. In the town of Aylmer, Quebec jukebox operators took Presley songs out of boxes after the mayor-elect urged the ban on the basis that the songs were too suggestive. At a private school in Ottawa, Canada eight female students were expelled after they disobeyed a school edict to stay away from a Presley concert. The principal of the senior high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, Oren T. Freeman, stated that, “We do not tolerate Elvis Presley records at our dances, or blue jeans or ducktail haircuts.” The editors of the Music Journal blasted Elvis for his “leering, whining, moaning,” and for his “filthy performances.” Two female students from a San Francisco high school won a “Why I Love Elvis” contest and were flown to Hollywood to be kissed. The principal expelled them and explained, “We don’t need that kind of publicity.”

….A jockey known as the Great Scott, in Nashville, burned six hundred Elvis records in a public park.

….When radio station WPST of Minneapolis banned Presley from their airwaves they brought down the ire of some residents. Several DJs reported receiving threatening calls to “play Elvis Presley or else.” A rock was thrown through the outlet’s front window and the attached note read, “I am a teenager–you play Elvis Presley or else we tear up this town.” The ban stood.

….In Leipzig (East Germany) police arrested a gang of youths after they had come under the influence of “NATO ideology.” The name of the gang was the “Elvis Presley Hound Dogs.”

[From Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock and Roll–Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave (1988)]

“appalling taste”–The San Francisco Chronicle.

“no discernible singing ability…an undistinguished whine…for the ear he is an utter bore”–The New York Times (Jack Gould)

“Elvis Presley wriggled and wiggled with such abdominal gyrations that burlesque bombshell Georgia Southern really deserves equal time to reply in gyrating kind…He can’t sing a lick, makes up for vocal shortcomings with the weirdest and plainly suggestive animation short of an aborigine’s mating dance….The sight of young (21) Mr. Presley’s caterwauling his unintelligible lyrics in an inadequate voice, during a display of primitive physical movement difficult to describe in terms suitable to a family newspaper, has caused the most heated reaction since the stone-age days of TV when Dagmar and Faysie’s necklines were plunging to oblivion.”–New York Journal-American (Jack O’Brien)

“[Popular music] has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. The TV audience had a noxious sampling of it on the Milton Berle Show the other evening. Elvis, who rotates his pelvis, was appalling musically. Also he gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.”–New York Daily News (Ben Gross)

“…if his entertainment could be confined to records, it might not be too bad an influence on the young, but unfortunately Presley makes personal appearances.

“He recently appeared in two shows in the Municipal Auditorium of La Crosse, Wisconsin. According to the La Crosse paper, his movements and motions during the performance, described as a ‘strip-tease with clothes on,’ were not only suggestive but downright obscene. The youngsters at the shows–4,000 at one, about 1,200 at the second–literally ‘went wild,’ some of them actually rolling in the aisles…

“Yet the National Broadcasting Company wasn’t loath to bring Presley into the living-rooms of the nation on the evening of June 5. Appearing on the Milton Berle show, Presley fortunately didn’t go so far as he did in La Crosse, but his routine was ‘in appalling taste’ (said the San Francisco Chronicle) and ‘his one specialty is an accented movement of the body that hitherto has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blond bombshells of the burlesque runway.’ (New York Times)

“If agencies (TV and other) would stop handling such nauseating stuff, all the Presleys of our land would soon be swallowed up in the oblivion they deserve.”–Catholic weekly America.

[Select quotes (a very small sampling) gathered from Anti-Rock and Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley]

….Juvenile delinquency, a widespread breakdown of morality and cultural values, race mixing, riots and irreligion all were being blamed on Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll by a national press that was seemingly just awakening to the threat, the popularity of the new music among the young, and, of course, the circulation gains that could always be anticipated from a great hue and cry.

….When in Charleston he nibbled a reporter’s fingers just to get her attention, it made national headlines–“Girl Reporter Bitten by Elvis”–and his mother was upset that now he was being accused of some new form of moral degeneracy until he reassured her there was nothing to it.

….“I’m going to get a wiggle meter to time the wiggles,” said the Colonel with imperturbable calm. “When Elvis stops singing, we’ll put him on the stage and just let him wiggle!”

….The Milton Berle Show topped Phil Silver’s Sergeant Bilko in the ratings for the first time all season.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….All this caught they eye of Steve Allen, then hosting a Sunday night variety show. If he outlives Norman Cousins, Allen may yet come to be regarded as this century’s preeminent embodiment of the patronizing middlebrow. Allen was a pianist and sometime lyricist, and he hated the emergent rock & roll; he would later be reduced to reading aloud the lyrics to “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Allen seized the opportunity to present Elvis as a chance to hype his own ratings while putting the young hillbilly in his place.

Elvis appeared on July 1, 1956. The program began with Allen walking on stage dressed in a tux, short hair slicked back, horn-rimmed glasses set firmly on his smirking image, wringing his hands in gleeful anticipation. “Well, you know, a couple of weeks ago on ‘The Milton Berle Show,’ our next guest, Elvis Presley, received a great deal of attention–which some people seemed to interpret one way and some viewers interpreted another.” Allen said, his silly smirk growing larger. “Naturally, it’s our intention to do nothing but a good show. [A bark from offstage, Allen laughs nervously.] We want to do a show the whole family can watch and enjoy and we always do. And tonight we are presenting Elvis Presley in his [snicker], what you might call his first comeback. And so it gives me great pleasure to introduce the new Elvis Presley.”

