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



Steely Dan….or War?


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:



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!


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.


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.

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

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

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


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

Fleetwood Mac

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It helps if you sold a lot of records.

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

So there’s the criteria.

Only two people ever met every standard for me.

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


Or her…


Al Green or Patty Loveless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or this….;

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

and Richard Thompson (stay for the wild applause)…

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

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

Each walked down.

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

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

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

Thus, each has legions of imitators, some inspired.

Neither has a true inheritor.

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

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

There are no weak tracks in either catalog.

One is hard-pressed to find a mediocrity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who really knows?

We all have our opinions.

You can probably guess mine.

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

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

You can hear it coming, happening, landing….

In neither instance was the case made with words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sing for us!” it said.

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

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

I don’t know if it ever really happened.

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

They sang for us.

Choose between them?

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

No thanks.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Double LP)


What I can’t understand is why Blacks can’t achieve royal status when it comes to forms that they have largely created? I mean there’s a White King of Rock n’ Roll, there’s a White King of Jazz, how come we can never achieve titles of royalty in these fields we are supposed to prevail in? They held a so called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the other night, where White judges credit people who resemble them with the invention of Rock and Roll. I didn’t even see Blacks in the audience.

There would be no Rock and Roll without Ike Turner, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, etc. Fake ghetto books and fake ghetto music. Elvis Presley, whom they idol, is merely a karaoke makeover of James Brown and Chuck Berry.

(Ishmael Reed, interview with Counterpunch, March 15, 2008. Interview can be read here.)

I’ll set the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jibe aside, except to note that all of the men Reed mentions had been inducted into the Hall years earlier. That’s just standard public intellectual ignorance.

And we’ll leave Paul Whiteman and the tendency of marketing departments to equate royalty with sales out of this.

As to the Elvis part:

Reed is, perhaps unwittingly, using a classic propaganda technique: criticizing fake narratives by utilizing a fake narrative.

I say perhaps unwittingly, without putting any percentages on it, because, like most fake narratives, this one is rooted in ignorance born of emotion.  Reed wants what he says to be true, therefore it is true. Or will be, if enough people just keep repeating it.

As to facts? Those stubborn things?

Sorry, but once in a while, we have to slog back through the actual record, tiresome though the march may be.


Of the five men he mentions, only two of them had made a record before Elvis made his first.

Of those, Ike Turner was a band leader and session man who was indeed repeatedly ripped off by white business men (mostly Sam Phillips and the Bihari brothers, for whom Ike later claimed to have written more than seventy hits they copyrighted under their own names, which is probably even more tunes than Don Robey stole from Bobby Bland**) throughout the early and mid fifties. He did in fact lead the band for this enormously influential record:

The record was written and sung by Jackie Brenston. But Ike played the galvanizing piano part, which was a straight cop on the other man Reed mentions, Fats Domino.

Fats Domino, who had his first big hit in 1950, was the actual and undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, at least in the sense he and Elvis understood the term before Elvis exploded the original definition into smithereens.

The way I know this, besides having ears, is Elvis said as much.

He said it at an obscure little international press conference forty years before Ishmael Reed (who, unlike Elvis, doesn’t know his history on this subject, and, unlike Elvis, clearly relates to the very specific “black people” he mentions as something other than people) got Fats mixed up with a lot of other guys because he was giving an interview in which he spent the bulk of his time criticizing (rightly, it should be said) a lot of other people for getting things mixed up.

And then he let what he heard somewhere and never bothered to check up on for himself rule his thinking.

Of course, most of what Reed says in his interview is true or at least plausible. I encourage you to follow the link and read the whole thing.

But a lie never does more damage than when it’s surrounded by truth.

Makes it seem, you know, credible.

Nonetheless, Elvis made this..

…and a lot of other “rock and roll” records before Chuck Berry or James Brown (the only person not in Elvis’ inner circle who was allowed to spend time with his corpse and who later wrote in his autobiography, “I wasn’t just a fan. I was his brother.”) ever made it to a recording studio.

Funny, it’s never occurred to me to accuse them of doing a “karaoke makeover” of Elvis just because they likely (in Chuck Berry’s case), or certainly (in James Brown’s case), heard him before he heard them.

And why not?

Because that would make me look stupid?

Yeah, that’s part of it.

But the main reason is this little creed of mine:

When the house is on fire, don’t strike a match.

Not even a little one.

No matter how good it makes you feel.

(**NOTE: Neal U. makes a good point in comments that theft in the record business was not limited to white businessmen ripping off black artists. He covers the main points in his comment which I encourage you to read. I’d only add that black businessmen ripping off white artists was uncommon because the dynamic just didn’t occur that often. With every other racial combination, copyright theft was rampant.)



I’m up to 1991 in Greil Marcus’s Real Life Top Ten. It’s still running like a freight train most of the time. Then, every once in a while, the Shangri-Las drift in from left field and everything grinds to a halt:

3) Ed Sanders, The Family: The Manson Group and its Aftermath (Signet/NAL) reissue, 1971)….

Here sex can seem uglier than murder, murder more casual than sex, sex so often ritual, dog blood poured on copulating bodies a logical extension of the standard Family initiation or its everyday, California, do-your-own-thing version of Adamite and Free Spirit beliefs and practices that went back almost a thousand years. Even without the material on the Process Church of the Final Judgment and the Solar Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, removed after the first edition because of lawsuits (that’s what libraries are for), Sanders’ narrative casts a spell so strong it can suck in almost anything. I saw the Shangri-Las in a TV nostalgia clip doing “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”  and in their blithe teenage nihilism they could have been from Manson’s harem…

So, to previous descriptions/assumptions of Mary Weiss as…

Dead: (“The In Between Years,” Mark Sten, included in Rock Almanac, Stephen Nugent and Charlie Gillett, eds., Anchor Press, 1978)

Black: (James Brown, 1964. Also numerous YouTube commenters of recent vintage)

Jewish: (Are You There God, It’s Me Mary: The Shangri-Las and the Punk Rock Love Song, Tracy Landecker, Rhino Kindle, 2012…it was released on Sept. 11. proving somebody, somewhere has a sense of humor; Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton, Ashgate, 2009, along with numerous articles/comments that can be found on-line, whether feeding the “research,” herein or drawing upon it is anyone’s guess.)

Catholic: (Most everyone else. Of course, one can be ethnically Jewish and of the Catholic faith. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that Mary Weiss is neither.)

Brunette: (The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh, 1989…He mixed the Weiss sisters with the Gansers so he specifically had her in a beehive. Mary Ann Ganser was identified as the lead: “a straight-haired blonde.”  The error was not corrected in the 2nd edition).

Betty Weiss: (Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las, Phillips International, 1966, and various liner notes to a number of other comps over the years.)

Marge Ganser: (A book on Rock and Roll Death I picked up and thumbed through in a book store once. I couldn’t afford to buy it and I never saw it again. Today, the internet yields no solid clues as to the book’s actual existence. But I swear it happened. It’s out there. No, really. On any bible you want!)

Patty Hearst’s soul mate: (“How the Other Half Lived,” Greil Marcus, Village Voice, Sept. 8, 1975...I had my say about that here.)

We can now add…

Manson girl…not to mention teenage nihilist: (Real Life Rock, Marcus, Yale Press, 2015. Reprinting a column from March, 1991, originally published in Artforum)

There are at least six different versions of the Shangri-Las performing “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” on YouTube, but the “TV nostalgia clip” Marcus encountered was likely this one, which I’m almost certain is the only one that has ever been “officially” released (and thus the only one licensed to be on television) and which, when I first saw a piece of it in the 1983 documentary Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound, I took as a sign from Heaven that life on Earth was indeed worth living. Different strokes for different folks, I guess:

And, no, all these years later, I still don’t see Susan Atkins or Patricia Krenwinkle in there. Quite the opposite in fact. Call it joy. Call it knowing. Call it the joy of knowing….something. Something not everybody knows.

Call it “nihilism” and I’m liable to think you are making stuff up.

Me not being a certified psychoanalyst, there is clearly way-y-y-y too much disturbance in the male psyche going on in Marcus’s piece for me to be comfortable with any further speculation on which of us might have a screw loose somewhere.

But I will say none of it matches what I still consider the weirdest description of Weiss I’ve ever come across.

It’s from the 1983 updated edition of Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City (the original 1970 version did not contain it). He described Mary Weiss’s voice thus:


I ain’t going anywhere near that.

UPDATE: One thing I should have mentioned is that, in the liner notes of her (very fine) 2007 solo album, Dangerous Game, Weiss included Marcus in the list of those she thanked for their “encouragement and support.” His reaching out to her for a response via email to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks may well have been one of the stepping stones that lured her back into the studio. Greil Marcus does some very good things. Which may be why I find his own nihilistic streak very disorienting.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Wait Until Dark on Campus)


i had occasion here to write about the last time I watched Wait Until Dark, the 1968 thriller starring Alan Arkin and Audrey Hepburn. I’ll stand by everything I wrote there, but this week brought another interesting experience with the same movie.

FSU has a very nice Student Life Center, with a stadium-style movie theater on one side and a smaller theater in a room across the hall with folding chairs, DVD projection, crappy sound and, as of this visit (I hadn’t been in a couple of years) two separate screens, side by side in the same room.

I guess the extra seating is courtesy of the place getting more popular. On my two previous visits, there was one screen and maybe twenty people in attendance. Both sides of the room were packed for this one, maybe a hundred people total.

I didn’t learn anything new about the movie itself and the viewing experience was, as I expected, less than ideal. But the time I spent trundling down there, hiking from the nearest parking lot (no sense expecting a government institution to do something logical like stick parking spaces near the campus movie theater and, as a long ago habitue of the previous rat-trap theater I can assure you it was ever thus), was nonetheless well spent.

What I was mostly interested in was finding out how an audience of college kids would react to an old fashioned thriller.

They reacted alright. In spades.

That wasn’t entirely a positive thing, mind you. Apparently, the new kids are conditioned to respond to every strong emotion with a single emotion: Laughter.

Terror on the screen? Good excuse to laugh.

Rage? Psychosis? Romance? Unexpected plot twist?

Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto.

I may have forgotten a turn or two, but, trust me, the response was the same.


Frankly, the movie’s strongest element, which is Hepburn’s nuanced portrait of a women being subjected to gradually mounting terror, was completely lost. If I hadn’t seen the movie before, I would have walked out having no idea how she handled the part because, every time she emoted, there was…laughter.

Up until the last ten minutes.

During the last ten minutes, they started screaming because they were having the be-jesus scared out of them. I don’t exactly know the reason the response was so intense. I mean, it’s a good movie and an effective chiller, but I didn’t expect any reaction to be that extreme and that universal (I might have been the only person who wasn’t screaming). But I suspect it had something to do with seeing a real person actually terrorized. It’s not something that’s ever happened much in the movies and I doubt very seriously it’s happened at all in the lifetime of today’s twenty year old college kid.

I don’t put a lot of faith in anecdotal evidence. If I did, then I’d have to conclude, for instance (on the basis of an opening day viewing of The Break-Up with a theater full of black women), that Jennifer Aniston has cachet in modern Black America on a par with James Brown in the sixties. Maybe she does, but based on everything else I know about that subject, I’d have to say that it’s more likely there are times when an audience is just in the mood.

This felt like more than that, though.

It felt like the kids who have been socially conditioned to laugh at everything were afraid for Audrey Hepburn.

So maybe her performance got through after all.

I may not have to entirely give up on the future. And, believe me, that’s a relief. Because with ten minutes to go, I was ready to do just that.

Tuesday night is Psycho, incidentally. In the big theater.

Can’t wait for that.



Given where technology and “markets” (i.e., viable distribution systems) are headed, the various series the Bear Family has been putting out lately, dedicated to fifties’ R&B, country, sixties’ soul, doo wop and so forth, are probably going to serve future generations in a capacity similar to that provided by the Irish monks who preserved scripture in the Dark Ages.

I’ve spent this year working on the Street Corner Symphonies series and I’m up to 1956, which was even more of a watershed year than 1953 or 1954 (which I wrote about here) or 1955.

Bill Dahl, whose been an R&B historian for about as long as there has been such a thing, did the notes for the series, and he rightly notes that ’56 was the year rock and roll supplanted blues and gospel as the unifying force in the era’s vocal group dynamics.

But that just means those older styles were subsumed, not that they vanished. Here, they’ve moved from conscious to subconscious but their force is still present, the submergence creating a new dynamic that would last until the rise of punk and rap in the late seventies.

Just how much the world had opened up in the space of a year hit’s home in the distance covered by tracks 7 and 8, both uber-familiar, both as fresh as the day they were recorded.

First you get the Platters, with Tony Williams doing everything it’s possible to do with a pop ballad–everything anybody had ever done and everything anybody, including Roy Orbison, would ever do…

Then, without warning, you get the kind of head snap that put rock and roll in the center of the culture overnight and kept it there for the next thirty years. It took that long for the overlords to get their feet completely back under them. They’ve been stepping on us ever since and, absent a cataclysm no sane person will want to live through, I doubt they’ll let the boot slip again. But you can still listen to this, coming out of the song above, and know why it was so hard…and why a sliver of hope always remains.

I mean, who knew people were capable of this, the minute before it happened?

Certainly nobody in Tin Pan Alley.

That’s why, within a few years, the operative catchphrase for the same basic process had changed to “Brill Building” and the scene was being run by twenty-two year old kids with classical training they could utilize or discard at will.

No real surprise. After the segue above, the conservatory and the street were bound to meet somewhere above the old timers’ heads.

And all of that’s before you get the Cookies (who would soon be the Raelettes) pushing the dawn of the girl talk ethos back a full year before the Bobbettes and Chantels….

and the Six Teens offering proof of just how far Brian Wilson’s knowledge of the L.A. doo wop scene really extended….

and some guy named James Brown, showing up at the very end, sounding more “traditional” than anyone on this disc, and also pointing the way to a future that couldn’t be denied.

I’m done for now. I plan to quietly fold my hands in my robe in preparation for spending the rest of the day in meditation and perhaps copying a chapter or two from the Book of Judges.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)


At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.


So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.



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

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

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

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

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

Hard sound. Harder politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOSING THE PAST (More Notes from the Story that Never Ends)

“The spoken introduction [i.e., to “Johnny Reggae”] specifically recalls the Shangri-Las’ spoken introduction on their 1964-65 hit, “Leader of the Pack,” which reached number eleven on the UK chart in January 1965. Here the question is ‘Is she really going out with him?’ followed by, ‘Betty, is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?”….Whereas the majority of American girl groups were black, the Shangri-Las were most likely Jewish and positioned as white (see Stratton, 2009, ch. 2). Their songs often expressed white middle-class teenage girls’ fantasies and angst. In contrast to this American melodramatic seriousness, “Johnny Reggae” sung in a London working class accent, reads humorously as English working class bathos.”

(Source: When Music Migrates: Crossing British and European Racial Faultlines, 1945–2010 Jon Stratton, 2014)

“We can now begin to appreciate the full irony of this Jewish group’s name, invoking utopian suburbia yet singing songs of family destruction.”

(Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton, 2009)

Just so we have this straight: Stratton first definitively calls the Shangri-Las a Jewish group. Then, for the record, he goes on to build a serious argument around their Jewishness, or at least the thematic Jewishness of their songs, which were “mostly” written by Shadow Morton, who Stratton acknowledges is not Jewish.

Then, in a later book, he calls upon his own “research” as the foundation of a comparison/contrast wherein the Shangs are expressing “white middle-class teeenage girls’ fantasies and angst.”

That’s after he’s mentioned, in this later book, that they were “likely” Jewish (which, for the record, means he doesn’t know) but “positioned white” (which doesn’t mean anything to his “Jewish Blackface” argument, unless, of course, they are in fact demonstrably Jewish, in which case it might merely be banal).

Hoo-boy. Here we go again.

First, let me just state that I could care less whether any or all of the Shangri-Las were/are Jewish. But I’d never build an academic argument on the basis that they were and then admit that I didn’t know whether they were or not.

I mean, if I couldn’t find out for certain (and since it took me twenty years to determine whether Mary Weiss was indeed the lead singer, a journey I wrote about at length in the initial post for this blog, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if I remained in eternal ignorance on this other question in which I’m not terribly interested), then I would let it go.

Or just say I couldn’t find out…which might be an interesting story in itself.

I would be especially inclined to let it go if I was publishing “academic” books and therefore presumably had the resources to do a bit of checking beyond what’s available (or not) on the internet.

Mind you, I’ve long since got past the point where I expect that sort of thing from actual academics. I’m just saying that’s what I would do.

But of course, what I really always find fascinating is just how much confusion proliferates around the Shangri-Las specifically, even years after Mary Weiss finally came out of the shadows and gave a bunch of interviews that clarified just about everything except their ethnicity.

For instance, one of the other arguments Stratton makes is that “Past, Present and Future” is about rape, with the implication that this gives it a special hidden power (or words to that effect…it’s all wrapped up in dystopian angst suffered by an oppressed people trying to reach the American dream and finding only a nightmare, but then you knew that).

Just in case you didn’t happen to listen to the interview Weiss did with Suzi Quatro in 2007 (before either of Stratton’s books were published), she specifically said (as she had repeatedly done elsewhere) that such theories were news to her and (as she has done elsewhere) found them a touch ridiculous.

But what does she know?

Taken to that extent and no further, Stratton’s comments are only the usual bilge. That is, they wouldn’t be terribly illuminating even if the Shangri-Las (all famous attendees of a Catholic grammar school and a public high school) really were Jewish (which is, of course, still possible). And they hardly do more damage than dozens of other trite or false statements made over five decades and counting.

But, in this case, the fundamental fakery runs deeper than that.

For being “positioned white”–meaning positioned to take full advantage of their skin color by hiding their Jewishness and bleaching the sound and/or lyric themes of the “mostly black” girl groups–the Shangri-Las certainly had an interesting history.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, James Brown hired them for his revue on the assumption they were black. As I’ve mentioned several times before, Weiss had a Houston cop draw a gun on her before one of those shows when she insisted on using a “colored” bathroom (she used it anyway).

As I may not have mentioned before, they were also this:


And, as I almost certainly have not mentioned before, they were virtually the last white group of the rock and roll era to cross over in any meaningful way to the R&B charts, and, so far as I can tell, the only group to do so who emerged after the British Invasion essentially re-divided the Pop and R&B charts along specifically racial lines that soon resembled 1954 (though the existence of Motown effectively disguised just how thorough the Pop bleaching otherwise was–one of several reasons that calling Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the five or six most important men in the history of rock and roll is probably underselling him…with the difference between the way the Supremes, or even the Marvelettes, were managed versus the way the Shangri-Las were managed probably being reason enough all on its own).

In other words, their songs did not appeal merely, or even mainly, to white middle-class teenage female fantasies.

To believe that, we’d have to dismiss some history.

Like the fact that on October 10, 1964, in a year when Billboard was not publishing an R&B chart because, absent the unforeseen arrival of the Beatles, the Pop and R&B charts had become so blurred as to make keeping a separate chart more trouble than it was worth, there were exactly three records by white artists in Cash Box‘s R&B Top Fifty.

The Kingsmen’s “Death of an Angel” was sitting at #29 (only God knows why).

The other two songs were “Leader of the Pack” (which had just entered the chart at #38, a slot above Aretha Franklin’s latest) and “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which was at #9, sandwiched between Jerry Butler and James Brown just above and Dionne Warwick and Sam Cooke just below.

Not that he’d have thought there was anything wrong with doing so, but I guess James could have been forgiven for assuming they weren’t merely pandering to white middle-class teenage girls..or otherwise “positioned as white.”

You know, when he saw their name next to his on the only chart that was keeping up with what Black America was listening to in 1964.

Just remember folks. The same sort of minds that come up with these little gems cover politics, write history and work in “science” departments.

So remember to trust no one just because they say so.

Well…almost no one: