CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #113)

On the outtake disc for whatever Special Edition of Tusk it is that I own, Fleetwood Mac’s version of the Beach Boys’ “Farmer’s Daughter” has never sounded like much more than Lindsey Buckingham’s throwaway homage to Brian Wilson.

Caught at random on YouTube the other day, it sounded like one of those secret gifts the radio used to bring. …

…I wonder if that’s because, in ways that the mere calendar can’t do more than hint at, we’re so much further away from them than they were from 1962?

THEY WON’T EVEN SLEEP WHEN THEY’RE DEAD (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #95)

Forget wheel chairs, my sources at CIA–as reliable as any–inform me that Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham have mutually reinforcing codicils in their respective wills that instruct their legitimate heirs to send their embalmed corpses on an international tour every three years until the seventieth generation times seven has passed from the earth.

This war will never end.

And, as long as Mick Fleetwood’s heirs are willing to provide one of grandpa’s drum loops, you can bet it will still sound pretty damn good.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO…(Winter, 2016 Countdown)

10) Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt) The Complete Trio Collection (1987-1999) (2016)

This collects the two albums the superstar “trio” made in the eighties and nineties, plus an extra disc of unreleased and alternate takes.

The released albums were always a little too pristine for my taste. Hearing the tracks all at once didn’t exactly reverse that judgment, though it did allow me to fully appreciate the sheer craft-work driven improbability of it all.

Given the restrictive natures of both Harris’s and Ronstadt’s art–we’re talking about two people who always had a hard time loosening up–it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the real keepers are on the throwaway disc. The women who were never all that comfortable with the spotlight light up when it’s off, while Dolly just keeps on being Dolly. In that context, it seems no more than natural that “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a great song that’s been searching for a home for decades, would finally get the definitive take it deserves.

2) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Echo (1999)

A modern blues, filled with all the hit-maker’s recognizable touches and a lot of things too many people assumed he couldn’t do besides.

Maybe that assumption was rooted in not paying enough attention. If so, I certainly do not exempt myself.

One effect of getting to know this album in recent years has been a better understanding of just how deep those hits had to strike–again and again, back when it seemed they lived entirely on the surface–in order to reach one generation after another in a way that was almost unheard of for any other rocker of his generation. Singling out the first cut is a little obvious, but first cuts are for leading you in. This leads you in.

8) The Orlons Best of (1961-1966) (2005)

Auteurs of the Watusi and, you might think, the most faceless of the handful of girl groups  who sustained even a modest string of hits.

While I wouldn’t say personality was their strong suit, this still sustains easily over half a decade and twenty sides. “Wah-Watusi” aside, they may never have been trend-setters (even that was a cover). But they kept up, no small thing when the Pop World was moving as past as it did during the years in question.

And, as often happens with these “obscure” artists, there’s a knockout hidden in the shadows that will lay you flat if you have your back turned.

7) Fleetwood Mac Rumours  (1977) (2-Disc version, aka Ghost Rumours, released 2004)

I always loved the English spelling. Made it seem like it should be some kind of genteel sequel to a Cat Stevens album.

I know it’s sold a bajillion copies (thirty, forty million, like that) and been played to death…but it never wears out. Certainly not in 2016, when it sounded more contemporary than ever and stayed at the top of my playlist for the year. Another thing I like about it is that it broke contemporaneously with Punk Rock, which it buried then and buries now, not least because it’s a lot more “punk” than “God Save the Queen”…if by “punk” we mean  “alive.”

Of course, these days it’s become even stronger. This edition restores Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Springs” to its original running order (the 3-Disc version released subsequently puts it at the end for some reason) and includes a disc of outtakes that, for once, deepens and contextualizes the finished product. You can click on the link above for my full take on all that. But in case you don’t make it over there, this little killer should still not be missed.

6) Mark Chesnutt The Ultimate Collection (Complete MCA Singles: 1990-2000) (2011)

Playing next to Patty Loveless or even George Strait on the radio in his golden decade, Chesnutt seemed like a real if modest talent who reached an epic high now and then.

From this distance, across thirty tracks and a quarter of a century, he seems more like a minor miracle. He certainly wasn’t afraid of competition. He doesn’t embarrass himself on Don Gibson’s “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” or John Anderson’s “Down in Tennessee,” and bests Waylon on “Broken Promise Land,” which is one of those epic highs I mentioned.

It’s not like I didn’t know he had a solid best of in him. “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” “It Sure is Monday”–the titles alone always could bring a smile. But this sustains, in part, because his most epic high point of all–as great a song ever written about the intricacies of not breaking up–came early and two long discs gives the listener time to develop some perspective.

If you click the link, be sure to crank the volume.

5) The Easybeats The Definitive Anthology (1965-1969) (1996)

Speaking of cranking the volume.

Here’s fifty-six tracks that make a case for the boys who built the bones of Australia’s not-exactly-inconsequential rock and roll legacy by being the greatest garage band this side of Paul Revere and the Raiders.

I’m not gonna say they ever quite got up to “Friday On My Mind” again but not many got there once and, of those who did, few outside the legends sustained anything like this level of interest. Of course, they should never have taken on “River Deep, Mountain High,” but it brought a smile to think they had the nerve to try. And smile was what just about every other one of these fifty-six tracks made me do as I listened to them chase every trend of the era and catch one after another for the briefest, most transient, most exhilarating moment. Pick to Click: “Good Times” (which sure sounds like it cops at least one of its riffs from the Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up”).

4) The Platters The Ballads (1953-1959) (2013)

Shelter from the storm.

If ballad singing is ever given its proper place in the Rock and Roll Narrative, the Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams, will be as celebrated as Chuck Berry. Until then, you can search around for ways to hear him: this is the best I’ve found.

Great as any individual cut–or any short compilation–may be, you can’t really feel the weight of Williams’ accomplishment until you dig into something like this: thirty-three slices of heaven right here on earth.

And in one respect,Tony was even greater than Chuck Berry. Plenty of guitar players have forged out past Chuck on some ground or other that he broke open. No ballad singer has ever gotten past this anywhere…unless maybe it was Tony Wiliams.

