A SERIOUS GAME….

Just off the top of your head, name the ten most important people in the History of Rock and Roll (individuals, not groups, though group members, including your favorite Beatle, are eligible). Not your favorites or who you think was the greatest, just the most important to the history of Rock and Roll America, however you define it. Here’s mine, in chronological order, by year of their first major impact (crazy game, so feel free to argue/substitute/debate in the comments. Just remember if you add somebody, you have to take somebody out!):

1) Fats Domino (1950) The Originator

2) Elvis Presley (1954) The Driver of the Narrative

3) Chuck Berry (1955) Rock and Roll America’s First Poet Laureate

4) James Brown (1956) The Visionary

5) Berry Gordy, Jr. (1960) Master of the Game

6) Bob Dylan (1962) Rock and Roll America’s Poet Laureate Redux

7) Jimi Hendrix (1967) Traveler through Time and Space

8) Aretha Franklin (1967) The Definer of Soul

9) John Lydon/Kurt Cobain (1976/1989) The Twinned Spirits of Destruction….neither complete without the other…and no, they didn’t need their particular groups the way John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Mick Jagger needed theirs.

10) Madonna (1982) The Solvent.

TEN THINGS I REALLY BELIEVE

No, really…

(1) I am the reincarnation of Charles Hardin Holley.

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This was revealed to me some time ago and normally I wouldn’t buy it with a three-dollar bill. But the burning bush was very convincing.

(2) Raymond Chandler’s plots were great.

bigsleep3

I mean, just because you don’t know whether the Spirit of Carmen Sternwood, Los Angeles or the American Dream killed the chauffeur…

(3) Not unrelated: Nearly all great prose fiction to date was produced by the Victorians…..

henry-james2

or the Pulps…

hammett1

That’s Mister James and Mister Hammett to you!

(4) The truest definition of rock and roll is as a musically and culturally aspirational train that left the station the first time Antoine Domino’s left hand, a piano and a recording device were put in a room together.

fatsdomino1

(5) The second truest definition of rock and roll is as a corrosively nihilistic trainwreck that, unfortunately, did not simply end the day this sad young man, in what an entire collapsed culture had by then taught him was an act of courage, blew his brains out.

kurtcobain

(6) Not unrelated: “America” is now in the past tense. Sorry, folks, it was an idea whose time had not yet come after all. No pictures available. But there is news at 11:00….Every night!

(7) I don’t believe there was/is such a thing as “The Great American Novel,” but if forced to both convert and choose, my top three contenders in the stretch would be The Deerslayer, The Long Goodbye and True Grit, with The Man in the High Castle coming up on the outside and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sneaking up on the rail.

deerslayer

True confession: I’ve read most of the crit-approved contenders, but I’ve been saving Moby Dick for either old age or “next month” for about thirty years now.

(8) The most abused quotation in the history of quotations is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “There are no second acts in American lives.” I went into the reasons here.

(9) Not unrelated: The greatest line in American fiction was uttered in a movie called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which also happens to contain the second most abused quotation in the history of quotations (“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”) That one gets all the ink, perhaps to keep us from thinking too hard about this:

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“Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden….Aren’t you proud?”

Well, aren’t we?

(10) If it turns out this is all we were, we did have some things to be proud of…

…so saith the burning bush.

WARREN ZEVON DOES ELVIS AND THEN WARREN ZEVON DOES WARREN ZEVON AND THEN DAVID LETTERMAN, ALAS, DOES DAVID LETTERMAN (Segue of the Day: 7/1/15)

Okay, enough with the sunshine and lollipops. A little YouTube trolling and I’m back to being curmudgeonly.

Warren Zevon was notoriously hard to pin down, so it’s hard to say if his first little number here was meant as an homage to Elvis’ famous intro to the ’68 “Comeback” Special or a high stakes game of one-upsmanship played straight against E’s corpse with a pair of deuces and a smile. But, as the lead-in to the best version of “Lawyers, Guns and Money” I’ve heard, (and, I think I can confidently say, the best version ever heard on network television) it works either way.

