MARY WEISS REMEMBERS….

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

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

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

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

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

BM: Wow, me too. Same hospital!

ML: How about some family background?

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

ML: What drew you to the music?

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

ML: Do you remember when you started singing.

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

ML: Did you go to rock n’ roll shows?

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

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

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

ML: Who were you listening to?

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

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

ML: How did you meet the Ganser sisters?

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

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

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

BM: Were you the lead singer from the start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BM: An amazing producer.

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

BM: Wow! What was that like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MW: It would.

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

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

ML: It’s a complex song.

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

BM: And you did that at Mirasound in Manhattan?

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

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

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

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

MW: Absolutely. Look at the Beach Boys.

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

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

ML: Were you still in high school.

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

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

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

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

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

BM: What’d they do?

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

ML: Did the twins have similar personalities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BM: That’s wild.

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

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

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

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

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

BM: You played a bunch with the Zombies.

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

BM: What other groups did you pal around with?

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

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

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

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

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

BM: And Leiber and Stoller?

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

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

MW: I’ve heard that, too.

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

MW: Studio B. (laughs)

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

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

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

MW: Yes, on a few.

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

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

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

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

ML: Even before you had to sing your parts?

MW: Right. I was there for every step.

BM: Would they listen to your input?

MW: Oh, sure.

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

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

BM: Unmistakably the Shangri-Las.

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

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

MW: That’s my favorite, too.

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

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

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

MW: Yes, they were biggest here. Definitely.

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

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

BM: I dig “Heaven Only Knows” a lot.

MW: Really? Why’s that?

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

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

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

ML: That deliberate spoken part….

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

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

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

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

MW: I thought we all felt like that.

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

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

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

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

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

MW: Mary Ann.

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

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

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

MW: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BM: Dusty Springfield?

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

ML: Yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

ML: Yeah!

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

ML: And what did you make of the Mods?

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

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

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

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

MW: Who cares?

ML: Cool!

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

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

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

ML: But you never did.

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

ML: Did you follow the charts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

MW: How did you know that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

BM: When you gals….

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

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

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

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

ML: People tend to categorize….

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

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

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

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

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

ML: And those boots…

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

ML: Boots became your signature.

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

ML: Whose suggestion was that?

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

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

MW: Jeans don’t fit on everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

MW: Absolutely.

ML: Who designed them?

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

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

MW: Do you still have your boots from 1965?

BM: She might….

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

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

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

MW: (laughs) “Ew, get away from me!”

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

MW: WHAT ABOUT IT!? (laughs)

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

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

BM: And that you had guns….

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

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

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

ML: Now what about the night club scene?

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

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

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

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

MW: All the time. We sure were.

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

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

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

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

BM: And Philo Kvetch and Onions Oregano!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ML: Did you go back home?

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

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

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

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

MW: It was. I lost my way.

ML: Ten year sentence, that’s rough

MW: It was real rough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BM: Did Liz and Margie feel the same way?

MW: Yes, we all did.

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

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

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

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

ML: The Shangri-Las accomplished a lot.

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

ML: So where have you been?

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

ML: Cool! Welcome back.

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

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 10: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”)

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (U.S. Version-1965)
Artist: The Animals
Writers: (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil)

CIRCA 1966: Songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil pose for a portrait circa 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

(Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, circa, mid-sixties)

You’ve got to start somewhere.

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” seems to have started as an extra beat in Barry Mann’s ambitious heart.

Barry Mann the wannabe singer that is.

Barry had a big hit in the early sixties with “Who Put the Bomp” one of those great half-serious, half-goofy odes to rock and roll transcendence that occasionally lit up the charts back then. It wasn’t quite as great as Johnny Cymbal’s “Mr. Bass Man,” but it was still pretty darn great. That said, even “Mr. Bass Man” wasn’t quite the sort of record for a singer to build a career on. Too much competition in those halcyon days for “now what” to be the logical question about a follow up.

Besides, everybody knew who Barry Mann was. Barry Mann was a songwriter, and, especially after he met his soulmate, Cynthia Weil, a very great songwriter. (Of the three marriage/partner teams around whom the Brill Building was built, Mann and Weill were the ones who wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the ones whose marriage lasted–they call it art for a reason)

But Mann didn’t exactly give up on his idea of being both a singer and a songwriter. After the advent of the Beatles and the rise of Bob Dylan, he probably started getting ideas. And who could blame him?

If they can do it, why not me?

So he planned and schemed and wrote and used his contacts and his talent to put pressure on the powers-that-be. It wasn’t too long before he secured a recording contract with Red Bird records and decided the demo he was shopping to the Righteous Brothers (as a followup to “Lovin’ Feeling”…there’s run for you) would make his own perfect debut.

Thus he recorded this:

Not bad. Kinda different, which wasn’t the curse in those days it is now. A little murky on the production end, maybe, and Barry Mann wasn’t a Righteous Brother, let alone, two Righteous Brothers. But lots of records of similar quality found their way up the charts even in that hyper-competitive era. It could have happened for Barry.

Certainly what happened next had to leave him wondering if it was his singing career’s great might-have-been.

animals

The Animals, whose producer, Mickie Most, had been slipped a demo by the era’s most ubiquitous hustler, Allen Klein (he’d later end up managing both the Beatles and the Stones), had recorded their own version for the UK market. It had been released there days before Mann’s record was set to be released in the U.S. Mann and Weil’s overseer and friend, Brill Building honcho Don Kirshner came to break the news.

The Animals’ version had come out that week and smashed high on the British charts.

Cynthia Weil had one question.

“How do we keep it from coming out over here?”

Answer:

“We can’t.”

The Animals eventually hit #2 in the UK, with this, the “correct” official version.

Better. It was kept out of the UK top spot by the Beatles’ “Help,” which was the kind of record it took in those days to keep a record like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from climbing all the way up the mountain. In the UK, at least.

If this were the only version that existed, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” might still have become all the things it did become: a trans-Atlantic smash; a permanent oldies’ staple in both countries; something close to the official anthem of Viet Nam grunts stuck in the jungle mud, forever being asked to take some plot of ground which the brass already fully intended to give back at all costs.

Something funny happened, though, along the way.

Somehow or other, a version that was never meant to see the light of day ended up being shipped to the States and becoming the American hit.

Remarkably, what became to be known as the “U.S. version” was the stronger record (and I’m sure I’m not just saying that because I heard it first and most). The rhythm was tighter. Eric Burdon’s fine original vocal was replaced by one of his fiercest yowls. The slightly langorous space around the beat was squeezed out. The distance between lament and fury was squeezed out along with it.

More than all that, two key lyric changes were made (they’d already improved slightly on Mann’s original). One of the changes was real: “Watch my daddy in bed a dyin'” became “See my daddy in bed a dyin'” which was, as Mark Twain might have had it, the lightning bug turned into lightning, not to mention a lot more singable.

But I have to confess it was the other lyric change, the “imaginary” one, that always grabbed me.

At the top of Mann’s version, the “real” lyric was clearly “In this dirty old part of the city,” and, in the subsequent UK and “live” versions, Eric Burdon clearly sang those words.

But what I heard for years, in the “U.S.” version–and what I hear now, is the far more forceful and poetic “In the still eye of the city.”

Or, if you like:

“in the still-l-l-l EYE of the city…”

Now, I know those aren’t the real words. No lyric sheet anywhere on the internet suggests such a change. No live version Burdon has sung, from the mid-sixties to yesterday, that I can find on YouTube, suggests he ever so much as thought of singing any words except “In this dirty old part of the city.”

Even the recorded UK version doesn’t quite suggest it, though if you listen close you could almost get confused.

But the U.S. version–the one most Americans heard for two decades, before the CD releases began and Klein, still owning the master, began insisting on the “proper” version being the only version–exchanges all that clarity for another sort of clarity.

Namely, that, whatever technological trick (or malfunction) was applied to the accidental release–whatever splicing or compression gave my ear “still eye” where “dirty old part” should have been, doubled the record’s power and turned “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from a really good record into something that actually deserved everything it became.

