WELL, WE MUST TAKE WHAT WE CAN GET (MORE NOTES FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS)

So NPR compiled a list of the 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women (since 1964). You can read the rationale for the list here. It covers–or, if you like, CYA’s–the usual caveats for such lists. They were a little vague on why a list designed to put women “at the center” should have its starting point defined by the Beatles (Why not Julie London (as great an album maker as Frank Sinatra in the fifties)? Or Billie Holiday? Why not be really transformative and shake up the whole narrative, if it’s the whole narrative that needs shaking? And, if it doesn’t, why not just say so?).

But I’ll leave hashing all that out for some other day.

Today, I’m not gonna carp. Because the Shangri-Las made the list!

I only kind of wish (and I’m not complaining–that album cover above you hangs in my den, framed) they had made it with their other, stronger album (the even better version of Shangri-Las ’65*)

…which I like to say has cast a longer shadow than Rubber Soul or Highway 61 Revisited.

Or Blue (the Joni Mitchell album that tops the NPR list–like all corporate lists, it’s not long on surprises).

Of course, I say that with tongue in cheek.

Mostly.

But it’s funny what happens in shadows. I just saw Wonder Woman win WWI at the multiplex last week…and she did it looking and acting a lot more like a Shangri-La than anything her original comic-strip creators envisioned.

If you see Bob Dylan’s shadow hovering over the multiplex, where the genuine, authentic, one hundred percent true-life fantasy America persists in re-creating itself these days, be sure to let me know.

I’m not saying it’s a good thing either.

Just that it’s a thing.

An overwhelming thing.

That Wonder Woman, she’s fifty feet tall.

For now, though, I’m gonna let all the caveats go, and just use this as a reason to smile in a grim world.

[*–Shangri-Las ’65 was released before “I Can Never Go Home Any More” became a big hit. Their label then released a new version of the LP, re-titled after the hit, with “I Can Never Go Home Any More,” one the era’s greatest sides, replacing “The Dum Dum Ditty,” one of the few Shangs’ sides that isn’t great. I should probably add that “this has probably cast a longer shadow than Rubber Soul or Highway 61 Revisited” is something I first scribbled about Shangri-Las ’65 in one of those notebooks all writers keep about thirty years ago, before I knew I Can Never Go Home Any More, the album, existed. I’ve repeated it a few times since, including on this blog. But I ask again–who else joins the Ramones and Madonna at the hip? And what’s more “influential” than that?]

BIG BAD LOVE AND DONALD TRUMP COMETH (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard

I’m not prepared to bet on it yet, but Donald Trump’s election and subsequent administration may end up being the kind of watershed that will make the future ask how this came to be. A lot of art that’s been made in the last few decades might wind up being viewed through the lens of whether it had its finger on those elements of the American pulse–traditional and modern—that made Trump not so much possible as inevitable.

If that comes to pass, Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love, based on some short stories by the dissolute Southern writer Larry Brown (Mississippi Division, and I know, “dissolute Southern writer” is a serial redundancy), might be an interesting place to start.

I first heard about the movie when Greil Marcus praised it in one of his Real Life Top Ten columns just after its 2001 release. It stuck in my memory because Marcus wrote of Rosanna Arquette (an ongoing concern of this blog, see HERE,  HERE and HERE) that she was “alive on the screen as she hasn’t been since long before the black hole she hit with Desperately Seeking Susan, the passionate woman of The Executioner’s Song and Baby It’s You stepping out of a 20-years-older version of herself.”

Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I can say that Arquette is certainly more alive than anyone else around her–just as she was in The Wrong Man, Black Rainbow, After Hours, Pulp Fiction (where Tarantino’s choice of Uma Thurman in a role Arquette auditioned for represents his biggest failure of nerve in a career that’s been defined by cowardice) and, come to think of it, Desperately Seeking Susan (where Arquette was touchingly vulnerable and Madonna was saved by the chance to be herself, something no other film, including her various vanity projects, has offered to date).

Except for Madonna being herself, and John Lithgow in The Wrong Man, though, she never had much competition.

Here, the competition is fierce. Howard, Paul LeMat, Debra Winger and especially a revelatory Angie Dickinson make up a spectacular ensemble. If the writing had allowed them to breathe, they might have turned this into a great movie.

