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!

 

WELL, WE MUST TAKE WHAT WE CAN GET (MORE NOTES FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS)

So NPR compiled a list of the 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women (since 1964). You can read the rationale for the list here. It covers–or, if you like, CYA’s–the usual caveats for such lists. They were a little vague on why a list designed to put women “at the center” should have its starting point defined by the Beatles (Why not Julie London (as great an album maker as Frank Sinatra in the fifties)? Or Billie Holiday? Why not be really transformative and shake up the whole narrative, if it’s the whole narrative that needs shaking? And, if it doesn’t, why not just say so?).

But I’ll leave hashing all that out for some other day.

Today, I’m not gonna carp. Because the Shangri-Las made the list!

I only kind of wish (and I’m not complaining–that album cover above you hangs in my den, framed) they had made it with their other, stronger album (the even better version of Shangri-Las ’65*)

…which I like to say has cast a longer shadow than Rubber Soul or Highway 61 Revisited.

Or Blue (the Joni Mitchell album that tops the NPR list–like all corporate lists, it’s not long on surprises).

Of course, I say that with tongue in cheek.

Mostly.

But it’s funny what happens in shadows. I just saw Wonder Woman win WWI at the multiplex last week…and she did it looking and acting a lot more like a Shangri-La than anything her original comic-strip creators envisioned.

If you see Bob Dylan’s shadow hovering over the multiplex, where the genuine, authentic, one hundred percent true-life fantasy America persists in re-creating itself these days, be sure to let me know.

I’m not saying it’s a good thing either.

Just that it’s a thing.

An overwhelming thing.

That Wonder Woman, she’s fifty feet tall.

For now, though, I’m gonna let all the caveats go, and just use this as a reason to smile in a grim world.

[*–Shangri-Las ’65 was released before “I Can Never Go Home Any More” became a big hit. Their label then released a new version of the LP, re-titled after the hit, with “I Can Never Go Home Any More,” one the era’s greatest sides, replacing “The Dum Dum Ditty,” one of the few Shangs’ sides that isn’t great. I should probably add that “this has probably cast a longer shadow than Rubber Soul or Highway 61 Revisited” is something I first scribbled about Shangri-Las ’65 in one of those notebooks all writers keep about thirty years ago, before I knew I Can Never Go Home Any More, the album, existed. I’ve repeated it a few times since, including on this blog. But I ask again–who else joins the Ramones and Madonna at the hip? And what’s more “influential” than that?]

RIDING AROUND AT MIDNIGHT WITH KEELY SMITH (CD Review)

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Bob Merlis and Real Gone Music were kind enough to provide me with a review copy of the re-release of 1965’s The Intimate Keely Smith. It’s been my driving around music for the past week and it’s a killer.

Back in my vinyl-diving days, I always kept an eye out for female pop singers from the fifties and sixties. Their albums tended to have jaw-dropping covers and mind-stretching versions of the pop standards that had been shoved to the margins by the rock and roll revolutions then rolling in one behind the other.

I found lots of good music that way, and, inside those gorgeous record sleeves, uncovered the three artists who changed how I thought about “Pop”: Julie London, Doris Day and the torch side of Nancy Sinatra.

Sad to say, I never came across any Keely Smith. Like a lot of people, I knew her almost exclusively as Louis Prima’s straight man. Great as she was in that role, it was my loss, because, if this album is any indication, she conceded nothing to any other genius of the Midnight Blues, including Frank Sinatra himself, for whose label she was recording by the mid-sixties (and with whom she has a rather desultory duet included as a bonus track here).

Intimate was released in 1965, which meant at least three quake-sized shocks to the Show Biz system she was raised in (and rose to the top of), had occurred in the previous decade: mid-fifties rock and roll; the much under-appreciated ballad revolution of the early sixties, which nearly wiped out traditional pop singing; and the British Invasion. In that context The Intimate Keely Smith must have sounded like the profound expression of an almost religious faith, because Smith actually sings as if none of those earth-shattering events had ever taken place much less left a mark.

Listening now, half a roiling century later, Keely’s “intimacy” sounds more like a dare. She goes so far inside at least half of these songs that it amounts to an assertion of the individual’s primacy over not only whatever “times” are passing by the window of her mind but any times that might have come and gone or will later come and go. In other words, it’s as personal as personal gets.

That couldn’t have been a small thing in 1965, even if such music was all but automatically excluded from contemporary radio play. It’s certainly not a small thing now, when the world outside is simmering like a brush fire and we’re all holding a breath waiting to see whether the fire dies or leaps whatever tiny ditch is left between Civilization and its opposite.

I won’t say encountering such an album in such a time is a shock. I never quite forgot those Julie London lessons. But having it for riding around music was instructive. I couldn’t help noticing that, in Keely’s Intimate world, it was always midnight now matter how bright the sun was shining. And that makes this a reassertion of the midnight pop singer’s oldest, truest promise: that what happens in the song is happening to them and that no one within the sound of their voice will be immune, in 1965 or 2016 or, if Civilization somehow manages to hang on, a hundred years from now.

A highly recommended Christmas gift if anyone on your list is even remotely susceptible to such as this!

 

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #6: Baby It’s You)

Baby It’s You
John Sayles, Director (1983)

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[Note: I shopped this briefly but, alas, no takers. Hence it wasn’t ultimately written with the usual screen grabs in mind and, except at the very end, I’m not up to inserting them. So let your imagination (or memory) run wild!]

The first time I saw Baby It’s You was on VHS, shortly after it’s 1983 general release and box-office death. I rented it a year or two later with appropriately modest expectations and it blew by me like a cool breeze.

The second time I saw Baby It’s You was on DVD in the Year of Our Lord, 2015, and it ran over me like a truck.

Here with my nose pressed to the pavement, struggling mightily to rise, shaking my head to clear it, I can see how I sidestepped it earlier…or it sidestepped me.

At twenty-four, I wasn’t ready to let it get under my skin and if Baby It’s You isn’t under your skin it’s just a movie.

If, on the other hand, it is under your skin, its absolute lack of reassurance let’s it run around in the bloodstream, equal parts depression and liberation, intertwining mythic space and human space so deftly one becomes indistinguishable from the other.

Always a heady place to be, that.

I better write about it before I have time to reassemble my defenses, here in my own little human space.

It should be easy. I mean, John Sayles wrote and directed it. I haven’t seen a lot of Sayles’ movies but the few I have seen, including Eight Men Out, which is the only one before now that I’ve seen more than once, are enough to make me feel like I know what I’m getting when his name comes up under “Directed by.”

I know it will be tasteful. I know it will be meticulously crafted. I know it will be more readily admired than loved. I know it will be good for me.

What could be easier to digest, dissect, defend against than one of those?

Nothing, actually.

Except Baby It’s You is none of those. Not even meticulous. No movie that breaks free and runs down lost roads, trucking the unwary, like this one can be limited that way, even if everyone involved threw themselves into getting all the details associated with craft just right.

And, for all I can tell, they did just that. All of the minor characters–the nerdy high school professor, the bullying, “get-to-class-right-now-mister” principal figure, the clueless parents, the caring drama teacher, the various high school and college friends and acquaintances–are stock and played that way. Never with anything less than finely nuanced sensitivity mind you, but they aren’t running free down lost roads. They’re in a John Sayles movie, one and all.

I won’t say it doesn’t matter. All that craft doesn’t go to waste. It’s the woop and warf of the structure after all and a fine one at that.

But this movie is only about two people: Rosanna Arquette’s Jill Rosen and Vincent Spano’s Albert “The Sheik” Capadilupo. Everyone else is a shade. Any brief attempt to give them real-life dimension, as opposed to abstract force, now temporal, now ghostly, in the lives of the two principles, comes a held-breath cropper. The more any one of them tries to care about Jill or the Sheik–no one’s ever really concerned about both–or otherwise threatens to stand out, the sooner they fade to black.

And the more it’s possible for us to care.

I can’t say the caring is imperative. I’m not forgetting this barely ruffled my hair when I was close enough in age to fall for Jill myself and spare a sneer for pretty-boy Sheik, so clearly going about it all wrong!

So, no, not imperative. But possible.

Twenty-something or fifty-something, that isn’t a chance many movies offer.

And there’s where time has come around and run me down from behind.

I stuck a movie in the DVD player and now, suddenly, at what was supposed to be a safe distance, I find myself caring about Jill and the Sheik. Two characters in a movie. Two characters I have next to nothing in common with, as it happens, but that’s not the sticky wicket here.

The part that won’t go down is, I care about them….and I have no idea what happened to them.

Disorienting to say the least.

Caring and then knowing are the fuel movies–or maybe just narrative art–run on. Knowing who they are. Knowing why you care. Knowing they have arrived on some safe shore, even if it isn’t the shore you wanted them to reach, or that, if they went down, they went down with a purpose even if the purpose was purely cautionary, a life lesson for those watching from the cheap seats or the beach.

I mean, if you’re not going to tip the balance toward the comforts of assurance–Jill will be fine even if she really sheds the Sheik and the acting thing doesn’t work out, the Sheik won’t steal any more cars, knock over any more liquor stores, stage any more fake kidnappings, get himself thrown in jail finally–then at least give me some of the usual convention of false ambivalence. That’s well enough established as a narrative trope that it carries its own assurance.

So okay, I’m in an art movie. Nothing wrong with that. I’m not entirely immune to art for srt’s sake.

But it doesn’t get under my skin.

Normally, no one is better at pandering to my near immunities than your average indie film-maker in general unless it’s John Sayles in particular. I mean, when he bitched about having the editing taken away from him on this one because it had a Hollywood budget, I sort of assumed he found the final product insufficiently ponderous.

Oh, maybe his preferred cut was even more of what Baby It’s You ended up being: maybe it was even looser, bolder, freer to associate, freer to not associate, more prone to run right off the rails and then be set straight back on by the particular way the Sheik (or is it his partner, the Rat?) throws down on the owner of the store he’s robbing when he should have been taking Jill to the prom and then refuses to shoot him, or the pregnant pause when Jill asks the “I-wasn’t-blonde-then” girl who used to be in her gym class if she’s “been going out with…Rat, long?”

Those little half-pauses are everything.

This movie runs on beats. Sharp, quick rhythms that eventually turn into elongated rhythms that reach the breaking point without quite snapping. Rock and roll into rock into a lost country. Sam the Sham into Procol Harum into the Velvet Underground, with the Shirelles on the title track joining the Supremes and Dusty Springfield and whoever else could be properly licensed (the Toys in the original movie credits, the Chiffons on the present soundtrack and it’s all perfect) providing continuity and a constant, gentle-but-firm push-back against those consummate invaders of the movie’s intimate girl talk space. That would be Jersey boys Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, each, of course, completely incongruous in a movie that’s not only set in the sixties but very specifically about the sixties. and, oh-by-the-way, each as completely, absurdly, perfect as the Shirelles.

And that’s just the soundtrack, cruising along underneath dialogue that sounds like the kind songwriters make songs out of. Did “Everything’s fine Ma, go back to bed,” come out of “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding” or was it the other way around? Did the school guidance counselor intoning “Every year we have one or two tragedies,” make “Leader of the Pack” inevitable or merely imaginable?

Baby It’s You doesn’t bother to answer those kind of questions. But it keeps asking them. Then it let’s us ponder the possibilities. And keep right on pondering.

Me, of course, while I’m trying to recover from being trucked. Easing up on my elbows, ever so gently.

The central question, of course, as in all Beauty and the Beast stories, is what exactly they see in each other? Oh, we know generally what every Beauty sees in every Beast and vice versa. But what about this particular scenario. What does Jill Rosen, sixties-era Jewish American Princess swept up in her times, see in Albert Capidilupo, fifties-era Italian Sheik, caught out of time?

And vice versa.

The movie doesn’t give answers. It gives clues.

We know their worlds don’t collide (and not just because they never meet each other’s parents…heck, I didn’t even register that little detail until the movie made me actually think about it, slow it down, hit the pause button so I could write down the dialogue I just quoted).

Jill dreams of being an actress and The Sheik isn’t going to acting class. Not unless he barges in on rehearsal, unannounced, uninvited and unwanted, just because Jill’s there.

His father isn’t a doctor.

He isn’t applying for college.

The movie tells us these things, eventually, but they’re all knowable right off, long before any given scene codifies them. It’s there in the way he carries himself. A loser trying to be a winner just by acting like one, knowing all along that she’s his way up, if only he can make her believe he’s her way out.

What the movie does reveal, what isn’t available in the first scene, where the Sheik stares at Jill like she’s from a dream he’s been having and she hurries off, surrounded by smart-ass girlfriends who act like a shield against everything the boy staring at her is likely to stand for, is whether the Sheik is bound to keep on losing.

He is as it turns out.

And it’s possible Jill not only knows it but knows it before we do.

After all, everybody in her world is telling her it’s so, telling her to be sure and stay on track, to not let this loser (nobody uses the word, not the girlfriends or the parents or the acting teacher, but they don’t have to and they know they don’t have to because Jill is one of them and the loser is a loser in part because he isn’t one of them and never can be) derail her!

But she’s drawn anyway. Resistant to the beats at first, then…not.

So how does she relate anyway?

Maybe because she senses what he sees in her, the part nobody in any group she already belongs to really gets:

“The object isn’t to have the biggest part,” Jill’s mom says.

“Yes it is,” Jill says, the day before she gets the biggest part and finds the Sheik in the parking lot, standing next to his hot rod (the Rat has the pink slip, it’s not even the Sheik’s style, but it’s his anyway, in the moment, because, like him, we don’t yet know how deep his losing streak will run), saying it’s too bad she didn’t get the lead.

“Kitty is the lead,” Jill says.

Five minutes later she’s handing her car keys to one of her waiting girlfriends, saying “You better drive,” because she and the Sheik have taken the first step on their journey, a whirl in the Ratmobile, and the air’s already getting thin.

But the way Rosanna Arquette says “Kitty is the lead,” is the key in the lock. There’s no hint of arrogance or dismissal of the Sheik’s ignorance. Jill senses instantly that the boy who spotted her in the hallway and stalked her in the lunchroom gets how important “the lead” is, in a way that her mother–and by extension, her mother’s world–doesn’t. She knows you can’t reach a dream by settling for second best and the boy who doesn’t know Kitty from catnip is becoming interesting because she’s starting to realize he wants her the way she wanted Kitty.

So it’s not “Kitty is the lead” you moron or “Kitty is the lead” how could you not know that. It’s “Kitty is the lead”….how did you know how much it would matter if she wasn’t?

It wasn’t an accident that plenty of smart people assumed Arquette would be the Actress of the Age based on this performance and neither she nor they can be faulted for not realizing, in 1983, that there would be no Age, that the new boss would simply go on being the old boss and the Eighties would never be allowed to either breathe or end. To see her here isn’t so much to cry for the career she might have had (a pretty good one actually) as for the world we might have had if we hadn’t been frozen and debilitated by a series of events which Baby It’s You implies does not necessarily preclude those common versions of “The Sixties” so often romanticized.

Unlike a lot of look-back movies made before and since. including Sayles’ own The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Baby It’s You isn’t nostalgic for lost idealism or even lost youth. It can’t be, because its characters not only don’t yet have a past to lose (that was true of American Graffiti, among others) they aren’t even certain the future will have a shape (as Graffiti’s did, even if that shape included real tragedy).

Upshot?

That future is all they can lose.

This being the case, nostalgia loses its appeal and even its considerable, if dangerously seductive, worth.

Baby It’s You isn’t merely alive to memory. It’s alive, period.

Given all that, I don’t know if there’s a certain irony in Arquette, a child of the sixties who literally played in the mud at Woodstock, embodying someone who is struggling to keep pace with a culture that’s changing at light speed, who senses how stunted and unfulfilled her world will be if she doesn’t manage to hold what the times have brought within her grasp.

It might be that having Woodstock in her memory bank was the key in her own lock. Baby It’s You takes place in 1966 and ’67, the last moment before the world Jill Rosen grew up in divided itself into a past that was closing in on itself and a future that never quite arrived, a division that was already clearly irreconcilable when Baby It’s You was being made and has only sharpened in the decades since.

Watching the movie now, it’s hard to miss the sense that this division was unavoidable. That the dreams Jill and the Sheik were nurtured on were unsustainable at any speed, let alone the headlong rush with which the culture Jill wants to join and the Sheik is determined to reject is not merely changing but falling apart.

Certainly the film does not let the sixties off the hook. By putting its finger on that precise Summer of Love moment when the first wave of era-defining Proper Nouns had passed (March on Washington, JFK Assassinated, Beatles on Sullivan, Dylan at Newport) and the cataclysm (Tet Offensive, RFK and MLK Assassinated, Chicago ’68, Days of Rage, Woodstock, Altamont) was still a held breath away, Baby It’s You let’s us in on the decade’s secret. There were a whole lot of Jills and not a few Sheiks, who lived their lives being hit by those events and whose own lives, liberated and betrayed in equal measure, were defined by their inability to hit back.

Just how remote that Official History could be is evident from none of these events being mentioned in a movie that defines the sixties like no other–as something not merely experienced or remembered but deeply felt and impossible to shake off, in either the individual or collective sense. Just how close by that History can still be is evident from our awareness of what the movie feels no need to mention.

To that end, the most poignant moment may not be the ending, when all of us, Jill, Sheik and anyone who’s been trucked in the watching, have to accept that dancing to a bad bar band’s version of “Strangers in the Night” at the Sarah Lawrence Spring Mixer with the crazy guy who was into Sinatra in high school and definitely going places until he realized he couldn’t even cut it lip-synching for the blue hairs in the Miami Beach resorts Jill’s parents once vacationed in, might be the best memory either one of them will ever have.

That scene is lovely and mysterious and open-ended, as fine as any not-quite-ending you’ll ever see. But once I started treating the movie like a favorite album, keeping it next to the DVD player for quick reference when the playback in my head started to skip or blur, it’s another scene, the one that’s most purely joyous on first contact, that soon becomes the saddest.

It’s just after Jill and Sheik’s first date. She’s driving those smart-ass girlfriends around and they start teasing her about the new guy, the hot guy, the mysterious guy, the guy who’s not part of their world (who, I should mention here, Spano plays with a verve and heart that guarantee Arquette will always have something to play against, no matter how deep she goes). Finally, they get around to chanting “Go-ing to the chap-el and we’re gon-na get ma-a-a-a-ried.” After a chorus, Jill joins in and the look on Arquette’s face goes every place. “Ridiculous!” that face says. “Not in a Million Years!” that face says. “As if!” that face says.

“Maybe…” that face says.

Maybe what?

Maybe a moll? Maybe somebody who can ditch high school and make the big bad world her oyster? Maybe somebody who could let her girlfriends in on the dizzying whirl from the metronomic haze of high school geometry to “Oh, come on, what am I supposed to be afraid of?” to “You are such a dope!” to “Come on, Rat’s waitin’ on us,” to “You hardly said two words to me all night,” to “You never been out with anybody like me, huh?” to first kiss to “See you in school then?”

Maybe somebody who won’t be a virgin too much longer if she can figure out how to keep the adults out of the equation?

Turns out that last part takes a year and not just any year but the one where you start out accepting that if you don’t find your dreams in high school there’s always college, and then discover that if you don’t find your dreams in college the world might turn out to be a whole lot bigger and badder than a place where the worst that ever happened was your girlfriend, who looked like a Shangri-La, tried to slash her wrists on prom night before confessing she slept with your boyfriend the night you played Kitty-the-lead.

Yeah, she finally makes it with the Sheik in Miami, by which time the beats–her life’s and the movie’s–have begun slowing down. And, instead of quickening, they begin to falter. Soon after, and not by coincidence, Jill’s back at college, getting high and banging frat boys she knows in her heart can’t hold the lip-syncher’s coat and banging even harder on him (“He’s such an asshole!”), using him for motivation in the therapy sessions led by her acting class’s Visiting Director (“one of the people who is reshaping American theater!”), who could care less if she makes it or gets the biggest part, just as long as she forgets everything she learned in high school before he cashes the semester’s last check.

Having seen the movie more than twice, that moment when the “maybes” are still in the air now lingers over everything. The limited dreams of going to the chapel, once deemed within every girl’s reach, have been replaced by the unlimited dreams which are bound to be reached by only a few and are no less enticing for that because, just like the small dreams, the big ones are kept right next to the nightmares, even if the sixties aren’t going on all around you.

And, as all of us, boy, girl or country, have discovered in the long night since, anything you survive, fades to gray with time.

Baby It’s You is definitely in my head.

I think I’ll try to get up now.

Maybe get back to watching old westerns and Gloria Grahame movies and reassembling my defenses.

NVE00466 NVE00467 NVE00468 NVE00469

 

MY FAVORITE SINATRA….NANCY IN ‘69 (Vocalist of the Month for 4/15: Nancy Sinatra)

THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?

NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)

FRANKANDNANCY

This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journalhere and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).

Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.

But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.

The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.

And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)

More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:

NANCYALBUM

Along about now, I should make two things clear.

First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.

Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”

What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.

And only me.

I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).

The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)

I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.

Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.

Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?

Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!

Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.

To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.

Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.

Boy was I wrong.

“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.

Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.

I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.

Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.

So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.

That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!

I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.

Except…

On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.

That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….

Well what?

Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.

How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.

I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.

I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.

So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.

So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.

In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.

And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…

…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.

Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.

Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.

Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”

Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.

So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.

 

STANDING TALL (Lesley Gore, R.I.P.)

LGORECOVER

“Tom Doniphon, you listen to me. Where I go and what I do is none of your business. You don’t own me!”

(Vera Miles to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–1962)

“Don’t tell me what to do/And don’t tell me what to say”

Lesley Gore “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

DI: Fans have always told you how important song has been to them. Are you making “a statement” even today?

LG: No question about it. It’s the one song – after some 40 years, I still close my show with that song because I can’t find anything stronger, to be honest with you. It’s a song that just kind of grows every time you do it. It might mean one thing one year and “boom,” two years later, boy it can mean something else.

(Digital Interviews with Lesley Gore, May, 2003)

When the late Charlie Gillett published the first important history of rock and roll in 1969, he dubbed the flood of hit records by young women from the early and mid-sixties “Girl Talk.” However problematic that phrase was, it was positively enlightened compared to the “girl group” moniker which gained currency soon after and has been used as short-hand ever since by everyone from the boys’ club that re-defined rock ‘n’ roll’s quasi-official narrative in Gillett’s wake in strict accord with their own needs to those doctrinaire feminist scholars who are so often in the habit of accepting all the wrong things.

One group that never accepted the term was a number of the “girl group” participants themselves.

I don’t know how Lesley Gore felt about it, but Arlene Smith (14 when she basically invented the concept with the Chantels), Mary Weiss (15 when she defined the apotheosis with the Shangri-Las) and others always saw themselves as a vital part of a larger tradition and always understood that the term was meant, consciously or subconsciously, to segregate them from that tradition.

As it happened, it worked to separate them by more than gender.

Make of it what you will, but no other “genre” name in rock and roll or any other form of music has ever needed to not only cordon off its practitioners by gender, but also further subdivide them by race, age, number and anything else that can be brought to bear.

This was made somewhat easier by an odd circumstance. With the exception of Weiss, all of the concept’s signature lead group voices, were black (Smith, Shirley Owens, Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves, Gladys Horton, Diana Ross, Darlene Love). Meanwhile, except for Dionne Warwick and Mary Wells, the signature solo voices were white (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Nancy Sinatra and, of course, Lesley Gore). So just in case gender wasn’t handy enough on its own, some of these voices could be conveniently cut from the bunch by race…or age…or number…or just vocal inclination.

Further divisions were managed by siphoning off various groups or singers into some other category (anything would do).

Wells, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were “Motown.” Clark, Springfield and Lulu (along with Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, big stars in England who had limited success in the States) were “British Invasion.” Warwick was “Supper Club Soul” or “Adult Contemporary.” Lee and Francis were “Teen Idols” (or “Countrypolitan” or just “Pop”) and so forth.

None of this was exactly untrue. I make the distinctions myself at times.

But the trick to the official rock and roll narrative was that, once separated from the already hidebound ethos, these outliers were never let back into their moment.

I mean, if you wanna start a fight with a Rock Critic, try calling Dionne Warwick (twenty-one when she recorded her first big hit) or Brenda Lee (fifteen when she recorded hers) a Girl Group singer.

The effect, when used in tandem with the “male-producer-as-svengali” syndrome I’ve addressed pretty relentlessly on this blog, was and is to blunt the force and magnitude of the first mighty surge of cultural power ever spear-headed by a collective of young women in the history of American music.

Or, for that matter, pretty much any age women anywhere.

In any cultural (as opposed to social or political) context.

Ever.

The effect of the “girl talk” moment, both as symbolism and underlying reality, was of that part of the audience which had fought their way to the front rows at Elvis and Jackie Wilson concerts in the fifties (and, yes, fainted at Frank Sinatra concerts in the forties, though in those days they mostly stayed in their seats), literally stepping forth from the audience and taking the stage themselves.

Few of them wrote their important hits (Smith and DeShannon were rare exceptions). Even fewer produced and none ever received proper credit. So, mostly, they seized the moment by singing.

Sing they did. Brenda Lee, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Darlene Love, Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss, Ronnie Spector, Jackie DeShannon. No genre, style or sensibility, however named, was ever graced with greater voices, and, amongst that cacophony, it fell to then seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore, she of the perfect pitch and Sarah Lawrence pedigree, to sing their anthem, the one record that most assuredly marked the future off from the past, even as the storm of the British Invasion (a genre, like any but the one Lesley Gore was slated into, where no distinction needed to be made between groups or individuals, men or women, teens or twenty-somethings, no matter how many of its acts were four or five guys with guitars) seemed to wash every other future away.

‘You Don’t Own Me,” (it’s title and ethos copped from a John Ford movie even in the unlikely event the songwriters never saw it) wasn’t her biggest hit.“It’s My Party” made #1, while “You Don’t Own Me” was stopped at #2 by the symbolic-as-hell and real-as-hell phenomenon that was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. It may not have even been her greatest vocal. I’m partial to “She’s a Fool” myself and there’s plenty of other competition.

But it’s the one that truly escaped time and found a life that was not and is not in any way bound by its original moment.

My memory plays tricks on me and I’ve never been able to track the quote down, but I’m willing to swear on anything you want that, somewhere, there’s an interview with Gore where she said it was also the one song she knew would be a hit.

When she was asked how she knew, she had a simple answer:

“Because I read my fan mail.”

Call her anything you want. Can’t mark the future off any plainer than that.

Time came for Lesley Gore today at 68.

Well…not really….

 

MY NEW FAVORITE SCENE…FROM ANY BOOK EVER (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #32)

THEDEADCIRCUS

I’m gonna be ripping Greil Marcus a new one here pretty soon (make that another new one and don’t worry, he’s once again earned it), but first I have to thank him for recommending John Kaye’s The Dead Circus (his recommendations are like his insights–he’s wrong a lot, but, when he’s right, he’s right enough to make it worth all the angst).

The novel is one of those attempts to plumb the depths of “the Sixties.” My meat, then, and I’d never heard of it until I was perusing the notes of Marcus’ latest.

But it’s not just any old attempt at said theme: It’s a really good one.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through and–except for the laughably rote “serious” sex scenes (Doesn’t anybody know how to write something besides a schlock-porn fantasy? I mean, normally, I have such low expectations I don’t even care how clunky the “aren’t-I-such-a-slut!” scenes are or how many times a word like “throb” is deployed. The eyes merely glaze. But in a novel this good these scenes are real groaners.)–it’s consistently compelling to say the least.

The core of the novel is an attempt to unriddle the mystery of Bobby Fuller’s death (a subject I touched on here). From there it goes literally everywhere, with the Manson Family figuring prominently….but nothing so far has touched my favorite scene, which happens on page 6.

The scene has an off-duty cop (an L.A. native who will soon be investigating Fuller’s “suicide/accident” and will be haunted by it for twenty years) and his brother, sitting in PJ’s on the night the Bobby Fuller Four began their legend-making stint as the house band. At a table between them and the stage sits Nancy Sinatra. The brother (named Ray Burk) recalls a disastrous single date he had with Nancy when they were seniors in high school–a date which ended with him passed out at a wild party and her having to walk home because she couldn’t get a ride. Sitting in PJ’s–in a scene where Fuller’s manager has just been warned by a local mobster that “Frank” doesn’t like what’s going on between Bobby and his daughter–Ray Burk remembers:

At school on Monday Ray saw her in the cafeteria and tried to apologize, but she moved her head in denial, continuing to talk to her girlfriends as if he weren’t there. Then, just when he was about to give up, she turned her face toward him, and he could see the hostility in her stony eyes.

“Ray Burk,” she said, her icy smile only making his anguish worse, “you have no idea how lucky you are.”

“I don’t?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t tell my dad.”

A few pages later, a future Manson girl is backstage, telling an unknown starlet named Sharon Tate that she’ll definitely be a movie star…

Really, I can’t wait to see how it ends.

Like this…

or this…

 

MICK AND NEIL AND THE MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY (Segue Of The Day : 5/26/14)

I’ve been thinking a lot about ballads lately. By “a lot” I guess I mean, even more than usual.

The more than usual bit kicked in around a week or so ago, when I listened to a couple of “Ballads” comps from Hip-O Select’s series of such. Hearing their James Brown collection for the first time–and being blown away by it, by the fact that this was about the tenth best thing we think of when we think of James Brown and that it’s both mind-blowing and past any easy exegesis–led me to the other disc I have from the series, which is a similarly staggering set from Brenda Lee.

And all of that got me to thinking–or remembering–that the real reason rock and roll took over the world for thirty-plus years wasn’t just because the fast and loud singers got better (as opposed to just faster and louder, which is what the common narrative would have us believe) but because the ballad singers got better, too.

I know, I know. Me on my high horse again, contending that Tony Williams and Jackie Wilson and Roy Orbison went places even Doris Day and Nat “King” Cole (my picks for the greatest pre-rock balladeers) simply couldn’t go. Once more admitting I’d rather listen to Clyde McPhatter than Billie Holiday (great as she is) or Elvis in full-on strings-and-horns mode over Sinatra being eminently tasteful (or enervated, depending on your perspective).

What can I say? Guilty as charged.

But this recent bout of contemplatin’ got me wondering just how deep the divide really runs. I mean, how many rock and roll balladeers would I have to list before I got to a pop singer (we’ll leave country and gospel out of this for now–though I’ll say they are a lot closer to the spirit of rock and roll than Tin Pan Alley and some heavy Don Gibson time these past few weeks has certainly brought home just how much closer)?

I decided it would run pretty deep. I didn’t make a list or anything, but–given the modern definition of “ballad,” which is pretty much anything that tries to pack an emotional wallop into a slow tempo–I’m guessing I might get to thirty or forty before I even started considering any Pop singers besides Doris and Nat, and maybe fifty or more before I actually put another one in place.

