THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Summer 2017, Countdown)

10) Stevie Wonder Talking Book (1972)

Primo Stevie and a high point of both his career and the Rising. Highlights are many, including “Superstition,” a valid entry in the Greatest Record Ever Made sweepstakes.

And, at this distance, even its mellow, meandering cuts talk louder than they did in the seventies, when Hope was still a prime ingredient and Anger was still righteous. And, of course, it still goes out on the smiling note of “I Believe,” a side which has me thinking about my Favorite Album Closer.

But what speaks loudest today is “Big Brother,” which still says I don’t even have to do nothing to you, you’ll cause your own country to fall, after he’s already told you why.

9) Patty Loveless (1986)

Patty’s eponymous debut. It was basically a collection of mid-charting singles and their B-sides from the early days when Nashville wasn’t quite sure what to do with or make of her.

If it were all there was, it would be remarkable enough to make you wonder why she didn’t quite make it. Sort of like wondering why Kelly Willis or Mandy Barnett or Shelby Lynne didn’t quite make it. As is, it’s still a fine entry. No weak cuts (she didn’t know how to make weak cuts), though only a hint, albeit a strong one, of why she would not end up being cast aside. As usual the simplest explanation is the best. She was Patty Loveless and they weren’t.

8) Glen Campbell The Capitol Years 65-77 (1998)

Just a reminder of how good he was and for how long….and how many directions his career could have gone. His last big hit was from Allen Touissant after all. “Galveston” (reportedly Glen’s own favorite) hits especially close to home these days, when it is clear some poor schlub will always be cleaning his gun until the Empire collapses.

And the “Rhinestone Cowboy”/”Country Boy” one-two punch will always be a knockout.

But he really could have been a Beach Boy, too…Or a folk rock stalwart.

Or both.

7) Free Molten Gold: The Anthology (1993)

A superb two-disc comp that doesn’t quit and showcases Paul Rodgers at his best. For me, this hits the just-right sweet spot between the populist (think Rodgers’ next group, Bad Company, who I still love) and arty approaches (think John Mayall or even Mike Bloomfield, who I also love) to white blues that proliferated in the “molten” decade between 1965-75. This, I could listen to all day, because everything is in place, but nothing feels forced.

And, just when you think all they/he can do is stomp, he/they pull back just a touch…and the sun shines through something other than a  pair of legs in a short dress.

6) The Cars Just What I Needed: Anthology (1995)

Grand overview of history’s most successful Power Pop band (unless Blondie counts). Yes, they go down easier at album length and easier still at single length. And yes, you could argue they never really broke, or needed to break, the mold of their early singles.

But there were an awful lot of great singles in there and it’s nice to have them all in one place so you can just let them roll over you.

How you have a two-disc comp, though–one complete with outtakes, B-sides and previously unissueds which don’t even come close to breaking the momentum–and leave off “Bye Bye Love,” one of their greatest and still in regular rotation on Classic Rock radio, I’ll never know.

5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

The greatest album of 1983…or 1984 (when its five hit singles were all over the radio), or the entire 80s…turns out to be the greatest album of 2017, too. I’m thinking of doing a longish piece on either the album or one of the individual cuts so I won’t go on at length here. Suffice to say this was the last time anyone–including Cyndi–was both willing and able to pull off a vision that incorporated nearly everything rock and roll had been up to that point (including Byrds’ guitar, which I finally heard tolling under the maelstrom of “Money Changes Everything” just the other day. (Live link…if you only click on one, etc….no Byrds guitar, just a reminder that she was the era’s greatest live performer, too.)

Then, it was possible to hear it as a direction the future might take. Now, it sounds more like rage against the dying of the light. And anyone who thinks it quits on what used to be the second side just hasn’t been paying attention all these years.

4) Johnny Rivers Secret Agent Man: The Ultimate Johnny Rivers Anthology (2006)

Well, there’s definitely an “anthology” theme developing here (don’t worry, it’s not done yet).

This was released fifteen years after Johnny’s Rhino two-discer and, as such, includes generous helpings from his later rockabilly throwback albums.

It seems Johnny was always throwing back to something–he broke out with a Chuck Berry cover in the teeth of the British Invasion, after all, when everybody else was just playing lip service (that’s what an album track amounted to in those days). But across four decades he never failed to add those things that came only from him. The plaintive timbre (never parlayed more effectively than on his jumping “live” cuts). The sharp-edged, no-nonsense guitar lines (ditto). The sense that time keeps turning back on itself, never resting. Not sure how anyone could listen to this all the way through to “Let It Rock” and argue that he doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then life is full of mysteries.

3) The Spinners A One of a Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (1991)

The Spinners are one of the few acts who have been blessed with great comps at every level. Their 1978 Best of is as essential as anything Rock and Roll America produced. Their 2003 box set, The Chrome Collection, contains revelations galore (one of which I wrote about here). And this, a two-disc tweener, is perfect in its own way, since, unlike the other comps, it includes a lot of 12-inch versions of their hits, all of which sustain and satisfy because Philippe Wynne was the greatest improv vocalist to ever stand in front of a microphone (and no, I haven’t forgotten Louis Armstrong).

They made great albums, too. How could they not? They were the greatest vocal group of the 70s, and in the conversation with the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Everlys and the Mamas & the Papas, as the greatest vocal group of the rock and roll era. There’s no way even a box set could fully contain them. But if there were only going to be one Spinners’ comp in the world, I’d have to pick this one, which catches the aspirational aspects of Black America–the still radical notion that black people belong here–like nothing else.

2) Rod Stewart Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings  (2002)

Staggering. 3 discs containing Stewart’s first five solo albums (plus an album’s worth of mostly killer extras–only “Pinball Wizard,” which must have seemed a natural for him, falls flat).

These are the records that made the reputation he has lived on ever since, and, however unfortunate his life and legacy became afterwards, they’re plenty enough to justify four decades of self-indulgent posing and/or epic laziness (take your pick). Everything that stands between you and his decades of excrescence still disappears the minute he pivots in the middle of “Street Fighting Man,” which led his first album, and turns it from a straight country blues (some kind of attempt to reclaim both its musical and political origins) and shows he hasn’t forgot what he learned hanging out in the London Blooz scene….which was how to stomp.

Over these five albums, he never forgot. Over the few years left of the seventies, he mostly forgot.

After that, he permanently forgot.

These are still here.

There is much to forgive, Rod.

I forgive.

1) Burning Spear Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost (1975/76)

This natural pairing of Winston Rodney’s classic reggae albums (more high points of the Rising, arriving just as it became the Falling) is probaly now the natural way to listen…the vocal version of his celebration of the black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, flowing into the dub version.

Strangely enough, the music is stronger on the original album, where the strident lyrics/vocals sometimes serve as a distraction from what the music would say if the singer could only manage to get out of the way. Garvey’s Ghost, instead of drawing those unspoken (perhaps unspeakable–that might be the singer’s insurmountable problem) truths to the surface they bury them deeper. The dread dissipates and a kind of epic Jamaican make-out album emerges.

Was that the point? Was that the most subversive claiming of the New World’s space a Rastaman could envision? Or did I just dream it?

Sorry, I think I need to get back to listening now.

Til next time…

ON THE ROAD WITH VAN MORRISON AND OTHERS…INCLUDING MOST ESPECIALLY ME, MYSELF AND I

Van Morrison
It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1973)

So I go on the road, I drive, I get to listen close…Six hours to the airport (where I fly nonstop to North Dakota so I still save a few hours in the end by avoiding layovers).

The plane leaves at 7:00 a.m. so I leave the house before midnight.

On the way down, I listen to The Basement Tapes (which I’ve just got cranking when the local constabulary pulls me to tell me my tag light’s out, thank you very much!), Timi Yuro’s Complete Liberty Singles (worthy of its own post…how do we so easily forget Timi Yuro?), The Trouble With the Truth (one of several Patty Loveless albums I’m always convinced is her very best whenever I’m listening to it) and close with the real killer, Don Gibson’s A Legend in My Time (a superbly chosen Bear Family disc from his classic period), which I never have time to really focus on when I’m at home.

Twelve days later, I return in the rain. It’s one of those Florida rains which I know is not worth waiting out (for one thing, I’ll be asleep in the airport by then…it’s been a lo-n-n-n-n-g-g-g twelve days). So I hike to my car in the rain (it’s one of those ariports where, if you’ve parked a car, it’s a hike), get my shirt soaking wet, decide I might as well wait until I stop for gas to change it (by which time it will be dry enough not to bother….no matter how often I fly from this airport, I always forget how far it is to a gas station…or food!). Don Gibson is still in the CD player, so I listen again….

…and it’s still awe-inspiring. There’s nothing quite like hearing an hour’s worth of Don Gibson while you’re driving in a welcome-back-to-Florida rain.

And then, to tell the truth, I pull Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now for no better reason than because it’s sitting on top of the stack.

I only threw it in the box because I’ve had my new CD version sitting around the house for months, meaning to give it the listen I never quite gave it when I bought it cheap and used on vinyl twenty years back.That’s another thing driving trips are good for–catching up on stuff you don’t have proper time for when your life is gathered around you at home, where dishes need to be washed, the blog needs keeping up, the paycheck has to be earned, the book wants a polish.

Starts off fine. I have the usual reaction I have when I haven’t listened to Van in a while. He’s great, but nobody could be as great as Van is when I’m only listening in my mind, so I’m soon wondering if he’s merely great, and maybe not, you know, transcendent.

That’ gets me all the way to this…the ninth track on the first disc…

…and about halfway through it, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I  start thinking, no, it’s not possible to overestimate Van Morrison, even when he’s just being the crowd-pleaser his legend suggests he could never just be.

Of course, it could be that this is just the first song I know well enough to sing along–which means I can start edging towards ecstasy, especially if I’m driving along in the the still steady drizzling welcome-back-to-Florida rain.

Then he switches to Muddy Waters…

…and gets inside him, sneaky little bastard. Muddy Waters as lounge music that’s deeper and fleeter than the original and which, since I haven’t quite comprehended whether this first disc is supposed the be the entire original album (it’s not), may be closing the original concept down. It feels like it could do that. Driving along in the rain, it feels like it could close down the World…or the State of Florida at least.

But it’s just a set up. I’ve got the second disc cued up and, though I can’t tell if it’s bonus material or not (it isn’t), it doesn’t matter, because he jumps straight into Sam Cooke, who knew a thing or two about Vegas-ing the Blues himself. No more than Van, certainly…

…but maybe no  less. Either way, Van’s off into the mystic so to speak, because he jumps from there to “St. Dominic’s Preview,” which it takes me a while to recognize, by which time my mind has split in two and I’m doing some sort of mental dissertation on White Boys diving into the Blues and hearing snatches of Mick Jagger’s negotiations with Satan, circa 1974, about the time Satan started cashing Mick’s checks and draining his bank account and while most of the conversation drifted by, what with the rain and the Yes-Sir-Van-is-All-That singing going on, it did keep my mind running in Fake Stereo for fifteen minutes or so while Van got all the way to end of his personal Magnum Opus, “Listen to the Lion” which can never be added to on stage because he took the recorded version as far as anything can be taken.

And I figured that was probably that.

The rain had stopped by then. The sun was coming out, and Van went straight back into his crowd-pleasingist, crowd-pleasing mode, and we all know what that means….Time for a little THEM…

Starting with this…

which makes me wonder if he’s trying to steal it back from Lulu…

…who stole it from him in the Them days (she got it out first, they had the big hit, and somewhere deep down inside I think, listening to It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Van knows she found something to be afraid of in the night he was busy owning it…and still trying to own all those years later).

After which, of course, it’s on to the one he’ll never get away from…and which no one will ever beat him on…or find anything in that he didn’t find the first time…

And you’d think this would bring my poor ragged mind back to a single track, especially since I’m clapping, driving and singing at the same time.

Hey, don’t worry, no more rain, no problem. I’m VERY experienced at this.

But while I’m doing that, I also start conducting an (imaginary–I ain’t crazy you know) interview with Jimmy Page, where I ask if he minds focusing on his early session-man days (among which a number of Them tracks, and Lulu’s version of “Here Comes the Night” are rumored to be highlights…or maybe it isn’t rumored anymore and it’s either been confirmed or debunked by now, but in my mind I’m assuming young James did indeed play on some Them sessions and Lulu sessions, and he doesn’t seem to want to shatter any illusions).

But, instead of asking him about Van Morrison and Them, or even Lulu, I find myself asking if this was as much fun as it sounds like…

….and his imaginary face lights up for the first time, loses it’s professional cool. “Tried to throw her off with that discordant bit in the bridge,” he says. “Silly me…Gave me some ideas for later though.”

Wow. Heavy.

I might have pursued the conversation further…I WOULD have pursued it further. Nothing could have kept me from it.

Except maybe this.

The sun was shining bright by then. I was somewhere near Ocala. Still three hours from home, but the past is behind me and Van Morrison is speaking in tongues.

I’m whole again. My mind’s all put back together.

Welcome home.

SOME THOUGHTS ON A LIST…

I’m still recovering from the trip…And still being reminded I ain’t as young as I used to be. But I did want to comment on Rolling Stone‘s new list of the 100 Greatest Country Artists. It’s not the worst of its kind I’ve seen, not even the worst provided by Rolling Stone. You can read their own explanation for why they left off Elvis (who would be in the top ten of any real list). They don’t need to explain why they left off Brenda Lee and Linda Ronstadt and the Everly Brothers (had to make room for Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, among others). Or why they think Garth Brooks is “greater” than Lefty Frizzell (a judgment that will be considered at the level of a “what were they thinking” Communist plot when they update the list a generation hence).

But at least Patty Loveless made the list. Heck, she even came in three spots ahead of Taylor Swift, for which I imagine David Cantwell, who wrote Patty’s entry and is one of the few people on the selection committee who demonstrably knows anything about country music, can be thanked.

Why she’s fifty-two spots below Shania Twain, on a list that includes the words “Greatest,” “Country” and “Artists” in its title?

Well, there’s no explaining that. So I’ll just dedicate a song…from Patty to the rest of the selection committee:

 

BACK HOME (Segue of the Day: 6/16/17)

I touched back down in Florida this afternoon and, near the end of my six hour, post flight, drive home from the airport, I had run through my personal programming (about which more later if I can find the time and energy…there was a lot of free associating to a soundtrack of Van Morrison involved), I started trying to find my regular radio stations (which invariably get switched around when I drive as long as six hours).

Before I found my usuals, I was stopped by this…

which told me I was listening to a station specializing in country’s back pages…which told me I was back in the South…and which was followed by this, which I had somehow never heard….

…and which, as I listened close, trying to figure out how I missed it, reminded me that the only thing that kept Martina McBride from being both the best and bravest country singer of the last quarter century was the existence of Patty Loveless….who might have sounded perfect if she had come next, but probably not as perfect as what actually did, which was this…

…which brought home very close, and reminded me that North Dakota, from whence I had just returned from two weeks of, among other things, eating in an old-fashioned diner where the owner keeps the Statlers in heavy rotation, probably has stations that play combinations like this.

But I bet they don’t close with this…

….just as the station passes out of range.

Pretty sure that only happens here.

(NOTE: I’ll be answering any outstanding emails or comments in the next day or so, once I catch up on my sleep.)

 

MEET THE HOST….

Commenter abqchris expressed an interest in some of my autobiographical links. Since I seem to have picked up a new round of viewers the past few months and multiple links don’t always work from the comments section I thought it might be a good idea to just collect them in a post. Once or twice a year I’ve opened myself up a bit on here. These are the longish posts where I’ve gotten the most “personal.”

Me and the Shangri-Las (also the blog’s inaugural post)…

Me and Elvis

Me and Patty Loveless…

Me and “Then Came You”

Me and Alex Chilton…

Me and Brian Wilson…

Me and “(He’s) The Great Imposter”…

Me and my Favorite Rock Critic…

And, for good measure, the post that probably comes closest to explaining my World View….

Here’s hoping some of my experiences will resonate with some of yours.

And, please, take your time. Five years go by and all of a sudden it adds up to a damn book!

OKAY, I’LL PLAY…

I don’t want to make a habit of this. I prefer to generate my own ideas/content. But the more I thought about this, the more the challenge/absurdity made me smile….So, again from one of those memes that’s going around…(tried to link live versions where available.)

The 30 Day Song Challenge…(I think the idea is to name the first song you love that comes to mind. Anyway that’s the spirit I’m taking.)

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring, 2017 Countdown)

10) Various Artists What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves 1967-1977 (2006)

Deep, yes. But also wider than any but the experienced might suspect before diving in and stroking for the far shore. “Soul Finger” and Aretha’s “Rock Steady” are among the few crossover hits. Big names like Curtis Mayfield and Earth, Wind and Fire, or those like Charles Wright, Lulu, Clarence Carter, Rufus Thomas, Dr. John, who might at least be familiar to fans of the period, are not represented by their best known hits. Most of the rest is really obscure (or was, until this was released as one of Rhino’s last great boxes in 2006).

At four discs, five hours and 91 cuts, this never even comes close to quitting. What might catch the uninitiated by surprise, in a hardcore funk collection, is the range of tempos.Plenty of fast stuff, sure. But who would deny this, where Patti Labelle sings “if I ever lose my BIG mouth, I won’t have to talk anymore” and you can feel the distance between the white man (then called Cat Stevens) who wrote the rest of it and the black woman who added the key word?

I also like it when you can smell the barbecue.

9) Fairport Convention Liege and Lief  (1969)

The third remarkable album released by Fairport in the Year of our Lord, 1969. This one, following the death of their drummer, Martin Lamble, (a death that had a similar crushing effect to James Honeyman-Scott’s on the Pretenders a generation hence), was almost all Sandy Denny. Numbed by loss, the others decided to follow where she led. That turned out to be a a labyrinth of English folk music from which it could be argued only guitarist Richard Thompson ever fully emerged. This isn’t the first time I listened, but I never really heard it before. Now I’m mini-obsessed. A couple of more spins and I might be up to a post on Denny in ’69, one of the most remarkable years any vocalist ever had. For now, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. And I’m taking precautions, because I’ve realized that if you wander too deeply in these woods, you mightn’t find your way out.

8) Latimore Straighten it Out: The Best of Latimore (1995)

In addition to the two cuts I highlighted earlier in the week (novelties, but deep too), mostly a straightforward set of fine-tuned 70s R&B. A little funk, a little soul, a little big-voiced balladeering, a lot of traditional Love Man, all rendered with a mix of silk and grit that makes for good smiling and nodding music. No small thing these days.

My other standouts are an unlikely cover of “Stormy Monday,” and a deep take on George McCrae’s “I Get Lifted.” But it all goes down smooth.

7) Patty Loveless Up Against My Heart (1991)

Measure for measure. My favorite album by my favorite modern singer, possessed of a brand of fatalism Sandy Denny might have recognized. What might be forgotten now is that this record almost killed her career when it failed to go gold or platinum like her previous three. Nashville is famously unforgiving of slackers. Somebody is always ready to take your place, especially when you’re either an unrepentant honky tonker or a female, forget both. She pulled a fast one by switching labels and running up a string of awards which was modest next to Reba’s (before) or Miranda’s (after), but astonishing given how uncompromised her voice was. You can hear all of that here. “God Will” is an all time killer and “I Came Straight to You” the best smile in her catalog. But this time around, another one stuck deeper than usual.

6) Tanya Tucker My Turn (2009)

Her 24th album, the first in six years at the time and still her latest to date. All of which  might help explain why, for the first time ever, she sounded relaxed. Relieved of the pressures of stardom for the first time since she was thirteen, she was able to bring something new to a bunch of classic country covers that included signature songs from Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell. All the songs her daddy wanted her to sing and nobody, but nobody, ever said she lacked guts.

5) Mel Tillis HItsides 1970-1980 (2006)

A beautifully constructed overview of the man at his peak. He broke into Nashville in the sixties with one of those good singer/great writer reps that were common at the time. Unlike almost everyone else who wore the tag he turned out to be a great singer too. Though he wrote only about a third of them, every one of these twenty-five cuts from his golden decade feels lived in.

The boundaries (neither of which he wrote)?

On one end, “Stomp Them Grapes,” which would have done Roger Miller proud. On the other, “Your Body is an Outlaw,” as deep and scary as anything by George Jones, which he sang with his eldest daughter a year after I served fish sticks and french fries to two of her younger sisters at the girls’ camp sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.

Never let it be said that the South is an uncomplicated place.

(Oh, and he did write: “Detroit City,” “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Mental Revenge.” Like that.)

4) Candi Staton Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters (2011)

The “evidence,” presumably, for the case of someone who should have been a much bigger star. There’s plenty of that here. It’s hard to understand why anyone who looked and sounded as great as Candi Staton–and had so much talent surrounding her–didn’t really cross over until she went disco (helping create the paradox of the soul singer who used disco to reach a wider audience even as more famous soul singers were being wiped out left and right).

If I had to put my finger on it, I’d blame the material, which is good, but lacks that one killer that might have put her in heavy rotation at the pop stations and brought the rest into focus. The biggest exception is “Stand By Your Man” which did cross over (nearly as big as “Young Hearts Run Free”), but, unfortunately, left no trace, having already been defined for purposes of useful narrative by Nashville’s Tammy Wynette. Too bad, because Candi had a great deal more to add to the concept than Hilary Clinton, who stood by her man long enough for him to lock up half of Candi Staton’s neighborhood.

3) Paul Revere & the Raiders The Complete Columbia Singles (2010)

This wanders about…and intrigues. Over nearly a decade and a half, they developed a theme: Stomp. Then do something else (Brill Building pop maybe? Hot rod music?)

Then Stomp. Then do something else. (Psychedelia maybe? Country rock?)

Then….Stomp.

Then….something (anything!).

Then…

Stomp.

The essence of the Stomp is on The Essential Ride, a single-disc comp that focuses on the mid-sixties and includes the hits everybody loves, plus “Crisco Party.”  In the days when “Louie, Louie” was being investigated by a congressional committee, that one was too obscene even for a garage band B-side (hence is missing here). And if you just want the Stomp, you could go here.

You’d be missing a lot, though. Mark Lindsay was one of the great hardcore rock and roll singers. Everybody knows that (though just how much he sounds like Mitch Ryder before Mitch Ryder on some of the earliest sides here might still startle you). But he was one of the great pop-rock singers, too. And, whatever one thinks of “Indian Reservation” (I love it without reservation, but I know there are serious dissenters), you can also hear how much they had earned the right to a #1 Protest Record because, as protest records go, it’s not a patch on 1966’s “The Great Airplane Strike” (which sounds like it should be the title of a solemn documentary on union organizing and is a good joke) or 1967’s “Do Unto Others” (which sounds like it should be the title of a Lenny Bruce routine and is serious….and lovely).

2) Kendrick Lamar Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012)

The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. Except that white critics cut Kendrick all the slack they never gave War, nothing’s changed. That might be why an outsider like me can’t tell whether it’s me or Lamar who feels tired.

One line stuck out, though: Hearing “I’ve never been violent…until I’m with the homies,” made me hear my old daddy quoting his Uncle Sam, speaking to him in the Tennessee hills in the twenties, saying “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy. Three boys is no boy a’tall.”

I wish I could remember if Uncle Sam was the one who told my old daddy stories about chasing cows into the woods to hide them from the Yankees the night they drove old Dixie down.

Funny what you remember and what you don’t.

1) The Roots, Undun (2011)

The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. It even starts with a quote from the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me,” which, a generation back, was The World is a Ghetto one generation on.

Which leads to the question: Are all rap albums now rewrites of “The World is a Ghetto?” And if nothing’s changed, is it because we can’t change or we won’t?

Til next time.

PASSING THE TORCH (Segue of the Day: 3/14/17)

I’ve been waiting for these particular Patty Loveless/Miranda Lambert duets to pop up on YouTube with audio to do the performances justice. They’re here at last. And while Patty Loveless can’t truly pass a torch any more than George Jones or Al Green could, Miranda Lambert is the performer who has benefited most–both artistically and commercially–from the ground she broke open, stone by stone, a generation earlier without Rolling Stone or the Village Voice paying the least mind. The way Nashville politics work, Miranda will probably make the Hall of Fame before Patty does. (Go ahead, Nashville, surprise me…I’ll eat crow from now til the Judgement if you do. Cross my heart and hope to die.) But there will never be any doubt about who walks in whose shadow….and they really should do a duet album.

LEARNING ABOUT THE AIR (Race in America: 1977)

(This is a new category which I’ve been thinking about adding for a while. Most of them will also be additions to my informal, uncategorized series which I like to call “Scenes From an Actual Boyhood” a play on Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, in which he fantasized about boyhood and left out anything and everything pertaining to boys that didn’t fit the dream life of middle-age soccer moms.)

Back in the Spring of ’77, a time in American history which seems to have left no trace on the future, I was in my junior year of high school in the Florida Panhandle, that part of Florida which is sometimes jokingly, sometimes wistfully, referred to as L.A.: Lower Alabama.

One Monday morning I showed up at school, stepped out of my ride’s car in the parking lot, and felt something different….something I hadn’t felt since the spring of ’74 when I was in the eighth grade in another part of the state known, then and now, as the Space Coast.

I had been in Lower Alabama for three years by then, but the culture shock hadn’t worn off. (Comes to that, I’m not sure it’s worn off yet–must be some reason I prefer living like a hermit.) That feeling in the air when I got out of the car that Monday morning was the closest I had ever felt to a real connection between the two places.

So I knew right away it had something to do with the one thing every Southern place shares with every human space occupied by what are now called “multi” cultures: Race Tension.

The Tension soon had physical manifestations: The sound of a body being thrown against a classroom wall. Black kids with picks and blades trying to decide whether they wanted to descend from the school’s back door to a parking lot (yes, the same one my ride parked in) full of rednecks standing next to pickups with hunting rifles hung in the back windows (the black kids thought better of it–first Rumble averted). Reports of a fight. An actual fight. Then another actual fight.

That was the first couple of days.

After that: A teacher promising to give everybody ten points on next week’s test if the violence planned for Friday recess (planned by who, nobody knew….the plan had its own life, like the new Air) failed to materialize. White boys muttering darkly about the privileges granted blacks. Black kids muttering darkly about the privileges granted whites. Me telling my ride how not entirely unhappy I was to no longer be riding the bus where, in my freshman and sophomore years, I had usually been the only white kid (an experience worthy of its own post some day, now that I’ve opened this can of whup-ass memories).

And, of course, discussions all around about “here it all came from.

A general consensus formed, among white folks at least, that a black kid from New York had moved to the area. Though he didn’t go to our school, he shared Vo-Tech classes with some who did. Word was he had a habit of calling the local kids Uncle Toms for not standing up to the Man, meaning White People, meaning….us. Word was some of them had decided to show him–and us–what they were made of.

It seemed outside agitators had come to Lower Alabama.

Once that idea took hold, no amount of Confederate cannon-fire could have dislodged it.

The additional word was this had all come to some sort of head–at a party? a club? an impromptu meeting of a newly formed local chapter of the Black Panthers?–the weekend before the Monday I showed up  at school and, from the nearly empty parking lot, with no evidence available to the eye or ear that suggested it was anything but another school week, I thought, unbidden: This feels like eighth grade.

Through all that I’ve described above and more, that feeling persisted and grew for two full weeks. Every day a little stronger.

There were moments when it not only seemed possible that some terrible thing might happen but that–no matter how many times we white kids reassured ourselves that it would be absurd, ridiculous, suicidal, for black kids to “riot”–there was simply no way it wouldn’t happen.

It was coming. There was no way to avoid it.

Because it was in the Air.

And what did I, no great respecter of the Air, do through all this?

I did what I always did.

i practiced the careful art of doing nothing.

Except for the day when the art of doing nothing sort of accidentally became the art of doing something.

My usual nothing consisted of sitting around during break times–recess, lunch, school assemblies I had a habit of spending in the library—with my nose in a book.

None of that changed during the two weeks of the Race Tension.

Come recess, lunch, assembly, you could still find me, alone in a room, or off in a corner somewhere, reading.

And the time you could be most alone, I found, was recess.

I actually did get out and about a bit at lunch. Even I had to eat.

And not even I could get out of every assembly.

But literally nobody else stayed in his seat reading a book during recess.

Which is why I found it a little odd, on Wednesday of the second week of the Tension–to find myself in Social Studies (my next class), during recess….and not alone.

I was sitting in my usual seat. Second row if memory serves (and dammit, memory, you better serve–this is a memory piece!). And there were several kids sitting behind me.

The room had risers, so they were not only behind me but above me. All black kids–four? five?–whispering among themselves. Whispering, I assumed, because they did not want to be heard by the only other occupant of the room. Namely me. The only white boy.

As time passed, their voices got a little louder. This was a phenomenon I was already a bit familiar with, one which time has consistently reaffirmed: If you are in a room with a group of people from which you are for some reason excluded, they will begin by worrying about whether you can overhear them. If you are quiet long enough, they will become worried that you don’t hear them.

So their voices got louder. And, eventually, I heard them.

They were talking about the Rumble. The new Rumble that was going to be, if nothing else, more effective than the Rumble that had broken on the wave of all those rednecks standing next to all those shotguns. It was going to be more effective because it wasn’t going to be a Rumble. At least not according to any definition I had ever heard.

This was all going to be planned, rather like D-Day. Nothing would be left to chance this time!

Come Friday recess, every black kid was going to find a white kid–their special white kid, by prearrangement with all the other black kids, so there would be no duplication of effort–and “get even.”

This was the memo.

By the Wednesday before the Friday of the new, improved Rumble, everybody had gotten it. Some of the white kids were complaining because all they were allowed to pack was a pocket knife, which wasn’t much good against a steel pick. At least a couple of white kids were rumored to have started carrying their own steel picks (though I confess I never saw one).

And what the black kids who were sitting up behind me at recess on Wednesday in my Social Studies classroom were talking about–I see you Michael. I see you Daryl, Jeffrey, Ricky….Walter, is that you?–was the memo.

Who was going after who.

More time passed and I heard some names: “I got ____!” “You got____?” “Who got ____?”

I also heard their growing indifference to my presence becoming mingled with their increasing need to engage me–their awareness of my awareness of their awareness.

So, finally, one of them–Jeffrey, is that you?–speaking low enough to pretend he didn’t want me to hear and loud enough I couldn’t miss it.

“Who got Ross?”

At which point there was a small silence.

Apparently nobody had Ross.

Which I took for a good excuse to put my finger in my book, bend the page over the finger, and turn around.

I made sure to smile the smile with which Michael and Walter, at least, were intimately familiar and to shake my head.

Then I rolled my eyes.

Then I held up my book.

“If ya’ll get it figured out,” I said. “You know where I’ll be.”

At which point we all started laughing.

Did it matter? Did it matter that it was me? That it was them? That I reacted the way I did? That they reacted the way they did? That I was there, where I always was? That they were there, where they never were?

Who knows.

Maybe the Rumble–the Big One, the Efficient One, the One that Couldn’t Possibly Fail to Come Off This Time!–would have failed to come off anyway.

Maybe one of the hundred other things that can prevent such a thing would have happened and the whole thing would still have died on the vine.

Maybe one–or ninety-nine–of those things did happen and I never heard about it.

So far as I know, none of the others who were in that room with me, ever ventured any ideas about why it never came off. They certainly didn’t say anything to me. After the other kids started filing in, on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday after recess, it was like it never happened.

What I did notice was that, for me–and I suspect for them–the air broke in that moment we all started laughing.

It broke because, in a single instant and all together, we realized how stupid it all was–and, far more important in our teenage world, how stupid it would all look….if it even tried to come off.

Suddenly, we all saw there was only one way for it not to come off stupid, not to come off looking the one thing no teenage boy ever wants to come off looking–and that was for it to never come off at all.

Coincidentally or not, it didn’t come off.

Of course, when I got out of that class an hour later and walked the halls again, amongst all those people who hadn’t been in that room, I realized that the Air hadn’t broken for anyone else. For everyone else the Tension was still real and palpable. For them, the Rumble was still inevitable and queasy-making. It was still all of that even on Friday afternoon, after first recess, then lunch, had passed into history, and the Rumble hadn’t come off.

Even then, the Air was still the Air.

It still promised we had come to a place–a place perhaps even teenagers in Lower Alabama in a time as lost as the late seventies must come to now and again to feel alive–where anything was possible.

And me and the kids who didn’t know the answer to “Who got Ross?” and everybody else, spent the weekend wondering what the following week would bring.

The confidence in the power of absurdity to finally embarrass everyone into inaction–the power I had felt so strongly in my Social Studies room at recess on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday–waxed and waned.

Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I shook my head. Sometimes I felt a little queasy.

What next?

Monday morning my ride took me to school like always.

Monday morning, on the drive in, me and my ride made some lame jokes to each other about what the new week would bring.

Monday morning, we drove into the parking lot and nothing felt any different there inside the car, where it was just us, with the Air left over from the weekend and the Friday before.

Monday morning, we rolled to a stop and then opened our car doors like usual.

Monday morning, we stood up in the actual air…and knew instantly that the Air was normal again, and that there was no more explanation for the return of Normalcy than there had been for its abandonment exactly two weeks earlier.

That was when I learned to respect the Air.

Since then, I’ve learned to pay attention to it as well.

It’s how I once knew something as historically insignificant as that it was okay to stay in our seats the last time FSU and the local HBC, Florida A&M, played basketball, even though a hellacious fight (which ultimately resulted in the suspension of the game) was breaking out on the court.

It’s also how I knew, as far ago as the summer before last, something as historically significant as that Donald Trump–a man I had never previously spent ten seconds thinking about–had a real chance to become President of the United States (and why I felt confident predicting his win on this blog).

It’s useful, respecting the Air.

Among many other things, it keeps you from being too surprised.

And, as I’ve mentioned here a time or two, it’s also defined my respect for artists, especially popular artists.

The best of them know the Air far better than you or I do.

They also know it way-y-y-y-y better than the highbrows do.

The Air belongs to the pulps, the singers, the comedians.

That’s why Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were able to dream Rock and Roll America into being while the intelligentsia slept. It’s why Philip K. Dick’s “science fiction” novels have the jittery feel of the modern Security State down to a tee, while Norman Mailer’s “political” novels feel like ad copy and the famous dystopian models of Orwell and Huxley read like tracts. It’s why Ross Macdonald’s detective stories carry the weight of impending middle class doom and John Updike’s are strings of adjectives. It’s why Mary Weiss’s voice, from 1964, carries everything true that would come to pass in the cross-cultural maelstrom known as “punk” and why Johnny Rotten–who didn’t have the Air–always sounded like a fake to anyone who did. It’s why the primal scream of the inner city crack epidemic can be heard and felt, years earlier, in the voices of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, or the comedy of Richard Pryor, but not in the most beautiful or painful or lucid essays of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. It’s why the muffled moan of the “White Death” meth epidemic that has since descended upon Appalachia can be heard in Patty Loveless’s voice a quarter century ago.

The Artists–the real artists–know. They’re the canaries in every modern coal mine. They’ll tell you about the Air if you let them.

And they’ll keep on telling you.

Whether the big Rumble building just now comes to pass or not.

 

YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE (At the Multiplex: December, 2016)

New category…where I write about new movies I actually see in the theater.

Hell or High Water
(D. David Mackenzie, 2016)

and…

Manchester By the Sea
(D. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Jeff Bridges and Michelle Williams are pretty much the only two working actors I’ll pay full price to see act in a theater anymore. (I’ll pay to see Jennifer Aniston, but that’s mostly to see what she’s doing with her persona, of which being even a very good actress is not the most essential part). Especially since Williams tends to make the kind of movies that rarely play around here, I don’t expect to get many chances to see them both in the same month. Some day they should do a movie together. Maybe he could play her dad. I’d pay to see that.

Bridges saves Hell or High Water even though he’s coasting. He hasn’t reached the state of post-Lonesome Dove Robert Duval yet, where he just plays the same guy over and over and looks sleepier and cootier every time out, but there’s a lot of his Rooster Cogburn (True Grit) in his Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, here. And, though I’ve only seen clips of it, I suspect a lot of his Bad Blake (Crazy Heart) as well. In theory, the movie should have a lot of other things going for it. The plot is a nice twist on the Robin Hood theme, the writing and directing are efficient, if hardly inspired, and the rest of the cast is good enough to get by, with Gil Birmingham a standout as Bridges’s Half-Indian/Half-Mexican partner.

There’s fun to be had. It didn’t bore me, a quality which, at today’s prices, I don’t take for granted.

It didn’t grab me either, hard as it kept trying. The best chance it had at pulling me in was with a soundtrack that tried a little too hard to match the desolation of its West Texas setting. The comparisons to The Last Picture Show, noted by a number of critics as a nice metaphor for our current bleak state of the national heart, are not entirely off base.

The problem is, it stays metaphorical. The connection never hurts and that’s where I know the right soundtrack could have helped because the one selection that strikes all the way home–the one that plays out with Texas losers Chris Pine and Ben Foster (the Howard brothers…nice joke for the Jesse James crowd) running down the dusty roads listening to a radio that, for once, plays something that sounds like it came from that dust–is so perfect it throws the rest of the movie off stride.

I don’t usually concede that anything Elvis did so well was done better elsewhere and I don’t concede it here. But it does fit the setting better. There’s a quality in Waylon’s voice–and Waylon’s alone–that nails the wasteland spirit of the new Texas dirt the way Al Green’s voice once nailed Black America’s Crack Epidemic, and Patty Loveless’s voice nailed Hillbilly America’s Meth-driven White Death, years before they actually happened.

Anybody who knew enough to put one Waylon song in this should have known enough to give him the whole show.

If they couldn’t do that, they should have hired Michelle Williams and given her one big scene. That’s just about what she gets in Manchester By the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s drearily well-made chamber piece set on the other side of the country in contemporary New England.

It’s not the first time she’s blown the nihilism clean out of a movie. She did it in a better movie called Me Without You as far back as 2001, and, more recently, in 2008’s Incendiary, which was not as good.

She does it again here and could have probably done it for Hell and High Water if somebody had just asked.

I imagine she has done it in a few other movies I haven’t seen–much as I admire her for taking this task on, and much as I believe it’s necessary for somebody to take it on, I really have to be in the mood for this stuff. When she picks up her Oscar next spring it will be for blowing nihilism out of whatever movie she’s been in for fifteen years running and because it’s her turn. God bless her for that. The best thing about that, if it happens, is that it will just be possible the thing is being done in time to save her sanity. I can’t believe she can take much more of this.

She’s so good in that one big scene that she actually allows Casey Affleck’s previously bewildered performance to finally come together–to merge the ruined man he’s become in the movie’s present with the vibrant man we’ve seen in the movie’s flashbacks.

And when he wins his Oscar this spring (assuming his alleged tendency to abuse women doesn’t catch up with him first) he should really thank Michelle Williams.

Because, without changing a single thing more, his performance stays together the rest of the way. By the end, I almost liked a couple of the people I was supposed to like. I even almost liked him. The only thing lacking by then was nerve.

What it needed, as the last scene played and gave way, yet again, to the dreary score, was one perfect kick in the modern gut. One song that nailed everything in place and turned the whole thing from a chamber piece into something worthy of Michelle Williams showing up, yet again, to save the day.

What it needed was something to reestablish the filmmaker’s true fake vision, to show that he didn’t really believe everything would be alright in the godforsaken land he had just gone to such mighty lengths to portray in so much excruciating detail.

Of course, the song that would have nailed it all in place came straight into my head. They really should call me in to help out with this stuff.

Since they don’t, sometimes I just have to turn the sound off in the movie theater behind my bloodshot eyes and let the right song play in there and walk out with a grim smile on my face.

I was never more right than I was this time. By the time I hit the parking lot, I had convinced myself I had almost been in the presence of greatness.