COUNTRY GENTLEMAN (Don Williams, R.I.P.)

I didn’t realize until I went down the YouTube rabbit hole after Don’s death was announced this week just who many of his songs I still knew by heart, or that he had provided the missing link between Jim Reeves and Randy Travis. He’s known to rock audiences (if at all) as a favorite of Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton (who had a hit with a cover of Williams’ best record, which neither he nor anyone else could hope to improve):

But everybody in country knew Don Williams’ worth, both as a songwriter and, especially, a warm, graceful stylist who both carried on and inspired traditions without ever being mistaken for anyone else.

His legacy was an indelible piece of what country used to be, almost in spite of itself….and what it will be no more, no matter how hard it tries.

But don’t let that fool you. In his own time or any other, nobody else wrote songs called “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and meant to invoke a world that assumed Hank and Tennessee Williams came from the same place, let alone carried it off without breaking a sweat. Charlie Daniels and Hank Jr. have their place and their uses. But Don Williams carved a niche for himself by being the Voice of Reason in the face of rage and resentment. The radio was better when he was on it and the world was better when he was in it.

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE (Chuck Berry, R.I.P.)

As the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll and the Inventor of it’s most prescient and enduring guitar style, Chuck Berry is not a lily that needs gilding.  So I’ll just pass along this anecdote:

Back in my early thirties (say, 1992 or so), the head of my department at the publishing company where I still toil was a 40ish woman with a taste for a certain literary style of rock and roll. Pete Townshend was her particular demigod and one day while we were discussing this and that,  she opined (out of nowhere? germane to some conversation we were having? the memory hazes) that some lyric from a song on one of Townshend’s solo LPs was “the greatest rock and roll lyric ever written.”

I….objected.

Strongly.

“Well what do you think it is?” she said. Her tone spoke volumes. When a certain personality type asks you a certain kind of question, it is best to answer very carefully.

Just offering up something better than whatever she was quoting (which, honest to God, I don’t remember either the song, the lyric or the album it was on) wasn’t going to cut it.

Not if I wanted to actually win the argument. And, since “rock and roll” was something I was known for having a bit of knowledge about (enough to amaze my small circle of friends and family anyway), I recognized right off that it would be an embarrassment if I didn’t score that win. The usual standoff–well, I suppose everyone’s entitled to their opinion–would be a defeat.

Yes, I had been put in the very weird position of having to defend the honor of rock and roll from a Pete Townshend fan. I knew it wasn’t impossible. It wasn’t like she had put a claim in for “Hope I die before I get old.” But neither was it easy.

I liked a lot of rock and roll lyrics better than I liked the one she had quoted. I liked a lot of Pete Townshend lyrics better than the one she quoted. But that wasn’t enough to make her back down. Quoting the Byrds (“Do you think it’s really the truth that you see?/I’ve got my doubts, it’s happened to me,” certainly crossed my mind) or even Dylan (a lot to go with there) wasn’t going to cut it.

I really had to think on this one.

So I said: “Give me a day.”

I mean, we were looking for the GREATEST rock and roll lyric EVER. That seemed a reasonable request. Anyway it was reasonable enough that she granted it, though her air was that of someone who was already two-thirds of the way around the track before the opposition got out of the starting blocks.

I had one of those noon-to-nine shifts then–half day, half night. She left at 5:00.

I spent the hours in between racking my brain. She left for the day.

Then I spend another hour or so, working of course, but pondering the while.

When it came to me around my 7:00 supper break, I smiled and thought upon it no more.

I went home and got a good night’s sleep. I showed up for the work on time the next day.

When I passed her in the hallway, around 2:00 p.m., she was walking with her head down in some paperwork, studying some supervisor problem or other. I thought she might go by without looking up, but, at the last moment, she sensed a presence looming. There was no particular sense of anticipation. I don’t think our little conversation was anywhere near being uppermost in her mind. So she was in the process of politely nodding and preparing to pass me by, when I said:

“Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

And she stopped.

And she looked a little puzzled.

And then she smiled and nodded.

“You’re right,” she said.

I still wonder if that little exchange was the reason she fired a dear friend of mine shortly thereafter. There certainly was no rational reason. (The absence of a rational reason was sufficiently obvious that another department head hired my friend for his department literally on the spot.)

I guess you can never know about these English major types who glom onto Pete Townshend’s solo records whilst learning to smile as they kill.

They’re a slippery lot.

But there’s one sure defense, even against them….

 

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume 2: The Seventies)

Okay, on with the Seventies…the decade with the mostest.

Some additional notes: I mostly avoided country artists for this series because I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Charlie Rich, who probably has a decent shot at the Rock Hall some day (I mean, they’ve nominated Conway Twitty, which is way more of a stretch), would have had four albums on the Sixties’ list if I’d been more inclusive…but then I would have started wondering about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (each of whom would make as much sense as Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson, who get mentioned a lot as potential Rock Hall nominees). Who knows where that might have led? I decided to keep the stopper in the bottle, so to speak. Maybe it will make for its own post some day–“country-pop-rock-confusion-salad-days” or something along those lines.  That said, the Seventies were even more of a strain and I did finally decide to include a Tanya Tucker album, for reasons explained below.

To that, I’ll just add that I regret not being able to include the New York Dolls’ first two LPs because the Nominating Committee had the good sense to put them on the ballot a time or two, thus rendering them ineligible here. That did it for the punk representatives. (X-Ray Spex just missed the cut because I like their titles better than I like their music, unfortunately, a common reaction for me…and, yes, I know calling the Dolls punk, instead of “pre” or “proto” or something more technically appropriate, will rub some the wrong way. Sorry, I can only call it how I hear it.)

So without further adieu:

Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)

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Note: One shot band who Pete Townshend famously discovered/produced etc.  and therefore British to the core. Don’t let that fool you. It’s also the soundtrack of Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles, just as it reached the final stage. When it comes to both the form and spirit of decline, we always seem to get there first on the page and the Brits always seem to get there first on record.

Pick to Click: “Something In the Air” (going obvious for once because the times demand it…theirs and ours)

Lulu: New Routes (1970) and Melody Fair (1970)

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Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times to recreate the artistic and (at least relative) commercial success of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 Dusty In Memphis. He kept coming close. Given how epochal Dusty In Memphis is, that’s saying something. These albums are each genuinely great on their own and they gain force in tandem (along with a third album’s worth Lulu recorded around the same time) on the CD set I wrote about a length here.

The quote at the top of that piece still cuts.

Picks to click: “Feelin’ Alright” (New Routes) and “After the Feeling is Gone” (Melody Fair)

Swamp Dogg Total Destruction to Your Mind (1970)

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Note: A straight soul version of Revelations. “Did concrete cover the land? And what was a rock and roll band?” No, really.

Pick to Click: “The World Beyond”

The Stylistics The Stylistics ()1971) and Round 2 (1972)

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Note: A Philly soul super-group who eventually found their way to Thom Bell and major stardom. Coming across their Best of in late-seventies America was like hearing the apostles with the Vandals at the gates. I didn’t hear these albums until the CD reissue boom of the nineties, by which time they sounded more like prophets without honor. No act, Beatles included, has ever released two better albums out of the gate.

Picks to click: “You’re a Big Girl Now” (The Stylistics) “It’s Too Late” (Round 2 and fair competition for the best Carole King cover ever, up to and including “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion” and maybe even “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)

Helen Reddy I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971)

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Note: This contains the now mostly forgotten version of “I Am Woman,” which doesn’t sound as great here as it did in the more polished hit version that has taken a forty-something-year pounding as a definitive version of seventies’ era have-a-nice-day excrement, as agreed upon by everyone from Greil Marcus to Bill O’Reilly. I’d say the length and intensity of that pounding is the truest measure of how much it still frightens people. Reddy was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed feminism for the same reason Chris Evert was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed (non-Olympic) women’s sports…nothing mitigates fear quite like the assurance of normality. This isn’t actually her strongest album (the follow-up Helen Reddy is freer and further ranging and “Tulsa Turnaround” shouldn’t be missed). But if “I Am Woman” had never existed, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” would have still had everybody quaking if they had only stopped to listen (and gotten Yvonne Elliman’s fine but straight-from-Broadway version out of their heads). “I couldn’t cope…I just couldn’t cope” is as fine a line-reading as exists on record and I’ll just add that when the girls in my junior high came in with reports of their NASA dads stalking out of the TV room or throwing shoes at the set, you always knew who had been on the night before.

Pick to Click: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”

Jackie DeShannon Jackie

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Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times….Rinse and repeat. Except this time, instead of taking a British girl south, he took an actual southerner who was every bit the singer Dusty and Lulu were but also a Hall of Fame level songwriter. Still didn’t get a hit out of it and, in fact, this was where the trying basically ended. In its original vinyl version, which is what I’m including here, it was merely one of the best albums of its era and recognized as such by virtually no one. In the epic extended version released on CD a while back (with another album’s worth of material added) its an era-summing epic. I keep meaning to write about it at length but, for now, I’ll just say that the original LP is still a keeper.

Pick to Click: “Full Time Woman”

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

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Note: Depending on how you count, the 3rd or 4th ace band led by keyboardist Manfred Mann. This one started out sounding like an attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Band or Fairport Convention (right down to the ace Dylan covers the Mann’s bands had been assaying since before anybody heard of the Fairports and the Band were still Dylan’s touring band) at the moment those two entities were disintegrating…and even they didn’t do it any better.

Pick to Click: “Part Time Man”

Big Star #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974)

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Note: In the CD era these have been released as an incomparable two-fer and that’s the way I’ve become used to listening to them. In their day they charted a future that eventually came and even charted (see R.E.M.) without ever sounding quite as good or quite as ready for any punch the world could possibly throw. I wrote about Big Star and the music on these albums (plus a few other things) here.

Picks to Click: “Feel” (#1 Record) and “You Get What You Deserve” (Radio City)

Dobie Gray Drift Away (1973)

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Note: Hey, that cover is almost weird enough to grace a Swamp Dogg LP. But the sound is all ache. The sound of an open-hearted black man in Nashville, refusing the believe his talent won’t triumph. For one brief shining moment, it did…everywhere except Nashville.

Pick to Click: “Drift Away” (Because no matter how obvious it is, or how great the rest of the LP is, if “Drift Away” is an option, it’s always the pick)

Raspberries Starting Over (1974)

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Note: Nice consensus pick for the era’s Great Lost Album but just because it’s Conventional Wisdom doesn’t mean it’s not so. My personal pick would actually be their 1976 Best of, which I can’t include because it’s a comp, even though it’s inevitably a little stronger than this cut-for-cut and also one of the greatest concept albums ever released…alas, never on CD. Of course, if I had picked this one up in 1980, that time I saw it, sealed, for a buck-ninety-eight, in a bargain bin at a T,G and Y in DeFuniak Springs, instead of on scratchy vinyl, for fifteen bucks, in a used record store, twenty-five years later (never having set eyes on it in between)? Well who knows? But in any case it is plenty good enough to belong here. And, of course, they broke up immediately afterwards. Didn’t the title clue you?

Pick to Click: “Starting Over” (Because, of course, it’s the last song on their last pre-breakup LP) Bonus Pick: “Overnight Sensation” (Eric Carmen, from 2005, sounding like time had stood still for thirty years, waiting for him)

Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)

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Note: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s a sort-of comp since it combines the key cuts from a couple of earlier albums that weren’t much distributed outside of Jamaica. But it coheres plenty and these guys are not much mentioned for Hall of Fame status. They should be. Because this is jaw-dropping and, if anything, their earlier stuff, which has been released on various comps, was even better.

Pick to Click: “Country Road” although, really on the “Drift Away” principle established above, I really must add this.

Boston (1976)

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Note: In theory, every big faceless corporate concept I’ve ever distrusted, in one nice, convenient, easy-to-hate package. Just look at that cover! But that’s just theory. In reality, it’s the greatest D.I.Y. record ever made. You want contrived, try the Sex Pistols. This is hard rock out of Beethoven, the James Gang and a Boston basement. If theories held, it should have sounded the way last week’s fish smells. For some, it did and does. For me, it rings true. Maybe the only album that’s sold twenty-five millions copies and is still underrated. Baby, that was rock and roll. Like it or not. And, I might just mention, a fine sequel to Starting Over.

Pick to Click: “Hitch a Ride”

The Persuasions Chirpin’ (1977)

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Note: Black men, singing a cappella in 1977, about a past that never quite was and a future that had no chance of ever arriving. I had some additional thoughts here. To which I’ll only add, don’t go looking for better. There’s no such thing.

Pick to Click: “To Be Loved”

Boston Don’t Look Back (1978)

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Note: Wait. They did it again? Exactly the same? That must surely make this the funniest “up yours” title ever….the end draws nigh.

Pick to Click: “A Man I’ll Never Be”

Tanya Tucker Tear Me Apart (1979)

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Note: The end of Tanya’s attempts to go mainstream. I can only guess she missed because, finally, she had too much rock and country in her voice and not quite enough pop. I’m making an exception to the country exclusion, though, because this really is a rock and roll album (right down to copping Suzi Quatro’s producers and redeeming “San Francisco” of all things). So much so that it was the only album she released over a thirty-year stretch which didn’t produce a country hit. Plus she had already made the cover of Rolling Stone as a country singer, anyway, and did it when country really wasn’t cool, assuming it ever actually was in those sort of places. All of which makes her as likely and credible a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Willie Nelson in my book. Oh yeah, this was also a fine album. And I wouldn’t pick anybody else, or any other song, to close down the Seventies’ portion of our program. (Suggestion: Don’t play this when you have a parent in a nursing home. Just wait until they pass. And then wait a while longer. Trust me on this.)

Pick to Click: “Shady Streets”

Third and final installment on the Eighties to follow…Don’t worry, if I haven’t lost you by now, I’m sure I’ll lose you then!

SOUTHERN MAN (Vocalist of the Month for 9/14: Ronnie Van Zant)

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(NOTE: This is getting to be more like “vocalist of the six months”….It’s been a busy year on a lot of fronts and I’m just getting back in the blogging swing so I hope to start picking up the pace, here and elsewhere. Meanwhile….This is a sequel to the piece I posted here.)

I suspect every white boy who was born around 1960 (like I was) and grew up in the South (like I did) has at least one Lynyrd Skynyrd story.

Most of us have a lot more than one. Sort of a routine litany.

Stories like mine.

There’s the “Come to think of it John, I never have seen you drunk on your ass,” story and the “You better not let any of those Alabama boys hear you say that” story and the high school talent show story and the “girls cried when Elvis died and boys cried when Ronnie died” story (now there’s one common to all!) and the speakers blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” in the softball field parking lot story and the “My second husband never listened to nothin’ but country and Lynyrd Skynyrd” story and probably a few others I’m not calling to mind just now.

But I’ll leave those aside and let one story suffice.

It’s the summer of 1979 and I’m working in the girls’ camp at the Southern Baptist Convention Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. Nice social experience, dreary job. There were five of us on that particular assignment (all college boys), plus two camp cooks.

The cooks were brothers–Texas born and raised, worldly, early thirties, mostly-reformed rowdies, a year or two apart in age. The older one was a Type B, cool, calm, collected. The younger was a Type A, charming, witty, talkative, possessed of a temper which he worked hard at keeping in check. (The one day he lost it, he took a swing at his brother, missed, then let go an animal yell and ran out the door. He came back about five minutes later, soaking wet. He had jumped in the lake where the campers took canoeing lessons, shirt, shoes and all, as we used to say. He apologized all around. Seemed to have gotten it out of his system. Us younger lads–when we got over our mild shock–sort of looked at each other and nodded rather sagely. No word needed to be spoken. He was clearly what we had suspected all along–even before we knew he and his brother had played in rock bands and once opened for the Animals in front of ten thousand people somewhere in Texas. He was, undoubtedly, a product of The Sixties!)

Type A going off and Type B’s modest reaction–“He gets a little belligerent some times but he’ll be alright”–were pretty definitive elements of their respective characters.

But what really defined them was that they had been intimates of Lynyrd Skynyrd–part of the inner circle via their friendship with Skynyrd’s last drummer, Artimus Pyle. The only way they could have been any cooler was if, say, one of them (Type B, naturally) had been asked to be the road manager of the band’s next-to-last tour–the one right before the one that ended in a plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines.

Naturally, we all wanted to know why Type B didn’t take the gig.

There were two simple reasons.

Reason One was that his daughter had just been born and he wanted to spend time with her.

Reason Two was that he was told one of his main duties would be keeping Ronnie out of fights.

The way he told it, it was pretty clear Reason Two would have been enough, if Reason One hadn’t existed.

If he had been around enough to be asked to be their road manager, he had certainly been around enough to know that–at least some of the time–Ronnie Van Zant was who we all thought he was.

*   *   *   *

When Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first album in 1973 (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd‘), Ronnie Van Zant became an instant, virtually official, representative of a part of the population which had been judged by the content of its character for at least a century before Martin Luther King said we all should be and been found permanently wanting by everyone but themselves.

Hillbilly, Redneck, Cracker, White Trash. Hard to find an honorific in there.

And that was just the neighbors talking.

By the time Van Zant died in a plane crash four years later, he and his band had managed to demonstrate just how difficult such stereotypes are to shake. Deepen them, shred them, laugh at them, live for them, die for them and still, your most devoted fans and your bitterest detractors will insist on thrusting them right back on you.

When the music was playing, though, Skynyrd transcended such contradictions again and again. Then and now.

Ronnie himself was the essential reason for the transcendence. And his singing–Chuck Berry’s sly intonations riding in, around, over and under the moral undertow of a Delta man, with the mythic weight resting now on the former, now on the latter, often within the context of a single line–was the reason within the reason.

Not to say that the whole package wasn’t definitive. We live now in an age when the likes of the Who or Led Zeppelin are routinely going around accepting things like Kennedy Center Honors. If Elvis Presley, or even Hank Williams, had lived long enough, it’s not hard to imagine them racking up similar signifiers of middle-brow acceptance.

