“THE VOICE” IN CONTEXT (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #96)

Back when Phil Spector started hiding his soon to be wife, Ronnie Bennett of the Ronettes,  from the world (and the Beatles), John Lennon would ask him “Where’s the Voice?”

When Brian Wilson first heard “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes’ first big hit, on the radio, he pulled off the road, and has said more than once that he’s played it every day since. He’s also said it wasn’t Phil Spector’s production that made the impact.

Ronnie herself reported her first meeting with Spector in her autobiography and described his response to first hearing her sing as something along the lines of “That’s it. That’s the voice I’ve been waiting for!”

Phil also frequently described himself as the only person who could have made Ronnie. or any of his other discoveries, stars, or at very least famous.

After reading Ronnie’s memoir years back (early nineties’ I’m guessing), I built some vague ideas and questions that had been rattling around in my head for about a decade (about how long it had been since I first heard “Be My Baby”), into a conclusion.

The conclusion: Phil Spector was the only person who could have kept Ronnie Bennett from becoming a superstar, and he used a three-step process. He signed her. Then he married her. Then he–no other word for it–tortured her.

You can read the book and find out the details–including the day John Lennon visited divorce court as a friend of both parties and came face to face with who Phil Spector really was.

Knowing all that, I still never quite understood “Be My Baby” as anything more than a great record with a great vocal.

Today, though, listening to the final volume of the Bear Family’s bottomless survey of “doo-wop,” broadly redefined as the vocal music of Black and Urban Immigrant America from 1938 to 1963, prepared for “Be My Baby” to fit the concept just like so many others (especially the early Motown acts, even including the Supremes and the Temptations) who aren’t usually included in the narrative had done.

I was still prepared for it when the famous intro, courtesy of Hal Blaine, brought the usual smile.

I wasn’t prepared for the Voice.

Having heard it a thousand times didn’t prepare me for it to cut through not only Spector’s gargantuan production, but every record that preceded it, not only on this final disc, but every disc that covered the twenty-five previous years. Today, on the way back from the doctor’s office, it hit me the way it must have hit Phil Spector, John Lennon, Brian Wilson….as something new and startling in the world.

It hit me as something completely new, no matter how much its similarities to Frankie Lymon and Brenda Lee were still obvious. They never had to fight Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and none of those who did ever made it sound so easy to blast a clean hole through it.

Today, Ronnie did.

Maybe it was the Bear Family’s famously superior mastering or having surround sound in the car or just the mood I was in (getting past my annual with the endo is always a relief).

Maybe it was just that the sprinkling of girl group records in the latter volumes of the series had made me rediscover how different the quality of female yearning was from any attitude copped by the boys of that or any era.

Whatever it was, today, like no day before, she was the Voice, maybe because the Lost World she represented seemed even more lost than all the other Lost Worlds surrounding her.

Be sure to stay tuned for the conversation which, among other things, covers their plans for the upcoming “Christmas album” which would be A Christmas Gift tor You from Philles Records (later Phil Spector), the greatest Christmas album ever made and, of course, released the day John Kennedy was assassinated…the day John Lennon had to step in and save us from.

You  know. For a while.

I really recommend reading Ronnie’s book, but for those who would like a shorthand version, you can go here for the gist.

GENIUS IN CONTEXT…SMOKEY FOR CHRISTMAS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #94)

Well, I’ve finally assembled the last few volumes of the Bear Family’s Street Corner Symphonies, the company’s comprehensive overview of the vocal group music made by blacks and urban immigrants between 1938 and 1963 so I’m spending Christmas Eve listening to the 1960 volume and, all of a sudden, Smokey Robinson enters the scene, not as America’s Greatest Living Poet, but as just one more street kid trying to make it with his group (a status confirmed by Bill Dahl’s characteristically comprehensive notes).

The streets the Poet was trying to make it from were in Detroit, which, from 1938 to 1959, were barely represented in the history of what would come to be called Doo Wop (a nebulous concept which the Bear Family has extended beyond its insult-embraced-by-the-pure-of-heart-as-badge-of-honor meaning, though not so far as to include, say, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” which, after hearing this set’s “Nobody Loves Me Like You,” by the Flamingos–as doo wop as doo wop got–I realize they easily could have).

After 1960, of course–more or less beginning with the Poet’s own “Shop Around”–Detroit would become so significant to the development of vocal group dynamics, it would birth its own category, in time to be called simply “Motown.”

When “Whos’ Lovin’ You”–first released as the B-side of “Shop Around”–shows up here, following a mini-set of cutting edge tracks from the Shirelles, Drifters, Coasters, it makes everything else sound reactionary. It’s as if the most exciting sounds of 1960 were already running backwards to safety and only the Poet could see around the corner.

Well, that’s why he was the Poet and why he could never have stayed just another kid trying to make it. And, of course, most of us already knew that. But it never slapped me up side the head and made me laugh quite like it did on Christmas Eve of the year Donald Trump was elected President of the current nation, while I was just sitting quietly with my book and my diet Root Beer, listening to some doo wop from the year John Kennedy was elected President of the imaginary nation Trump has promised to restore.

Time’s funny that way.

There are delusional souls, Berry Gordy among them, who believe Michael Jackson’s version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” is superior to Smokey’s (“He was kickin’ Smokey’s ass!” Gordy once said, whilst recalling the first time he heard Michael sing it).

Michael Jackson’s version is fine. It’s about the best version you will ever hear from a ten-year-old. Good on Michael.

On no day of his tortured life was he Smokey Robinson.

Merry Christmas ya’ll.

GOT MY HEAD SPINNIN’ ROUND (Segue of the Day: 7/21/16)

This has been one of the more entertaining weeks in the history of politics. I probably should have live-blogged the whole thing because that’s the only way I could have kept up. Every time I thought I had something I could hook a post to it was immediately replaced by something I was sure was better, only to be replaced in turn by something else.

By way of example: Andrew Sullivan, who has been live-blogging, actually posted the difference in the 19.7 misery index from 1979 ( that’s inflation plus unemployment for those who may have forgotten as I had) and now (5.3) exactly as though the current number were real (the government has been fudging, i.e., manufacturing, happy thoughts about inflation since the eighties and the old unemployment hodge-podge, which has been tinkered with since the Kennedy years, has, of necessity, been put on steroids by the Obama administration…but you knew that).

I thought surely I couldn’t beat that and was all ready to post something about Sullivan being exemplary of the triple terrors of modern intellectual life:

1. The Brits (Christopher Hitchens and David Thomson being other prime examples) who recognized their own country was headed down the toilet a generation or two back and hightailed it to America in order to lecture us on how much better off we’d be if we were more like…them!

2. The Beltway crowd who have never had to personally deal with the economic effects of “the Reagan Revolution,” said revolution having made their own little bubble in the Wall-Street-to-D.C. corridor wealthy beyond belief at the expense of the entire world (and from whence both the Clintonian and Trumpian Final Solutions have now sprung full-blown).

3. The “intellectual” who changes his mind constantly and calls anyone who doesn’t manage to keep up with the latest twist a fascist.

Sully’s back!

What could beat that?

Well, I only had to wait an hour, so I’m going to get this in before the crick in my neck gets straightened out by the next head snap.

After Ted Cruz’s stupendous bit of political theater last night, he was the talk of the morning shows. Morning Joe‘s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski had one of Cruz’s fired-but-loyal lieutenants on to discuss whether Cruz’s unwillingness to let his followers drink of a Trump endorsement after he had led them to the very edge of the unholy water was “personal.”

Of course the lieutenant (I didn’t catch his name but it hardly matters, anyone of his class would have done as he did) denied this was any part of Cruz’s motivation. He insisted it was a matter of principle and Mika, who has, in the past, all but called Cruz an ax-murderer, jumped in to second his emotion.

Within a matter of minutes, Cruz was on all the major “news” channel, speaking to his Texas supporters (who lacerated him, incidentally) attempting to explain himself. When asked why he had broken his “my word is my bond” pledge to support the Republican nominee, Cruz said he wasn’t in the habit of supporting anyone who insulted his wife (Trump called her ugly) and his father (Trump suggested he might have hung out with Lee Harvey Oswald, which the press, still clinging to the Warren Commission after all these years, insisted was the same thing as accusing Cruz the Elder of plotting to kill JFK…the extent to which these people simply don’t keep up is often stupefying and the best explanation for how Trump has been able to so easily and consistently cut them off at the knees).

About two minutes after that, somebody on the set of Morning Joe, who had been monitoring the Cruz speech on another channel (after MSNBC cut away), told the Cruz lieutenant what Cruz had said.

Then somebody else on Morning Joe said…”Sounds kind of personal.”

Awkward silence. Sheepish smiles. Nods all around.

Let’s move on.

The one pure delight of this otherwise Sturm und Drang moment has been seeing the media gatekeepers and their a-hole buddies in the “consultant” class continually shocked by their own inability to craft, manage or even comprehend the new narratives.

Just because I sense Chaos coming (even if I can’t predict its form) doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to its arrival. Quite the opposite. That’s why I have to take the occasional smile where I can find it.

Got my head spinnin’ round?

Let’s keep it unsettling, shall we?

SUMMER’S HERE…AND THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR TURNING MY BRAIN INTO A BLUNT OBJECT (Monthly Book Report: June, 2015)

Boy, the pulps are taking over. I may start eating broccoli again soon but, for now, it’s strictly cheeseburgers:

The Shot (Philip Kerr, 1999)

THESHOT

Kerr is probably best known for his Bernie Gunther series, of which I read the first three some years back. Here, as there, he doesn’t expend a lot of effort on style. I gather he strictly rises and falls on the quality of his ideas.

The idea here is a good one. A shadow version of the Kennedy Assassination that holds its tension nicely until it takes one turn too many at the very end (or maybe just finally takes a wrong turn). As such things go, it’s a bit better than Don DeLillo’s crit-friendly Libra, though not nearly as good as James Ellroy’s fever dream American Tabloid, which is almost certainly the best novel ever written by a pud-pulling fascist.

A Deadly Shade of Gold (John D. MacDonald, 1965)

DEADLYSHADEOFGOLD

Given the setup–an old friend is murdered over Aztec gold and McGee wants to help his woman find both the gold and the killer–I had hopes our hero would avoid the sex therapy.

He doesn’t, and, worse, his failure doesn’t ring true. But it’s a small complaint. This is the best and most ambitious of the series so far. It’s nearly twice the prescribed formula’s length and that length allows the formula to open up. Of course, we have the usual sharp socio-political insights, some of them even weighing in on the future, as first-rate pulp has to do in order to remain first rate. So we get McGee on the burgeoning Education Industry:

“It was a building to turn out the men who could house fabulous technicians with that contempt for every other field of human knowledge which only the truly ignorant can achieve. It was a place to train ants to invent insecticides.”

But here, that’s just the setup. The hero is swimming with the sharks soon enough and the real reward is a tangled-but-plausible plot that moves from Miami’s Cuban exile community to the high art antique world (where McGee, for once, actually trades sex for information, though he’s improbably decent enough to feel bad about it) to Mexico’s second tier resorts to a washed-out California paradise nobody in their right mind would ever want to live in, all without dropping a stitch. Somewhere in there, the ugly elements of our current predicament emerge, crouching, waiting to take form.

And, hey, because it’s John D. MacDonald, you can have fun, too. If that’s your thing.

Bright Orange for the Shroud (John D. MacDonald, 1965)

brightorange

The sub-plot is a fairly interesting twist. One of McGee’s sex-therapy successes, Chookie the dancer, provides similar therapy for a down-and-outer who comes limping back into their lives after he’s been taken for a ride by a gold-digger who turns out to be part of a larger, nastier shakedown. Not to give anything away, but Chookie and the down-and-outer end up getting married.

Not until they’ve outlasted one of MacDonald’s truly terrifying villains.

It was MacDonald who created the role Robert Mitchum defined in the original Cape Fear (a role that Mitchum strode through with the kind of easy menace such men actually possess in life and which thoroughly defeated Robert DeNiro when he gave it a go a generation later). He repeated a version of it in the kick-starter for the McGee series and it’s hard to believe he can take it any further than he does here with Boo Waxwell, who defines the middle-class fear of the hillbilly so well he jumps off the page and into the nervous system.

You want to know why people carry guns?

Because Travis McGee is a fine fantasy.

In my part of the world, Boo Waxwell’s always around somewhere.

Darker Than Amber (John D. MacDonald, 1966)

DARKERTHANAMBER1

This one’s notable mostly for the first serious involvement of Meyer (McGee’s Watson) in one of the cases. It works smoothly enough and there’s always the pleasure of the writer honing in on the faces-behind-the-faces who generate so much of the world’s misery (Meyer: “A corporate financial statement is the most nonspecific thing there is. If a man can’t read the lines between the lines between the lines, he might as well stuff his money into a hollow tree.”…there’s our long journey down the rat-hole in a nutshell).

But, after a promising beginning, the plot doesn’t amount to much. Putting McGee up against a bunch of second-raters isn’t likely to generate much tension. Granted, it’s always harder to sustain interest once a formula’s elements become too comfortably familiar, but I don’t think that’s the reason this was the first in the series that had me checking page numbers and looking at my watch.

Start finding out for sure, next month I guess.

Til then…

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #3)

Just happened to run across these on the same day…

First, keeping up with my reading assignments whilst awaiting an oil change:

“Their conversation continued in the Oval Office, shortly after 6 p.m. on August 22, when they were joined by Maxwell Taylor, the general Kennedy trusted most. The president wanted to go over two other secret operations before discussing Cuba. The first was the developing plan to drop twenty Chinese Nationalist soldiers into mainland China during the coming week. The second was a plan for the CIA to wiretap members of the Washington press corps….

“The president told (CIA director) McCone to set up a domestic task force to stop the flow of secrets from the government to the newspapers. The order violated the agency’s charter, which specifically prohibits domestic spying. Long before Nixon created his ‘plumbers’ unit of CIA veterans to stop news leaks, Kennedy used the agency to spy on Americans.”

(Source: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner, 2007)

Then, following the headlines on the internet…

“So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell’s physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime – at most, they had a case of “cyber-harassment” more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people – and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court.”

(Source: The ever invaluable Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, Nov. 13, 2012, read the whole thing here)

Boy, how I wish Raymond Chandler Speaking wasn’t packed away right now. Would love to get his exact quote on Hoover’s FBI circa the McCarthy era. Anyway, it was something to the effect that secret police forces all come to the same thing in the end.

Fortunately, other philosophers who aren’t packed away have been on the case all along. Keep me sane, they do:

Little Richard “Slippin’ and Slidin'” (Studio)

Bob Dylan “Talkin’ John BIrch Paranoid Blues” (Live Recording)

Aretha Franklin “Chain of Fools” (Television Performance)