AND THEN GOD TURNED HIS BACK (Prince, R.I.P.)

prince3

This dreary year’s death train rolls on. No music links. You can find the awesome, if by now somewhat cliched, live stuff (“Purple Rain” at the Superbowl, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at  George Harrison’s RRHOF induction) on YouTube, but, beyond that, you’ll need to be more tech savvy than I am. Generally speaking, the man was obsessive about his copyrights, a capitalist with a capital “C.”.

If I could play something, it would be “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” which, in a way, tells the whole story of both his boundless narcissism (because you knew part of him was lying) and his keen empathy (because you knew some other part of him was telling a hard truth in spite of himself).

If I had to pick any one album it would be Dirty Mind.

You know: “Black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody just a freakin’. Good times were rollin‘!”

But, really, mirror shades are sometimes worth a thousand words:

prince2

I hope Jehovah, if He does turn around, can see through His own reflection tonight. I’m sure Jimi and James could use the company. It’s not every day somebody comes through the Gate who can look them in the eye.

LIFE ON MARS…THE MORNING AFTER (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #68)

I was severely disappointed last night  when, after Donald Trump danced on the Republican Establishmentarians’ pointy heads in New Hampshire, he failed to kick off his victory speech with a blast of this…

Figured he had chickened out (which fact really would make him worthless even as entertainment).

But then I woke up (more or less) this morning and caught a replay. Turned out I had missed it. There he was walking out again and there it was, blasting away, as I could swear it had not done before, pimping the brand like a Nike commercial.

.Maybe I missed it the night before or maybe the networks did.

Maybe somebody in the CNN production booth layered it in overnight.

Or maybe I dreamed last night and this morning.

Who knows?

Anyway, fresh from dancing on the Democratic Establishmentarians’ flat, furrowed heads, Bernie Sanders would be well-advised to move fast and co-opt the White Album version–I mean if he’s gonna compete, he needs to start coming up with answer records now!

Sorry, but Phish ain’t gonna cut it.

And don’t worry about the words–whether or not “destruction” is “out” or “in” or “out….in.”

It’s the sound that matters.

Punch me!….Soothe me….Punch me!….Soothe me…

Come on boys. Is that all you got!

To this end, I actually wanted to suggest this for Bernie instead…

but it seems John Kasich is already using it on his bus (no fool he, right down to keeping it on the bus…keep an eye on that one).

I have no dog in the hunt, but if we’re gonna go down, we ought to at least do down swinging!

Why not go ahead and acknowledge that time has actually stood still since sixty-nine? It does, after all, feel like years since it’s been clear.

Anyway, the stage is set. And the first man to rally the troops with a round of this…

gets my vote!

Or at least gets me to take my thumb out from under my nose.

ALTERNATIVE VISIONS (Segue of the Day: 11/26/15…Thanksgiving Edition!)

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JACKIE1

I’ve been playing around for awhile with a concept I’m calling Modern Disintegration Blues, a kind of record in which artists from across the musical spectrum, acting with or without premeditation, capture the Zeitgeist that best represents the arc of the developed world in my lifetime.

Yes, it’s just as much fun as it sounds.

Anyway, I’ve been limiting it to records from this century and up until the listening jags inspired by my pill-induced stupors of the last two weeks (and boy does this disintegrating world offer up the pills!) I had discovered a nice round number of two: Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul II  (2009) and the Roots’ Undun (2011), which, for the last year and half or so, I’ve taken to listening to almost exclusively in tandem

I should mention that the concept is also limited to records by artists who have or have had some kind of following. No cult acts allowed, however brilliant.  You want to define a Zeitgeist, I want you to at least have a gold record or two on your wall, even if they don’t include the MDB albums themselves.

I should also mention that, given my lack of engagement with the music of this century generally (a lack enforced more by budgets and time than a willingness to keep up, though a little of the latter has crept in of late), there could be dozens of such albums out there, yes, even by popular acts, that I simply don’t know about.

Maybe I should also mention that every time Marcus or Christgau suggest something that sounds like it might be up this little alley, I rush to YouTube. Let’s just say the results have not inspired me to make out new budgets.

Anyway, during the early stages of my semi-convalescence last week, I developed an acquaintance with Tom Petty’s Echo, which pretty clearly pushes the concept back to 1996. It has the same kind of “better stop dreaming and concentrate strictly on survival” vibe and, except for a couple of cuts, is delivered as a dirge. In 1996, that was pretty visionary for a guy known for hooks, hits and staying on the surface.

So I started wondering just how far back the idea might stretch. And while I can’t say I’ve thought of anything else that fits all the specifics of my little concept, I’m currently sold on Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1972) as a likely starting point and definite subject for further research. Like, maybe I don’t know it as well as I thought!

I might write about any or all of those albums later and I might develop the concept a lot further or not at all. Who can say where the mind will wander if I manage to wean myself off of my ibuprofen habit?

What I want to write about today, though, as a kind of tangent, was where the search led me next, which was a place where I was listening to Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) and Jackie DeShannon’s Jackie (1972), partly because I was already groping around in the early seventies, partly because I love both albums unconditionally and think they’re among the greatest ever made (one acknowledged, one unacknowledged and you probably already know which is which, though if you  don’t and follow this blog, you can definitely guess), and partly because they sit right next to each other on the CD shelf, which means every time I pull one, I’m reminded of the other.

Mostly, though, I wanted to write about them because, in their current incarnations, they represent an aspect of modernity that need not be depressing.

There’s certainly room for disagreement on this–God knows I love vinyl–but the ability to turn a four-sided double-LP like Layla into one long, uninterrupted listening experience seems an unmitigated good. And the ability to change a really good album like Jackie (released as one LP with twelve cuts back when) into a monumental, seamless 24-cut epic is basically a godsend.

