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

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

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

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

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

Come hither.

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

Nah-na-na-na-nah!

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

They made it work.

Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.

Funny thing, though.

I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.

Come hither….

And I can’t.

Nah-na-na-na-nah!

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

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

And what better description of their time can you get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who wouldn’t take that deal?

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

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

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

Who wouldn’t take that deal?

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

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

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

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

…and pretty much every line they ever sung.

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

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

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

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

That was just the personal stuff.

Out of that, the music.

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

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

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

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

And the arc was perfect.

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

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

You don’t want that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today will be what we want it to be.

You know, go where you wanna go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you can deliver over and over again.

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

For you and the world.

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

For you….and the world.

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

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

1968.

By the time it was done, they were done.

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

They didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But at least they made great music.

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

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

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

Well, these people:

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

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

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

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

It all seems so very long ago.

And so very present.

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

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

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

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

The world’s on fire, they sang.

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

Nah-na-na-na-nah…

Come hither!

 

TIME PASSAGES (Segue of the Day: 10/11/16)

I always kind of liked the Beach Boys’ version of “California Dreamin'” from back in the eighties. I discovered the video version a few months back, but it was only this week that I found the time to live in it. There’s not really a definitive version on YouTube. One version has a good picture and no graphic overlays, but muddy sound. The only other version up right now has great sound but a murky, blurred picture. If you play both a few times in rapid succession, though, it’s possible for the genius of the concept to sink in. John Phillips shows up as a Preacher who likes the Cold and moonlights as a Saxophone God (Steve Douglas maybe?). Roger McGuinn plays a troubador (natch). Michelle Phillips plays a dreamboat from an old Mamas and Papas’ song (i.e., her own ghost). The Beach Boys themselves play men who know their time is up and it’s all filmed in elegaic black and white, the better to remind you that the age they sprang from occurred in the brightest, shiniest Technicolor the world will ever see, in or out of the Hollywood these people once took over and let go of (or had wrested from them) in the space of a heartbeat.

Good sound…lousy picture:

Good picture….lousy sound:

And, just a few YouTube clicks away, one might find Hanson, from this year, playing their hard won role as the only Boy Band who ever aged gracefully, which makes sense, since they were the talented ones:

I know which is more joyous. As the most rightfully dreaded Election Day since 1860 draws nigh, I can’t decide which is more wistful.

FROM THE SHADOWS, MEMPHIS 1951 (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #56)

I was looking around for a way to celebrate a record month (and a record year, here already in August) and stumbled upon this, which I can’t even quite believe exists, let alone that it’s a click away on YouTube.

It is, of course, entirely likely that Elvis Presley was in this audience. He certainly was in many others just like it, for the Blackwoods and others. They remain the great, under-appreciated source of his deepest wells of inspiration…They were, at this moment, three years before two of the members here were killed in a plane crash, as great as any vocal group has ever been and no one, not even Brian Wilson or John Phillips, has ever gotten past their stunning arrangements. They absolutely should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as early influences…I’ll not hold my breath.

UPPITY WOMAN SLAPPED DOWN…L.A. STYLE…(Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #40)

MICHELLEDENNIS

First, Michelle Phillips, recalling the period of the Mamas and the Papas’ demise:

“You know, I came back from Peru, when I went there to do Dennis Hopper’s movie (The Last Movie) in 1970. I had met a young songwriter….whom nobody had ever heard of. I came back and I asked to have a little meeting with John (Phillips) and Lou (Adler). I went to the meeting with my guitar, and I played them two songs. I told them, ‘I just want to do a single. I’ve got two sides to a single.’ They said, ‘Let’s hear ’em.’ and I sat down and played them….They both sat there and this is exactly what they said: Lou said, ‘Don’t you think it’s a little country Mitch?’ I said, ‘Well whatever it is, I think they’re hits.’ And John said, ‘Well, frankly, Mitch, I think you’ve lost the thread of things.’ So I got up and said, ‘Never mind!’”

(Michelle Phillips from Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of the Mamas & the Papas, Matthew Greenwald, 2002)

Then….facts in evidence:

The unknown songwriter was Kris Kristofferson. The two songs in question were “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Then…a few random thoughts on the subject:

To be fair, Michelle was a decent singer but she wasn’t Sammi Smith. And she sure wasn’t Janis Joplin. Maybe she had no prayer of making either song a hit.

Then again, the only song she had recommended to the group which actually got recorded (with her on lead vocal) was “Dedicated To the One I Love.” It was the last of a long line of early rock ‘n’ roll standards she pitched, none of which John Phillips had previously ever heard of (he was evidently a true, hermetically sealed folkie in the “Creeque Alley” years). It also became their second biggest hit.

So who knows?

I mention it only because it occurred to me that John Phillips’ and Lou Adler’s responses might have amounted to making the Michelle Phillips pictured above pay for her sins.

Not being married to Dennis Hopper for eight days, but, you know, that other stuff.

Sleeping around on John and not sleeping with Lou at all.

Oh, and not inspiring any more great songs for John to write and Lou to produce. Trying to think for herself.

Be interesting to know which one wanted to kill her career worse on the day she almost discovered Kris Kristofferson.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Audiophilia Finally Reveals Its Uses!)

A Gathering of Flowers, The Mamas & the Papas (2013)

GATHERINGOFFLOWERS

Collecting comps drawn from the Mamas & the Papas’ four 1960s’ albums is a kind of mini-hobby of mine. (The less said about their early-seventies, contractually obligated, reunion album the better.) I’m now up to two collections on vinyl and five on CD, which, for me, given my budget and how much overlap there is in the musical selections, is a boatload.

I won’t bore you with my matrix of reasons for this quixotic little pursuit (though I should probably mention that these seven “collections” were acquired over a period of a mere thirty-seven years, so its not like I spent every waking hour on the task), but, at least since the dawn of the digital age, one of the reasons has been a search for “the best sounding version ever!”

Or words to that effect.

I’m a long way from being an audiophile. But some artists invite purely aural appreciation–reverence for purity of tone if you will–more than others. And the vocal sound of the Mamas and the Papas was/is the equivalent of a tone poem. Basically, anything that I think can help me get closer to the heart of the mystery is worth a shot.

To that end, I took a chance on Real Gone’s reissue of A Gathering of Flowers and I have to say that the job they’ve done in remastering this strange collection from 1970 is a revelation.

The set has its problems. For some unfathomable reason, it excludes any material from their fourth album and certainly no collection of this group can be definitive without “Twelve Thirty” or “Safe In My Garden.” And while the reminiscences from John Phillips and Cass Elliot, so close to the time of the original recordings, are invaluable (and entertaining), I’m never fond of overlapping the intros! Great for scholarship, maybe not so great for repeated listening.

But, man….I’ve read frequently through the years that the group’s original masters were lost, so, irrespective of whatever magnificent claims anyone might have made for restoring them, the general consensus has been that, unless you owned the original albums released in the sixties on clean vinyl, you weren’t hearing the real vocals laid down by what Cass herself was not shy about saying was the best vocal group of the era (and, laying aside the Temptations, who admittedly had an approach that was far enough afield to make comparison difficult in the extreme, I’m not shy about agreeing with her–or in repeating, as I often do, that it was the true golden age of American singing).

I think the consensus now is that if Real Gone’s Mike Milchner hasn’t recaptured the full glory of those lost masters, then no one ever will. I’m not going to do the usual link to a song, because nothing played on a computer would do it justice (even if I could be sure I was linking to Real Gone’s mix!).

But I will mention that I have another mini-hobby, which is playing seek-and-find with cool pictures and matching them to cool sounds. So I’ll just say Real Gone is a name I’m going to remember. Because they’ve produced a collection that’s a little like this photograph. No matter how much time you spend with it….you ain’t gonna get to the bottom.

CASSANDMICHELLE

…And is it too much to hope that they’ll redo the whole catalog? I mean, seven comps and counting, but I’m willing to go eight!

(And one last note: A word of thanks to whoever it was at ABC/Dunhill who conceived this collection at the time. The intermingling of interviews, studio chatter, etc. was nowhere near as common then as now. And, especially given Cass’ early death, the value of that conception is priceless.)

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #4: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, 1966)

MAMASANDPAPAS

“Barry (McGuire) had said that he had some friends coming through San Francisco, could I take a listen to ‘em. I had a habit of when I listened to a new group I tried not to look at the group, so not to be influenced in any way by the way they looked, but hear them as I would hear them on a record. And so they went through the four or five songs and I opened my eyes, looked up at ‘em, and that’s how I got the title of the first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, after hearing how fantastic it was and then to see what they looked like. I mean they were just back from the Caribbean, and they were scruffy as could be and Michelle was as beautiful as could be and Cass was as big as she could be and John was as tall as he could be…”

Producer/Label Owner Lou Adler (Source–California Dreamin’: The Songs Of The Mamas & The Papas DVD (2005))

I have no idea how it came across in 1966. From this distance it’s the cynosure of cool (and, yes, I kind of have a feeling it was then, too).

Weird, but I never noticed the apostrophes before. I was probably too busy worrying about the toilet (which was covered up when the album started to sell).

Or maybe Michelle’s boots.

Or what was in them.

Perfect in any case, because it was such a transcendent blend of Show Biz and Counter Culture–kind of like the music that was waiting inside.

 

FOLK ROCK (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 2)

Continuing with this little idea inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the British Invasion last month.

As before, I’ve linked to live performances, or at least interesting video comps, where possible, even if they aren’t always the best vocal presentations–there’s usually a pure studio version next door on YouTube if you just want to listen to the record. Also, as before, I’ve listed lead singers for groups and relevant harmony singers (not necessarily every singer who appeared on every record).

And, once again, this is really a smattering. Most “vocal events” in rock and roll history are deep enough and broad enough to warrant their own encyclopedias. The Byrds, Bob Dylan and the Mamas and the Papas, for instance, could each easily sustain a list of this length all by themselves.

What I’m trying to do with each segment is give the general shape of the thing from a singing perspective–including all the most important voices, who did what, a little of why it mattered and what it may have felt like in the moment, plus how it resonates through the years. I encourage any and all to comment on any significant oversights! I do put some time into these but it ain’t entirely scientific.

As a final note, for all of this great genre’s vaunted (and revolutionary) lyricism–defined by, but not limited to, the emergence of Bob Dylan as the Voice of a Generation–it was, as always, the singing which put it across. Harmony singing, for instance, though it had (thanks to the Everly Brothers) been in the rock and roll mix from almost the very beginning and had been raised to new, exciting heights by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, had never been quite so central to American music and never quite would be again.

“When You Walk In The Room”–Jackie DeShannon: Released as a B-side, it crawled to #99 on the charts in the space between John Kennedy’s assassination and the Beatles’ arrival in America, staying there for exactly one week. Not the first time the future has come creeping in the back door. This was probably intended as a “girl group” record and, frankly, it works on that level, too. But she was already on to Bob Dylan and somebody, at least, was on to jangling guitars. Her record company refused to let her do an album of Dylan covers or the actual term “folk rock” might have been coined a year and half earlier than it was. (Heck a lot of things might have had names a year or two earlier than they did if the world had been in the habit of paying just a touch more heed to whatever Jackie was up to.) Anyway, with rockabilly and soul already deep in her skin, bones and vocal chords and every hipster in L. A. in her social circle, she really was the perfect harbinger.

“Laugh, Laugh”–The Beau Brummels (Sal Valentino, lead vocal): This broke out of San Francisco in the Winter of ’64. It sort of got lost, later on, that the Summer of Love San Francisco scene-sters nearly all started out as folkies. Odd, then, that the Beau Brummels should grab the spotlight first–and with Sly Stone producing no less. Their sound was nicely stripped down, though. Folk rock before it had a name, yes, but the “rock” part was from the garage. (Alternate: “You Were On My Mind” by San Francisco’s We Five, which radiates joy.)

“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes of Freedom”–The Byrds (Roger McGuinn, lead vocals, Gene Clark and David Crosby harmony vocals): The cataclysm. Summer of ’65. Of course, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the breakout, watershed, etc.–truly one of the most important records ever made. Dylan had been taken high on the charts as a protest poet (Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowing In the Wind,” Mary Travers leading) and slick-as-grease ladies’ man (P,P&M’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Noel Paul Stookey leading and laying it on even thicker than Dylan himself, which was maybe harder than anybody thought at the time). Now, he went to the very top–not as those or any of the multitude of other, occasionally dubious. things he was–but as magic realist. All well and good. But the purely vocal essence of both the Byrds and the larger cosmos they had latched onto, was perhaps better defined by “Chimes of Freedom,” which was not only more imaginatively arranged and deeply felt, but more magical and realist and Dylanesque as well. (Alternate: Their version of DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” also from their monumental first album, which, among other things, brought Bo Diddley’s beat into the mix.)

“Like a Rolling Stone”–Bob Dylan: Speaking of cataclysms. Greil Marcus wrote a good book about this one and I don’t think I really have anything to add except to say that it’s worth writing a book about.

“The Sound of Silence”–Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, shared lead vocals): (Also known as “The Sounds of Silence.” I’m using Simon’s preference.) Recorded a bit earlier, when folk harmony duos were all the rage on the folk scene and nowhere else. Even the success of British variants like Peter and Gordon in the wake of the Beatles success couldn’t get the concept off the ground in Middle America. But the duo (which had broken up by the summer of 65) had been signed to Columbia and, after the Byrds and Dylan smashed out, producer Tom Wilson decided to see how the folkies would sound with electric guitars and an echo chamber. Turned out it sounded like a natural #1. The boom was on. Thrown back together by the record’s unlikely ride up the charts, Paul and Artie sounded like they could finish each other’s heartbeats. They’ve been fighting ever since.

“Do You Believe In Magic”–The Lovin’ Spoonful (John Sebastian, lead vocal): Here, the “magic” was rock and roll, which was a pretty heady admission for any folkie as deep-dyed as John Sebastian–I mean, the man played an autoharp. Probably the best example, among an army of such, of a singer–and a band–forced out of their collective comfort zone by the times. They retreated soon enough, but while the walls were down they went a lot further than anybody could have guessed in the days before Bob Dylan and Jackie DeShannon came along. Never further than this, their brightest of many shining moments.

“It Ain’t Me Babe”–The Turtles (Howard Kaylan, lead vocal): A heartbeat earlier, they were the Crossfires and you know a concept is breaking big when it catches up the local surf band and turns them into singing folkies. And you also know the local surf band isn’t just any old band–that they might have a run of hits in them–when they make it sound this good.

“I Got You Babe”–Sonny and Cher: What was it George Melly said? Revolt into style? Something like that. (Alternate: “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, which sounds even better but lacks the essence of a Zeitgeist that’s bound to occur whenever Cher is involved in either the revolt or the style. NOTE: It could be my imagination, but judging by the chilly audience reception in the otherwise very charming Top of the Pops clip I linked, the Brits may really have seen folk rock as a very specific threat to the Pop hegemony the Beatles had established on an almost gut-level. In which case, they were right. Or maybe Sonny had ticked somebody off. Yeah, that could be it.)

“Turn, Turn, Turn”–The Byrds (Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, shared lead vocals, David Crosby, harmony vocal): Go tell it on the mountain. Look forward, look back.

“Eve of Destruction”–Barry McGuire: Go tell it on the mountain again. Tell everybody an earthquake is coming.

“California Dreaming”–The Mamas and the Papas (Denny Doherty, lead vocal; Cass Elliot, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, harmony vocals): The greatest pure vocal group in folk rock and probably in all of rock and roll, with two fantastic leads (one male, one female) and, because of the unrivaled gender balance, so many ways to approach harmony that my lifetime of listening has never stopped yielding surprises. And their credentials were fully established before they escaped the first line of their first record. (Incidentally, I heard a right wing talk show host play this coming out of a commercial break just the other day. He wanted to make some point about the uselessness of hippies–yes they still do that. He thought this was the song to do it with. Believe me, it was a mistake.)

“Go Where You Wanna Go”–The Mamas and the Papas: Lead? Harmony? Who knows. The dynamics are literally head-spinning. The lyric is a great shout of freedom, something you might have expected from the early Beatles. The vocal arrangement, which might be the tightest in the history of the universe, is also so expansive that it actually amounts to a shout of maniacal laughter directly in the face of any and all listeners (let alone any rival singers) who try to keep all the way up. All that without being too tricky for its own good. Given what happened–to them and the world–it winds up in a rather disorienting place. Every time it starts, I think it’s bound to end happily and every time it ends I can’t believe I got fooled again. Can’t get more folk or rock than that. (By way of comparison, the Fifth Dimension, who have a claim on being one of the dozen or so greatest vocal groups of the rock and roll era themselves, covered this, had a hit with it, and sounded like somebody had stranded them in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.)

“Sloop John B”–The Beach Boys (Brian Wilson and Mike Love, lead vocals, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, harmony vocals): Having had no small amount of influence on the scene themselves, it figured they’d make at least onr classic of the form. That it would be an actual folk song–and from the West Indies at that–was maybe not so obvious. Nor was the fact that they would improve the concept so dramatically.

“For What It’s Worth”–(Stephen Stills, lead vocal, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin, harmony vocals): Stills looked out the window (or something) and saw some kids being hassled over protesting the closing of a night club (or something). Wrote this song, waxed his greatest vocal by far, and proved a point: All politics is local (or something).

“Different Drum”–The Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt, lead vocal): Not my favorite Ronstadt by a long shot, but a necessary deep breath in the wake of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” and a look ahead to some essential elements of California Rock (and, actually, pretty darn great for all that).

“Too Much of Nothing”–Peter, Paul and Mary (Mary Travers, lead vocal, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, harmony vocals: They had put Bob Dylan on the charts, and done it so far ahead of anybody else that it is hardly a given he would have gotten there at all if they hadn’t made him–and management–a bucket-load of money practically right out of the box. (Laugh if you want, but it never happened for Woody Guthrie and the times hadn’t changed all that much.) That said, there wasn’t much “rock” in their early sound. They smoked this, though, and, on the live version I linked, you can hear (and even see, frankly) Stookey’s roots in doo-wop.

“She Belongs to Me”–Rick Nelson: A chance for a rocker–and a weary teen idol–to pause, take his time, find his natural rhythm, maybe grow up. (Alternate: Bobby Darin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” and ditto.)

“Abraham, Martin and John” and “Sonny Boy” and “Daddy Rollin”–Dion: There had to be one definitive topical record in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive tribute to the blues in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive song about drug addiction in a genre that was so deeply associated with the radicalizing aspects of the sixties. Happened that the same guy sang all three–in 1968, when all that stuff pretty much had to happen. Not saying that guy had to be a New York doo-wopper recovering from his own drug addiction of course. But it worked out that way. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a link to “Sonny Boy.”)

“Meet On the Ledge”–Fairport Convention (Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, dueling lead vocals): The Beatles and the Stones were hardly immune to folk rock and its key practitioners were hardly immune to them. But the Fabs really were a tad slick and the Stones really were a bit louche. That’s a lot of what made them great, mind you, but for a genuine British variant of “folk” and “rock,” I think this dove much deeper into the connection than, say, “Yesterday,” or “Ruby Tuesday.” (Alternate, looking forward: Robert Plant and Denny dueling on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin IV–an album that represents but one of the interesting directions this concept took in the seventies. Alternate, looking back: Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” which I wrote about in the British Invasion portion of the program linked above.)

“Freedom”–Richie Havens: Now there had to be something great in the form that would become attached at the hip to Woodstock. Without that, the cosmos really would have gone all out of whack–God might no longer recognize us at all. And why shouldn’t it be by the dude who owned the coffee-house circuit in the days when the idea of moving so many masses was just so many gleams in so many folk-singer’s eyes? Actually, why would it be by anybody else?

“Get Together”–The Youngbloods (Jessie Colin Young, lead vocal, Jerry Corbit, harmony vocal): A song so many people had taken a shot at that, by 1969, when this became a hit, it must have seemed next to impossible that anybody would ever define it. Turned out somebody already had, all the way back in 1967, when they recorded it. Very folk, that. And very rock and roll. (The link is to a medley, of which “Get Together” is only a small piece…but it’s too perfect a time capsule to pass up. Where else can you find Milton Berle asking for a “warm recession?”)

“Put a Little Love In Your Heart”–Jackie Deshannon: An apotheosis from the founding mother–understatement and urgency tugging on each other’s sleeves. Perhaps the finest purely vocal evocation of the better world waiting that, of course, never arrived.

“We Can Be Together”–Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick and Marty Balin, shared lead vocals, Paul Kantner, harmony vocal): Had to get some genuinely radical politics in there somewhere. The difference, if you will, between waiting for a better world and demanding it. Not that it ended up making much difference, but it’s nice to recall that somebody–anybody, however callow–once actually tried.

“Ohio”–Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Neil Young, lead vocal, David Crosby, harmony vocal, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, additional harmony vocals): The dirge of history and tragedy and violence that was lying under the folk part of folk rock all along (not to speak of the righteous anger), finally boiling all the way to the surface, with a guitar line that always makes it seem impossible any singer can live up to it, right up until Neil Young opens his mouth.

“Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Maggie May”–Rod Stewart (Maggie Bell and Long John Baldry, harmony vocals on “Every Picture Tells a Story”): Well, like I said, the concept went in interesting directions, including straight back to the blues. I suspect the narratives of these two songs are the sort of story the Coen Brothers were really trying to tell in their recent homage to the early sixties folk scene Inside Llewyn Davis (a scene which Rod Stewart, of course, had nothing to do with but it turned out that a wannabe soccer hooligan diverted by his talent into lasting fame and fortune knew more about it than all their research could discover). Not too surprisingly, they lacked the nerve. Then again, their considerable skill was bound to be squandered. No amount of mere nerve would have let them tell these tales anywhere near as well.

“Lean On Me”–Bill Withers: Back to the healing basics, sans any trace of  the old utopianism. And actually a purer example of this style by now so fully incorporated it could go almost anywhere than, say, “Heart of Gold” or “Horse With No Name.” And I’m pretty sure this was the only folk rock record to ever hit #1 on the R&B charts, which it reached the week after the Watergate break-in and initial arrests sent an early sign that the reactionary chill which always follows a revolution (no matter the outcome) and was bound to leave us in need of a little basic healing, had begun in earnest.

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”–Bob Dylan: World weary theme from a Sam Peckinpah movie. Hard to think of a better way to close down the concept than that.

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Fourteenth)

Okay, first the usual:

“It was while overseas that Elvis also met a nymphet named Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he would make the mistake of marrying in 1967 (a mistake because Elvis never wanted to behave as anything but a bachelor).”

James Wolcott (Source: “King of Kings” Vanity Fair, November, 2001)

Then, for comparison’s sake:

“No one had more freedom than Mackenzie Phillips, now 42, sober and acting again. At 13, after running away from her mother’s house, she showed up at her father’s Bel Air mansion, where he was living with his third wife, Genevieve. In step with the latest trends, John Phillips answered the door wearing a floor-length, tie-dyed Indian caftan and a Jesus beard and smoking a joint.

“‘Dad, I’m moving in–could you pay for the taxi?’ Mackenzie remembers saying

“‘Sure kid, come on in.’

“‘What are the rules?’ Mackenzie asked.

“‘Well, let me see,’ he said. After a moment of heavy contemplation, John replied, ‘You have to come home at least once a week. And if you come home from going out the night before and it’s light out, always bring a change of clothing, because a lady is never seen during daylight hours wearing evening clothing.’

“She walked in to say hi to Dad’s friends–Gram Parsons, Keith Richards, Donovan, and Mick Jagger, most of whom she wanted to have sex with. Her little girl’s dream came true, when, at the age of 18, she found herself over at Mick’s place making tuna sandwiches with her father. John left to go get mayonaisse, and ‘Mick turned around and locked the door, and looked at me, and said, “I’ve been waiting to do this since you were ten years old,”’ Mackenzie recalls. ‘My dad is banging on the door, “Mick, be nice to her! Don’t hurt her.” And I’m going, “Dad, leave us alone. It’s fine.” And we slept together.’ The next morning Jagger gave her a beautiful robe and fed her tea, toast and fresh strawberries.”

Evegenia Peretz (Source: “Born to be Wild” Vanity Fair, November, 2001)

Laying aside whether James Wolcott (or anyone) could know how Elvis Presley (or anyone) “never wanted” to behave, I do think it’s kinda’ creepy to say anybody else’s marriage is a “mistake” unless they themselves say it first (which I don’t believe either Elvis or his “nymphet” ever did).

I mean, I wouldn’t even say that about the multiple marriages of John Phillips or Mick Jagger, neither of whom–in keeping with a rather normal, albeit distasteful, standard for celebrity males which Elvis hardly challenged, let alone exceeded–ever gave any convincing impression of wanting to go about “behaving as anything but a bachelor” (at least not until age or infirmity slowed them down).

But then again, I doubt James Wolcott would say such things about Phillips or Jagger either. There’s no way to prove that, of course, but I’ve certainly never seen the slightest bit of evidence that he finds them to be what he clearly considered the un-marriage-worthy Elvis–namely, the wrong sort of people–or that he could continue being published in any periodical as swank as Vanity Fair if he did.

No need to speculate either, about what Elvis himself might have done if he had lived a bit longer and somehow found himself in a situation where Mick Jagger (or anyone) was jumping Lisa Marie’s eighteen-year-old bones on the other side of a locked door, though I’m guessing he wouldn’t have plaintively begged Mick not to hurt her and then doped and raped her and forced a ten-year incestuous affair on her, as Mackenzie would later reveal (or, if you prefer, claim) her own father had done, beginning a year or so after the charming incident related above.

For that you need the right kind of people.

On that cheery note, I’ll leave you with the old Japanese proverb, which is one thing that applies equally to even the crit-illuminati‘s definition of wrong and right sorts of people

“In the beginning the man takes the drugs. In the end, the drugs take the man.”

And proof of how far the fall can be, even for the right sort:

The Mamas and the Papas “Safe In My Garden” (Studio recording with appropriately haunting photo montage…from the moment before the drugs took John Phillips for good)

 

DOUBLE VISION (NEIL ARMSTRONG and SCOTT McKENZIE, R.I.P.)

The Byrds “Amazing Grace/Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins” (video)

First, a memory:

To tell you the truth I wasn’t overly impressed.

I was eight years old and, except for the sheer number of people lining the banks of the Indian River, Apollo 11 looked like any other space launch. God knows I had seen enough of them to be jaded by then. If you’re eight and you can see something you’ve seen a dozen or more times before just by walking into the front yard, it’s hard to get your mind around any possible reason why people would travel thousands of miles to bear witness this time around.

And, like most of the locals, I was never much into astronauts.

Gus Grissom had been the one everybody really liked and we all knew he would have been the first man on the moon if NASA hadn’t been into cutting corners and burned him alive (along with Roger Chaffee and Ed White) in the training mission for Apollo 1.

As far as the locals were concerned, Neil Armstrong was just a stand-in.

Of course, what locals know is rarely the whole truth and often not the truth at all.

I’m just saying the vibe on the ground–and the fact that my friends’ dads built the things–left me less than awed by the spectacle of another space rocket leaving the launch pad even if, for once, we did actually go down to the river bank ourselves and see the thing off the ground instead of waiting that extra second for it to clear the tree line.

If my own dad (who had nothing to do with the space program beyond being the first official visitor when the Kennedy Space Center opened, huckstering some rather nice Moon Maps to the tourists on major launch days, winning the prize at a local art contest which was subsequently withdrawn when he revealed that the subject was a view of the planet Earth through the space-mask of a dead astronaut and making sure I continued watching launches, from the front yard at least, even after the edge went off the ritual excitement, which had probably happened some time around the occasion of Armstrong’s first trip into space with Gemini 8 when I was five) hadn’t made me stand out by U.S. 1 and write down license plates, I probably would have no distinctive memory of being present for the great occasion at all.

As it was, I tallied (if memory serves–I’m not in a position to look up the record at the moment) forty-eight states, five Canadian provinces and two foreign countries.

I might not even remember that, except I got my name in the paper for it.

* * * *

I suppose along about now is when I should be telling you I eventually outgrew my youthful ignorance and learned to fully appreciate the genius and sacrifice that was required to put a man on the moon, and the personal heroism of Neil Armstrong, who really was everything we want our heroes to be.

All I can say, is…yes and no.

First off, I certainly did learn to be in utter awe of the engineering feats my friends’ dads accomplished between Little League coaching assignments. One trip to the Kennedy Space Center as an adult took care of that.

And I certainly don’t have any trouble admiring Neil Armstrong’s courage and discipline, which he had in quantities no society can ever have too much of. Not to mention his genuine modesty–his willingness to be Bradley (and not even the real Bradley, who was apparently pretty vain, but the modest Bradley of legend) to Chuck Yeager’s Patton and John Glenn’s Eisenhower.

From this distance, though, I have to say the whole thing looks basically like one of the government’s cooler jobs programs but not necessarily one of its more useful ones.

I know we are supposed to have gotten benefits from space exploration that would not have been otherwise available (though I don’t have the scientific expertise to judge just how much of a role actual space travel played in these breakthroughs and am not inclined to take anyone’s word for it given how likely any government’s really cool jobs programs are to be intertwined with said government’s propaganda interests).

And–speaking from an age when professional football has become the national sport and we have ungodly trouble even so much as cooking a decent cheeseburger (two facts I do not consider unrelated)–I can hardly scoff at a time when we could put a man on the moon.

Still, I have to say that the mission which made Armstrong immortal basically represented a vision of mankind–and specifically mankind’s American division–that never took hold of me.

* * * *

Philip Blondheim, who was born nine years after Armstrong and passed away a week earlier, represented, albeit nowhere near as definitively, another vision of “Mankind America” that never took hold of me.

As Scott McKenzie, he recorded a catchy number called “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” which reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1967 (roughly equidistant between Armstrong’s space missions).

I have no idea if McKenzie’s song was ever embraced by any real hippies, but the speed and efficiency with which the song’s composer, John Phillips (the chief songwriter in the Mamas and the Papas and an old bandmate of McKenzie’s from fifties’ doo-wop days and the early sixties commercial folk boom–they were men committed to the pursuit of fame)–by then as definitively “El Lay” as anyone could be–cranked out a chart-scaling ode to the epicenter of the Summer of Love, was something my friends’ crewcut, Bud-drinking dads could have readily identified with.

That’s gettin’ in there and gettin’ it done!

Somewhere in there, not because of any harm intended by Scott McKenzie, who seems to have been a genuinely nice and rather self-deprecating man, but perhaps because of something he was willing to represent if there was sufficient cash lying about, death-dealing drugs attached themselves to those life-affirming notions which had broken loose on the world in the previous decade.

Namely sex and rock n’ roll.

So the Summer of Love–with its inherent contempt for rules–was as big a reality-dodge as the Space Race with its inherent reverence for rules. In that respect, they ended up being two sides of the same coin–two brands of hucksterism that were always separated far more by degree than kind, no matter how much their respective adherents got along like cats and dogs.

So I’m glad Neil Armstrong and Scott McKenzie were nice men with competing visions who lived to reasonably old age and, for what it’s worth, I think they led lives about as worthy as we could have expected.

Part of me, though, remembers the America that could make a cheeseburger and that still knew baseball was the worthiest game.

And that part of me wishes we had expected a little more.