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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MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

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(My favorite rock critic, at 41, the year I was born.)

The earliest memory I retain with any certainty happened when I was four (or five) years old. It was the Christmas season of 1964 (or 1965). My favorite rock critic and and my sister and I were walking through a shopping mall (somewhere in Florida…my memory says Merritt Square, the internet says it didn’t open until 1970 so maybe it was Titusville or even Orlando…I know I wasn’t nine, I swear my memory is at least that clear). My favorite rock critic was holding my hand (or else my sister was). They were piping music through the mall (or whatever it was). I wasn’t paying the least attention to the music. Until I was. Something new and wonderful started playing (or maybe it was the chorus that got me) and I broke away from whoever was holding my hand and started running towards that sound.

The only problem was, the sound was being piped over speakers that pointed from every direction. This probably saved me from getting lost in a bustling Christmas crowd, because, having completely lost my senses, I started running around in circles. My favorite rock critic could no longer run, so it was left to my sister to finally catch me, after which they both kept asking me “What is it?”

I couldn’t tell them.

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(My favorite rock critic, my brother-in-law and me, circa the time period in question. Memory says the play list was heavy on Peter, Paul & Mary. Lovely. But they were not who was playing at the mall…or wherever.)

I probably knew the words “music” and “song.” They were concepts my favorite rock critic lived for. But, in that moment, overwhelmed by that sound, I wasn’t able to call up the words. My senses weren’t merely lost but overwhelmed. I was, for the first and last time in my life, experiencing a strange, benumbing combination of physical pain and an insistent inner command to laugh out loud, which, for some reason, I could not obey.

All I could do was keep pointing at the roof of the mall (or wherever it was).

And that was all I was ever able to do.

Years later, when I finally bought the record that was playing over some set of surround sound speakers somewhere in Central Florida in 1964 or 1965 (on an “oldies” 45, which I still have), I didn’t even think to ask my favorite rock critic if she remembered this little incident. Nor did I ever think to ask afterwards. Because I didn’t think to ask, I’ll never know.

She loved the record. I remember that much. My favorite rock critic had killer taste. Just listen and hear…

 *    *    *    *

My favorite rock critic never bought records herself (she was into sheet music).

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(My favorite rock critic, a little later on. With her sheet music….Or somebody’s.)

There were some kids’ records around the house when I was growing up, and some albums my father picked up at thrift stores, mostly Broadway soundtracks or easy listening instrumentals. I listened here and there after I learned to work the stereo’s record player. If I listened to the radio, it was to Braves’ games or college football. Never the radio. If I knew the words to any pop song, “Snowbird” say, it was from my favorite rock critic’s song books, the vast majority of which were religious. My favorite rock critic arranged and directed church choirs when she wasn’t singing in them or, more likely, in front of them. There was music everywhere at my house. Just not much rock and roll.

The first peak at my own future came when my sister moved out, for the last time, after my brother-in-law came back from Viet Nam. She left her 45s, which consisted of a Little Richard that was too beat up to play (I can close my eyes and still see every single thing on that Specialty label except the title), Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing In the Sunshine,” which I liked well enough to learn the words to (and which I still have), and this one (which I also still have):

Unless maybe it can be traced to that experience above (about which more later…reveal at the end!), I don’t doubt my inordinate affection for what, in those days, were still called “girl” singers, dates from the summer afternoons when I was ten, eleven, twelve, when I played “Ode to Billie Joe” ten, eleven, twelve times in a row, day after day, while my favorite rock critic went about her business, never once asking me to stop or play something else or even becoming the least exasperated when I asked her, yet again, for the tenth or eleventh or twelfth time “What does it mean?”

“There were a lot of rumors when it came out,” she would say. “But nobody really knows.”

I was convinced, in those days, that my favorite rock critic, the most honest person I knew (or ever would know), was keeping some horrible adult secret from me. I was convinced of it, even though she never had the least bit of trouble telling me I was too young if I really was. Such is the power of the Gothic tale.

By the way, I’ll save my deep thoughts for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” post some day, but this much I can say here: There are still a lot of rumors about what “Ode to Billie Joe” means. And just because Bobbie Gentry has taken a stab at explaining it herself, doesn’t mean anybody really knows.

