WHEN THE MUSIC IN MY HEAD STARTED FILLING THE AIR AROUND ME (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #101)

The Americans: Season 4, Episode 5 (“Clark’s Place”)

I always binge-watch The Americans. It’s hard enough to wait between seasons. I can’t imagine watching it one…episode…at….a…time.

The springs inside Season 4 coiledso tightly and quickly that a particular song started playing in my head from the first moments of the first episode.

When it finally started bleeding out of the soundtrack near the end of the fifth episode, it wasn’t so much a surprise as a relief to find myself, for once, in tune with the Cosmos. At last!

And it felt like the perfect moment. It probably was the perfect moment. I’m not sure any moment in the remaining eight episodes would have been quite as perfect…But then again, we’ll never know….who knows how many additional almost perfect moments would have been pushed over the edge if the producers had just gone ahead and made it the soundtrack of everything the Soviet Union, for whom the principal characters provide sex, murder and bad parenting on demand, ever dreamed of being and could never come close to achieving?

…And the real kicker was this: the line that resonated strongest–and would have in whatever moment it dropped–was “why can’t we give ourselves one more chance.”

For that you needed the eighties, when the West collapsed, not merely without a shot being fired but without anyone even noticing.

Take that Commies!

MILEY CYRUS AT THE CROSSROADS, WHERE SHE’S HARDLY ALONE (Memory Lane: 2009, 2006 and Yesterday)

I remember hearing this on the radio exactly once when it came out and thinking: “Jesus, she’s got a chance to be Brenda Lee.”

I wasn’t thinking about record sales (by Billboard‘s count, Lee was the highest  charting and bestselling female vocalist of the 1960s). Once Hannah Montana broke, there was never any question about Cyrus selling records. The new model of fame generates it’s own momentum more reliably than even the previous quite reliable models.

Which meant record sales were a matter of course.

I was thinking, instead, that she could be the next in the straight, firm line that had, sticking only to the dead center, stretched from Jackie DeShannon to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow and, moving just a little outside the center, included nearly every important female rock or country singer for four decades running and produced literally hundreds of great records.

It’s a great, undervalued tradition and when I heard “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” riding around in my car in 2009, I had assumed it was dying out.

That it might be rescued by Hannah Montana brought a smile.

After that brief moment of hope, though, Miley started making “adult” records that were, of course, no better than the records all the other adults make these days. She also started selling a lot of them, pro forma, and I basically lost interest on the basis of my single, unyielding criteria: You don’t make great records, I don’t care about your shtick.

So, frankly, until this week, I assumed Miley had abandoned her talent in favor of the proper Show Biz model for the twenty-first century, as defined by John Lydon and perfected by Madonna and Donald Trump.

Make all your safe moves look like “risks.”

Or, as Hannah Montana would have it…

Understandable enough. I don’t begrudge anybody their success and there’s a reason why the easy road is easy and the tough road is tough.

But then Sheila O’Malley posted this a few days ago…

…and complicated my own easy, comfortable analysis.

I’m not sure about the reigning “let ’em do what they want, haters-gonna-hate” aesthetic either as a social model in general or a usual exception for celebrities who get to ignore the rules anyway. I don’t find the line between what I owe myself and what I owe the world to be quite so stark and I’m a little suspicious of those who do.

And, based on the YouTube surfing I did after I watched Sheila’s video link, I’m not sure Miley Cyrus is all that clear about it either.

The main problem I’ve had with her “in your face” act is that, on her, it has always felt forced and faked, by which I mean even more forced and faked than the usual forced fakery (most recently exemplified by Beyonce’s Super Bowl appearance, where the politics were faked right along with the idea that she can dance any better than oh, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus and produced the usual predictably fake outrage and seriously unfaked legion of yawns).

While it felt like that with David Bowie and Madonna sometimes, too, they were genius record-makers, in charge of every facet of their careers and their personas. And if, say, John Lydon couldn’t say the former, he could at least pretend to the latter long enough and well enough to make it stick as a kind of perverse integrity.

All these years later, it feels like Miley Cyrus, hiding back there somewhere behind the butch haircut and the hilariously (or, depending on your view, pathetically) bad twerking, is still trying to have the best of both worlds. That, for all the attempts to conform, there’s still some part of her that doesn’t quite fit and yearns to breathe free.

I suspect that part is called a singer.

Ten years after Britney Spears came to the same crossroads, she’s a footnote. If Cyrus, a much bigger talent, doesn’t want to be left beside the same highway, she’ll have to make up her mind soon.

I wonder if the choice she makes will say more about her or about us.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

COLD, COLD HEART (David Bowie, R.I.P.)

The Death Train keeps rolling down the track.

David Bowie in 1973

In the beginning rock and roll was defined by strangers–America’s black, hillbilly and urban immigrant populations–trying to find a home. either as audience or performer. By the late sixties it was defined at least as often–on stage and off–by normals pretending to strangeness so they, too, could pretend to be searching for a place to belong.

In the New Age of True Pretend, David Bowie was bound to be king. He’d be whatever you wanted. Space Alien. Buddha Dabbler (later retracted, of course…don’t they always?). Fascist Sympathizer (later retracted, of course…don’t they always?). Gay (except when he was Bi). Bi (except when he was taking a decade off to marry another supermodel). Plastic. Plastique. Eerie. Down-to-Earth. Rubbery Soul-ful. Whatever.

As long as there was only one of him–only one person who could fake it so well it was impossible to tell “it” from the real thing, or one phase of personal “transformation” from another–rock and roll survived, rolled on, even made a place for him. With talent, twas ever thus.

At least in the world Fats and Elvis made.

Eventually, though, he was the new normal. I don’t pretend to know exactly when that happened. Sometime in the eighties probably, along with everything else going to Hell.

But, once it did, whenever it did, the great rock and roll experiment was all over.

As ever, as even with politicians, I don’t blame him for exploiting his seductive strengths.

I blame us for giving in.

And I don’t pretend to know what God thinks.

I do know I absolutely can’t tell this from the real thing…

…and if you tell me you can, I’ll just assume you’re lying.

But wait…

A-h-h-h-h yes, I can hear his shade now, whispering in my ear, asking me to pass along a final message. What’s that you say?…Oh, yes…

1976: David Bowie poses for an RCA publicity shot in 1976. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

So long suckers!

RAMBLING AROUND (Monthly Book Report: September, 2015)

No sooner do I start thinking I’m gonna read so many books I need categories every month than I get life-whammied back down to the usual number. Oh well…One thing I am doing, beginning this month, is writing off books that I know I’m not going to live long enough to finish. Hence, my lifelong habit of finishing any book I start, no matter how boring/bad/mind-numbing it may be, is going by the wayside. Details at the end.

As for what I did finish…

The Odessa File (Frederick Forsyth, 1972)

ODESSAFILE

Forsyth’s followup to The Day of the Jackal, which I liked so much last month. This, too, is efficient and fast-moving. But the little shocks to the system that accompanied the journey of the Jackal are not repeated so, while it’s highly diverting, and a solid entry in the valuable Nazis-sure-are-evil-and-we-should-never-forget sub-genre, it’s no more than that.

The Long Lavender Look (John D. MacDonald, 1970)

LONGLAVENDERLOOK2

Latest in the Travis McGee series I’ve been reading in order and, after a late-sixties’ slump, this is a big rebound. The first hundred plus pages move at locomotive speed, so that the inevitable slow-down for the sex therapy session (which the McGee herein actually gives a name–right there on p. 133, he calls it “bedroom therapy” leaving each of us to decide for ourselves whether such self-awareness duly compensates for routinely trying our patience), actually comes as something of a relief.

MacDonald had a wise formula for getting his man off the schneid and it amounted to this: Find some way to get him back in the swamps with the Florida crackers.

Here, among the people the author seemed to know best and trust least, the tension always ratchets. So, although 1) there’s a bit of a letdown at the very end, when McGee’s creator basically pulls some punches so his man can avoid a true, final confrontation with the book’s most terrifying villain (a good-looking swamp girl with less than no morals, cat-like cunning and man-like strength); 2) a continuation of the trend that has McGee’s “therapied” women ending up dead or mutilated or both in scenes that have begun to play more and more like mercy killings; 3)  the hero’s vaunted “humanity” is really beginning to wear paper thin, rather like Natty Bumppo’s sermons, and 4) the once piquant social commentary has been replaced by long-winded griping about what’s on television, this is still a fine entry in the series.

Beyond an early look at the speed culture which permeated rural America in the first blush of “liberation” and has long since turned into the even more frightening and nihilistic meth culture that haunts trailer parks and mountain hollows in our own time, there’s also an anecdote on cruelty in the Indian sub-continent which should provide you with something to think about the next time you want to complain about say, Christianity, or the Western world’s concept of the rule of law, there’s also a neat twist on Double Indemnity, as McGee and his soon-to-be-dead-or-mutilated lady friend find themselves having to dispose of a body they didn’t kill.

All that plus a race-along plot that emerges like an unfolding nightmare steaming from a cypress swamp.

And, to top it off, an occasional bit of ominous perfection suitable to an emerging dank climax…Let’s just say I think I’ve been to this place and was very glad to stay the hell away, swamp girl or no swamp girl:

Read the signs on the boxes. Stane, Murrity. Floyd. Garrison. Perris.

Perris was a one-story block house painted a pale, waterstained green, with a roof of white asbestos shingles. There was a gnarled and handsome oak in the front yard. There had been white board fencing, but it was rotting away. There had been river gravel in the drive, but most of it had rain-washed away. Some dead trucks and cars sat out to the side of the house, hip deep in the raw green grasses of spring. There were parts of other dead vehicles strewn around. There was a big frame building behind the house, with both overhead doors up, so that I could see into it as I turned into the drive, see a little of work-benches and hoists and tools. A dainty little baby blue Opel with a savage little snout was parked under the spreading shade of the live oak out in front, its slanting windshield splattered with the grease of the exploding bugs of high-speed travel.

So, in the rural America where harsh reality and pulp fantasy are forever merging, the message, as always, is clear: Unless you were born here, stay away.

Linda Ronstadt (Vivian Claire, 1978)

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(I found no picture of the actual cover worth printing when this was available instead)

A quickie paperback produced at the height of Ronstadt’s fame and sent to me by a loyal reader (who knows who he is, and to whom, upon recently perusing the price of this on Amazon whilst searching for a possible cover image, I now realize I may owe more than a salute…many thanks!).

I have no idea who Vivian Claire is. She evidently wrote three of these in about a year (the others were on David Bowie and Judy Collins), and then disappeared…a nom de plume perhaps?

But, whoever she was, this is a valuable book. The relationship drawn between Ronstadt’s life, personality and music isn’t particularly deep, of course, but the outline is convincing and affectionate. And, if there is hardly time to fully explore the mountain range worth of crap an exceptionally sensitive soul residing in the body of a gorgeous, massively insecure femme had to put up with in the Cocaine Cowboy L.A. of the sixties and seventies, there is certainly enough to give a flavor.

That, plus copious quotes the singer herself gave various interviewers in the early years, before exceptional fame made her even more guarded than nature had already done.

The most telling of those was this:

“The only way I got through high school was by keeping a record player going constantly in my mind.”

No thousand pages on the price inevitably exacted by industrial education systems, or why people keep shooting up schoolrooms, could ever say more.

As for those which have fallen prey to my new commitment to waste as little of my life as possible going forward:

The Grid (Philip Kerr, 1995)

gridimage

Generally engaging pulp writer attempts to imitate a novel written by a computer. Succeeds all too well.

Abandoned on page 80.

Saints Rest (Thomas Gifford, 1997)

saintsrest

The word is that the “traditional” publishing industry is dying because of technology (never mind that technology had, in every single previous generation dating back several thousand years, been an incomparable boon to the same industry). Maybe we should take a closer look at the possibility that continually publishing books with no redeeming virtues whatsoever played a part?

I mean when a sentence that reads “How in the name of all that was holy had it come to this?” passes for a relief because at least it’s brief…and the author is well known…and the blurbs are copious…

Well, maybe that’s just an industry that wants to die.

The book, for what it’s worth, concerns political intrigue of the Saintly-Democrat-Defending-America-From-Evil-Republican-Fascists variety. For the opposite number you probably have to go to a religious press, but honestly I’ve never come across one of these that was any good, irrespective of viewpoint, so call this one my bad.

Abandoned on page 78.

…I also read a couple of books which I’ll be reviewing for BWW soon, so it wasn’t really all that slack a month, just a little less than I’d hoped for.

Til next time….

 

THE SCOTTISH LASS GOES SOUTH (Vocalist of the Month for 3/14: Lulu at Atlantic)

“My only sadness is that it didn’t continue until the day I die.”

Lulu (on her time at Atlantic)

By the time Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie was signed to the Atco subsidiary of the American soul giant Atlantic Records in the fall of 1969 she was twenty years old and entering the third distinctive phase of her recording career.

In the first phase, which started when she acquired her stage name, Lulu, and fronted a band called the Luvvers, she had made the journey from Glasgow to London and become a British sensation with a knockout cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (her version charted perennially on the British charts for the next three decades).

She was all of fifteen and, despite an occasionally ragged relationship with the beat that was common among the era’s youngest rockers (among true youngsters, only Brenda Lee consistently sang with anything like old-fashioned assurance–rock n’ roll was never as easy as the masters made it sound or the haters wanted you to think), pretty close to being the hardest soul singer the Isles produced. Her enthusiasm occasionally got ahead of her talent in those days but there were some scorching highlights. Her ballad singing was assured from the beginning (she did a particularly lovely job of re-imagining Van Morrison’s “Here Comes the Night,” as a torch song). And her knockout, hard-rock covers of “Dream Lover” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” are a long way ahead of pretty much anything the young Mick Jagger did in his pre-“Satisfaction” days. Say what you want about Lulu covering the classics but at least she never sounded like she had learned American English phonetically.

That said, the early period was uneven to say the least. Between production values that were oft-times barely professional (a bit of a general problem in England at the time), dicey material (“Choc Ice”…really?) and lack of a clear direction, the voice seldom got its due even on her best records.

That changed somewhat when she signed with Mickie Most (probably England’s top producer of the period), landed an acting gig in the Sidney Poitier vehicle To Sir With Love and entered her second phase with a bang.

The title song of To Sir With Love, written by a friend at the by-then seventeen-year-old singer’s request when she refused to sing what the studio had in mind, became Billboard’s official #1 record of 1967 after it was released as a B-side and American dee-jays flipped it. It was also one of the best sung records of the greatest era for vocal music we’re likely to know. One might have thought that Most would know what to do from there–namely run off a series of hit singles, as he had done for Herman’s Hermits, Donovan and the Animals previously (talk about covering some ground), and would do for Hot Chocolate later on.

Instead–and despite a handful of genuinely wonderful records which didn’t do much commercially–he steered her toward ever more banal material, finally climaxing with the already world-famous Lulu actually winning the Eurovision Song contest (usually reserved for those still chasing their fortune) for 1969 with a track called “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” which the singer herself has occasionally–and with some justification–referred to as possibly the worst song ever written.

Unlike most of the really good records she and Most had made together, it was a substantial hit, at least in England and Europe.

The disconnect between quality and success guaranteed a lot of sleepless nights, crying jags, and the absolute certainty that she would not renew her contract with Most when it ended a few months after the Eurovision win.

While all that was going on, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, the only female British singer who was a talent-match for Lulu (and who was, perhaps understandably, going by “Dusty Springfield”) had signed with Atlantic Records, a label known mostly for deep soul acts, and gone South to make an album which came to be called Dusty In Memphis. In addition to being one of the greatest albums ever made–“vocal” or otherwise–Dusty In Memphis produced a big hit single, “Son of a Preacher Man,” and set Atlantic mogul Jerry Wexler searching for more of the same.

It turned out to be an artistically satisfying venture which bore relatively little commercial fruit. Eventually, Jackie DeShannon, Betty LaVette and Cher would each get her turn. And Jackie and Cher at least got their records released (with Jackie’s being a classic in its own right…I haven’t heard Cher’s Atlantic sessions, though they eventually got a CD release on Rhino Handmade). Betty had to wait another thirty years and achieve an unlikely late-career discovery by the Public-At-Large for her fine sides to even see the light of day.

Lots of amazing music then.

But Lulu was the next in line and the music she recorded between the fall of 1969 and the summer of 1972 constitutes a body of work that bears comparison to anything that was going on anywhere in the period.

It probably helped that Wexler and others (Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, like that) still had the wind of Springfield’s success at their backs when they all went back South (Muscle Shoals this time…with Duane Allman sitting in) to record New Routes.

The album concedes nothing to Dusty in Memphis except that Dusty’s is perfect and New Routes has a misguided version of “Mr. Bojangles” that features an awkward gender rewrite which pretty much undermines an otherwise great sounding record. (i.e., Lulu couldn’t very well pretend to be sharing a jail cell with Bojangles, so they are in….a park! Ouch.)

But that album or the next (Melody Fair, recorded in Miami with another crack southern session unit, the Dixie Flyers), both long afterwards available only on reasonably scarce vinyl (my used copy of New Routes came with a sticker that read “Duane Allman!!!”…cool people, having received their values from the crit-illuminati need to know why a price has been boosted from the usual $0.99 to $2.99!!!), are, amazingly, not the entire point of the great 2007 package Lulu: The Atco Sessions, 1969-72.

There you get two discs–the first covering the two released albums, the second collecting various singles, alternates and unreleased material.

As a listening experience, it’s of a piece. Heartbreaking for itself (there is no more plaintive voice and it was never more consistently plaintive than here…you can ask Lulu fans like Aretha Franklin and Al Green if you need further testimony) and for the different kind of break it so definitively represents–a kind of last look back before the rise of the machines.

This package is the sound of a singer who had already successfully traversed hard-edged rock and R&B and classy pop and was now remarried to her first love: straight soul music.

From this distance, it’s easy to hear just how fragile the moment was. Between bombastic rock and sleek dance music, glorious though much of it would be, amplifiers and synthesizers were setting the stage for the re-caging of the liberating human voices which rock and soul had brought to the center of Pop Culture–which, as I occasionally note here, was already the only culture America had left.

I don’t think you necessarily need that context to hear the fundamental sadness-tinged-with-liberating-joy that characterized these sessions. But knowing the context makes that quality inescapable.

Maybe because she had such an oddly shaped career (she went from these sessions to a fling with David Bowie–studio only–that produced a few truly great sides but, again, no real overarching vision) Lulu is a bit of an odd duck historically: a respected singer who isn’t quite revered; a commercial singer whose hits are strung out here and there over a couple of decades; a fine live performer who was always in the moment but rarely on top of it.

But she was also the kind of singer who used to arrive on the charts on a regular basis–distinctive, soulful, possessed of a genuine ache that never descended into phony angst or belting for the sake of belting–and do not arrive at all anymore.

And her time at Atlantic, at least, was priceless. She’s not the only one who regrets that it didn’t continue until the day she died.

So, beginning with a track that was straight and hard enough to fit right in on the (equally priceless) What It Is!  funk box set a few years back and proceeding through the soul and pop part of our evening before finishing with a lovely and moving homage to shag haircuts:

MYSTERY ACHIEVEMENT…(Glenda Collins, Vocalist of the Month for 7/13)

So four whole months into my Vocalist of the Month category, I’ve basically figured out that sometimes it’s gonna be eight thousand words and sometimes it’s gonna be closer to eight. That’s the fun of it.

I had planned for Stevie Nicks to be featured in July but I’m a thought and a half short of finishing a long piece on her, so–in the interests of keeping this blog free of silly deadlines–I decided I would keep it simple and harken back to another, slightly less famous, Brenda Lee acolyte (Stevie took Brenda’s timbre, Glenda took her phrasing).

Collins was known–to the extent she was known at all–for being a sort-of discovery of the legendary British producer Joe Meek (she had recorded before, but he must have thought she had something because he kept trying and he was a man who had kicked David Bowie, the Beatles and Rod Stewart to the curb, among others).

Meek had put a record on top of the American charts two years before the Beatles (“Telstar” by the Tornadoes). He was a contemporary of Phil Spector and fellow mad obsessive, right down to eventually killing an innocent woman to prove he really was crazy, though Meek did it forty years earlier and at least had the decency to off himself immediately afterwards.

Glenda Collins was as good a singer as Meek ever chose to work with, but, truth be told, she was also, for the most part, a good singer in search of an identity.

Just once, though, on a record produced by Meek–and, evidently, recording her vocal in a bathroom–she found the sort of magic that makes rock and roll eternally bottomless.

Like all of her other records–all her pretty good records that is–it was not a hit.

Every time I hear it, I can hear why it wasn’t a hit in this world. And I can also hear why it would have been a smash–the smash I can easily imagine she believed (and had every right to believe) it would be when she heard the playback–in that slightly better world that seems to be resting permanently just out of reach.

Like a lot of one-shot rock and rollers, she’s got a little piece of forever anyway.

As Orson Welles used to say….It only takes one.

Glenda Collins “Something I’ve Got To Tell You” (Studio Recording…No idea if the cheesecake photo at the end is her!)