.3) The Isley Brothers Givin’ It Back (1971)

A sly turn of the cards: Here, the Isleys cover mostly white acts, though not necessarily the ones who had spent the previous decade so profitably covering them.

It might have been conceived as a gimmick, but they dug in too deep for it to come across that way on record. “Ohio” meant more in their hands than any other, not just because they cross-bred it with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun’,” but because they were from Ohio. Unlike say, Kent State survivor, Chrissie Hynde, who grew up being persecuted by the white middle class in Akron and got out as soon as possible, they never left home spiritually, no matter how far their feet roamed.

I wonder if that’s why I–who always heard “Fire and Rain” as a great record even in its callow original–find their cover illuminating far beyond the usual “black people are deeper” shuck and jive? I’ve stated it before, but this is the sound of some lost soul looking for his people over the next hill. Pick to click: “Cold Bologna” (the only cut besides “Machine Gun” that doesn’t “give back” to a white boy).

2) Dwight Yoakum Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)

Thus began the odd, often glorious career of Dwight Yoakum, slick traditionalist.

Right there at the beginning–too clever title and all–I don’t hear the concept quite working. Pleasant enough but not as inspired as its rep. So when I put this one on it’s mostly for background music.

Same thing this time.

This time, like every other time, I left what I was doing and came into the room for this.

1) Martha & the Vandellas Live Wire: The Singles 1962-1972 (1993)

Martha Reeves might be due a Vocalist of the Month essay pretty soon, so I’ll leave any deep thoughts for later. This beautiful thing was part of a three-artist series released in conjunction with similarly glorious 2-Disc sets on the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. There’s not a weak track on any of them.

What I hadn’t realized before was that if Dwight’s “South of Cincinnati” ever needs a sister record, it’s right here, in Martha’s finest vocal, equal to anything the powerhouses at Motown ever managed and, unlike most of the theirs and most of hers–which were only “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run,” “In My Lonely Room”– half-hidden by time.

 

 

 

PATHS TAKEN…AND NOT TAKEN (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End: #88)

I should have lots of good stuff coming this week (including thoughts on the latest batch of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees) but, whilst I’ve been ruminating and polishing, I came across this photo, which, speaking to lost worlds as it does, is way too good not to post.

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One of the many things I like about it is that, if i hadn’t already known it to be a very early photo of someone who would become famous, I might have guessed she was bound to become famous.

The road she would take is already in her face.

So are a hundred others she might have taken, any one of which would have led to something extraordinary.

Movie star maybe.

Or Queen of Nashville.

Or Manson girl.

You never really know, of course, what you might have guessed (or how far beyond embarrassed you might have been at being wrong). Hindsight’s twenty-twenty.

But I really wish this had come without a caption, the way I bring it to you now, so that I might have spent time wondering.

Just in case you didn’t have any more luck than I would have, trying to guess who it actually was…here she is on a piece of the path she took that actually got suppressed. Probably so she wouldn’t take over what was, at that moment, the greatest and most talented rock band in the world.

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

Easy Part: Define “B-Side.”

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

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

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Being turned into this US release….

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

Now here’s a trick.

Define “obscure.”

Then define “truly obscure.”

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

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

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

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

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

None of this…

Or this…

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

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

No official release on CD.

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

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

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

or this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So they could release it on Demon Records.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MY FAVORITE DOUBLE LP (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

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I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”

It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.

Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:

Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)

Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)

The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)

Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)

Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)

Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)

Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)

The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)

London Calling The Clash (1979)

The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)

1999 Prince (1982)

Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)

Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)

I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.

That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.

So it goes.

My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dime for reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life,  The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.

Besides Tusk, that leaves:

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These, I’ve obsessed over.

Some time or other.

Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.

Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.

Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.

That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.

Boy, do I feel foolish.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?

Well, maybe.

One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.

And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.

You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.

But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?

Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.

And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).

For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.

Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.

There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,”  in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Before I have to put this knife in your throat.

All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.

That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.

Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.

Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.

It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.

But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.

Too bad for us and too bad for them.

And I really wish I could stop listening.

But I can’t.

(NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC)

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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MY FAVORITE ALBUM ARTIST (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Just for fun (leaving comps and live albums aside as usual):

My favorite two-album run: Big Star (#1 Record, Radio City, 1972–1973)

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My favorite three-album run: Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, 1975–1979)

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My favorite four-album run: The Rolling Stones (Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, 1968–1972)

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My favorite five-album run: The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1965–1968)

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My favorite six-album run: The Beatles (the UK versions of With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver 1963–1966, none of which I like as much as the US only Meet the Beatles, or the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver, but let’s not complicate things.)

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I know, I know. Very White, very Male (notwithstanding Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie) and very Middle Class–just like the overarching narrative says it should be.

But have no fear. You can file all that away.

You can also file away Elvis, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, Curtis Mayfield (with and without the Impressions), Don Gibson, the Beach Boys, and others who made plenty of great albums but who I tend to know better through various comps and (especially) box sets.

Then, if your filing bio-part of choice (brain, eyeball, index finger, whatever else you might want to use) is still functioning, you can file away Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, War, Spinners, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground, and others who either were a tad inconsistent (Morrison, after the late seventies, Dylan, after about 1969), or just didn’t sustain long enough (the rest, with Hendrix, Janis and Ronnie Van Zant fully excused by that old reliable, early death).

Obviously, I like the canon. Just like most people. That’s why it’s the canon.

But you can file all those away, too, because none of them are my favorite album artist either.

To be my favorite album artist I have to think your albums are so consistently good that listening to a comp is faintly ridiculous and more than a little disorienting. I mean, you have to leave me feeling a little unfulfilled if that song doesn’t immediately follow that other song the way God intended. I have to think you consistently made coherent, self-conscious statements that avoided the pretension and self-indulgence which tend to define self-consciousness, not to mention “statements,” but still, by some miracle, continually either deepened or broadened what you had done before.

And, if you want to be the fave, you have to have made a whole lot of them. Preferably in a row.

It helps if you sold a lot of records.

Big Star and the Velvet Underground excepted, I’ve never been into cults.

So there’s the criteria.