Both albums seem bigger frankly (and I wouldn’t have thought, back in the day, that Layla could seem bigger) because of what modern technology–not a small factor in the Disintegration Blues–has made, or remade, of them.

There’s a sense of loss, of course, deep in the bones of both LPs, whatever the format. Eric Clapton made the best music of his life, the only sustained music that was truly free, because he told his best friend’s wife if she didn’t leave her husband, he would become a heroin addict, which he proceeded to do.

That the woman in question and the friend in question, this woman and this friend as it happened…

PATTIEBOYD

were Pattie Boyd and George Harrison and that she eventually did leave him for one Eric Clapton, who then actually married her only as an extremely cheap and nasty publicity stunt (you can get the details in her autobiography, which I reviewed here), gives the story an epic sheen, of course. But any gossipy glamour has long worn away and what’s left is a man who sounds like he won’t get out of this moment. Just about everybody has acknowledged that “Layla” sounds like that, just as absolutely everybody knows “Layla” is specifically about Pattie Boyd.

What’s weird is how obvious it is that the whole album sounds like that and the whole album is about her–including the covers–and how little that is acknowledged. I mean, to read Wikipedia these days (and think what you want, but it does an excellent job of reflecting the common wisdom), you’d think Boyd was only tangential to “Layla” itself, forget “Bell Bottom Blues” or “Anyday,” or pretty much everything else. And forget that Eric Clapton never sounded like this, before or since, for more than a minute or two.

What’s doubly weird is that I could imagine pushing the date back another couple of years and making Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs the foundation of my Modern Disintegration Blues concept. Even knowing that Eric Clapton was basically a jerk and his mad love was as much an ego-driven whine as a desolate blast of passion doesn’t take the edge off. It’s always possible the world’s disintegration can emerge from one man’s version of it within himself.

Which kind of makes this woman even more valuable…

JACKIEDESHANNON1

I’m not sure where she would place in a carefully considered “sanest person of the sixties” list, but I bet it wouldn’t be outside the top three.

She was just as sane in 1972 and ’73, when the tracks that now make up the Rhino Handmade version of Jackie were recorded. It didn’t do much business in its time (the second set of tracks was supposed to comprise a new album which Atlantic promptly shelved) and it hasn’t done much since. Nor did it yield one of DeShannon’s periodic hits-for-others.

And its not really disintegrative. More like a restorative. The kind of album you listen to after Layla or There’s a Riot Goin’ On or Echo or Undun or Mountain Soul II.

That’s weird, too. Because it aches from every groove or chip or beam or whatever mechanism now applies. And yeah, it’s probably the best album she ever made, but it’s of a piece, too, with her entire luminous career.

She didn’t need to blackmail her best friend’s husband to reach her version of transcendence. She just needed to be.

You can guess which artist is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times and which is still waiting.

Then you can join me in wondering where the Modern Disintegration Blues really begins.

Happy Thanksgiving!

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Seventeenth)

[Program Note: Neal Umphred and I are scheduled to continue our Elvis discussion over at his place some time in the next few days. I’ll link over when it begins and periodically when we update. Meanwhile….]

“But my modest suggestion is that this may be where the first wave of rock broke and fell back, why in its first great push it never quite reached the shore to cover the earth; there was no unifying talent complete and obsessive enough to work the transformation it made its fan desire.

“Its geniuses could not do all it took. Elvis was early rock’s godhead and figure of broadest appeal; though his audiences remained segregated, he was the first to suggest such a broad comity of taste among people who presumably had nothing to say to one another. But from the start there was lard at the heart of his judgment (the ersatz jazz of “Heartbreak Hotel”), schmaltz in the boil (“Love Me Tender”), and aside from two aberrant skirmishes with need and doubt in later years (his 1968 comeback music, side one of How Great Thou Art) he did not extend his pioneer moves into music of psychological complexity.”
(Source: Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, Devin McKinney, 2003)
 Let me start with a little disclaimer. I think I’ve made the point before, but “stupid stuff” said about Elvis isn’t always said by stupid people. Frequently, it’s said by very smart people, Devin McKinney being a prime example. I’m about half-way through this book and I was led to it by McKinney’s more recent book on Henry Fonda, which is excellent and which I reviewed here.
On top of all that, Magic Circles, being about the Beatles, is mostly superb, and always provocative, when it sticks to the Beatles. I’m sure I’ll have something extensive and every likely quite positive to say about it when I’m finished.
That said…
There’s a style of rock criticism (I’d call it the dominant style) which feels the need to slay the Elvis Dragon so that the Beatles-as-God-Theory-of-Everything might live. This style, unsupported by evidence or rationality, has lasted so long, acquired so much real depth and nuance, and taken such deep hold on so many fine minds, that it should probably be labeled a syndrome and have its own pseudo-scientific name. I’m not in a creative mood right now so I’ll pass on the opportunity but if anyone else wants to jump in with a suggestion, feel free.
One element of the syndrome–if syndrome it be–is that the Beatles were somehow “bigger” than Elvis, here exemplified by phrases like: They “covered the earth”  (as he did not). They were “a unifying talent complete and obsessive enough to work the transformation,” i.e., the transformation the syndrome deems valuable (as he was not). And while “His audiences remained segregated”….theirs did not.
And, oh by the way, (merely implied here but made explicit in the main text of the book) they were unquestioned musical geniuses with real vision.
His music and vision were suspect “from the start.” Any  later, lasting, achievements were, of course, “aberrant.”
(Yes, this is all old stuff around here, but there’s a twist: While McKinney expends the most print on Elvis, he is even more dismissive of the other fifties’ giants. At one point he describes the Everly Brothers–the most important harmony singers of the twentieth century and, oh-by-the-way, the most significant specific musical influence on the Beatles after, you know, Elvis–as “minor.”…but we’ll leave that for another day.)
For the record: 
There’s no objective evidence that the Beatles were “bigger” than Elvis. What we can say with certainty is that they held much greater appeal for the intelligentsia.
Outside of academia and its attendant, late-sixties, branch-n-root in the counterculture, there’s no part of the earth he didn’t cover that they did cover. One rather significant part of the earth that he reached and they did not was Black America, which rejected the Beatles completely, (that is, if we’re to go by the only somewhat objective measure we have, which is the record charts, where they never placed a single record on any R&B chart, while Elvis, somehow appealing to his segregated-in-southern-concert-halls audience, was the second ranked R&B performer of the fifties’ after Fats Domino, who, as it happens, McKinney also thinks was no big deal). Another rather significant part of the earth he covered quite a bit more thoroughly than the Beatles was Hillbilly America, which at the time, was still quite a large chunk of the population and the culture, but we’ll give that a flyer, since Elvis had the distinctly unfair advantage of being one of them.
Later in the book, McKinney has to strain quite a bit to give the Beatles some relevance to black people and the civil rights era and I mention it only because, once his false premise is out of the way, he doesn’t strain much. Basically his argument there amounts to the Klan outright despising the Beatles, especially after John Lennon’s “we’re bigger than Jesus” moment (which, ironically enough, McKinney writes about with real verve and insight).
Upshot: they were important to Black America even though, on the evidence, few black people bought their records and they weren’t prone to demonstrating much public zeal on the matter.
The logic, so far as I could follow it, is that the Beatles had to be important to the burning issue of the day because…well, because they were the Beatles. And hence, by definition, way more significant than Elvis, a product of the segregated south who had smashed the race barrier ten years earlier in an unprecedented and wholly unpredictable, but nonetheless absent-minded and rather accidental fashion, which didn’t require any “music of psychological complexity,” then or later.
Or something like that.
To which I can only say, yet again, that among the people who realized there were no Beatles without Elvis were, you know, the Beatles.
From Liverpool, England.
A part of the earth the lard-hearted Elvis had evidently covered after all.
You don’t even need John Lennon’s “Before Elvis there was nothing,” to prove it.
You could just go with this:
“I didn’t have any. The only root I can think of is one day riding my bike down a street in Liverpool and hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ playing out of an open window.”
(George Harrison, asked about his musical influences in George Harrison: Living In the Material World, 2011)
 Or maybe this:

 

 

EVERYTHING I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW, I LEARNED FROM ROCK AND ROLL (Lesson #1: Just like Ronnie Said)

[NOTE: It’s been a while since I started a new category….Some of my friends are gonna be surprised that this wasn’t the name of my very first category….You know who you are! Any way, this category will be loosely defined as relating today’s headlines to the people-oriented history of rock and roll I try to emphasize in general….So it might get hairy at times.]

RONNIESPECTOR2

When Ronnie Bennett (at the left above) auditioned for Phil Spector (seated) with her vocal group (already called the Ronettes and here pictured with George Harrison and English publicist Tony King) Spector leaped off his piano bench and said. “Stop….That’s it. That is it.”

He was referring to what John Lennon would later call “the Voice.” and he very specifically meant the voice he had been waiting–and hoping–to find.

It was that voice–not, as has so often been assumed and reported, Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” production technique–that so captivated the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson when he first heard “Be My Baby” that it instantly became the standard by which he would measure the rest of his life (not to mention all that glorious music).

As Ronnie Spector, then, she became a legend and one of the most important vocalists of the rock and roll era.

Then she went away.

There were reasons.

She divorced Phil Spector in 1972.

He had forced her to quit performing years before. He had also kept her effectively locked up as a prisoner in his L.A. mansion. When she finally made her terrified break, it was running…on bare feet lest her shoes make noise on the driveway pavement.

In light of the daily reports this past couple of weeks concerning various forms of abuse directed at women and children (when she met Spector she was seventeen and so essentially both) by celebrity athletes, it’s worth remembering the price she paid. For anyone who had been paying attention, Spector’s eventual murder of Lana Clarkson was no more surprising than the recent video of Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice cold-cocking his wife-to-be in a casino elevator. For some, the obvious is never really obvious unless they see it with their own eyes….or the body on the floor is actually dead (as opposed to merely knocked stone cold, as Rice’s wife-to-be clearly had been in the previously released video which did not show the actual punch). For the rest of us, the obvious is, well, obvious.

Twas ever thus.

The following is from Ronnie Spector’s autobiography, Be My Baby, which (as told to Vince Waldron) was published in 1990. It’s one of the finest–and most unflinching–of all rock and roll memoirs, not least because she told the world that, no, Phil Spector, didn’t coach her singing (he was a superb talent scout before he was anything else) and that, yes, he was very, very dangerous.

RONNIESPECTOR

After our successes at Madison Square Garden and the Baths, I continued doing concerts with the girls through the rest of 1974. But nothing ever matched the excitement of those shows. We spent most of our time marching in and out of oldies revues, and that got pretty depressing after a while. I was barely thirty years old and everywhere I went people were calling me an oldie but goodie.

It drove me crazy–and it sure didn’t help my drinking problem any. I used to stand backstage at these rock and roll revivals and cringe when the emcee announced us as oldies singers. I’d be standing off in the dark somewhere in the wings and raise my Dixie Cup of vodka and Coke in a silent toast. “Here’s to little Ronnie Spector,” I’d whisper to myself. “An oldie. But a goodie!” I’d say it as a joke, but I can tell you there was nothing funny about it.

Whether it was for good or bad, my oldies career finally came to an end during the holiday season of 1974. That was the year Dick Clark signed the Ronettes to take part in a rock and roll revival show he was staging at the Flamingo Hotel. And I’ll never forget my nightmare in Las Vegas.