Then Dave Letterman walks in at the end and, by merely being himself, basically announces that he and Rock and Roll can’t both exist on the same planet.

Rock and Roll won that night. But we know who took the long game. John Lydon and Kurt Cobain weren’t really signifiers of the Apocalypse. They were just silly pawns in Dave’s game.

And, for all their celebrated friendship and what appeared, for so long, to be truly mutual rounds of epic ass-kissing, so was Warren Zevon.

The guys who are good at that sort of thing always do come out on top. Everybody else gets eaten.

 

RUNNING DOWN THE ROAD WITH THE SKYDOG (Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #13)

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Listen to just about any musical genius who lived ninety miles an hour and found death before it could find them and it’s easy to hear them chasing what they caught.

It’s a long list: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain. All carried deep desperation or (assuming the qualities can ever be disentangled) fatalism in their bones. They couldn’t have kept the devil’s laughter from being an essential part of how they sang or played if they had wanted to…which they wouldn’t have.

Listening to seven hours of Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective this week, four of them on the annual Florida-Alabama-Georgia loop that carries me past my mother’s graveside, what I heard was a man who had absorbed and mastered everything from Steve Cropper-style studio concision to deep, biting blues to epic guitar god soloing to do Clapton or Hendrix proud…and not only sounded like his own man on every note, but like he had all the time in the world.

He might have been the only live-fast-die-young icon who actually died on a motorcycle, but unlike everybody else I just listed, it’s easy to hear any piece of music he ever touched, from lightest brush…

to firm embrace…

to death-grip…

…and imagine him living another fifty years if he had only lived another day.

Thanks Duane.

When I make that annual pilgrimage in the future, I won’t have to worry anymore about which music to ride along with.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Los Lobos and Terence Trent D’Arby Frame the Beginning of the End)

Los Lobos How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) and Introducing the Hardline According Terence Trent D’Arby (1987)

I reacquired these two LPs on CD recently (the Wilderness Years** are,slowly but surely, coming to end!) and used them for driving music this week. I don’t have anything really deep to say about them except they reminded me I should probably give the eighties a little more love around here–and that if more of this sort of thing had still been in the air when Kurt Cobain offed himself not all that many years later, the yin-and-yang between revolution and backlash might be going on yet.

Heck, the revolution might have even won by now.

Alas, we’ll never know.

The moral, as always, is never sell a great record (or two) short:

**–Refers to the Present Era, which began with the great CD sell-off of 2002, and which, except for not asking a certain girl for a date in the summer of 1979, is the greatest mistake of my life thus far (and placing it near the top of a heady list I assure you!).

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 7: “When A Man Loves A Woman”)

“When A Man Loves A Woman”
1966
Artist: Percy Sledge
Writers: Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright (Percy Sledge uncredited)

Percy Sledge “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Live and Scorching on Television)

Shifting sands:

“It was shortly after (Wilson) Pickett’s first session that Fame’s studio musicians cut a record behind an unknown local singer named Percy Sledge. That record was ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ which, with its Bach-like organ, soaring vocal, and frequently imitated church feel might be defined as the quintessential soul sound. Then in February 1967, Jerry Wexler brought down a newly signed artist for her first Atlantic recording session….although she had been in the business all her life, she had never, it was said, lived up to her potential. The artist was Aretha Franklin…”

(Peter Guralnick, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976)

“As Clarence (Carter) prepares for his set, Percy Sledge is recalling how he came to compose his biggest hit…

“He was moonlighting from his job as a hospital orderly, singing with a local band at a club in Sheffield, Alabama, and he was so low with woman troubles he couldn’t even make it through the Smokey Robinson and Beatles songs he had been doing at dances and clubs. He turned to bass player Cameron Lewis and organ player Andrew Wright and just asked them to give him a key, any damned key. He half sang, half bawled along in his mammoth, achy baritone, just a bunch of stray thoughts on the blindness and paralysis of love: ‘If she’s bad, he can’t see it….’

