MARY WEISS REMEMBERS….

[NOTE: This is an interview that Mary Weiss gave to Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Miriam Linna in 2007 upon their release of Weiss’s first music in forty years. Weiss has not made any records since and the interview disappeared from Norton’s website a couple of years ago, apparently the victim of some serious weather damage to their offices. I’ve noticed that the links I once provided to that interview still draw a fair amount of interest and I’ve tried to contact Norton several times to see if they are ever planning to repost the interview. As I’ve not heard from them, I assume they are either not planning to do so or are seriously backlogged. I’m reposting the interview here because, even sans the cool graphics and trove of wonderful photos (a few of which I tracked down for some relevant passages here), it’s one of the most important interviews ever given by a rock and roll singer. If you’ve followed along on this site for a while, you know how I feel about the Shangri-Las, but, more to the point, you know how I feel about the often ridiculous narratives that were imposed on them–often by the usual well-intentioned sorts paving the usual roads to hell–during Mary’s forty years of silence. By extension, many of those same false narratives were imposed on the entire Girl Group era (another ongoing concern of this blog), and there has never been more de-bunking assembled in one place than this wide-ranging interview. If Norton re-posts this in the future I will re-link to it. If they request me to take this down, I will do so. In the meantime, I’ll post it here in the interests of historical preservation. It needs to be available somewhere. (And, of course, I encourage everyone to consider buying Norton’s products, especially Weiss’s still valuable CD, Dangerous Game, which now seems likely to be the last we will hear from her on record.)]

(MW is Mary Weiss, BM is Billy Miller, ML is Miriam Linna…I’ve retained the original’s sometimes idiosyncratic punctuation, etc.)

MW: Do you want to start with the Shangri stuff?

ML: Let’s start at the very beginning. Where were you born?

MW: Jamaica, Queens, New York. Jamaica hospital.

BM: Wow, me too. Same hospital!

ML: How about some family background?

MW: I grew up in Queens, Cambria Heights. My father died when I was six weeks old. I’m the youngest of three kids. My brother George was eight years older than me. He passed away in 1996. And my sister Liz was in the Shangri-Las with me.

ML: What drew you to the music?

MW: I became interested in music at about four or five years old. When I was a kid, I loved the Ink Spots and then with rock n’ roll, I loved the Everly Brothers and Neil Sedaka. My brother was much older, so I listened to all of the records he had. He was an Elvis freak. There were guys that sang on the street corner in my neighborhood. I would listen to them and I’d sing with them sometimes.

ML: Do you remember when you started singing.

MW: I always sang, as far back as I can remember. I sang in the church choir. I was in every shcool play and sang in all of them.

ML: Did you go to rock n’ roll shows?

MW: The only rock n’ roll show I attended was in grammar school. Our class wen to Freedomland and the Everly Brothers played. They did so much for everybody regarding harmony. By the time I was fifteen, I was always in the studio, so I didn’t get to go to shows at that time. I really didn’t go to concerts until much later.

ML: What were the local hangouts in your neighborhood for teenagers?

MW: It was a place called Ed’s. We all hung out there. There were all these groups of kids–Ed’s group, Bill’s group, Reno’s group, the 225th Street group and we all meet there, four or five groups of neighborhood kids.

ML: Who were you listening to?

MW: We’d listen to Babalu and Cousin Brucie on WABC. When I was a teenager, I bought all my records at Korvettes. They had the best record department and they were cheap.

BM: Great store! They’d print their own charts every week.

ML: How did you meet the Ganser sisters?

MW: I met the twins in grammar school although they went to public school and I went to Catholic school–so much for organized religiou! They lived a few blocks away. We hung out at their house and began singing together there and on the p layground. We all had an interest in music and our voiced blended well. At that time, we were really pursuing our own sond. We all went to Andrew Jackson High School for a while.

ML: Did you call yourselves the Shangri-Las right from the start?

MW: You know we didn’t have a name initially. We were going to make a record and we said “We better get a name–fast!” We were driving on Long Island and saw a restaurant called the Shangri-La. That’s where we got the name.

BM: Were you the lead singer from the start?

MW: Actually, my sister Liz was at first. On the first demo, on “Wishing Well,” that’s Liz. She actually sang both sides (“Hate To Say I Told You So”). She also sang “Shout.” “Wishing Well” was actually our demo and they played around with it and released it.

BM: Spokane Records. That was Artie Ripp, right?

MW: Right. Kama Sutra Productions. That was very short lived.

BM: I love that first record you made, “Simon Says” with the Lonnie Mack type guitar and the Bo Diddley beat.

MW: Liz was the lead singer on that one, too.

BM: You were singing at hops and dances, who was booking you when you started?

MW: Before we went to Red Bird, we had a manager names Tony Michaels.

BM: Now you met George “Shadow” Morton through Bob Lewis, Babalu from WABC.

MW: Right. Bob Lewis. That’s where I met George, at Bob’s apartment. Tony Michaels took us over there so he could hear us sing and get his opinion. George was there, I don’t know why he was there, but that’s how we met him. True story.

ML: In a nutshell, can you describe Shadow for us?

MW: George is one of the most colorful, unique people I’ve ever met in my life. Extremely talented. He used to be very difficult to get into a room at a scheduled time, but a brilliant man.

BM: An amazing producer.

MW: I was with George at some arena show when he met Phil Spector.

BM: Wow! What was that like?

MW: Oil and water! That’s all I can say. I was not happy to be there.

BM: There’s a 45 by a group called the Beatle-Ettes produced by a George Morton…

MW: I know what you’re going to ask and that’s not the Shangri-Las. They say a group called the Bon Bons is the Shangri-Las. That thing is everywhere. I see it all the time and go “Who the hell are they?”

BM: It doesn’t make any sense because you and Shadow pretty much started together.

MW: Right. You got me! I have no idea where people get this stuff.

BM: Did Shadow make any plans for you right away?