I can even imagine a future where “hard-core” rappers get the same treatments. Ice Cube maybe. Or Chuck D.

And why not? Heck, George Jones made it that far, whiskey bones and all.

You can be sure, though, that if that airplane had somehow stayed in the air, no such accolades would have ever been in the cards for Ronnie Van Zant. Not even if he had tried.

Which he wouldn’t have.

*   *   *   *

Evidence?

Well, it’s always courting danger to ponder alternative universes, but, all in all, I’d say at least a few assumptions are safe.

First off, if your plane goes down the week you are releasing an album where you sing lines like “you won’t find me in an old folks home” and “whiskey bottles, brand new cars, oak tree you’re in my way,” and you are fond of telling anyone who will listen that you won’t see thirty, then a plane falling or not falling hardly means the fate you are courting won’t find you some other way.

Of course a lot of so-called punks, from Pete “Hope-I-Die-Before-I-Get-Old” Townshend on down, used to brag about being on the same sort of journey, and some still do. Some even follow through. But none of them were/are really philosophical (or any way off-hand) about it. Their brag came from a place Van Zant never thought of visiting. He didn’t say he wanted to die before he got old, just that he would–big difference, and, if you don’t want to admit it, wait til the next world comes and you can be sure that if the Void don’t care to explain it to you, then either John Calvin or Lucifer will be waiting to step up for a word with you please.

So much for “first off.”

Second off–and more significant–is that Van Zant grew up in my world.

Just the other side of the tracks I was just this side of, maybe–but my world all the same.

And I know this much.

You can run away from it. You can never really leave it.

It was a world where everybody had a more than sneaking suspicion that the Devil decides–and, if everybody carries certain sneaking suspicions around with them every single minute of every single day, then the habits of suspicion (and the beliefs those habits both spring from and reinforce) are bound to linger.

You can run away from all of that. Sure you can. Plenty have.

But you can never really leave it all the way behind.

Ronnie was definitive–definitively “us” even when “us” was me, who never did get drunk on his ass and learned to turn the other cheek when he was nine–because he never tried to leave anything behind–never once tried to run away from who he was, even though he knew what he was up against.

He had liberal views but none of the Liberal’s version of arrogance (condescension). And, lacking bluster (the Conservative’s version of same), he had no place to hide away.

So he was never going to be “home.”

Maybe that was why home worried him so much–became the source of his two great themes.

Home as haven. Home as trap.

In an age when nihilism was already running rampant everywhere except the middle of the road (which meant it wouldn’t be long before it was there, too–1980 to be exact), he clearly expected to pay for his sins.

Pay he did, ultimately.

Here’s what else he managed along the way.

*   *   *   *

In a little over four years, between 1973 and 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded five studio albums plus an epic live double and another album’s worth of out-takes and demos.

All were worthwhile, most were great. That string of rapid-fire greatness made them virtually the last mainstream rock and roll artists to work at such a white-hot pace while sustaining both a creative vision and a wide audience. The difference between their dozen or so radio staples–a number matched or exceeded by only a handful of bands in any form but especially in the “classic rock” format, where only Led Zeppelin (the Beatles of the form) produced so many in such a short span–and whatever you think their worst side is, was minuscule. The vision could seem narrow, no doubt.

But once you stepped inside it–once you got past the cracker facade–it was bottomless.

They set the parameters of that vision, and primed the expectations of their core audience, on the first two tracks of their first official release (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd). “I Ain’t the One” was hard rock at its slyest (and hardest). “Tuesday’s Gone” was a wistful ballad, nearly as mythic as it was mournful and mysterious. Plenty of fine bands have lived on much narrower turf for decades. Skynyrd would be pushing and shifting and re-setting their turf–digging ever deeper–until almost literally the day they went down (in a plane Aerosmith had refused to fly in) and Ronnie’s death ended the band’s meaningful existence as anything other than a cash cow being milked for the very qualities–cheap nostalgia, boogie-for-its-own-sake–he had always disdained.

That urgency–the sense of constant movement within what seemed, on the surface of the very loud, often spine-rattling noise, to be such obvious restrictions–sprang almost entirely from Van Zant’s genius as a writer, bandleader and, especially, vocalist.

*   *   *   *

The writing part was, by all accounts, pretty mystical itself. Van Zant’s band-mates have described composing sessions as often amounting to them working up a riff while Ronnie wandered down by the lake and, at some point when they were getting on toward an arrangement, he would walk in and have the lyric in his head, ready to go. Working, in other words, the way Quincy Jones has suggested is more typical of jazz musicians and rappers, though, if you substitute arrangements for words, and the parking lot for a lake, it also sounds like a typical Elvis session.

There’s some significance to that, I think.

There’s a point at which this sort of “process” becomes well known and can be self-consciously imitated. In jazz, this had probably happened by the mid-sixties or so. In rock, it had certainly happened by the late seventies. In rap, maybe a decade later.

It might not be a coincidence that stories of loosely run sessions are found most frequently when the musicians spring from America’s two traditionally despised demographics–blacks and poor Southern whites–or from someone who is specifically trying to imitate them.

These are also the demographics where concepts like the posse, the gang, the crew, the extended family (which might be based on blood relations or simply communal associations, generally developed no later than high school), take their strongest hold. Among these two groups, that hold tends to trump everything that tries to break it–including fame, fortune and common sense.

That’s probably because they are the two groups who are most purely and deeply defined by a physical and psychic space they are bound to defend, generation after generation, in order to retain any cultural identity at all.

Better a cultural identity that catches you in a trap, the reasoning goes, than none at all.

Once an “out” group accepts that it can never really be “in,” then “we are who we are” tends to be the most reliable fallback position. Once the acceptance becomes truly ingrained, then you don’t even need to fall back, because the wall is something you learn to keep your back against to begin with.

Out of that, what are you going to get except the far edges of the blues, honky tonk, rockabilly, gangsta rap and, for the purposes of this particular discussion, Southern Rock?

And inside each of those concepts (yeah, they’re musical forms, too, but, at their furthest reach, never just that) you get an occasional genius.

Ronnie Van Zant ended up being the principal genius of Southern Rock in part because his singing brought so many vital elements of those other concepts together in one place to a degree that was matched by very few others–all of whom (Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, James Brown, Al Green) have received far more accolades (not only from places like the Kennedy Center…and not only because most of them lived a lot longer).

That’s how it is with genius and concepts.

The concepts you can predict. The genius not so much.

It goes its own way.

*   *   *   *

Of course, as with all the others I mentioned, hanging a label on Ronnie Van Zant and his great band is a bit of a trap in itself. The labels end up being technically correct and fundamentally ridiculous in the manner of calling Romeo and Juliet a teen romance or The Searchers a western or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an especially fine example of Southwest Humor.

Some artists are just born to turn the cliches of form and formula on their heads and, inevitably, to put new ones in their place.

The way Van Zant went about practicing his particular acts of subversion was always rooted in a voice that was a perfect match for his lyrics–lyrics that, like the now-lilting, now-growling, now-shouting voice, held edges that were forever cutting both ways. So “Lord knows I can’t change,” (from “Freebird,” the career-defining closing track from their first LP) seems almost mock-ably straightforward until you actually listen to it being sung, after which it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the brag it so obviously seems to be on its face and the somewhat (though only somewhat) bitter confession of loneliness and isolation it surely is underneath. And that’s before you get to the next album’s second cut, “I Need You,” which plays like a sequel that promises everything “Freebird” denied, unless, of course, it’s denying everything “Freebird” promised.

And all of that is before you even get around to singing, you know, “In Birmingham they love the governor–boo, boo, boo,” and having the folks who love you without reservation completely agree with the folks who hate you the same way that you must be a big fan of “the governor.”

So it goes

One thing you learn, hanging out in Calvinist air–love and hate never do much nuanced listening.

So what can a genuinely poor boy do?

Become the only white blues singer whose voice carried no hint of either strain or homage? Claim the music in the off-handed way that a dozen or more singers leading equally fine blues-based bands–singers as great as Gregg Allman or as committed as Eric Clapton, fronting bands as great as the Allman Brothers or Cream–could only dream about? Cry for home every time you hit the road and cry for the road every time you come home? Maybe at the very same time make it sound like you never cried in your life? Make it sound like you’ve lived every single moment in the moment and never regretted a thing….unless it’s every single moment you weren’t thinking about the past or the future?

Celebrate with warnings?

Switch sides in the middle of a song?

Make it sound like “oak tree you’re in my way,” is you talking back to somebody (some preacher’s kid maybe) who is trying to make you see the error of your ways and then make it sound like “one hell of a price for you to get your kicks,” is you talking to somebody you are tying to save–somebody who may or may not be your own self?

Well, you could do all that. If you happened to be one poor boy in particular.

It’s not something that could have been easily predicted. With “art” you only know what’s possible once somebody reaches the limits.

We know what a “western” can be because John Ford existed. That’s true whether you like John Ford or not. We know what “country blues” can be because Robert Johnson existed. Ditto and so on and so forth.

We know what a poor white boy can actually do with what he himself called “the black man’s blues” because Ronnie Van Zant existed.

Ditto.

And so on and so forth.

*   *   *   *

He couldn’t have come from anywhere else. God knows we know, because we know how many others–from here, there and everywhere–have tried.

He couldn’t have come from anywhere except the only part of White America which never expects to assimilate and the only part that knows that whether they just don’t want to or just don’t think it’s possible isn’t a secret they are likely to share even if they come to some conclusion about it themselves.

I don’t know whether Ronnie Van Zant came to any conclusions or not and I won’t pretend I could have found out by asking him in some parallel universe where he did live to see thirty and I used my contacts with the camp cook who almost managed one of his tours to meet him somehow. I doubt his ever-supple management of his own duality–the relationship that had to exist between man and persona that was probably necessary for him to get as far as he did, to claim any audience at all in his own moment or have any claim on the future he knew he wasn’t going to live to see–would have been set aside for my sake.

You live with your back to the wall and–live or die–you give up certain things to gain others. You can’t sing the blues the way Ronnie Van Zant did–the epic, eternal way–and retain your ability to let down your mask so you can explain things to the preacher’s kid.

Or live to see thirty.

*   *   *   *

The manner and timing of Ronnie Van Zant’s death worked to ensure that the element of caricature which clung to him in life–clung no matter how diligently he tried to shed it, how deftly he put it to use as necessary camouflage–clung ever so much tighter once he wasn’t around to be diligent and deft and nuanced about it.

You want a single, reliable watchword for the deep, abiding contempt that college radio, or hip commentary, or thousand-dollar-a-plate fund-raising dinner attendees for either political party or just plain old Liberals-Who-Aren’t feel for the great unwashed?

“Lynyrd-Skynyrd” is all you need.

You need a similar word for the “nostalgia” of second husbands, or Conservatives-Who-Aren’t, or for anyone who thinks they’ve found comfort for the world view that truly believes this world would be a better place if, for starters, black people and “pencil pushers” just learned to stay in theirs?

Say the same.

I suspect no amount of asking people to listen closer will ever change this.

The need to be better than someone else is deeper than any ocean and, sometimes, being the voice who warns ignorance against itself and turns every easy assumption on its head doesn’t mean you are going to reap any easy reward.

Sometimes it just means there is only going to be one of you.

And, sometimes, being the only one means there is no safe haven, even in death.

So forget the “punks.”

If you really want to know what it’s like to never quite fit in–and to know you never will–then Ronnie Van Zant’s your man.

Rest in peace if you can, brother.

Rest in peace if you somehow found a place where they’ll let you.

RONNIEVANZANT3

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Stones Prep for Altamont)

 The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus–1968

ROLLINGSTONES1

According to Pete Townshend’s interview (included on the DVD extras), this television show came about because he and Mick Jagger were tinkering with the notion of having a rock and roll tour that traveled around like a circus…ah, the ideas the lads came up with then! That particular idea didn’t really get off the ground and, for that, we can probably all be thankful. But Jagger was intrigued enough to pursue it down another avenue with this “live” television show being the result.

The show is passing strange for most of its length. Music Hall humor, touches (generally heavy-handed) of sixties-style cine-art, celebrity-spotting crowd scenes–all the qualities that generally make for a train wreck.

As usual, any redemption comes from the music. There’s plenty of that–music, anyway, if not quite redemption–and most of it is fine. Jethro Tull is surprisingly (to me anyway) good. Taj Mahal is solid as always. There’s good stuff from an all-star band led by John Lennon (and then Yoko Ono, in a number that’s mostly interesting for demonstrating just how infatuated Lennon was–backing her, he looks like every goofy-eyed schoolboy you ever knew and it’s genuinely endearing). The Who smokes the room, though, being as how they had just entered their arty phase, maybe not quite as thoroughly as usual. And Marianne Faithfull, doubtless on the bill only by virtue of being Jagger’s current squeeze, is good enough to have me looking up the cost of her greatest hits on Amazon.

But, of course, it’s the Stones show to steal and they were at an especially interesting place. Brian Jones, the band’s founder, was on the verge of being shown the door (this was his last appearance with them), and would find the grave not long after. And, coincidentally or not, the Stones were on the verge of eclipsing the Beatles. One way to view this entire special, which is dated from December 11, 1968, is as a passing of the torch–a passing that wasn’t at all obvious in the moment, but which comes into clear relief when Lennon’s loopy presence is contrasted with Jagger’s growing assurance.

And, of course, there was the whole question of whether Mick had met the devil down at the crossroads somewhere south of Carnaby Street and forked over his soul.

Let me just say that I’m ambivalent about this. On the one hand, having gone a round or two with Old Scratch (turned down his deal myself–nasty bugger), I’m not readily impressed by the fakers. And Mick could be a fake. Sure he could. Easy enough to fool the world, after all, if you’re just a clever lad. No need to call on the Prince of Darkness for that task. and, if anyone has ever been more down with the notion of one being born every minute than Mick Jagger, they’ve passed beyond my notice.

And yet…

They begin a touch stiffly. “Jumping Jack Flash” without  the jump. But it’s still “Jumping Jack Flash,” in the end, and by the time they lock onto the groove, they start to get….comfortable.

Then they get good. “Parachute Woman,” “No Expectations,” album cuts from Beggar’s Banquet in lieu of familiar hits and gaining power every second.

After that, a teaser–“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” minus the choir and orchestra which, as it turns out, it needs.

And then, just when it looks like things might wind down, that classic, “is the deal real yet?” intro to “Sympathy For the Devil” and they’re off. Mick in full flight. Contrasting him on stage with Lennon in the crowd, you can just about believe that Jagger–fake satyr tattoos and all–really did have that meeting at the crossroads and the deal went something like, “Well, I’m not sure about my soul…but I might be able to hand you a Beatle.”

You can laugh, but when I watched this the first time that’s what it felt like. An advertisement for the disappearance of John Lennon, to be replaced by his friend Michael Jagger. Primal Scream Therapy and imagining no possessions (except one’s own) straight ahead for the one (all disguised as an escape from “Hello Goodbye” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and really who could blame him?). Let It Bleed and “Honky Tonk Women” and Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street for the other.

Oh, and Altamont–where Jagger would be haunted less by deaths resulting from his lack of judgment than by unfailing recognition that his business acumen (the thing he clearly valued most) had its limits.

That plus the “end of the sixties.”

And forty subsequent years of not mattering, even to yourself, except as a human cash register.

That’s what happens when you take the deal–even if it’s for somebody else’s soul and you get to play Satan on TV for the back end. No matter how slick you think you played it, Old Scratch always gets his in the end.

Like I said. Nasty bugger.

 

IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN…QUICK THOUGHTS ON THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Memory Lane, 1998–2000)

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is getting ready to announce this year’s nominations. Instead of the usual Sturm und Drang about the Hall’s various imperfections I’ll just share some cool memories from my visits in 1998, 1999 and 2000. As it happens, I wasn’t a skeptic, but it’s worth noting that many who were have been converted by actually going there. Probably because experiences along these lines can be had every day.

Anyway my personal top five, in no particular order:

–Descending the escalator and hearing a large group of black school children who looked to be roughly second graders break softly into the chorus of the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady,” en masse and on cue, when it came over the loudspeakers that play music throughout the day and then stop–en masse and on cue–the second their teacher went “sh-h-h-h!”

–Watching a couple of junior-high-age white girls sashaying up the ramp that constitutes the actual Hall of Fame, doing the hand motions to the Supremes’ “Stop In the Name of Love,” which was playing in the video viewing room next door.

–Reading the hand-written letter Janis Joplin sent to her parents when she left home for the last time, in which she constantly assured them she would be alright–this only minutes after passing a doorway where Pete Townsend was snarling back from a movie screen, saying, “They might be your fucking icons, but they’re my fucking friends!…And they’re dead!”

–Seeing the actual piece of paper where the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio sketched out the lyrics for “Rag Doll” immediately after witnessing the reaction a street urchin had to his handing her a five dollar bill (instead of the usual nickel or quarter) because, in the immediate aftermath of the Seasons’ initial success, he didn’t have anything smaller on him.

–Getting down on the floor to read a piece of paper in a special Elvis exhibit and having to stay there a while when I realized it was the official contract drawn up between Colonel Tom Parker and the Carolina Theater in Charlotte which is where my mother saw Elvis in fifty-six (part of a set of life experiences I wrote about at length here). That happened five minutes after seeing the only television still in existence which actually has the bullet hole Elvis put in it had convinced me nothing could top that!

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a human institution and so has its problems, some of which I’ve addressed here in the past. I’m sure the forthcoming nominations and ultimate selections will raise my blood pressure yet again.

But it’s worth remembering that these problems are very small in light of what it gets right–like providing a space to honor things that deserve to be honored, as opposed to only remembered:

Isley Brothers “That Lady/Live It Up” (Live Television Performance)

The Supremes “Stop In the Name of Love” (Live Television Performance)

Janis Joplin “Ball and Chain” (Live at Monterey, crossing over into the land from which there is no return)

The Four Seasons “Rag Doll” (Studio Recording)

Elvis Presley “Mean Woman Blues” (From Loving You)