It was great to be working with Dick Clark again–his shows were always professionally run, and this was no exception. I rehearsed my numbers with Chip and Denise on stage in the late afternoon and we were dynamite. Dick and everyone on his staff were predicting that Vegas would be the start of a whole new career for the Ronettes.

And when I finally saw our name up in lights outside the casino, I began to think so, too. They do everything about ten times bigger than life in Vegas. So naturally, the marquee outside the hotel was about a hundred feet tall, with the names of all the groups in the show spelled out in letters twelve feet high. I’d never seen “The Ronettes” spelled out that big, and I loved it.

Dick gave us a dinner break between the afternoon rehearsal and our first evening show, so I took the elevator back up to my room to rest up. I was so high from the excitement that I didn’t think anything could bring me down. Then the phone rang.

“It’s me,” the voice said. He didn’t bother identifying himself. He didn’t need to.

“Phil?” I hadn’t spoke to him in so long that I actually thought he might be calling me to wish me well on the show.

“Veronica,” he said. “What in God’s name makes you think you’re ready to play Vegas?”

I should have known Phil would be up to his same old tricks. “Okay,” I said. “Is that all you called for?”

“No,” he said. “I just wanted to give you fair warning that tonight could be the last time you appear on stage in Las Vegas. Or anywhere else.”

He was talking so calmly, for a minute I actually thought that he was saying something sensible, and that I was the one confused. “What ARE you talking about?”

“I always said I’d kill you if you left me,” he explained. “And tonight I’m making good on that promise. In two hours you will be assassinated on stage at the Flamingo Hotel.”

“I’m calling the cops Phil,” I told him. “If you even try to set foot in the Flamingo, I’ll have you arrested.” I tried to stand up to him, but he just laughed in my ear. It was a sound that went right down my spine.

“You don’t think I’d be stupid enough to pull the trigger?” he said. “That’s what I pay hit men for. And I’ve hired six of them on this job. Three black and three white. You might spot one, but you’ll never be able to get them all. They’ll be at your show tonight, and I’ve offered a million-dollar bonus to the one who shoots the bullet that does the job.”

I dropped the phone like it was a dried fish and ran out of the room. I figured the whole think was just one of Phil’s dumb jokes, but it still scared the hell out of me. One thing I knew about Phil is that you couldn’t second-guess him. What if today was the day the guy finally did crack up?

I decided to find Dick Clark and get his advice. But by the time I got down to the showroom, he was already gone. I walked through the casino with my hands shaking so bad I knew I had to get something to calm me down before I rattled myself to pieces. So I walked into the bar for one quick drink. But in those days they were never quick. And it was never just one.

I grabbed my nose and sucked down a vodka and tonic, then I set my hands down on the bar. They were still shivering. “One more,” I told the bartender. I felt so much better after the second drink that I was sure a third would do the trick. Five vodka and tonics later, my problem was solved. I no longer had to figure out whether to go through with the show or not. Dick Clark would make that decision for me.

He tried to look the other way when I stumbled into the backstage area that night. But Dick couldn’t ignore the fact that I was too drunk to make it through even one verse of “Walking in the Rain,” at the final dress rehearsal. “Ronnie,” he said, steering me over to a quiet corner backstage. “You’re in no shape to go on tonight. I’m sending you up to your room.”

Dick Clark and I go way back–I did my first national TV appearance on his show. So when I saw that glint of disappointment in his eyes, that hurt almost as much as being fired.

“I’m sorry, Dick,” I slurred. “I just didn’t want the hit men to get me.” I was trying to give him an explanation, but it was useless. He had no idea what I was talking about, and he had better things to do than listen.

….that little incident pretty much killed the Ronettes as an oldies act.

Not in our hearts, though…Never in our hearts:

 

 

THE BRITISH INVASION (Great Vocal Events In Rock and Roll History, Volume 1)

Okay, back to the mission here with a new category.

Yes, this past week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles arriving in America, but it also, of course, marks the same anniversary of the beginning of what came, almost instantly, to be called the “second British Invasion” and then came (in the instant after that) to be called the British Invasion.

For shorthand historical purposes, this latter phrase has ever since referred to the tide of British acts who followed immediately in the Beatles path to success in America. Like pretty much every other rock and roll moment/movement between the early fifties and the early nineties, this “British Invasion” was, first and foremost, carried along by singers. It might seem self-evident that this is so, but most of what’s ever been written about the great changes the Beatles (and the Invasion in general) wrought have tended to focus on anything but singing, focusing instead on the rise of self-contained bands, the genius of the best bands being defined as those who wrote the best songs, the veneration of guitar gods, how witty and engaging some of the lads were in press conferences, whether the Beatles really were bigger than Jesus and so forth.

But the British Invasion finally rose and fell on great singing, just like nearly every other significant development in rock history before and after. So I thought I’d round up a list of some of the key vocal performances from 1964–66 that set the standards–and the limits–of just how far this thing proved it could go as commerce and/or art.

I think I included every really formidable singer from the Invasion proper who had any success at all on this side of the pond, though, of course, most of these made many other great records, so bear in mind this is only a representative sample. (I listed lead singers for groups and harmony singers where I thought they added something significant to the record. Also, where possible, I tried to find some interesting live version of the song in question for a link. But if you only want to close your eyes and listen to one, I’d recommend “It’s My Life” which is played off the original 45 and sounds superior to any CD mix I’ve heard.)

[Final note: This list is very roughly chronological but it’s really more about the gradual opening up of psychic space, as opposed to dates on a calendar….If you want to believe that’s code for “I’m way too lazy to look up every single one of these recording dates!” well, I won’t exactly give you an argument.]

“I Want To Hold Your Hand”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals): The kick-starter and a true update of the Everlys, with John and Paul as indistinguishable from each other’s heartbeats as they would ever be on record. They were never able to repeat the magic of this one live because (at least in every performance I’ve seen) they always stood at separate mikes and rather far apart. Fortunately for us, them and the world, the space they clearly needed on stage disappeared in the recording studio.

“She Loves You”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals, George Harrison, harmony vocal): Sheer rhetorical brilliance. Here were the Beatles, on their second big American single, claiming a special kinship (reinforced by the passion and intimacy of the harmonies) with the sort of staunch young female who made them a cultural phenomenon to begin with. It was a kinship they (John in particular, though Paul’s oft-expressed “well-it-would-be-nice-if-they-only-screamed-at-musically-appropriate-times” attitude speaks volumes as well) frequently made a point of disowning the moment it was commercially safe to do so. But the record itself was somehow both thunderous and sublimely intimate in its moment and has remained so in every moment since.

“I Only Want To Be With You”–Dusty Springfield: Dusty hit the charts the week after the Beatles with a record that very likely would have been an American hit in any case, providing, as it did, an instant bridge between the then reigning girl group sound and the blue-eyed soul waiting just around the corner. A solo vocal that sounds like a wave crashing on the beach. Only you, Dusty, only you.

“House of the Rising Sun”–The Animals (lead vocal, Eric Burdon): Maybe it was the JFK assassination or the Beatles on Sullivan. Maybe it was the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show. Maybe it was something else. But you could stake a fair claim on “the Sixties” really being born here. When a working class English kid could step up to the mike and deliver a blues vocal on a par with Muddy or the Wolf then all bets were off and confusion was bound to continue its reign long after the exhilaration faded.

“Do Wah Diddy Diddy”–Manfred Mann (Paul Jones, lead vocal): Okay, an epic vocal on “House of the Rising Sun” is one thing, but this couldn’t possibly have been what Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich had in mind when they wrote this.

“You Really Got Me”–The Kinks (Ray Davies, lead vocal): Dave Davies’ ripped-and-ready guitar chords get most of the love, but, great as all that is, it’s also mostly a fine variant on things Link Wray and Paul Burlison and Lonnie Mack had already gotten up to (in some cases, years before). But Ray’s vocal really was something new and astonishing, a maelstrom of self-pity turned on its head so that the anger always underlying such emotions comes boiling to the top in what was ostensibly a lyric designed to express the same aching sentiments as, for instance, Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me.” Here, the “sentiment” is basically along the lines of “if you don’t love me as much as I love you, I’ll punch you in the face.” There was one occasion later, on “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” where Ray even topped himself–there, he sounded both more plaintive and more dangerous at the same time. But this was the breakthrough.

“I’m Into Something Good”–Herman’s Hermits (lead vocal, Peter Noone): This swept aside Earl Jean’s version on its way up the charts. One of the uglier aspects of the British Invasion was that it temporarily brought back the practice of “cover” versions–i.e., a white version very specifically designed to sublimate the air play of a black original–which the original rock and rollers had laid to waste. Just to complicate things a bit further, though, some fair amount of the time the record by the highly marketable English lads was just as good (see the Moody Blues’ version of “Go Now,” co-opted from Bessie Banks, or Manfred Mann’s “Sha-la-la,” co-opted from the Shirelles, for other convincing examples; see the Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” co-opted from Irma Thomas, for one among many not-so-convincing examples). Case in point is that, at least on this record, Peter Noone actually sounded like a male version of a girl group singer. For a solid year after–and despite Noone’s more usual penchant for sounding closer to an especially adenoidal Music Hall escapee (“No Milk Today” and “Must To Avoid” very much excepted)–the Hermits battled the Dave Clark Five for second place among British acts on the American charts. Evidently, young women were not entirely immune to hearing a cute boy sing themselves back to themselves.

“Needles and Pins”–The Searchers (lead vocal, Mike Pender, harmony vocal Chris Curtis): A rare great harmony record by a Liverpool band other than the Beatles themselves (more about that below), and perhaps more noted now for its influence on American folk rock via twin six-string guitars that presaged the twelve-string jangle of the Byrds’ early hits. But the vocal shouldn’t be sold short, marking as it did a kind of link between the American folk movement and the folk rock that would explode a year later.

“Is It True?”–Brenda Lee: A bit of a cheat but only a bit. Obviously Brenda’s not British. But this was recorded in London with Mickie Most (likely England’s greatest record producer)** at the console and Jimmy Page (yes, that Jimmy Page) on guitar. No way any of that was happening without the Invasion and, based on the evidence, the LP Lee reportedly planned to make in England that never materialized is a great loss indeed. Beyond its own considerable value, notable for providing proof that British vocalists would not have to rely on American studio expertise when it was time to make great records on the assembly line. If the locals could hang with Brenda Lee, they could hang with anybody.

“Glad All Over”–Dave Clark Five (Mike Smith, lead vocal): The seeds of Power Pop and Glam. Also, about as subtle as a sledgehammer–an approach well-noted by many after it started making a whole lotta money. And lots of other people did make money going down this same path–though relatively few made similar magic.

“Downtown”–Petula Clark: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Suddenly, Brits other than Dusty Springfield (i.e., Brits who weren’t geniuses) could do Bacharach-style Orchestral Pop. Now things were getting serious! It turned out that–other than Dusty Springfield–really only Petula Clark could do it and that even she could only do it so transcendently this once. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it made a lot of American session pros a great deal more nervous than “I Want To Hold Your Hand” ever did. (And just how Pop was it? Well, I first heard it in a shopping mall when I was five, with Christmas decorations festooned all around…and I promise you it changed my life.)

“My Generation”–The Who (Roger Daltrey, lead vocal): Not a big hit in America initially but an anthem an awful lot of people took to heart precisely because of its stuttering vocal. A sixties’ version of the semi-articulate angst-ridden ethos James Dean had spoken to (and for) in a much more artificial context a decade earlier. (For an even more exhilarating version of the same basic world view, see “The Kids Are Alright.” For an even nastier one, see “The Good’s Gone.”)

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”–The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, lead vocal): The Stones had made some good records before this. Mick Jagger had even waxed a few really fine vocals. But, for the most part, the fuss they kicked up in the first year and a half of the Invasion is–musically speaking–a little hard to hear these days. The band smoked from the beginning, but early Jagger generally sang as though American English (especially black American English) was a foreign language he had learned phonetically. This is where he sold his soul to the Devil so he could complete with his idols, perhaps even surpass them. Compete he did. Surpass them he even perhaps occasionally did. Beginning in about 1973, the Devil got payback–he always does, whatever you decide to call him–but it was beyond belief while it lasted and it really did begin here.

“He’s Sure the Boy I Love”–Lulu: This was a remake–not simply a cover (as it was not designed to compete with the original on the charts and was not even released as a single)–of a Crystals’ hit on which Darlene Love had sung lead. Make that, the mighty Darlene Love. No way was Lulu supposed to dig in her heels and blow past Darlene Love (even if she was greatly assisted by a superior arrangement). But it happened. On a bit of album filler no less–and it is out of such miracles that cults are born and raised. Proof, if anybody needed it, that the Brits had a pretty deep bench.

“Look Through Any Window”–The Hollies (Alan Clarke, lead vocals, Graham Nash and Tony Hicks, harmony vocals): One interesting, little-noted fact about the Invasion was that, having been made possible by a great harmony vocal group, it produced relatively little great harmony singing aside from the Beatles themselves. While the Fab Four’s own vocal impact in America was enormous (with implications that stretched from the Byrds in ‘65 to Buckingham/Nicks’ era Fleetwood Mac in the seventies to the Bangles in the eighties, and that’s just scraping the surface), only one of the British harmony groups who arrived in their wake were remotely in their league. This was their best early record and if they–or anyone–bettered it later on, it wasn’t by much.

“Gloria”–Them (Van Morrison, lead vocals): Displaced Irishman on his way to becoming the Invasion’s greatest singer howls at the moon and gives every garage band in the history of the world from that moment forward a reason to exist–not to mention hope. (Not to mention a break from playing “Louie, Louie”!)

“It’s My Life”–The Animals (Eric Burdon, lead vocal): “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was just as great and certainly more iconic–it’s still the go-to record for anyone who wants to short-hand Viet Nam-as-nightmare. But I’m going with this one because it’s possibly the angriest vocal ever recorded. By the end of it, Burdon actually sounds like somebody who might stab you in the throat–but only if you get in his way.

“Gimme Some Lovin'”–The Spencer Davis Group (Stevie Winwood, lead vocal): The first instance of a popular record that involved speaking in tongues. Can’t say the idea caught on, but it’s still out there, waiting….

“Help” (John Lennon, lead vocal, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, harmony vocals) and “I’m Down” (Paul McCartney, lead vocal, John Lennon and George Harrison, harmony vocals)–The Beatles: Two sides of a 1965 forty-five. Side A featured John the acerbic rocker at his most vulnerable (he said in later interviews that he should have done it as a ballad). Side B featured Paul the romantic doing his crazed Little Richard imitation (and matching the original). All of which helps explain just how they were able to stay on top of this incredible wave for its duration.

“Friday On My Mind”–The Easybeats (Stevie Wright, lead vocal): Although an American studio confection who called themselves the Strangeloves made some classic, self-consciously primitive records while pretending to be Aussies (to exploit the Invasion, naturally), the first real Australian hit (albeit one recorded in England) was this garage-style classic from sixty-six. The only thing stranger than the combination of passion and opacity suggested by too much contemplation of a line like “Even my old man looks…good” is hearing Wright actually sing it. I might be delusional but, at this distance, I swear at least a hint of everything that bubbled up from down under afterwards is contained in this record: the Bee-Gees, Olivia Newton-John, AC/DC….whatever. I tilt my head this way and that and I hear it. Every bit of it. No really.

“Season of the Witch”–Donovan: A droogy, starry-eyed Scottish lad–who never did anything else even remotely similar–defines the future and names the era we’re still living in. Let’s just say that the psychological distance between this record and what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the present,” is considerably less than the distance between this record and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” which had been recorded two years earlier. (Note: I reserve the right to pick this one again when I do my inevitable “Greatest Folk Rock Vocals” post!)

**(Most produced five of the records on this list and his range went from the Animals to Herman’s Hermits. Later on, his range went from “To Sir With Love” to “You Sexy Thing.” He really should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Beatles at High Tide and Linda Ronstadt in Germany)

You know me, I like starting new categories. I don’t know if something will impress me every week, but I hate to keep letting things go by when they do just because they don’t fit anywhere else!

So, this week:

The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966)…yes, them again!

I thought reading Pattie Boyd’s autobiography last month would put me in a Beatles’ mood and it sort of did, but I didn’t really dig below the surface until this week.

Granted, when it comes the Beatles, I’ve never found much beneath the surface to begin with. I just have to keep granting that it’s an awfully compelling surface.

And, listening to the crystal clear, remastered, original-English-running-order versions that are now pretty much what’s available (with Revolver somewhat the better for it and Rubber Soul significantly for the worse–Ringo’s vocal on “What Goes On” is so doltish it makes his work on “Yellow Submarine” sound like Otis Redding)–I was knocked out by a lot of the guitar work on these two albums. So much so that I was all prepared to give Boyd’s gloomy-visaged hubby (that’s George Harrison for those of you have may have inexplicably found more interesting things to do with your time than keep up with my monthly book reports or Beatle marriages!) a big shout-out, until I started checking the usual references and found out that most of the stuff I was really impressed with (particularly the lead guitar parts on “Drive My Car” and “Taxman,” the two tone-setting album openers) was played by Paul McCartney.

