NOT HAVING A TV….GOOD THING? BAD THING? (CD Review)

The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)

I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).

But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.

First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.

Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?

Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?

I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.

But, my God, what a missed opportunity.

Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”

One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.

That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.”  That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Well, none of that happened.

Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)

Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).

And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”

Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.

One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.

Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.

Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.

Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.

Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.

Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.

And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.

Take it Mavis:

 

 

MY FAVORITE HARMONY GROUP SINGER: ROCK AND ROLL DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.

With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic  and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.

So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):

The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.

That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.

Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)

If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.

As for a favorite?

Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.

You just have to think of a little test.

Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?

You, Carl. Only you.

I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.

[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]

 

THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME: 2015 NOMINEES

It’s that time again: Anyone wishing to participate in fan ballots can go HERE or HERE (second one actually has a small impact on the official voting).

Angst-Is-Me (meaning, me-me-me-me-me-me-me!): That’s one of the three main themes for this year’s ballot. Regrettable, but I suppose inevitable, given the direction “rock and roll” took once the rock and roll coalition fell apart in the late eighties. This will no doubt be a running theme in the future.

Anyway, count me uninformed on an era where Green Day (who I do sort of like) could pass for comic relief. I tried You-Tubing some Nine Inch Nails and Smiths. Really I did try–just couldn’t get all the way through any of their songs. But at least they seem to have struck a deep chord with their fans and I never begrudge anyone their own Shining Path.

“Sting,” on the other hand, has always struck me as a likely product of some government conspiracy–which government I’m not sure, but the Dark Arts must surely be involved. Anyway, I’m loathe to vote for a solo artist who is already in as a member of a group.

That leaves out the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, too. He’s far more deserving than Sting. I don’t even doubt that he’s Hall worthy–you know, once all the deserving people who aren’t already in have been taken care of.

Before I get to that, I’ll address the second major theme: Catch-As-Catch-Can.

This would include two “blues-rock” acts (the seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the sturdy Stevie Ray Vaughan), the by-now obligatory rap act (N.W.A., a good one at least), a hard rock act (Joan Jett) and those fun-lovin’ auteurs of trance music (Kraftwerk).

So, in order:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Fine. They would fit perfectly in my proposed category of Contemporary Influence. That would be a category where the Hall’s Nominating Committee, which already decides on Nonperformers, Musical Excellence, Sidemen, Early Influences and the like, induct artists who clearly influenced rock and roll during the rock and roll era, but don’t easily fit the Rock and Roll Performer category. It’s probably too late for this to happen, with perfect candidates like Miles Davis, Albert King and Muddy Waters already inducted as performers. The PBBB aren’t anywhere near as epic as those acts (or Patsy Cline or Peter, Paul and Mary, to mention a couple who could define my proposal). That being the case, they are basically taking up a spot on the ballot that would be better filled by far greater sixties’ “cult” acts like Love or Fairport Convention…or popular ones like Manfred Mann or Paul Revere and the Raiders.

Stevie Ray Vaughan: Solid, of course. I’d even call him rock and roll, since, by the time he came along, bringing straight blues to a mainstream audience was a kind of holy act. Not as holy as the Persuasions preserving–and modernizing–doo-wop into the seventies’ maybe, but honorable just the same. I could imagine voting for him, but only on a much weaker ballot than this one.

N.W.A.: Again, I could imagine voting for them (actually did vote for them the last time they were nominated), mainly as a way of honoring Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who ended up being far more consequential than their original group. Maybe next year.

Kraftwerk: If we must, shouldn’t it be Roxy Music?

Joan Jett: The thing about Joan Jett is that–except for a few sides–I’ve always liked the idea of her better than the actual music. And I can’t get this quote from Suzi Quatro (who’s never been anywhere near the ballot) out of my head, (re: how she finally got through a scene she kept muffing on the set of Happy Days): “I finally decided to imitate Joan Jett imitating me.” I guess there’s a theme here: I’m not anxious to vote for somebody when there’s a better somebody who keeps not getting nominated.

That brings me to the year’s third theme, which, thankfully, is the recognition of long overdue R&B acts from the actual rock and roll era and which made up my entire ballot:

War and Spinners: I wrote about both in depth in my previous post. They are, by far, the two most deserving acts on this ballot and two of the half dozen or so most embarrassing oversights on the Hall’s record to date. Time to end all that.

Chic: I’m actually fairly lukewarm on them. But it’s clear disco isn’t going to get any further respect–that more deserving acts like K.C. and the Sunshine Band and (especially) Barry White–aren’t getting on the ballot unless and until Chic gets in. They’ve reached double-digit nominations and they fit the year’s best theme so this was an easier-than-usual call.

The Marvelettes: No, they aren’t the Chantels or the Shangri-Las, who have been unable to breach the Induction wall because the moat of ignorance (or, just possibly, chauvinism) separating the Hall’s voters from their beholden duty is deep and wide. But they are deserving–they had Motown’s first #1 (symbolic but symbols matter) and a long string of truly great singles. Easy choice, even with the caveats.

Bill Withers: Uncategorizable (as I wrote about here). Too much his own man even to really fit in with The Rising (see the War/Spinners post for details). I suspect he’s been helped by the now easy availability of his once difficult-to-hear early catalog. But, whatever good vibes brought him from nowhere to buzz-worthy in the past year, (in the fan voting, he’s doing the best by far of the acts I’m recommending) I hope they last. His induction would represent real hope for thinking outside some of the Hall-defined boxes that have become far too small for comfort.

Or, putting it all a little more simply: This…

Over this…

I mean, the End is coming soon enough. Let’s not hit the accelerator just yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God knows there was much to answer for.

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

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

In my world none of that matters.

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

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

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

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

Take your pick.

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

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

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

 

 

2014 ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES ANNOUNCED

(For my thoughts on the artists I feel most strongly about, you can go here, here and here…Donna Summer has since been voted in)

As always, congratulations to all nominees, even those I don’t love…and best of luck. Nominees are thus:

Nirvana, Kiss, The Replacements, Hall and Oates, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Deep Purple, Peter Gabriel, LL Cool J, N.W.A., Link Wray, The Meters, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Yes, The Zombies.

My rundown…(as usual, having nothing to do with who I think will get in, just my assessment of how deserving each nominee is)

Indie/Alternative:

Nirvana’s a no-brainer. Kurt Cobain’s suicide effectively ended the rock and roll revolution that rolled out of Fats Domino’s left hand in 1950, threatening the end of hate and war. I blame us, not Cobain, for the ultimate failure but in any case you can’t get much more influential than that.

The Replacements haven’t made much impression on me. Major cool factor going for them but if we’re focusing on cult bands, I don’t really understand why they would be voted in ahead of Big Star or the New York Dolls.

Rap/Hip-Hop:

I put in a vote for N.W.A. last year (they were bound to be edged out by Public Enemy and they were), but I think this is a slightly longer and stronger ballot so I wouldn’t put them in my top five this time around.

LL Cool J has been on the ballot before and he would be a solid pick. I’m going in another direction this year, a little more true old school, but I could easily imagine picking him in another year where there was slightly less competition.

Prog/Art/Whatever:

I like radio-friendly Yes, which is about four songs. Every time I try to go deeper I get lost.

Peter Gabriel brings up one of my pet peeves, which is giving ballot slots to artists who have already been inducted (Gabriel is in as a member of Genesis). If the artist in question is a slam dunk (Michael Jackson say) or at least a truly strong candidate (Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Clyde McPhatter) then I have no problem, but I don’t think Gabriel is in that class. Again, I like his radio hits, some of them a lot. I’d probably vote for him ahead of Yes, but in my own little circumscribed world, that isn’t necessarily saying much.

Classic Rock:

Ah, Kiss. On the basis of “Domino” alone, I will definitely vote for them some day. But they would make it much easier for me if they promise to play “Beth” and “Hard Luck Woman” at the induction ceremony and then get off the stage so Ace Frehley can close the show with “New York Groove.” (And for anyone who thinks I’m kidding, all I can say is you don’t know me very well as yet. They make the decision to stand by what they were best at, I’ll vote for them in a heartbeat.)

Deep Purple have a claim on helping invent/define heavy metal and the “classic” rock format. Thinking hard….

Singer/Songwriter:

At least Cat Stevens is not a cult act in the manner of recent inductees Leonard Cohen/Tom Waits/Laura Nyro/Randy Newman. I mean, he had a string of hits, which is a quality I happen to like in a practitioner of a best-seller genre in a popular art form. But why he would be on the ballot yet again while Jackie DeShannon and Carole King (as a performer) wait in the wings is a mystery.

British Invasion:

The Zombies have been bubbling under for years and at last they’ve made the ballot. I like them fine, but if there has to be another Invasion band in the Hall (and I’m not saying that there does, though I’m also not saying I object, strictly speaking) then I would rather it be Manfred Mann. Or, given the recent induction of the Small Faces and the Faces as a single unit, why not Manfred Mann/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band? That I’d probably go for.

Funk/Disco:

Chic is a perennial nominee and they will certainly get in one of these days. I’m slightly torn on them because I like them in theory a bit better than I do in practice and I have a sneaking suspicion that their admittedly massive influence wasn’t the net positive most make it out to be. A tad detached for my tastes. Put K.C. and the Sunshine Band in this spot and I would be a bit happier. Put Barry White in this spot and I would go “duh” and put a check mark next to his name. His continued absence is bewildering….Still, on the basis of “Le Freak” and all those really great Rodgers/Edwards producing credits…I’m thinking.

The Meters are a group I’ve heard and read about a lot more than I’ve listened to and that’s on me. I should do better by them. Until I do, I’ll take a pass.

Blues Projects:

The Hall loves putting blues acts in the “performer” section of the Hall. This is as good a place as any to renew my call for a “Contemporary Influence” category, which could include seminal acts ranging from Patsy Cline to Herbie Hancock to Peter, Paul and Mary who have had a truly sizeable impact on rock and roll and the rock era generally without actually being rock and roll performers much (or any) of the time (even in the context of my own extremely broad definition of the term). It’s probably too late for that, as strictly blues performers now dot the Hall’s performer roster, as well as Miles Davis (who would have been perfect for the category and frankly still would be). Whether the Paul Butterfield Blues Band would be a true fit for that imaginary category is an interesting potentinal debate. Meanwhile, getting back to reality, I simply restate my previous call from last year: Honor Mike Bloomfield in the side-men category and start using this slot for someone else.

Rock n’ Roll:

Link Wray. Good God yes. And about time.

Top 40 Giants (Seventies/Early Eighties Division):

Hall and Oates are apparently the cause celebre of new Nomination Committee member Questlove, who evidently brought a lot of hip-hop credibility and a sense of Black America’s genuine love for the last of the blue-eyed soul giants to the process. There was a time when I would have seen this as a borderline call at best, but I’ve been familiarizing myself with their box set over the past year or so and, speaking as someone who values “hip hop credibility” about as much as I value “punk credibility,”–i.e, as another term that makes me basically want to swallow my own tongue and choke to death–I’m now calling them a no-brainer and kicking myself for needing to be reminded. Just to prove there is such a thing as personal growth, I should confess here and now that I once took out a contract on their lives when their version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was rising up the charts. Basically I felt they needed to be stopped. Boys, you may not be the Righteous Brothers, but I’m nonetheless officially glad my man Guido never found you. It’s all good now–and he probably would have come after me when he discovered I didn’t really have the ten grand after all.

I was far from the only one who suspected that the announcement of Linda Ronstadt’s Parkinson’s diagnosis might prompt the Hall to continue it’s macabre habit of noticing epic female vocalists once they have an incurable disease. As I mentioned before, at least Linda is getting off relatively easy since it’s only her voice that died, while Dusty Springfield and Donna Summer needed an actual date with the Grim Reaper in order to be deemed worthy. Then again, this is just a nomination. We’ll see how it works out in the end. For what it’s worth, Ronstadt, whose voice was the foundation stone upon which the seventies-era California Rock scene was effectively built, has been eligible since 1992. She should have been in at least fifteen years ago. A lot of people have suggested that if she ever made it out of the nominating committee she would sail to election. Now that this theory is finally being put to the test, I hope I haven’t been truly paranoid all these years in suspecting it wouldn’t be that simple. We shall see.

In summation this is a good batch of nominees though, as usual, I could imagine it being still better. I could easily vote for nearly everyone on this ballot in a given year, especially N.W.A., LL Cool J, Kiss and, of course, Nirvana. As with last year, I’m leaving off the most obvious choice (in this case, Nirvana) on the grounds that they won’t need my support. You can go to the Hall’s voting site here to cast a let-my-voice-be-heard-in-however-small-a-way ballot.

I’m casting mine for Ronstadt, Hall and Oates, Chic, Deep Purple and Link Wray.

 

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #5)

“Likewise it is hard to imagine the War on Terror having been waged without four-star commanders such as David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, John Allen, and James Mattis. They are among the most illustrious generals produced by the last decade of fighting. They are the stars of their generation. From Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, they emerged from anonymity to orchestrate campaigns that, after initial setbacks, have given the United States a chance to salvage a decent outcome from protracted counterinsurgencies; they have also literally rewritten the book on how to wage modern war successfully.”

(Source: Max Boot, “How America Lost Its Four Great Generals” Commentary, April 2013)

Sometimes it’s worth remembering that the crit-illuminati do not confine themselves to putting cross-generational choke holds on the meaning of art. They also speak of other things and lick other boots.

And, as I think I’ve mentioned before, they are nothing if not thorough.

I’m sure nothing, after all, strikes fear into the enemy–or comforts the soldiers who have made the most terrible sacrifices–like knowing that we have “a chance to salvage a decent outcome from protracted counterinsurgencies.” That we have, in short, figured out how to “wage modern war successfully.”

So, with the nuanced language of Pravda now warmly embraced, perfectly emulated and safely embedded among the “hawks”–sufficiently invested in pretending their heroes can do no wrong that they are willing to change the definitions of words like “war” or “success” or “decent” or “outcome” with little more effort or thought than most of us put into breathing–I find myself yearning for a past when LBJ’s Viet Nam-era advisors were telling him to declare victory and get the hell out of there and at least some people had an idea that–even then–it was already too late.

That we were, in effect, headed for now…Sorry to say that the sound is a bit muddied in this (visually tremendous) live version, but, then again, I didn’t have any trouble making out “waters of oblivion.” And that’s probably all you really need to hear:

Peter, Paul and Mary “Too Much of Nothing” (Live Television Performance)

[NOTE: Just for the record, I have no opinion on the military expertise or performance of the generals Boot is lauding. In the context of his own language concepts like expertise and performance have no value or meaning.]

THE ICE IS SLOWLY MELTING…THOUGHTS ON THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2013

For those who missed yesterday’s announcement, this year’s inductees are:

Rush
Public Enemy
Heart
Randy Newman
Donna Summer
Albert King

And in the non-performing categories:

Lou Adler
Quincy Jones

Congrats to all. Good year for the seventies and for black artists. And another pretty good year for women. All good signs.

Adler and Jones are solid picks by the Hall’s special committee. Given existing standards, their merits for inclusion are pretty much beyond argument.

As to the performers: Only the long overdue Summer was on my earlier list of the most deserving who aren’t in, but Heart was a very near miss and Public Enemy were first time eligible (hence, I didn’t consider them).

Randy Newman is a solid pick, especially given the Hall’s recent habit of honoring cult-level singer-songwriters (though Carole King’s absence even from the performer’s nominee list year after year still puzzles me no end–she is in as a non-performer). It does bother me a bit that I suspect at least some people are voting for these performers (Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro) in hopes that their own hero will look better on the next ballot. Sort of a “if these people are all in, how can you deny X?” argument. That being said, I think Newman is more deserving than the others and, let’s face it, voters have a right to vote however they want for whatever reason.

That leaves Rush and Albert King.

Rush clearly benefited from a long campaign by its passionate fan base, and I like the idea–now incontrovertible–that fans really do have a voice in the process, however small. I’ve been putting together lengthy mix-discs of classic rock staples for the past couple of years and I have to say I don’t really distinguish them from that genre’s average except in terms of longevity. But, hey, the average is pretty impressive, and they by no means lower any existing standards.

Albert King is trickier. While he’s worthy on purely artistic grounds, he’s also one of those artists (like Patsy Cline or Peter, Paul and Mary) who had an undeniably large influence on rock and roll without actually being rock and roll. Because these acts made their important records during the rock and roll era–and, unlike Wanda Jackson, well after that era began–they can’t reasonably (or even unreasonably as in Jackson’s case) be put in as “early influences.”

It may well be that the Hall actually needs a new category for this kind of performer. Albert King is probably closer to being a rock and roller than Miles Davis (who was inducted a few years ago and would have been perfect for this imaginary category) or the others I mentioned, but it’s a little unfair for blues guitarists to be given this path to induction (Freddie King made it on similar grounds last year) when others just as important have little chance even to be considered.

I don’t know what this proposed category should be called, incidentally, (How about just “Influence”) but the idea is definitely worth considering.

 

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Second Maxim)

Or, “Uh, oh, Hurricane Camille has a book tour…”:

To wit:

“Let’s remember how Bob Dylan broke out of folk music into the public sphere with his great song, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ which was about the fascist intrusion of Big Brother government.”

(Camille Paglia, interview with Salon.com, Oct. 10, 2012)

Paglia spent part of her interview rightly decrying the growth of the modern security state (though this particular comment was directed–in typically subtle fashion–not at say, the torture state or drone use, but at Obamacare…she gets on a roll sometimes, and the bolts holding the tire in place do tend to come loose).

To each his own in politics, but the use of a pop culture reference to signify one’s own heightened state of awareness is a modern intellectual conceit I generally find annoying even when the reference is acute.

This one is not.

I don’t really mind the suggestion that “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was “about” one particular thing when it’s really about so, so many things. Or that–as is so often the case–this particular reductionist view happens to buttress a larger point Paglia wants to get across. Or that the exercise in reductionism comes in the middle of an interview promoting a book that is supposed to be about art’s expansive qualities.

That’s all opinion anyway. Maybe she thinks the song in question really is about one particular thing that helps her make an interview point, and, if so, she certainly has a right to her misunderstanding.

But, Jesus, do they always have to be so fuzzy on the facts, these ardent Pop Art fans?

If Bob Dylan “broke out of folk music into the public sphere” with any one song–and laying aside whether folk music itself was/is so easily excluded from that public sphere (hint: there was a week just prior to the Beatles arriving in America when Peter, Paul and Mary had three of the top six albums in America and Joan Baez had a string of gold albums before Dylan, no fool he on so, so many levels, literally hooked up with her in Greenwich Village)–that song was surely not “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Yes, it was his first top 40 hit. It got the #39 in the spring of 1965. But I doubt it made him a jot more famous than he already was by virtue of Peter, Paul and Mary taking “Blowin’ In the Wind” to #2 on the Pop chart in 1963. I mean, just because Paglia has forgotten it now doesn’t mean anybody had failed to notice it then.

And if there was a leap in fame–a breaking out into some “public sphere” that actually was larger than the massive business folk music in general, and Bob Dylan’s music in particular, were already doing–then it came from the Byrds’ cover of his “Mr. Tambourine Man” which hit #1 a couple of months after “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and ushered in a mini-boom of Dylan covers making the charts, or from Dylan’s own “Like A Rolling Stone,” which got to #2 shortly thereafter and took his own voice to the very center of the culture.

But, of course, these other songs, any of which might have represented one part of Paglia’s point (i.e., Dylan’s “breakout”) accurately, could not really be construed as being “about the fascist intrusion of Big Brother government.”

Hence the fudge…automatic as breathing.

This bit of a stretch on Paglia’s part is no big deal in and of itself. But it is utterly typical of the way professional intellectuals practice the fine art of distortion. One little interview quote at a time.

Hence it deserves inclusion as the inspiration for MAXIM NUMBER TWO:

“Avoid needless embellishment. It only gives you more chances to be wrong.”