TRACKING PHIL SPECTOR….(CD Review)

A few days back, Greil Marcus, who trashed Phil Spector’s Back to Mono box when it came out, recommended it to someone who wanted to know where she should start if she wanted to get to know Spector’s music.

Very Trumpian I thought–doubly so if he was just being mean–but it did put me in the mood to revisit the box…on headphones.

Listening to Spector at this distance creates an audio equivalent of double-vision for us obsessives. No matter how glorious the sound in your ears is, and no matter how completely you are able to forget the gentleman is a psychopathic murderer, there is always the high probability that someone, somewhere has written about how, in order to really hear it, you need to have the original Philles single…and maybe a Bang and Olufsen (at least) to play it on.

Or the rare European-only vinyl pressing from the sixties.

Or the original tapes that somebody heard in their “truest” form on some bootleg version that was playing down the hall while they were meditating in their college dorm in 1968.

Or when they were hanging out with Phil at his home studio during the first of his several hundred retirements back in the sixties.

I’m not sure all those people are wrong either.

I can personally attest that the reissue MGM 45 I purchased “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” on, which listed Bill Medley as the producer, blows all other versions away.

And, even if you can blow all that out of your head (and, when the best records are playing, you can), there’s still the fact that Phil Spector isn’t best heard on a box set featuring upwards of sixty tracks. His greatest work is too intense and his workaday efforts too mundane to make the experience anything but disorienting. Just when you’re thinking one more wall of *&&#@ strings will either make you drive a splinter under your eyelids or send you off to sleep, some bit of genius brings Paradise heaving back into view (though, not, I hasten to add, on the record of that name, on which the Shangri-Las blew the Ronettes away).

One thing I did notice this time around, though, was that Paradise came heaving into view most often according to a distinct pattern.

Again and again, my cheap headphones (ain’t no Bang and Olufsen at my house, alas) kept delivering the notion that Spector did his best work when he was working with a new voice.

And, usually, it was a Seasoned Pro’s voice.

Gene Pitney…

Darlene Love….

Ronnie Spector (the partial exception to the Seasoned Pro rule–she had made records but was still living at home when he met her)…

Bill Medley….

Bobby Hatfield…

Tina Turner…

Sonny Charles…

In every case, Spector soon tired of whatever quality he had heard in them…and (with a brief exception for Darlene Love, whose power he diluted by parceling out her records under various names, least often her own) subsequent productions–or business arrangements–suffered accordingly.

The usual method for burying anyone who hung around too long (usually no more than a record or two), was to do just that.

Bury them.

Their voices anyway.

Because one thing Phil Spector liked to remind all his singers of, was his ability to make them go away, often at the very moment when one more brilliant arrangement (usually provided by Jack Nitzsche, though there were others), was begging for the Wall of Sound to be dialed back a bit and let the lead singer shine.

The one exception was the former Ronnie Bennett.

Her voice, he was never quite able to tame.

God knows he tried.

On record after record.

And when that didn’t quite work–when he couldn’t quite make her irrelevant to her own records the way he had done with literally everyone else, even Darlene Love–he found other ways. Like marrying her and locking her up in his mansion and killing her career and tormenting her for years until she ran away (carrying her shoes down the mansion’s driveway so she wouldn’t make any noise) and finally stalking her and terrorizing her with death threats everybody thought she was crazy to take so seriously until he finally acted out on Lana Clarkson.

The gift she left him was a box set that bends, but never quite breaks.

Nearly all the hidden treasures are hers.

SHY GIRL FINDS NEW SELF…IN UNLIKELIEST OF PLACES (Segue of the Day: 6/29/17)

Interviewer: Now growing up in that house (in Tucson), you had a very, very good friend, who taught you a lot–

Linda Ronstadt: The radio.

(YouTube interview with Dan Guerrero, Northridge, CA Sept. 29, 2015)

One of the YouTube rabbit holes I go down most frequently is the “Linda Ronstadt Live” rabbit hole. She could be stiff, she could be sing-songy…or she could be electrifying. Sometimes all in the same song. What she never was, was anything less than professional or perfectionist. You’re guaranteed a certain quality, then…but you have to search for more.

So, with Greil Marcus’ long ago mention of being “knocked out” by a version of “Back in the U.S.A.” in front of a big audience (30,000) in Oakland, (he doesn’t mention the venue), wandering around in my head, I thought “Live in Concert Linda Ronstadt San Diego, CA” sounded intriguing.

The performance Marcus mentions isn’t available, alas. But you can probably bet some idea of what he heard by listening to (and, just as importantly, watching) this, where she finally gets all the way inside “Heat Wave”…

…in front of the whitest audience ever assembled in any venue that wasn’t featuring Bruce Springsteen or Lawrence Welk (can’t any of these people clap on the beat?)…and leaves the stage with the happiest look I’ve ever seen on her face in however many hundred hours I’ve spent down her rabbit hole.

It’s almost like she has discovered…something.

Maybe just that the chubby girl from the back row, who only got through high school by “keeping a record player going constantly in my mind”…a record player that no doubt received many recommendations from her friend the radio, could no longer disbelieve in her ability to hold a stadium (the size of which is more evident in the only other available video from that concert) in the palm of her hand…

..singing a song she never had the least trouble getting inside of.

BIG BAD LOVE AND DONALD TRUMP COMETH (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard

I’m not prepared to bet on it yet, but Donald Trump’s election and subsequent administration may end up being the kind of watershed that will make the future ask how this came to be. A lot of art that’s been made in the last few decades might wind up being viewed through the lens of whether it had its finger on those elements of the American pulse–traditional and modern—that made Trump not so much possible as inevitable.

If that comes to pass, Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love, based on some short stories by the dissolute Southern writer Larry Brown (Mississippi Division, and I know, “dissolute Southern writer” is a serial redundancy), might be an interesting place to start.

I first heard about the movie when Greil Marcus praised it in one of his Real Life Top Ten columns just after its 2001 release. It stuck in my memory because Marcus wrote of Rosanna Arquette (an ongoing concern of this blog, see HERE,  HERE and HERE) that she was “alive on the screen as she hasn’t been since long before the black hole she hit with Desperately Seeking Susan, the passionate woman of The Executioner’s Song and Baby It’s You stepping out of a 20-years-older version of herself.”

Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I can say that Arquette is certainly more alive than anyone else around her–just as she was in The Wrong Man, Black Rainbow, After Hours, Pulp Fiction (where Tarantino’s choice of Uma Thurman in a role Arquette auditioned for represents his biggest failure of nerve in a career that’s been defined by cowardice) and, come to think of it, Desperately Seeking Susan (where Arquette was touchingly vulnerable and Madonna was saved by the chance to be herself, something no other film, including her various vanity projects, has offered to date).

Except for Madonna being herself, and John Lithgow in The Wrong Man, though, she never had much competition.

Here, the competition is fierce. Howard, Paul LeMat, Debra Winger and especially a revelatory Angie Dickinson make up a spectacular ensemble. If the writing had allowed them to breathe, they might have turned this into a great movie.

As it stands, we have what we have, which is a well-wrought, but finally empty version of an oft-told tale, the standard dissolute Southern writer’s take on his own southernness, dissolution and writerliness, filtered through the travails of trying to find a combination that will impress a Yankee editor. There’s a near-tragedy thrown in. Then a full-blown tragedy. Howard, playing the lead, is especially impressive in his ability to allow a man who is no more damaged after the near and full tragedies than he was before. Less lively maybe, but no more damaged. Dickinson, unfortunately, does not get much chance to show us how the damaged man’s mama responds to his near and real tragedies, which is disappointing because they’re written in her face before they happen.

All of which leaves us with a series of moments, some quite brilliant, all finally devoid of hope or meaning.

It is, however, the kind of world where Donald Trump might become President some day, even if none of these folks (observed? or dreamed up to please the Yankee editor? even the late Larry Brown may not have known). I mean, hell, if this is what they think of us, why not bite their ankle just once and vote for somebody who will pee on their heads too?

I’m not saying I approve, just that I understand.

As for the movie itself, and taking it strictly as a movie and nothing else, it does lead to the question of whether Arquette’s character–the only one who will ever have a lease on anything you would call a life, new or otherwise–is an expression of the writer, the actress or the moment. It’s her meat. Weird stuff has never thrown her (heck, when she worked for Scorcese and Tarantino, she was the only one who wasn’t thrown, not that I didn’t enjoy watching some others give it a go and maybe even convince themselves they had turned the trick, at least after the reviews came in). She gives brief flickers of life to the movie in the same way that her character would give life to those of such dreary, interesting characters as we meet here, or even to their real life counterparts if anybody this dreary was ever really interesting.

Debra Winger, for instance, doesn’t get lost here. We’ve always known that she–Winger, not her character–is capable of nearly anything. But even Debra Winger can’t resolve the contradiction between the kind of grounded realism her character represents and the existential despair a dissolute Southern writer (in this case her character’s husband–based, of course, on the writer himself) must practice twenty-four/seven if he’s to gin up the blend of authenticity and sympathy-for-that-fella-who-knows-the-devil that will create the space for near and real tragedies to occur without costing him his chance at twenty pages in The New Yorker. Arquette–playing a character who is just as recognizable–sails past all that, out into a world of her own, the very one she would have to create if by chance she were ever stuck in the world the movie can’t quite bring itself to convey, let alone the one it invents as a replacement.

So, on a first viewing at lest, I value the movie most for that. It provides another tiny bit of color in a mad mosaic–all her own–which Arquette has built, piece by piece, ever since The Executioner’s Song. One that adds up to a strange, alternative world where it never matters who the President is because no one remembers his name.

She’s Gloria Grahame, fifty years on.

Except it’s the crit-illuminati‘s job to notice such things and how can they when the new President is busy taking a leak on their heads and calling it tears?

I’m glad I got acquainted with this bit of Arquette’s journey. But I have to admit she’s the only reason I would ever subject myself to all those dreary, interesting people twice.

 

WHAT WOULD ELVIS DO?

I think “What would Elvis do?” has become a handy substitute for “What would Jesus do?” the difference being Jesus (or at least his followers) left a well-defined set of instructions to guide our speculation, while Elvis was as obscure as any person can be who achieves enough fame to make wondering what they would do occur to anyone in the first place.

Over at Greil Marcus’ website, he just received the inevitable question “Would Elvis have voted for Trump?”

Marcus took it for granted that the question referred to Elvis Presley (perhaps Elvis Costello is not, per Steven Van Zandt, the “real” Elvis after all) and answered at length. You can read his answer under the May 29, 2017 mailbag at his site (link available on my blogroll at the right–sorry, I can’t link to individual questions inside the mailbag itself).

In summary, it’s the usual mishmash: The Elvis who died in 1977 “probably… would have” voted for Trump, but if he had lived another forty years he might have turned into a good person, unlike the millions who actually voted for Trump because he represents the kind of evil country they want to live in. I’ll just point out that Marcus does not address the key demographic of the 2016 election, the several million people–many of them concentrated in the industrial swing states which crumbled the Blue Wall and decided the election–who voted for Trump after voting for Obama twice.

Did they suddenly change their minds about which kind of country they wanted to live in? Did Obama simply fail to deliver the evil country they thought he had promised? Or was Trump seen as more likely than Hillary Clinton to maintain the country they wanted to live in when they voted for Obama?

I encourage you to read Marcus’ response, but, in short, he doesn’t say.

What I really want to do though is answer the question.

Would Elvis have voted for Trump?

I wonder why we only wonder who Elvis would have voted for? Does anybody (well, any white boy critic or wannabe) ask themselves whether Ray Charles or James Brown–both much further to the right on the public record than Elvis ever was–would have voted for Trump? If they don’t, why not? I’m sure it’s not because they don’t think Mr. Charles or Mr. Brown lacked moral or intellectual agency. I mean, that would be sorta racist wouldn’t it?

Comes to that, why don’t we wonder who the more-or-less still living “Johnny Rotten” would have voted for if he were an American? Is it because all the cool people might not like the answer? (Just an aside: Marcus was recently asked about this one as well and basically gave Lydon a pass–and not because Trump is as an inevitable part of Lydon’s legacy as he is a rejection of the real Elvis’.)

I don’t have the least clue who the real Elvis–who at least tacitly endorsed both Adlai Stevenson and George Wallace whilst he was living–would have voted for.

Neither do you. Neither does anyone.

I know what he did when it mattered. When it mattered he sang “If I Can Dream” into the teeth of the anti-Enlightenment forces, Left and Right, that were dismantling the Dream he had done as much as any man to make real. And he put more pure anger into it than anyone has ever conveyed on a record that reached the Top 40. (Listen again, with headphones and your eyes closed if you can. You’ll hear it, right there from the heart of ’68.) When it mattered, he did things like this.

There were reasons why James Brown, who, like many an ornery American liable to vote for Obama one time and Trump the next, preferred dying on his feet to living on his knees, wept over Elvis’ coffin. Seeing around the corner, where the Dream would shatter, and the post-Carter political class–yes, all of them–would crawl from the wreckage, was no doubt foremost among them.

GOOD GOD…..

I usually enjoy Greil Marcus’s “Ask Greil” feature on his website (linkable at the right). But this jawdropper is from one of his responses a few days ago (4/13/17):

   I liked a lot of the Bee Gees’ early singles. “New York Mining Disaster 1941”—now there’s a sure-fire pop hit title—was stranger, thematically, to find on the radio in 1967 than, say, “Memphis Blues Again.” “To Love Somebody” and “Words” had great lift. But with “I Started a Joke” I began to tune out. I think that was about the time I first got a look at them. There’s something off, not quite human, part horse, about their features.

I guess I should be relieved. Here I was, thinking Barry Alan Crompton Gibb (now 70), must be carrying a great burden, having outlived three younger brothers: Robin Hugh (dead at 62), Maurice Ernest (at 53) and Andrew Roy (at 30).

Turns out I need feel no sorrow.

In horse years, even Andy was Methuselah.

By the way, “not quite” is Newspeak for “less than.”

Always.

This is worse than making up stuff about girl group singers by a measure of a thousand.

And I’d be afraid to ask how he felt about this guy….(dead at 58…it costs).

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 11: “People Get Ready”)

“People Get Ready”
1965
Artist: The Impressions
Writer: Curtis Mayfield

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The Impressions in 1965. Curtis Mayfield at far right.

“That was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church. Like there’s no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.”

(Source: Liner notes from Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: The Anthology 1961-1977, MCA, 1992)

“My mother always liked symphony music, and even as a youngster my foundation was out of the church, whereas my grandmother was the minister of the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church….When I wrote ‘People Get Ready,’ I was of a spiritual mind I suppose. I can’t quite recall what I was doing but the honesty of my gospel upbringing probably had a lot to do with it. I’m so pleased that it can please all who might listen to it. It doesn’t matter what faith you may have, the lyrics are of value to everybody.”

(Source: Liner notes from The Curtis Mayfield Story, Rhino box set, 1996)

Back in 1985 I was working for an ad agency and the owner liked to keep MTV running in his office because that was where the cutting edge of the soap-selling business was in those days. One evening before heading out I dropped by the office to say my good night and he and one of the layout artists were sitting in there critiquing the hot MTV item of the moment which was Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck’s cover of “People Get Ready.”

“This is great!” my boss said. The layout artist, who was in a rock band in his spare time, agreed. “Great guitar,” he said.

“It’s based on an old Negro spiritual,” my boss said.

“Well,” I said. “It’s really not that old. Curtis Mayfield wrote it. It’s from 1965.”

Now I wasn’t the known entity I later became, the guy who knew stuff about music from the sixties. I mean, I could have even told them the Impressions’ original hit #14 in Billboard--in those days I was very good with chart numbersbut there seemed little point since they didn’t even believe me about the Curtis Mayfield part or the 1965 part.

“Wait…the guy who did ‘Superfly’?” one of them finally said, after we had gone round and round for a bit.

“Yeah,” I said. “Same guy.”

That clinched it. I was crazy. Prone to making stuff up. Any chance of them believing me went by the wayside.

No way the Superfly Guy wrote that old Negro Spiritual, “People Get Ready.”

I told them it was okay. If I hadn’t known better I wouldn’t have believed it myself.

*  *  *  *

“People Get Ready” is one of those songs, like “Peace in the Valley,” (written by Thomas Dorsey in the 1930s), which doesn’t feel like it could have been written less than a few centuries ago. It feels honed out of some kind of folk tradition, passed from balladeer to minstrel and back again. Usually, these songs have some kind of gospel overtone, and that attendant “feel” of permanence, of having been inspired by something more than commerce, is, like religion itself, counted exotic among the crit-illuminati and all unduly influenced by them.

The nonbelievers are never quite so hard to impress as they make out.

I’m guessing Curtis Mayfield understood that. Like most of the early rock and soul pioneers, he was a believer. He grew up in church. His grandmother was a minister. His singing group, the Impressions, was modeled on a specific style of black gospel called “jubilee.” (His original group was The Northern Jubilees so the linkage was more than usually specific.)

All of that mattered to who Curtis Mayfield became in the context of both the Civil Rights movement and the soul music of the sixties and seventies. His catalog is shot through with Christian imagery and just about all the nonbelievers were impressed by his commitment even though exactly none of them–including the legion of black and white vocalists who have covered the song in the nonbelieving style of Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck–ever gave evidence of understanding the belief system that commitment rested on.

People get ready, there’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.

Despite Mayfield’s own later suggestion (quoted above) that this was a universalist message, it’s really only “universal” in the sense that New Testament Christianity is indeed open to all.

All you need is faith, open the doors and board ’em
Don’t need no ticket you just thank the Lord.

Four lines in, and we’re already deep in the weeds of New Testament arguments worthy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The old fights have been closed down…faith is for all, Calvinism, the underpinning of both American individualism (good) and America slavery (bad), has been rejected for something higher. It’s a transformation Harriet Beecher Stowe, raised Calvinist, converted to Congregationalism and, after a beloved son’s death, a dabbler in forms of Spiritualism Curtis Mayfield’s grandmother would doubtless have recognized.

In the heat of the sixties, as “Uncle Tom” was being re-jiggered yet again to signify collaboration and weakness, Mayfield was now squarely in the middle of debates that were no longer going to be left to his own traditions. Not to Spiritualism. Not to Congregationalism. Not even to Christianity itself. As Greil Marcus would later write:

“With the Impressions and later as a soloist, Mayfield had been exploring a somewhat bland, Martin Luther King-style progressivism, for years, complete with open heart, boundless optimism, tortured lyrics, and brotherhood speeches to nightclub audiences.”

Tomming, in other words. Rather like Martin Luther King himself before his common honorific was transformed from the spiritual “Reverend” to the secular “Doctor” (and before the “Reverend” was subsequently transferred to Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, the better to mock the belief the honorific was meant to represent).

Funny how, in the world of the nonbeliever, it’s always optimism that’s uncomplicated.

And easy to identify.

Marcus’s  seventies-era cynicism (he was juxtaposing Mayfield’s Negro Spiritual mode with his Superfly mode) was later replaced with rank sentimentalism. Cynicism–the rejection of optimism’s naturally complicated state in juxtaposition to the inherent cruelty of faith’s alternatives in time, space, nature, “reality”–usually turns out that way.

That’s the trick to throwing down with the Sermon on the Mount.

Once you claim it, you’re either on the train or not.

So people get ready, for the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers, coast to coast.
Faith is the key, open the doors and board ’em
There’s hope for all, among the loved the most.

And that’s what keeps throwing the torch-bearers of Left (New or Old) and Right (Alt or Old).

Faith is the key.

And within that context–and that context only–there’s hope.

There’s no in between for the believer. The in between is for those Mayfield took on next, those whom all practitioners of the New Testament’s evangelizing faith, Spiritualist, Congregationalist and Calvinist alike, know Jesus promised to spew from his mouth:

There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner.
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own….Believe me now!

Now it’s getting specific. Now it’s down to cases, where belief is the hardest master and true tolerance, the New Testament kind, is the hardest master of all. All those nonbelievers who thought they didn’t need the ticket just because it couldn’t be bought now find themselves right where the Spiritualist minister’s gently remonstrating, jubilee singing grandson wants them: between the rock of “hopeless sin” (i.e., all sin not specifically forgiven by faith in the one God) and the hard place of the belief they might have been forgiven for thinking could be purchased without cost, what with not needing any baggage and all.

Easier still, to get confused, considering that Mayfield and his soulmates (Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, now swapping leads, now in close harmony) have remained cool in the face of Pentecostal transcendence. The sound is seductive, backing the spirit of the original promise.

The sound remains so.

The promise does not.

Have pity on those, whose chances grow thinner
For there’s no hiding place, against the kingdom’s throne

Yes, find the pity within yourself, just before you remind the sinner how pitiless his fate is–a fate that knows no hiding place.

No hiding place from what again?

The kingdom’s throne. That’s what.

The one that brooks no hiding place.

So now the first verse repeats, not as an assurance, but a warning. The nonbelievers who jumped on the train in the first verse are invited to jump off.

So said the prophet in 1965, even if, in later years, he sometimes forgot the force of his own warning….in interviews if not his music.

In 1965, there was a world coming where elections, let alone “debates,” would become affairs devoid of meaning, a jousting between sets of nonbelievers who think paradise, having been transferred by the Reformation (it’s unfair to call it “Protestant” since a Catholic Reformation accompanied it, each multiplying the force of the other into Christian Europes’ five-hundred-year winning streak, for which the slave trade that brought Curtis Mayfield’s ancestors to the New World–and the New Testament–would stand as the serpent in the garden) from the Golden Past to the Golden Future, can now be claimed in the Golden Present, if only we vote the right party to power…or, better yet, eliminate all its opposition!

Curtis Mayfield would have other songs that spoke to the dangers of all that. The Superfly soundtrack wasn’t nearly as far from “there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne” as either Greil Marcus or my Reagan-lovin’ boss at the ad agency thought.

Sad part is, being nonbelievers, they probably still think there’s a hiding place, somewhere, waiting just for them.

HOW WAS I TO KNOW? (Everything I Really Needed to Know I Learned From Rock and Roll: Lesson #4)

From Greil Marcus’s latest “Real Life Rock Top Ten”(channeling the always relevant The Manchurian Candidate):

The United States has elected a white supremacist, a classic anti-Semite, and a man for whom women are commodities to be bought and sold. It may have also elected a Russian agent.

Fair enough. (I’ll just note that the United States has elected many a white supremacist, many a classic anti-Semite and several men for whom “women are commodities to be bought and sold” at least according to the non-literal, dog whistle standard upon which Marcus is clearly relying. It has also, according to both the late Senator Joseph McCarthy and a woman I heard proclaiming loudly on the subject of Obama in my local grocery store the day after the election in 2008, elected a Russian agent or two…but I digress.)

But if Trump can be a Russian agent, why not Greil Marcus? Isn’t he doing exactly what we would expect a Russian agent to do if, say, Hillary were the real Russian agent? And what about the CIA–or the CIA assets in the “mainstream media”–who are the source of all this speculation about Trump’s ties to Russia? Aren’t they, too, doing what Russian agents would do, if they were the real agents?

And what about me? In pointing out these possibilities, aren’t I doing exactly what you would expect a Russian agent to do?

And what about you? If you agree with me, aren’t you doing what the Russians want? If you disagree, aren’t you doing the same?

If everything is half-true, then isn’t everything also half-false? And who’s to say which is which?

The Russians?

I’m only thankful that somebody once explained all this to me, far better then the half-true The Manchurian Candidate ever could.

LO-FI-NO-FI-RETRO-AMERICANA….ALL TRANSCENDED, ALL REDEEMED (CD Review: John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This)

John Mellencamp
No Better Than This (2010)

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I’m a Mellencamp fan and I’d heard good things about this when it came out, but it was only a year or so back that I acquired it. I gave it a couple of cursory listens and then filed it away as a subject for future investigation.

The future came this week and it hit me upside the head, maybe just about the time Mellencamp’s po’ boy loner–the kind of weary cliche that makes me throw up every defense I have and which no previous singer has so completely broken down–sings about the wife who takes a frying pan upside his head.

Except she isn’t his wife. She’s a woman he’s just spotted her on the street somewhere and exchanged a friendly glance with before spending a few moments describing to the listener–as if they’ve already happened–all the things he could imagine happening if that friendly glance led to matrimony and such. Naturally, by the end of the song, he’s ready to move on, leaving all the possibilities you thought were realities unexplored.

Upon the album’s release, Mellencamp got a lot of publicity out of its gimmick, which was recording the thirteen tracks he had written–every one of which sounds like a folk song or a blues pulled from the bottom of a stack of 78s no one ever heard of, let alone heard out loud–in the Sun Studio, the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson was recorded, and a slavery-era church in Savannah, Georgia.

As Greil Marcus and a few others pointed out at the time, the gimmick shouldn’t work but does, because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. What nobody seems to have gotten around to fully explaining (I can’t say I read every review, but I read a bunch), is just why it doesn’t feel that way, which is because it’s the boldest example of a common conceit–that rare reach that actually qualifies as something nobody pulled off, or probably even thought of, before.

Starting somewhere in the mid-sixties–maybe with the Beach Boys’ Party! LP from 1965, there have been constant attempts of reach back to a mythic past, sometimes near, sometimes distant, and imagine what might have been if rock and roll had gone in a slightly different direction. At its best, in the early music of the Band, or Party! itself, this approach could be revelatory and break open spaces that would have otherwise lain fallow. At its worst, which was most of the time, it could be soul-crushing. Somewhere in between, it could be anything from heartfelt and detailed enough to qualify as honorable, smile-inducing homage (the best work of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids or Tracey Ullman) to earnest folk music (where I’ve always slotted the strain in Bruce Springsteen’s music that began, and peaked, with Nebraska).

Some of this music got called bold because it seemed to exist in a world where rock and roll never happened. Most of it existed only because rock and roll happened.

On No Better Than This, Mellencamp stretches both ideas past their logical extremes: In the real world, the one we actually live in, he’s a man who could never have been a star without rock and roll because no world but this one would have had him. In the world he creates on this record, he uses his real-world status to imagine–and perfect–a world not where rock and roll never happened (been done) but one where rock and roll is just about to happen. That difference, once it locks in, makes the difference. This week, starting with a casual listen that was different from my previous listenings because I put on headphones, I began to suspect something was up about midway through the first song. By the time Mellencamp closed with a wry chuckle, twelve and a half songs later, I had a new obsession, the kind that rarely happens to me anymore, because I almost never need to listen to something until I figure it out.

The leap between this and every bit of proto, in-the-moment, or retro Americana I’ve ever heard is that, in one key respect, Mellencamp remains who he is. He’s reaching back to the early fifties, not as a star-in-the-making, some great lost voice who would have taken rock and roll in a whole new direction if only some visionary producer or enlightened audience had understood his genius, but as a gifted journeyman with his own ideas about how things should be. He hasn’t gone back in time to be Woody Guthrie or LIttle Richard. He’s gone back to be Harmonica Frank or Lowell Fulson, or, better yet, a forgotten contemporary, with his own little weird niche, which may (Fulson) or may not (Harmonica Frank) one day lead to a modest career.

In other words Mellencamp has imagined the fix he’d be in if rock and roll hadn’t exploded into something that could make somebody like John Mellencamp a star.

How consciously he did this I don’t know, but sometimes–quite often really–the artist knows better than the man. This is an album that keeps asking: “What if this had been all there was?” and then supplies its own answer. Which is along the lines of: “We think we’re lucky we didn’t have to find out…but are we?”

Now you know we’re lucky (i.e. “better off”). And I know we’re lucky. And John Mellencamp sure knows we’re lucky.

But the guy on the record isn’t so sure. And for the length of this record, he stood in the place where John Mellencamp used to be.

I’m not sure any album has ever asked and answered this path-not-taken question in quite the same way before. More than thirty years into a career that could never have happened unless we, and he, have been very lucky indeed, John Mellencamp dared to raise the question of his own worth and the worth of the world we’ve made since rock and roll, with its unbounded promise, first danced out of the shadows.

And I’m going to play you a track now, but I guarantee there is no way to comprehend how exhilarating and disturbing this eerily quiet “mono” music is without getting hold of the album and finding some zone quiet enough and slow enough to absorb it whole, without interference from the modern world.

CHASING OLIVIA…

Greil Marcus’s excellent website has an “Ask Greil” feature which is a lot of fun. You asks your question and (sometimes) you gets your answer.

Most of the site consists of re-posting Marcus’s half-century worth of writing, a fair bit of it consisting of uncollected periodical writing like a post that went up a few weeks ago and read:

 “City Recommends: That you check out page 31 of the May (1975) issue of Creem magazine for a picture of Olivia Newton-John that will knock your eyes out and possibly even make you change your mind about her music.”