Only two people ever met every standard for me.

Which means if you are going to be my favorite album artist, you have to be either him:

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Or her…

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Al Green or Patty Loveless.

Or, to put it another way: Al Green…or Patty Loveless?

I’ve been pondering this one for a couple of decades. I might as well work it out here as anywhere.

For a black guy and a hillbilly woman–definitive representatives of this land’s most despised Others–they have a surprising lot in common.

Green was born (as Albert Greene) the sixth of a sharecropper’s ten children in Forrest City, Arkansas and moved to the big city, Detroit, around the age of twelve, where he was doubtless mocked for being “country”.

Loveless was born (as Patty Lee Ramey) the sixth of a coal miner’s seven children in Pikeville, Kentucky, and moved to the big city, Louisville, at the age of twelve, where she was definitely mocked for being country. (In an interesting, perhaps not entirely coincidental. twist, on Loveless’s last album to date, the lead cut, “Busted,” recovered Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which Johnny Cash, being from Al Green’s neck of the woods, had talked Howard into changing from a coal miner’s lament to a sharecropper’s).

As a teenager, Green, already a seasoned gospel and soul performer, was kicked out of the house for listening to Elvis and Jackie Wilson and ended up on the late sixties’ chitlin’ circuit.

As a teenager, Loveless, already a seasoned country and bluegrass performer, married against her parents’ wishes (she picked a drummer, doubtless her folks knew the long odds against that ending well) and ended up on the late seventies’ Carolina bar circuit.

After middling success on the singles chart, Green released his first major album just after his twenty-third birthday, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.

After middling success on the singles chart (at one point, her label held back promotion because they were afraid her latest record would be “too successful,” you gotta love the suits), Loveless released her first album at the age of twenty-nine, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.

Each would carry a deep memory of what they had experienced chasing fame, Green’s, “He brought me safe thus far, through many drunken country bars,” (a decade into his fame)…

bleeding into Loveless’s “I used to drink ’til I dropped,” (a decade into her fame).

Each was determined to both sustain and enlarge the great traditions they had inherited: for Green, Hard Gospel and Soul; for Loveless, Hard Country (especially honky tonk and bluegrass).

Each, without compromise, reached a level of commercial success no one really thought was possible for such singers without, you know, compromise.

Green had six gold or platinum albums and eight gold singles in the seventies as a hardcore southern soul singer steeped in gospel.

Loveless had eight gold or platinum albums in the eighties and nineties as a hardcore honky tonker steeped in bluegrass.

Uncompromised as they were, each owed much of their success to a unique ability to join the deepest commitment with genuine eclecticism: Green always ready to reach as far as this…

or this….;

Loveless the rare (only?) singer who could bridge say, George Jones…

and Richard Thompson (stay for the wild applause)…

(and never mind, for now, the night at the Kennedy Center Honors where she was the only person on the planet who could have bridged Loretta Lynn and James Brown without breaking a sweat….let’s stay on track).

Later, having climbed for a decade or so, and reached the pinnacle, each found themselves in the throes of a spiritual crisis that clearly caused them to question the value of what it had taken to stand on top of the mountain.

Each walked down.

In Green’s case a series of incidents low-lighted by a woman committing suicide when he refused to marry her finally led him back to the church, where he became the Reverend Al Green and recorded mostly gospel thereafter

In Loveless’s case, a failure to conceive a child with her second husband as nature’s time ran out (according to Laurence Leamer’s invaluable essay on her, which highlights his great Three Chords and the Truth, she saw it as a possible judgment on the abortion she had while married to her first husband….as he didn’t quote her directly, I don’t know his sourcing, only that the conclusion makes sense for anyone raised in Pentecostal air), finally led her into a “traditional” phase, where she increasingly recorded music so spare and out of touch with contemporary trends it amounted to a thumb in Nashville’s eye.

Each finally succeeded in defining the late phase of their respective genres so thoroughly that it became the last phase.

Thus, each has legions of imitators, some inspired.

Neither has a true inheritor.

Each was highly self-conscious about the journey they were on.

The way I know is, you can’t sustain their particular sort of brilliance any other way (for Green, 12 great albums between 1969 and 1978, following on those early singles that were collected on 1967’s excellent Back Up Train; for Loveless, 16 good-to-great albums between 1987 and 2009, abetted by duets and guest appearances that would probably add up to at least a couple more).

There are no weak tracks in either catalog.

One is hard-pressed to find a mediocrity.

It takes work to never, ever give in. But more than that, it takes vision.

And, as they went along, they each, without abandoning their basic approach, or chasing the radio (as opposed to letting it chase them), managed to stretch beyond all prevailing limits, into a place, abetted by style but rooted in the now-ecstatic, now-scarifying assumptions that accompany having to answer to God, where uplift and despair are eternally poised to swallow each other…

For all those reasons and more, it is possible to drive through any part of the South, listening to either, album after album, and feel a connection with what is outside the window, and what lies beneath, in terms of either time or space, that is beyond even Elvis, even the Allmans, even Otis Redding.

And, oh yeah, each was, year after year, Best Dressed.

No small thing for the audiences they cared about most, and who cared most about them.

They finally had so much in common that whatever separates them isn’t worth mentioning.

But all of that isn’t really a lot compared to being canaries in the coal mine.

I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that Al Green’s Detroit and Patty Loveless’s Appalachia are now the two most blighted regions in a land where blight spreads exponentially (while the stock market rolls merrily along, assisted by the state as necessary)? Or that the two-party-one-party state that stomps endlessly on, stomps hardest on the very places–the rural south and the inner city north–that produced the musical collusions which once represented the only real cultural threat the Man has ever felt in his bones?

Who really knows?

We all have our opinions.

You can probably guess mine.

What I do know is that it’s possible, in Al Green’s music, to hear the history of the crack cocaine epidemic that was about to descend on that part of Black America which carries southern memory with it wherever it goes a decade before it actually happened. You can hear it coming, you can hear it happening, and you can hear how hard it’s going to land on those left behind long after it has been explained away by the usual suspects. You can hear all of what you can only hear some of it artists as far-seeing as Sly Stone or George Clinton or War or Gamble and Huff.

And I know it’s possible, in Patty Loveless’s music, to hear the history of the meth epidemic that has now swept through that part of Hillbilly America which carries mountain memories with it wherever it goes, a decade before it actually happened. You can hear all of what you couldn’t hear a single bit of in the music that surrounded her on country radio in the nineties.

You can hear it coming, happening, landing….

In neither instance was the case made with words.

Canaries in coal mines are never concerned with lyrics. They’re concerned with sound. With hammering out a warning, as the old New Folk tune used to go.

The warning was always there in these two voices, right next to the exhilaration of hearing those voices meet and reach new standards that tended to transcend mere perfection even as they constantly redefined it.

But beyond all that, you can hear the push back, the constant reminder that only the path to Hell is easy–the Old Testament always looking over the New Testament’s shoulder.

It took courage to stay their particular courses. The boot isn’t really in Al Green’s face any more. And it’s not really in Patty Loveless’s face either. They’re free of those drunken country bars, have been since their first gold records. They were lifted out of hard lives–out of being born to be stomped on–by otherworldly talent which they, with conviction, would call God-given.

They aren’t the first or last who could say the same.

They are among the very, very few who never forgot, even for a moment.

I once either read or dreamed a scenario. I can’t say which, because, while my memory says I read it, some time in the late nineties, I’ve never been able to remember where. I any case, dream or experience, it went like this:

I was standing in a book store. I was at the sale table and there was a book on country music which I picked up and thumbed through (my memory says it was Leamer’s aforementioned Three Chords and the Truth, but I’ve read it since and couldn’t find the memory even though I was specifically looking for it, hence the possibility it was a dream). Whether dream or experience, there was a lengthy section on Patty Loveless which, since I didn’t have money to purchase the book, I read at length. It described her appearance at one of Nashville’s Annual Fan Fairs (just like Leamer’s book). She came on stage to perform at the end of a long day which had been filled with glad-handing super-slick superstars like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire. who seemed curiously detached from the people who stood in the endless lines to shake their hands (just like in Leamer’s book).

It’s the next part I must have dreamed. Because when she stepped to the microphone, at the height of her own considerable fame (just like in Leamer’s book). a lonely Appalachian voice, exhausted by the day’s endless hype, called out in the night.

“Sing for us!” it said.

Sing for those of us who everybody else here has already forgotten.

Dream or experience, the voice was calling to the only singer it had a chance of reaching.

I don’t know if it ever really happened.

But I know that, if it did, she answered the way she always did and the way Al Green always did.

They sang for us.

Choose between them?

Might as well ask me to choose between my left eye and my right eye.

No thanks.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Double LP)

FUNK, FUNKIER, FUNKIEST (Segue of the Day (1): 7/20/15)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve listened more and more to harder sounds. More funk. More hard rock (though not much metal or punk, neither of which I’ve considered “hard” in any sense of the word). More hard-hearted harmonies (which is basically the Mamas and the Papas, Fleetwood Mac’s late seventies’ mega-period and whoever’s either backing Patty Loveless or duetting with her).

Of course none of this is to the exclusion of everything else. It’s more a shift of emphasis. And this is mostly the past few years, so things could shift again, now or in the future.

Mostly, though, right now, it’s hard sounds for a hard world.

And the hardest sound–the one I turn to when the world’s at its hardest–is funk.

Hard sound. Harder politics.

Simultaneously sounding the warning and providing the map to how we got here.

Mostly, when I’m not listening to somebody specific (which might include all three of the acts I’m about to mention, plus all the usuals from James Brown to Ohio Players)  I listen to one of the two great 4-disc box set overviews I happen to own, Hip-O’s let’s-avoid-overtime-in-the-marketing-department-titled The Funk Box or What It Is, Rhino’s label-specific “deep cuts” collection of Atlantic and Warner Brothers’ sides.

Frankly, they’re both too deep to ever get to the bottom of, but I keep trying.

This week, though, for a change-up I started pulling the individual discs from In Yo’ Face, Rhino’s six-volume collection that deftly combines the best of both worlds, mixing the obvious with the not so obvious.

I’ve had all six volumes for a while (usual story, had them all back in the day, sold them all in the great CD sell-off of 2002, gradually repurchased them until I have them all again, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, ooh, shah, shah), but for some reason I don’t think about them much.

Which means I don’t really have any of the sequences in my head. So, for now at least, it’s like listening to the radio. No idea what’s coming next.

What that meant last night was these three coming out of nowhere and going straight up side my head.

Whap!

Whap!

Whap!

Regarding that map from there to here, all three of these bands had politics, overt and covert. P-Funk (meaning George Clinton and whoever he had rounded up for company at a given moment) put some covert singles on the charts and enjoyed massive critical success with that part of White America which loves hearing the overt from Black America, as long as it stays on the albums and off the radio.

Keeping the radical stuff on the down low lets everybody know how brave they are.

Earth, Wind and Fire, put lots of covert singles on the charts, downplayed the overt without completely disowning it, and received at least the measure of critical praise black groups can expect when they aren’t too in-your-face and sell a bajillion records.

War, by contrast, put their overt politics in their singles.

And they had hits. “Me and Baby Brother” marked their fifth straight trip to the Pop Top 20 in two years, a run that began with “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto.” Those titles explain themselves and, if anything, “Me and Baby Brother,” was/is even more explicit.

Put another way, you could listen to every single P-Funk or Earth, Wind and Fire ever put on the pop charts and not really understand why Black America seethes with anger forty years later even when the “baby brother” who was just shot was knocking over a convenience store ten minutes earlier.

“Me and Baby Brother” doesn’t let you misunderstand. It speaks out loud: Just because somebody deserved it today, doesn’t make up for yesterday or guarantee tomorrow will be any different.

Of course that doesn’t explain everything let alone excuse anything. No one factor explains or excuses everything.

But it does serve as a reminder that every version of Black America has a history very different from every version of White America. Police shoot way too many people, white and black (something War understood long before your average Libertarian seized it as a talking point–that “for me and for you” in “The World is a Ghetto” was neither meant to be race specific nor received that way).

And, yes, some who get shot are deserving…white or black.

Among the undeserving, the imbalance may or may not be as great as some people claim. But, however unreliable PD statistics are, I don’t think there’s much doubt the injustices tip considerably one way. And, short of somebody proving otherwise–which nobody has ever done–every version of Black America is bound to sit on the volcano that War, while hardly alone, nonetheless wrote and sang about better and longer than anyone else who had access to the pop charts in those decades when the pop charts were the center of American culture, white or black.

There are those who contend that War–at least as great and epic a band as P-Funk or Earth, Wind and Fire and a far braver one–are still sitting outside the portals of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while their old rivals have long since been ushered inside (along with similar “visionaries” like Public Enemy who told the Jann Wenner crowd exactly what they wanted to hear, made them “uncomfortable” in just the way they prefer)–in spite of their courage.

You can never really prove these things, but if there were some place you could put money on it, I’d make the safer bet and say War have been left hanging not in spite of such qualities but precisely because of them.

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #4: Love & Mercy)

Love & Mercy
Bill Pohlad, Director (2014)

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Brian Wilson owes me. Big time.

In 1979 he cost me The One.

Compared to that, having my first car wreck, in 1981, while trying to remember the lyrics to “Caroline, No,” is chicken scratch.

For some of us, car wrecks come and go. ’71 Mavericks come and go. But you only get one chance at The One.

Oh sure, other factors were definitely involved. Maybe he just “helped” cost me The One.

The One had a boyfriend after all. And they were engaged. So that made two mighty impediments. My honor and hers.

Plus it was summer and summers are short, and I wasn’t the sort to make short work of pursuing anyone, let alone The One.

Especially if she had a boyfriend and they were engaged.

Which I didn’t yet know they were on the second night of my summer–not, as it happened, the second night of her summer or the boyfriend’s, me being a late arrival to the Southern Baptist Conference Center due to Florida’s Junior College system, exactly one year away from reform, still being the only college system in the entire south that was on a different schedule from the rest.

So the second night–my second night–it was.

The night of the Talent Show.

I’d already met The One by then. Lobby of the Girls’ Dorm. Rainy day. She noodling on the piano and singing “You Light Up My Life,” me politely inquiring for the person the front desk had told me would assign me a room in the Boys’ Dorm.

I didn’t know she was The One by virtue of her being good-looking or singing “You Light Up My Life.” In 1979, whatever degree of interest the first factor drummed up was bound to be mitigated by the second.

In 1979, the ubiquitous presence of “You Light Up My Life” in the Air of Everywhere, was one of many, many factors that had me regularly contemplating slitting my wrists.

No, she didn’t become The One until our eyes met, ever so briefly, and I saw somebody who was in the same kind of trouble I was in.

Which meant I immediately started thinking of her as The One who could get me out. And of me as the one who could get her out.

And I didn’t give up hope when I saw her walking around with some guy the next day.

Hey, it didn’t mean they were engaged!

I even got my hopes up that evening when we all showed up for the Talent Show and filed into the auditorium from opposite ends and, in a crowd of maybe two hundred, I found myself walking down the fourth aisle straight toward The One, who was, I immediately noticed, sans boyfriend.

So how much of a boyfriend he could be (me not knowing they were engaged) huh? How much of a boyfriend could he be if he wasn’t even willing to accompany her to the Talent Show?

We sat next to each other and while there was little chance for actual conversation, we both laughed at all the same things. How could we not, she being The One and all? Others may have laughed, too. Probably did. Probably at the same things we did. But who cared? What was important was the building of the first small bond.

All that serendipity. I couldn’t possibly have asked for more, two days in.

Then, to close the show, the Elvis Impersonator came on.

Guy named Eddie.

He had the sideburns (permanent fixture). He had the rhinestone cape (borrowed for the occasion, God knows where). He had the screaming girls patting down his forehead (all in good fun). He had the scarves (proving he meant business).

He was clearly taking it seriously even if nobody else was and I was prepared to be generous.

And, yeah, interested to see how The One would take it.

Now, I already knew Eddie was the only guy in the Boys’ Dorm who had brought a record player with him (he might have been the only one who knew they were allowed). I also knew that one of the records he had with him was this one:

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What I didn’t know–what I don’t think too many people knew–was that this was the only record he had with him.

So when the scarves had been distributed among the faux-faithful and the faux-screams had all died down and one of the girls on the stage went over to Eddie’s record player (which had us all wondering why it was there as the previous acts came and went), and, after carefully checking that Eddie was ready for his cue, prepared to drop the needle, I sort of expected a young man who had taken due care with all those other facets of Elvis Impersonation to, you know, sing–or at least lip-synch–an Elvis song.

Which he might have, if he had actually possessed an Elvis record.

Instead of, say, Endless Summer.

Call me immature. Call me crazy. Call me no longer prepared to be generous.

But even at the all-in-fun Talent Show for the 1979 summer staff of the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, I wasn’t ready for an Elvis Impersonator to lip-synch to the Beach Boys.

And, even if I had been somehow ready for that in theory, I certainly wasn’t ready for the Elvis Impersonator to, in fact, start lip-synching to “I Get Around.”

Everybody else laughed. Including The One.

Which was okay. I was raised in church. I knew man was born in sin and nobody was perfect. There was nothing to forgive. It was between her and God.

Well, her and God and everybody else in the place, who did what you naturally do when “I Get Around” comes on (whether an Elvis Impersonator is involved or not) and started bopping in their seats. You know, bop a little to the left, bop a little to the right.

Clap your hands.

Let your body sway.

In time with the music.

Everybody, including The One.

Everybody except me.

In that moment I was a Clanton at the OK Corral.

Yes, I was in what turned out to be my rather brief “rock snob” phase, but I was only in the early stages of my Elvis fandom, still not quite sure how far that thing would go.

I could have stood Elvis being mocked.

But the Beach Boys?

No. That was a bridge too far.

“Surfin’ Safari” maybe. “Catch a Wave?”….maybe.

“I Get Around?”

No way.

Elvis was one thing.

Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al?

Those were my brothers.

Being desecrated.

I stayed stock still. The literal stick in the mud.

The One noticed.

After about the third bop to the right she didn’t bop quite as far, presumably because she didn’t want to keep bopping into my cold rock of a shoulder.

And as the song neared an end and the bopping gradually ceased, she leaned over and whispered something to her girlfriend (truly gorgeous and the one girl in the place everybody but me thought was better looking than The One, and they were inseparable right up until one particularly high social occasion in the middle of the summer when The One decided to, just once, and ever so casually, let everybody know otherwise, after which I never saw them together again, but that’s another story for another day).

In the moment, her girlfriend whispered back, at which point the music stopped entirely and I heard every word.

“Maybe he doesn’t know who they are,” she said.

Did I mention that I spent a lot of time in those days contemplating blades and wrists?

I didn’t really contemplate them less as the summer wore on.

And the funny thing was, it was otherwise a great experience.

You know, otherwise than having my best chance at really bonding with The One totally blown, and having her walk around thinking I must be the jerk of jerks, and an ignoramus to boot on the one subject where I wasn’t. All because Brian Wilson had produced a piece of music that put me past reason, a record that had come on the radio the summer I got that ’71 Maverick and helped teach me what freedom was, thereby leaving me permanently honor-bound to defend him as best I could even–or especially–in the strangest and most inconvenient of circumstances.

But, of course, she did not stop being The One. Not ever.

Not when I found out a day or two later that she was engaged (these things get broken off, don’t they?). Not when I barely saw her for weeks on end and found no chance whatsoever to speak with her at any length beyond hi-and-bye. Not when I joined the choir because I heard she was in it and it turned out I couldn’t get next to her because we were rehearsing a cantata and she had a speaking part and so was always at the front of the stage, separate and apart, even at practice.

Not when I found myself sitting next to her boyfriend on the bench at a softball game between innings, just past Summer’s midpoint, and somebody came up to him and asked him if it was true he and The One had broken up and the boyfriend said yeah and I said, ever so casually, “Wow, you guys had been going together a long time hadn’t you?” and he said “Naw, I just met her the first week we got here.”

You know.

The week I was still back in Florida. Attending classes at the only college or ju-co system in the entire south that let out a week late.

Just in case you think this absurdist story has some sort of resolution or happy ending, or even an unhappy ending, you may rest easy.

The story that began with me believing The One was engaged, and therefore off-limits, even if the whole “I Get Around” episode hadn’t made things indisputably awkward, had no ending.

Too close to the end of the summer, I said, there on the bench, just past Summer’s midpoint.

Too much chance she, now on the rebound, will shoot me down for too little reward, I said (and don’t forget the “I Get Around” incident…I said).

Besides, hey, I only just left home for the first time. I’m all of eighteen. There’s lots of time.

Probably once you get away from home this happens on a pretty regular basis. I said.

The One. Hah!

I said.

So that was my version of an ending, really. Just me watching her the rest of the summer. Watching her go through the motions. Watch her start skipping choir practice even though she was one of the key performers, while, I, of course, kept going, kept watching through windows and seeing her pop up in the distance, kept watching her wear, from that distance, the same mask of careful reserve that I was wearing and present the same absolute determination to let no one know just how much trouble she was in, that I was presenting.

Watching her prove beyond all doubt that I wasn’t wrong that very first day when I looked her in the eyes and knew what we shared.

Watching her, knowing we could save each other if I made a move, if I dared to reveal myself. And then wondering if what we would really do was destroy each other, knowing what we shared.

I said.

So yes. I talked myself out of it–out of even approaching her.

But the one remaining time I got close to her by accident, I didn’t walk away. I didn’t leave.

Which was why the story never really ended.

Because all we ended up doing was sitting at a breakfast table, with maybe six other kids, maybe two weeks from Summer’s end and she said something and somebody else said something and she said something back and I, as I periodically did in those days, thought of something clever to say and went ahead and said it and everybody laughed really loud.

Everybody except The One.

The One’s head snapped around and she stared at me and what it sure looked like was the stare of somebody who knew she was looking at someone who was in the same kind of trouble she was in.

Somebody who could save her.

Or go down with her.

Two weeks to go in Summer.

It took me three whole days to talk myself out of going anywhere near her again.

Though if she had showed up at one more choir practice? If we’d still been having choir practice?

Then….maybe?

Maybe.

But probably not.

I was running scared by then. And time was short.

Maybe she wasn’t The One after all.

She never did get that thing about “I Get Around,” did she?

You could say I was very romantic and you’d probably be right. You could say it was no big deal. You could say it was kid’s stuff.

You could say you could never really know, on the basis of such thin reasoning and thinner experience, that she was The One.

You could say that.

But then I’d have to say this.

I never dated her, barely even spoke to her. I never married. And I never forgot her, the way I forgot everybody else.

And I never stopped hoping that she, too, somehow got past the trouble she was in. That she didn’t go down.

After which, I’d also have to say something like:

“You want to know how you know The One was The One?”

All of that happens. All of that I just described.

That’s how you know.

So, yeah, Brian Wilson owes me.

Big time.

I owe him more.

*   *   *   *

Maybe not my life. Maybe not quite.

It wasn’t his music I was listening to in 1984 when the clouds finally rolled away and I knew I was going to survive. It was somebody else’s music.

Somebody he had inspired pretty directly as it happened and maybe I’ll write about that some other day, too. But the thing is, it could have been almost anybody who made music after a certain point because after a certain point almost everybody was inspired by him…pretty directly.

Just going through my usual, general listening the day after I saw Love & Mercy in the theaters for the first time, I heard him in Stevie Wonder, in Bob Marley, in the Beatles’ Revolver, all over Fleetwood Mac’s classic period, where, listening to acolyte Lindsey Buckingham’s version of “Farmer’s Daughter” on the disc of outtakes for Tusk, I was especially struck by how naturally it fit in with everything the band had done since Buckingham joined.

One could go on.

There are a lot of books on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, plus a number of documentaries. I haven’t read or seen every single one. But I’ve read and seen my share. All of those combined don’t come close to telling how much it cost to make that soul-saving music as Love & Mercy does.

That’s the film’s great achievement.

You could nitpick it as art, maybe even as craft.

When I saw it the first time, in my local theater, the sound system wasn’t up to snuff. The dialogue seemed to be coming out of one speaker, which was working fine, but the music was coming out of a second, damaged speaker, and barely audible.

Pretty big handicap that. Not being able to hear the music too well in a musical biopic about a man whose particular genius was hearing the world slightly differently than everyone else and whose life story was the struggle to both mediate and communicate that difference.

It didn’t matter, though. Not in the least.

That’s how good Love & Mercy is. With the foreground music (mostly by the Beach Boys themselves) almost inaudible, the background music completely so (as I found out a day later when I had a chance to see it in Birmingham, with a sound system that worked, and could actually hear the period music that lent depth and scope to several key scenes), and me wondering whether it was a stylistic choice meant to reflect Wilson’s near-deafness in one ear, the movie still left me overwhelmed, staggered even, unable to leave my seat until the ushers finally came through sweeping the trash.

So maybe Paul Giamatti’s evil psychiatrist is a little over the top, even for Eugene Landy. Maybe I wish the other band members (besides Mike Love, generally regarded as a heavy, who is well and sensitively represented here) could have played a slightly bigger role. Maybe the balance between Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn, and his second, Melinda Ledbetter (played with a wonderful style of good old American can-do optimism by Elizabeth Banks), could have been a little more even. Maybe a few of the more conventional scenes do look a bit awkwardly expository and pedestrian sprinkled here and there amongst the sheer lyricism of the recording studio bits, the jolt of Wilson’s famous airplane breakdown (where Paul Dano manages to communicate real terror, the genuine spectre of death, in a circumstance where we know, as Brian Wilson did not in that moment, he’s going to survive and a moment the rest of Dano’s astounding performance has to measure itself against), or the dream-like disorientation of the late scenes where Dano’s baby-faced Boy-Man and John Cusack’s ravaged Man-Boy, finally fuse as one with a power and immediacy that’s only achievable on film, that, for once, uses the medium to go beyond the capacity of page or stage.

Like I say. Take all those maybes and throw them away.

Nit-picking.

And irrelevant.

The movie could be less good than it is–and, frankly, it’s remarkably good by even the usual standard–and still retain its power, as long as it kept the main ingredient, which is the triangulation of Dano, Cusack and Wilson himself, into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its considerable parts.

Yeah, I know how that sounds.

A movie that ain’t gonna clear 20 mil at the box office made Brian Wilson larger?

Brian Wilson!

Come on.

I’ll get to that.

But first, I better offer some assurance that I know at least a little bit…..

I know who the Beach Boys were/are (yeah, that really sets me apart).

I know they have a fan base that is even more curiously divided than the Beatles’ fan base when it comes to which version of the band matters most. (Shorthand–“I Get Around” or Pet Sounds?)

And I know if you put a gun to my head I’ll have to call up my memories of finding freedom behind the wheel of that ’71 Maverick and leave no doubt which side I come down on.

Not the side Love & Mercy celebrates as it happens. Those marvelous studio scenes involve Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” and not much else. My least favorite Beach Boys as it happens, which doesn’t mean I don’t love them, too.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter.

Because I also know these choices are pretty silly. Maybe the sillier the more intensely they are felt. I don’t know too many people who really love early “fun” Beach Boys (or Beatles) to the exclusion of what came later, or vice versa. And, if you really do put that gun to my head, I might just go ahead take Wild Honey over Pet Sounds or “I Get Around.”

Heck, on a given day, I might take this:

or this

or this:

…All of which I now know are pieces of Brian’s story, written and sung, respectively, by Carl, Dennis and Carl again before those particular parts of that story actually came to pass. And if they are pieces of Dennis’ and Carl’s stories, too, well, maybe that’s one of the things brothers are for and maybe sharing an abusive dad creates a bond that defies easy exegisis.

So I might indeed take any one of those, or any of a few dozen others, over any of what’s more generally celebrated, in Love & Mercy or elsewhere.

On a given day.

Which goes to show just how underwhelming these debates can be.

Because me and pretty much every other real Beach Boys’ fan would fight you to the last breath before we gave up any of it and feel a hole in our departed souls forever if we lost even one song that doesn’t mean a rip to us personally.

So far so good. We’d do what any lovers would do for the art that sustained them. Good for us.

And I know a few things.

Good for me.

But the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson also belong to that rare group of artists who matter far beyond any personal reaction/relationship you or I might have to or with them or their art.

Which obvious statement having been made, it may now be worth reviewing just how their particular relevance came to pass.

It came to pass, in short, because between about the summer of 1962 and some time around the end of 1967, Brian Wilson had a run of creative and commercial success matched by few American artists in any medium before, during or since.

In five years, working with a series of collaborators, not one of whom ever came near matching the achievements they had with him in any other context, he wrote and/or produced (sometimes uncredited) thirteen studio albums (about half of which now routinely and deservedly rank with somebody or other’s version of the greatest ever) that yielded twenty-eight chart hits (most of which became instant and permanent radio staples).

As a producer, he was a legitimate rival of Phil Spector and the Motown giants. As a vocal arranger, his only peers were Smokey Robinson and John Phillips. As a falsetto tenor, he was in a league with Robinson and Frankie Valli. As a songwriter/composer he drew comparisons to everyone from Benjamin Britten to Duke Ellington all whilst being the main American push-back against John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with whom he managed a close run despite never having any collaborator who could do for him what they could do for each other.

He did all that while carrying the scars of severe parental abuse (from his father), deafness in one ear (which may or may not have been caused by that abuse), auditory hallucinations which wouldn’t be properly diagnosed for decades, the predilection for drug addiction that could probably be deemed inevitable with such a background, and, oh yeah, the likelihood that the already tenuous aspects of this little psychic collective would be made manifest when an accident of geography and the sheer enormity of his talent placed him in a spot his basic personality was spectacularly unsuited to deal with, i.e., at the epicenter of “Los Angeles in the Sixties.”

Not to mention a band that wanted to keep having hits while he was pursuing his ever more elusive muse. Hits they could play in front of the live audiences who would pay the bills, call the radio stations, keep the legacy alive.

You want to make a movie that enlarges that legacy, you have to go some.

Love & Mercy goes some.

It escapes the boundaries of whatever might have been rationally expected because, using two actors who look nothing alike, jumping back and forth in time from the eighties to the sixties in a style that certainly flirts with incoherence, it turns Brian Wilson into something no version of his real self ever quite managed, which is to say a Character.

However close they remain to the facts–and Love & Mercy is, by most accounts, pretty darn faithful–bio-narratives, be they film or some other fiction, are never really about those facts. They’re about the story. They’re about the story the same way Brian Wilson’s music is about the sound.

Not the lyrics (or the dialogue), however relevant. Not the music (or the plot), no matter how idiosyncratically brilliant, or transcendently familiar.

The SOUND…and the Story.

Love & Mercy is what it is because it gets the supreme relevance of its story the same way the man it’s about got the supreme relevance of his sound.

And what the film makes abundantly clear, finally unmissable, is that the music Brian Wilson once made did indeed define certain aspects of our cultural psyche that would otherwise beg definition. Yes, the Southern California division of the American Dream. Yes, the “California Myth.”

Yes, Summer.

All of that.

But not just that.

Any Beach Boys’ fan who ever listened at all closely (and it’s one measure of Wilson’s genius that you could genuinely love the band without doing so, that the experience of smiling every time they come on the radio and leaving it at that, is no less valid, no less definitive, than dropping acid while you listen to your bootleg copy of Smile, or, if you like, SMiLE), knows that summer, as Brian Wilson defined it, was really two seasons.

Summer…and End of Summer.

He didn’t take forever to lay down the distinction.

His first top ten hit was this…where it’s always the first of June:

His second top ten was this…

…Where it’s always the end of October.

Over time, certainly over the entire stretch of the Beach Boys’ ride at the top, Summer and End of Summer would bleed into each other, become almost inextricable in the collective imagination.

And, because Brian Wilson was who he was–because his End of Summer was bound to finally dominate his Summer, hit after hit, permanent radio classic after permanent radio classic–his End of Summer became our End of Summer.

Love & Mercy catches that quality like nothing else I’ve read or seen. Like nothing except Wilson’s own music, which this movie really does makes larger because, consciously or otherwise, it places his life and work–a life and work that were hardly unfamiliar to those of us most eager to see this movie–in that larger context, leaves him not just any Character, but a Character in a story that’s bigger than either artist or audience could ever be while that Character (which is, finally, related to, but not bound by, Wilson’s actual life) was yet undefined.

There’s no way I can overstate the improbability of this.

The director, Bill Pohlad, is no proven auteur. It’s his second feature as director (he’s an accomplished producer). His first, two decades back, was a flop. Paul Dano was evidently previously known for playing heavies (as someone who doesn’t see a lot of modern movies, I confess I’d never heard of him). John Cusack has, by all accounts and every piece of evidence I’ve seen, been coasting for years. Brian Wilson himself has been written and talked about, endlessly, obsessively, some might say far beyond the normal constraints of mere sycophancy, going all the way back to the Sixties, without ever being remotely pinned down or having his edges truly defined.

And without all those people somehow landing on the same page at once, none of the movie’s other strengths–a uniformly excellent cast (just because Giamatti’s over the top doesn’t mean he isn’t genuinely scary, though nowhere near as scary as Bill Camp’s finely wrought banality as Murry Wilson, the father who would rather choke on a thousand bones than accept that his son is better than he is at the only thing he himself was ever any good at), a strong, poignant script, a deep feel for the physical and emotional details of two periods that, in the real world, were actually made for the express purpose of rejecting each other and forcing a choice between Summer and False Summer, a choice we’ve never quite been up to making–would really matter.

As it lays, with the essentials firmly in place, everything in Love and Mercy reinforces everything else. The memory of the movie’s flaws, whatever I think they are, are already, after two viewings, flowing around and through and over the overwhelming memory of its strengths, in the same way a cut that would never work on its own suits a great album because it simply….fits.

As to what no filmmaker–and no genius seeking form for his life, even in an era he helped define–could ever arrange?

That’s easy.

We live in America.

In America, the Sixties one day became the Eighties.

And, in America, the Eighties never ended.

Summer became End of Summer. And since End of Summer never ended, Spring isn’t going to come around anymore.

Neither is Summer.

So this Summer, you can sit in a movie theater and watch Paul Dano define the spirit of the young man who is terrified, more than anything else, of becoming the older, irreparably damaged man John Cusack finally knows, in a climactic scene that’s genuinely heartbreaking and somehow simultaneously cathartic, as though he’s finally accepted he’s taken the world’s last punch and is still standing, can never re-capture what he once was.

All he can do is face the worst and live his life.

Maybe with the help of The One who found him in a car dealership.

Which is, of course, how it worked out in “real life.” (And, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I don’t know what Melinda Ledbetter looked like in the eighties, but if she looked anything like Elizabeth Banks in tan jeans and an uber-coordinated sweater, she might have given anybody second thoughts about having The One be anyone but her.)

All great for Brian Wilson.

No one could be other than terrifically relieved and genuinely happy that he, too, made it through. That against very long odds–odds that took so many of his contemporaries and both of his brothers–he got to live his life.

But that’s not why Love & Mercy is a great movie. Not because it shows that, too, and let’s us share that happiness and relief.

It’s a great movie because, in its bones, it knows what the scared kid who ruled L.A., the loci of our last great romance with ourselves, at the last moment when that was worth anything, knew all along.

Summer is short.

The End of Summer, when it comes, is forever.

So no, I haven’t forgotten what happened in the Summer of 1979.

I haven’t forgotten that Brian Wilson owes me.

But, there’s something else Love & Mercy helped me remember.

It helped me remember that he warned me, too.

He warned all of us. And kept insisting the storm could be endured.

Eventually, some of us, even me, learned to listen. And most of us survived the trouble we were in.

You can’t put a price on that.