BEFORE THE FALL….JUST (Memory Lane: 1980)

(This was occasioned by an online poll seeking to name “The Best Album of 1979.” In something like the round of sixteen, the Clash’s London Calling (12/14/79) was pitted against Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes (10/19/79). Given the typical voting demographic for such contests, the Clash were a guaranteed easy winner. And, as someone who is not averse to participating in such exercises now, and was positively enthusiastic about breaking rulers to “Death or Glory” then, I can say I probably would have voted for London Calling myself if I had worked up the energy to cast a vote. No shame in that for Damn the Torpedoes. In purely musical terms (i.e. the terms in which the premiere punk bands so often failed), London Calling is one of the most exciting albums ever made, the more remarkable because it’s a double. Then again, Petty could never be accused of the kind of naivete that manages not to notice that when “one or two” evil Presidentes “have finally paid their due” it’s usually courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps, the point of the spear of a Military Industrial Intelligence Complex which has since developed sufficiently dread Leviathan characteristics that records like London Calling end up sounding like helpless bleats if you pay too much attention to the politics behind all that wondrous noise. Put another way, if I want to feel sufficiently detached from my surroundings to keep from screaming as I cruise through the American Night, running (albeit mostly in my head these days) along the crumbling superhighways of the Rust Belt or the Deep South or the West Coast or simply sitting in the Den Where I Keep My Records, I’ll play Damn the Torpedoes over London Calling every time. Same if I want to engage.That’s probably why I don’t end up participating in many of these straight up-or-down things. Still, arriving as it did at pure random from the internet ether, the main effect of this particular bracket was to remind me that, in the days when the 70s were turning into the 80s, “Train in Vain” and the hits from Damn the Torpedoes (“Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl”) were the most exciting things on the radio. if not the only exciting things on the radio. And thereby hangs a tale….)

Thanks to Rock and Roll Time, I know what I was doing in the late afternoon/early evening hours of Feb. 12, 1980.

I was going to see my mother in the hospital.

That, in itself, would not be memorable. My mother (b. 1919) was in the hospital a lot between 1960, when she had me, far too late in life for a woman in already fragile health, and 1987, when she passed away. Over time, the visits all ran together.

The only reason I recall this particular visit well enough to look up the date (no, I didn’t note it at the time, though I probably should have), is what happened while I was driving from our house in the Florida Panhandle to Dothan, Alabama’s Southeast Alabama Medical Center.

What happened was “Train In Vain.” It was the best new thing I had heard on the radio in at least three years. I knew it was new because it was everywhere, something no record older than a few months ever was. You could only pull about three stations that played pop music in the area (well, at least if you drove a ’71 Maverick with an AM-only radio). I kept punching between all three  because, no matter how often I heard this mysterious new record which had obviously just been released (nothing hit that suddenly everywhere unless it was release day), I wanted to hear it again.

I also wanted to know what it was called.

Over twenty miles to the hospital, and, an hour or two later, twenty miles back, I heard it six times on three different stations.

Some dee-jay finally said it was “the new one from the Clash.”

I’d barely heard of the Clash and, as far as the radio in the Deep South was concerned, they didn’t have any “old” ones. Anyway, he didn’t reveal the important information: the name of the freaking record.

I wasn’t too worried. The name of the record was obviously “Stand By Me.” Or “You Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “(You Didn’t) Stand By Me. Or “(You) Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “Didn’t Stand By Me.”**

One of those.

Well, really, it didn’t matter. I mean anything that exciting that hit the radio that hard was going to be in heavy rotation for months. Somewhere, some time, some dee-jay would spill the beans….just in case I hadn’t tracked in down in some local record bin, under the letter “S.” Or “Y.” Or “D.”

One of those.

A funny thing happened though.

Make that a few funny things.

First funny thing: The next time I heard it on the radio was on a college station. Twenty-five years later.

Second funny thing: It wasn’t in any of the usual record bins. Not under “S.” Not under “Y.” Not under “D.” I tried riffing through a few huge bins (45 bins were still huge in those days, even in places like North Florida and South Alabama), to see if I could spot something–anything–by the Clash.

No such luck.

And that all led to the third funny thing…

A few months went by. One day I went into a department store in Dothan (Woolworth? Woolco? Some chain whose name I’ve forgotten? The memory hazes). It was a location I wasn’t used to frequenting and I was there for something else (a tire patch? a quart of oil?…the memory hazes) but I decided to see if they had a record bin.

They did. A small one. One small enough I could actually flip through every record. If I only had a reason.

I didn’t really. I knew department stores were no place to find what I considered “interesting” records. I could see, after looking at the first few records in the bin, that it was mostly the crap that made me stop listening to the radio that year.

(Which crap exactly? The memory does what the memory does…and you wonder why I don’t do drugs!)

But, still….it was a small bin. No more than a couple of hundred records. Probably not more than fifty titles.

Oh, well.

I was about half-way through when a kid came wandering into the area. He was a big kid. Dressed in the redneck uniform. Jeans, boots, flannel work shirt. Just about old enough to drive. (Except for the boots, I was probably dressed the same….you know how it is, the memory hazes. But I always wore sneakers in those days. That was how you cold tell me from the rednecks. Kid I was looking at wouldn’t have been caught dead in those things.)

I was flipping idly through the records, not really imagining that he was there for a 45. He looked more like somebody interested in a set of speakers for his pickup. Either way, he did something I usually avoided like the plague. He signaled the employee who was watching over the electronics department, making sure kids like us didn’t steal anything for help.

The young man came at the kid’s call, very polite.

Very politely, the kid asked if they had “Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

I was past the “H”s by then but I kept shut about it. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen “Here Comes My Girl” but, since I wasn’t specifically looking for it (already had the album), I thought I could have seen it and not really taken note.

The employee in charge of watching over us said if they had it, it would definitely be under “H.”

They looked. It wasn’t there.

Then they wandered over to the album section.

The employee was trying to talk the kid into buying Damn the Torpedoes when this came under my hand….in the “T'”s.

I did a long double-take. I held on tight. It was the only one.

The kid who had come looking for “Here Comes My Girl” was telling the store clerk he’d really like to buy the album. Except he didn’t have the money. For the single, yes. Not the album.

I thought: “This industry does not work very well.”

Tom Petty was the kind of square who named his songs after the choruses. The kind of square who gets voted out in the round of sixteen by the hip kids four decades down the line. The kind of square who got the jeans-and-boots crowd looking for his single, which would actually be right where it could be easily found….if the store had it in stock.

And he was also the only other guy on the radio just then who had records as exciting as the one I now knew was, for some silly reason, called “Train in Vain.”***

I felt a twinge of sympathy for the young man who had found himself in a position with which I was intimately familiar. No bread….

So I did something I really never did. I offered my sympathies and some advice.

“That’s a really good album,” I said. “It’s worth saving up for.”

Maybe if the store clerk hadn’t still been standing there it would have gone over better–like a secret we could keep to ourselves.

As it stood, the kid was in no mood to thank me for my priceless advice.

“Yeah, well, I really only like that one song,” he said. “That’s a great song.”

He had felt a need to be accommodating to the store clerk, who was only doing his job.

Me, I was just butting in. It occurred to me that he probably had the money for the album. He had the look of a kid who was already working somewhere. He also had the look of a kid who only wanted what he wanted and didn’t need any advice from strangers about what that might be. He had the chip on his shoulder you found–and still find–in a certain kind of Tom Petty fan. The kind who are mostly from the South and whose other records are mostly by hardcore country singers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Or perhaps it had just been a long day. I was never to know because, on that note, he stalked away.

The store clerk looked at me and shrugged. He didn’t say anything, but he gave me a sort of “what are ya’ gonna do?” look.

Well, I knew what I wanted to do.

I held up my copy of “Train in Vain,” and said:

“I’m ready to check out.”

Better then….

(NOTE: **The actual lyric is “Did you stand by me?” I still hear “You didn’t stand by me.” I still don’t know–or care–if either way makes sense.)

(***To avoid confusion with Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” Wikipedia now tells me. I’m not sure I believe that one either.)

 

MY FAVORITE DOUBLE LP (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

fleetwoodmac3

I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”

It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.

Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:

Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)

Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)

The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)

Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)

Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)

Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)

Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)

The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)

London Calling The Clash (1979)

The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)

1999 Prince (1982)

Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)

Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)

I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.

That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.

So it goes.

My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dime for reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life,  The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.

Besides Tusk, that leaves:

doubalbums1 doubalbums2 doubalbums3

goodbyeyellow2

doubalbums5

These, I’ve obsessed over.

Some time or other.

Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.

Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.

Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.

That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.

Boy, do I feel foolish.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?

Well, maybe.

One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.

And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.

You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.

But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?

Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.

And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).

For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.

Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.

There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,”  in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Before I have to put this knife in your throat.

All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.

That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.

Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.

Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.

It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.

But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.

Too bad for us and too bad for them.

And I really wish I could stop listening.

But I can’t.

(NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC)

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Rock and Roll Through the Ages….As Bottomless as I Always Suspected)

Item #1: The local “path” station, which tries to be free-form and fresh and, every once in a while, succeeds, ran the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (a hit in 1984 and a radio staple ever since) into the Clash’s “London Calling” (title track to their epochal 1980 album). It felt exhilarating and also–after the manner of good free-form listening across the board–like a bit of a competition. Go-Go’s won of course. Not so much because they could play rings around everybody (not just the Clash) or any one of their five members could take over any record they made at any second (a rock and roll ideal if ever there was one) as because “Been running so fast, I nearly lost all track of time” and “The whole world’s out of sync” and “I waited so long, so long to play this part” all feel a lot more appropo of the modern malaise than “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” or “the Ice Age is coming” or, especially “I have no fear.” Look, the Clash were great. Really great. I broke more rulers banging to “Death or Glory” than any other record in existence back when I still had my share of youthful angst. But music and politics are funny things and, sooner or later, in rock and roll, you have to be able to stomp and you have to tell a truth that won’ t wear out. Both bands did their share of that. But, great as Joe Strummer and the boys were, they couldn’t quite stomp or tell the truth like the band that had Belinda Carlisle for a lead singer. Probably because they strained just a little too much for those very effects. Passing strange that. And very rock and roll. (All apologies: There is no half-way decent audio on ANY of the versions of “Head Over Heels” on YouTube at present and I’m way too swamped to upload it myself…so, in this case, you’ll just have to take my word for it, that, when it’s cranked up loud, it’s even better than this:)

Item #2: Caught Cyndi Lauper’s Live At Last concert from 2004 (Thanks YouTube–Nice makeup!). Just FYI: It took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 16 years to induct the epic white female vocalist of the sixties (Brenda Lee). It took them 22 years (and the announcement of a debilitating disease) for them to induct the epic white female vocalist of the seventies (Linda Ronstadt). How long for the epic white female vocalist of the eighties I wonder? 30 years? 40? Who knows. (I mean, I like the Hall. And, eventually, they get most things right. But it would be nice if they got on the stick for once.) In other words, how long before race and gender really don’t matter? You know, the way it was supposed to be. Now…where was I? Oh yeah, the Cyndi Lauper concert from 2004. Jaw-dropping. But then her concerts pretty much always are.

Item #3: Johnny Ace: Aces Wild. (Fantastic Voyage, 2012). Speaking of jaw-dropping. I’ve had the Johnny Ace Memorial Album for decades and I’ve gotten to know it pretty well but not exactly inside and out. This greatly expanded 2-CD look at his career came up cheap in a sealed copy on Amazon so I took a tumble. It’s got one of those seemingly grab-bag formats that almost never work but somehow comes together here: All Johnny’s solo stuff for most of Disc One (great..and revelatory…never knew, for instance, that he did a duet with Big Mama Thornton). Then five (count ‘em, five!) tribute records released in the immediate aftermath of his Christmas, 1955, murder/suicide/accident (depends on who’s doing the telling). Not the greatest records (nor is the additional one at the end of the second disc), but solid enough, and their very existence tells a lot about the mans’ impact.

The second disc consists of Ace’s fine piano session work for three other artists: A good solid R&B cat named Earl Forest, who would probably sound really, really good in pretty much any other context, but sounds pretty pedestrian here because he’s splitting time with a couple of guys named B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And not just any old B.B. and Bobby, but young, hungry haven’t-quite-made-it versions of same and man do they smoke.

One thing, though. B.B. King and Bobby Bland were greater–I’d even say much greater–singers than Johnny Ace. But they couldn’t match him for weirdness. And they didn’t end up on the wrong end of a gun on Christmas day. So Johnny Ace, morose, affected, stranded at the bottom of a well, at times nearly toneless, has one thing on those greater artists who can’t help breathing fire and presence into the room: He can’t really be explained. That’s probably why, even after an hour’s worth of truly scorching sides from his pals bringing their very best, it was still “The Clock” and “Pledging My Love” that hung in the air when I retired for the night and got ready for a very Happy Easter!