 *   *    *    *

You might think that, having been captured by a 45, I would seek to replicate the experience. I did not. I’m not sure why. Money would certainly have been an object. I didn’t have any. I did not get an allowance. Any money I made working for my father, from nine to nineteen, went into a college fund (which would remain untouched and, in its interest-bearing entirety, one day pay for exactly three months at university…there were reasons we did not buy many records at my house).

But it’s just as possible that, being surrounded by music in the house, I did not feel any great need to seek it elsewhere. And still more possible that being captured by that particular 45 put a brake on what might otherwise have been my natural development.

In any case, time passed, and we moved to another part of the state. For reasons I went on at some length about here and here and here, I became a record junkie.

And a smart aleck.

One day, in my full-blown smark alecky phase–sixteen maybe, or seventeen–I was listening to the radio in my room (yeah I listened to the real radio by then, a lot). The local Top 40 came out of South Alabama and played a mix of current hits and oldies. It was a Saturday and me and my favorite rock critic were cleaning my room and one of Roy Orbison’s ballads came on. “Only the Lonely” if memory serves. Roy at his greatest. Elvis’ favorite singer. I thought I’d play a smart aleck joke on my favorite rock critic, who was a huge Elvis fan, so I spent two and half minutes convincing her it was Elvis. She didn’t buy it at first, but I was so convincing, and she so much believed I was sufficiently like her that I wouldn’t treat such a thing frivolously or pointlessly, that she finally accepted my truth. Elvis sang “Only the Lonely.”

And then?

One of Elvis’s ballads came on. God help me if it wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” which, perhaps sacrilegiously, I’ve never really considered primo Elvis and, as a record, wouldn’t consider in the same league with “Only the Lonely” even to this day.

Except…The joke, my joke, was about the voices. Not the records.

As my favorite rock critic liked to tell people with a smile ever after, when she, never I, would bring up the story: “And you could hear the difference….Right away.”

By which she meant, you could hear why Elvis was Elvis, even on “Love Me Tender” and why even Roy Orbison wasn’t, even on “Only the Lonely.”

And, God help me, you could.

That was the last time I tried to play a musical joke on anybody, let alone my favorite rock critic.

But something about that moment made us closer (perhaps I should say even closer) than we had been. I think the shock I felt at being so coyly betrayed by the Cosmos, and the clarity with which I learned my lesson, left her with a feeling that we might meet in the middle on my new favorite subject…that she might yet teach me something about it that couldn’t be learned in books.

She taught me.

One thing she taught me was not to take professional rock critics too seriously. A few years later, I gave her Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with which I was very much impressed at the time, to read. Her response to the Elvis part was, “Well, at least he treated him with some respect.” Which was her way of saying he didn’t quite get it, a judgment time has confirmed. On the other hand, her response to Marcus’s description of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” (“a vision of heaven superimposed on a vision of hell”), which I read to her right after I played her the record, was: “Yes, that’s perfect.” Meaning both the record and the description, judgments time has also confirmed.

And she “got” things I didn’t get but someday would: Everything from Grease to, yes, Elvis.

Most of all, my favorite rock critic got voices. Their power, their seduction and, above all else, their cost. The only two voices she ever described as being “like an angel,” were Martin Luther King’s and Karen Carpenter’s. I’m not sure I took that comparison (which she never made directly) all that seriously. Kinda silly really. Until Karen Carpenter turned up dead. Turned out, my favorite rock critic knew, just by listening, who was likely to be chased out of this world by hellhounds. So while I didn’t know if she was wise beyond her years, I soon learned she was wise beyond mine. There was, for instance, no chance anyone raised by my favorite rock critic would ever be taken in by Johnny Rotten (the way to dusty death for me, whatever he meant to you).

Thus, there were some happy days, of which a few still stand out:

One day I was listening to this…

…and she asked me who it was. When I told her, she smiled and nodded and said: “I knew it had to be brothers. Only families can harmonize like that.”

Voices.

Another day, (the day after I brought it home and played it as incessantly as I’d played “Ode to Billie Joe” once upon a time), this…

My favorite rock critic: “Now who did that song you were playing last night.”
Me: “A group called the Shangri-Las.”
My favorite rock critic (with her familiar smile and nod): “I thought it was them. I always remembered them because they were always so different.”

Voices.

Another day, this…

…to which, assuredly: “That’s as good as Little Richard.”

Voices.

Another day, this (just out on the radio)…

The opening chord was chiming as we pulled into a parking space at the bank, me driving (she didn’t), me in control of the radio (she always let me), me ready to go inside, her saying: “Oh let’s listen to this.” To this day, I don’t know whether my favorite rock critic loved the song or just knew I did. She’d have told me if I asked. But my favorite rock critic knew I wouldn’t.

Voices. Or maybe just sounds.

Another day, this…

My favorite rock critic, with her eyes closed, ten seconds into hearing it for the first time and not knowing the Band from Adam: “They must have played together for years to have that kind of timing.”

Voices. Or sounds.

Another day, it might be this…

or this….

And my favorite rock critic would say something like “Where do you find these?” and I would be able to recount little tales of the record collector’s art that, among other things, demonstrated that professional rock critics were not always entirely worthless!

75

(My favorite rock critic in her element. That’s our long-gone stereo behind the chair. I still have the guitar. I can’t play a lick and it’s one of exactly three physical possessions that will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.)

Then, one day, it was late in the game, toward the change, when the happy days weren’t so common and were more typified by me playing something like this…

And my favorite rock critic, eyes closed, her own voice racked by age and disease, sighing and saying, “I used to sing like that.” To which my father, befuddled, said “You never sounded like that.” Meaning my favorite rock critic was an operatic soprano, not a soul baritone. To which I said, as gently as I could: “That’s not what she meant.” Meaning even my favorite rock critic never spoke truer.

Voices.

90

(My favorite rock critic, near the end of happy days)

Anybody who has followed the blog knows my favorite rock critic was a major Elvis fan.

They may not know that she always thought if she could have reached Elvis somehow she could have saved his life. Tom Petty was among the many who thought the same. I doubt anyone could have, but if anyone could have, I’d have bet on my favorite rock critic before I bet on anyone else.

They may know that my favorite rock critic used to tell stories about singing with the hobos, who eventually taught her to hop trains, in the Salisbury, North Carolina train yard when she was barely older than I was when I had my first musical memory.

They may not know that she started to give me and our pastor’s son guitar lessons but went in the hospital two lessons in for one of her longer stays. By the time she got out, the pastor’s son was on summer vacation. By the time he got back, his father had found a new church. I don’t think either she or I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to take guitar lessons again was that my nine or ten year old self–not much younger than she was when she hopped those trains and rode them only to the edge of town–arrived at some subconscious conclusion that guitar lessons equaled hospital visits and there were enough of those already.

That’s how it is, sometimes, when your favorite rock critic happens to be the person who brought you into this world.

If I’m even a little bit better person than I was born to be, I have my favorite rock critic to thank. And wherever she is now, I know she can see and hear my earliest memory–wherever and whenever it was–far more clearly than I can.

And, if she ever thinks about that moment when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, wherever and whenever it was, I know she’s smiling, knowing it turned out okay.

Here’s to then….And to Voices. And sounds.

Happy Mother’s Day!

(Next Up: My Favorite Music to Break Rulers By…By Which I Mean the Kind You Can Use for Drumsticks If You Don’t Have Drums)

MORE NOTES FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS–April 26, 2016 (The Shangri-Las, Greil Marcus and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

From Marcus’s latest “Real Life” column (and from whence, upon a little further research, came yesterday’s post):

8. The Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack” (Red Bird, 1964) Another shot on the Trump rally soundtrack—against the objections of Shangri-Las lead singer Mary Weiss. But really, Trump ought to know the song. He was 18 in New York when the New York group hit the top of the charts. Doesn’t he realize the leader of the pack dies?

(Source: Pitchfork, “Real Life Rock Top 10” 4/25/16)

The answer, incidentally, is you bet he does. Many sources have confirmed that Trump picks his own rally music. I believe them, and, however comforting the notion might be, I don’t believe anything is there by virtue of accident or misunderstanding.

As to what it means? Well Marcus took a stab at it, following on from his next entry, which turned on Steve Miller’s recent laudable call for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “to keep expanding your vision. To be more inclusive of women. And to be more transparent in your dealing with the public. And to do much more to provide music in our schools.”

Women: the Shangri-Las have never been nominated, let alone inducted. But maybe that’s why Donald Trump doesn’t really know “Leader of the Pack”—they’re losers, and he doesn’t truck with scum.

Well, maybe. But that’s only going skin-deep. Trump’s appeal isn’t exactly to the winners. If it were, he never would have gotten off the ground. The “winners” always have an embarrassment of lackeys to choose from and Trump’s one really fascinating quality is the fear he has struck into every one of the kingmakers. Frankly, I liked Weiss’s response (posted yesterday) better. It was angry and policy based, not merely contemptuous and dismissive. I don’t think Marcus even realizes how much he has in common with the overlords on this subject.

But far more significant to me, is the Rock Hall part. I seem to remember that Marcus long ago turned down an opportunity to be on the Hall’s nominating committee, a place from whence he might have been enormously influential. As far as I know, he has mostly observed silence on the subject ever since. So for him to be making some much needed noise is highly welcome news. And it wasn’t in a vacuum, because all of this followed on his answer to a question about the Hall’s relevance on the “Ask Greil” feature of his website (which is fascinating in any case) from a few days ago:

I know this: regardless of what we may think of the white boys club, its myopia, its kitschiness, or the way they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel with Cheap Trick and Deep Purple to avoid the Shangri-Las, the Adverts, X-Ray Spex, the Mekons, the Chiffons—are the Shirelles in? How could they not be?—not to mention keeping NWA out as if they had to wait politely by the door like children or dogs, being in there means everything to the performers. It makes them think they did something good with their lives, and that they won’t be forgotten. That’s a lot.

I’ve been beating this drum since the early nineties, when it first became evident that women artists were clearly being shoved to one side in the Hall’s process. (I wrote a long-g-g-g-g letter to Dave Marsh at the time. He was then, and still is, on the nominating committee. Coincidentally or not, several of the acts I mentioned, including the Shirelles, got in over the next several years, though, of course, anyone who follows this blog knows that it remains, ahem, a problem). But Greil Marcus has a much bigger platform than I do and his assessment of why the Hall matters is perfect.

This is the most Hall buzz the Shangri-Las have had since right after the Ronettes were inducted in the wake of former nominating committee member Phil Spector being indicted for murder. It’s fair enough, since, perhaps inadvertently, the willingness of Marcus and so many other first generation rock critics to swallow anything “white boy” svengalis like Spector and George Goldner told them, helped set in stone the narrative that the producer was king.

The cracks in that stone continue to grow. I do my best to track every single one of them.

Because, believe me, when it’s finally rolled away, we’ll all be living in a better world.

THE RISING: BATTLE OF THE L.A. BANDS EDITION (Fifth Memo)

Los Angeles in the 70s: Who would you trust?

becerkandfagen2

WAR2

Steely Dan….or War?

H-m-m-m.

Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.

I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.

Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.

Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.

By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.

First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.

Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:

Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.

In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.

Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.

I’m not sure I could blame him.

It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.

I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer

The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.

About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.

Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.

*   *   *   *

They had a lot in common besides that.

They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:

War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.

Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)

That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.

I’ll lay into that in a bit.

But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:

Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).

Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).

Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).

Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.

Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.

Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).

And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.

So it goes.

None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.

So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.

It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.

Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.

How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?

Hm-m-m-m…Could be?

Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.

*   *   *   *

Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:

WARALLDAYMUSIC

CANTBUYATHRILL

I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.

Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.

I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.

Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?

All of the above?

None of the above?

Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).

And if it takes reading Donald Fagen’s biography to find out, I’m probably never gonna know.

A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.

In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.

This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.

The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.

Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.

Unless, of course, we just want to give up.

*   *   *   *

And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?

Maybe recognition of something elemental?

Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?

That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.

What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?

Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.

Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.

Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.

That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.

Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.

The way black people just naturally are.

On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the  Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.

They were thinkers by God!

Philosophers.

Artiste‘s even.

And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…

Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…

And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”

Ha, ha, ha.

That’s one side.

And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:

“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”

Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.

So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”

That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.

*  *  *  *

Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.

Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.

Ever.

Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.

They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.

Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.

It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)

And they did not do so “instinctively.”

They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.

Quite the opposite.

*    *    *   *

Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.

Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.

Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.

And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.

So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.

Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.

In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.

In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.

But War went further.

Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.

There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.

By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.

They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.

But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?

Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.

Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.

So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.

To be fair, War faded as well.

Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.

Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.

Hardly cosmic.

It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.

Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.

But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.

Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:

Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.

The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.

The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.

The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”

War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.

And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.

In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.

They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time

*   *   *   *

War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.

Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”

The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.

And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.

Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.

It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.

Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.

And if there is no judgment?

Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.

And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.