Even after all that, it turned out I wasn’t quite through, because yesterday, on the daily run to the grocery store (hey, it gets me out of the house, which, believe me, I need)–I turned to an actual music station for the first time in about a month and ran into the Rolling Stones’ doing “Angie” (#1 in 1973–their last except for the disco-ish “Miss You” in 1978) backed up by Neil Young doing “Heart of Gold” (his sole #1, from 1972).

It happens I wasn’t really thinking of Mick Jagger or Mr. Young for my “top balladeer” list. And you have to use that stretcher of a definition I cited above to really call these ballads. But they do demonstrate the depth of field that was operating at rock’s high tide.

As it also happens, I have some emotional ties to both.

“Heart of Gold,” always brings back rides to baseball practice in the spring of ’72. I was eleven. My dad worked in the afternoons. My mom didn’t drive. The baseball fields weren’t anywhere near my school. Nobody on the team lived near me. That meant I was riding with my brother-in-law, who would pick me up on his way from Titusville to Merritt  Island every afternoon and deposit me at the practice fields about twenty minutes late, where I would get dirty looks from all the coaches and most of my fellow players even though everybody knew I didn’t have a choice. Male bonding!

That was the year I almost quit baseball–five years before it quit me. Mixed memories to say the least and I can understand why my brother-in-law doesn’t remember it. Sometimes I’d like to forget itmyself. But “Heart of Gold” played on the local Top 40 station every day that spring at the same time on the late rides into practice and I seldom encounter it without thinking of those times and smiling a little over how long it took me to become a Neil Young fan!

“Angie” was sort of wrapped up in male bonding, too. Or maybe I should call it male anti-bonding. It was the first Rolling Stones’ single I bought (from one of those oldies’ bins I had started to haunt, some time in the late seventies) and one of the first songs I ever had to “defend” in one of those snark-fests young males get into when they are calling each other’s tastes into serious question.

The extent of my defense was not exactly the stuff high school legends are made of. Following a rather lengthy rant from the other guys about how there was this really great, slow, acoustic guitar playing and then Mick had to start whining and make everybody want to puke, I think my response basically amounted to “Hey, I like it. Sounds good to me.” That and a little smirk that was designed to suggest I just might be onto something. End of discussion!

I learned early. The more mysterious the better.

So, whenever I heard “Angie” through the years–and I’m pretty sure, given the proximity of their release dates, that it and “Heart of Gold” have been chasing each other around quite a bit over these four decades–I mostly thought about the weirdness of me sticking up for a record by the Stones (about whom I have always maintained a certain ambivalence) against rabid Stones lovers who happened to hate the first Stones’ record I loved.

Then, on September 11, 2002–the first anniversary of you know what, when it was already evident that “you know what” was not going to be taken seriously and that, except for the soldiers we asked to get shot and blown up for the privilege of accepting our “thanks,” we really were all going to go shopping and let it go at that–I was riding around, listening to the radio, and heard those acoustic guitar chords my long-ago debate club buddies had praised, not because they liked beautiful acoustic guitar lines (trust me, they didn’t) but because whatever Keith did was cool (even if it was just duet-ing with Mick Taylor) crawling through my speakers.

The song changed for me in that instant.

Listening to Mick sing it that day didn’t change it back.

It just cemented the change in place. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years, just what/who the song was about. I’ve read that “Angie” was supposed to be Marianne Faithful, Angie Harmon, Keith’s daughter and none of the above.

Take your pick.

As for me: From September 11, 2002, to now it’s always been about the sound of goodbye and, whatever it was supposed to “mean,” I’ve also developed a sneaking suspicion that the what/who Mick Jagger was really saying goodbye to was himself.

There has certainly never been any recorded evidence on this side of the divide that the man who was responsible for so much transcendent  music that had been recorded in the previous decade still exists.

So here’s to our nation of shoppers.

Goodbye us.

 

MY VERY FIRST OFFICIAL CD REVIEW (The Paley Brothers Help Me Define How I Really Feel About Certain Things…Or Something Like That)

The Paley Brothers: The Complete Recordings

(NOTE: The Paley Brothers were a sibling harmony duo who released an album and a few singles at the height of the Do It Yourself Punk/New Wave moment in the late seventies. Their complete recordings, including some previously unissued and live tracks are now available. This is the first time I’ve ever formally reviewed a CD. Somebody was kind enough to send me a review copy so, of course, since I was obligated to write about it, it fell into that most difficult of categories–Liked-it-didn’t-love-it-even-though-I-really-wanted-to. Still, thinking about it like a “reviewer” provided an interesting experience. Unlike books or movies, which require a certain level of engagement, music can and should be experienced both deeply and casually. Hence I tried on a mix of close attention and having it on in the background over the course of several weeks. It never really grabbed me…but it did leave me with a few things to say.)

The Paley Brothers were one of those “can’t miss” acts who missed. They were slated Power Pop–a genre that never quite seemed to live up to its potential in any case–but I hear as much Retro (along the lines of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) as anything. As much Fifties as Sixties in other words.

That’s hardly a bad thing. The Paleys were certainly skilled as both writers and singers–enough that I can readily understand the cult that’s developed around these recordings even if I can’t quite join it.

I’m left on the outside by, among other things, my aversion to half-formulas.

Pop, I hear, in every second.

Power? Not so much. And, unfortunately, whatever the marketing label, all first class Pop needs it, a lesson the DIY brand the Paleys specialized in failed to learn in general.

Having said all that, I can’t deny that these recordings are quite good as knockoffs (or that I have a fondness for knockoffs). And the Brothers certainly had pedigree, or, at very least, connections. They recorded most of these sides in either the Beach Boys’ own Brother Studios or Ardent Studios in Memphis (home of Power Pop avatars, Big Star).

You can read those kind of details in the very engaging liner notes which are actually the best thing about this package. But in the end, all that information does is re-emphasize how the best Power Pop (or Retro) bands always added a little something (if not a whole lotta something). And it was that extra something–not the imitative elements–that made the Raspberries or Badfinger or Cheap Trick or Big Star or, yes, I insist, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids–special.

The Paleys, on the other hand, do some perfect imitations (especially of the Everly Brothers and late period Beach Boys, though on “Too Good to Be True,” they sneak in a Bobby Fuller Four Vibe that is perfect in every respect except for their keeping their distance in a way Fuller never would have imagined even when he was throwing one of his occasional change-ups), or, sometimes, perfect-imitations-of-imitations like a live cover of Tommy Roe’s “Sheila” which itself was a top-notch Buddy Holly homage.

To be fair, the Paleys did do a bit of anticipating as well. But it was of future Retro acts like Shaun Cassidy (who they would end up touring with) and the Stray Cats (1979’s “She’s Eighteen Tonight” could be a template for that band’s entire career). And those acts would be just that little bit better–or maybe just that little bit more focused–that is so often the difference between hitting and missing.

I do hear a lot of passion in the Paleys music, especially the vocals. But in the end, their records were always let down by something. Strange to say, given that Andy Paley went on to become a big-time producer, but there are several sides here I can imagine taking off if only a little more care or imagination had been applied to some particular element of studio-craft: “You’re the Best” and “Runnin’ In the Rain” have great melodies and fine vocals but are built around seriously undercooked arrangements (a common problem with the entire DIY movement, actually, given that arrangements are the life-blood of all great Pop) while “Magic Power” which does have a strong arrangement is dragged down by an uncharacteristically misguided lead vocal.

And–background or foreground–so it goes with this entire record and with my first exposure to the Paley Brothers. They chased after so many bits of other people’s genius that they never quite found their own.

Granted, they wore their influences so proudly on their sleeves that it amounted to a kind of integrity. But it also added up to a sound with no strong central focus. That’s what separates them from bands like the Raspberries or Badfinger, who had hits by getting within shouting distance of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. And I suspect it’s the missing ingredient, as well, that prevented them from producing a single transcendent track after the manner of Starz’ “Cherry Baby” or Sniff N’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat”, which at least scraped the Top 40 by getting within shouting distance of the Raspberries.

So I guess at bottom I can hear how something bigger might have happened for the Paleys with a small twist of fate here or there.

But, even on their magnum opus “Can You Come Out and Play,” I can also hear why it didn’t.

And in this latter, there is a certain poignance and even relevance.

If “Can You Come Out and Play” had as much vocal impact on Shaun Cassidy as I suspect, then that’s reason enough for the Paleys’ recordings–and this package–to exist. I mean, you can take my Sinatra records (well, Frank’s anyway) and do with them what you will, but you’ll have to pry “That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie” from my cold dead fingers.

The heartfelt liner-note tribute from Seymour Stein, the Sire Records label head who signed the Paleys, believed in them and stood by them as long as possible, shows how much good will and real respect they generated.

There is some real love for them there and in a lot of the quotes from other big-timers as well–not to mention a lot of positive-to-rave reviews in the here and now.

They clearly had some sort of magic.

I only wish I could honestly say it translated to my own ears.

 

“YOU KNOW HOW IT FEELS, YOU UNDERSTAND, WHAT IT IS TO BE A STRANGER IN THIS UNFRIENDLY LAND….” (Bobby “Blue” Bland, RIP)

He was often called “the Sinatra of the blues.” Nice marketing phrase, I guess, but, personally, I always thought it sold him short. For all their famously shared love of meticulous phrasing, Bobby “Blue” Bland went over and over again to places neither Sinatra or any other saloon singer ever dreamed of going–places where, for that matter, few singers ever go, irrespective of marketing category.

If those places need further definition, then the best I can come up with is to suggest that they can only be found in the land that marks the difference between soothing and healing.

Between, you know, how far saloon singing can actually reach and the epic side of the blues, which, in the hands of its few titans, always carries the history of nations in the same bag as the darkest nights and (lest we forget) brightest suns of an individual soul.

Even among the titans, there are a chosen few–those who become the markers and standards for everyone else. American music has probably produced no more than a dozen such. Bobby Bland, who died today at the age of 83, was one of them. He was virtually alone in his ability to shift–often within a single couplet–from the most delicate crooning to the hoarsest shout and then back again without a hint of strain, all while rarely, if ever, losing himself in the standard excesses of false modesty and restraint (the bane of “pop” singers) or over-emoting (the bane of gospel and soul singers).

I’ll probably be listening to him a lot in the next few days (not an unusual occurrence at my house in any case, but the finality of death does focus the mind).

And “Lead Me On” and “Two Steps From the Blues” and “Farther Up the Road” and “I Pity the Fool” and all the others will surely come around:

But, for today, I figure I may as well start here, with the most appropriate title of all:

Bobby “Blue” Bland, “Cry, Cry, Cry” (Studio Recording)