Which led me to ask:

Just curious. Did it change your mind about her music? If so, I’d love to hear more.

He responded thus (and here’s where it gets interesting):

The picture of her pop-eyes put her on top of my Good People chart and I started paying more attention. When “You’re the One That I Want” came out pic and song were the one that I wanted.

I have since seen the picture (having spent last month’s entertainment budget on an E-bay copy of the magazine in question…always wanted to get hold of an old Creem anyway and figured I’d never find a better excuse.) Unfortunately I can’t find a copy of it on-line and I don’t have the means of scanning it. Suffice it to say “pop-eyes” is on the right path, though it doesn’t quite do it justice.

It certainly isn’t like any picture of ONJ I’ve seen before and, boy, have I made a point of seeing a lot of ONJ pictures in my time.

[NOTE: I’m the right age for it. The rumors that swirled around her in my high school years were….interesting. Actual conversation held among the male kitchen staff at a certain Baptist Girls’ Camp, circa 1979:

Old Hippie Cook (well, he was 31, which seemed old to us): “Rrrrwwwrrr.”

JK (aka “The Mississippi Kid,” aka “Mornin’ Glory,” aka “Future Minister of Youth at the First Baptist of your choice and/or Traveling Evangelist”): “Aw man, she’s a lesbian.”

Old Hippie Cook: “That don’t bother me. Long as she’ll let me watch.”

Just so you know, I never heard these kind of conversations about any other seventies siren, not even Stevie Nicks. And, unless the subject was Olivia Newton-John, I never heard them at Baptist Camp either.]

What interested me in GM’s answer, though, was his statement that seeing a picture–any picture–of a woman he didn’t know, put her on top of his “Good People chart.”

Now, I’m shallow myself. Shallow as in: Liv, you’re on my Good People chart. I don’t care if you just shot a puppy…..Which, now that I’ve seen that other picture, and I look more closely at these, I think you just may have.

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I’m sure that’s not what GM meant. I’m sure he was being other than shallow.

Which leads me to a place where I ask myself if, visual creatures that we are, we all do this sort of thing, whether we like it or not and whether we admit it or not? I know most of us tell ourselves we don’t…that, in the long run, we develop defenses against judging books by their covers. That we sort out the Good People from the Puppy Shooters a little too automatically at the beginning but get beyond it as we grow older and wiser.

And I’m sure we do, to some degree.

But I suspect it’s not to the degree we think it is.

Then again, the experience of seeing that picture in Creem (which I’ll gladly post if I ever find a means), is somewhat further complicated by a caption which Marcus does not mention (and may well have forgotten if he hasn’t seen the picture in a while). It reads:

The Creem Dreem: Olivia Newton-John. Contrary to rumor, Olivia’s yum-bum is not made of ice cream. In fact she is in private life not a mere truffle but a red-hot mama who could leave even hot honchos like Gregg Allman wilt chamber lain but begging for more. Here in an exclusive CREEM Hot Shot we see her leering at her next hapless conquered root, Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators.

Got it?

That’s in line, actually, with a review of Liv’s latest album in the same issue that begins:

What female singer would ya like most to sit in yr lap?

Got it now?

Actually, to me, she looks more like an ax murderess who enjoys her work in the “Creem Dreem” photo. Which is maybe why I’m leery of either including or excluding anyone from my Good People chart based on a photograph….or even whether I like their records.

Then again, I always did like her music anyway, especially her voice. Even if, as I always suspected, it had little to with her getting to sign a big record contract and more to do with the notion that a lot of young men, liberated and otherwise, would be asking themselves which female singer they would most like to sit in their lap.

More fool them.

The Overlords know we dream in pictures, though. That’s how they got to be them and we got to be us.

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(I’m sure he’s dead. He certainly looked dead….When’s my next session?)

Still on my Good People chart, though. God help me.

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

Easy Part: Define “B-Side.”

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

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

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Being turned into this US release….

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

Now here’s a trick.

Define “obscure.”

Then define “truly obscure.”

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

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

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

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

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

None of this…

Or this…

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

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

No official release on CD.

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

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

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

or this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So they could release it on Demon Records.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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