MW: No, not until we did the demo for “Remember.” Billy Joel played piano on it. George said he had a phone conversation with Billy years later and Billy said, “You owe me $67. You never paid me scale!”

BM: Was the demo really over seven minutes long like legend has it?

MW: I don’t think it was quite that long, it’s been exaggerated over the years, but it was longer than the actual record. At the time, it was unheard of to extend a record to more than a few minutes. That seemed abnormal to me.

BM: Still, it seems that it would be weird for Shadow to go that far out on a limb his first time out, with so much at stake.

MW: It would.

BM: So the whole reason for making the demo was that George had told Jeff Barry at Red Bird that he was a songwriter even though he’d never written anything before. In your words what transpired to bring all of this about? What exactly was the story?

MW: As far as “Remember (Walkin in the Sand)” goes, I think you should ask George Morton. My involvement with the song was in the studio.

ML: It’s a complex song.

MW: Initially it was done instrumentally and kind of evolved. I like that song a lot.

BM: And you did that at Mirasound in Manhattan?

MW: We did most of them there. We did use Ultra-Sonic sometimes. We did most of our demos there.

BM: My Boy Scout troop went to Ultra-Sonic in 1965 to see a real recording studio. I was really into it until the engineer goes, “You boys should have been here last night. The Shangri-Las were here.” That’s really not the kind of thing to tell a room full of teenage boys if you want them to keep paying attention.

MW: That wasn’t nice. It could have been fun!

BM: Now you tell me! The Shangri-Las first hit at the start of the British Invasion. That’s a mighty tough uphill battle.

MW: Absolutely. Look at the Beach Boys.

ML: When “Remember” hit, you started playing right away….

MW: Right away, yes. The Brooklyn Fox Theatre. I was traveling all the time. When I wasn’t doing that I was in the studio. When I wasn’t doing that I was rehearsing.

ML: Were you still in high school.

MW: I missed out on doing any real high school stuff. I went to professional school where you could leave if you had to tour. It was necessary. When you do television shows when you’re a kid, they put a tutor backstage in the corner with a little book. It’s the law. Kinda strange. Paul Jabara was my closest friend there. He wrote “Last Dance” for Donna Summer. Paul had the greatest sense of humor. I wish he was still around. I miss him to this day. I’d tag along to auditions with him. Once he stood on stage, pulled out his sheet music for the piano player–about ten feet long–and broke into “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” I sat in the back of theatre and was laughing so hard I was crying.

ML: When the Shangri-Las first became successful, did neighborhood friends act differently towards you?

MW: It’s a catch-22. They act differently towards you and meanwhile, you’re still hitting that handball and hanging out, but you don’t fit in anymore. It’s them that’s changed, not you. At the time, you think, “Oh, my God!”

ML: Were the twins like you? Was there a shared Shangri-Las persona?

MW: Mary Ann and Margie were more assertive, actually, as far as their public persona. Both of them were much gruffer than me. They both had great senses of humor. They were pranksters.

BM: What’d they do?

MW: Mostly stupid stuff. Margie added an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to Marvin Gaye’s door and took the ‘s’ off his last name so his door read “Marvin’s Gaye”.

ML: Did the twins have similar personalities?

MW: They were very similar personality-wise. Margie was more aggressive than Mary Ann. When my sister wasn’t in the group and it was just me and the twins, it was like “Hello? What do you mean ‘majority rules’?!” It was very devastating for Margie when Mary Ann died.

BM: Your sister didn’t tour at first, but she still sang on all the records, right?

MW: Yes, the four of us were on the records. Liz is an extremely talented singer. We’ve been through so much together. Liz looked like Bardot when she was young. She still lives near me now and has been happily married for 25 years.

ML: You went straight from playing neighborhood hops to big stages and national TV. Were you terrified?

MW: It didn’t faze me much. Maybe it should have (laughs).

BM: Those Murray the K shows at the Brooklyn Fox must have been brutal.

MW: They were real brutal. From early morning until late at night. Seven sets, back to back. You have a record on the charts–there you are! I did the Cow Palace and I don’t know how many big arenas. Right after “Remember” came out, James Brown hired us to do a Coliseum show in Texas. They had signs put up COLORED GIRLS’ and WHITE GIRLS’ bathrooms and I got in a huge fight with a cop because I used the black women’s bathroom and he drew his gun on me. I was absolutely amazed. This is backstage in a Coliseum and the white bathroom is on the entire other side of the floor. I really had to go and then get onstage!

BM: Is that where the song “What’s a Girl Supposed to Do” got its inspiration.

MW: (laughs) I’ve never seen anything like that. What surprised me more was the other women in the bathroom looking at me with their mouths open. Earlier, when we did the afternoon sound check, James Brown’s mouth fell open! He turned around and looked at me–here’s this little blonde girl. He thought we were black. All the other performers were black and we were very nervous because we didn’t know how the audience was going to respond. It turned out to be a great show!

BM: That’s wild.

MW: We worked with James a few time. I was at his house once. He lived in St. Albans, the next town over from Cambria Heights. He had “JB” on the gate. We were just BS’ing there, basically. I liked him.

BM: There’s a story of you putting Murray the K’s motorcycle on the roof of the Fox.

MW: Come on, Murray didn’t even have a motorcycle.

BM: But you did hit him in the face with a pie onstage at the Fox.

MW: That was long overdue! (laughs) One fun thing we’d do at the Fox, was if there was a really good group onstage, we’d grab a microphone behind the back curtain and there’s be four part harmony going on like a chorus. It was wonderful!

BM: You played a bunch with the Zombies.

MW: They were great guys. Still are. I just saw them play at B.B. King’s. They’re still great! I wish them the best in everything they do.

BM: What other groups did you pal around with?

MW: I didn’t get to pal around with anybody. We were so busy. It was very different then. Now these singers say how rough they have it. They don’t have a clue. Ride in a bus every night. Sleep every other night. See how that feels. People don’t realize how hard it was back then. There were no monitors at the time. Sometimes you were screaming just to hear yourself singing. The Dick Clark Caravans, they were grueling shows. Every other night you’d sleep in a hotel. Sleep on the bus, then you’d have to get up and look perky. It’s exhausting. But, there was one great thing at the end of the Dick Clark tours, because he’d have Caravans going all over the country and we’d all mee in one place and they’d have like a Battle of the Bands type thing with all the stars. Those were cool shows. You’d meet up in one arena, do one big show and then we’d all go home.

BM: Sometimes there were four of you and at various times, Liz, Margie and Mary Ann were off the road…

MW: And I was the one constant member. That was it. There’s lots of BS written about our group. I’ve seen it written that we missed concerts, that the other girls did some shows without me. That’s simply not true. I never missed a single show. I couldn’t take a break. Everyone got exhausted and could take time off. Touring was exhausting. Most of the times when I woke up, I didn’t know what state I was in. Too many buses, too many flights. Touring was a blur.

BM: Red Bird was owned by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner. What were your impressions of them.

MW: We were crazy about George Goldner. In fact, at the end of our first year on Red Bird, we bought George a huge television set, at that time, they didn’t have them that big everywhere. We gave it to him with a big gold plaque on the front as a thank you present. It said, “George Goldner, Thank You, The Shangri-Las”. It was a gesture from us. I don’t think he got enough credit for anything at Red Bird. He was a kid who never grew up. Riding around in a Cadillac with the top down. He was like a very large child. I loved him.

BM: And Leiber and Stoller?

MW: Leiber and Stoller are wonderful people. They brought a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to all their artists. I have a lot of respect for them both, but they didn’t work with us directly. They worked on songs with George Morton, then he worked with us.

BM: “Leader of the Pack” was the second Red Bird record and the biggest one. There really wasn’t a motorcycle in the studio on the session, was there?

MW: I’ve heard that, too.

BM: Yeah, because you hear it roaring away. Where did it go?

MW: Studio B. (laughs)

BM: That guy on the album cover, was he anybody special?

MW: Absolutely not! And he sure didn’t look like any biker I knew!

ML: On the Red Bird recordings, they double-tracked your voice sometimes….

MW: Yes, on a few.

BM: That was quite a team that you had in the studio at Red Bird – (producer) Shadow Morton, (engineer) Brooks Arthur and (arranger) Artie Butler.

MW: Absolutely! I know. You can’t ever give them enough credit. The Shangri-Las was one of Brooksie’s first things. That’s why we’re friends to this day. Brooks Arthur is extremely talented in so many areas. Artie Butler is one of the most brilliant arrangers I’ver ever heard. I love both those guys.

BM: Those sessions were pretty monumental. Would you come in and sing or would you get more involved in the whole process?

MW: Oh, I always stayed there. I stayed for every mixing session.

ML: Even before you had to sing your parts?

MW: Right. I was there for every step.

BM: Would they listen to your input?

MW: Oh, sure.

BM: How much free rein did the group have on vocal arrangements? On something like say, “The Train Fom Kansas City,” that introduction is extraordinary.

MW: OK, on “The Train From Kansas City,” I worked hard with Jeff (Barry) on that. You can hear the flavor to it.

BM: Unmistakably the Shangri-Las.

MW: Our group, I mean even for that time period, the harmonies were unique. The blending of the voices was unique.

BM: Like “Out in the Streets”– flawless record. That’s my absolute favorite Shangri-Las record.

MW: That’s my favorite, too.

BM: Just curious, what would be your five favorite Shangri-Las records?

MW: “Out in the Streets,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” “Past, Present and Future” and “The Train From Kansas City.” I also like the Mercury record “I’ll Never Learn.”

BM: “Out in the Streets” and “Give Us Your Blessings,” you look in the national charts, and they weren’t real huge smash hits, but here in New York, those records were monsters. You heard them everywhere.

MW: Yes, they were biggest here. Definitely.

BM: Did you know that “Out in the Streets” was the last song played on WINS before they switched from rock ‘n’ roll to all news?

MW: Yes, I did. I thought that was quite touching. Very neat. There were a lot of great Djs then. They seemed to be more involved than nowadays where it’s all programmed.

BM: I dig “Heaven Only Knows” a lot.

MW: Really? Why’s that?

BM: I guess when I boutht “Give Us Your Blessings” as a kid and I got a great B-side, it was like getting an extra record.

MW: Oh, I hated it when the B-sides on records stunk. We always wanted both sides to be cool.

BM: Your flips were all killers–“Heaven Only Knows,” “The Train From Kansas City,” “Dressed in Black”…

ML: That deliberate spoken part….

MW: I always thought “Past, Present and Future” was a unique sounding record. And everybody that’s written about it said it was about rape. That was news to me! At the time, you need to remember, people are forgetting about the teenage angst. When somebody breaks your heart, you don’t want anyone near you. Things are very different now. Kids grow up younger and younger.

ML: Right. In the Shangri-Las, you had young voices singing about pretty heavy emotional stuff. It was like “Yeah, that’s how I feel.” You don’t have to relate to adult themes.

MW: When you’re a kid, who hasn’t felt like that? When somebody blows you off or hurts you, it’s very traumatic.

ML: Especially having a girl’s voice saying it. Other girls can relate, like “I have real feelings.”

MW: I thought we all felt like that.

BM: And your approach is so powerful. It sounds like you’re crying by the end of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”

MW: I was crying. That whole sentiment…it’s kinda funny because at the time I really didn’t talk to my mother at all.

BM: Your vocal delivery on “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Past, Present and Future” was very personal, very intimate.

MW: The studio is a very private place. I always thought it should be. Actuall, at one Shangri-Las session, Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. She was pregnant at the time. I was extremely impressed that she came. I would have been very nervous if I had known in advance that she was going to be there. She’s a wonderful talent and a great person.

BM: Who’s that singing the lead vocal on “I’m Blue.”

MW: Mary Ann.

BM: What do you remember about “Right Now and Not Later?”

MW: Not a whole hell of a lot! (laughs)

BM: Were there any songs that the Shangri-Las recorded for Red Bird that never got released?

MW: No.

ML: You must have been excited when your first album came out.

MW: All this stuff is exciting. Don’t get me wrong if you’re not getting that impression. It’s wonderful stuff when you open BILLBOARD and you’ve got two pages. “There it is! All right!!”

ML: Were the Red Bird sessions specifically for singles or did you try a few things and saw what clicked?

MW: One song most of the time, especially the larger sessions like “Remember” or “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.” The strings on that? I love them. Those were huge sessions with the room full of musicians.

BM: When rock videos started appearing, I always thought they could never capture what the Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton put into my imagination. Since I first heard “Remember,” I always pictured it all taking place at Long Beach on Long Island, for some reason.

MW: I did, too. Later, I pictured it in Florida. When we went to England we found, the British spent more time setting up everything as far as television goes. They’re meticulous. I walk in the studio and the entire soundstage was filled with sand and a giant grandfather clock for one song. I just could not believe it. It was beautiful. Dusty was on that show.

BM: Dusty Springfield?

MW: Yes, Dusty is an absolutely amazing talent. The Shangri-Las were in London doing Top of the Pops and Ready! Steady! Go! Dusty was having a very large party in her flat. It started out all civilized, nice French doors and antique desks, but she liked to start food fights. And she started one and I’m hiding under this lovely French desk with her manager and fish and food are flying by! They were actually throwing pies later in the night. So Mary Annd goes to put her boots on and they were filled with fish! Dusty was a kinky girl, but a true talent. But, Mary Ann got even with Dusty. She waited and waited and the next time we were with Dusty at the Brooklyn Fox, Mary Ann put fish in Dusty’s shoes. And that’s called….payback! (laughs)

ML: Yeah!

MW: Dusty also flung crockery at the Fox. There was this place where she bought a ton of cheap crockery. We learned the fine art of throwing plates there. Stand at one end of the corridor and fling it with all your might. It makes a loud crash and gets rid of the stress. Parts of Dusty were very self-destructive, but the other side of her was so much fun. I’ll always think of her fondly, mo matter what anybody writes about her. The world will remember her talent. I’ll always remember her laughter, the fine art of crockery throwing….and her talent!

ML: Your records were pretty notorious right from the start.

MW: Look at “Leader.” It was banned in Britain. What was there to ban?

ML: In England there was a lot of trouble between the Mods and the Rockers. That’s why “Leader of the Pack” was probably banned.

MW: I was so proud. I was a Rocker!

ML: Yeah!

MW: I got off the plane dressed in black leather. They definitely knew where I stood. (laughs)

ML: And what did you make of the Mods?

MW: The Mods were just not home. To each his own. Their lifestyle was…(laughs)…I was never into fashion.

ML: Which is wild because you became such a fashion icon.

MW: I could never picture myself sitting at a runway show, could you?

ML: No, never. But that’s the great thing. You subconsiously started a whole look.

MW: Who cares?

ML: Cool!

BM: I feel like I’m a guest on The View…

ML: But you only went to England, no other countries?

MW: Pretty much. There were a million things booked. I remember sitting in Los Angeles with these Japanese people and they were giving me scripts and things and making plans for us to go there.

ML: But you never did.

MW: Never did. It should have happened but there was just no time.

ML: Did you follow the charts?

MW: The charts thing is a strange position to be in. Once you have a smash hit, the record company is like, “OK, here’s the next one. I feel sorry for artists today. They’re here and gone and hey bring on th next one. I just saw Chrissie Hynde talking about today’s artists and what they face. Nobody gets behind them or develops them anymore. Bring on the next midriff section…

BM: Do you see the Shangri-Las in any act today?

MW: Maybe like the Donnas. I can see our attitude.

ML: Who were your favorites during the Shangri-Las years?

MW: I loved Dusty. The Jefferson Airplane, that might have been a little later, but I remember I first heard them on the way to the Fox Theatre. I saw Jimi Hendrix in the Village before he was famous. My jaw dropped. You know what was a great time? I went to a big party at Andy Warhol’s one day. It was fascinating. He had a huge loft with a deck and umbrellas and the bathroom had a golden throne. Very cool. Ultra Violet was there. Lots of cool people.

BM: There was a Shangri-Las Day at the New York World’s Fair.

MW: How did you know that?

BM: Because I remember being pissed that I didn’t get to go. We were always at the Word’s Fair.

MW: Me, too. I thought it was cool. They had a Monorail with our name on it and we performed.

BM: Mary, even being a star by then, that had to be a big thrill–hometown girls make good….

MW: Oh sure. We loved it. We all did.

BM: The Shangri-Las played at the New York Paramount with the Beatles. Did you meet them?

MW: No, they were on one floor and everybody else was on another. At the Paramount, Margie saved out the window high up so that everyone thought it was the Beatles waving. The crowd went nuts!

BM: When you gals….

MW: You gals? At least you didn’t say Girl Groups.

BM: Sorry Mary. No, I know better than to mention Girl Groups.

MW: Oh, kill me now! Thank you. How do you take an entire sex and dump them into one category? Girl Groups, I mean, please! What if we all had penises?

BM: Uh, that would have seriously affected the crush I had on you as a kid.

ML: People tend to categorize….

MW: Count me out. If Girl Groups were products, what were Boy Groups? (Looking at photo) Ow! You know who did this to my hair? Monti Rock III.

ML: How did Monti Rock end up doing your hair?

MW: He did our hair on that album cover nobody likes on Mercury, where we look Mod. Monti, wherever you are, what were you thinking?

ML: But you look so sultry there, like Veronica Lake.

MW: I look stupid. I didn’t like it at all.

ML: And those boots…

MW: Are you kidding? I’ll tell you what boots I really liked. They buttoned up and they were kid leather. There were like old fashioned 1890’s boots with cool heels. I got those at Saks.

ML: Boots became your signature.

MW: Yes, that’s why I like those outfits on the LEADER album. That was my thing.

ML: Whose suggestion was that?

MW: Nobody’s. That was us. It’s funny because it created such a hoopla, like we were tough, whatever and all it is, is a white shirt, a vest and a pair of black pants.

ML: But the black slacks, slacks at all, you really did something different there. It really defined the Shangri-Las.

MW: Jeans don’t fit on everyone.

BM: Yeah, when you’d see the Supremes on Ed Sullivan, hey’d have evening gowns on, old people’s clothes.

MW: I used to get my slacks on Eighth Street in the Village in a Men’s Store. People would look at me like I was gay because I like low rise pants. I don’t get it, quite frankly.

ML: These outfits were something else. (holds up I CAN NEVER GO HOME ANYMORE album)

MW: Yes, that’s what everyone was wearing ten years later, like Spandex.

ML: Now you couldn’t have bought those in a store. You had to have those made.

MW: Absolutely.

ML: Who designed them?

MW: We did. We just sat and did them ourselves.

ML: You don’t still have your boots, do you?

MW: Do you still have your boots from 1965?

BM: She might….

ML: The Shangri-Las got a lot of magazine coverage, too.

MW: We did a lot of interviews back then. “What do you do in your spare time?” What spare time?

BM: I have a record where the Shangri-Las are being interviewed and you get asked things like, “Do guys on the street really give you a great big kiss?”

MW: (laughs) “Ew, get away from me!”

BM: You hear so many stories about how bad you were….

MW: WHAT ABOUT IT!? (laughs)

ML: There’s stories about you tying up a guy and kidnapping him.

MW: You know, I don’t remember that, but if I did, he deserved it!

BM: And that you had guns….

MW: I did purchase a gun once, a little Derringer. I bought a gun after somebody tried to break into my hotel room. There were these glass panels on the side of the door and all of a sudden I see this arm coming through. Not only was I scared to death, but there were large amounts of money in the room. You’re on the road with no protection. But, I was a little kid. I didn’t know. Back then, you could walk in anywhere and buy a gun. But the FBI came to my mother’s house and said, “Will you please tell your daughter she’ll be arrested if she gets off the plane with her gun?” We just finished a tour in Florida and I turned it in at the police station down there.

BM: Did they get a chaperone for the group at any point?

MW: If you can call an eighteen-year-old a proper chaperone. Maybe nineteen, but that’s as grown up as it got. We had a road manager, Fat Frankie, for a while, then he managed NRBQ following that. That wasn’t much supervision. One of our other road managers was a black belt in karate. Once, there was a car full of drunken guys weaving all over a bridge, waving beer bottles and stuff and it was getting very dangerous. They kept swerving into our car and it was very scary. I was so petrified, my heart was in my throat. It was as if they thought they had the right to do this. They could have killed us all. Louis stopped the car and took them all on. They were flying everywhere, all over the bridge. You had no choice in the matter. It was a dark road with nowhere to go, there were no cell phones then. I’m glad he was there. I could see the headlines now, JIMMY KILLS MARY ON BRIDGE. It was much different than now. It’s very hard to explain. Nothing was organized. It was ‘Here’a list of shows, get on the road.” I was only fifteen.

ML: Now what about the night club scene?

MW: (whispers) I shouldn’t have even been in there. I was fifteen. We’d go in them and hang out, but we were more geared to the teen clubs. But we played the Whiskey A Go Go.

ML: Did the Shangri-Las work with one booking agency?

MW: Different ones. William Morris and others. But, you’d set limitations on them or they’d beat you to death, you’d never be off. You’d have to rehearse and record and do television, too.

BM: The Shangri-Las made so many TV appearances like Shindig and Hullabaloo. Here in New York, I never missed the Clay Cole Show. You seemed to be on it all the time…

MW: All the time. We sure were.

BM: It was almost like, time for Clay Cole, let’s see what’s new by the Shangri-Las.

MW: Clay had us on a lot. That was great! I’d walk in the studio, I knew all the guards by name, they were all nice, reputable people. I really felt at home there.

BM: And The Soupy Sales Show you were on that, too.

MW: I loved Soupy Sales! White Fang and Black Tooth. I loved it!

BM: And Philo Kvetch and Onions Oregano!

MW: Oniions Oregano–yeah, yeah! They had a gazillion White Fangs’ arms becaues the man doing White Fang kept burning it with his cigar! White Fang rules! I’d love to see the old Soupy tape again.

ML: What was it like dealing with mobs of fans?

MW: A lot of times it was very frightening. One time in an aquarium there was no security and I just about had my clothes ripped off. And the fans with pens almost poking your eye out. There was no security then. We were just winging it. When there’s a lot of them and one of you, it gets scary. I was in the Village one time and there was like thirty bikers and they recognized me. Luckily, they were fans and nothing happened.

BM: When Red Bird went out of business in 1966 and you signed to Mercury, how different was it from Red Bird? Did you notice a change?

MW: Definitely. There really wasn’t much support.

BM: Mercury issued two singles and the greatest hits album. The last Shangri-Las single “Take the Time” from 1967 is weird, a pro-Vietnam record.

MW: I never wanted to record that song. I was completely against the Vietnam War and I protested accordingly. Still, the Shangri-Las supported our servicemen and women and I’ve done many shows for them.

ML: The tough appearance of the Shangri-Las, that wasn’t just an image thing, you really were tough.

MW: In certain ways I am. When you’re a kid and you’re on the road and nobody’s got your back, you better be tough. You better act as tough as you can because they’ll devour you. We scared lots of people away, made lots of bands behave and back down. What else are you going to do?

ML: That wasn’t just you. That was your sister and the twins, too?

MW: Absolutely. It was us against the world, really. Miriam, you would have done the same thing. You would. It was better when we had our own band traveling with us. It was more like a family.

ML: One thing that makes the Shangri-Las different than a lot of female acts of the day, was most of them seemed overprotected. And it virtually was always a family member calling the shots.

MW: Can you imagine? Mommy is there to wipe your nose?

ML: You wouldn’t have had a chance to be tough. It’s what makes you who you are.

MW: Absolutely not. And I’d have been a different person if my father hadn’t died. They’re all life experiences. Some good, some bad. It’s the same thing when everybody’s your best friend and then they suddenly go away. That is a very hard lesson in life. Who are your friends? That is tough stuff. I guess in a way I’m tough. I’m a survivor.

BM: Was there a defining moment when the Shangri-Las split up?

MW: Everybody around us was suing each other. Basically to me, the litigation just got so insane and it wasn’t about music anymore.

ML: Did you go back home?

MW: I moved out on my eighteenth birthday. I moved into a hotel in Manhattan, then Gramercy Park and then I moved to San Francisco for a while. It was hard to get into the music business and it was even harder to get out. I couldn’t go near another record company for ten years.

ML: For the next ten years you couldn’t record?

MW: No. It was absolutely insane. And that was also how long I was still recognized in the street, which made it even more difficult. People don’t realize how comfortable it is being Joe Blow, private citizen. Everybody wants to be a star. I never quite got that, honestly.

ML: But singing was what you wanted to do, and when that was no longer an option, it must have been horrifying.

MW: It was. I lost my way.

ML: Ten year sentence, that’s rough

MW: It was real rough.

ML: It seems like you had a positive feeling and then to have it come crashing down…

MW: Yes and no. I could have pursued it further but how much deeper do you want to get into legal nonsense? At some point you just have to cut it off. I always thought that someday I’d go back to music, I just didn’t know when.

ML: Were you being pigeon holed or typecast? Did you want to do other types of music?

MW: Afterwards? Absolutely. I could have sung lots of stuff. I was always the one who pursued things here and there and I went up to a publisher, but disco was popular and they wanted me to put a gardenia in my hair and ….(dances)

BM: At least you don’t have bad disco albums coming back to haunt you. If you had to pick one song, a post Shangri-Las song by somebody else, to tackle, what would it be?

MW: I love Patti Smith. I always wish I had recorded “Because the Night.” What a great freakin’ song.

BM: The Shangri-Las got back together in 1977 and recorded for Seymour Stein at Sire Records. Seymour worked with the Shangri-Las in the sixties, right?

MW: Seymour was our road manager for a short period of time. Margie was a complete prankster and I don’t think Seymour got it. Kids will be kids. I think the fireworks didn’t set well with him. When we were touring and we were in states that sold fireworks, we always bought them and set them off.

BM: Teenage girls with explosives, what’s not to like?

ML: But nothing you recorded with Sire was ever released. Why was that?

MW: I was very grateful to Seymour years later for giving us a shot with Sire, but it wasn’t there, material-wise. I don’t want anything released that I don’t believe in. It just wasn’t there. I wish (Richard) Gottehrer had been brought in. It just wasn’t right. I welcomed the opportunity from Seymour Stein, but it just didn’t work out. We recorded a few things, but it wasn’t happening.

BM: Did Liz and Margie feel the same way?

MW: Yes, we all did.

BM: But the Shangri-Las did one unannounced show at CBGB at the time.

MW: That was cool! It was impromptu. We just walked in and had fun.

BM: Why didn’t you do more shows like that?

MW: I didn’t want to do old stuff. I could have done that for thirty years.

ML: The Shangri-Las accomplished a lot.

MW: I come from an extremely poor family. The Gansers were relatively poor. Nobody had any money. No money for attorneys. So considering where the four of us came from, with no support, no guidance and nothing behind us, we didn’t have proper outfits onstage. I mean nothing. It’s a miracle in itself to come from those circumstances and have hit records, so I’m very grateful.

ML: So where have you been?

MW: I went to work for an architectural firm and I was seriously into it. Then I got into commercial interiors, huge projects, buildings. Then we hit a point in our lives where you go, “What am I doing?” I knew where I feel at home and I’ve never felt more at home that with music. Either I’m gonna do it or not.

ML: Cool! Welcome back.

MW: Thanks, it’s been way too long. I look forward to recording and my future in music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll.

ME AND DYLAN GET TOGETHER…COSMICALLY SPEAKING (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #41)

Back in 2009, on the occasion of Mary Travers’ passing, I wrote an obit for her where I argued, among other things, for her (and her group’s) singular importance in the history of folk music and especially, topical protest music.

One significant piece of the argument, rarely acknowledged by others anywhere, ever, was PP&M’s now taken-for-granted ability to put the radical young Bob Dylan high on the charts a full two years before the “folk rock” boom and to do so specifically with one of his protest songs…which was relevant to the Civil Rights movement in that year’s headlines and also to the escalation of the Viet Nam war, still two years away. Unspoken in all that, was the notion that not even the rise of Bob Dylan was inevitable.

I’m sure others have made this point, but, if so, I’ve never actually heard or read about it. So I’m especially happy to note that, as of now, I know of at least one other person who agrees with me.

I feel like this is pretty good company.

On Peter, Paul & Mary’s early hit version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

“I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing, but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group. They took a song of mine that hadn’t been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.”

(Bob Dylan, on the occasion of his accepting an award from MusiCares: L.A. Times, Feb. 7, 2015)

Lengthy excerpts of the speech can be found here. Highly recommended reading. And listening, of course….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE NOT QUITE EXPLICABLE MAN (Pete Seeger, R.I.P.)

God knows there was much to answer for.

It took him decades to renounce Stalinism even in the most tepid terms (which meant that for a very long time there, twenty million corpses just proved Stalin was a hard-ass doing a little necessary herd-thinning). The odds that he flat-out stole the wildly profitable copyright on “Wimoweh” (later turned into the even more wildly profitable “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) from an obscure African songwriter are way better than even. And he could no more avoid carrying in his very bones the air of insufferable priggishness that has done far more damage to modern liberalism than Rush Limbaugh ever could than a Model T can motor down the road without an engine.

I certainly never could tell whether he actually regretted anything, mostly because he so rarely said he did unless it was a tad convenient.

In my world none of that matters.

As the great philosopher Mattie Ross liked to say: “Who knows what’s in a man’s heart?”

Every real or imagined wrong thing is cancelled for me because he was at the root of one particular record, which (not the least bit ironically) was rising on the charts the week the brass sent Hal Moore’s Seventh Cavalry Regiment to the central highlands of South Viet Nam–where, in the first full-on engagement of the Viet Nam war, the Seventh won one of the hardest fought and most improbable victories in the history of the American military–then pulled them out and left the ground to the enemy, thereby announcing our political leadership’s commitment to waging that particular new kind of war which guarantees the permanent absence of both peace and honor (and the permanent gnashing of teeth among the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve who are still blaming the hippies for an on-going state of affairs which hippies had very little effect on even when there actually were hippies, the better to avoid their own failures of principle).

This particular record hit #1 two weeks later and has never been off the radio since.

You can hear it now as hope always being in the ashes or the end always being in the beginning. A promise of the better world waiting or a warning that we will never get there.

Take your pick.

Either way, it’s my favorite record and my pick for the greatest record ever made (by my pick for the greatest band that ever was). And, on the day Pete Seeger died, I’ll just say it’s a time to remember and celebrate the best of him…and to thank him:

For good measure (and lest we forget that he sometimes had good reasons to be stubborn in his convictions), here’s Mary Travers, virtually single-handedly bringing Seeger back to relevance after a decade on the McCarthy-era blacklist (and taking the Civil Rights movement to white suburban places where Martin Luther King, sadly, wasn’t likely to get a word in edgewise):

And, of course, we should not forget the roots of the tree:

 

 

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION? (Vocalist of the Month–Mary Travers RIP Redux)

[NOTE: As usual, things are goin’ on, so I’m a little late with my Vocalist of the Month for May. I intended it to be Jerry Butler and I got most of the piece written, but I’m still an organized thought or two away from finishing it, so I’m going to cheat a little and use this as an excuse to post my obituary for Mary Travers, which Rock and Rap Confidential was kind enough to distribute on the net in the wake of her passing. The piece has been slightly modified to sharpen a phrase or two but, from where I stand, what I said then, regarding either Mary or the world, isn’t any less true now–except that the “draconian powers” I mention below have indeed been “assumed” by Democrats and Republicans alike, and it will almost certainly take a replay of the sixties, which we are almost certainly not up for, to assume them back. Goodbye us.]

In the days leading up to the Iraq war nothing made that modern media invention–the conscience-stricken hawk–quite as queasy as the spectre of the “Peter, Paul and Mary liberal” turning the new adventure into “another Viet Nam.”

That kind of insight was, of course, less than brilliant on infinite levels, but there was some justice in the basic underlying unease: the special relationship between music and politics that’s now called to mind by the catch-all phrase “the sixties” was not, after all, just some weird accident.

The stark, unsettling contradictions that boiled to the surface in that generation have been wallowing in the American psyche since the beginning and are with us still, while the notion that musicians and other artists should confront them is, if not quite that old, at least far, far older than the recording industry.

By contrast, a reality where this very confrontation could produce gold records–and the powerful, insidious, ear-worm relevance in modern American life that this generally implies–was entirely modern and called forth very specifically by three earnest folkies who, as if to prove history really does have a sense of humor, were assembled by a quasi-corporate process not all that different from the ones that later produced the Monkees and the Back Street Boys.

Partly for those reasons, the group was something of a punching bag among the hipper-than-thou left–particularly that part of it which gave up on the dream long before Peter, Paul or Mary did–even before their massive success began to haunt bigots and mad bombers alike.

At least some of that was envy, but for art to work as politics the art has to come first and P,P&M had two elements of genius. The first was the magical “other” that is created when the members of any great harmony group blend their voices.

The second was Mary Travers.

It was Travers who gave the group’s sleek sound the gravitas it needed to become a dividing line and a cultural force that went far beyond selling records. A lot of what Peter, Paul and Mary did–children’s songs, stale stage-patter, tiresome renditions of “true” folk songs by way of Merry Olde England–was innocuous or worse and can safely be consigned to the nostalgia bin if not the dust bin.

What’s left are a number of fine performances that include a couple of dozen diamond-pure sides that did what art very, very rarely does–changed things.

Nearly every one of those sides featured Mary Travers as either lead or de facto soloist.

It was her voice that put Bob Dylan on the charts for the first time (not scraping the charts, incidentally, but “Blowin’ In The Wind” all the way to #2); her voice that brought Pete Seeger back to the top ten after nearly a decade in blacklisted exile–not with Weavers-style balladry but with a political anthem; her voice wailing on the key line in Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” that makes it sound even now like something college kids really would call forth as naturally as breathing when they were being beaten with night-sticks and tossed into paddy wagons at the “liberal” Democratic Convention in 1968.

The paraphrased poetry of “the whole world is watching” was Dylan’s but it was almost certainly Travers who Middle America heard when the fragment echoed across evening news newscasts or turned up in quotes in the morning newspapers, just as it was effectively Travers, almost alone, who first put “protest” music into the proverbial million living rooms where Martin Luther King might as well have been the antichrist.

It wasn’t for nothing that Civil Rights paragon Ossie Davis–as righteous a defender as African-American culture will ever have–called her white-bread folk group “the movement set to music.”

All of that would make her one of the most important voices of the century but she could be even better.

“500 Miles” was recorded in 1962 and, with the tumult still largely in front of her, Travers used that completely artificial confection as a vehicle for collapsing time. Standing on the cusp of a cultural earthquake that would not have been entirely possible without her, she made a commercial folk song sound as if it had always existed and always would, as if everything that was about to happen had already been and gone and she was the only one left to speak of it. Much like the sixties themselves, her version can make you smile behind the eyes or rip your heart out–can be steeped in as much hope or damnation as a listener chooses.

And where “500 Miles” was a pure abstraction–a reach for something that could be grasped but not quite held–“Leaving on a Jet Plane” was utterly prosaic. Travers simply took John Denver’s best song–a fine, if conventional take on that most jealously guarded male prerogative, i.e., the freedom to come and go and have the little woman wait for you to make up your mind–and turned it inside out.

What was left was possibly the strangest hit record of the entire rock and roll era. At once thoroughly radical and profoundly reassuring, recorded just as the women’s movement was taking off, it made no grand statements in the manner of “Respect” or “I Am Woman,” or even “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” but instead simply took for granted everything genuinely useful such a movement might achieve (all the more remarkable since Travers had recorded it in 1966–the same year as the brassy “Boots” and well before the others. Where others proclaimed, Travers simply made the most powerful assumption of all. That the right to make the most profound decisions in a relationship was no more than her–or anyone’s–just due. She called special attention to nothing–and missed nothing. The freedom and attendant responsibility that lay behind her bold assumptions got exactly the weight they deserved and no more, lessons that have been missed by generations of male rock critics and elite “feminist” scholars alike, but were likely not lost on the wave of female singer-songwriters (Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, et al) who were about to leave their own deep mark.

It was perhaps appropriate for “Jet Plane” to hit number one in the last month of a decade synonymous with tumult. It seems at least possible that after a deluge of assassination and war and riot, the culture simply took that highly symbolic occasion to draw a deep breath and reach back for some sense of itself, for some reminder of the bedrock that would be waiting when the brick and mortar stopped flying. If cultures can do such things–and if ours did such a thing at that moment–it is both supremely ironic and completely unsurprising that it was Travers’ voice (on a by then three-year-old album track) we reached for.

The critic Ralph Gleason once famously called Peter, Paul and Mary “two rabbis and a hooker,” and to be honest that’s one of the funniest things any critic has ever said. But the real joke is that it was the hooker–not the rabbis or the critic–who turned out to have the biblical voice.

Before her, the great voices of American protest music remained in the underground or on the sidelines. Before her, if a “folk” group had a really big hit it was “Good Night Irene” or “Tom Dooley” or, “Michael” (as in row the boat gently and safely ashore). Before her, if Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” it could scrape the charts for a week before being banned (and effectively ending the singer’s substantial career as a hit-maker). Before her, there was no way Woody Guthrie singing “Deportee” or Louis Armstrong singing “Black and Blue” or, for that matter, Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ In The Wind,” could get anywhere near a chart.

After her, there was no way “Turn, Turn, Turn,” or “For What It’s Worth,” or “Fortunate Son,” or “Ohio,” or “A Change Is Gonna’ Come” or “Born In the U.S.A.” or “The World Is a Ghetto,” or “What’s Going On” or “Fight the Power” could miss.

As we head into an age when the party of “limited” government (which, laughably, still goes by the name Republican) has laid the groundwork for an assumption of draconian federal powers which the old House Un-American Activities Committee that hounded Pete Seeger would never have dreamed possible, the American music charts are, in most ways, as free of pointed, topical relevance as they were in 1961 and every year prior. These days even so-called “hardcore” rappers and punks confine their protests to their albums. Few others bother with even that much.

I’d like to think that the moment is always right for some new version of Mary Travers to stick a fingernail in the side of today’s newer, tougher version of plastic culture and slit a seam that will allow for a new blast of fresh air.

I’ll keep on hoping for it, but I won’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, be holding my breath.

Truth is, the blonde chick in Peter, Paul and Mary has gone to her reward and I have a funny feeling they only made one of her.

Mary Travers “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (Live on Television, 1982 Kingston Trio and Friends Reunion Special)

 

SEGUE OF THE DAY (12/22/12)

Kingston Trio/Kingston Trio

My riding around music this week is the Trio’s four-disc box set The Capitol Years. Newly acquired. Lots I haven’t heard. Promises to be bottomless. (God forbid I should ever be able to afford the Bear Family boxes!)

And, hey, after a Friday-night-into-Saturday-morning when the channels I usually surf were bouncing back and forth between mourning the slaughtered innocents in Newtown, replays of the NRA’s principal spokesman advocating for an even more massive police state than the one we already have to “proctect” us (all in the name of preserving individual liberty of course) and Quentin Tarantino stuttering about his new movie (which I gather is going to finally explain slavery in such a way that we’ll all have to stop feeling good about it–at least I think that’s what he was trying to say)–that is, between variations on the unbearable and the merely vile–I needed something bottomless!

So mostly I was just smiling and humming along, going about my errands today.

Then, in the middle of Disc 3, I hit the new-to-me “Jesse James,” which begins with a recitation that insists if you spent your childhood “foraging” for rutabagas and roots, you’d be mean, too, and ends with the priceless aside “Killing 19 people doesn’t make a boy all bad,” delivered with the kind of cheery aplomb Randy Newman and Warren Zevon could only dream about in later days.

Then it dropped straight into the long-remembered chords of their version of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” Pete Seeger’s prophecy of the Viet Nam Syndrome (released months before the first Kennedy assassination and thus years before we thought of Viet Nam as a war, decades before we thought of it as a Syndrome and half a century before we realized-without-necessarily-admitting its incurability) which has the kind of mournful aplomb only folkies ever really master.

And when the song played on, I was reminded that this was the one time they mastered mournfulness to such a degree that even Mary Travers couldn’t compete.

Merry Christmas, America, it seemed to say.

If you haven’t shaken it off by now, you never will!

Boy, do I find odd ways of cheering myself up….

The Kingston Trio “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” (Video)