“‘Wasn’t no heavy thought in it,’ he says. ‘I was just so damned sad.’

“Sometime later, when he had calmed down and refined the thing into a slow, anguished ballad, he gave Lewis and Wright songwriters’ credit. By then Percy had won an Atlantic recording contract by auditioning in a record shop in Sheffield for a local producer named Quin Ivy. The song was cut there, in Ivy’s South Camp Studios, with some personnel borrowed from Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in nearby Muscle Shoals. Percy grew up in Leighton, not ten miles from the Fame operation. So he says it all felt right–the musicians, the place, and the song. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was Percy’s debut on Atlantic, and it sold more than 1 million copies in the spring of 1966 and stayed at number one on the pop charts for two weeks.”

(Gerri Hirshey, Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, 1984)

“Muscle Shoals burst upon the consciousness of the world at large in the spring of 1966 with a single record that was homegrown, home-produced, and would forever eliminate the necessity of Jimmy Johnson finding his way to Athens or anywhere else. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ established Muscle Shoals as a national recording center, brought Jerry Wexler directly from Memphis to Fame, and became the first Southern soul number actually to top the pop charts. It was also as significant an integrating factor in its way as Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s All Right,’ Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti,’ or Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham of two years before. The artist was Jimmy Hughes’s cousin, Percy Sledge, from nearby Leighton; the engineer was Jimmy Johnson, who also played on the date along with the rest of the new rhythm section; the session, oddly enough, though, was neither recorded by Rick Hall nor put out on the Fame label, despite the fact that Rick played a major role in its release and reaped most of the benefits from it….

“‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ completed the process begun, really, by Joe Tex’s success of the previous year….Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song, the kind of song that affected its fans so powerfully that, as Jimmy Johnson says, ‘I’ve heard stories of people driving off the road when they heard that record come on the air.’”

(Peter Guralnick, upping the ante, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 1986)

If one goes to the liner notes of Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, the story takes on even more complicated and far-ranging dimensions which are beyond the scope of this essay (hey, anyone who has the money should get hold of the box anyhow).

The main reason I posted the quotes above is to show how stories surrounding certain records evolve–note especially the distance between the Peter Guralnick of 1975 and the Peter Guralnick of 1986–the difference between a passing thought and a consuming passion.

Well, that and to open the discussion of course…

*    *    *    *

Percy Sledge was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Ever since, he’s been a favorite whipping boy for anyone who thinks the Hall is too big, its membership requirements too lenient and/or vague, its methods insufficiently transparent, or that its very existence is a blight on the face of humanity.

Of course, just about everybody thinks Percy’s signature record is wonderful but…it was just one record!

And it wasn’t all that important!

And he wasn’t really rock and roll!

And he’s a journeyman!…At best!!!

And, and, and…

Well you get the drift.

As a result, Sledge routinely shows up on the lists of the undeserving–or of those who should be kicked out…or just excluded from alternative Halls developed in the imagination.

Mind you, he’s not the only artist so treated. But he seems to be the one about whom there is almost universal acceptance of his general unworthiness for such high honor (which most of those complaining are quick to point out is not really a high honor at all, since it extends to artists the caliber of, well….Percy Sledge! The crit-illuminati did not get where they are–in a position to bend so many impressionable minds–without developing a certain ability to frustrate the resistance.)

Alas, I’m part of that resistance, so I have to give it a try.

I think Percy Sledge belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think if he’s a “journeyman” then pretty much all soul singers who aren’t Aretha Franklin or Al Green are the same. Heck, I think he’s a no-brainer and always was.

I thought he always was, because I used to listen to his old Greatest Hits collection pretty religiously and knew he was a fantastic singer with a nice run of R&B and Pop hits (he had a dozen or so chart hits, including four that went top twenty on the Pop chart and top ten on the R&B chart so he wasn’t quite the one hit wonder (or no hit wonder) that many of his (mostly white) Hall contemporaries who don’t get complained about were.

Besides, anybody who can leave a deathless “best of” behind is Hall of Fame material in my book.

But in case I might have wavered, Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, which includes everything he recorded for the label from 1966 to 1973, laid any doubts to rest–because there you have a hundred or so sides that, with no more than half-dozen exceptions, live up to the quality of the dozen I already knew inside and out.

Anybody who could lay down seven years worth of great music while the revolution was still going strong is Hall of Fame material no matter how exclusive you want to make the membership.

In my book.

But actually none of that really matters.

Like Orson Welles used to say about great movies: “You only need one.”

Percy Sledge made a lot of great records. Some might have even been greater than “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

So he didn’t really make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of one record. That’s a club reserved for fifties-era hard rock gods (Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Ritchie Valens, Gene Vincent…all richly deserving, by the way…I’d make similar arguments for them if they needed defending).

Sledge made it because his voice is one of those special few that creates its own club.

He might not strike you at all, but if he does, he’s liable to strike deep.

That’s how mild-mannered black guys who sing ballads get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But if he really had made it on the strength of just one record, and that one record was “When A Man Loves A Woman,” he’d still be worthy.

*   *   *   *

For one thing, it is one of the rare great records that rose from quasi-mystical processes.

You can read the entry quotes above and get a taste of how that process works–how perfunctory “explanations” acquire depth and nuance (as I mentioned above, the liner notes of the box set take the story even further and make it far too complicated to pare down to a handy quote or two–highly recommended reading).

Pared down to bare bones, however, the story goes something like this:

Somewhere, some time, in the mid-sixties, a virtually unknown club singer was on a stage, feeling lousy about a romantic breakup and he started riffing and making up some words.

Somehow, over the next several months he and his band-mates worked up an actual song and recorded it in a place that was about as out of the way as any place could be.

Then his producer sent it to a not-so-out-of-the-way place (New York) and a really big time record man (Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler) who gave said producer a call and said it was promising but they needed to re-record it to give it a more professional feel (or something).

After which, said producer (Quin Ivy) re-recorded the record, didn’t much like what he heard and re-sent the original disguised as the new recording.

Then Jerry Wexler called back and said something along the lines of “that’s more like it!”

Then the record was released on somebody or other’s label (Wexler’s, Fame owner Rick Hall’s, Quin Ivy’s….hard to say, for certain, but everybody seems to agree that Hall got most of the money and it was certainly his studio that benefited most directly).

However it got released, the record went to Number One on the Pop and R&B charts and has stayed on the radio for nearly half a century and counting.

And, as Peter Guralnick points out, it became a signature record of a specifically Southern brand of soul music, which was instantly and forever deemed more “authentic” than its northern counterparts (specifically Detroit’s Motown).

Dubious assertions of authenticity aside (Black America always preferred Motown, actually, and the margin was never close), the ripple effect was enormous.

Next thing you know, Detroit native and newly signed Atlantic artist Aretha Franklin came south and in one brief, rather chaotic session at Muscle Shoals, found her voice.

However the story gets told, it seems generally agreed upon that she came south looking for what Percy Sledge had found: a vibe, a sound, a group of musicians, the magic of a special place, a song.

Something.

And, however the story gets told, we have the music she made, which formed the basis of her national breakout and the core of her legend, to remind us of just how successful this unlikely process was.

But “When a Man Loves a Woman” doesn’t really need that sort of long shadow to justify it’s importance.

All it needs is itself.

These days we tend to think of “southern” soul as being half of that north/south equation I mentioned–one which usually gets boiled down to the phrase “Motown and Stax” (with “Stax” standing in for the entire swath of labels running along the Memphis-to-Muscle Shoals axis). That common phrase makes it sound like there was some kind of real balance between the two aesthetics in both art and commerce.

Well, the art thing can be debated, but there was a time when nobody had any illusions about the commerce aspect.

That time ended (and the illusions began) when Percy Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman,”–as deep a soul sound as anyone would ever wax–and it shot straight to the top of the charts.

Maybe it would have ended (and begun) some other way.

Maybe “Stax” would still have become a true cultural–and economic–counterweight to Motown by some other means. Heck, maybe those means would have even come by way of a record actually recorded on the Stax label.

God knows there was enough talent around. Maybe even some bigger talents than Percy Sledge (few as those would be).

Then again…maybe not.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” wasn’t the first deep soul record to gain national success, but it took the game to new heights–and those very heights, reached at a moment when, for a series of complicated reasons, black music that wasn’t recorded by Motown was having more trouble denting the white charts than at any time since Elvis broke out nationally, were what soul (all of soul, not just the southern brand) could and would aspire to for the next decade.

There are reasons we give credit to those who do, as opposed to those who might have done. The most important reasons revolve around just how slippery alternate universes can be.

But another reason is that those who do ultimately create and define reality.

The reality in this case is that the cosmic success (all time classic, #1 Pop, #1 R&B, still inspiring blog essays nearly fifty years later!) of Percy Sledge’s ultimate feel-good-about-feeling-bad record more or less directly brought Aretha Franklin to what may very well have been the one circumstance in the world that could allow her to tap what became transcendental genius.

And that reality is not unrelated to the specific genius of Sledge’s actual recording.

These days, it might not be too much a stretch to say that “When a Man Loves a Woman” is the “blackest” record to top the charts during the hey-day of what I tend to refer to around here as “the revolution”**

Of course, thanks in no small part to the revolution’s real, if ultimately limited, successes, we now have a rather different (though not necessarily more expansive) definition of what “blackness” means–in culture, in music, in the general phantasmagoria of intellectual life in a struggling democracy which really ought to be thriving by now. Once any record as black as “When a Man Loves a Woman” could actually top the Pop charts, the coming rearrangement of the Cosmos was inevitable even if the degree to which this particular monumental record informed–or was informed by–the overarching process is strictly chicken-and-egg, you-said-I-said, let’s-convene-an-all-expenses-paid-scholarly-panel-to-bat-this-about-on-CSPAN-shall-we affair.

What’s rather more clear is just why this particular record had the liberating impact it did.

It meant basically that the man who stood lowest on the political ecomony’s carefully constructed totem pole–a poor African-American from the dreaded rural south–could sing in a voice that called up centuries of pain, real and imagined, personal and cultural, intimate and epic–and channel it into a masterpiece of both technique (once you let go of the false notion that technique can and should be defined only in classical terms, a notion Percy Sledge had quite a bit to do with exposing as rather limited) and emotion (the very thing classical technique was developed to reign in).

The resolution between Sledge’s perfect discipline and deep reserve on the one hand and his access to liberating ecstasy on the other is the very definition of what the American experiment has always aspired to at its best. The idea that we’ll be better tomorrow if–and only if–we remember every single good and bad thing that happened yesterday only has a few transcendent definitions in art.

I don’t know of one better than Percy Sledge singing from the bottom of the well without ever losing his claim to the top of the mountain.

[**NOTE: That is, the musical and cultural revolution that began–as a revolution–the first time Fats Domino’s left hand touched a piano within range of a recording device and ended–as a revolution–the day Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. Others use different markers. Those are mine.]

 

 

2014 ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES ANNOUNCED

(For my thoughts on the artists I feel most strongly about, you can go here, here and here…Donna Summer has since been voted in)

As always, congratulations to all nominees, even those I don’t love…and best of luck. Nominees are thus:

Nirvana, Kiss, The Replacements, Hall and Oates, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Deep Purple, Peter Gabriel, LL Cool J, N.W.A., Link Wray, The Meters, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Yes, The Zombies.

My rundown…(as usual, having nothing to do with who I think will get in, just my assessment of how deserving each nominee is)

Indie/Alternative:

Nirvana’s a no-brainer. Kurt Cobain’s suicide effectively ended the rock and roll revolution that rolled out of Fats Domino’s left hand in 1950, threatening the end of hate and war. I blame us, not Cobain, for the ultimate failure but in any case you can’t get much more influential than that.

The Replacements haven’t made much impression on me. Major cool factor going for them but if we’re focusing on cult bands, I don’t really understand why they would be voted in ahead of Big Star or the New York Dolls.

Rap/Hip-Hop:

I put in a vote for N.W.A. last year (they were bound to be edged out by Public Enemy and they were), but I think this is a slightly longer and stronger ballot so I wouldn’t put them in my top five this time around.

LL Cool J has been on the ballot before and he would be a solid pick. I’m going in another direction this year, a little more true old school, but I could easily imagine picking him in another year where there was slightly less competition.

Prog/Art/Whatever:

I like radio-friendly Yes, which is about four songs. Every time I try to go deeper I get lost.

Peter Gabriel brings up one of my pet peeves, which is giving ballot slots to artists who have already been inducted (Gabriel is in as a member of Genesis). If the artist in question is a slam dunk (Michael Jackson say) or at least a truly strong candidate (Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Clyde McPhatter) then I have no problem, but I don’t think Gabriel is in that class. Again, I like his radio hits, some of them a lot. I’d probably vote for him ahead of Yes, but in my own little circumscribed world, that isn’t necessarily saying much.

Classic Rock:

Ah, Kiss. On the basis of “Domino” alone, I will definitely vote for them some day. But they would make it much easier for me if they promise to play “Beth” and “Hard Luck Woman” at the induction ceremony and then get off the stage so Ace Frehley can close the show with “New York Groove.” (And for anyone who thinks I’m kidding, all I can say is you don’t know me very well as yet. They make the decision to stand by what they were best at, I’ll vote for them in a heartbeat.)

Deep Purple have a claim on helping invent/define heavy metal and the “classic” rock format. Thinking hard….

Singer/Songwriter:

At least Cat Stevens is not a cult act in the manner of recent inductees Leonard Cohen/Tom Waits/Laura Nyro/Randy Newman. I mean, he had a string of hits, which is a quality I happen to like in a practitioner of a best-seller genre in a popular art form. But why he would be on the ballot yet again while Jackie DeShannon and Carole King (as a performer) wait in the wings is a mystery.

British Invasion:

The Zombies have been bubbling under for years and at last they’ve made the ballot. I like them fine, but if there has to be another Invasion band in the Hall (and I’m not saying that there does, though I’m also not saying I object, strictly speaking) then I would rather it be Manfred Mann. Or, given the recent induction of the Small Faces and the Faces as a single unit, why not Manfred Mann/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band? That I’d probably go for.

Funk/Disco:

Chic is a perennial nominee and they will certainly get in one of these days. I’m slightly torn on them because I like them in theory a bit better than I do in practice and I have a sneaking suspicion that their admittedly massive influence wasn’t the net positive most make it out to be. A tad detached for my tastes. Put K.C. and the Sunshine Band in this spot and I would be a bit happier. Put Barry White in this spot and I would go “duh” and put a check mark next to his name. His continued absence is bewildering….Still, on the basis of “Le Freak” and all those really great Rodgers/Edwards producing credits…I’m thinking.

The Meters are a group I’ve heard and read about a lot more than I’ve listened to and that’s on me. I should do better by them. Until I do, I’ll take a pass.

Blues Projects:

The Hall loves putting blues acts in the “performer” section of the Hall. This is as good a place as any to renew my call for a “Contemporary Influence” category, which could include seminal acts ranging from Patsy Cline to Herbie Hancock to Peter, Paul and Mary who have had a truly sizeable impact on rock and roll and the rock era generally without actually being rock and roll performers much (or any) of the time (even in the context of my own extremely broad definition of the term). It’s probably too late for that, as strictly blues performers now dot the Hall’s performer roster, as well as Miles Davis (who would have been perfect for the category and frankly still would be). Whether the Paul Butterfield Blues Band would be a true fit for that imaginary category is an interesting potentinal debate. Meanwhile, getting back to reality, I simply restate my previous call from last year: Honor Mike Bloomfield in the side-men category and start using this slot for someone else.

Rock n’ Roll:

Link Wray. Good God yes. And about time.

Top 40 Giants (Seventies/Early Eighties Division):

Hall and Oates are apparently the cause celebre of new Nomination Committee member Questlove, who evidently brought a lot of hip-hop credibility and a sense of Black America’s genuine love for the last of the blue-eyed soul giants to the process. There was a time when I would have seen this as a borderline call at best, but I’ve been familiarizing myself with their box set over the past year or so and, speaking as someone who values “hip hop credibility” about as much as I value “punk credibility,”–i.e, as another term that makes me basically want to swallow my own tongue and choke to death–I’m now calling them a no-brainer and kicking myself for needing to be reminded. Just to prove there is such a thing as personal growth, I should confess here and now that I once took out a contract on their lives when their version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was rising up the charts. Basically I felt they needed to be stopped. Boys, you may not be the Righteous Brothers, but I’m nonetheless officially glad my man Guido never found you. It’s all good now–and he probably would have come after me when he discovered I didn’t really have the ten grand after all.

I was far from the only one who suspected that the announcement of Linda Ronstadt’s Parkinson’s diagnosis might prompt the Hall to continue it’s macabre habit of noticing epic female vocalists once they have an incurable disease. As I mentioned before, at least Linda is getting off relatively easy since it’s only her voice that died, while Dusty Springfield and Donna Summer needed an actual date with the Grim Reaper in order to be deemed worthy. Then again, this is just a nomination. We’ll see how it works out in the end. For what it’s worth, Ronstadt, whose voice was the foundation stone upon which the seventies-era California Rock scene was effectively built, has been eligible since 1992. She should have been in at least fifteen years ago. A lot of people have suggested that if she ever made it out of the nominating committee she would sail to election. Now that this theory is finally being put to the test, I hope I haven’t been truly paranoid all these years in suspecting it wouldn’t be that simple. We shall see.

In summation this is a good batch of nominees though, as usual, I could imagine it being still better. I could easily vote for nearly everyone on this ballot in a given year, especially N.W.A., LL Cool J, Kiss and, of course, Nirvana. As with last year, I’m leaving off the most obvious choice (in this case, Nirvana) on the grounds that they won’t need my support. You can go to the Hall’s voting site here to cast a let-my-voice-be-heard-in-however-small-a-way ballot.

I’m casting mine for Ronstadt, Hall and Oates, Chic, Deep Purple and Link Wray.

 

MAYBE IT REALLY WAS MEMPHIS (Alex Chilton R.I.P.–Redux)

[NOTE: I’m snowed under this week so I’m posting an unpublished piece I wrote on the occasion of Alex Chilton’s passing in March of 2010.]

“Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did last week”

Big Star: “In The Street”

In 1975 my family was living in rural northern Florida when my sister’s oldest boy moved down from Memphis. I was in high school, he was just out, and over the next year and a half he introduced me to two significant experiences:

The first experience was a running, detailed, part-scary, part-hilarious, part matter-of-fact informal history of life on the mean streets of Memphis circa the early-seventies–what, in other words, exactly was going on when kids hung out down the street and did the same old things they did last week.

The second experience was my introduction to the radio–still vital then, no matter what you may have heard.

My nephew moved out to get on with his life in less than two years. I’m still chasing the music.

Somewhere fairly early in the chase (maybe a decade or so) I came across Big Star.

Imagine my surprise at hearing the world my nephew had so vividly described dragged out of the air and put on wax. Imagine my further surprise at finding this had been done with little–albeit telling–reference to specific detail. (Even today, when I listen to #1 Record or Radio City, I keep searching for the lines about knocking down mailboxes with baseball bats and deciding whether to toss the day’s supply of rotten eggs at houses or hookers which I know must be there right next to “bust the streetlight, out past midnight!”).

Like most great artists, though, Alex Chilton was defined as much by what he left out as by what he put in. I have no idea just how closely his (or Big Star founder Chris Bell’s) actual experiences tracked with my street-tough nephew’s (though I can say that what they did describe tracks very closely indeed). But I know it’s no accident that the feel of listening to those straight-from-the-lower-middle-class-’hood stories and to Big Star’s music were so indelibly linked.

Which is to say you didn’t have to be a survivor of a knife-fight in front of your own house (saved from four crazed white boy assailants–and on a day when you weren’t even running with Bill Black’s nephew**–when a jacket yanked at the collar came miraculously off your back and a yell from your sister came just in time for you to dodge a bowie knife thrown at the back of your head)–or on the public high school record as the fastest white boy in Memphis (which is maybe at least part of how you live to tell about these things) to catch the strange, compelling combination of alienation, fear and intimacy in Big Star’s best music.

The record of this accessibility is well-catalogued now. Among the five great American bands who built the bridge from the “garage” ethos of the sixties to seventies’ punk and eighties-to-today alternative (the Velvet Underground, MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls being their compadres) Big Star were unique in several significant ways.

They were urban but southern (which in the seventies still meant somewhat closer to a rural than industrial sensibility). They were relatively apolitical (which translated into deeply personal stances I would argue ended up being the politics that mattered most–even before taking into account how much, “I’m starting to understand, what’s going on and how it’s planned,” might mean to those of us who grew up in the shadows of Viet Nam and Watergate). They were (perhaps as a result) less openly aggressive–even the assaults were seductive. And, finally, in what was seen then as a quirky aside but spoke more and more powerfully down the years as alienation has become the national monomania, their eventual leader was the only member of those great bands who turned his back on actual–as opposed to theoretical–commercial success.

For all of those reasons, Big Star’s music stayed off the radio–and got around. And, when it had finally gotten around enough, it found–or made–relevance everywhere: in the Los Angeles of Jane Wiedlin and Vicki Peterson, in the the San Pedro of D. Boon and Mike Watt, in the Minneapolis of Paul Westerberg, in the Athens of Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, in the Seattle of Kurt Cobain and, yes, in small North Florida towns, too.

Some of those artists paid direct tribute to Chilton, others may not have cared for him at all. But they and thousands like them were each shaped by environments he and his band made possible. All were children, in a sense, of a man who was famous for being cantankerous and dismissive of his own music (and of Big Star in particular).

That, too, is not unusual for artists of every stripe but it is, in a way, disheartening to contemplate in those with real, not to say monumental, accomplishments. It would be nice to believe there was some internal space to which a man who had been (as leader of the Box Tops) one of the half-dozen greatest white soul voices in rock history, a seminal producer and song-writer and a solo artist who could be great or terrible but could never, ever be accused of standing still, could repair to let his defenses down and accept how much he had meant to so many.

But he was surely right to be wary of too much adulation or self-congratulations–or any unearned idea that the past is merely a warm place to visit. One way and another, “don’t push me ’round,”–an attitude that defines a lot more about Memphis than just its music–has both created a great deal of what is most worthwhile in this world and exacted a terrible price. One way and another, the hard fight to break away from those streets which Big Star illuminated so memorably caught up with everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Burnette to Al Jackson, Jr. to Bill Black (not the mention his nephew, see below) to Chris Bell himself.

Whether it finally caught Alex Chilton–in another time and place (i.e., some years down the road in New Orleans)–is harder to say.

What can be said is that in the city where the three great cultural movements of mid-twentieth century America–blues, rockabilly and soul–found their surest footing on the way to changing the world for the better, Chilton and his Big Star brothers made a sound that was unlike anything before it and forged a way ahead that provided a framework for most of what has remained vital in white rock for nearly forty years.

Perhaps more importantly, they made–and inspired–music that has never stopped being a place where those who prefer to be not quite so alienated as the national monomania demands can still find a home.

(**Later beaten to death in Memphis. My nephew wasn’t sure of the details. Sometimes it’s safer that way.)