So now I’m thinking maybe all those Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve who keep saying McCartney was the really talented one–not because they know or care anything about talent in general or the Beatles in particular, but because he wasn’t a pinko-commie like John Lennon–have accidentally stumbled onto something!

Oh, the humanity!

Harrison did, among other things, contribute the effective sitar on “Norwegian Wood” and the attack-mode lead on “She Said, She Said.” So it might be that what we should really be giving George credit for in this period is pulling John Lennon’s increasingly bitter (and, it must be said, increasingly sing-songy) chestnuts out of the fire on more than one occasion.

Anyway, we all know what happened next. The Beatles soon gravitated from art to artiness and thenceforth to solo careers which, excepting Lennon’s first solo LP and a handful of monumental singles here and there (“It Don’t Come Easy,” “What Is Life,” “Jet,” “Band On the Run,” “Watching the Wheels,”–I think that about covers it), have meant less and less as the years go by.

I guess the miracle wasn’t so much that it came apart as that it held together as long as it did.

The Beatles “Drive My Car” (Studio Recording)

Linda Ronstadt: Concert in Offenbach, Germany, 1976

There were/are those–then and now–who liked to say she couldn’t rock or something. I’d say she was one of the few who understood what “rocking” actually was in its post-“Heartbreak Hotel” sense, which was a place for the various mighty rivers of American music–not to speak of the American zeitgeist and just plain old American life–to run together and either fight it out or learn to live together accordingly.

So, in 1976, in Germany, clearly worn-but-not-beaten by the road, she stood in a spotlight in a place called Stadthalle Offenbach and, without moving more than a few feet the whole night–or more than a few inches on the majority of the songs–she did what I’ve always thought a real rocker should do: melded folk, rock, country, soul, shlock, all those good American things, into a unified whole.

That particular night it meant measuring herself against Buddy Holly and Lowell George and Neil Young and Patsy Cline and Smokey Robinson and the Everly Brothers and Ry Cooder and Warren Zevon and Paul Anka and the Eagles and she hung all the way in there with every single one of them (and got past not a few).

If she didn’t quite come up to Tracy Nelson on “Down So Low,” well, all I can say is no one ever has and no one ever will.

And if she didn’t quite come up to “Heat Wave,” I’ll just say not having the Funk Brothers (or the Vandellas!) behind her probably had a whole lot more to do with it than many folks (including the famously nice Ms. Ronstadt herself) have generally been willing to admit.

These days, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can, with a little patience and some basic software, download a pretty decent copy of the whole thing and piece it together. That’s assuming you don’t want to pay the $199.99 it’s going for on Amazon at this moment.

Linda Ronstadt “Love Is A Rose” (Live Performance)

 

 

JUNE BOOK REPORT (6/13–The Sixties…Refracted)

The Far Side of the Dollar (Ross MacDonald, 1964)

A re-read.

Mid-level MacDonald, which means as good or better than anybody else’s high level except Chandler’s or Highsmith’s, the only American “thriller” writers who rate a legitimate comparison.

I first read MacDonald’s oeuvre (much of it two or three times) in the eighties. I was a lot younger then and was mostly impressed by his coiled spring plotting, which isn’t matched by any writer I know of, irrespective of genre or level of stylistic acumen.

If anything, my respect for that element of his books has grown. I’m a long way past thinking “plot”–let alone true, complex narrative–is easy.

But these days, I’m even more impressed by the clarity and nuance of his vision.

There’s a tendency among the crit-illuminati to apply the word “noir” to virtually anything that involves crime and is the least bit ambiguous. I’ve seen it applied to MacDonald plenty of times.

But noir is fantasyland and a particular kind of fantasyland at that. MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels take place in a world which, if it isn’t quite real, isn’t quite unreal either. (I can speak with some authority on the matter because I partly grew up in a world–Central Florida in the sixties and early seventies or, more specifically, working class communities stuck between trailer parks in the literal shadow of NASA’s rockets–that left a very definite impression on my formative mind, an impression of being both real and unreal in ways that MacDonald’s books, set in Southern California around the same time, capture perfectly.)

Maybe it was because I read the final chapters of this particular book with Thunderclap Newman’s Hollywood Dream for background music (and never was there a more perfect soundtrack for any literary experience), but the weight of both the looming apocalypse and the more troubling seeds of long term erosion are present in MacDonald’s books to a greater degree than anything else I’ve encountered from that period or any other.

I never thought he was less than a fine writer and I’ve never taken any fine writer for granted. But working my way back through his books these days I’m becoming convinced that he achieved something rarer and better.

He wasn’t just good, he was right. (So good and so right that I can readily forgive him for being very, very wrong when he–or Archer anyway–once said rock and roll was “music for civilizations to decline by”…I’d say rock and roll was more like the last thread holding ours together, but, hey, we all make mistakes!)

Thunderclap Newman “Something In The Air” (Trippy period television performance!)

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me (Pattie Boyd with Penny Junor, 2007)

Boyd’s an accomplished woman in her own right. She was the era-equivalent of a super-model when she married the “quiet” Beatle in the mid-sixties (he soon made her quit), and, in the years since she finally detached herself from Harrison’s snake-in-the-grass buddy Eric Clapton in the late eighties, she became a gallery-worthy photographer.

In the space between–the years when she inspired most of the great music either man ever made and, thus, the reason so many folks bugged her for so long to write this memoir–she served as the principal muse and personal doormat for two dry-stick Englishmen who had been rescued from life’s humdrum by a bit of luck and their considerable talents.

Why and how she managed to draw heights from them they rarely, if ever, approached otherwise is surely a story worth telling.

Alas, one cannot find that story here.

Pattie seems to have been (and to still be) what used to be called a good egg. It’s her defining quality and one way to stay a good egg is to keep seeing the good in people who deserve less.

