HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 12: “If I Can Dream”)

“If I Can Dream”
1968
Artist: Elvis Presley
Writer: Walter Edward Brown

The story behind “If I Can Dream” is well known.

Elvis Presley was filming a Christmas special in the summer of 1968 and the project had taken on a life of its own. Conceived as a traditional holiday special where Elvis would croon seasonal standards and cavort with the usual assortment of anonymous lovelies, much in the spirit of his increasingly lifeless movie career, it had turned out….unexpectedly.

Somehow, in the hands of producer Steve Binder, the genius behind The T.A.M.I. Show and much of the best rock and roll performance television footage of the era, with increasing support from Elvis himself, it had become something very different. When it aired late in ’68, the special would revive Elvis’ career and vault straight into the pantheon of his career-defining moments.

Having lost control of every other aspect of the project, Elvis’ infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, tried to put his foot down on the only thing left hanging loose–the show’s ending.

The Colonel wanted–insisted upon by most accounts–a Christmas carol.

Binder, aware of the world on fire around them, thought Elvis needed something more.

Walter Earl Brown, not an especially inspired songwriter before or after this moment, was commissioned to come up with something. This time, he was inspired. The lyrics and melody were hardly works of genius, but they were solid, thoughtful, inspirational, plenty strong enough to feed Elvis’ growing belief in himself, the project, and the possibilities the special had begun to represent.

It was a song to make him relevant again.

He must have known it at once. It summoned up Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington in 1963 and fed into Bobby Kennedy’s I dream things that never were and ask why not? moment. It was a natural sequel to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” itself a self-conscious response to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” all of which might have been unofficial sequels to Elvis’ own 1957 reading of Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” which dated from the 1930’s and had been composed in response to the war clouds then gathering over Europe.

If a song that evoked all that didn’t bring him up to date, nothing would.

One could argue that the rest of the special might have done the trick anyway.

It had its share of other iconic moments.

There was Elvis, opening the show in black leather, growling If you’re looking for trouble, you came to the right place, as though the space between 1956 and 1968 had collapsed in on itself.

There he was, in front of a wall of dancers paying homage to himself in Jailhouse Rock.

There he was, being a swingin’ little guitar man, in a song he managed to make sound autobiographical even if he had never come anywhere near picking out songs in Panama City bars.

And, most of all, there he was, working up a sweat with an informal, impromptu band, inventing the Unplugged format that wouldn’t take full flight until a decade after his death.

But there’s no evidence, then or now, that any of that would have put him back in the one place he could no longer afford not to be–high on the record charts.

Whether he heard “If I Can Dream” as the answer to that problem we’ll never know. It’s one of the many questions no one thought to ask, and part of the reason Elvis the Man remains an enigma.Another reason the Man remains an enigma is because the crit-illuminati have never quite got a handle on the Artist.

“If I Can Dream” is almost always described–when it is “described” at all (as opposed to being referred to or glopped upon)–as a song of uplift, a natural fit for Elvis the gospel singer.

Which isn’t even half-true.

The song is a song of uplift.

Elvis’ interpretation of the song is anything but.

He no more knew how to walk a straight line through “If I Can Dream” than he had known how to move like anybody else when he hit a television stage for the first time on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show in the early months of ’56. The key to Elvis at his best, from first to last, was that he looked at a confined conjunction of time and/or space–a TV stage, a recording studio, the length of a record, the meaning available in a lyric–and imagined it differently than anyone else did.

It was one reason Sam Phillips took such a long time getting a handle on him (a year or more, lest we forget–not Phillips’ usual modus operandi). And one reason Elvis could never take anything for granted, never really be at ease, no matter how far he rose, how much material success he achieved.

Most Big Thinkers have concluded it was the poverty–the fear it could return at any moment–that kept Elvis insecure, on edge, in need of a constant fix.

There’s not much to support that. From everything I’ve read, Elvis, once he made it, was generally contemptuous of the idea he wouldn’t keep making it.

The aw-shucks ritual, where he wondered aloud in front of microphones whether it would all be waiting for him if he had to go away for a while (like to the Army), was nothing more than that. Ritual. Self-deprecation. Recognizable to most of his core audience as a “Gee-I’m-no-better-than-the-next-fella routine,” delivered Southern American style.

I don’t think too many people who didn’t write journalism for a living really bought it.

What he clearly did worry about was whether he would fit into the next space–the next hole in the time-space continuum that he, and he alone, had opened up in American culture, but which, once he had punched through, could not stop expanding, or perhaps simply running way from the latest, fastest version of itself.

How many times can a man re-invent himself, after all…and still be a man?

Same for countries, as Elvis, too, must have known by the time he was deciding exactly what to do with the show-closer that had been handed him a day after Brown was commissioned to write it.

There were plenty of roads left to travel when Elvis confronted “If I Can Dream” for the first time, but he didn’t need to be any Master of Prescience to know that this turning point was special–that it wasn’t just another fork in the road.

So, faced with a song that fit squarely into existing traditions–he could take it as uplift (like King’s speech), as cautionary tale (like Dylan), as a means to look beyond the stars (like Kennedy), as the running of a secret tide that won’t be turned back (like Cooke) or even as an excuse to give in to the moment and re-orient the Protestant Reformation, with its promise of moving man’s Golden Age (which America now represented full-blown), from the past to the future, and simply realizing it in the Present–what was a poor boy to do?

The song would have fit any of those other interpretations. And the relative few who have taken it on since have chosen one of those conventional paths.

They’ve had to.

They weren’t Elvis.

Elvis, unlike anyone else, had a choice.

Standing square in the middle of 1968, the most volatile year in American history since the end of the Civil War, standing there, according to many, as a curiously moribund icon, waiting for his wax statue, with his place as a permanently employed Entertainer set out neatly and securely before him, he did what he always did at a crisis….the unexpected.

He seized the song by the throat.

And he didn’t let it go.

You could listen a long time and miss just how he went about it–or even become fully aware that he had done it at all.

It took me until the conclusion of the fine Elvis mini-series in 2005, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, before I heard it myself.

But I first heard it here…

…which is where I first heard a lot of Elvis. (Bought it for my mother for the Christmas of 1978. She liked it, liked his gospel better, let me keep it in my room, where the only working record player was and where she could hear it anyway. I took requests, but she didn’t place many. I figure it was because I played it often enough without prompting…but I’ll leave all that for my anniversary re-post, come tomorrow. Anyway, when I left for college in the fall of 1980, I took it with me. No sense leaving it in a house with no record player. I told her if she ever got one she could have it back. She smiled and said she knew. We both knew she would never ask for it back, even in the unlikely event she bought a record player.)

It was a four album set–my first box.

“If I Can Dream” sat at the top of the last side. Near as I’ve been able to tell, the version was the one heard here.

By the time he cut this, or any version, of the song, Elvis had already made his famous statement that he would never record another song he didn’t believe in (a clear shot at the movie soundtracks, the worst of which contained the only songs he’d ever not believed in, though, to be fair, by 1968, there has been a lot of them–enough, at any rate, to make a man doubt even the most fundamental truths about himself).

There was little more soundtrack material in his future and, by his lights and mine, I think he kept his promise, even in the face of constant reassurance from rock’s burgeoning crit-illuminati that they would love him again if he’d only forget what he–or his fans–wanted and live up to their dreams instead.

All that might have taken more courage than we know. Perhaps even more than he knew when the made the promise, not to himself, but out loud, to an audience of insiders he must have hoped would hold his feet to the fire–or at least allow him to continually remind himself that someone, at least, was watching, perhaps even waiting for him to quit his own promise.

Who knows what it was really like, in Elvis World?

If I could have his ear for a moment now, though, the question I’d ask, is whether, by the time he made his soon to be famous promise, he already knew what he was going to do with the song?

Because it was not a song that invited the interpretation he gave it.

It was not a song that was asking to be grabbed by the throat.

Commitment would have been enough.

Elvis was a non-pareil vocalist. He could always do things no one else could do, form connections no one else could form, build bridges no one else could build.

“If I Can Dream” was a good enough song, he could have taken the easy way out–any of several forms of reassurance or what’s-this-life-really-all-about wistfulness that the lyric made available and the melody reinforced. He could have done any of the things such songs are almost inherently meant to do, and got away with it.

We’d be none the wiser.

It might still have been a hit.

I’d almost bet it would have been a bigger hit–#1 maybe, instead of #12.

If he had chosen not to invest it with a particular kind of anger, the only person who would have known, would have been him. We don’t have to speculate whether anyone else would have found that quality in it, because, even with his example before them, no one else has.

If he had chosen not to sing, in any version you hear, a line like the answer’s gonna come, somehow, not exactly with a sneer in his voice, but with no hint of a plea either, would we know what we had missed?

If it’s possible now to hear it rather as a demand, delivered in the voice of a man who is tired of his life’s worth of New Testament style asking and has replaced himself, instead, with an Old Testament Prophet demanding–knowing full well that the change cannot be walked away from, either by him or any audience he might command, then or in the future–then it’s only because he made it possible.

You can still choose not to hear it.

No one, not even Elvis, can make that sort of demand and expect it to be heard by all. It is enormous after all, the very idea of it.

And Elvis was the only man left standing in American life by the summer of 1968 who could have made it.

Left as a dream–as the series of questions contained within the lyrics–and delivered with the tried and true delicacy of “Crying in the Chapel,” the only Top Ten hit he’d had since the Beatles arrived in America (and that recorded years before, just after he came out of the Army), it might have been that natural #1 I mentioned. Same for the careful phrasing and straightforward empathy of “In the Ghetto” which would return him to the Top Ten the following year.

But it wouldn’t have been true.

Not coming from the heart of 1968 it wouldn’t.

Coming from that place–and coming from Elvis Presley–only Old Testament anger would do.

It was his dream after all, that was falling apart at his feet in 1968.

Oh, yes, others had dreamed it, too. By the millions.

And better men than Elvis had called upon the dream in the years since. We know they were better men because so many have told us so. It isn’t hard, in America, to be a better man than a Tennessee hillbilly.

Only he had made the dream common, though. Only he had brought it within what seemed such easy reach when he walked into those recording studios, or strode those television stages, in the mid-fifties, and made it sound like everything fit. Made it sound like rhythm and blues and country were really one thing (why, hadn’t blacks and hillbillies always gotten along?…playing to teenagers no less?….well, sure they had!). And not only that, but Tin Pan Alley and gut-bucket gospel and white church music and light opera and show tunes and “Old Shep” could be thrown right in there, too.

Just like everybody had suspected, right along.

Why once a Tennessee hillbilly showed it could be done, wasn’t it obvious that it was an idea whose time had simply come?

On the surface, there was never any need to acknowledge Elvis, the teenage truck driver from Nowheresville, had seen past everyone else, even the black ministers fueling the Civil Rights movement.

Underneath, everyone knew.

Underneath, It was like John Lennon said.

“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Like a lot of what John Lennon said, it was utter nonsense on its face. Also, like more than a little of what John Lennon said, it was true without being anyway factual.

Underneath, without anyone needing to do a white paper on it, Elvis–and no one else–had called forth the most dangerous and exhilarating parts of the good old, American Dream.

What if our differences could be laid aside for a bit?

What if we could….dance together?

Just once?

What then?

Standing in Los Angeles, in the burning hot summer of 1968, Elvis could not have missed knowing what everyone else knew–that the world he had dreamed into being, the one where we might find out what was possible once it was proven we could dance together, the world that transcended the politics which had put boundaries around everyone from John Adams to Martin Luther King, was crashing down around him, accompanied by a mocking chorus of history’s oldest rhyme–mayhem.

And he had just been handed a song called “If I Can Dream.”

There was a choice to be made and he made it.

He sang it angry–he sang it in the voice of a man who was pleading for everyone around him to stop and take a look at what they were throwing away.

And he sang it knowing no one would listen. Knowing that even his own future self wouldn’t listen–because his own self wouldn’t be able to bear it any more than anyone else could bear it.

He closed those endless concerts that stretched on and on into what remained of his future with “The Impossible Dream” or “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” If he’d tried that with “If I Can Dream”–and put into it what he put into it the one time he did close with it–he’d have been dead in a year.

Dead because he’d have known by then what we all know now–that the Dream had died on his watch. That we would never walk away from 1968 That he was, after all, a prophet not for this time, but for another time–the one that will be born out of what we’re watching die around us now.

One that will be worthy of an ice cream suit, covering a man who still moved like nobody else.

….If we’re lucky.

(NOTE: Tomorrow, on the 40th anniversary of Elvis’ death, I’ll repost the lengthy reminiscence of that day which I originally posted here on the 35th anniversary.)

 

YOU DO WANT TO DANCE, DON’T YA? (Bobby Freeman, R.I.P.)

Any time? Any time at all? Anywhere? Anywhere at all…

….Including heaven tonight..

“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.

JUST SO YOU KNOW…

This is not a political blog. I routinely insert political thoughts (and more occasionally, theological ones) into my regular writing because that’s the way I see life. As I said to a friend of mine when I started the blog: “You know me. Rock and roll is just a way of seeing the world.”

But since we now live in such interesting times, I’ve been revisiting my history of little personal political insights and what’s a blog for if not to share random thoughts that invade the mind, unbidden, now and again?

At the end, I might just talk myself into making a prediction about the direction of Donald Trump’s presidency. Before all that, you can check my track record.

From this, all else grows…

1974 (Age 13): Richard Nixon resigns from the presidency to avoid impeachment and conviction. He is pardoned by Gerald Ford. Me: “I bet there’s gonna be a lot of criminal presidents from now on.”

My logic: If Richard Nixon was as bad as everybody said he was–and everybody said it, even in my Nixon-supporting part of the world–and the penalty for whatever he did was early retirement, then it didn’t seem like much of a deterrence.

My track record: After Jimmy Carter, they all look like crooks to me. If only some of them look that way to you, you might want to open that other eye. Unless, of course, you’ve accepted ol’ Dick’s logic that it’s not criminal if the president does it!

1980 (Age 19): Campaigning for president, Ronald Reagan promises that he will increase spending, cut taxes and eliminate the budget deficit, which was then standing at a scandalous sixty-something billion dollars. Me: “I bet if he wins, we’re gonna have a whole lot more debt.”

My logic: Math.

My track record: Reagan won. By 1988, when he left office, the deficit stood at a hundred and eighty-something billion dollars and we had switched to a permanent credit economy which would allow us to borrow without limits and never have to pay it back. The deficit is now around twenty trillion. We rack up another sixty billion every week or two. Good going, 1980.

1984 (Age 23): At the Democratic National Convention, party nominee Walter Mondale uses his acceptance speech to capitulate (I always assumed it was his attempt at imitating Franklin Roosevelt in Firesign Theater’s “Nick Danger, Third Eye” bit). I decide I will not vote in the election. I also decide I will not vote in any future elections.

My logic: What’s the point if it doesn’t matter?

My track record: Mondale lost in a record landslide. I have voted in every election since. I’m not going to discuss who I voted for in any of those elections because it has not mattered.

1990 (Age 29): We invade Iraq. In the run-up up to the invasion, Christopher Hitchens, still lucid at that point, says if we invade it will be the start of a new hundred years’ war. Me: “That sounds about right.”

My logic: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to….yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.” Santayana. Smart guy.

My track record: We’ve entered the war’s 27th year. Christopher Hitchens, who began supporting the war around it’s twelfth year, lies a-moldering in his grave. The war goes on. A hundred years still sounds about right.

1990s (Age “sometime in my thirties”): Me, apropos of nothing: “Free people do not need a security state…”

My logic: “….Because security states exist to preserve themselves, not freedom.” Me in my thirties. Not Santayana, but not half bad.

My track record: Hard to tell. But I used to say: “Everything I really needed to know I learned from rock and roll.” Now I say: “Everything I really needed to know, I learned from Philip K. Dick novels.”

2001 (Age 40): On September 11, the World Trade Center is leveled by terrorists in hi-jacked planes. The Pentagon is attacked by another. Another goes down in a Pennsylvania field, prevented by the passengers from incinerating either the White House or the Capitol. George W. Bush responds by fleeing from Florida to Nebraska. Later, much later, after everyone has patted his hand and told him everything will be alright, he gives a speech to a joint session of congress. Then him and Tom Daschle (Remember him? No? Lucky you.) give each other a big ol’ bear hug to celebrate our victory. (As imitations of “Nick Danger, Third Eye” go, this was almost hallucinatory). Me, in an e-mail to a friend: “I hope we don’t need leaders in this fight, because we ain’t exactly got Churchill.” My friend tries to assure me it will be alright because the generals know what they are doing. I refuse to be comforted.

My logic: Wars are not won by men who return to Washington from Florida by way of Nebraska because Washington might be dangerous. You can be stupid and win a war. You can be a criminal and win a war. You can be a mama’s boy who, in Ann Richards’ immortal phrase, “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple” and win a war. You can’t be a coward.

My track record: Well, if we ever do win that war, it won’t be on the coward’s watch.

2004 (Age 43): John Kerry runs for president. He debates George W. Bush. Bush sends a batting practice fastball down the middle, saying that it sounded to him like if Kerry had been president (on the aforementioned 9/11), Saddam Hussein would still have been in power. Instead of saying “If I’d been president, Saddam would be in jail and Osama Bin Laden would be in the cell next to him,” Kerry gave a two-thousand word response that amounted to “Now that’s no necessarily so.” Me: “Goodbye.”

My logic: The coward or the pedant? Who cares.

My track record: John Kerry lost his election. Eventually he became Secretary of State and achieved his life’s goal of turning pedantry into an art form whilst the world burned.

2008 (Age 47): Barrack Obama is elected president. Me: “Interesting. And it’s really nice to check that ‘first African-American president’ box. But, in the midst of all this euphoria, I do wish I could see him.”

My logic: “He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land…” John Lennon: Smart guy.

My track record: Too soon to tell, but if a tide comes in, it does tend to wash away the castles you made of sand. And tides do usually come in.

2015 (Age 54): A couple of Beltway reporters kibitzing on Diane Rehm’s PBS show, spend a few minutes trying to one-up each other on just how impossible it will be for Donald Trump to win the Republican Nomination. Me: “If you think he has no chance, you’re crazy.”

My logic: “Call out the instigators, because there’s something in the air.”

Did I mention that, once upon a time, I learned everything I really needed to know from rock and roll?

My track record: Donald Trump will become president on January 20.

And so….

One factor, which peeked through the underbrush throughout the last year-and-a-half as Trump systematically (yes, systematically) ripped through everyone from Jeb Bush to Hillary Clinton to real power brokers like Megyn Kelly and Jeff Bezos, is that the Security State is not simply worried but frightened. Since the election the peepin’ and a hidin’ and the slippin’ and a slidin’ has become something close to full-blown warfare. Trump has made it abundantly clear that, on Jan. 20, he intends to become the third sitting president to take on the shadow government.

I have no prediction on how it will come out. It did not work out for John Kennedy or Jimmy Carter, whose respective penalties were death and political humiliation.* The Security State is, on one sense, more powerful than ever. Its tentacles gained strength and length by leaps under Bush the Younger and leaps and bounds under Obama. But it is not the top-down machinery that took down JFK (allegedly) and Carter (allegedly**). Without Cold War clarity, there is deep consensus about needs (more power), but much confusion about goals (to what specific end?). Battling cave-dwellers has simply not been as simple or as satisfying as taking on the old Evil Empire. That, plus the sheer size and scope of its expansion has left the Leviathan dazed and weakened at the moment when it will have to face its greatest threat.

So whether they can defeat a determined Trump is an open question and I have no feel in my stomach’s empty pit for how it will come out.

Neither do I have any feel for how Trump would handle either victory or defeat. The great danger–one which is barely hinted at in all the incoherent babbling about fascism and the like–is that Trump will be both willing and able (and at this point it would be far safer, if that’s the right word, to bet against his will than his ability) to replace the praetorian guard we’ve long allowed, in true fascist style, to build around state security, with one built around a cult of personality, one which could presumably be transferred with little fuss to his handsome, hungry children. I will only say that, should he turn in that direction, there will be precious little to stop him and all who had faith in an ever-deteriorating system–me included, as I did keep “voting”–will share the blame.

I wish there was a song for that.

*Eisenhower doesn’t count, as his famous warning about the military industrial complex, while virtuous, was issued on the way out the door. Of course he was right. But that’s like dissing your tyrannical boss at your retirement ceremony.

**There is voluminous literature on the Kennedy assassination, too much to take in really. My best take on all that is here.

There is precious little literature on Carter’s demise and I’m not even up on what does exist. But I can pass along this anecdote.

Back in the early 80’s my dad was a home missionary for the Southern Baptist Convention. One of his duties was to visit local conventions around the country and trade ideas for effective mission work. That put him on kind of a rubber chicken circuit several times a year and, at one congregational supper, he found himself next to a recently retired Army general.

As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was a personality and strangers generally had one of two responses to him: run screaming from the room or tell him things they wouldn’t have told their own mother. Evidently, the general was in the latter camp. The subject of Carter came up, as it nearly always did in Southern Baptist circles in those days, and my dad mentioned that, despite everything, he had voted for him.

The general said: “You weren’t wrong.”

From there, the discussion went to the general’s dark knowledge, only a little of which he could share, of course, of the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission. Long story short, the general was of the informed opinion that the mission had been sabotaged. When my dad pressed him as to who would do such a thing, the answer was nonspecific but the general did say the forces behind it were aiming at a change in the presidency. The way my dad reported it to me, the general said: “They were looking to replace him with either Ted Kennedy or George Bush.”

Reliable assets both.

Take it all with a grain of salt.

But, if that was their aim, they came close enough. And, until Trump the Dread says otherwise, we still live in their world, patiently, and helplessly, awaiting the fate of all who accept a Security State’s version of “safety.”

LIVING IN THE PAST (John Glenn and John Lennon, R.I.P.)

Well, now they’ll share a death date. It’s not likely they shared much else, except being representative–even definitive–icons of two generations that were destined to clash.

Lennon was literally born with German bombs falling on Liverpool. Glenn was one of those duty-bound to save a space for him to dream in. I wouldn’t venture to guess what, if anything, they thought of each other.

I put most of my feelings about the dichotomous impact of the “greatest generation” and its offspring here, the last time an astronaut and a sixties’ singer were linked in death. Obviously, the analogy isn’t perfect. Neil Armstrong and John Glenn punch at about the same weight, but John Lennon was a far greater figure than Scott MacKenzie, though, perhaps for that every reason, no more representative of my points, such as they were.

Like millions of others, I got the news of Lennon’s horrible murder from Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford on Monday Night Football. You can measure how long ago that was by noting that MNF was still a big deal, airing on a major broadcast network. You can get a further measure by noting that “major” and “broadcast” are not concepts that attach to any television network these days. The cultural and political coherence that made winning the space race and Beatlemania simultaneously plausible has now shattered in every possible way.

Other than the real horror in Cosell’s voice, the lasting memory I have of Lennon’s death was the numbness–“Hell, it wasn’t like he owed me money,” one of my college friends said, when another one asked us what we thought about it and I couldn’t articulate a reply. We all laughed and shrugged. Ronald Reagan had been elected to put a happy smiley face on our futures a month before. No sense getting all spoony about a hippie being shot down in the New York streets he, having once been a Beatle–some would say the Beatle–had become sufficiently deluded, perhaps by the dreaming he did in that space all those John Glenns had won, to believe he could walk without a body guard.

But that didn’t come close to the numbness I felt when one of the thirty-something NY natives interviewed on television promised Lennon’s death would be way-y-y-y bigger than Elvis’s. Struggling to put into words just why this was inevitably so, he didn’t mention that Lennon’s death had been truly shocking, while Elvis’s had an air of sad inevitability. He didn’t mention that the people who served the media (as opposed to those who ran it, who had no dog in the hunt) had a thousand times more love and respect for Lennon than they ever had for Elvis (Jann Wenner, then still editor of Rolling Stone, rather famously had to be convinced that Elvis’s death would even be a big deal…I doubt he needed any such assurance concerning Lennon).

No, he said: “I mean, they play the Beatles in elevators!”

Turned out, he thought the real reason the death of a Beatle would produce a longer and deeper mourning than that of Elvis, was because his music (or Paul McCartney’s anyway…I’m hearing “Yesterday” in those elevators) had met the bar for Muzak.

I predicted right then that Lennon’s death would generate nothing like the outpouring of grief that Elvis’s death had done, either right then, or in the future.

Right or wrong, fair or unfair, it didn’t and it hasn’t.

Me, I always remember, if only for the same reason I’ll always now remember when John Glenn died.

Stuff sinks in a little deeper when it happens on your birthday.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Bobby Fuller Four Up)

“Let Her Dance”
The Bobby Fuller Four (1965)
#133 Billboard
Recommended source: Never To Be Forgotten – The Mustang Years

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Dave Marsh has written that the Bobby Fuller Four had a claim on being the best rock and roll band in America in the mid-sixties. If you want to start such an argument, you can find enough evidence on the two small box sets that collect all the group’s work (especially the one recommended above) to get it going, though not enough to finish it. For that, Fuller would have needed to live a little longer and keep up the pace.

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Whether he could have, we’ll never know. He was found dead in his car a few months after “I Fought the Law” became a breakout hit in 1966. Among the wilder rumors that floated around in the years after the L.A. coroner checked both “accident” and “suicide” on his death certificate was that Elvis had him killed for refusing to sell that same car. For a more plausible explanation of Bobby’s death–and much else–I highly recommend John Kaye’s great novel The Dead Circus, which I reviewed here.

For my own take on just how good the Bobby Fuller Four was at high tide, you can go here.

But if you just needed one record to get you thinking about what might have been, “Let Her Dance” might do the trick. The world moved faster back then. What I like to call Pop Time moved at lightning speed. Who knows where Fuller’s career might have been twelve months later if “Let Her Dance” had broken out as it should have in the summer of ’65. Probably nowhere significantly different than where it was. But maybe, just maybe, it would have moved his life a hair to two to the left or right on the Dial of Fate–and just maybe it would have been the hair’s difference that would have let him live to old age.

Keith Richards has spoken about late night parties in Swinging London where John Lennon would get in his cups and say things like “If only Buddy had lived!” the kind of drunken philosophy which means absolutely nothing literally and absolutely everything spiritually.

Bobby Fuller was the closest anyone came to taking Buddy Holly’s place, literally or spiritually. Unfortunately, the proximation was bit too literal. But if you wonder where the ceiling was, try sticking “Let Her Dance” between “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and “London’s Burning”  on the Universe of Stomp’s supremo mix-disc some time.

Then crank it to the max.

You might be surprised who sounds like the genius then.

 

MY FAVORITE TRULY OBSCURE B-SIDE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Easy Part: Define “B-Side.”

“The side of a 45 that was not meant for primary radio promotion…at least until some enterprising dee-jay turned the boring A-Side over and his audience started lighting up the switchboard.”

The most famous case of this was probably the process that, by means I can’t seem to track down in precise detail, led to this UK release…

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Being turned into this US release….

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and leading (many years after “To Sir With Love” failed to chart in Britain and was the number one American record for the year 1967 in Billboard) to the Scottish Lass’s priceless quote re American dee-jays: “Bless their cotton socks.”

Now here’s a trick.

Define “obscure.”

Then define “truly obscure.”

You’re liable to get deep in the weeds before you find any real agreement on that last. Your gem of obscurity, held close to the heart (or, if you’re a little paranoid, the vest, right next to your pearl-handled revolver), and heard by only a precious few in the History of Man, will be somebody else’s “Pfah! I’ve got five copies of that in my basement and I didn’t even start looking until I was twelve!”

But I’m a sucker for punishment so I’ll have a go.

First Rule: It can’t be anything by the B-Side kings: Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. They all routinely turned out B-sides that would have been career makers for anybody else. But even their worst or scarcest material isn’t obscure. So “I’m Down” and “Kiss Me Baby” don’t qualify. And neither does anything that doesn’t reek of genius.

Second Rule: It can’t be anything by a popular artist which has been given extensive exposure by cover versions or inclusion on “best of” compilations. None of this, then:

Third Rule: It can’t have been talked about so much or praised by so many critics that any reasonably aware record collector knows it backwards and forwards.

None of this…

Or this…

Fourth Rule: It can’t be mentioned in some well-known bible of taste like Greil Marcus’ “Desert Island” section at the end of Stranded or Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Which is really too bad…

Fifth Rule: Of course to be really, truly obscure, the fifth rule is, if not a must, at least the first sub-rule of tie-breakers:

No official release on CD.

It’s not that hard to find B-Sides never released on CD. Way harder than it used to be, but still not beyond the pale.

What’s a little harder is to find something I really love that’s never been released on CD.

I thought I might have to settle for something that at least hasn’t been released often. Something like this…

or this…

…both of which lead straight into the second sub-rule of tiebreakers...

A record gets a leg up if I actually first experienced it as a B-Side, something that put a smile on my face once upon a time when I got home from the record store and played through the stack and realized I had gotten two for one.

What for instance, might have lain on the other side of this….?

Not another big hit because the Poppy Family, despite making a number of distinctively elegiac records, didn’t have any other big hits outside their native Canada, (though “That’s Where I Went Wrong” made the top thirty…and Greil Marcus’s “Island”).

Also not a record that’s ever been released on CD.

And not a record that was even released on a vinyl album.

Now we’re getting pretty close to “truly obscure.” You can go deeper–the way your average troll defines it, obscurity really is a bottomless concept–but probably not with somebody who had at least as much success as the Poppy Family.

And, even if you did go deeper, I bet you wouldn’t find a classic cover, in this case of a 1958 hit by Jody Reynolds, that doesn’t so much rewrite a great original as restore its initial meaning.

In the fifties, Reynolds was forced to rewrite the lyrics to a song he had called “Endless Sleep” before his record company would release it.

They wanted him to rewrite it because they wanted a happy ending….to a record called “Endless Sleep.”

So they could release it on Demon Records.

I mean, any time they try to tell you the fifties weren’t weird….

Hey, he made it work anyway. But I was a little shocked when I finally heard Jody’s version. It didn’t jibe at first. How could it? I’d already absorbed this version…which does not end happily.

As far as I know, everything else the Poppy Family recorded was on one of their two albums. I assume this was a consummate throwaway, a true B-Side done up on the spot to get the wannabe, gonnabe hit–which turned out to be a monster–out the door.

Not the sort of thing that happens anymore, as we’re all too busy making those other plans the old B-Side King John Lennon used to talk about.

Thin gruel this brave new world has turned out to be.

But I remember how crazy and full life, love and the recording industry used to be.

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THAT MRS. JONES, SHE WAS A LUCKY LADY (Billy Paul, R.I.P.)

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Kenny Gamble spotted Billy Paul in a jazz club in the late sixties. By then, Paul had been knocking around the music business since the early fifties, had served in Elvis’s unit in Germany (where he tried, unsuccessfully, to get Elvis to join his band), boxed a little, had the standard sixties’ experience of being knocked out by the Beatles in general and John Lennon in particular.

Gamble heard something special and immediately signed Billy to the new label he was starting with Leon Huff. Paul’s mostly self-produced first album was the second release on Gamble Records, which, not too long after, morphed into Philly International, the most important black music label of the 1970s (if not the most important label period).

Paul was a perfect fit for the new label’s defining sensibility, which emphasized an aspirational style of Black American bourgeoisie that delivered on every musical promise and, for a fleeting instant, made real social and political assimilation seem nearer than it had ever been before or has ever been since. No record embodied that sensibility, or the promises it implied, than Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones.” He made plenty of more militant sides, the most famous of which was the sticky wicket “Am I Black Enough For You?” But, like most really effective political records “Me and Mrs. Jones” worked subterraneously. It carried its message in its bones, the fluid marrow of which was Paul’s inimitable voice.

The message was simple enough: Sex and longing and sneaking around and meeting in corner cafes without much idea of where it might lead beyond the pleasure of the moment was neither a black or white thing, simply a human thing. If, these days, you think that’s no big deal, then that just means the record’s once revolutionary notions have been sufficiently absorbed to make them seem as natural as breathing. Paul ended up making a slew of fine records. Cruise around YouTube and I doubt you’ll be able to find a weak track. I know I couldn’t. And, working with the finest producers and session men in the world, the best thing about any Billy Paul record was always Billy Paul.

But his one big pop hit couldn’t really be followed, any more than it could be forgotten.

Paul passed away from cancer this week, at 81. Like his contemporary Donnie Hathaway, he remains seriously under-appreciated outside of Black America.

Bet they know better where he’s gone to now.

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PICKING UP PASSENGERS, COAST TO COAST (The Best of the Rest, 2015, R.I.P.)

The Death Train was even busier than I thought, last year. There were some I just didn’t have a chance to write about in a timely fashion and some I didn’t know about. Anyway, I know now and these are the ones I didn’t want to let go by without at least a word:

Little Jimmy Dickens (Country legend: Jan. 3, 94)

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 07: Recording Artists "Little" Jimmy Dickens performs at The Grand Ole Opry on June 7, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images)

David Cantwell said it better than I ever could.

Cynthia Lennon (Long-suffering Beatle wife: April 1, 75)

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Lulu, and the years, said it better than I ever could.

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Bob Burns (Original drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd, Florida boy: April 3, 69)

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Lynn Anderson (Country star supreme: July 3, 67)

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Billy Joe Royal (Working class hero, pop and country star, blue-eyed soul singer extraordinaire, and, claiming a space beyond even Lynn Anderson, Linda Ronstadt and Elvis, the only person who ever sang Joe South better than Joe South did: Oct. 6, 73)

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(and, because I’ll probably never have a better excuse to post this lovely, inexplicable thing)….

Cory Wells (Vocalist for Three Dog Night, pop-rocker sui generis: Oct. 20, 74)

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Haskell Wexler (Legendary cinematographer who directed only one film. It was enough: Dec. 27, 93)

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(H. Wexler, on the set of Medium Cool)

Message to the Maker. Take a breather. Please.

COWBOY (Glenn Frey, R.I.P.)

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In the days when harmony ruled, there was apparently a legal requirement that any harmony group aspiring to royalty have a resident asshole. In the Everlys, it was Don. In Simon & Garfunkel, it was Simon. In the Beach Boys, it was Mike Love. In the Beatles, it was John Lennon. In the Byrds it was David Crosby.

By most accounts, the Eagles, arriving late and assigned by history to close down the party, doubled down. In Glenn Frey and Don Henley, they offered two holes for the price of one. In a western, they’d have been the outliers, the surly cowpokes who would do the right thing or the wrong thing or simply ride away, depending on what was in it for them.

Like somebody from the actual west, I suppose.

It’s possible this is precisely what allowed them to embody some weird contradictions and, having aimed squarely for the middle of the road, where they dug a permanent groove in the asphalt right where the yellow stripe was supposed to be, elicit far stranger and more disruptive responses than most bands who craved disruption for its own sake.

Crosby repeatedly professed to find them boring, which, given the projects he’s proudly participated in since he left the Byrds, took more than mere chutzpah. Robert Christgau professed to find them misogynistic, which, given his life-long devotion to the Rolling Stones (not really waved away, I think, by his recently arrived at suspicion that Mick and Keith really aren’t the nicest people…and, get this, may never have been!), is a real knee-slapper.  I’m guessing they would have both enjoyed having a beer with the weekend softball warrior I once heard saying he didn’t want his wife to drive if she was “just gonna play that goddam Eagles crap.”

Or maybe not.

On the occasion of Frey’s death, one website, reliably standing in for the rest, declared the Eagles “about as polarizing as any band in rock history,” before also declaring, de rigeuer, their personal indifference.

So it goes. So it’s gone for forty years.

From the interviews I heard on television last night, it seems Frey was the hard-driving perfectionist in a band that was often criticized, not without some justification, for prizing perfection above all else. If that kept the Eagles from being, say, the Byrds–imposed a certain set of limitations that meant there were few of the surprises that preclude indifference–then I guess he’ll have something to answer for at the next stage.

But that’s just one way of looking at it.

I can’t pretend the Eagles were ever my favorite band (happens the Byrds were/are, and have been since the first moment I heard them, which was also the first moment I realized indifference could be banished in such matters, and, coming in the spring of 1978, was long after I’d not only heard but absorbed the Eagles).

Like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, though, it seems like most of flak Frey’s band caught was really for appealing to the wrong people.

And, in my experience, mostly those people were/are women.

Anybody surprised?

Also like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, I’ll take them, and their “misguided” fans, over most of those representing the alternative.

And while the half-dozen to a dozen of their records that I really love might be somewhat, or even completely, different than the same number the next casual Eagles fan you meet feels the same way about, I don’t gainsay anyone who loves it all. I lived through the seventies. Believe me, anyone who could pursue perfection to a useful end in that chaotic moment had real value, even if some fools were bound to mistake it for “boredom” or worse.

Glenn Frey was a solid guitar player, a first class singer/songwriter, and a harmony singer extraordinaire, never more sublime than when he was breath-to-breath between screaming matches with his asshole buddy Don Henley. And if their best records really were oh-so-perfect, nobody ever doubted it was the kind of perfection that only rests on the other side of hardcore professionalism. That means different things to different people, but all it ever meant in the suburbs and trailer parks where copies of the Eagles Greatest Hits became as ubiquitous as Budweiser and the Bible was that it was bought and paid for the hard way.

Nothing wrong with that.

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