Elvis stood there, decked out in a tux (and blue suede shoes, no less). Elvis beat Allen in the first round, singing a knockout version of “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” his new single and a fairly conventional ballad that was entirely credible in this getup. Allen then opened a curtain, revealing Elvis’ band–and a basset hound perched on a stool, wearing a top hat and a bow tie, to which Elvis was supposed to sing “Hound Dog.” He did, and he prevailed yet again, proving himself not only a good sport but an exceptionally intense and witty performer. Only those who gazed long into Presley’s eyes could have seen how angry and humiliated he felt.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1986)]

….“He sang without passion,” Al Wertheimer noted (of the ‘Steve Allen Show’ rehearsal). “He didn’t move, he didn’t touch the microphone, he stood square, both feet spread and stuck to the ground. After he had finished….Steve patted him on the back and told him it was great. Elvis smiled and in a slow, modest voice, he said ‘Thank you, Mr. Allen.’”

Then he met the dog, a female basset hound dressed in a collar, bow tie, and top hat. In further keeping with the theme of the show he was going to sing “Hound Dog” to–who else? During the first run-through the dog ignored him. Allen “suggested that they get to know each other.” Elvis petted, sang to her, and in the end prevailed, to the applause of the assembled stagehands and professionals.

….If Allen was experiencing extreme pleasure, it was clear that Elvis was experiencing the opposite.

….With his opening number (during the show itself), “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” for the first time he appeared, if not comfortable, at least involved, even in tails. He sang the song with sincerity and feeling, hunching his shoulders, loosening his tie, but for the moment lost in the private reverie which his music provided. The Jordanaires doo-wahed behind him, out of the picture, as were the musicians, save in silhouette. Even as the last notes were still ringing, Steve Allen bustled out on stage again, this time wheeling the basset, and announced that Elvis was not going to sing “Hound Dog,” his next big hit, which he would record the next day. The dog started to look away, Elvis cupped its chin, and there was sympathetic laughter as Elvis glanced balefully, as if sharing a joke with a friend, at the audience. The camera was on the dog as Elvis pointed at her and declared the obvious with a playful snarl. When the dog started to tremble, he held her affectionately and in the course of the song even kissed her once or twice. Apart from nervous titters, there was little response from the audience, but Elvis was a good sport about it all (“He always did the best he could with whatever situation he was given,” said Jordanaire Gordon Stoker of the appearance, “and he never, ever insulted anybody”), walking the mike around into the basset’s line of vision whenever its attention wandered, sharing his discomfiture openly and amiable. There was a sense of almost palpable relief on the part of all concerned when the song ended and he could finally march offstage after a long, lonely moment in the spotlight.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….It got worse, in a comedy skit that featured Allen, Imogene Coca and Andy Griffith as what was supposed to be taken as a “typical” hillbilly entertainment troupe devoted to hayseed jokes and the hustling of marketable products to the rubes. The jokes were not even up to Allen’s usual pallidly “urbane” standards. Each of them was lame, flat but vicious, a pitiless exhibition of Allens’ commitment to proving a point: that Elvis and the hillbilly culture he symbolized had no place in American life. Twenty-five years later, this skit is virtually incomprehensible except as a sort of basic attack on what Elvis was taken to represent, which was not only the South but lack of “sophistication.”

Nor was Allen’s intention missed–not by everyone. In Newsweek, John Lardner devoted an entire column to Elvis’ appearance on the program. Though it was written with Lardner’s familial sarcasm, the column (“Devitalizing Elvis”) amounts to a defense of Presley. “Steve Allen…made a public attempt to neutralize, calm or de-twitch Elvis Presley, the lively singer,” Lardner wrote. “Allen did this, one assumes, in what he personally considers the best interests of civilization. For him, it was logical. Civilization today is sharply divided into two schools which cannot stand the sight of each other. One school, Allen’s, is torpid and dormant in style; it believes in underplaying, or underbidding, or waiting ’em out. The other, Presley’s, is committed to the strategy of open defiance, of confusing ’em, of yelling ’em down. The hips and the Adam’s apple, this school believes, must be quicker than the eye.

“Allen’s ethics were questionable from the start,” Lardner concluded. “He fouled Presley, a fair-minded judge would say, by dressing him like a corpse, in white tie and tails.” The corpse, in the long run, would be bourgeois emptiness Allen epitomized. But for now the humiliation was Elvis’.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

….Back at his room at the Warwick (after the “Steve Allen Show” appearance), Elvis was still not done with his official duties. It had been arranged for him to do an interview on Herald-Tribune columnist Hy Gardner’s program, “Hy Gardner Calling!,” which broadcast locally on WRCA-TV, channel 4.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….The next day he seemed hardly the worse for wear. He arrived at the RCA building to find fans carrying picket signs that declared “We Want the Real Elvis” and “We Want the Gyratin’ Elvis”…Then he entered the studio, shortly before 2:00, and settled down to work.

ELVIS1 elvis3

….They started with “Hound Dog,” but perhaps not surprisingly it proved more difficult to capture on record than anyone had anticipated from its easy on stage success. Engineer Ernie Ulrich, as cynical about rock and roll as anyone else in the building, got a good sound mix early on, but then there were seventeen takes without a satisfactory master. The drums, always the driving force in the live show, weren’t working right. Scotty was groping toward his guitar solo, the Jordanaires were having some difficulty finding their place, and Shorty Long, the boogie-woogie piano player who had filled in on the last New York session, was just looking for his cues. (Nominal producer) Steve Sholes was getting visibly discouraged–he was desperate to get material for the second album, and here they were wasting all their time on a single song–but Elvis, who exhibited few points of stillness in any other aspect of his life, maintained absolute concentration. “In his own reserved manner,” wrote Wertheimer, “he kept control, he made himself responsible. When somebody else made a mistake, he sang off-key. The offender picked up the cue. He never criticized anyone, never got mad at anybody but himself. He’d just say, ‘Okay, fellas, I goofed.’”

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….What they needed to figure out was how to turn the live performance into a record that would have the same effect. Elvis had performed the song live with a half-time, bump-and-grind ending a la “I Got a Woman,” but now that was quickly dropped in favor of a full-speed-ahead version that had more to do with energy and overall impact than anything else. Scotty’s guitar sounded loud and propulsive against a churning rhythm from Bill and D.J., while the Jordanaires delivered a backdrop of clapping hands and flowing “ahhhhs.” The end result was like a musical machine gun, and take after take rang through the room, growing tougher and sharper each time.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]

….On the eighteenth take they finally got something. By now the beat had changed considerably from the way they did it in live performance, and the phrasing of the lyrics had changed even more. It had veered still further from Big Mama Thornton’s original Latin-flavored “rhumba-boogie” feel (preserved mainly in the repetition of the final words, HOUND DOG at the end of the opening lines) and become a hard-driving number powered by D.J.’s tommy-gun attack and a solo that Scotty later labeled “ancient psychedelia.” With the twenty-sixth take, Sholes thought they had it….

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley– Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….This was the session where Elvis’ perfectionist streak first became apparent. From Sholes’ point of view several of the earlier takes would have been just fine, and he tried to get the singer to listen to the playbacks, but it was obvious that the singer was marching to his own beat; he wouldn’t rest until he had recorded the song to his own–not anyone else’s–satisfaction.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life in Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]

….After the thirty-first take Sholes announced over the PA, “Okay, Elvis, I think we got it.”

….Elvis left his chair and crouched on the floor, as if listening in a different position was like looking at subject from a different angle. Again he went into deep concentration, absorbed and motionless. At the end of the song he slowly rose from his crouch and turned to us with a wide grin, and said, “This is the one.”

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….Finally, with thirty-one, Elvis declared himself satisfied, and the room breathed a sigh of relief.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life in Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998) ]

ELVIS2

NOTE: Immediately after recording “Hound Dog,” Elvis chose Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” from a stack of demos and recorded it in twenty-eight additional takes. Although it was July, the air-conditioning was turned off in the studio for the entire session. “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” were released as the A and B sides of RCA single 47-6604 (Elvis’ third for RCA) the week of August 4, 1956. It sold a million copies in the week before it was eligible to debut on the Billboard Hot 100. It spent a combined 11 weeks at number one and became the biggest selling single of the 1950s. Elvis had never before–and would never again–devote as many as thirty-one takes to a single side.

Mike Stoller: “In July, 1956, I was sitting in a lifeboat with sixty or seventy other people somewhere in the Atlantic. I was relieved to be away from the sinking Andrea Doria, the beautiful Italian liner I had been on for the past eight days, which now had a large gaping hole in its side and was going down fast. The lifeboat had a broken rudder and could not be steered. I wondered what would happen to me next. Fifteen hours later I stepped on to the dock in New York and was greeted by Jerry Leiber with, among other things, the news that Elvis Presley had just recorded “Hound Dog.”

[From Elvis Presley Sings Leiber and Stoller (Liner Notes)–RCA International INTS 5031 (1980)]

LEIBERSTOLLER

….Elvis Presley, who had signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor late in 1955 and was turning the country upside down with his versions of rhythm-and-blues oldies and juked up country tunes, heard their “Hound Dog” in a Las Vegas lounge in 1956 and decided to record it. Being unfamiliar with Big Mama Thornton’s original recording*, he used the lounge combo’s garbled version of the lyrics. “You ain’t never caught a rabbit” was no in Leiber and Stoller’s original arsenal of invective, but they were not heard to complain.

During the spring of 1956, Stoller and his wife took a European vacation. They booked passage back to New York on the Andrea Doria and, the night before they were to land, the ship was rammed by the Stockholm in a thick fog bank. Mike was carrying a drink into the ballroom when it happened. “The Stockholm hit us and went two-thirds of the way through the Andrea Doria, bounced off, and came back in again. The ballroom was enclosed in glass and, after the initial shock, I looked out. It looked like someone had taken a giant letter opener and opened up the side of the boat. The Andrea Doria started listing further and further over on its side, and finally we made it down a jacob’s ladder into a lifeboat, which somebody had hacked loose because the winches were broken. Eventually we got into the Cape An and it took us to New York.”

When Leiber heard that the Andrea Doria had been rammed, he spent a frantic night and day trying to find out if Mike had survived. When he learned that the Stollers were among the lucky ones he raced down to the docks to meet them, bringing a silk suit for Mike in case he had been caught without his threads and bubbling with the news that Presley had recorded their song. The news didn’t mean much more than the silk suit at first–“I was just happy to see anybody,” Mike says–but soon the record was a number-one hit.