These days, you can find the “U.S.” version on a comp or two (2004’s Retrospective has it for sure). You can also hear it on YouTube…

..and, of course, you are free to hear it any way you want. Just don’t think you’re gonna change what I hear.

That’s hardly where the story ends. In whatever version,  “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” went as many places, affected as many lives, as any record ever has.

The most interesting story I ever heard was some years back on Public Radio. Mann and Weil were being interviewed by Terry Gross, and, inevitably, the subject of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” came up. Gross was well aware of the song’s history and pressed them for details on their feelings about having what was supposed to have been Mann’s big shot at a solo career effectively pulled from under him by a twist of fate.

About that, Mann waxed philosophical. Regrets, sure, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t had a great life.

Then Gross asked if he preferred his own version to the Animals. Mann danced around the question for maybe two minutes before conceding that, yes, maybe the Animals’ version was better. It became the hit, after all.

Eventually, he quit talking.

Without being asked, Cynthia Weil immediately added:

“I prefer the version by Barry Mann.”

After which I no longer needed to wonder why theirs was the marriage–and the partnership–that lasted.

A LOT OF PEOPLE TALK ABOUT MARCHING TO THE BEAT OF THEIR OWN DRUMMER….(Shadow Morton, R.I.P.)

Once in a while, somebody actually does….

In the history of rock and roll–which has turned out more than its share of feet that refuse to fall in line–George Morton veered as far from any previously beaten path as any one man ever could.

The exact means by which he met a Queens girl group who were already calling themselves the Shangri-Las and had released a couple of energetic, though not terribly distinctive singles with their oldest member, seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Weiss, as the lead singer and then coaxed them into recording a demo called “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” in the heady summer of 1964 with their youngest member, Elizabeth’s fifteen-year-old sister Mary, on the lead, remains mysterious, if only because no one has ever seemed to ask Mary Weiss the exactly right questions and it never mattered in the least what kind of questions anybody asked George Morton.  He was always far more prone to telling the stories in his own fertile head than in pinging just because somebody else ponged.

He came by that nickname “Shadow” honestly.

In any case, with some nods of the head from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and some production assistance from Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, that first demo became a record (Morton’s first song and first production–co-equal acts of genius that–as found poetry–soared past even Phil Spector).

Then the record became a hit and it went all kinds of places and had–and continues to have–all kinds of impact. (For the specific impact it had on me, fifteen years later, you can go here.)

After that, there were more hits. Big ones like “Leader of the Pack” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and modest-but-legendary ones like “Out in the Streets” and “Past, Present and Future.”

Enough for Morton to convince himself it was really all down to him and that, like Spector, he could develop a full stable of talent. So, with some help from the collapse of the Shangri-Las’ record label (Red Bird–George Goldner, genius record man and incurable gambling addict, was involved, so it went the way of all record labels in which George Goldner was involved–into the ever-gaping maw of organized crime), he moved on.

Of course, even Phil Spector hadn’t developed a really full stable and Morton didn’t come close. He wasn’t really a talent scout at all. He was a record man with great-but-crazy ideas who had happened to hook up with the one singer in the world who could sell his great-but-crazy ideas as genuinely bone-chilling, hair-raising, rock and roll drama.

And in later years, to his ever-lasting credit, he was man enough to admit it.(You can go here to see one version of his remorse, but, once he got onto the idea, he never backed away from it.)

That is not to say that he was without considerable talent. Janis Ian couldn’t make “Society’s Child” bone-chilling, but she did make it a hit (she wrote, he produced). Iron Butterfly gave him the credit for getting “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”–arguably the first heavy metal record–into manageable shape, which made him a whole different kind of auteur. And there were interesting things with Vanilla Fudge and, especially. the New York Dolls, the proto-punk geniuses who were/are difficult to imagine outside of the Shangri-Las’ (and therefore Morton’s own) mighty shadow.

But it’s those girls from Queens who ended up defying time and space. And teasing out whether he needed Mary Weiss more than she needed him or vice versa will always be an impossible task and a fool’s game.

I’m a believer in voices and in the idea that the great voices find their own way more often than not. But no singer ever found a more perfect match for her unique sensibilities than Weiss did with Morton and the brevity of their collaboration was both a miracle (in that it happened at all) and a near-tragedy (in that we’re left to forever wonder what else they might have brought out of each other if fate had been just a little kinder).

…Then again they made moments like this possible. And if ensuring the rarity of moments like this are one of God’s grand jokes, well….Who am I to complain?

The Shangri-Las “Out in the Streets” (Television performance, 1965)

And in case you want to actually hear the record:

The Shangri-Las “Out in the Streets” (Studio recording with very nicely done video-comp that includes some genuinely stunning photos, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich writers, George Morton producer)

And, as the finest possible epitaph…a taste of what might have been:

The Shangri-Las “I’ll Never Learn” (Studio recording, Sandy Hurwitz (aka Essra Mohawk) writer, George Morton producer)

Shadow Morton left this particular plane via cancer on February 14.

Here’s hoping there’s still room in heaven for the misfits.

WHERE I CAME IN…

I grew up in a musical household. My mother was director, vocal coach, choral arranger and principal soloist for the church choir (youth and adult most of the time) and eager participant in any community chorus that asked. She walked around the house humming arrangments, picking out tunes on the piano, exercising her voice, practicing runs for operatic solos. She collected sheet music and choir books: pop, folk and religious. I still have them packed away in about ten boxes–her version, I realized only after she was gone, of my record collection.

She didn’t go much for records herself.

Perhaps her depression-raised sensibility saw them as a luxury. In any case she didn’t need them.

However much she loved others, to her, music was what she could make of it and what you could make of it. She had the performer’s instinct for absorbing what was in the air for the purpose of sharing it and then moving on to the next thing she could share. She wasn’t really formally trained musically but her talent and commitment were deep enough that she could hear in seconds what might take a talented amateur ear like mine months or years to pick up.

No comment she made about music was ever less than astute and thus my informal training (she frequently urged me, incidentally, to pursue it some way or other and that I didn’t was my loss just as she knew it would be–youth only happens once) was considerable.

Musically speaking, I was prepared for everything I heard in the world at large.

Or so I thought.

I’ve been chasing what the world wanted to share with me–musically speaking–since about nineteen seventy-five, which was when I first realized you could actually walk into a store and buy the stuff you heard on the radio (which I had also just started listening to on a regular basis).

Granted I only had a few dollars here and there at that point and not much more for years afterward, but I was fairly discriminating. Whatever I could get, I latched onto and whatever I heard that I couldn’t get, I stored in the memory bank.

Lots of things thrilled me in those early years.

Nothing shook me.

I didn’t hear the Sex Pistols’ records when they first came out for instance. But, if I had, they wouldn’t have made any more impression on me than they did five years later when I bought that famous first-and-only LP of theirs which is still there on the shelf, played maybe three times in the thirty years since.

I don’t mean that as reverse snobbery. It’s just that I’d grown up with “Ode to Billy Joe” (courtesy of my sister’s left-behind 45 collection) and “Blood Red and Going Down,” (courtesy of the country radio that was ubiquitously playing when my mother’s friends drove her to the endless doctor’s appointments),  not to mention “Power In the Blood,” (courtesy of Sunday mornings in the pews). I was pretty sure I couldn’t be shook.

Musically speaking.

I was mostly right, too. Wrong only once.

So we’ll start this blog there–with me being shook:

*  * * *

I’m standing in a shopping mall record store in Panama City (the one in Florida, not the one in Panama where the U.S. Marine Corps arranges for new bosses to replace the old bosses every now and then).

It’s 1979.

I’ve been gone all summer so it has to be some time in the fall.

I have my spending money–what’s left of fifty dollars maybe–in my pocket…

45s were still hanging on in those days and the stores–the mall stores anyway–put them in bins. Current hits arranged by chart position, oldies alphabetically.

By 1979 I was mostly interested in oldies.

So I stood there after an hour or so, weighing my options. I had picked out the number of records I could afford, plus a few more, then went through the daunting process of culling until I was down to holding my last two “maybes” in my hand.

Then I re-figured the cash total in my head and accepted that, yes, I had to leave one more of them behind.

Mind you it was going to be six months–more likely a year–before I got back to this, the only real record store within reach.

College kid. Heck I wasn’t supposed to be spending fifty dollars (which wasn’t all for records since gas and Big Mac money were being deducted–I had to drive seventy miles each way to get to that particular mall–the nearest one that sold oldies, and, yes, there were a couple of albums under my arm as well).

That’s not a play for belated sympathy–the world was a mean place then as now and I’m well aware that it’s been a whole lot meaner  to others than to me–just a reminder that an actual decision was involved.

No file-sharing back then.

One of the records I held in my hand was “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las. I can’t say what the other one was. Memory does not permit. But I remember I had never really heard either record. I just knew they were big hits from the sixties and I had a by-then well established track record of liking just about anything thus defined.

I also had a habit of perusing a book called Rock Almanac, which told me what those hits were.

As I stood there, literally staring at the two records, trying to decide which one to add to the final stack–pretty much asking one of them to circumvent the trivial laws of nature and speak to me, burning bush style–I happened to flip “Leader of the Pack” over and see that a song called “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” was on the other side. Vaguely–and then not so vaguely–I recalled that it had been a big hit as well (according to Rock Almanac).

“Sure. Number five in sixty-four,” I would have thought. I had a mind that worked like that back then. (And, actually, it probably still would work that way–if it still worked.)

Anyway, I looked at the flip side of the other destined-to-be-purchased-at-some-later- date-but-never-again-to-be-connected-to-this-moment record.

Nothing rang a bell.

The Shangri-Las it was.

No doubt as I was going through the rest of this process–decision to buy, re-binning the discard, trip to the counter, slightly weightless walk to my ’71 Maverick bereft of the fall of seventy-nine’s spree-money, long drive home, sift through the stack deciding what to play first–the only real analysis of the Shangri-Las I had ever read to that point was wafting around in my head, touching down here and there, pressing on things.

Memory.

Nerve ends.

Something.

I may have even pulled out Rock Almanac (full title: Rock Almanac: Top Twenty American and British Singles and Albums of the 50s, 60s and 70s–with a title like that, I find it sort of satisfying that you can look at the spine these days and tell it’s pretty close to being the oldest book in the music section of my library) when I got home and given it a once over as I was listening to all the doubtless wonderful records I had purchased that day. (Can’t say for sure that’s what I did but it’s possible. Even likely…I told you I had a weird mind…Back then.)

If I didn’t do this specific bit of recall-research beforehand I certainly did it after.

The “analysis” was from an article in the beginning of the Almanac by someone named Mark Sten (whose by-line I have never seen anywhere else). The article was titled–or mis-titled–”The In-Between Years (1958–1963).” Near the end, whenever it was I got around to looking, I would have found these words:

“It’s kind of sad the Shangri-Las got so camp so fast, because their first record (“Remember” 5:8/64) was a killer, futuristic in its leaden, chorded heaviness, with one of the best climaxes on wax. She really was an excellent singer, the best blonde in the business, gifted with a powerful, expressive delivery and one of the half-dozen most distinctive voices of the whole girl-group period. Besides, she’s dead.”

So–if I remembered a previous reading or bothered to look it up when I got home that day–that, plus a few chart positions and dates next to the titles of records, was the sum total of what I knew about a sixties’ girl group called the Shangri-Las when I cued up “Leader of the Pack.”

The record itself knocked me over. I played it twice in a row, which was rare anytime and unheard of when I had a stack of new forty-fives on hand. I mean, even if I knew I was going to wear a record out, I didn’t play it twice in a row right out of the box!

So yeah, the record impressed me mightily, but I think I also wanted to make sure I had heard the whole thing correctly–wasn’t the girl in the song supposed to be dead, too…just like the “Leader of the Pack?,” not to mention “the best blonde in the business?”

Had I missed the part where she was narrating as a ghost?

It seemed more than likely, but, no, I listened extra close that second time and there was no doubt–she had lived through that one.

Whew!

Then, as I was about to move on through the stack…I remembered.

There’s a hit on the other side.

Oh well, I’ve already got it out of the sleeve.

Might as well give it a spin….

*   *   * *

Look, I was gonna be a record junkie anyway. If my fate hadn’t been sealed the day I heard the Four Seasons doing “December, 1963” on the radio (December, 1975), there was certainly no turning back after The Byrds Greatest Hits and “Turn, Turn, Turn” made the journey from the Woolco bargain bin to my cheap-o record player the week I graduated from high school (June, 1978).

I mean, I was studying chart books and so desperate to learn things about those charts and the people who put records on them that I was reading lines like “She was the best blonde in the business….Besides, she’s dead,” and thinking if such things didn’t quite make any sense, the fault must lie in me…in my own lack of understanding!

(And if you think that’s a non sequiter, let me tell you that the next line in Sten’s article–standing alone, utterly unconnected to anything that came before or after was:

“Flo Ballard was on welfare when she died.”

Flo Ballard, for those who may not know, was an original member of the Supremes. And–unlike the “best blonde in the business,” who is healthy, happy and still touring occasionally these days–was actually dead. Hah! Try figuring that one out!)

What I’m saying is: when you think garbled syntax is not garbled syntax but a mystery worth solving just because you want there to be mysteries worthy of the records you are listening to, you’re already a goner.

So “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” didn’t change me that way.

It just shook me. Shook me in a way no record–really, no art–had before or has since.

I played it six, seven, eight times in a row. (I doubt if I could have given you an exact number even then–after about the second time the needle rose to be placed again at the beginning, such things stopped mattering. And if you want a measure of how disorienting the whole experience was, feel free to stop and reflect on what the comforting exactitude of real-life numbers might have meant to an eighteen-year-old who kept testing near-genius level in math even though he hated it and could stand in a record store seventy miles from his house in 1979 and decide to buy a record he had never heard because the flip side was “number five in sixty-four.”)

In the end I simply couldn’t process it and that was what really knocked me off-center. I just didn’t get it! I couldn’t even really enjoy the record–no matter how wonderful the sound, no matter how haunting that voice on the top of the maelstrom was–because I simply couldn’t get my mind around it.

So–in the months and years to come–since I never could really process “Remember (Walkin’ In the Sand),” I chased the Shangri-Las….

Most particularly, I chased “the best blonde in the business.”

I will say that even at the very beginning, after those six-seven-eight spins of “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” it made perfect sense to me that she was dead.

But how had it happened and when? Bear in mind that the record itself had only been recorded fifteen years earlier–within my young lifetime if not quite within my memory.

And it was monumental. Earth-shattering.

Heck it had even been a big hit.

So there had to be some hard news about it somewhere. Something more than Rock Almanac was giving me.

Well–as those months and years eventually revealed–there was and there wasn’t.

Oh sure, somewhere down the line–I don’t even recall exactly where–I decided to believe that the Shangri-Las really had consisted of four young women from Queens, NY, including two brunette twins named Marge and Mary Ann Ganser and two blonde sisters named Mary and Betty (or Liz, or Elizabeth) Weiss. Some time a long, long time after that I decided to believe that Mary Weiss had actually been the lead singer who reoriented my world in the fall of nineteen seventy-nine, and was–happily–still alive.

Less happily, since I came to accept that much, I also had to accept that some of the others really were no longer with us.

Certitude did indeed set in–more or less.

As of 1971 (or 1972), Mary Ann Ganser was dead. Of ecephalitis. Or, depending on the source, a drug overdose….

Unless, of course, you believed Dave Marsh’s (otherwise invaluable) The Heart of Rock and Soul: 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, published in 1987, where she was listed as the (very specifically) blonde lead singer.

Which would mean the Weiss sisters were the brunettes and the Gansers were the blondes…and maybe it was Mary Weiss who had died of encephalitis or an overdose.

As of 1996 Marge Ganser was also dead, of cancer….

Unless, of course, you believed Robert Christgau, who reported to Greil Marcus’ Real Life Top Ten column of June 30, 2004 (then appearing for the last time in City Pages) on a then-recent concert in New York City where Marge Ganser (“the one who didn’t die of a barbiturate overdose”–you can already guess how reliable that particular nugget was/is) was leading a group of fake Shangri-Las, who included her daughter, through a batch of uninspired, generic oldies.

I’m going to make this easy for you and just say that Marsh, Marcus and Christgau, the three biggest names in rock criticism and all professed fans of the Shangri-Las, were all–like the first part of “Leader of the Pack,” the official vinyl Mercury release of Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las and the Dutch import Leader of the Pack, (each of which identified “Betty” as the lead singer), and, like a volume on “death discs” I once picked up in a book store, (which identified Marge Ganser as the lead)–really, really wrong.

Mary Ann Ganser really did die in 1971 (or 1972)–of something.

Marge Ganser really did die–childless, like all the Shangri-Las except Elizabeth Weiss–of cancer, in 1996.

Mary Weiss really is alive, well and blonde. And she really did sing lead on the vast majority of the Shangri-Las’ records (and on all the great ones, which–thanks to her–were just about all of them).

She came out of the shadows in 2007 to make a (very fine) solo album after forty years in retirement and give a batch of extremely revealing interviews which blew most of the silly myths that had grown up around the Shangri-Las and their music to smithereens and–unbelievably, because this is quite rarely the case–replaced them with truths that were far more interesting (the best of those interviews can still be found at the Norton Records website).

This chasing and verifying over the course of what you can now see was an unreasonably long search (i.e., half a lifetime) for information that should have been readily obtainable could never be abandoned–never quite work its way out of my craw–for a few reasons.

The first reason is/was that when somebody does something that alters the shape of my existence, I’d just like to know as much about them as possible.

Starting with their actual names.

The second reason–or maybe the first reason–is/was the music I found. Wherever, whenever.

Expensive import in chain record store. Falling apart cassette in 24-hour grocery bargain bin. Beat-up Red Bird 45 in a used record store. Cheap knock-off import LP. Comps. Original Mercury 45’s from their late career move.

Didn’t matter. When I came across anything by them that had even one song I didn’t have, I bought it and a whole lot more often than not, what I found just deepened the mystery and the need to know more–or at least find that next missing record that might finally explain everything!

The third reason is/was that my experience chasing the Shangri-Las–with being continually told one true thing after another only to find it soon contradicted by another true thing which I had no cause to believe was either more nor less valid than the first true thing–made me also realize that the thing we most desperately want to be true very often finds its validity in our desperation rather than anything resembling objective proof.

A lot of people wanted the mysteries of the Shangri-Las–and those of many, many others who were, perhaps not coincidentally, the wrong race (any but white), the wrong gender (female), the wrong class (working) or some combination thereof–to remain mysteries.

There was something perhaps quite wonderful in their music–and something perhaps quite ugly in the way people who step out of the shadows to claim a space no one has ever claimed before are likely to be judged even by the most enlightened members of an intelligentsia that is bound to represent (i.e., to receive paychecks from) the prevailing interests who pushed those voices to the margins in the first place–that called for this to be so.

Me, I just kept hoping the same thing for them that I hoped for everybody else who had stepped out of those shadows to sing or play or write the records that kept me off of suicide watch at the institutions designed for such through the years.

I kept hoping they were alright.

That the solace they brought me had, by some miracle, not cost them as much as I–the son of a very great singer who never had a chance to make a record–suspected it might have.

Maybe in the case of the Shangri-Las I hoped it a little more–was a little more saddened by the fate of those who didn’t make it through, a little more gladdened by the fate of those who did–because when I was eighteen years old, I already knew I was going to have to work at staying afloat–call it staying sane if you like–and that the cheap, disposable objects I named this blog after were my ticket out.

Encountering “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” was the can’t-turn-back moment when I realized the real value of rock and roll–why it was so culturally cataclysmic in both the frightening and the exhilarating senses of that word: It was the one place in the center of my culture–the one place out of the shadows and into the light–where every voice had a chance to count.

So if this blog is going to be about any one thing it will be about that.

Studying and appreciating voices that have made themselves count.

If you don’t get that–or don’t want to–be warned you probably won’t find any of this very useful or interesting.

If you do get it–or want to–welcome aboard…