As it stands, we have what we have, which is a well-wrought, but finally empty version of an oft-told tale, the standard dissolute Southern writer’s take on his own southernness, dissolution and writerliness, filtered through the travails of trying to find a combination that will impress a Yankee editor. There’s a near-tragedy thrown in. Then a full-blown tragedy. Howard, playing the lead, is especially impressive in his ability to allow a man who is no more damaged after the near and full tragedies than he was before. Less lively maybe, but no more damaged. Dickinson, unfortunately, does not get much chance to show us how the damaged man’s mama responds to his near and real tragedies, which is disappointing because they’re written in her face before they happen.

All of which leaves us with a series of moments, some quite brilliant, all finally devoid of hope or meaning.

It is, however, the kind of world where Donald Trump might become President some day, even if none of these folks (observed? or dreamed up to please the Yankee editor? even the late Larry Brown may not have known). I mean, hell, if this is what they think of us, why not bite their ankle just once and vote for somebody who will pee on their heads too?

I’m not saying I approve, just that I understand.

As for the movie itself, and taking it strictly as a movie and nothing else, it does lead to the question of whether Arquette’s character–the only one who will ever have a lease on anything you would call a life, new or otherwise–is an expression of the writer, the actress or the moment. It’s her meat. Weird stuff has never thrown her (heck, when she worked for Scorcese and Tarantino, she was the only one who wasn’t thrown, not that I didn’t enjoy watching some others give it a go and maybe even convince themselves they had turned the trick, at least after the reviews came in). She gives brief flickers of life to the movie in the same way that her character would give life to those of such dreary, interesting characters as we meet here, or even to their real life counterparts if anybody this dreary was ever really interesting.

Debra Winger, for instance, doesn’t get lost here. We’ve always known that she–Winger, not her character–is capable of nearly anything. But even Debra Winger can’t resolve the contradiction between the kind of grounded realism her character represents and the existential despair a dissolute Southern writer (in this case her character’s husband–based, of course, on the writer himself) must practice twenty-four/seven if he’s to gin up the blend of authenticity and sympathy-for-that-fella-who-knows-the-devil that will create the space for near and real tragedies to occur without costing him his chance at twenty pages in The New Yorker. Arquette–playing a character who is just as recognizable–sails past all that, out into a world of her own, the very one she would have to create if by chance she were ever stuck in the world the movie can’t quite bring itself to convey, let alone the one it invents as a replacement.

So, on a first viewing at lest, I value the movie most for that. It provides another tiny bit of color in a mad mosaic–all her own–which Arquette has built, piece by piece, ever since The Executioner’s Song. One that adds up to a strange, alternative world where it never matters who the President is because no one remembers his name.

She’s Gloria Grahame, fifty years on.

Except it’s the crit-illuminati‘s job to notice such things and how can they when the new President is busy taking a leak on their heads and calling it tears?

I’m glad I got acquainted with this bit of Arquette’s journey. But I have to admit she’s the only reason I would ever subject myself to all those dreary, interesting people twice.

 

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.

PICK THE PUNK (Segue of the Day: 1/30/17)

Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):

“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**

It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of  Tom Petty or Prince.

And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.

But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.

The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.

But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.

Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.

That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.

For a while anyway.

Long enough to become iconic.

Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.

That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.

The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.

I’d love to hear it.

I won’t hold my breath.

**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Bay City Rollers Up)

“Rock and Roll Love Letter”
Bay City Rollers (1976)
Billboard: #28
Recommended source: The Definitive Collection

baycityrollers1

Only the Rollers could inspire so much….plaid!

Well, we could all use a little happy. If you need a sign that the Apocalypse didn’t exactly start yesterday, though, consider that this not only stalled outside the top twenty in America, but some fool saw fit to not even release it in the UK, or half the other countries where Rollermania was a real thing.

That’s exactly the kind of stupidity that causes empires to fall.

This song has a lot of personal relevance for me because it contains my favorite misheard lyric. My original angst was bad enough, but now I find that “keep on rock and rollin’ till my jeans explode” was really “till my genes explode.”

I had feared as much, but now the internet has confirmed it.

Not that either could replace “to my Jesus soul,” which was what I heard throughout my blissfully ignorant youth.

Oh, well, at least the Rollers (or their producer) had the decency to slur the blasphemy (and I don’t mean the part about Jesus, which was holy).

There are at lest half a dozen hipper–i.e., more clearly enunciated versions–on YouTube, including the original by the song’s writer, Tim Moore. This smokes them all. You really can’t beat the pros for this sort of thing. And, just on another personal note, I can state with complete certainty that if you segue this on a properly made mix-disc and bleed it out of Madonna’s laugh at the end of “Where’s the Party” it will make your head explode.

