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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THE RAMBLIN’ MAN REACHES OUT….AND TAKES HOLD (What Impressed Me This Week)

Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave
David Acomba, Director (1980)

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Serendipity and fair’s fair.

Without Greil Marcus going on about this back in 1990 (when it re-aired on the Nashville Network and Marcus evidently thought it was new) and me reading about it in his newly collected Real Life Rock columns and then, mere days later, coming across a cheap copy in the dollar store just down the road that I only started going to a few months back because I discovered they sold the hydrocortisone salve I occasionally use on an unspeakable rash for a quarter less than the one right next to my house this never would have found it’s way to my DVD player and I’d be a poorer man without even knowing it.

Without benefit of either looking or sounding much like the original, Canadian country singer Sneezy Waters, who had played the role on stage for years, inhabits Williams the same way Philip Baker Hall inhabited Richard Nixon in Secret Honor a few years later. As with Hall, I spent the first minute thinking “this is never gonna work.” Then the second minute arrived and the meaningful distinctions between actor, role and role model disappeared. I never concluded whether this was more reassuring than disorienting but I was riveted either way. Five minutes in, I knew there weren’t going to be any bathroom breaks.

The setup is simple enough (and enough like Secret Honor to make me wonder if Robert Altman saw this when it first aired). Hank is taking his famous last ride through an Appalachian night (he died in the back seat of his chauffeured car somewhere between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia), and, drifting in and out of consciousness, he dreams of stopping off and giving a show in one of the small town bars where, by chance, his band is already set up and waiting in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd who could probably never afford a trip to the Opry.

You can watch movies a long time and never find anyone walking a tighter wire than Waters, director Acomba and playwright/screenwriter Maynard Collins do here. Part of the tension in a first viewing of something like this is in wondering if/when somebody will set a foot wrong. When it never happens, there’s an almost palpable sense of relief, because the slightest slip, the one that always feels like it’s coming any second now, would wreck the mood.

It never happens here.This is one of those instances where even the technical limitations work entirely in the movie’s favor. That scene pictured above is just about what the movie looks like and while some of that is probably due to a low-grade transfer I had a feeling a pristine copy wouldn’t look much better. It certainly wouldn’t work any better, because anything clearer wouldn’t let you smell the smoke and whiskey.

Most remarkably, it’s all in there. The Hank Williams Story. Between his songs, the stories he tells to set them up, the bitter remonstrances of his waking moments in the back seat of his Doom-mobile, you get a  distillation that touches everything essential and has a feeling of completion, as though he (Williams himself, more than the actor or the filmmakers) is scripting his own life and planning to live just long enough to reach the only end that was ever possible.

And the biggest part of that story isn’t the alcoholism or the Dr. Feelgoods or marriage or divorce or fatherhood or spats with the band or even the Death’s Head hanging over his shoulder. No, the biggest part, and the part the movie catches so well it’s literally breathtaking is the connection to his audience, the final quality that made him the standard country singers–and country lives–were measured against for half a century.

Until, that is, very, very recently.

The people who clap and dance and fight and “Hallelujah!” their way through this film’s imaginary show aren’t represented as characters, but they aren’t reduced to types either. They have a collective life and three-dimensionality that goes beyond even the air of lives being lived that deepens John Ford’s universe.  And, whether seen as extras in a low-budget movie that started filming the day John Lennon was assassinated, or literal ghosts of the audience Hank Williams must have sometimes felt he had dreamed into being, there will be a day in the not too distant future when they’ll be unrecognizable. A twenty-year-old might have trouble recognizing them now. Living in a world where it’s always Saturday night has not only robbed Williams’ principal themes of longing and regret of the force they had for the audience that swirls back and forth between him and you while this film is running, it’s also taken the fun out of Saturday night itself.

Whether it was possible to self-consciously articulate this lost world’s distance from the present in 1980, I don’t know. But the feelings inherent in the loss must have at least been available to the senses, because without even calling on “Lost Highway” or “Ramblin’ Man” (there is a chilling version of “Alone and Forsaken”), Sneezy Waters and company managed to write themselves into the Hank Williams story and enlarge an already legendary life it in a way I’ve seldom encountered in any movie, let alone a “biopic” that consists entirely of a car-ride and a fake concert that never happened.

I’m sure it’s possible to see this and write it off. It’s not Citizen Kane. On some level, it’s barely even there.

But I’d advise approaching it with caution

If it gets you, it might not let you go.

 

MY FAVORITE HARMONY GROUP SINGER: ROCK AND ROLL DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.

With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic  and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.

So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):

The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.

That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.

Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)

If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.

As for a favorite?

Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.

You just have to think of a little test.

Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?

You, Carl. Only you.

I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.

[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]

 

ILLUMINATION AND ALL THAT…THE BEATLES IN THEIR TIME (Segue of the Day: 11/8/15)

Or, what might this…

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have to do with this…

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and this…?

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More than I would have guessed.

It’s always fun to think of some small new twist on a story that’s been done to death. Not too many stories have been worked over more thoroughly than The Story of the Beatles.

But one thing I’ve never done before is try and listen to the music that made them big in England, a year and half before ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and The Ed Sullivan Show sent them into the international stratosphere, in the context of what was happening on American radio in the months must before which we’ve always known they had an ear for.

How much of an ear?

Well, their first album, finished in February, 1963, included fourteen songs. Eight were Lennon/McCartney originals. One was a recent Broadway tune (“A Taste of Honey”). The other five were hits of recent vintage (no fifties’ rocker stuff, as there would be on later albums), three of them straight from the Brill Building (though one of those was by way of the Isley Brothers) and another, “Boys,” that might as well have been.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but outside of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “There’s a Place” (that last, a space even the Beatles never got back to) and, at a stretch “Love Me Do,” the Brill Building cuts, real and faux, are the strongest stuff on the album. “Chains” is solid. The other three (“Boys,” with Ringo’s first recorded vocal and his best until “It Don’t Come Easy,” plus “Baby It’s You” and “Twist and Shout”) all epic.

Having four sides in the can (the A’s and B’s of their first two singles) when they prepared to cut the album, their assigned producer George Martin asked Paul and John what else they had. They answered “our stage act.”

Meaning all that Broadway/Brill Building/Faux Brill Building stuff of such recent 1960–63 vintage wasn’t thrust upon them. It was what they liked. What inspired them.

Which is odd, given that for several decades after, as professional rock criticism bloomed, flowered, withered and died, the basic narrative pretty much held that rock had “died” in those years. (You can still find Greil Marcus going on about it in his latest, which I’m still loving by the way.)

For many reasons, the strongest maybe being because I came in at the Beach Boys (first national hit, albeit one I never much cared for, released June, 1962) and, especially, the Four Seasons (first national hit, August, 1962), I never bought that particular narrative myself.

Later on, when I got to know much more about Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Brenda Lee and Gene Pitney and Ray Charles and girl groups and surf rock and second-generation doo wop and early Motown and so on and so forth, I bought it even less.

But, amongst all those “nevers” I still never thought to actually play the Beatles first album next to a well chosen anthology of the music that was in their LIverpool-to-Hamburg-to-London air, via Pirate Radio or the BBC or their record collections or whatever other distribution methods were targeting their demographic at the time.

Then, this week, I found myself with my latest additions to Time Life’s year-by-year collection, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” which happened to be the two discs devoted to 1962. And, since I was duty bound to listen to them anyway, I went, “h-m-m-m-m.”

Why not stick the Beatles’ first, Please Please Me between Time Life’s 1962 and 1962 Still Rockin’?

That was Monday, which makes this Segue of the Day a week late and a little bit of a cheat, but what’s a blog for if you can’t bend a cheap concept like Time out of shape once in a while to suit a narrative?

Anyway, it sent me off on that whole tangent I mentioned in my other posts this week, and I might still have one or two posts to go before I exhaust that particular day.

The day itself didn’t exhaust me. I found it pretty exhilarating

Because listening to a multinational corporation’s repackaged definition of what the Beatles were trying to fit into as they climbed their first mountain made both experiences bigger and better.

In the first place, I learned something.

Listening to all this music thrown together, I could finally begin to understand the belief held by so many about rock’s “demise.”  There are 44 tracks on the two Time Life collections and, even with the names I mentioned above being mostly absent (except for Gene Pitney), the period was heavy on reaching for quiet spaces. That wasn’t quite the rejection of Little Richard and Chuck Berry so many assumed. More like a broadening of perspective. But I can see how some might have been fooled.

Because while there are rockers (the Isley’s “Twist and Shout” among them, though it doesn’t rock like the Beatles, who tended, along with everything else, to be smart about choosing their battles), the major emphasis is on introspection, heartbreak, longing.

That really shouldn’t be surprising.

These are the kind of things you might expect the era’s outsiders: black people, urban immigrants, girls, perhaps even the occasional hillbilly (throw Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” up against “Love Me Do” some time if you need evidence history doesn’t always move in a straight line even in the short run), to be especially invested in communicating as a dual language: part public, part secret.

The Beatles certainly didn’t miss that. A lot of that first album, including something as joyous and up-tempo as “Please Please Me,” reaches for those very same qualities. Sometimes they missed. Several cuts tend to commodify rather than amplify the melancholy, skate over it rather than deepen it (something else they would also always be very good at and which the public accepted enough, in the immediate wake of February, 1964, to make cuts like “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” into big hits–what happened with the Beatles, there was a reason they called it Mania).

But about half the time, they grabbed hold. On top of which they, or somebody, had the sense to start and end strong. “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Please Please Me” frame the first side of the British debut LP; “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout” the second.

All to the good.

Believe me, coming out of Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” and Don and Juan’s “What’s Your Name” (both wonderful) at the end of the first 1962 volume, “I Saw Her Standing There” really is a leap in the dark, a rush that feels like “What’d I Say” must have felt in 1959 or “Tutti Frutti” must have felt in 1955. In fits and starts at least, Please Please Me still sounds like some sort of revolution.

By the end, with this…

and this…

closing the record*, it becomes possible to think Americans must have been flat out deaf and stupid not to respond to the various attempts to sell the Beatles over here throughout the latter months of 1962 and all of 1963.

That, in fact, is just what I was thinking.

But then I put on the second Time Life disc.

And it started with a reversal of form: The Beatles’ quiet-place-bleeding-into-a-loud-place becoming a loud-place…

bleeding back into a quiet place…at a party no less…

And I was yet again reminded that the competition in early rock and roll was literally insane. That maybe the miracle wasn’t so much the Beatles didn’t make it here sooner, but that they made it at all.

In the Contours’ Detroit, after all, and Sam Cooke’s Chicago-or-L.A., and a whole lot of other American spaces, they might have gotten lost in the crowd.

Well, until Rubber Soul anyway.

By which time they probably would have had other jobs.

*Sorry, no decent studio cut was available. Even YouTube isn’t perfect.

 

MIGHTY, MIGHTY MAN (Ben E. King, R.I.P.)

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“Most of us got out of there (the Brill Building era) with no money at all. A lot of beautiful rooms and a lot of yachts and lots of limousines was bought and a lot of private jets was bought as well, but we got none of those. But we got everlasting music. So if I had a chance to go back and change anything I would change nothing. Because those that have the yachts and the houses and the private planes and stuff, they still got to listen to my music when they turn on the radio. I beat ’em anyhow.”

(Ben E. King, from Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music, 2001)

The vocal bridge from fifties’ doo-wop to sixties’ soul was built by a multitude. The single voice that sank the foundation so deep in the sand it couldn’t possibly float away with the tide belonged to Benjamin Earl Nelson, who took the stage name Ben E. King somewhere along the journey that turned his group, the Five Crowns, into a version of the by then long Clyde-McPhatter-less Drifters that could finally carry on something more than the name.

King’s best known vocals (“There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance For Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” and especially “Stand By Me”) are so monumental that they’ve tended to overshadow the incredible depth and breadth of his accomplishments, including co-authorship of some of those very records that defined him for the public imagination.

But it’s as a singer he’ll be most remembered. There was something deceptively modest in his ease of delivery, I think, which invited other great singers to cover the same turf or even the very same songs. In later years, John Lennon hit with a spectral version of “Stand By Me.” Tom Jones did yeoman work on “I Who Have Nothing.” Aretha Franklin her own self offered a luminous version of “Don’t Play That Song For Me,” and a thunderous re-imagining of “Spanish Harlem.”

But even Aretha’s searing, soaring vocals could do no more than match Ben E. King.

They weren’t better, you see, because, in this world or the next, nothing really can be.

 

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Seventeenth)

[Program Note: Neal Umphred and I are scheduled to continue our Elvis discussion over at his place some time in the next few days. I’ll link over when it begins and periodically when we update. Meanwhile….]

“But my modest suggestion is that this may be where the first wave of rock broke and fell back, why in its first great push it never quite reached the shore to cover the earth; there was no unifying talent complete and obsessive enough to work the transformation it made its fan desire.

“Its geniuses could not do all it took. Elvis was early rock’s godhead and figure of broadest appeal; though his audiences remained segregated, he was the first to suggest such a broad comity of taste among people who presumably had nothing to say to one another. But from the start there was lard at the heart of his judgment (the ersatz jazz of “Heartbreak Hotel”), schmaltz in the boil (“Love Me Tender”), and aside from two aberrant skirmishes with need and doubt in later years (his 1968 comeback music, side one of How Great Thou Art) he did not extend his pioneer moves into music of psychological complexity.”
(Source: Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, Devin McKinney, 2003)
 Let me start with a little disclaimer. I think I’ve made the point before, but “stupid stuff” said about Elvis isn’t always said by stupid people. Frequently, it’s said by very smart people, Devin McKinney being a prime example. I’m about half-way through this book and I was led to it by McKinney’s more recent book on Henry Fonda, which is excellent and which I reviewed here.
On top of all that, Magic Circles, being about the Beatles, is mostly superb, and always provocative, when it sticks to the Beatles. I’m sure I’ll have something extensive and every likely quite positive to say about it when I’m finished.
That said…
There’s a style of rock criticism (I’d call it the dominant style) which feels the need to slay the Elvis Dragon so that the Beatles-as-God-Theory-of-Everything might live. This style, unsupported by evidence or rationality, has lasted so long, acquired so much real depth and nuance, and taken such deep hold on so many fine minds, that it should probably be labeled a syndrome and have its own pseudo-scientific name. I’m not in a creative mood right now so I’ll pass on the opportunity but if anyone else wants to jump in with a suggestion, feel free.
One element of the syndrome–if syndrome it be–is that the Beatles were somehow “bigger” than Elvis, here exemplified by phrases like: They “covered the earth”  (as he did not). They were “a unifying talent complete and obsessive enough to work the transformation,” i.e., the transformation the syndrome deems valuable (as he was not). And while “His audiences remained segregated”….theirs did not.
And, oh by the way, (merely implied here but made explicit in the main text of the book) they were unquestioned musical geniuses with real vision.
His music and vision were suspect “from the start.” Any  later, lasting, achievements were, of course, “aberrant.”
(Yes, this is all old stuff around here, but there’s a twist: While McKinney expends the most print on Elvis, he is even more dismissive of the other fifties’ giants. At one point he describes the Everly Brothers–the most important harmony singers of the twentieth century and, oh-by-the-way, the most significant specific musical influence on the Beatles after, you know, Elvis–as “minor.”…but we’ll leave that for another day.)
For the record: 
There’s no objective evidence that the Beatles were “bigger” than Elvis. What we can say with certainty is that they held much greater appeal for the intelligentsia.
Outside of academia and its attendant, late-sixties, branch-n-root in the counterculture, there’s no part of the earth he didn’t cover that they did cover. One rather significant part of the earth that he reached and they did not was Black America, which rejected the Beatles completely, (that is, if we’re to go by the only somewhat objective measure we have, which is the record charts, where they never placed a single record on any R&B chart, while Elvis, somehow appealing to his segregated-in-southern-concert-halls audience, was the second ranked R&B performer of the fifties’ after Fats Domino, who, as it happens, McKinney also thinks was no big deal). Another rather significant part of the earth he covered quite a bit more thoroughly than the Beatles was Hillbilly America, which at the time, was still quite a large chunk of the population and the culture, but we’ll give that a flyer, since Elvis had the distinctly unfair advantage of being one of them.
Later in the book, McKinney has to strain quite a bit to give the Beatles some relevance to black people and the civil rights era and I mention it only because, once his false premise is out of the way, he doesn’t strain much. Basically his argument there amounts to the Klan outright despising the Beatles, especially after John Lennon’s “we’re bigger than Jesus” moment (which, ironically enough, McKinney writes about with real verve and insight).
Upshot: they were important to Black America even though, on the evidence, few black people bought their records and they weren’t prone to demonstrating much public zeal on the matter.
The logic, so far as I could follow it, is that the Beatles had to be important to the burning issue of the day because…well, because they were the Beatles. And hence, by definition, way more significant than Elvis, a product of the segregated south who had smashed the race barrier ten years earlier in an unprecedented and wholly unpredictable, but nonetheless absent-minded and rather accidental fashion, which didn’t require any “music of psychological complexity,” then or later.
Or something like that.
To which I can only say, yet again, that among the people who realized there were no Beatles without Elvis were, you know, the Beatles.
From Liverpool, England.
A part of the earth the lard-hearted Elvis had evidently covered after all.
You don’t even need John Lennon’s “Before Elvis there was nothing,” to prove it.
You could just go with this:
“I didn’t have any. The only root I can think of is one day riding my bike down a street in Liverpool and hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ playing out of an open window.”
(George Harrison, asked about his musical influences in George Harrison: Living In the Material World, 2011)
 Or maybe this:

 

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Stones Prep for Altamont)

 The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus–1968

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According to Pete Townshend’s interview (included on the DVD extras), this television show came about because he and Mick Jagger were tinkering with the notion of having a rock and roll tour that traveled around like a circus…ah, the ideas the lads came up with then! That particular idea didn’t really get off the ground and, for that, we can probably all be thankful. But Jagger was intrigued enough to pursue it down another avenue with this “live” television show being the result.

The show is passing strange for most of its length. Music Hall humor, touches (generally heavy-handed) of sixties-style cine-art, celebrity-spotting crowd scenes–all the qualities that generally make for a train wreck.

As usual, any redemption comes from the music. There’s plenty of that–music, anyway, if not quite redemption–and most of it is fine. Jethro Tull is surprisingly (to me anyway) good. Taj Mahal is solid as always. There’s good stuff from an all-star band led by John Lennon (and then Yoko Ono, in a number that’s mostly interesting for demonstrating just how infatuated Lennon was–backing her, he looks like every goofy-eyed schoolboy you ever knew and it’s genuinely endearing). The Who smokes the room, though, being as how they had just entered their arty phase, maybe not quite as thoroughly as usual. And Marianne Faithfull, doubtless on the bill only by virtue of being Jagger’s current squeeze, is good enough to have me looking up the cost of her greatest hits on Amazon.

But, of course, it’s the Stones show to steal and they were at an especially interesting place. Brian Jones, the band’s founder, was on the verge of being shown the door (this was his last appearance with them), and would find the grave not long after. And, coincidentally or not, the Stones were on the verge of eclipsing the Beatles. One way to view this entire special, which is dated from December 11, 1968, is as a passing of the torch–a passing that wasn’t at all obvious in the moment, but which comes into clear relief when Lennon’s loopy presence is contrasted with Jagger’s growing assurance.

And, of course, there was the whole question of whether Mick had met the devil down at the crossroads somewhere south of Carnaby Street and forked over his soul.

Let me just say that I’m ambivalent about this. On the one hand, having gone a round or two with Old Scratch (turned down his deal myself–nasty bugger), I’m not readily impressed by the fakers. And Mick could be a fake. Sure he could. Easy enough to fool the world, after all, if you’re just a clever lad. No need to call on the Prince of Darkness for that task. and, if anyone has ever been more down with the notion of one being born every minute than Mick Jagger, they’ve passed beyond my notice.

And yet…

They begin a touch stiffly. “Jumping Jack Flash” without  the jump. But it’s still “Jumping Jack Flash,” in the end, and by the time they lock onto the groove, they start to get….comfortable.

Then they get good. “Parachute Woman,” “No Expectations,” album cuts from Beggar’s Banquet in lieu of familiar hits and gaining power every second.

After that, a teaser–“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” minus the choir and orchestra which, as it turns out, it needs.

And then, just when it looks like things might wind down, that classic, “is the deal real yet?” intro to “Sympathy For the Devil” and they’re off. Mick in full flight. Contrasting him on stage with Lennon in the crowd, you can just about believe that Jagger–fake satyr tattoos and all–really did have that meeting at the crossroads and the deal went something like, “Well, I’m not sure about my soul…but I might be able to hand you a Beatle.”

You can laugh, but when I watched this the first time that’s what it felt like. An advertisement for the disappearance of John Lennon, to be replaced by his friend Michael Jagger. Primal Scream Therapy and imagining no possessions (except one’s own) straight ahead for the one (all disguised as an escape from “Hello Goodbye” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and really who could blame him?). Let It Bleed and “Honky Tonk Women” and Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street for the other.

Oh, and Altamont–where Jagger would be haunted less by deaths resulting from his lack of judgment than by unfailing recognition that his business acumen (the thing he clearly valued most) had its limits.

That plus the “end of the sixties.”

And forty subsequent years of not mattering, even to yourself, except as a human cash register.

That’s what happens when you take the deal–even if it’s for somebody else’s soul and you get to play Satan on TV for the back end. No matter how slick you think you played it, Old Scratch always gets his in the end.

Like I said. Nasty bugger.

 

EVERYTHING I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW, I LEARNED FROM ROCK AND ROLL (Lesson #1: Just like Ronnie Said)

[NOTE: It’s been a while since I started a new category….Some of my friends are gonna be surprised that this wasn’t the name of my very first category….You know who you are! Any way, this category will be loosely defined as relating today’s headlines to the people-oriented history of rock and roll I try to emphasize in general….So it might get hairy at times.]

RONNIESPECTOR2

When Ronnie Bennett (at the left above) auditioned for Phil Spector (seated) with her vocal group (already called the Ronettes and here pictured with George Harrison and English publicist Tony King) Spector leaped off his piano bench and said. “Stop….That’s it. That is it.”

He was referring to what John Lennon would later call “the Voice.” and he very specifically meant the voice he had been waiting–and hoping–to find.

It was that voice–not, as has so often been assumed and reported, Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” production technique–that so captivated the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson when he first heard “Be My Baby” that it instantly became the standard by which he would measure the rest of his life (not to mention all that glorious music).

As Ronnie Spector, then, she became a legend and one of the most important vocalists of the rock and roll era.

Then she went away.

There were reasons.

She divorced Phil Spector in 1972.

He had forced her to quit performing years before. He had also kept her effectively locked up as a prisoner in his L.A. mansion. When she finally made her terrified break, it was running…on bare feet lest her shoes make noise on the driveway pavement.

In light of the daily reports this past couple of weeks concerning various forms of abuse directed at women and children (when she met Spector she was seventeen and so essentially both) by celebrity athletes, it’s worth remembering the price she paid. For anyone who had been paying attention, Spector’s eventual murder of Lana Clarkson was no more surprising than the recent video of Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice cold-cocking his wife-to-be in a casino elevator. For some, the obvious is never really obvious unless they see it with their own eyes….or the body on the floor is actually dead (as opposed to merely knocked stone cold, as Rice’s wife-to-be clearly had been in the previously released video which did not show the actual punch). For the rest of us, the obvious is, well, obvious.

Twas ever thus.

The following is from Ronnie Spector’s autobiography, Be My Baby, which (as told to Vince Waldron) was published in 1990. It’s one of the finest–and most unflinching–of all rock and roll memoirs, not least because she told the world that, no, Phil Spector, didn’t coach her singing (he was a superb talent scout before he was anything else) and that, yes, he was very, very dangerous.

RONNIESPECTOR

After our successes at Madison Square Garden and the Baths, I continued doing concerts with the girls through the rest of 1974. But nothing ever matched the excitement of those shows. We spent most of our time marching in and out of oldies revues, and that got pretty depressing after a while. I was barely thirty years old and everywhere I went people were calling me an oldie but goodie.

It drove me crazy–and it sure didn’t help my drinking problem any. I used to stand backstage at these rock and roll revivals and cringe when the emcee announced us as oldies singers. I’d be standing off in the dark somewhere in the wings and raise my Dixie Cup of vodka and Coke in a silent toast. “Here’s to little Ronnie Spector,” I’d whisper to myself. “An oldie. But a goodie!” I’d say it as a joke, but I can tell you there was nothing funny about it.

Whether it was for good or bad, my oldies career finally came to an end during the holiday season of 1974. That was the year Dick Clark signed the Ronettes to take part in a rock and roll revival show he was staging at the Flamingo Hotel. And I’ll never forget my nightmare in Las Vegas.

It was great to be working with Dick Clark again–his shows were always professionally run, and this was no exception. I rehearsed my numbers with Chip and Denise on stage in the late afternoon and we were dynamite. Dick and everyone on his staff were predicting that Vegas would be the start of a whole new career for the Ronettes.

And when I finally saw our name up in lights outside the casino, I began to think so, too. They do everything about ten times bigger than life in Vegas. So naturally, the marquee outside the hotel was about a hundred feet tall, with the names of all the groups in the show spelled out in letters twelve feet high. I’d never seen “The Ronettes” spelled out that big, and I loved it.

Dick gave us a dinner break between the afternoon rehearsal and our first evening show, so I took the elevator back up to my room to rest up. I was so high from the excitement that I didn’t think anything could bring me down. Then the phone rang.

“It’s me,” the voice said. He didn’t bother identifying himself. He didn’t need to.

“Phil?” I hadn’t spoke to him in so long that I actually thought he might be calling me to wish me well on the show.

“Veronica,” he said. “What in God’s name makes you think you’re ready to play Vegas?”

I should have known Phil would be up to his same old tricks. “Okay,” I said. “Is that all you called for?”

“No,” he said. “I just wanted to give you fair warning that tonight could be the last time you appear on stage in Las Vegas. Or anywhere else.”

He was talking so calmly, for a minute I actually thought that he was saying something sensible, and that I was the one confused. “What ARE you talking about?”

“I always said I’d kill you if you left me,” he explained. “And tonight I’m making good on that promise. In two hours you will be assassinated on stage at the Flamingo Hotel.”

“I’m calling the cops Phil,” I told him. “If you even try to set foot in the Flamingo, I’ll have you arrested.” I tried to stand up to him, but he just laughed in my ear. It was a sound that went right down my spine.

“You don’t think I’d be stupid enough to pull the trigger?” he said. “That’s what I pay hit men for. And I’ve hired six of them on this job. Three black and three white. You might spot one, but you’ll never be able to get them all. They’ll be at your show tonight, and I’ve offered a million-dollar bonus to the one who shoots the bullet that does the job.”

I dropped the phone like it was a dried fish and ran out of the room. I figured the whole think was just one of Phil’s dumb jokes, but it still scared the hell out of me. One thing I knew about Phil is that you couldn’t second-guess him. What if today was the day the guy finally did crack up?

I decided to find Dick Clark and get his advice. But by the time I got down to the showroom, he was already gone. I walked through the casino with my hands shaking so bad I knew I had to get something to calm me down before I rattled myself to pieces. So I walked into the bar for one quick drink. But in those days they were never quick. And it was never just one.

I grabbed my nose and sucked down a vodka and tonic, then I set my hands down on the bar. They were still shivering. “One more,” I told the bartender. I felt so much better after the second drink that I was sure a third would do the trick. Five vodka and tonics later, my problem was solved. I no longer had to figure out whether to go through with the show or not. Dick Clark would make that decision for me.

He tried to look the other way when I stumbled into the backstage area that night. But Dick couldn’t ignore the fact that I was too drunk to make it through even one verse of “Walking in the Rain,” at the final dress rehearsal. “Ronnie,” he said, steering me over to a quiet corner backstage. “You’re in no shape to go on tonight. I’m sending you up to your room.”

Dick Clark and I go way back–I did my first national TV appearance on his show. So when I saw that glint of disappointment in his eyes, that hurt almost as much as being fired.

“I’m sorry, Dick,” I slurred. “I just didn’t want the hit men to get me.” I was trying to give him an explanation, but it was useless. He had no idea what I was talking about, and he had better things to do than listen.

….that little incident pretty much killed the Ronettes as an oldies act.

Not in our hearts, though…Never in our hearts:

 

 

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Sixteenth)

(5) The Jacksonian, written by Beth Henley, directed by Robert Falls, the New Group, Acorn Theatre, New York (November 5–December 22, 2013). A hotel drama set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964, with Ed Harris as a disgraced dentist, Amy Madigan as his disgusted wife, and Juliet Brett as their miserable teenage daughter, and featuring Bill Pullman as what Elvis would have ended up as if “That’s All Right” had never gotten out of Memphis: an alcoholic bartender with a thing for jailbait who has no problem shooting a woman for a ring he doesn’t even want and letting a black man go to the electric chair for it. “I was a performer for a while,” he says under a huge pompadour, sideburns snaking down the sides of his face, but now his whole life is stage fright.

(Greil Marcus, Real Life Top Ten, The Believer, March/April 2014)

I’m trying to imagine:

Bob Dylan if he never made it out of Minnesota. John Lennon if he never made it out of Liverpool. Mick Jagger if he never made it out of London. Bruce Springsteen if he never made it out of New Jersey.

Now, with all that fixed in my head, I permit myself to wonder if Marcus–or any other member of the crit-illuminati–would ever dream up some other life where any of them just naturally become a vicious, racist murderer and then try to pass if off as a compliment?

I mean, Jerry Lee Lewis maybe. Or Johnny Burnette. Or Billy Lee Riley.

After all, we all know what those working class hillbillies from the mean streets of somewhere or other are down at the bottom.

Don’t we?

Especially the ones who never bother to respond to any potential crushes that might develop among the pundit class (as Dylan has to Marcus himself, Lennon and Jagger to Jann Wenner, Springsteen to Dave Marsh, etc., etc., etc.)

Bear in mind that, among the taste-mongers, Marcus counts as one of Elvis’ principle defenders (and interpreters). A lot more than once I’ve seen him described, by folks who are very comfortable with the idea of Elvis-as-racist-murderer, as an Elvis “apologist.” (If you want another fun exercise, try and imagine Bob Dylan or John Lennon needing any such thing.) Such are necessary with Elvis, of course, because we all know that he–unlike so many of those others whose careers he made possible–needs apology.

Hey, with friends like these…

Anyway, here’s the murderer: