LITTLE MISS GIANT (Vocalist of the Month for 1/18: Brenda Lee)

(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)

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First my story….

Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.

I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)

One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:

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I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.

Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:

I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).

blee12I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.

I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).

So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.

By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.

blee24Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.

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So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.

I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).

I listened to the other CDs.

Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.

My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.

I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.

So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…

And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…

And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”

Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.

Just for a song or two, you know.

Then the song or two went by and this came on…

And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”

An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…

Thinking:

“What just happened?”

Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.

And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.

Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.

But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.

I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.

And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.

It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.

I’m still working through my issues.

But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.

And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…

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First her life, then her art.

Her life went more or less like this….

She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.

Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….

Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school

More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.

The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA)  in 1955.

Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.

But, in order to build a career, you had to have a hit to build it on. Somewhere, some time. You can stand around and look cute. You can even go to Vegas…blee30

You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).

It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.

She just wasn’t a hit-maker.

It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.

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The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline

Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.

Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.

Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…

..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?

…Then the Art

Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.

And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.

If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.

Best behave.

Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?

It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.

But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.

What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.

We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?

Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.

If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…

…and make it sound as natural as breathing.

After that, the floodgates.

For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.

So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.

And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.

And because she was a pro’s pro.

And then?

Well, she still had a life to live.

Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.

Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)

What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.

Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.

I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.

And I’ll share what you’ve lived.

It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.

She was also every-teen.

She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)

She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.

But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.

She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.

She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.

She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.

And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:

…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…

Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you  may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.

And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.

Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.

Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.

Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.

Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.

Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.

Sure they do.

And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.

That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.

The air works like that.

Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.

Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.

But she didn’t know how to be small.

Little Miss Giant she was….

Little Miss Giant she remains.

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2018….WITH CAVEATS

This is a bit belated. I expressed my concerns about this year’s ballot here and I guess there wasn’t much likelihood of this being one of the more sterling classes. Still, it needn’t have been such a hot mess. Putting Link Wray in would have made up for a lot.

Anyway, those inducted as performers were Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues and Nina Simone. Sister Rosetta Tharpe received a much deserved (and long overdue) induction as an Early Influence.

All well and good, except…

Nina Simone should have been inducted in the nonexistent Contemporary Influence category I’ve been calling for for years. There’s no reason she should take up a Performer slot when so many others who are more deserving in that category (Spinners, War, Dionne Warwick, the aforementioned Mr. Wray…one could go on) are left hanging. Like last year’s inductee Joan Baez, Simone’s influence and legacy were more political than musical. They deserve inclusion, just not in the Performer category, because very little of what they performed was Rock and Roll even in the broad definition I prefer.

In the best Purist tradition, her best-known songs were epic….and done better by others….

Bon Jovi continues a discouraging trend toward white boy bands (Journey, Chicago, Yes) who sold a hundred million records and left little trace on the culture. There aren’t that many left and I’m not averse to honoring them. But where’s the sense of priority that a self-anointed Hall of Fame owes History? They are also the first act ever inducted in the Performer category who never made a single record I love (yes, even the Grateful Dead and the Sex Pistols reached me a time or two). But that’s just a personal note. I’d feel a lot better about it if somebody could demonstrate just how Rock and Roll would have been the lest bit different if they never existed. They did do one record I almost liked…Sounds like Poison. Wish I knew if that was the point.

The Cars are worthy. They were the most popular Power Pop band and also one of the best. I have a preference for acts who either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one. The Cars fall just short of either, but they’re close enough to doing both that I feel they are one of those bands who still carved out a worthy place all their own. That holds up on the radio, because of all the thousand times I’ve heard one of their many hits whilst driving around, I never once mistook them for anyone else. (They’re also the only act I voted for who actually made it in, so, the ballot being what it was, no complaints).

Dire Straits is an odd case. The band was faceless except for Mark Knopfler. I would have put Knopfler in the Musical Excellence category (which hasn’t been utilized enough anyway). That would have honored his band’s handful of epic sides and his stellar work as a session guitarist with an unmistakable touch, best heard here:

The Moody Blues are another white boy band (albeit one with a great name!) who the Nominating Committee flirted with for years before putting them on the ballot. They’re more deserving than Bon Jovi (or a few others already in), so at least they don’t lower any standards. And I was happy to see Denny Laine included in the Hall membership, because–even though I’m not even a little immune to the considerable charms of “Nights In White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon”–their initial hit single, on which Laine provided the lead guitar and vocal, was their greatest, and one of the best records of Rock and Roll’s greatest era. Besides, he got gypped when Wings weren’t inducted with Paul McCartney.

[NOTE: Don’t miss Neal Umphred’s experience with the RRHOF. He had a chance to be a voter. And then, this very Moody’s related experience happened.]

Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Even when the Hall gets it right, they often get it wrong. Sister Rosetta deserved induction long ago (for her impact on Elvis alone) and Early Influence is the proper category. But she was included on the ballot in this year’s Performer voting category, presumably pulling votes from others (Link Wray perhaps?) and, in any case, taking a place on the ballot from some other deserving performer when she was going to be put in by the Hall Nom Committee anyway (reminiscent of what they did with Wanda Jackson a few years back).

Well, if anyone could have appreciated the absurdity of it all, it would have been the woman who walked the line between the sacred and the profane straighter and truer than anyone….

ENGINEER ON THE FREEDOM TRAIN (Fats Domino, R.I.P.)

People argue about the origins of Rock ‘n’ Roll and especially about the “first” Rock ‘n’ Roll record.

People have a thousand ways of making themselves stupid.

As music, culture or anything else that marked the moment when the future diverged from the past, Rock ‘n’ Roll–and, hence, Rock and Roll (think Elvis) and Rock (think Beatles)…and Anti-Rock (think Punk) and Post Rock (think Hip Hop)–began the first time Fats Domino’s left hand, a piano, and a recording microphone were in the same room all at once.

We’ve got an exact date for that: December 10, 1949.

We’ve got an exact place for that: Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio on Rampart Street, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Where else?

You can go back a whole lot further than the beginnings of the recording industry–and range much further afield than Rampart Street–and find elements of what became Rock ‘n’ Roll (and then all those other things). You can find them all over the timeline and all over the map.

But the train didn’t leave the station until Antoine Domino recorded “The Fat Man” and unleashed it on a half-suspecting, and perhaps more than half-expecting world.

And once the train left, there was no turning it back. When Elvis pulled a then nearly-forgotten Fats into the press conference kicking off his Vegas comeback and introduced him as “the real King of Rock and Roll” he was acknowledging the enormity of Domino’s influence, but also his status as the biggest R&B act of the formative fifties, the real “revolution.”

As the only fifties’ R&B star, in fact, bigger than Elvis.

Time had already forgotten what Elvis reminded everyone of in 1969 (when most of the press present had to be informed of who, exactly, this Fats Domino really was.)

Time forgot again in the long years since, reminded only on those rare occasions when Fats made national news–a presidential honor here, a Katrina-sized flood in the New Orleans neighborhood he increasingly refused to leave there.

Once his passing–today, at 89–leaves the front page, Time will forget again, even if it never stops patting its foot.

Some of the forgetting was his own doing. I never came across any written or video evidence of Fats promoting himself as the Originator. He left that to the likes of Richard and Chuck and Jerry Lee–and the ever-insidious crit-illuminati who listened to them, rather than to Elvis.  Fats himself was more likely to shrug and say rock ‘n’ roll was just something they had been doing in New Orleans since forever.

Maybe.

But you can listen to “Blueberry Hill” being done by someone as great and visionary as Louis Armstrong and then listen to Fats, and decide that his humble take might be disputable.

You can also listen to a real New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll precursor like “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (perhaps Armstrong’s greatest rhythm record, from all the way back in the twenties) and reach the same conclusion.

Fats Domino was the man who, as singer, songwriter, ivory tickler, drove the Engine that rolled down the track until it couldn’t be stopped. It ended up running straight through the last–and best–cultural explosion “America” will ever know.

Time forgot.

White America forgot.

Black America forgot.

I ain’t forgot.

THE POET BEFORE AND AFTER (Segue of the Day: 10/22/17)

Smokey Robinson: The Solo Anthology (2001)

Smokey Robinson left the Miracles in 1972, by which time he was already fading to the nether reaches of White America’s radar.

He re-emerged seven years later with the release of “Cruisin’,” which went top five on the Pop charts. After that he hit the higher reaches of the pop charts pretty regularly for another decade or so and clinched his place on the short list for things like Kennedy Center honors and Gershwin Awards and various and sundry other well-deserved lifetime achievement recognition which he had earned before he left the Miracles and almost certainly never would have received if he had left it at that.

Black America never forgot. The extent to which they never forgot becomes evident near the end of the first disc of this fine compilation, as the seventies come to a close.

It’s not as though Smokey had exactly taken the decade off. The tracks that clinched his comeback were preceded by records as monumental as “Sweet Harmony” and “Baby That’s Backatcha,” (the closest he had come to breaking pop in the wilderness years). Beyond that, all he had done was name–and define–a radio format (Quiet Storm) and remain one of the great vocalists of the age.

But the sequence that closes the first disc is still a breathtaking blast-off back into the mainstream….it makes one wonder if the reception he got live was finally what gave him the strength to carry on until the world, however briefly, reawakened.

Because when this comes on–recorded and released a year before “Cruisin’,” with his career at its nadir–you can hear who he was to the audience who had hung with him.

To them, he was Elvis.

After which, bang…

bang…

bang…

…He was Everybody’s Poet again.

On the second disc, you can hear him go to war with the Frozen Silence.

He barely holds on. But then, he was Smokey Robinson, and you know the lesson was learned by everyone else: If we, the Suits and Machines, can do this to him, just think what we can do to you.

By the end he’s duetting with Kenny G.

I think by then the nineties had arrived. If you want to listen to all that, you’re on your own.

PROPHETS IN THE SUN (The Mamas & the Papas: Vocalist(s) of the Month 9/17)

“We had so much fun in two years, there was no more fun to be had.”

John Phillips (from A Gathering of Flowers, intro to “California Dreamin'”)

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The career of the Mamas & the Papas played out with a kind of classical purity. They embodied the dark and the light of “the Sixties” by living lives that were consummately hedonistic and making music that was almost completely self-referential.

“Don’t worry,” their best music said, and says, ” if you aren’t here yet, you will be.”

Come hither.

“It’s also entirely possible,” that same music said, and says, “that we’ll have moved on by then.”

Nah-na-na-na-nah!

To make it work, they needed to carry off a style of organic arrogance that made the Rolling Stones look like supplicants.

They made it work.

Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.

Funny thing, though.

I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.

Come hither….

And I can’t.

Nah-na-na-na-nah!

Oh sure, there were greater groups. Greater artists. And I have no idea how they seemed in their own time. I was in second grade.

I know how they seem now, from this time: Unfathomable.

And what better description of their time can you get?

Their backstory became famous. In “Creeque Alley” they even made it sound famously typical, which, except for selling millions of records, it maybe was.

But, when I say there were greater artists, I really only mean there were artists whose greatness the Great Narratives imposed by others accepted more readily.

Because whenever I want to cast myself back there–and boy do I–there’s nobody I listen to more, nobody more dangerous, more unsettling, more….thrilling. Their time was the time worth understanding, the time we never walked away from in either dream or (more’s the pity) reality.

And, in memory at least, they are the ones who held it in their hands, more one with that time than literally anyone, one of exactly two sixties’ acts–two any-era acts really–who might have had a deal with the Devil in place.

They were different than the Stones, though. Mick and Keith (well, mostly Mick) just went ahead and made a straight deal. Why not? What did it cost them?

Send Brian Jones to the funeral pyre he was already bound for and tweak John Lennon’s nose now and again and what riches might await!

Who wouldn’t take that deal?

Besides, they were Brits and there was never going to be any more England anyway. Big whoop.

But to have punched a hole in the American boat, to have had your wings melt so close to that sun, ah, now we’re talking subversion–and arrogance–of truly epic proportions.

Come hither, their deal said, and you’ll be the only act alive who can (as the liner notes for one of their many anthologies had it) bridge Rodgers & Hart and Monterey Pop.

Who wouldn’t take that deal?

Well, somebody like me maybe. But that’s different. I was in second grade.

When I was in fourth grade, a couple of years after the Mamas & the Papas broke up (their two years of so much fun there was no more to be had having run out), I took the other deal, the Christian believer deal. I took it, knowing even then, that the biggest part of the deal lay in knowing I’d never be safe from the Devil who makes the deals (he doesn’t bother with the nonbelievers once they make their deal, why would he?) and never have so much fun there’d be no more to be had.

That’s as much as I ever knew about the deal. What my background and choices did prepare me for was understanding singers and their power.

And, oh what singers they were, those four, when they were together in their time. Nobody like them. And it wasn’t like they didn’t know it. Their knowing it is evident in pretty much every photograph they ever sat for.

…and pretty much every line they ever sung.

How they got together was famous even in their own time. They didn’t have to wait for biographers, which was just as well, since there’s never been a good one.

Naomi Cohen reimagined herself as Cass Elliot, then Mama Cass. Then she hung around until the others took her in, or on, or…something.

John Phillips reimagined himself as the type of erstwhile folkie who could end up with Michelle Gilliam, who soon reimagined herself as Mrs. Phillips (“I liked folk music,” she said much, much later, “but what I really liked were folk musicians!”)

Denny Doherty, a touch uncomfortable imagining himself as settling for the title of Mister Cass Elliot, soon reimagined himself as somebody who could have an affair with Mrs. Phillips and was lucky–or was it unlucky?–enough to find her willing to share his illusion, be it ever so briefly.

That was just the personal stuff.

Out of that, the music.

John Phillips said, as often as anyone would listen, that he couldn’t write from anything but experience. So they had experiences. That whole thing about a lifetime’s worth in two years was just an excuse to make hits and money. No experiences, no hits. No hits, no money. The legend only came about because they were so good at living lives so many others wished they could live, and even better at singing about it. They reeled off a dozen radio classics in short order and four albums that stagger about a bit, but never quit yielding surprises when you stop and listen close enough. (A fifth, from a contractually obligated “reunion” gig a few years later, was desultory….there was no more fun to be had.)

Their own rise, their own Zeitgeist, their own fall, their own destruction: all right there in the music that came out of the experiences.

For about twenty-five or thirty perfect months (depending on who’s counting and who’s defining perfect), they lived more dreams than four mere lifetimes could hold.

But in order to get the loot, they had to let the world in on it, and from the release of “Go Where You Wanna Go” (instantly pulled in favor of the just-as-perfect “California Dreamin’,” which somebody had initially made the very weird mistake of imagining as a Barry McGuire record) to having the commercial failure of “Safe In My Garden” assured by their sudden absence from their own lives (no more touring, no more television appearances, no more pretending everything, or even anything, was all right) the world grabbed hold. You could say the world has never let go.

And the arc was perfect.

“Go Where You Wanna Go” can’t be plumbed. Don’t even try. Even if you make a definitive decision on You don’t understand, that a girl like me can/can’t have just one man–that is, whether you want to stick with the lyric sheet (the groupie/muse’s ultimate lament) or what the ear can’t help hearing (Women’s Lib on speed!) at least some of the time–it doesn’t really help, so there’s no need to get all balled up about it. I’ve gone there for you and my sincere advice is to go right on thinking it’s simple. It’s not. It’s not even complicated in any ordinary dictionary sense of the word. More like kaleidoscopic.There’s so much going on that if you stop believing it’s simple or go on pretending that it’s complicated but only in the usual ways, it will eat your mind out from the inside.

It will make it like the good part of the Sixties never even happened except in dreams.

You don’t want that!

Better to just go on a journey. “California Dreamin'” so to speak.

It’s a journey only they can take you on and the magic’s in the music for sure–the mostly sharp writing, the Wrecking Crew time and again measuring up to the instrumental challenge of matching and underpinning the vocals, the formal elements of the bottomless harmonies.

But mostly the magic’s in the elements there is no real vocabulary for, musical or otherwise.

It’s not in the come hither. It’s in the nah-na-na-na-nah.

..Which starts right there in “California Dreamin’.”

I mean, from this distance you can hear the fear in it–and you can hear it overridden, stomped on. Put out to pasture. it was the sound that mattered and it was the sound that did it.

We’re so close, the sound said, that the obvious–and fierce to the point of at least metaphorical bloodletting–competition going on, can be turned on its head. They were so determined to be as one that all the counterpointing in the harmonies, all the “yeah’s” that meant “no” and all the “no’s” that meant “yeah”–or “yeah?”–were as nothing. I mean, just listen to them! And, as Lou Adler would have it (naming their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, easily the best-ever album title, after his first audio/visual impressions of the group) just look at them.

The imagery was perfect, almost as if it had been guided into existence by the unique, unsurpassable blend of their voices.

Or perhaps those voices demanded the acceptance of any old imagery they chose as the new definition of perfection.

The dream of the “Sixties” is, after all, right there.

Today will be what we want it to be.

You know, go where you wanna go.

Even the drugs will be cool. I mean….especially the drugs will be cool…

And, by extension, if today will be just what we want it to be, tomorrow will be even better!

In one fell swoop, the Folkies from Everywhere–Mexico, So-Cal, No-Cal, Nova Scotia, Alexandria (Virginia, but it might as well have been Egypt), the Hungry I and the Village and the Virgin Islands, fusing into one–had re-formatted the Protestant Reformation’s promise of a future Golden Age (itself the rejection of the age-old idea that the Golden Age lay in the past, a rejection that set Europe’s Ice People on a staggering five-hundred-year winning streak of which, as of 1966, “Go Where You Wanna Go” seemed like no more or less than the natural conclusion and justification–yes it meant, and means, that much–your refusal to believe in it doesn’t negate its refusal to acknowledge your silly refusals).

There was, of course, no direction to head from there except Utopia or the Long Fall.

We know–perhaps they even knew–where that fork in the road always leads.

You can have the greatest vocal group in history and just happen to include among your number one of the Rock Era’s two or three finest vocal arrangers who just happens to be an ace songwriter.

You can hook up with a great producer and have unlimited access to the best session players in the world–the only people, perhaps, who could ever hope to match your Utopian vocal and visual presence to sounds worthy of comparison (and, believe me, if you ever get around to listening to what’s going on behind the vocals, you’ll find the Wrecking Crew at the far edge of their own weighty experience–not even for Pet Sounds or Frank Sinatra did they reach further). You can be the only group of any era to have great male and female lead singers, breathtaking close and counterpoint harmonies, the ability to answer male and/or female calls with male and/or female responses, and to have the answers be vocal/lyrical affirmations and/or refusals.

You can hold all that in your hand while you take the coolest drugs, ride around in the fastest cars, sleep in the biggest, spookiest movie star mansions with the partners of your choice under the world’s most beautiful skies.

You can even promise to share it with your listening audience–to transport them into your world, three golden minutes at at time.

And you can deliver over and over again.

But that choice between the Garden you found and the Mean Old World you couldn’t quite leave behind will linger on.

For you and the world.

That deal you made with the Devil will still have a payoff–and a due date.

For you….and the world.

In their case the payoff was in a run of gold records. Hell, they even sold albums like hotcakes, in an age when not many did.

The due date was the same as America’s. And the world’s.

1968.

By the time it was done, they were done.

Then the Mean Old World moved on–or pretended to.

They didn’t.

They gave up and disbanded, the first of the great Utopian Sixties’ groups to do so. (The Byrds never really disbanded–pieces just kept falling off until nothing was left but the name. A very different process, but those were the two paradigms. Break up…or linger on. When the Doors and the Beatles broke up, they were copping the Mamas & Papas’ style. When everybody else lingered on, the pieces just kept falling off and they ended up being worse than nothing.)

That left the question of who got it and who didn’t.

Time has given us the answers, even if nearly everyone is reluctant to admit it.

We need not speak of what Lyndon Johnson, lingering on in the White House, understood. But in the Pop World that existed in the summer of ’68, it turned out that only Elvis Presley, reporting to a series of TV sound stages and with God on his side, and the Mamas & the Papas, cooped up in John and Michelle’s mansion a few miles away, concluding their deal with the Master of this world, understood that we would never walk away from 1968.

From a Pop Political standpoint, the Beatles now sound like clever children, the Stones like mere cynics. Bob Dylan was already retreating into the rusticism his great mid-sixties albums had promised an escape from. The Byrds lay in pieces on the ground and Brian Wilson had already blown his mind.

And, as Pop Prophets went, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were finally only self-destructive.

But at least they made great music.

Never mind the Thinkers. No need to pay even a modicum of attention to them.

Whoever you thought they were, time has already washed them away.

We’re left with who got it. Who looked around at the world of 1968 and said: We’ll never walk away from this.

Well, these people:

Naomi Cohen (32) died of heart failure in a London hotel in 1974.

John Phillips died in 2001 (65) never having emerged from the drug-induced haze produced by having so much fun in two years there was no more to be had.

Denny Doherty (66) died in  Mssissauga, Ontario in 2007, worn down by years of alcoholism.

Michelle Philips will still show up to defend her group’s legacy. She probably hopes you won’t ask too many questions about the incest allegations John’s oldest daughter has made.

It all seems so very long ago.

And so very present.

Today, you might go on the internet and find an essay that describes “Safe In My Garden” as “happy” and “bucolic,” as though it represents an ode to a safe space replete with milk and cookies and teddy bears.

That represents real fear, I think. An understanding–an awareness of the terror abiding within the song’s formal beauty, right down to its meandering close-out, as though the group–and the world–have literally run out of places to wanna go and things to wanna do and whoevers to wanna do it with.

Else oblivion. An almost insanely pure ability to resist the obvious–the persistence in demanding that, contra Philip K. Dick, if you stop believing in reality, it will stop believing in you.

Reality still believes. The Mamas & the Papas are still the ones who recognized and sang about it, half-shouting, half-crooning, straight from the heart of the dying dream.

The world’s on fire, they sang.

We know, because we struck the match. they did not have to sing.

Nah-na-na-na-nah…

Come hither!

 

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ELVIS…

Well, all kinds of things, really, but Neal Umphred has some very specific deeper thoughts about my Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis category (and has done some further digging on at least one of the offenders–well worth reading for that bit alone). He’s also graciously pointed folks back here for, as they say, “the rest of the story” so we’re in full one-hand-washes-the-other mode!

I’ve always thought the underestimated Elvis Neal and I have both gone on about at length was rooted in the misunderstood Elvis and that the misunderstanding was largely willful ignorance. So, as a small bonus, I present a reminder of Elvis’ most misunderstood side–the Pentecostal Christian part which every believer knows is the largest part (with the additional note that the rise-to-the-mountaintop in the final chorus is the first full flowering of Elvis’ mature ballad style, not to mention his mature arranging style, both of which, perhaps not coincidentally, have also remained deeply, and willfully, misunderstood):

 

TO “AMERICA” (A LATE NIGHT DEDICATION….ON SATURDAY MORNING AT THE END OF ELVIS WEEK)

Elvis week is closing down. So far as I know there haven’t yet been any efforts to remove or deface any of these….


Since the Confederate Statue removal “movement” has now extended, in short order, to campaigns of removal/defacement against Vladimir Lenin (in Seattle–hilariously, the statue may be preserved because it’s on private property and it’s only the State that wants it removed), Walt Disney (at Disneyland, where else?), Joan of Arc (in New Orleans) and, courtesy of the ever-crafty Al Sharpton, Thomas Jefferson (in Washington D.C.–Reverend Al says we should “defund it,” which is code for having law enforcement stand down when the mob shows up to topple it), I think it’s safe to assume Elvis’ monuments are now living on borrowed time.

I will, however, be interested in the reaction of all the Good Liberals who almost universally celebrated the Rising of the Masses in Durham this week when it turns to someone they aren’t entirely sure they’re supposed to hate. (Warning–if you watch this all the way through, you’re going to witness some Liberated People having the best sex of their lives. They’re as awkward as you’d expect, so it’s not a pretty sight, and, if you are tempted to sorrow on their behalf, remember the only way they’ll ever top it is to substitute people for statues).

Don’t worry, though, when the Glorious Future arrives, I’m sure they’ll only stomp the heads of the Bad People….and in Self Defense….Isn’t that the way it always happens?

I mean, you can tell they’re rational.

Look, monuments to Elvis, like those to Washington, Jefferson and their ilk will not survive the coming deluge. The only question now is the order of disappearance.

So here’s to you America…Need to get to it before irony dies along with everything else, so take it Gene:

 

LINKS, LINKS, LINKS…

I don’t do this often (maybe I should) but serendipity demands it this week:

Please read Sheila O’Malley on Elvis the Actor….

Neal Umphred on Elvis at the Edge of Reality….

And David Cantwell, then and now, on Glen Campbell….

Believe me, you’ll be a better person.

And, for whatever reason, this is the Elvis song that’s been running through my head all week, so you might as well do yourself a favor and share some space in my head…