In a good, healthy, life-affirming, purely therapeutic way.

I promise.

Smile and be well.

And, yeah, I thought about doing this as a two-fer with “Yesterday’s Hero,”–the greatest “all glory is fleeting” record ever made–but, what with so many people on Suicide Watch just now, I didn’t want to be held responsible for some kind of wrist-slitting epidemic in case this went viral. The brave can find it easily enough.

I AM SHOCKED TO DISCOVER!….RUMINATING ON OBSCENITY, THEN AND NOW (Adventures in Language: First Journey)

[WARNING: Since this category-inaugurating post is about current and historical uses of vulgar language, I’ll have to use words I don’t normally use either in my every day existence or on this blog. I know I have readers who prefer to avoid all that, so, if you’re one of them, you may want to either skip this or at least proceed with caution.]

tombstonedove1

Hard to read, but if you peer closely enough, you’ll find a copy of a license to practice prostitution at a “House of Ill Fame” in the City of Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1881, which is very close to the time period I’ll be discussing below.

So last week came the news that Madonna is offering high quality blow jobs to Clinton voters. While it’s unclear whether this is a promise or a threat, it’s definitely an attempt to stay relevant. These days, you have to run fast if you want to stay on the cutting edge Madonna used to navigate with ease. Even so, the belief that a woman’s freedom lies in wanting what her guy wants–already all the rage–doesn’t have much further to go before it reaches its inevitable conclusion. That’ s where the rape victim at last finds “freedom” by learning to want what the rapist wants.

You can see why even Madonna might be getting a little out of breath.

It can’t be easy being the Queen of Shock when a major party nominee for president–the Republican no less–has a tape out there where he’s bragging about pussy-grabbing and Howard Stern, of all people, is insisting he’s never heard that kind of talk!

If I seem a little skeptical of this latter claim, it might be because Trump would have been counted an amateur in my rural southern high school’s lunchroom. (Forget the “locker room.” In public school environments back then the only place that was relatively loose and unsupervised was the lunchroom.)

I’m not saying something along the lines of  “Damn it, I saw that white stuff spilling out of her pussy and I started thinking Jesus fuckin’ Christ I mighta’ just made a baby. Fuckin’ bitch was straight-up Italian, too. Little fucker’ll probably be born with a mustache.” was every day conversation, but nobody counted it any way unusual. Given my subsequent adult exposure to city types (i.e., “Who does he think I”m gonna hire John? I’m gonna hire the one I want to fuck!”), I doubt the level of enlightenment was much higher elsewhere.

And I doubt much has changed.

But here’s a question.

Was it ever thus?

I have a special interest in this for two reasons. The first is that I have a relationship to language that’s a lot like the relationship singers have to singing. Ask a singer when they started singing and it’s almost guaranteed the answer will be along the lines of “since before I can remember.” Same with me and the pursuit of words–spoken words, written words, overheard words, covert words, public words, whispered words, imaginary words, words to learn, words to live by, words to forget or else be nagged or haunted or vexed by.

Almost any child has a boundless interest in words, of course, but mine went far beyond  any version of normal. When it came to words (and almost nothing else), I had to know. I didn’t have to share what I learned. Sharing, in fact, is still a learning process (of which this blog is just the latest part). But I always had to know. And what I mostly had to know was just how much power words–or, if you like, language–could contain. How I could use them and how they could use me.

The second reason, likely the main reason I’ve taken a long time to find myself as a fiction writer–and I have, the world just hasn’t caught up yet–is that I never wanted to be pretty good. I never wanted to settle. I wanted to be as good as anyone can be in this time and place. I wanted to die unpublished (which could still happen), rather than live with being just okay, no matter how successful.

Whether I’ve gotten all the way there will be for others to judge once the stories I’ve learned to tell make their way into some public domain (self-publishing if all else fails–yes you pros out there, yearning to discover the next big thing, that’s a threat and a promise).

But the yammering around the “shock” that’s being expressed over vulgar, abusive language these days–language which always amounted to just words in our collapsed “modern” culture until Donald Trump, of all people, spoke them out loud–has put me in mind of a particular instance where I found myself playing Mark Twain’s old right word/almost right word (i.e., the difference between lightning and the lightning bug) game whilst trying to live inside the mind of a young woman in the Arizona Territory, circa the late 1870s, trying to find just the right words to say to a town marshal who has come to deliver her a considerable bounty earned by her husband for tracking down three stagecoach robbers.

Normally, the right words for that circumstance might be along the lines of a simple “Thank you.” But, this being a tale worthy of the telling and a telling worthy of the tale, the young woman’s relationships to the marshal, her husband and the bounty her husband has earned are…complicated.

Without giving away too much of the plot–you will want to read the book some day–let me just give the situational basics:

The young woman has come from a terribly hard, violent background in the Civil War South. The marshal is a classic Yankee carpetbagger who has an eye for her. They have collaborated on a scheme to send her husband after the bounty. They do not have the same ends in mind, however, as she simply wants the money while he wants a crack at her.

Her husband is lying (seriously, though not mortally, wounded–he may never walk again) in the tiny house where they live with their four-year-old daughter.

She has just learned that the gunfight where her husband was wounded, may have been a bushwhack set up by the marshal (his backup plan for turning her into a vulnerable, available widow in case the stage robbers weren’t up to killing her husband to begin with).

She is now standing just inside the front door of her house, staring out through a fly screen, watching the marshal walk up to her front porch.

She is not yet certain that the information just conveyed to her by a teenage girl who is her unofficial ward is reliable, but she has nonetheless picked up a shotgun.

As she waits for the marshal to step up on to her porch, she thinks: I will know by his eyes.

When he is close enough for her to see his reaction to the sight of the shotgun (on an occasion when he expects to be met with open arms), she knows the information is sound. The marshal is the reason her husband may never walk again…and why certain larger plans, of which the bounty is a necessary ingredient, may never go forward.

She pushes the screen door open with the barrel of the shotgun and steps onto the porch.

Then she raises the shotgun’s muzzle to the very surprised marshal’s eye.

…There I had to decide what she was going to say, and, this still being a telling worthy of the tale, I shifted to a memory scene, wherein the teenage girl who gave the woman the information (and who stuck around to watch the four-year-old and sneak a peek at what she suspected were going to be fireworks) is recalling her time on the witness stand during the trial that inevitably ensued.

She’s been admonished to say exactly what happened and, having been assured by the court that this is what she must do, she begins by repeating the woman’s exact words–the words I had to come up with to convey the quality of the woman’s rage.

“Damn” and “hell” didn’t seem to get there and I knew “mother fucker”–which is kind of dull and listless anyway–was not a thing then.

So I had the woman say (and the girl remember) this:

You back up off of my porch cocksucker!

I thought this was strong. The woman in question is a devout Christian, but has been formed by an extremely violent and harsh set of experiences. She is drawing on deep memories of that previous violence (much of it done to her, some of it done by her). She  also well knows the power of shock language coming from her, especially when it is directed at a man who is infatuated with her and has an inkling, but no specific knowledge, of her background. Having had women point guns at him before–he’s that type–he only becomes alarmed when he notices that her hands don’t shake.

Perfect then, or at least perfectly acceptable.

I was satisfied with it.

The only question was, did anybody, Christian woman or otherwise, say “cocksucker” in Arizona in 1878?

Language, you see. My thing. Should I leave it alone just this once?

It bugged me a little. Surely, I thought. Surely by 1878!

I spent another year finishing the book from that scene forward (it’s about a third of the way in), then some months editing and polishing.

I left in “cocksucker.”

It still felt strong. I just still didn’t know if she would actually say it in 1878.

I liked it well enough that I considered not researching it, because, if the book were ever published, not one in a thousand readers would know if the word was historically anachronistic and even fewer would care.

Still, it bugged me, not knowing. It bugged me long after I had satisfied the thousand other issues–language related or otherwise–bound to come up in a seven hundred page novel set well before the memory of anyone currently living.

I admit it. I didn’t want to find out that “cocksucker” wasn’t a valid word for the time, place and/or character, because, if it wasn’t, then it was unlikely I would find another word or phrase as good.

If that happened, then I would be caught in the Deadwood dilemma. Though I had never seen an episode of Deadwood at the time (I wrote about my subsequent, rather disappointing experience with the first season here), I had come across interviews with the show’s creator David Milch and some of the other writers. They freely admitted their use of “cocksucker” and the various forms of “fuck” were anachronistic (in the sense that they were almost certainly not part of every day speech, even in brothels or criminal gangs) in the show’s time period (very close to mine).

I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd. Even before I watched it I was sure of that. I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd because not being part of any crowd is my identity.

Knowing that, I also knew that, finally, I had to do my research.

It didn’t take long to confirm one expectation and discover another thing I hadn’t know.

The expectation was that the specific origin and use of blue language as it related to common speech in an era when many words were unprintable is often murky at best. By the best information I could find, “cocksucker” wasn’t referred to in print anywhere until the 1890s. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t have been in use in 1878. Words are rarely invented for the purpose of publication and, if they are, they rarely outlast their specific usage. (Think supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which my generation of school children used to insist was the longest word in the English language no matter how often our teachers kept insisting it was not a word!)

“Cocksucker” seemed like the kind of practical word that might have been in common usage by 1878, found its way into print a decade or two later, and survived to even more common usage in later days, to be re-inserted into “history” by modern fiction writers invested in making the language of history seem real.

Its historical usage–the likelihood, or at least possibility, of it showing up in my character’s speech on that porch in the Arizona Territory in 1878–couldn’t be confirmed.

But it couldn’t be absolutely denied either.

I was safe….Kind of….Sort of.

Not safe enough, in other words, to keep the issue from bugging me.

Still, I might have let it go, had I not come across the thing I did not expect.

I did not expect it because, what with those thousand other things on on my mind, I had gotten hung up on the origin of this certain word and simply neglected to consider something which should always be first and foremost among anyone trying to write convincing historical fiction, which is the evolution of words.

It was one thing to suggest–without proof one way or the other–that my character, under extreme duress, could have used “cocksucker” on a porch in Arizona in 1878.

But what about how she used it?

Not how she said it. That’s a matter of tone, and the tone being perfectly matched to the word–along with the fear of never finding another quite so good–was the whole reason I was fighting to keep it to begin with.

Usage is something else, though. And that was where the real problem began.

At a stretch “cocksucker” might have been available to my character. At only a slightly longer stretch she might have even used it.

But, in Arizona, in 1878, she would never have used it the way I was having her use it.

Being a very literal-minded character, she would never have used it at all unless she was referring to someone she knew for a certainty sucked cocks…and would never have used it at all in the circumstance I had her using it.

She would not have used it as a euphemism for “bastard” or “son of a bitch” or “hell spawn” because, even though those insults already carry a certain euphemistic quality, the one thing all my research confirmed–the one thing everybody agreed on–was that it was well into the twentieth century before “cocksucker” was used the way those other words were used.

To be called a “son of a bitch” did not mean someone literally thought your mother was a bitch (then regarded as a further euphemism for a “loose women” which was the polite phrase for “whore,” now more likely to be applied to someone merely being cranky). But to be called a cocksucker just meant you were known to suck cocks.

In other words, before it became a euphemism itself, “cocksucker” was, by every account I could find, universally literal.

My character might have said (even as far back as the 1870s, well before its first officially recognized use, if we accept that much obscenity was then kept in the shadows) “Well he is known to be a cocksucker.” But neither she, nor anyone else, would have said: “He’s a goddamned cocksucker!”

Nor, as Deadwood might have it, would one have said “He’s a mother fucking cocksucker!”.

Not unless maybe you knew for a fact that the man in question had both consorted with his mother and sucked at least one man’s member.

Evolving sex words into general insults–ultimately the worst insults–seems to have been a curious side effect of the twentieth century’s waves of sexual revolution.

That might be another post for another time.

For now, let’s get back to me and my dilemma.

Cocksucker was a word my character simply would not have used.

Granted, historical language is unlikely to be anywhere near perfect.. One of the things I came across in my research was how many of the “folksy” frontier words Hollywood was using in westerns or historical dramas in the 1930s were completely anachronistic or even ahistorical, despite many of the people involved as writers, directors and actors, having grown up around a generation who lived through the period in question. But I still couldn’t live with something I knew didn’t cut it.

I’d already told myself every comforting lie I could think of, and I still had to go and poke the anthill. Once the anthill was good and poked–no longer hibernating but alive with confusion–I had no choice but to set out on a new quest for the “lightning.”

“Cocksucker” had officially been turned into a lightning bug.

For the moment I was stuck with going back to “son of a bitch,” which I had rejected to begin with because it was too common an epithet (in that time or this) to carry the full weight of the situation. The man arranged to have her husband shot for God’s sake!

In those rare moments when my character could forget that she was on her way to becoming a lady, she would have thrown son of a bitch around as casually as she drew a breath.

For this moment, when she was pointing a shotgun in the face of a law officer who she had just discovered had her husband shot and nearly killed, I thought she would reach a little deeper….that something stronger would flow through her mind.

It was my job, finally, to discover what she already knew…which was what she would really say.

“Son of a bitch?”

I meant more to her than it does to anyone now living.

But it still didn’t feel like it meant quite enough.

Back to the Deadwood dilemma.

How to bridge the distance between the modern mind’s expectations and what a historical character would actually say at one of the novel’s crucial moments.

There was nothing to do but keep living in her mind–especially her mind at that moment–and hope for the best.

i did that for a few weeks and then, unbidden, she walked through mind mind’s eye and confronted the Marshal as she had a thousand times before. She raised the shotgun to his eye, saw his shocked expression, just like always.

Then she said:

You back up off of my porch you sheep shit son of a bitch.

And that was that.

Son of a bitch hadn’t done it.

Adding “sheep shit”—the beautiful, natural alliteration, the organic association with the eternal images of the sheep-vs-cattle wars that take up so much space in western history and mythology, the combination of the long assimilated directness of judging a man’s character by his whore of a mother and being no better than sheep dung as a result–gave it the just right touch.

Once I heard the unbidden phrase in my ear, I knew that, unlike “cocksucker” or “son of a bitch” on its own, it came from her and nobody else.

I knew those words satisfied her and, the way only she could deliver it, they stung the Marshal far deeper than “cocksucker,” which he would have already had flung at him a hundred times over if the word, and the concept of applying it non-literally, had been available to the average “dove” (the time and place’s euphemism for a prostitute, especially one working in “a house of ill fame”).

My character is a woman who will abide by, even insist upon, the strictest observance of the social niceties, unless and until her back is to the wall. At which point she will make the meanest man in the world wish he had just walked on by. The combination of steady hand on the shotgun trigger and “sheep shit son of a bitch” conveyed all of that.

Just where she decided to shoot him, you’ll have to read the book some day to find out.

Just as a coda: Madonna and Trump, in the recent instances cited above, both deployed direct, frontier usage, calling a thing what it is. However, one of Trump’s earlier headline-grabbing “transgressions” was a game of cat and mouse with a female in the audience at one of his early rallies, which ended with first her, then him (quoting her), calling Ted Cruz “a pussy.”

That was pure modernism, no matter how much you think Ted Cruz resembles a vagina.

MY FAVORITE SHANGRI-LAS RECORD…NOT BY THE SHANGRI-LAS (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Without even going into if-you’re-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail mode, it’s not difficult to hear the Shangri-La Effect seeping into the subsequent history of rock and roll. Almost anything that smacks of emotional extremism (especially extremism validated) owes them some sort of debt. That’s why large swathes of metal, punk, gangsta rap et al are hard to imagine without them even if few in those genres ever put as much of themselves at stake as Mary Weiss on an actual record…let alone one record after another.

But I’m actually going to ignore most of that–and most of the straight rips, parodies and inevitable posturing as well. I’m going to stick with the records I think actually lived up to the Shangri-Las ethos, those they might have been proud to call their own. And since even that list could get pretty long, I’ll stick to the very top where even a handful of selections amount to a shadow history of the world mostly hidden in plain sight. As ever, most to mostest:

“Love Child” Diana Ross and the Supremes (1968): A little obvious, but it’s worth noting that even Motown–hip to everything–took nearly half a decade to catch up to the implications of pretty much every song recorded by the group which was hurt most by the absence of Motown style management.

“I’m Eighteen” Alice Cooper (1970): This would have been really liberating for Weiss, who often sang as though she didn’t expect to reach eighteen. This would have needed a transfer from the first person (“he’s eighteen” for “i’m eighteen”). No problem. Weiss was all about empathy. And in case you think the Shangs weren’t adept at gender re-writes, you should check their version of Jay and the Americans’ “She Cried” and remember that Jay Traynor (the first “Jay”) was a much better singer than Alice. Well, except for maybe just this once.

“Wish You Were Here” Pink Floyd (1975): David Gilmour has acknowledged his Shangs’ influence (well, Shadow Morton’s anyway). This was the one record where the debt  turned from visceral to spiritual. I never heard it, oddly, until Fred Durst sang it at the memorial concert for the victims of 9/11. Since then, I’ve never been able to unhear it, or ever wanted to.

“Because the Night” Patti Smith Group (1978): A song Weiss expressed specific regret about (“God I would have loved to sing that song”) when she finally emerged from exile decades later. She heard her own influence–or felt her own hidden presence–even if nobody else did.

“The Coldest Days of My Life” The Chi-Lites (1972): The Shangri-Las were the basic girl group ethos in extremis. Coming from far left field, reaching for the same space, this is the Shangs’ own ethos in extremis.

“Independence Day” Martina McBride (1994): Just in case you thought country Gothic was a horse of a different color.

“Papa Don’t Preach” Madonna (1986): Certainly the greatest Shangs’ tribute record ever made, even if it was never acknowledged as such.Featuring Madonna’s greatest vocal, it even quotes “Give Us Your Blessings” directly. Apropos from the woman who benefited the most from the space the Shangri-Las opened up. Eventually, she turned that space into her own personal joke on the world, something along the lines of “Fooled ya’!” But for a brief, shining moment there, she stood on the highest mountain.

But it wasn’t quite the greatest Shangri-Las’ record not made by the Shangri-Las.

For that, you need to go back to the beginning, the one moment when the direct competition measured up in the moment.

“I’m Nobody’s Baby Now” Reparata and the Delrons (1966)

…Did I mention that summer was here? The summer of our discontent no less. Should be fun!

NEXT UP: My Favorite Truly Obscure B-Side

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Rachel Sweet Up)

“Shadows of the Night”
Rachel Sweet (1981)
Not released as a single. #13 in Billboard for Pat Benetar in 1982
Recommended source: Fool Around: The Best of Rachel Sweet

rachelsweet1

Rachel Sweet was too early and too late. Too late to be a straightforward heir of the Brenda Lee rasp (which, as of the mid-seventies, had been taken over by adults like Stevie Nicks), and too early to catch the wave of teen angel-dom she helped create (of which Tiffany and Debbie Gibson were the prime beneficiaries and formers of the bridge to Britney and Miley and whoever’s hustling the mall crowd right now, working for the day when they, too, are chosen) none of whom could sing like Rachel Sweet.

Her early records on Stiff excited some critics and a hardcore cult, just enough to ensure that a small, fierce, purely informal band would carry on even if she left the biz. I count myself an enthusiastic member.

Later on, she did indeed leave the biz–at least the rock and roll part of it. She grew up, graduated from Columbia (the university), and made a mint writing and producing for television. According to Wikipedia she was eventually worth enough to buy and sell one of Madonna’s houses for some ridiculous sum.

Good for her.

But those of us in the shameless cult still remember what might have been. She flirted with stardom throughout the late seventies and early eighties. Her cover of Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” made the UK top forty. A slightly surreal duet with Rex Smith on “Everlasting Love,” after she signed with Columbia (the record label), did the same in the U.S. She scraped other charts here and there across the western world.

But, on the whole, her records worked best as secrets and the best secret of all was “Shadows of the Night.” Ex-pat Helen Schneider had a big, contemporary hit with her version in Germany and other parts of Europe. That may have been why Sweet’s American label didn’t release her version as a single.

Or maybe they were just stupid.

It took a lot of miscalculation to prevent Sweet from being a star. And, as my dad used to say about certain other inexplicable things, sometimes you have to assume it must have taken a genius, because no ordinary man could have done it.

The stupidity all around was exposed a year later when Pat Benetar had one of the biggest hits of a hit-machine career with a version that was half as good.

I’m glad Rachel got rich. I only wish it had been for the best of reasons and not just one more proof of a world gone sideways.

Stiff Records 1978

IT WAS (UH, OH) THE EIGHTIES. AND THEN (UH, OH) IT WAS THE NINETIES. AND THEN? UH, OH. (Segue of the Day: 6/17/16)

The eighties were the first decade/generation/historical epoch/whatever when America started eating its young. It’s easy to forget now that the decade’s defining pop star (even without necessarily being it’s most successful–that was Michael Jackson) made her best records about the search for identity. Me, I remembered it just today, when this, from 1984, came on the nostalgia station.

It was the last moment when you could get away with that. Now, nobody has an identity. What we each have instead–especially the young–is our “space.” That’s what all those tattoos and body piercings are for. They’re what happens when there’s nothing left to reach for, no identity to dream of that might be connected to anything larger than your own physical dimension. We’ve arrived at an ending that was determined by the matrix of public and private decisions being made when “Borderline” was first on the radio. We went from “there but for the grace of God go I” to “I’ve got mine and if you don’t have yours you must be a sucker” in an eye blink. This isn’t one of those cases where I had to read about it. I was the right age to notice and the right age to remember what I saw.

How it happened–like whether Madonna, the “material girl,” was part of the problem or just offering herself up as a public warning–is a question I’ll have to wrestle with some other time, (like maybe when I list my “ten most important people in the history of rock and roll”).

Today, though, the nostalgia radio followed on with this, from 1993, an assurance that the damage was, by then, already done. Like “Borderline” it now works as both a memory-aid (how fresh our Road to Fail felt back then) and a discomfortingly cold eye cast on the present (how lived-in and blah it feels now). Like “Borderline,” it still cuts if you listen close. Like “Borderline” it cuts inside a much smaller space, the space where I mostly can’t hear you and you mostly can’t hear me. As always, I insist that we can’t say we weren’t warned.

After that, a commercial came on and I switched to another station in time to catch “Summer of ’69” and “Walk of Life,” big nostalgia-driven hits for Bryan Adams and Dire Straits in 1985, already insisting the past I had just missed was better than the present I was living. They weren’t exactly wrong, either. It wasn’t that the past was so great, of course. It’s just that it promised the possibility of something better than any present that arrived, in 1985 or now.

I do want to be clear, though. I had lots of fun singing along in my little personal space, where I also just read that biker gangs are now offering security for Trump events!

Gee, can’t wait til summer comes.

[Note: I let YouTube play after I linked Soul Asylum and it went straight to Bob Dylan’s son singing “One Headlight” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979.” Hah! A fresh segue. Lucky for me I have a rule about not doing more than one a day! Recommended listening though.]

MILEY CYRUS AT THE CROSSROADS, WHERE SHE’S HARDLY ALONE (Memory Lane: 2009, 2006 and Yesterday)

I remember hearing this on the radio exactly once when it came out and thinking: “Jesus, she’s got a chance to be Brenda Lee.”

I wasn’t thinking about record sales (by Billboard‘s count, Lee was the highest  charting and bestselling female vocalist of the 1960s). Once Hannah Montana broke, there was never any question about Cyrus selling records. The new model of fame generates it’s own momentum more reliably than even the previous quite reliable models.

Which meant record sales were a matter of course.

I was thinking, instead, that she could be the next in the straight, firm line that had, sticking only to the dead center, stretched from Jackie DeShannon to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow and, moving just a little outside the center, included nearly every important female rock or country singer for four decades running and produced literally hundreds of great records.

It’s a great, undervalued tradition and when I heard “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” riding around in my car in 2009, I had assumed it was dying out.

That it might be rescued by Hannah Montana brought a smile.

After that brief moment of hope, though, Miley started making “adult” records that were, of course, no better than the records all the other adults make these days. She also started selling a lot of them, pro forma, and I basically lost interest on the basis of my single, unyielding criteria: You don’t make great records, I don’t care about your shtick.

So, frankly, until this week, I assumed Miley had abandoned her talent in favor of the proper Show Biz model for the twenty-first century, as defined by John Lydon and perfected by Madonna and Donald Trump.

Make all your safe moves look like “risks.”

Or, as Hannah Montana would have it…

Understandable enough. I don’t begrudge anybody their success and there’s a reason why the easy road is easy and the tough road is tough.

But then Sheila O’Malley posted this a few days ago…

…and complicated my own easy, comfortable analysis.

I’m not sure about the reigning “let ’em do what they want, haters-gonna-hate” aesthetic either as a social model in general or a usual exception for celebrities who get to ignore the rules anyway. I don’t find the line between what I owe myself and what I owe the world to be quite so stark and I’m a little suspicious of those who do.

And, based on the YouTube surfing I did after I watched Sheila’s video link, I’m not sure Miley Cyrus is all that clear about it either.

The main problem I’ve had with her “in your face” act is that, on her, it has always felt forced and faked, by which I mean even more forced and faked than the usual forced fakery (most recently exemplified by Beyonce’s Super Bowl appearance, where the politics were faked right along with the idea that she can dance any better than oh, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus and produced the usual predictably fake outrage and seriously unfaked legion of yawns).

While it felt like that with David Bowie and Madonna sometimes, too, they were genius record-makers, in charge of every facet of their careers and their personas. And if, say, John Lydon couldn’t say the former, he could at least pretend to the latter long enough and well enough to make it stick as a kind of perverse integrity.

All these years later, it feels like Miley Cyrus, hiding back there somewhere behind the butch haircut and the hilariously (or, depending on your view, pathetically) bad twerking, is still trying to have the best of both worlds. That, for all the attempts to conform, there’s still some part of her that doesn’t quite fit and yearns to breathe free.

I suspect that part is called a singer.

Ten years after Britney Spears came to the same crossroads, she’s a footnote. If Cyrus, a much bigger talent, doesn’t want to be left beside the same highway, she’ll have to make up her mind soon.

I wonder if the choice she makes will say more about her or about us.