I can’t deny there are moments to behold here–an underlying narrative yearning to breathe free:

“While the Beatles were recording the White Album, George wrote a song called ‘Something,’ which he released as his first A-side single with the Beatles. He told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he had written it for me. I thought it was beautiful–and it turned out to be the most successful song he ever wrote, with more than a hundred and fifty cover versions. His favorite was one by James Brown….My favorite was the one by George Harrison, which he played to me in the kitchen at Kinfauns.”

That’s a genuinely lovely passage that sums up the strengths and weaknesses of the book’s general paint-by-numbers, as-told-to approach. It’s the entirety of what she has to say about inspiring one of the greatest love songs ever written (you can take Frank Sinatra’s word for it if you don’t care for mine) and by itself it could hardly be bettered.

But the same style of understatement is pretty much applied to her entire life. That might have been a refreshing approach if she had stuck to momentous occasions. But when so many anecdotes hinge upon some variation of “my self esteem had never been lower” or “we drank far too much” or “Barbados is such a lovely island” or “the view was breathtaking” or “we had no idea how much damage drugs could really do,” or “I should have left much sooner but I thought a woman was just supposed to put up with such things,”** the mind does go a bit numb and the eyes do develop a tendency to glaze.

Don’t get me wrong. Much as I wanted somebody to shake her by the collar and tell her to stop letting famous men wipe their feet on her, I had empathy for Boyd throughout. Mostly because her famous husbands frankly creeped me out:

“What I didn’t know [about Clapton’s sudden proprosal of marriage, several years after he had wooed her away from Harrison and long after he had established a pattern of treating her like dirt, begging her to take him back yet again, and writing a song about it] until Roger Forrester confessed a few days after the wedding was how the whole thing had come about. He and Eric had been playing an endless drunken game of pool at Roger’s house in Finley Green and they had had a bet. Roger had bet Eric that he could get his photograph in the newspapers the following morning. Eric bet him ten thousand pounds that he couldn’t. So Roger went straight to the telephone and told Nigel Dempster, then gossip columnist on the the Daily Mail, that Eric Clapton would be marrying Pattie Boyd on March 27 in Tucson, Arizona. By the time they woke up the next morning, the story, plus photograph, was emblazoned across the Daily Mail and the two went into a total panic. What to do? A few million people now knew about the wedding; the only person who didn’t know was the bride. Hence the hasty phone call–and the desperation for an immediate answer.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing, so, when I wasn’t nodding off, I found myself frequently wanting to drag the not-much-better George Harrison’s ghost back from Karma-land so I could give him a good reaming before I went off to punch Eric Clapton in the face.

But the reason this supremely cautious entry in the beleaguered annals of styleless, say-nothing prose exists is because its author was, with Michelle Phillips, one of the two great “muses” in the history of rock and roll.

And between reading it cover-to-cover and putting Layla and Other Love Songs–made in direct response to Boyd’s initial rebuff of an advance by Clapton that included a threat (subsequently carried out) to start shooting heroin if she didn’t relent and, to my mind, the only truly sustained greatness of his career–through the headphones one more time, I’m afraid I can really only recommend the latter.

Derek and the Dominoes “Anyday” (Studio Recording)

**Time presses and I don’t do this for money, so I didn’t go back and look up these “exact” quotes. Trust me, the redundtant sentiments are accurately captured even if the words are not.

 

FOUND IN THE CONNECTION (Rattling Loose End #13, Beatle Wives and John Lennon, Working Class Hero)

“Brian (Epstein) had seemed interested in what the Maharishi had to offer but it was a bank-holiday weekend and he was committed to spending it with friends at his house in Sussex. He said he would join us later. Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, the two roadies who had looked after the Beatles since the Cavern Club days and went everywhere with them, were not there either so we had to carry our own baggage and fight our way through the crowds onto the platform.

“In the rush Cynthia (Lennon) was left behind–she was probably carrying the suitcases while John, empty-handed and thoughtless as ever, made a dash for it. And so the train pulled away and I shall never forget the sight of Cynthia running down the platform shrieking at John to wait. But Peter Brown arranged for Neil Aspinall to drive her to Bangor in his car and she arrived not long after the rest of us.”

(Source: Pattie Boyd, Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me, 2007)

Magical Mystery Tour was launched by a party whose lavishness held no doubt of Sergeant Pepper-like success. The Beatles specified fancy dress. John Lennon came as a teddy boy, accompanied by Cynthia in Quality Street crinolines. George Martin came as the Duke of Edinburgh, Lulu as Shirley Temple, and Patti (sic), George Harrison’s wife, as an Eastern belly dancer. John, that night, made no secret of powerfully desiring Patti Harrison. He danced with Patti time after time, leaving Cynthia so disconsolate in her crinolines that Lulu was roused to sisterly indignation. The climax of the party was the moment at which a ringleted Shirley Temple, clutching an immense lollipop, confronted the chief Beatle in his greaser outfit and roundly berated him for being so mean to his wife.”

(Source: Phillip Norman, Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation, 1981)

“I was very careful and paranoid because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I’d always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair. But in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell. But I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.”

John Lennon, on the writing of “Norwegian Wood.”

(Source: David Sheff, All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 2000)

None of this is news, of course (though I’m reading Boyd’s memoir just now, so that little anecdote was at least new to me).

And I frankly don’t care all that much about the private lives of famous people. Lots of my favorite artists–Lennon included–were less than admirable human beings all around. Just because I would probably want to punch them in the face if I met them for five minutes doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy, or even love, their art.

But I’ve always wondered if Lennon’s intensely slavish fan-boys in the rock press (and for inspiring slavishness among the rock press, even Bob Dylan comes a long way second to “the head Beatle”) admired him in spite of his cruel, whiny, brand of misogyny or because of it?

I mean, I know it wasn’t really the chord changes, so it had to be something….Right?