I grew up in a musical household. My mother was director, vocal coach, choral arranger and principal soloist for the church choir (youth and adult most of the time) and eager participant in any community chorus that asked. She walked around the house humming arrangments, picking out tunes on the piano, exercising her voice, practicing runs for operatic solos. She collected sheet music and choir books: pop, folk and religious. I still have them packed away in about ten boxes–her version, I realized only after she was gone, of my record collection.
She didn’t go much for records herself.
Perhaps her depression-raised sensibility saw them as a luxury. In any case she didn’t need them.
However much she loved others, to her, music was what she could make of it and what you could make of it. She had the performer’s instinct for absorbing what was in the air for the purpose of sharing it and then moving on to the next thing she could share. She wasn’t really formally trained musically but her talent and commitment were deep enough that she could hear in seconds what might take a talented amateur ear like mine months or years to pick up.
No comment she made about music was ever less than astute and thus my informal training (she frequently urged me, incidentally, to pursue it some way or other and that I didn’t was my loss just as she knew it would be–youth only happens once) was considerable.
Musically speaking, I was prepared for everything I heard in the world at large.
Or so I thought.
I’ve been chasing what the world wanted to share with me–musically speaking–since about nineteen seventy-five, which was when I first realized you could actually walk into a store and buy the stuff you heard on the radio (which I had also just started listening to on a regular basis).
Granted I only had a few dollars here and there at that point and not much more for years afterward, but I was fairly discriminating. Whatever I could get, I latched onto and whatever I heard that I couldn’t get, I stored in the memory bank.
Lots of things thrilled me in those early years.
Nothing shook me.
I didn’t hear the Sex Pistols’ records when they first came out for instance. But, if I had, they wouldn’t have made any more impression on me than they did five years later when I bought that famous first-and-only LP of theirs which is still there on the shelf, played maybe three times in the thirty years since.
I don’t mean that as reverse snobbery. It’s just that I’d grown up with “Ode to Billy Joe” (courtesy of my sister’s left-behind 45 collection) and “Blood Red and Going Down,” (courtesy of the country radio that was ubiquitously playing when my mother’s friends drove her to the endless doctor’s appointments), not to mention “Power In the Blood,” (courtesy of Sunday mornings in the pews). I was pretty sure I couldn’t be shook.
I was mostly right, too. Wrong only once.
So we’ll start this blog there–with me being shook:
* * * *
I’m standing in a shopping mall record store in Panama City (the one in Florida, not the one in Panama where the U.S. Marine Corps arranges for new bosses to replace the old bosses every now and then).
I’ve been gone all summer so it has to be some time in the fall.
I have my spending money–what’s left of fifty dollars maybe–in my pocket…
45s were still hanging on in those days and the stores–the mall stores anyway–put them in bins. Current hits arranged by chart position, oldies alphabetically.
By 1979 I was mostly interested in oldies.
So I stood there after an hour or so, weighing my options. I had picked out the number of records I could afford, plus a few more, then went through the daunting process of culling until I was down to holding my last two “maybes” in my hand.
Then I re-figured the cash total in my head and accepted that, yes, I had to leave one more of them behind.
Mind you it was going to be six months–more likely a year–before I got back to this, the only real record store within reach.
College kid. Heck I wasn’t supposed to be spending fifty dollars (which wasn’t all for records since gas and Big Mac money were being deducted–I had to drive seventy miles each way to get to that particular mall–the nearest one that sold oldies, and, yes, there were a couple of albums under my arm as well).
That’s not a play for belated sympathy–the world was a mean place then as now and I’m well aware that it’s been a whole lot meaner to others than to me–just a reminder that an actual decision was involved.
No file-sharing back then.
One of the records I held in my hand was “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las. I can’t say what the other one was. Memory does not permit. But I remember I had never really heard either record. I just knew they were big hits from the sixties and I had a by-then well established track record of liking just about anything thus defined.
I also had a habit of perusing a book called Rock Almanac, which told me what those hits were.
As I stood there, literally staring at the two records, trying to decide which one to add to the final stack–pretty much asking one of them to circumvent the trivial laws of nature and speak to me, burning bush style–I happened to flip “Leader of the Pack” over and see that a song called “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” was on the other side. Vaguely–and then not so vaguely–I recalled that it had been a big hit as well (according to Rock Almanac).
“Sure. Number five in sixty-four,” I would have thought. I had a mind that worked like that back then. (And, actually, it probably still would work that way–if it still worked.)
Anyway, I looked at the flip side of the other destined-to-be-purchased-at-some-later- date-but-never-again-to-be-connected-to-this-moment record.
Nothing rang a bell.
The Shangri-Las it was.
No doubt as I was going through the rest of this process–decision to buy, re-binning the discard, trip to the counter, slightly weightless walk to my ’71 Maverick bereft of the fall of seventy-nine’s spree-money, long drive home, sift through the stack deciding what to play first–the only real analysis of the Shangri-Las I had ever read to that point was wafting around in my head, touching down here and there, pressing on things.
I may have even pulled out Rock Almanac (full title: Rock Almanac: Top Twenty American and British Singles and Albums of the 50s, 60s and 70s–with a title like that, I find it sort of satisfying that you can look at the spine these days and tell it’s pretty close to being the oldest book in the music section of my library) when I got home and given it a once over as I was listening to all the doubtless wonderful records I had purchased that day. (Can’t say for sure that’s what I did but it’s possible. Even likely…I told you I had a weird mind…Back then.)
If I didn’t do this specific bit of recall-research beforehand I certainly did it after.
The “analysis” was from an article in the beginning of the Almanac by someone named Mark Sten (whose by-line I have never seen anywhere else). The article was titled–or mis-titled–”The In-Between Years (1958–1963).” Near the end, whenever it was I got around to looking, I would have found these words:
“It’s kind of sad the Shangri-Las got so camp so fast, because their first record (“Remember” 5:8/64) was a killer, futuristic in its leaden, chorded heaviness, with one of the best climaxes on wax. She really was an excellent singer, the best blonde in the business, gifted with a powerful, expressive delivery and one of the half-dozen most distinctive voices of the whole girl-group period. Besides, she’s dead.”
So–if I remembered a previous reading or bothered to look it up when I got home that day–that, plus a few chart positions and dates next to the titles of records, was the sum total of what I knew about a sixties’ girl group called the Shangri-Las when I cued up “Leader of the Pack.”
The record itself knocked me over. I played it twice in a row, which was rare anytime and unheard of when I had a stack of new forty-fives on hand. I mean, even if I knew I was going to wear a record out, I didn’t play it twice in a row right out of the box!
So yeah, the record impressed me mightily, but I think I also wanted to make sure I had heard the whole thing correctly–wasn’t the girl in the song supposed to be dead, too…just like the “Leader of the Pack?,” not to mention “the best blonde in the business?”
Had I missed the part where she was narrating as a ghost?
It seemed more than likely, but, no, I listened extra close that second time and there was no doubt–she had lived through that one.
Then, as I was about to move on through the stack…I remembered.
There’s a hit on the other side.
Oh well, I’ve already got it out of the sleeve.
Might as well give it a spin….
* * * *
Look, I was gonna be a record junkie anyway. If my fate hadn’t been sealed the day I heard the Four Seasons doing “December, 1963” on the radio (December, 1975), there was certainly no turning back after The Byrds Greatest Hits and “Turn, Turn, Turn” made the journey from the Woolco bargain bin to my cheap-o record player the week I graduated from high school (June, 1978).
I mean, I was studying chart books and so desperate to learn things about those charts and the people who put records on them that I was reading lines like “She was the best blonde in the business….Besides, she’s dead,” and thinking if such things didn’t quite make any sense, the fault must lie in me…in my own lack of understanding!
(And if you think that’s a non sequiter, let me tell you that the next line in Sten’s article–standing alone, utterly unconnected to anything that came before or after was:
“Flo Ballard was on welfare when she died.”
Flo Ballard, for those who may not know, was an original member of the Supremes. And–unlike the “best blonde in the business,” who is healthy, happy and still touring occasionally these days–was actually dead. Hah! Try figuring that one out!)
What I’m saying is: when you think garbled syntax is not garbled syntax but a mystery worth solving just because you want there to be mysteries worthy of the records you are listening to, you’re already a goner.
So “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” didn’t change me that way.
It just shook me. Shook me in a way no record–really, no art–had before or has since.
I played it six, seven, eight times in a row. (I doubt if I could have given you an exact number even then–after about the second time the needle rose to be placed again at the beginning, such things stopped mattering. And if you want a measure of how disorienting the whole experience was, feel free to stop and reflect on what the comforting exactitude of real-life numbers might have meant to an eighteen-year-old who kept testing near-genius level in math even though he hated it and could stand in a record store seventy miles from his house in 1979 and decide to buy a record he had never heard because the flip side was “number five in sixty-four.”)
In the end I simply couldn’t process it and that was what really knocked me off-center. I just didn’t get it! I couldn’t even really enjoy the record–no matter how wonderful the sound, no matter how haunting that voice on the top of the maelstrom was–because I simply couldn’t get my mind around it.
So–in the months and years to come–since I never could really process “Remember (Walkin’ In the Sand),” I chased the Shangri-Las….
Most particularly, I chased “the best blonde in the business.”
I will say that even at the very beginning, after those six-seven-eight spins of “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” it made perfect sense to me that she was dead.
But how had it happened and when? Bear in mind that the record itself had only been recorded fifteen years earlier–within my young lifetime if not quite within my memory.
And it was monumental. Earth-shattering.
Heck it had even been a big hit.
So there had to be some hard news about it somewhere. Something more than Rock Almanac was giving me.
Well–as those months and years eventually revealed–there was and there wasn’t.
Oh sure, somewhere down the line–I don’t even recall exactly where–I decided to believe that the Shangri-Las really had consisted of four young women from Queens, NY, including two brunette twins named Marge and Mary Ann Ganser and two blonde sisters named Mary and Betty (or Liz, or Elizabeth) Weiss. Some time a long, long time after that I decided to believe that Mary Weiss had actually been the lead singer who reoriented my world in the fall of nineteen seventy-nine, and was–happily–still alive.
Less happily, since I came to accept that much, I also had to accept that some of the others really were no longer with us.
Certitude did indeed set in–more or less.
As of 1971 (or 1972), Mary Ann Ganser was dead. Of ecephalitis. Or, depending on the source, a drug overdose….
Unless, of course, you believed Dave Marsh’s (otherwise invaluable) The Heart of Rock and Soul: 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, published in 1987, where she was listed as the (very specifically) blonde lead singer.
Which would mean the Weiss sisters were the brunettes and the Gansers were the blondes…and maybe it was Mary Weiss who had died of encephalitis or an overdose.
As of 1996 Marge Ganser was also dead, of cancer….
Unless, of course, you believed Robert Christgau, who reported to Greil Marcus’ Real Life Top Ten column of June 30, 2004 (then appearing for the last time in City Pages) on a then-recent concert in New York City where Marge Ganser (“the one who didn’t die of a barbiturate overdose”–you can already guess how reliable that particular nugget was/is) was leading a group of fake Shangri-Las, who included her daughter, through a batch of uninspired, generic oldies.
I’m going to make this easy for you and just say that Marsh, Marcus and Christgau, the three biggest names in rock criticism and all professed fans of the Shangri-Las, were all–like the first part of “Leader of the Pack,” the official vinyl Mercury release of Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las and the Dutch import Leader of the Pack, (each of which identified “Betty” as the lead singer), and, like a volume on “death discs” I once picked up in a book store, (which identified Marge Ganser as the lead)–really, really wrong.
Mary Ann Ganser really did die in 1971 (or 1972)–of something.
Marge Ganser really did die–childless, like all the Shangri-Las except Elizabeth Weiss–of cancer, in 1996.
Mary Weiss really is alive, well and blonde. And she really did sing lead on the vast majority of the Shangri-Las’ records (and on all the great ones, which–thanks to her–were just about all of them).
She came out of the shadows in 2007 to make a (very fine) solo album after forty years in retirement and give a batch of extremely revealing interviews which blew most of the silly myths that had grown up around the Shangri-Las and their music to smithereens and–unbelievably, because this is quite rarely the case–replaced them with truths that were far more interesting (the best of those interviews can still be found at the Norton Records website).
This chasing and verifying over the course of what you can now see was an unreasonably long search (i.e., half a lifetime) for information that should have been readily obtainable could never be abandoned–never quite work its way out of my craw–for a few reasons.
The first reason is/was that when somebody does something that alters the shape of my existence, I’d just like to know as much about them as possible.
Starting with their actual names.
The second reason–or maybe the first reason–is/was the music I found. Wherever, whenever.
Expensive import in chain record store. Falling apart cassette in 24-hour grocery bargain bin. Beat-up Red Bird 45 in a used record store. Cheap knock-off import LP. Comps. Original Mercury 45’s from their late career move.
Didn’t matter. When I came across anything by them that had even one song I didn’t have, I bought it and a whole lot more often than not, what I found just deepened the mystery and the need to know more–or at least find that next missing record that might finally explain everything!
The third reason is/was that my experience chasing the Shangri-Las–with being continually told one true thing after another only to find it soon contradicted by another true thing which I had no cause to believe was either more nor less valid than the first true thing–made me also realize that the thing we most desperately want to be true very often finds its validity in our desperation rather than anything resembling objective proof.
A lot of people wanted the mysteries of the Shangri-Las–and those of many, many others who were, perhaps not coincidentally, the wrong race (any but white), the wrong gender (female), the wrong class (working) or some combination thereof–to remain mysteries.
There was something perhaps quite wonderful in their music–and something perhaps quite ugly in the way people who step out of the shadows to claim a space no one has ever claimed before are likely to be judged even by the most enlightened members of an intelligentsia that is bound to represent (i.e., to receive paychecks from) the prevailing interests who pushed those voices to the margins in the first place–that called for this to be so.
Me, I just kept hoping the same thing for them that I hoped for everybody else who had stepped out of those shadows to sing or play or write the records that kept me off of suicide watch at the institutions designed for such through the years.
I kept hoping they were alright.
That the solace they brought me had, by some miracle, not cost them as much as I–the son of a very great singer who never had a chance to make a record–suspected it might have.
Maybe in the case of the Shangri-Las I hoped it a little more–was a little more saddened by the fate of those who didn’t make it through, a little more gladdened by the fate of those who did–because when I was eighteen years old, I already knew I was going to have to work at staying afloat–call it staying sane if you like–and that the cheap, disposable objects I named this blog after were my ticket out.
Encountering “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” was the can’t-turn-back moment when I realized the real value of rock and roll–why it was so culturally cataclysmic in both the frightening and the exhilarating senses of that word: It was the one place in the center of my culture–the one place out of the shadows and into the light–where every voice had a chance to count.
So if this blog is going to be about any one thing it will be about that.
Studying and appreciating voices that have made themselves count.
If you don’t get that–or don’t want to–be warned you probably won’t find any of this very useful or interesting.
If you do get it–or want to–welcome aboard…