[From Baby That Was Rock and Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller–Robert Palmer (1978)]

NOTE–*This is Palmer’s contention–disputed by Scotty Moore in an earlier quote here, and highly unlikely given “Hound Dog”’s huge R&B success and Elvis’ nearly encyclopedic knowledge (later confirmed by Leiber and Stoller themselves upon meeting him) of contemporary music.

….By now (the morning after Elvis’ “Hound Dog” recording session) the Steve Allen Show seemed like a million years ago, and the verdict was long since in. Allen had trounced Ed Sullivan in the ratings, the reviews were no more kind toward the stationary Elvis than they had been toward the gyrating one (“A cowed kid,” declared the Journal-American, “it was plain he couldn’t sing or act a lick.”) and Sullivan had publicly reiterated that he would not have the singer on his show at any price (“He is not my cup of tea.”) while privately he had already been in touch with the Colonel.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

NOTE: Elvis returned home to Memphis by train. On July 4, he performed on “Elvis Presley Day” at the town’s minor league baseball stadium. Just before beginning the concert he quieted the crowd for the following announcement: “You know, those people in New York are not gonna’ change me none. I’m gonna’ show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.”

….Ed Sullivan announced on July 12 that he had changed his mind and was booking Elvis at an unprecedented fifty thousand dollars for three appearances in the fall and winter.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….By the time the first (Ed Sullivan) show appeared, on Sept. 9, Elvis had become such a cause celebre that Sullivan earned an 82.6 percent share of the viewing audience, an estimated 54 million people. (Steve Allen was off the air that night, replaced by a British movie, the network version of a flag of truce.)

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

….For his third Sullivan show, Elvis was filmed only from the waist up in an attempt to do more subtly what Steve Allen had tried so awkwardly the previous summer: to make Elvis Presley respectable.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]

….MARLO LEWIS (director, the Ed Sullivan Show): Ed said to us just before Elvis was to do the show. “We’re in trouble. Elvis is doing something in these concerts that can no way be shown on television. He’s hangin’ some kind of device in the crotch of his pants so that when he moves his knee back and forth, it looks like his personal organ.” Ed used a little better language than that. “It’s waving back and forth just above the knee. We can’t have that on Sunday night. That’s a church night.”
So when we shot the show, I took camera two and I said, “Dolly into a chest shot and stay there.” And for that entire six minutes we only saw Elvis from his chest to his head. We never revealed the rest of him, nor did anyone ever see this “implement” between his legs. And I’ll tell you a secret: it wasn’t there.

[From Elvis Up Close–Rose Clayton and Dick Heard (eds.) (1994)]

NOTE: Waist up?…More like solar plexus up!

….Sullivan himself had been almost as derisive of Elvis’ ability as Allen. Sullivan wasn’t the host on the first Presley-led program–he was ill, so Charles Laughton filled in. But Ed was there when Elvis came back on October 28 and again the following January. By then, everyone but Sullivan and Elvis had forgotten Ed’s original snub.

As a result, that final appearance was complicated. As penance for attacking Elvis, the Colonel insisted that Sullivan publicly apologize–which Sullivan did, saying, “I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy.” But Sullivan and the CBS censors contradicted themselves, declaring that for this night, Elvis’ “suggestive movements” made it imperative that he be shown only from the waist up. Elvis made a mockery of this censorship, swiveling wildly, bumping and grinding with everything from his elbows to his eyebrows, using his shoulders as a metaphoric pelvis, and grinning wildly at the undiminished screams.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

Z Magazine: What happened with the royalty agreement you had with Leiber and Stoller around the rights to “Hound Dog”?

Johnny Otis: There were two young guys, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who came to me in the early 1950s and said we’re trying to write songs and we think we’ve got good songs and good ideas. Could we hook up with you and you could help us when the song needs some help and maybe you could record some of our songs. In fact, they did have great ideas. Some songs I would put my two cents in and other songs didn’t need it. But on the songs I did put my two cents in, we had a hand shake agreement that I would be a partner. One such song was “Hound Dog.” I was supposed to have half the publishing credit and one-third of the writer’s royalties. There was no problem when we had a R&B hit with Big Mama Thornton’s record of it in 1953, but when Elvis Presley’s version hit big, they couldn’t hold on to their integrity. They found out that the law specified if you’re under 21 you’re a minor. They used that and won a victory in court to get out of our agreement. Recently, when I was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, here they appeared on the screen, like the great white fathers of rhythm and blues music, congratulating me and giving a little bit of our history together. I resented that so much.

[From “Slippin’ & Slidin’: An Interview With Johnny Otis” in Z Magazine–Sandy Carter (April, 1995)]

NOTE: You might not guess it reading this quote, but, as earlier noted, Johnny Otis was himself white.

….The best account of Elvis facing his real audience is Gordon Bowker’s “Rock!” (Seattle magazine, February, 1970), which places several teenagers at Elvis’ 1957 Seattle concert, and then catches up with them twelve years later. Bowker’s concluding words cannot be topped, and they sum up the moment:

“The rosy glow had gone from the cap of Mount Ranier, and the infield was bright with the best night-baseball lights in the minor leagues. The noise from the 15,000 people was immense. Finally the crown grew quiet.

“‘I alluz like to begin mah concerts with the national anthem,’ the King said, into the mike. ‘Will ya’ll please rise?’ Boyd Grafmyre and Willie Leopold and Ted Shreffler and Dennis Lunder and Merrilee Gunst [who, as Merrilee Rush, would score a top ten hit in 1968 with the shining “Angel of the Morning”] and Tom Hullet and Pat O’Day who had driven over from Yakima with his wife to celebrate his second wedding anniversary and the other 15,000 people all stood up. Also on his feet was Jimi Hendrix, then a Seattle schoolboy.

“Elvis picked up his guitar, twitched once more, took a breath, and groaned: ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog….’

“The crowd was stunned. Then it erupted into a frenzy that dwarfed the one a few minutes earlier. The grandstands seethed back and forth like a huge sea anemone. Not even Elvis could be heard above the roar.”

[From Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music–Greil Marcus (1975)]

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 8: “Wake Up Everybody”)

“Wake Up Everybody” (Full-length Version)
Artist: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Writers: John Whitehead, Gene McFadden, Victor Carstarphen

(NOTE: One of my New Year’s resolutions is to renew my commitment to some of my neglected categories here. This particular category was one of my principal reasons for starting this blog and I’m a little taken aback to discover I haven’t added any new entries for over a year. I’ve got the usual excuse: So much to do, so little time, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah! But I hereby resolve to do better…starting now!)

“Wake Up Everybody” is the closest anyone has ever come to putting a full-blown sermon on the charts.

There’s not a lot of critical exegesis available on the song so Dave Marsh’s take in his invaluable The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made is probably as good a place to start as any:

If uniting opposites appeals to you, then you’ll love this fusion of (producers) Gamble and Huff’s spit-polished and intoxicated disco narcissism and Teddy Pendergrass’s gravelly post-gospel sermonizing. Pendergrass’s insistence that “the world won’t get no better if we just let it be” in the face of the arrangement’s full-blown hedonism amounts to a doctoral thesis discrepancy. None of which implies an effective synthesis, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t get one. For instance, that guitar is fiddling with blues figures and Teddy’s singing matter-of-factly modulates between the Temptations’ David Ruffin and the Dells’ Marvin Junior.

Now there’s a lot I disagree with in that paragraph (though I give Marsh enormous credit for taking on what has never been a fashionable assignment–writing about singles, singers generally, and black singers in particular, as though they are deserving of serious exegesis). But the main place the analysis falls apart is in its clear misunderstanding of what, exactly constitutes “sermonizing.”

Because it’s not narcissism–“intoxicated” or otherwise–that’s at work during this winding-and-building seven minute epic (nor, I should add, in the edited-for-45 version which Marsh was specifically critiquing).

The pursuit of healing-through-ecstasy is not the same thing as hedonism and it’s not the same thing as narcissism.

At all.

Teddy Pendergrass’ vocal isn’t at odds with the production, even on the shorter version. And, in the long version, he uses that production as a springboard to vault both himself and anybody who cares to listen into something higher and purer.

Of all the things rock critics tend to misunderstand about the music they cover, their utter incomprehension of “gospel”–as either musical style, life experience or, you know, expression of actual religious faith–surely runs deepest.

When you are after redeeming a lost world, bringing light to the darkness, sustaining hope in the face of personal, communal or societal despair–when you carry the specific personal and communal burden of knowing none of this higher ground will be reached by anyone, ever, unless you reach it first–there are times when you have to abandon sense.

Occasionally, a preacher trying to reach his flock, simply has to find some way of saying, “Free your heart, and your mind will follow.”

So “Wake Up Everybody” is one of the deepest spiritual records ever made despite a lyric that sustains a complete and almost studied absence of profundity.

Intellectual profundity that is.

Preachers are not philosophers. They have to wed the message to the heart.

It’s only then that the head has a chance to follow.

Consider 1976, when this record peaked on the charts.

America had entered a period when peace and prosperity should have reigned but which had, instead, become a kind of national hangover from the nightmares of war and riot and assassination and scandal.

The seeds of our current rot had been planted, most of them (especially the economic ones) quite deliberately and with malice aforethought.

And what Blue Notes’ lead singer Pendergrass was tasked with, on what is arguably Gamble and Huff’s greatest production and Philadelphia International’s surest statement of visionary purpose, was facing down the future.

Blow by blow.

“Wake-up-everybody-no-more-sleeping-in-bed” flows like an old Chuck Berry line, with gospel (not “post-gospel” which is a nonsense phrase) fervor and desperation substituted for wit and wordplay.

And, lyrically at least, the song doesn’t get much deeper or more complicated than that opening line.

That’s because when you are facing down a future that will be very bleak indeed if hearts and minds are not moved in concert (and nowTODAY), there isn’t time for all that. Wit and wordplay are privileges for other times. Those times (say Chuck Berry’s fifties) may not be “better,” but they afford an inherent leisure. Play, “word” and otherwise, is a luxury the evangelist cannot afford.

The world might have been blown to smithereens in those other times, but a world blown to smithereens is an abstraction.

In the pulpit, the preacher cannot always and forever deal in abstractions. Some of the time, his message has to be about the here and now. And the here and now must be attacked fiercely, devoid of irony, that quality which, however sublime, has little mercy and cannot heal the sickness now being confronted.

Hence, this sermon, titled “Wake Up Everybody,” is concrete in its banalities: “Dope dealers….Stop pushing that dope! Dope users….Stop using the dope!”

And, from there, it proceeds to the abandonment of even literal sense.

“Preachers…stop teaching what you preach!”

Or is it, stop preaching what you teach?

Or start teaching what you preach?

Pendergrass’ choked reading is barely decipherable. I can never quite hold it in my mind, would trust no lyric sheet to set me straight, because, however I hear it–or remember it–I always find a disorienting absence of linear sense.

But I know exactly what he means.

And I suspect “everybody” else does, too.

Even the people who saw a world where the ripe fruit of the American Experiment was sucked to a dry husk–you know, the America they’ve made come to pass–as a dream to be fulfilled rather than a nightmare to be avoided.

They might turn their heads–boy did they, boy do they–but they can still hear.

So Teddy Pendergrass, the preacher, keeps shouting.

The way he lifts off in the temporizing part of this record–the part that makes for the “long edit” which, in those days, was usually understood to be strictly for dancers–makes it harder to ignore at the very moment most “disco” records have the non-dancer in me either nodding out or focusing strictly on what the bass player is getting up to.

The sermon goes on and on, then. It ebbs and flows.

But the spiritual underpinning never dissipates.

Instead, it starts firming up.

Then it starts rising, lifting the listener–he who WILL LISTEN RIGHT NOW–to the preacher’s own higher ground.

Teddy Pendergrass was the rare urban singer who was completely at home with southern-style testifying. Here, Gamble and Huff add to this already electrifying blend by double-voicing the lead (i.e., overlapping the end of one line with the beginning of another without switching vocalists–a form of speaking in tongues, by then becoming commonly available to modern studio wizardry, which every Pentecostal preacher then living might have benefited from investigating had they not been so busy denouncing both the music and the technology as tools of the Devil, often while seeking corporate sponsorship, of course). This has the effect of riveting we, the listeners–locking us into the message–at the very moment when we could reasonably expect a release to shout “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!”

So, yeah, it’s a sermon. Sure it is.

But none of the folks involved here ever forget they’re also making a record.

A record they expect to be a hit, even if–black radio having no real equivalent of white radio’s long formats, something that would, say, allow a bit of Celtic mysticism like “Stairway to Heaven” to be played as incessantly as a three-minute hit single and keep on being played (all nine minutes of it) for forty years and counting–they have to chop part of it off.

A hit record just the same, though, and one that will have a chance to bridge gaps in understanding. In this case, a hit record that constitutes a call, from the mouth of a Black America forever seeking existential justice (here, as so often, rooted in the New Testament evangelism which is the closest thing the two races have to a truly core, truly common culture), to the ear of a White America which has permanent difficulty getting past the particulars of whatever individual case is presently in question.

Hello, this year’s headlines.

This past year’s, of course.

But, really, any year.

Because, after double-voiced Teddy Pendergrass and the classically trained white orchestras Gamble and Huff arranged so seamlessly and magnificently into the sound of their street level politics (and, yes, Sunday morning sermonizing), have journeyed to the mountain top and taken us along–after somebody (lyricist, producer, singer, Holy Ghost) has nailed “You businessmen” with the one hammer blow (“Stop cheatin’!”) amongst all these “simple” remedies to evil that keeps repeating (six times to be exact–this after even dope got no more than a double-blow), because somebody wants to remind “everybody” just where the root of all that evil lies–this seven-and-a-half-minute record comes down, in its final minute, to Pendergrass alone, sounding like a man who can’t lie down and can’t take another step, caught between Heaven and Earth, Faith and Sin, looking yonder into the Promised Land, which is close enough to touch and a thousand miles away, saying just this:

It don’t matter…

Oh, what race…

Creed or color…

Everybody…

We need each other.

Here on Earth, there’s no more powerful reminder of the gospel’s twin purpose–to search for higher ground while providing shelter from the storm–than this record, which reached #12 on the Pop chart and #1 R&B, in 1976, when it must have seemed that we wouldn’t–couldn’t–possibly ever need its message more.

These days, when we’re living with the consequences of not having listened, I guess the hopeful New Testament evangelists of “we need each other” could wearily add an Old Testament coda.

“Don’t say you weren’t warned.”

 

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Sixteenth)

(5) The Jacksonian, written by Beth Henley, directed by Robert Falls, the New Group, Acorn Theatre, New York (November 5–December 22, 2013). A hotel drama set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964, with Ed Harris as a disgraced dentist, Amy Madigan as his disgusted wife, and Juliet Brett as their miserable teenage daughter, and featuring Bill Pullman as what Elvis would have ended up as if “That’s All Right” had never gotten out of Memphis: an alcoholic bartender with a thing for jailbait who has no problem shooting a woman for a ring he doesn’t even want and letting a black man go to the electric chair for it. “I was a performer for a while,” he says under a huge pompadour, sideburns snaking down the sides of his face, but now his whole life is stage fright.

(Greil Marcus, Real Life Top Ten, The Believer, March/April 2014)

I’m trying to imagine:

Bob Dylan if he never made it out of Minnesota. John Lennon if he never made it out of Liverpool. Mick Jagger if he never made it out of London. Bruce Springsteen if he never made it out of New Jersey.

Now, with all that fixed in my head, I permit myself to wonder if Marcus–or any other member of the crit-illuminati–would ever dream up some other life where any of them just naturally become a vicious, racist murderer and then try to pass if off as a compliment?

I mean, Jerry Lee Lewis maybe. Or Johnny Burnette. Or Billy Lee Riley.

After all, we all know what those working class hillbillies from the mean streets of somewhere or other are down at the bottom.

Don’t we?

Especially the ones who never bother to respond to any potential crushes that might develop among the pundit class (as Dylan has to Marcus himself, Lennon and Jagger to Jann Wenner, Springsteen to Dave Marsh, etc., etc., etc.)

Bear in mind that, among the taste-mongers, Marcus counts as one of Elvis’ principle defenders (and interpreters). A lot more than once I’ve seen him described, by folks who are very comfortable with the idea of Elvis-as-racist-murderer, as an Elvis “apologist.” (If you want another fun exercise, try and imagine Bob Dylan or John Lennon needing any such thing.) Such are necessary with Elvis, of course, because we all know that he–unlike so many of those others whose careers he made possible–needs apology.

Hey, with friends like these…

Anyway, here’s the murderer:

 

WHY IT REALLY IS IMPOSSIBLE TO RANK ART (Why I Need Rock and Roll, Session #10)

This week I did something I used to do on an almost obsessive basis and rarely do at all anymore.

Amidst a lot of exhaustion and hurly-burly, I sat in my den and listened to four straight albums.

Just like that.

Propped up a chair some time after midnight, set a coke on the coaster behind me (that’s the way the den is set up…to have the coaster behind me when I’m sitting in front of my speakers…it’s best not to inquire too closely into why, but one of the main reasons is because, well, I don’t sit and listen to four albums in a row much anymore.)

There are practical and impractical reasons why I used to do it a lot–the salient one being that I was chasing both healing and understanding, two concepts that are not necessarily bound to cooperate with each other.

And there are practical and impractical reasons why I don’t do it much anymore–the salient one being that, at my age, I’ve probably given up on understanding as much as I once hoped to and achieved as much healing as is likely to occur on this particular plane of existence.

The four albums I ended up listening to were not chosen entirely at random. I really did listen after the old fashion. I picked the first one because something (I honestly don’t recall what) had brought it up this week (oh, wait, now I remember, it was Dave Marsh’s appreciation of Lou Reed in the latest, far-too-long-in-coming edition of Rock and Rap Confidential) and made me want to do that thing I do far too seldom anymore, which is grab a great record and JUST SIT AND LISTEN.

So I pulled out the Velvet Underground’s Loaded (that was Reed’s final album with his original band for those who might be wondering) and, like I said, pulled up the chair and let myself feel the music and enjoy it after the style of days gone by.

It definitely helped that Loaded is an album I know front to back. I could sing along or pick a little air guitar or tap my thighs to the rhythm (bass or drums….or both) as the mood struck me.

And the whole while, I’m thinking what I always think (what I assume most people think) when I’m in the presence of something that is both bottomless and perfect–something that reveals itself anew after hundreds of encounters and which forges (and then constantly reinforces) a logic so powerful it’s hard to conceive of a moment when it didn’t exist or a moment when anyone would imagine wanting to change a single small element of it.

By all of which I mean I’m thinking: “What could possibly be better than this?”

But I was also thinking (again after the old fashion): “Oh man, what’s next?”

So my mind, which barely operates on one track these days, was suddenly alive enough to run on two tracks and somewhere in there it became completely obvious that the next album I had to listen to was Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays (a record I know pretty well, though not nearly as well as Loaded) and the album I had to listen to after that was Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks (an album I really only got into in the last year or so and don’t know that well at all).

And some time during What We Did On Our Holidays, it became obvious that the album I wanted to listen to after Blood On the Tracks was that one by the Isley Brothers I got not too long ago that starts with a stunning medley of Neil Young’s “Ohio” (which, in its original, sounds like a Neil Young record and was released under the aegis of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and ends with a stunning cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” (which, in its original, sounds like a Crosby, Stills and Nash record and was released as a Stephen Stills’ solo), the journey–any journey–between those two things amounting to my idea of a “concept” record all by itself.

I had to look up that last one because I got it in a box set of five cheap Isley Brothers LPs from the late sixties/early seventies and–I cannot tell a lie–I can’t yet tell one title from another.

Turned out it was called Givin’ It Back.

I went ahead and dug it up between Holidays and Blood on the Tracks–you know, just in case I forgot and then had to spend the rest of the night trying to remember which album I knew I wanted to listen to next!

Having pulled it out of its little 5-LP box (guessed it on the second try) I almost put it on first (sorry I still use record player terminology–I know the proper phrase for the digital age is to put it “in”). Then I resisted the temptation to mess with my preconceptions and played the albums in the order I had originally thought I would.

And what did I learn, exactly?

Or, more accurately, of what great, standing truth was I thus reminded?

The fragility of both Fate and Judgment, I’m afraid.

See, if you asked me to “rate” or, better yet, “rank” these four albums, I would put them in the order I played them:

1. Loaded
2. What We Did On Our Holidays
3. Blood On the Tracks
4. Givin’ It Back

And I would know–after listening to them all running together in one night–that such a ranking is arbitrary if not downright silly.

I’d put Loaded first because it’s the one I know best. I know it best because I’ve known it longest. I’ve known it longest because I happened to be in the mood to try it one night thirty years ago (or so) and picked it over any one of dozens of other records I could have chosen that same night.

Simple as that.

If some trick of fate–some impulse in that record store (or some other) thirty years ago had caused me to pick up Blood on the Tracks instead (I doubt the others would have been available in any record store I was likely to visit back then–I’m pretty surprised Loaded was) and I had put off picking up Loaded on CD until a couple of years ago because every time I was in a mood to try it, it wasn’t available (or was available in the far less than pristine, though definitely cheap, vinyl copy of Tracks I did pick up five or six years ago but then played only once because, well, it was cheap and used and I got what I paid for) and every time it was available I wasn’t in the mood for more Dylan–well then, there’s a real good chance (though by no means a certainty) that I would rate Blood On the Tracks higher now.

Simply because I knew it better.

I mean, I’ve heard it enough these last couple of years to know it’s a great album. Maybe no Highway 61 Revisited (not much is) but darn close.

And generally speaking, that’s what value comes down to–our very particular experience.

In a perfect world, I’d live long enough, have time enough, to let all these other albums I know less well than Loaded acquire the same sort of weight through repetition. In a perfect world, there would be enough time to know these four albums–and a few thousand others–well enough to know how they really stacked up against each other.

In a perfect world, I might know for certain whether or not the presence of “Who Loves the Sun?” (answer: “not everyone” of course) on the first album I listened to on a particular night led me not-so-coincidentally to an album which contained among other items (like “The Lord Is In This Place, How Dreadful Is This Place?” and “Nottamun Town,” the sound of the latter being way scarier than the title of the former), a song called “Tale In Hard Time” which begins with the line “Take the sun from my heart, let me learn to despise.” And that listening to a couple of albums filled (along with some good old rock and roll) with those and many other, rather similar sentiments, might lead me to an album which I know just well enough to know contains a song called “Shelter From the Storm.”

Yes, in a perfect world, I’d certainly have the kind of time on my hands required to figure all that out.

Then again–if the world was perfect–I probably wouldn’t need lists that ranked things or notions that linked things and neither would you (assuming you are, like me, the unenviable kind that has ever needed them at all).

These thoughts aren’t exactly new even with me–and they aren’t even close to new with lots of others.

But this week, they hit me a little harder than usual.

Maybe because, after all that, what came bleeding through with the greatest possible urgency and clarity wasn’t even Ohio native Ronnie Isley singing about the dead bodies at Kent State as though he’d been invited to their funeral (i.e., not at all the way Neil Young sang it, which was as a call to arms and appropo enough in the moment), but his singing–immediately after and maybe not by coincidence–James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”

It bled through–and kept on bleeding–even though the first minute and half is misconceived from a production standpoint and the final bit repeats the misconception. Misconceptions didn’t matter when I heard it this week. I don’t mean I was able to set them aside (as sometimes happens). I mean, they just plain didn’t matter.

Robert Christgau reviewed Givin’ It Back when it was released in 1970 and opined that “soul is wasted” on “Fire and Rain” and that the song was more powerful in its “understated” original.

That’s a very reasonable judgment, as long as you assume that Ronnie Isley was after the same thing James Taylor was after.

The judgment is less compelling if you suspect that Ronnie might have been after one of the things James Taylor couldn’t hope to reach for (or, very probably, even imagine).

That “thing” doesn’t necessarily have to be the voice of a freed slave searching for a lost relative after Appomattox, which is what I keep hearing in it, but it almost certainly isn’t the kind of expiation of purest self-pity Taylor intended (and which he, incidentally, very much achieved–I’ve been close enough to where Taylor reportedly was when he wrote the song to know how thoroughly he achieved it, though, believe me, my reasons were no better than his and I’m not nearly as proud of ever having gone there, let alone of having come back).

And it’s no knock on Christgau–or anyone–if they don’t hear that in the song.

But I think it does speak to just how fragile the notions of “what we hear” really are.

I mean, if Blood On the Tracks had been the first thing I reached for the other night–as it well might have been if I had started living with it thirty years ago instead of a year or two ago–I might not have played Givin’ It Back at all.

And who knows what I would have heard in “Fire and Rain” some other time?

And who knows if I’ll ever get close enough to either album (or even to What We Did On Our Holidays, which I am, in fact, already a lot closer to than I had previously thought) to move one or the other up on some ranking chart where I can call it an all-time favorite and sing every word?

You know. Like Loaded.

All I can say for certain is…I should live so long!

In sequence then:

 

 

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Clarence Carter Closes Down the Fifties…and the Sixties)

If Clarence Carter was, as the story so often goes, a “minor” soul singer, then that just proves how major Soul really was. I’ve been chasing his early seventies’ version of “Sixty Minute Man” since I first read about it in Dave Marsh’s invaluable The Heart of Rock & Soul, roughly twenty-five years ago…The last time I looked on YouTube a couple of years back, it wasn’t there and I never got around to paying a collector’s price for a vinyl copy.

Now, thanks to the glories of reissue labels, Carter’s complete Fame singles, including “Sixty Minute Man,” are available in two very reasonably-priced volumes, the second of which was released this month and arrived at my doorstep on Friday.

And, lo and behold, it’s now available on YouTube as well.

So here’s Clarence, doing his thing, completely re-imagining one of the revolution’s seminal records from the fifties as a deep-soul, definitively sixties-sounding record released in the seventies.

Hey, twenty-five years is nothing. It was worth the wait: