PROPHETS IN THE SUN (The Mamas & the Papas: Vocalist(s) of the Month 9/17)

“We had so much fun in two years, there was no more fun to be had.”

John Phillips (from A Gathering of Flowers, intro to “California Dreamin'”)

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The career of the Mamas & the Papas played out with a kind of classical purity. They embodied the dark and the light of “the Sixties” by living lives that were consummately hedonistic and making music that was almost completely self-referential.

“Don’t worry,” their best music said, and says, ” if you aren’t here yet, you will be.”

Come hither.

“It’s also entirely possible,” that same music said, and says, “that we’ll have moved on by then.”

Nah-na-na-na-nah!

To make it work, they needed to carry off a style of organic arrogance that made the Rolling Stones look like supplicants.

They made it work.

Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.

Funny thing, though.

I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.

Come hither….

And I can’t.

Nah-na-na-na-nah!

Oh sure, there were greater groups. Greater artists. And I have no idea how they seemed in their own time. I was in second grade.

I know how they seem now, from this time: Unfathomable.

And what better description of their time can you get?

Their backstory became famous. In “Creeque Alley” they even made it sound famously typical, which, except for selling millions of records, it maybe was.

But, when I say there were greater artists, I really only mean there were artists whose greatness the Great Narratives imposed by others accepted more readily.

Because whenever I want to cast myself back there–and boy do I–there’s nobody I listen to more, nobody more dangerous, more unsettling, more….thrilling. Their time was the time worth understanding, the time we never walked away from in either dream or (more’s the pity) reality.

And, in memory at least, they are the ones who held it in their hands, more one with that time than literally anyone, one of exactly two sixties’ acts–two any-era acts really–who might have had a deal with the Devil in place.

They were different than the Stones, though. Mick and Keith (well, mostly Mick) just went ahead and made a straight deal. Why not? What did it cost them?

Send Brian Jones to the funeral pyre he was already bound for and tweak John Lennon’s nose now and again and what riches might await!

Who wouldn’t take that deal?

Besides, they were Brits and there was never going to be any more England anyway. Big whoop.

But to have punched a hole in the American boat, to have had your wings melt so close to that sun, ah, now we’re talking subversion–and arrogance–of truly epic proportions.

Come hither, their deal said, and you’ll be the only act alive who can (as the liner notes for one of their many anthologies had it) bridge Rodgers & Hart and Monterey Pop.

Who wouldn’t take that deal?

Well, somebody like me maybe. But that’s different. I was in second grade.

When I was in fourth grade, a couple of years after the Mamas & the Papas broke up (their two years of so much fun there was no more to be had having run out), I took the other deal, the Christian believer deal. I took it, knowing even then, that the biggest part of the deal lay in knowing I’d never be safe from the Devil who makes the deals (he doesn’t bother with the nonbelievers once they make their deal, why would he?) and never have so much fun there’d be no more to be had.

That’s as much as I ever knew about the deal. What my background and choices did prepare me for was understanding singers and their power.

And, oh what singers they were, those four, when they were together in their time. Nobody like them. And it wasn’t like they didn’t know it. Their knowing it is evident in pretty much every photograph they ever sat for.

…and pretty much every line they ever sung.

How they got together was famous even in their own time. They didn’t have to wait for biographers, which was just as well, since there’s never been a good one.

Naomi Cohen reimagined herself as Cass Elliot, then Mama Cass. Then she hung around until the others took her in, or on, or…something.

John Phillips reimagined himself as the type of erstwhile folkie who could end up with Michelle Gilliam, who soon reimagined herself as Mrs. Phillips (“I liked folk music,” she said much, much later, “but what I really liked were folk musicians!”)

Denny Doherty, a touch uncomfortable imagining himself as settling for the title of Mister Cass Elliot, soon reimagined himself as somebody who could have an affair with Mrs. Phillips and was lucky–or was it unlucky?–enough to find her willing to share his illusion, be it ever so briefly.

That was just the personal stuff.

Out of that, the music.

John Phillips said, as often as anyone would listen, that he couldn’t write from anything but experience. So they had experiences. That whole thing about a lifetime’s worth in two years was just an excuse to make hits and money. No experiences, no hits. No hits, no money. The legend only came about because they were so good at living lives so many others wished they could live, and even better at singing about it. They reeled off a dozen radio classics in short order and four albums that stagger about a bit, but never quit yielding surprises when you stop and listen close enough. (A fifth, from a contractually obligated “reunion” gig a few years later, was desultory….there was no more fun to be had.)

Their own rise, their own Zeitgeist, their own fall, their own destruction: all right there in the music that came out of the experiences.

For about twenty-five or thirty perfect months (depending on who’s counting and who’s defining perfect), they lived more dreams than four mere lifetimes could hold.

But in order to get the loot, they had to let the world in on it, and from the release of “Go Where You Wanna Go” (instantly pulled in favor of the just-as-perfect “California Dreamin’,” which somebody had initially made the very weird mistake of imagining as a Barry McGuire record) to having the commercial failure of “Safe In My Garden” assured by their sudden absence from their own lives (no more touring, no more television appearances, no more pretending everything, or even anything, was all right) the world grabbed hold. You could say the world has never let go.

And the arc was perfect.

“Go Where You Wanna Go” can’t be plumbed. Don’t even try. Even if you make a definitive decision on You don’t understand, that a girl like me can/can’t have just one man–that is, whether you want to stick with the lyric sheet (the groupie/muse’s ultimate lament) or what the ear can’t help hearing (Women’s Lib on speed!) at least some of the time–it doesn’t really help, so there’s no need to get all balled up about it. I’ve gone there for you and my sincere advice is to go right on thinking it’s simple. It’s not. It’s not even complicated in any ordinary dictionary sense of the word. More like kaleidoscopic.There’s so much going on that if you stop believing it’s simple or go on pretending that it’s complicated but only in the usual ways, it will eat your mind out from the inside.

It will make it like the good part of the Sixties never even happened except in dreams.

You don’t want that!

Better to just go on a journey. “California Dreamin'” so to speak.

It’s a journey only they can take you on and the magic’s in the music for sure–the mostly sharp writing, the Wrecking Crew time and again measuring up to the instrumental challenge of matching and underpinning the vocals, the formal elements of the bottomless harmonies.

But mostly the magic’s in the elements there is no real vocabulary for, musical or otherwise.

It’s not in the come hither. It’s in the nah-na-na-na-nah.

..Which starts right there in “California Dreamin’.”

I mean, from this distance you can hear the fear in it–and you can hear it overridden, stomped on. Put out to pasture. it was the sound that mattered and it was the sound that did it.

We’re so close, the sound said, that the obvious–and fierce to the point of at least metaphorical bloodletting–competition going on, can be turned on its head. They were so determined to be as one that all the counterpointing in the harmonies, all the “yeah’s” that meant “no” and all the “no’s” that meant “yeah”–or “yeah?”–were as nothing. I mean, just listen to them! And, as Lou Adler would have it (naming their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, easily the best-ever album title, after his first audio/visual impressions of the group) just look at them.

The imagery was perfect, almost as if it had been guided into existence by the unique, unsurpassable blend of their voices.

Or perhaps those voices demanded the acceptance of any old imagery they chose as the new definition of perfection.

The dream of the “Sixties” is, after all, right there.

Today will be what we want it to be.

You know, go where you wanna go.

Even the drugs will be cool. I mean….especially the drugs will be cool…

And, by extension, if today will be just what we want it to be, tomorrow will be even better!

In one fell swoop, the Folkies from Everywhere–Mexico, So-Cal, No-Cal, Nova Scotia, Alexandria (Virginia, but it might as well have been Egypt), the Hungry I and the Village and the Virgin Islands, fusing into one–had re-formatted the Protestant Reformation’s promise of a future Golden Age (itself the rejection of the age-old idea that the Golden Age lay in the past, a rejection that set Europe’s Ice People on a staggering five-hundred-year winning streak of which, as of 1966, “Go Where You Wanna Go” seemed like no more or less than the natural conclusion and justification–yes it meant, and means, that much–your refusal to believe in it doesn’t negate its refusal to acknowledge your silly refusals).

There was, of course, no direction to head from there except Utopia or the Long Fall.

We know–perhaps they even knew–where that fork in the road always leads.

You can have the greatest vocal group in history and just happen to include among your number one of the Rock Era’s two or three finest vocal arrangers who just happens to be an ace songwriter.

You can hook up with a great producer and have unlimited access to the best session players in the world–the only people, perhaps, who could ever hope to match your Utopian vocal and visual presence to sounds worthy of comparison (and, believe me, if you ever get around to listening to what’s going on behind the vocals, you’ll find the Wrecking Crew at the far edge of their own weighty experience–not even for Pet Sounds or Frank Sinatra did they reach further). You can be the only group of any era to have great male and female lead singers, breathtaking close and counterpoint harmonies, the ability to answer male and/or female calls with male and/or female responses, and to have the answers be vocal/lyrical affirmations and/or refusals.

You can hold all that in your hand while you take the coolest drugs, ride around in the fastest cars, sleep in the biggest, spookiest movie star mansions with the partners of your choice under the world’s most beautiful skies.

You can even promise to share it with your listening audience–to transport them into your world, three golden minutes at at time.

And you can deliver over and over again.

But that choice between the Garden you found and the Mean Old World you couldn’t quite leave behind will linger on.

For you and the world.

That deal you made with the Devil will still have a payoff–and a due date.

For you….and the world.

In their case the payoff was in a run of gold records. Hell, they even sold albums like hotcakes, in an age when not many did.

The due date was the same as America’s. And the world’s.

1968.

By the time it was done, they were done.

Then the Mean Old World moved on–or pretended to.

They didn’t.

They gave up and disbanded, the first of the great Utopian Sixties’ groups to do so. (The Byrds never really disbanded–pieces just kept falling off until nothing was left but the name. A very different process, but those were the two paradigms. Break up…or linger on. When the Doors and the Beatles broke up, they were copping the Mamas & Papas’ style. When everybody else lingered on, the pieces just kept falling off and they ended up being worse than nothing.)

That left the question of who got it and who didn’t.

Time has given us the answers, even if nearly everyone is reluctant to admit it.

We need not speak of what Lyndon Johnson, lingering on in the White House, understood. But in the Pop World that existed in the summer of ’68, it turned out that only Elvis Presley, reporting to a series of TV sound stages and with God on his side, and the Mamas & the Papas, cooped up in John and Michelle’s mansion a few miles away, concluding their deal with the Master of this world, understood that we would never walk away from 1968.

From a Pop Political standpoint, the Beatles now sound like clever children, the Stones like mere cynics. Bob Dylan was already retreating into the rusticism his great mid-sixties albums had promised an escape from. The Byrds lay in pieces on the ground and Brian Wilson had already blown his mind.

And, as Pop Prophets went, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were finally only self-destructive.

But at least they made great music.

Never mind the Thinkers. No need to pay even a modicum of attention to them.

Whoever you thought they were, time has already washed them away.

We’re left with who got it. Who looked around at the world of 1968 and said: We’ll never walk away from this.

Well, these people:

Naomi Cohen (32) died of heart failure in a London hotel in 1974.

John Phillips died in 2001 (65) never having emerged from the drug-induced haze produced by having so much fun in two years there was no more to be had.

Denny Doherty (66) died in  Mssissauga, Ontario in 2007, worn down by years of alcoholism.

Michelle Philips will still show up to defend her group’s legacy. She probably hopes you won’t ask too many questions about the incest allegations John’s oldest daughter has made.

It all seems so very long ago.

And so very present.

Today, you might go on the internet and find an essay that describes “Safe In My Garden” as “happy” and “bucolic,” as though it represents an ode to a safe space replete with milk and cookies and teddy bears.

That represents real fear, I think. An understanding–an awareness of the terror abiding within the song’s formal beauty, right down to its meandering close-out, as though the group–and the world–have literally run out of places to wanna go and things to wanna do and whoevers to wanna do it with.

Else oblivion. An almost insanely pure ability to resist the obvious–the persistence in demanding that, contra Philip K. Dick, if you stop believing in reality, it will stop believing in you.

Reality still believes. The Mamas & the Papas are still the ones who recognized and sang about it, half-shouting, half-crooning, straight from the heart of the dying dream.

The world’s on fire, they sang.

We know, because we struck the match. they did not have to sing.

Nah-na-na-na-nah…

Come hither!

 

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume 3: The Seventies, Amended)

Whenever you do this sort of thing, ad hoc, you’re almost bound to leave something out. But, while I haven’t had more than one or two pangs of regret over my sixties’ list, the deep and fundamental inadequacy of my seventies’ list started bugging me almost as soon as I posted it. I kept remembering yet another album that made me ask “How could I have left that one off?” Finally, when there were enough of them, I decided to put the eighties’ list on hold.

I’m not much into the old this “decade vs. that decade” disputes, at least not when the decades in question were indisputably great. But for rather obvious historical and demographic reasons, the seventies were certainly the most prolific decade for rock and roll. One fun aspect of taking the focus off the canon for a bit is exploring roads not taken or roads that were partially explored before being abandoned. More of that probably happened in the seventies with truly popular (and populist) music than in any other arbitrary ten year stretch. Some of what’s here “hit,” some didn’t. But it’s easy to think that any of it might have. And, in any case, it was fun to have an excuse to dig out the vinyl and just sit back and smile….

Brinsley Schwarz Despite It All (1970)

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Fake country rock…from England. Really, now, what other decade had that? Weird thing was, for the space of this album, it was convincing. Even Gram Parsons never did better with the concept. And, as we surely know now if we didn’t know then, that’s as good as the concept gets.

Pick to Click: “Ebury Down”

The Move Message From the Country (1971)

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In the later vinyl and cd era, re-releases of this album have always included “Do Ya” and some other fine singles recorded around the same time which were not on this album originally. But the original album was fine on its own. They morphed into ELO of course, but, believe me, Bachman Turner Overdrive took a few notes as well. If, like me, you cant that a good thing, then this is a kind of touchstone of a style of rock and roll that, unless “rock and roll” counts, was never hip enough to acquire a catchy name.

Pick to Click: “Until Your Mama’s Gone”

The Belmonts Cigars, Acappella, Candy (1972)

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I have to admit, when I put the original list together I left this off because I thought these guys had been inducted along with a lot of other famous backup bands/groups a few years back (Blue Caps, Miracles, like that). Seems they weren’t. Once again, you have to sometimes wonder what the folks at the Hall are thinking. Me, I’d put them in if this miraculous LP was all they ever did.

Pick to Click: “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”

B.J. Thomas Billy Joe Thomas (1972)

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I wrote at length about this album’s most famous track here. There’s no way the rest of it could live up to “Rock and Roll Lullaby” which would pretty much upset the balance of any LP ever made. But Thomas was one of the finest studio singers of studio singing’s golden age and, as the title suggests, this is an attempt at the kind of cohesive statement studio pros weren’t supposed to be capable of (not being “soulful” enough presumably). Despite some occasionally pedestrian production, it largely succeeds. A vocal tour-de-force.

Pick to Click: “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (Following along with the “Drift Away” theory established in the “Volume 2, The Seventies” portion of our program….Of the album’s other cuts, I especially commend the closer, a version of John Sebastian’s “Stories We Could Tell” which, unfortunately, I couldn’t find on-line.)

Barry White Stone Gon’ 1973

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One of the things Rock and Roll America used to turn up on a fairly regular basis was voices the rest of America hadn’t been able to previously imagine. Believe me, you can find more precedent for Little Richard in 1955, or Jimi Hendrix in 1967, than you can for Barry White in 1973. This was his second album. It’s here because it’s the only non-comp of his I happen to own. I’ll need to correct that oversight some day. Just be warned that his habit on LP was to stretch his great singles to the breaking point and then surround them with the stuff the radio didn’t have time for…also stretched to the breaking point. I’ll just add that when white Englishmen took this sort of approach, it was always called “art” or “classical” and never once sounded either half as good or half as adventurous.

Pick to Click: “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” (long version)

KC and the Sunshine Band Do it Good (1974)

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If disco hadn’t taken off the way it did, and they hadn’t played such a key role in that takeoff, then they would probably be recognized and celebrated for what they really were, which was a hardcore southern funk band whose leader, Harry Wayne Casey, was, as bandleader, frontman, writer, producer and arranger, the point man in changing the style’s deepest scene from Memphis to Miami.

If that kind of recognition should ever come, it might just get him and his crack band (along with his partner in enlightenment, Richard Finch) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they richly belong. All of their period albums are good, and their basic comp is essential. But not more so than their first album, which creased the R&B charts and presaged their breakout the following year. In a word, they did what a southern funk band was supposed to do and for half a decade they did it better than anyone else.

They stomped.

Pick to Click: “Sound Your Funky Horn”

Hot Chocolate Cicero Park (1974)

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Actually, every album they released in the seventies could qualify as one of my favorites for this list and just as superb albums period. They were basically unclassifiable, which may be why they’ve never quite gotten credit for being as great as they were. The vision was equal parts funk, rock, glam, reggae, sixties’ soul and social protest. Actually there once was a classification for that: Rock and Roll. Don’t tell the wrong people. They might swim over to your island and steal your Hot Chocolate records.

Pick to Click: “Changing World”

Wet Willie Keep On Smilin’ (1974)

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The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd set the tone for most of Southern Rock. It would be rooted in blues and R&B, crossed with country and English hard rock, with (in the case of the Allmans) a little jazz thrown in. Wet Willie were hardly unmindful of all that, but they also gravitated toward blue eyed soul and hard funk and, at their best, it led to what I can only call gutbucket beauty. This is them at their best. If the title track were even conceivable today, it would be slotted “Americana” and have no chance whatsoever of being played anywhere except college radio. In it’s day it went Top Ten on the Pop charts. Tell me again why things are really the same or better now?

Pick to Click: “Keep On Smilin'” (live)

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids Rock & Roll Forever (1975)

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This is a cheat. It’s a sort of comp, though sufficiently unusual for me to include it even if I didn’t have my reasons. It contains their first album, plus other stuff like the cut from American Graffiti (where they played the band for the high school dance) that threatened very briefly to break them out. They were neo to the core, of course. Throwbacks of a kind that normally aren’t good for anything more than the cheapest nostalgia. A decade later, bands like the Blasters made the throwback thing cool and the Stray Cats even made it commercial. But Flash Cadillac weren’t really like that. They were more like a group of guys who were genuinely caught out of time. They played and sang like the sixties had never happened. There were limits to the approach to say the least. But they, almost alone among the many practitioners of the ethos, found a genuine joy in it, too. Having never heard a single cut on this LP except the American Graffiti stuff, finding this in a used record shop in the nineties still put the smile of the year on my face. And taking it home and listening to it didn’t dim that smile even a little bit.

Pick to Click: “She’s So Fine”

Vicki Sue Robinson Never Gonna Let You Go (1976)

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Out here in the hinterlands there was a very long stretch, basically from whenever the single edit of “Turn The Beat Around” fell off the charts and took the LP out of your local department store’s record bin with it, until the mid-nineties CD reissue boom began taking hold, when, if you wanted to hear the incendiary long version of “Turn the Beat Around,” you had to get lucky and find this in a throwaway bin somewhere. (Oh yeah, you could luck into a 12″ white-sleeve single version…In North Florida…Sure you could. Just like you could see Elvis and Jim Morrison pumping gas across the street from the local Hardee’s.)

My copy was acquired in the late eighties. It still has the fifty-cent tag on it and, if memory serves, it was from a shop where the standard fare was more like fifty bucks.

Or it could have been from the one that was keeping most of their stock on dirt floors in an open-ended barn.

Have I mentioned previously that, sometimes, memory does not serve very well?

What I do remember was picking it up because I had kind of liked the single once upon a time, didn’t have it, but was having a bit of a love affair with old disco albums at the time, figured “Hey, it’s fifty cents. What can it hurt?”

What else I remember was playing the lead track–yes, it’s “Turn the Beat Around”–and being literally floored. There was a time when I obsessed on understanding the lyrics, especially the part where she started redeeming what I had previously considered the dubious history of any and all scat-singing that didn’t involve Louis Armstrong, before finally deciding it was pointless because she was obviously speaking in tongues.

Then, of course, Gloria Estefan came along and straightened it all out with her perfectly articulated 1994 version. I can’t tell you how I know this, and, of course it won’t really be my call, but you can rest assured that, on the Judgment Day, one Gloria Estefan will not be forgiven.

Yes, there’s a whole album and it’s a pretty darn good album. I especially like that fact that, according the back cover, one Vicki Sue Robinson both arranged and performed all that scat-singing herself, including the backup. And, of course, these days, the long version is readily available on YouTube, Amazon, etc.

But that’s really immaterial.

It would be immaterial if the rest of this album were Let It Bleed. Music’s an affair of the heart before it’s anything else. So’s record collecting.

Vicki Sue Robinson, come on down.

Pick to click: “Turn the Beat Around” (long version)

The Cars (1978)

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The album has nine tracks. Six of them became permanent radio staples, despite no single reaching higher than #27 in Billboard. It didn’t sound like anything else before it (even though everybody swore it did, because, well, it must have) and, except for other Cars’ albums, it hasn’t sounded like anything since. Maybe we should be thankful, because, before it’s anything else, it’s ice cold, the epitome of naked ambition. But it worked. And, when it works, ice cold naked ambition is as rock and roll as anything else in this vail of tears.

Pick to Click: “Bye Bye Love” (live)

Rachel Sweet Fool Around (1978)

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As I’ve said somewhere on here before, the missing link between Brenda Lee and Britney Spears. I bet Britney would have been better–and better off–if Rachel had been as big as either. Girl could have used a role model. (Britney, I mean. Rachel was a smart cookie. Went into TV, did just fine. Her lack of stardom was our loss, not hers.)

Click to Pick: “Who Does Lisa Like” (live…and absolutely smokin’)

Nick Lowe Pure Pop For Now People (1978) and Labour of Lust (1979)

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I should mention at this point that there are several albums here, including both of these, which have different tracks for English and American releases. My preferences are for the American versions. Sometimes this is simply because those are what I heard first. More often it’s because I just think the American versions are better.

Going back to the Beatles and Stones, the hard fact is that American record companies had a tendency to cut the fluff. I know this fiddled with everyone’s artistic integrity and all, but I think it also made for better listening experiences. Letting artists have complete control over their album content and sequencing was great in theory, just like letting movie directors have the final cut was great in theory. In practice, better movies and better albums got made when there was a hard won balance between what the artist wanted and what the suits wanted. Now, in the music business at least, we’ve managed the worst of all worlds. The artists are indulged and the suits could care less because there’s no real money in the recording subdivision of the multi-media conglomerate that controls the artist and reports to the corporate sub-overlords who report to the real overlords who keep asking why we really need to keep this music thing going anyway when there’s no money in it?

Case in point, the “bowdlerized” and “re-sequenced” American versions of these two LPs are swift and concise and perfect. The longer English versions (all that’s available on CD as far as I can tell, Pure Pop was originally titled Jesus of Cool) wander around a bit, never quite come to the point and leave no real indication of why this old Brinsley Schwarz hand and jack-of-all-trades record man should have been a much bigger star than he was.

If you can find the vinyl, the question will arise. Those albums were perfect in theory and in fact and, unlike, say, Elvis Costello, he clearly wanted the stardom that never quite came.

No better way to conclude an amended post on the seventies, then, than with the nearest of all the near misses…

Picks to click: “Rollers Show” (Pure Pop) and “American Squirm” (Labour of Lust)

I had some additional thoughts about Pure Pop‘s most famous track, among other things, here.

And I promise you I’m done with the seventies!

And that the eighties, being the eighties, won’t take nearly as long.

BOOK REPORT SPECIAL EDITION (Outlaw Blues)

Thought this was worthy of its own review ahead of the monthly book report (which is running a little late). Thanks to Neal Umphred for reminding me of its existence and encouraging me to finally track it down. You might also read it as my R.I.P. for Paul Williams and a mea culpa, since I missed the news of his passing a couple of years back and certainly would have noted it here had I known:

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Outlaw Blues (Paul Williams, 1970)

If rock criticism had a “father” Paul Williams was it. There were a lot of young men (not, so far as I can tell, many young women or many of either gender who were other than young) trying to write about the effect rock and roll was having on them and the world in the mid-sixties. But Williams was the first to actually get a national magazine off the ground (Crawdaddy) while at the same time pioneering an open-hearted writing, editing and interviewing style that, just coincidentally, would end up, after the promise of the sixties had burned off, remaining forever at odds with the continuation of Standard American Business Practice as Usual.

Outlaw Blues is a collection of early Crawdaddy pieces and catches its moment–those ever-befuddling sixties–like very little else. If Williams didn’t turn out to be quite the businessman Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner was or quite the writer Lester Bangs was, he was nonetheless more visionary than either, and the person whose work effectively broke the ground those opposing spirits spent their lives tilling.

It’s worth remembering that Williams was aging from roughly 19 to 21 when these pieces were written. Naivete is a certain part of the book’s charm. An even greater part, pretty much inextricable from that naive quality, is the sense of being there, fully present at the dawn of our current confusion, at a moment when all things, good and bad, seemed possible, a moment Williams, to a degree few did then and nobody does now, invariably expressed in terms ranging from acute:

“Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan.” (that from July, 1966)

to incisive:

“Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip ‘learn to forget’ into the middle of a seduction song.” (April, 1967)

to self-deprecating:

“Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.

“I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he’s worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.” (July, 1966)

to fervent:

“You know what I mean, that special feeling after the last words of a book, that goes on and on extending that book and yourself across forever into now, the sudden unexpected sense of the real, the flash of power and together, in your mind.” (on the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”–February, 1968)

or even to ecstasy, a near-religious euphoria:

“At this stage in its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.” (February, 1968)

Now, If Williams mostly saw the good in all that, well he wasn’t exactly alone. And he had the excuse–sometimes the advantage–of his extreme youth. In that sense Outlaw Blues is both a gift to the future we now occupy, and (if you choose to read between the lines), a warning that we might not be able to do more than occupy it.

I mean, these days, if you want to write something like “there must be more going on than the obvious, stereotyped stuff, or why do I like it so much?” or even “The Beatles are unshakable, which certainly contributes no end to their position as culture heroes, though it may someday detract from their standing as artists.” you aren’t going to catch on at Rolling Stone and you aren’t even going to start a new version of Crawdaddy. These days, if you want to be that direct, wear that much of your heart on your sleeve, take that much risk of looking either prescient or foolish, about the best you can do is start a blog.

That’s in effect what Williams did in the mid to late sixties.

You might call that seeing around the corner.

In a sense, his specific concerns hardly matter. Besides the usual Dylan/Beatles/Stones trifecta, he was deep into the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors (who I like) and the Byrds and the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson anyway) who I love. But after decades of living with them all, I found every interest (like/love/appreciation) rekindled as I was reading Williams’ long-ago, fresh from the front line, takes.

I also found hindsight even more than usually useful.

I don’t know how much effort Williams or his publisher put into the book’s organization, but given his famous “essay into rediscovery” take on The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, an album that, half a generation, probably affected my own life as profoundly as any album can, I’m guessing the overall effects of this book’s structure were not unintentional.

Which is another way of saying that placing his long interviews with the Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild and Beach Boys’ insider David Anderle near the end was a way of achieving maximum effect.

In one sense those piece were the hardest to read, because Williams was giving over the space normally occupied by his unique voice to voices that were quite typical. This doesn’t lead to discord. They were all phoning from the same area code. But it does shift the emphasis from writer to interviewer and the insights from the personal to something more generational.

All that said, the pieces are as vital as anything else and in some ways more enlightening. I had more trouble getting through the Morrison piece because I’m not as interested in the Doors as I am in the Beach Boys. But in both instances, I knew I was getting more insight into why Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson self-destructed in ten thousand words than in anybody else’s ten thousand pages.

Because that was part of Williams’ gift too. Getting people to talk. You get a sense of both the overwhelming charisma that the most gifted rock stars (meaning rock stars who are something more than “stars”) tend to project, and the tremendous fragility of egos being pressed to literally define the world for millions of people.

Not to mention the degree of free-floating sycophancy that was bound to attach itself and suffocate just about anyone who possessed enough life force to be in that position in the first place–an atmosphere Williams comes dangerously close to aiding and abetting himself.

Of course, it’s easy to judge such things from this distance. We know what happened to Jim Morrison and we know what happened to Brian Wilson.

But Williams could not have been entirely surprised. After all, in the moment itself, he saw far enough ahead to write this:

“Beware the baldersnatch, my son. Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are. Remember that you are only you, remember that your prime concern should be doing what is most important to you, but that you have a responsibility, a very real responsibility to every person other than yourself who gets involved in the achieving of your personal goals.”

Believe me, few people who covered rock and roll for a living wrote like that then.

Nobody writes like that now.

Before and after he was anything else, Paul Williams was that good old distinctively American type: The Seeker. It isn’t only rock criticism that finds such folks in short supply these days.

RUNNING DOWN THE ROAD WITH THE SKYDOG (Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #13)

DUANEALLMAN1

Listen to just about any musical genius who lived ninety miles an hour and found death before it could find them and it’s easy to hear them chasing what they caught.

It’s a long list: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain. All carried deep desperation or (assuming the qualities can ever be disentangled) fatalism in their bones. They couldn’t have kept the devil’s laughter from being an essential part of how they sang or played if they had wanted to…which they wouldn’t have.

Listening to seven hours of Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective this week, four of them on the annual Florida-Alabama-Georgia loop that carries me past my mother’s graveside, what I heard was a man who had absorbed and mastered everything from Steve Cropper-style studio concision to deep, biting blues to epic guitar god soloing to do Clapton or Hendrix proud…and not only sounded like his own man on every note, but like he had all the time in the world.

He might have been the only live-fast-die-young icon who actually died on a motorcycle, but unlike everybody else I just listed, it’s easy to hear any piece of music he ever touched, from lightest brush…

to firm embrace…

to death-grip…

…and imagine him living another fifty years if he had only lived another day.

Thanks Duane.

When I make that annual pilgrimage in the future, I won’t have to worry anymore about which music to ride along with.

STRANGE SOMETIMES, THE SCENES THAT FIND YOU…(Ray Manzarek, R.I.P.)

“He always saw the good side of people and that was his genius. He was the only guy at UCLA who saw something good about Jim. Everyone else thought Jim was a phony or worse. He saw the genius of Jim’s words and the rest is history.”

Robby Krieger (Posting immediately after the announcement of Ray Manzarek’s death).

My mother passed away in 1987. For reasons that aren’t relevant to this little story, I waited five years to visit her grave. On the lazy spring Saturday afternoon I finally decided to drive over, I bought a basket of her favorite flowers (daisies) and, instead of the hop, skip and jump on the interstate, took the long, casual route through the Florida Panhandle on Highway 90 (from Tallahassee, one of the college towns Jim Morrison happened to pass through on his way to meeting up with Fate in Los Angeles, to Campbellton, which is just west of Faye Dunaway’s old childhood haunts in Two Egg and a little bit north of Cottondale, where Dionne Warwick used to grab a headline whenever she visited her grandmother–it really is a small country in some ways).

In those days, like a lot of days prior and more than a few since, the AC on my car wasn’t working (record collectors with modest incomes understand why, at least in youth, certain things are luxuries, even air conditioning in Florida) so I drove with the windows rolled down and the radio on.

It happened that as I pulled up to the stop light directly in front of the Florida state mental hospital, which we really do keep in a place called Chattahoochee, a rough-looking (by which I mean a bit unkempt, not threatening) teenage boy was humping it along the sidewalk on the opposite side of the road, hunch-shouldered, head down, sneakers and a long-sleeved jacket in 85-degree weather, generally doing the James Dean thing.

The breeze must have been blowing in his direction, because, on hearing the music from my radio, he slowed down and then came to a complete stop.

He looked both ways for a bit, as if trying to determine that we were alone.

And then straight at me.

Then he smiled and began nodding his head.

So there, with the sun just beginning to turn to late afternoon gold and the radio playing and me trying to keep the box holding my mother’s basket of daisies from slipping into the floorboard, I found myself suddenly confronting one of those situations that remain indelible ever after because they are occasions for recognizing one of life’s little truisms.

In particular, this:

From about 1967 until some future date yet to be determined, if some rough-looking teenage kid walking in front of a mental hospital doing his James Dean thing suddenly stops and looks both ways and then straight at you and then starts bobbing his head and smiling and knows he doesn’t need to say a word, then the Doors must be playing.

It happened that, at this particular self-defining moment, the song was “Riders on the Storm,” but it probably could have been anything the band ever did.

That’s how it operates in those moments when the Doors–and only the Doors–must be on the radio.

* * * *

To tell the plain truth, I came to the Doors late. I never had a lot of James Dean–and certainly not a lot of Jim Morrison–in me.

If I’m gonna’ be a rebel, I’m gonna’ need a cause.

And, that being the case, I probably did have a little Ray Manzarek in me. I’m still kinda’, sorta’ looking for my cause. He found his when he met Morrison at UCLA in the mid-sixties and it’s very likely that no one else could have synched up with the future Lizard King so thoroughly that great, rough, mind-expanding, era-challenging records would be bound to result.

I like that image from Robby Krieger about others seeing Morrison as a phony and Manzarek’s ability to see through to the core being a genuine gift. Because Jim Morrison was a lot of things but phony wasn’t one of them. (Poseur? Of course, he was that–but, at least the way Jim Morrison played it, that’s a very different thing, because the way Jim Morrison–the one true Rock God who shared full credit and full profits with his bandmates–played it, it just meant that he was kicking the world before it could kick him.)

The way I came to see it finally, when I did come around to the Doors, is that in the Summer of Love, when a whole lot of people saw perpetual grooviness extending into a bright, trippy future and professional cynics like Frank Zappa thought themselves exceptionally clever because they saw new wine in old bottles, Jim Morrison was the one who looked down the long, black tunnel of The Future and saw Charlie Manson and Ted Bundy waiting.

Little wonder he ended the way he did.

Wouldn’t you, if you were him?

The miracle is that he got the chance to put those visions on record at all, and Ray Manzarek was probably more responsible for that than anyone, including perhaps Morrison himself.

And, of course, being a congenial guy, who saw talent–genius even–where others saw fool, wouldn’t have mattered in the least if Manzarek hadn’t also been a wizard on the keys, as the distance between the organ and piano parts below should suffice to demonstrate:

The beginning…

The Doors “Light My Fire” (Live on the Ed Sullivan Show, from which the group were banned because Morrison sang the line “Our love is like a funeral pyre,” after, er, being told not to)

and the end.

The Doors “Riders on the Storm” (Live/Video edit)

(And all this moody reflection does leave me wondering whether the several downtown apartment complexes who claimed they were the place JIm Morrison stayed when he went to FSU are still using it to bump the rent!)