THE NIGHT CYNDI LAUPER TRIED TO SAVE ROCK AND ROLL (Memory Lane….1989)

I must have been channel surfing. I usually preferred somebody jabbing at my eyeballs with red-hot needles to watching David Letterman define a-holery. Once in a while, though, there was a decent musical guest. There weren’t enough of them for me to check the listings or anything, but if I tuned in at just the right moment, I might linger.

That night I lingered. Cyndi Lauper was on.

It had been two years since her last sizable hit–and that had been a cover of “What’s Going On” that nobody seemed to like but me (and plenty of people thought was sacreligious). I had heard and liked her new one, which would turn out to be her last sizable hit ever, a few times on the radio.

It’s hard now, to describe just how bleak the musical landscape felt then, when, unlike now, a glorious past was still so near that it seemed impossible it could be gone.

Still, the possibility was real: Whitney Houston had defined the new ballad style and it owed more to Kate Smith than Bessie Smith. The seventies’ era artists who had defined the eighties–Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince–had all gone a bit stale for everyone but their most devoted fans (of which I wasn’t one, though I liked them all). Any chance that the old New Wave might change the world had gone a-wasting because the big talents–Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde–either didn’t care about being stars (their excuse) or were afraid of the burden (the stronger likelihood).

Cyndi herself had clearly lost the fake battle the media staged between her and Madonna.

It was the eighties. Selling twenty-five million albums was chump change.

Of course, I wanted her to defy the odds and go on and on–for this one to spark a massive comeback.

So I wouldn’t have changed that dial, no matter what.

But the thing that had me holding my breath was waiting for the answer to the really big question.

Could she hold….that note?

I don’t remember what I thought while I waited. In memory, for years after, she stood still for the whole performance. When I finally thought to pull it up on YouTube a few years back, I guess I was surprised–maybe even shocked–that she bopped around for most of the song. I say I guess I was surprised because, in the memory I had built since, she was still standing in one spot.

So when I pulled it up again today, I was surprised all over.

I imagine if I wait a few more years, I’ll be surprised again.

I don’t think I really saw her the first time even though I had my eyes open. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember how, or even if, she moves.

Because whenever I watch it, then or now, the question is still the same.

Can she really, on live television, sans production tricks, hold that note?

I mean, she can…

But can she really?

I know she can. I know she’ll do it every time, but it still sends a tingle down my spine. Not just because it was her last big hit, and I somehow knew it would be as I watched her that night. But because, even as I imagined her standing still as a stone, I felt like I was watching somebody fight to keep the last ember lit, in the vain hope that it could reignite the fire.

Fight, you know, with every breath. Including the last one.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Rock and Roll Through the Ages….As Bottomless as I Always Suspected)

Item #1: The local “path” station, which tries to be free-form and fresh and, every once in a while, succeeds, ran the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (a hit in 1984 and a radio staple ever since) into the Clash’s “London Calling” (title track to their epochal 1980 album). It felt exhilarating and also–after the manner of good free-form listening across the board–like a bit of a competition. Go-Go’s won of course. Not so much because they could play rings around everybody (not just the Clash) or any one of their five members could take over any record they made at any second (a rock and roll ideal if ever there was one) as because “Been running so fast, I nearly lost all track of time” and “The whole world’s out of sync” and “I waited so long, so long to play this part” all feel a lot more appropo of the modern malaise than “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” or “the Ice Age is coming” or, especially “I have no fear.” Look, the Clash were great. Really great. I broke more rulers banging to “Death or Glory” than any other record in existence back when I still had my share of youthful angst. But music and politics are funny things and, sooner or later, in rock and roll, you have to be able to stomp and you have to tell a truth that won’ t wear out. Both bands did their share of that. But, great as Joe Strummer and the boys were, they couldn’t quite stomp or tell the truth like the band that had Belinda Carlisle for a lead singer. Probably because they strained just a little too much for those very effects. Passing strange that. And very rock and roll. (All apologies: There is no half-way decent audio on ANY of the versions of “Head Over Heels” on YouTube at present and I’m way too swamped to upload it myself…so, in this case, you’ll just have to take my word for it, that, when it’s cranked up loud, it’s even better than this:)

Item #2: Caught Cyndi Lauper’s Live At Last concert from 2004 (Thanks YouTube–Nice makeup!). Just FYI: It took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 16 years to induct the epic white female vocalist of the sixties (Brenda Lee). It took them 22 years (and the announcement of a debilitating disease) for them to induct the epic white female vocalist of the seventies (Linda Ronstadt). How long for the epic white female vocalist of the eighties I wonder? 30 years? 40? Who knows. (I mean, I like the Hall. And, eventually, they get most things right. But it would be nice if they got on the stick for once.) In other words, how long before race and gender really don’t matter? You know, the way it was supposed to be. Now…where was I? Oh yeah, the Cyndi Lauper concert from 2004. Jaw-dropping. But then her concerts pretty much always are.

Item #3: Johnny Ace: Aces Wild. (Fantastic Voyage, 2012). Speaking of jaw-dropping. I’ve had the Johnny Ace Memorial Album for decades and I’ve gotten to know it pretty well but not exactly inside and out. This greatly expanded 2-CD look at his career came up cheap in a sealed copy on Amazon so I took a tumble. It’s got one of those seemingly grab-bag formats that almost never work but somehow comes together here: All Johnny’s solo stuff for most of Disc One (great..and revelatory…never knew, for instance, that he did a duet with Big Mama Thornton). Then five (count ‘em, five!) tribute records released in the immediate aftermath of his Christmas, 1955, murder/suicide/accident (depends on who’s doing the telling). Not the greatest records (nor is the additional one at the end of the second disc), but solid enough, and their very existence tells a lot about the mans’ impact.

The second disc consists of Ace’s fine piano session work for three other artists: A good solid R&B cat named Earl Forest, who would probably sound really, really good in pretty much any other context, but sounds pretty pedestrian here because he’s splitting time with a couple of guys named B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And not just any old B.B. and Bobby, but young, hungry haven’t-quite-made-it versions of same and man do they smoke.

One thing, though. B.B. King and Bobby Bland were greater–I’d even say much greater–singers than Johnny Ace. But they couldn’t match him for weirdness. And they didn’t end up on the wrong end of a gun on Christmas day. So Johnny Ace, morose, affected, stranded at the bottom of a well, at times nearly toneless, has one thing on those greater artists who can’t help breathing fire and presence into the room: He can’t really be explained. That’s probably why, even after an hour’s worth of truly scorching sides from his pals bringing their very best, it was still “The Clock” and “Pledging My Love” that hung in the air when I retired for the night and got ready for a very Happy Easter!