I’ll have my November book report up some time this week: Meanwhile, here’s a mini-Review of Are You There God? It’s Me Mary: The Shangri-Las and the Punk Rock Love Song. (Tracy Landecker, Rhino Books, 2012)
Okay, it was the Shangri-Las, so my slow-learning self was going to get hold of this e-book-only item somehow (thanks Ann!)….
While I certainly wouldn’t recommend Landecker’s extended essay for anyone in pursuit of just-the-elusive-facts (for that, the best resource is still here)…or else here (my debut post), it does have its merits.
First, as often happens in these cases, any serious approach tends to raise fresh angles–the odd question or uncovered factoid that gives new dimension to a familiar story.
In this case, the dark-of-night example the author uncovers is that Mary Weiss’ father was found hanging from a telephone pole when she was only a few weeks old, apparently the victim of an accident while working at his job as a repairman–and an event that seems to have emotionally destroyed her mother (if you follow the link above to the Norton interview, you’ll be able to read Weiss’ response to why she sounded like she was crying at the end of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”…basically, because she was).
That was so eerily prescient that it seemed impossible that it was also true, but a quick search around the net turned up a few Weiss interviews I had missed in the wake of her 2007 comeback and she does, in fact, confirm this in one of them.
That alone made this a worthy read for me.
But to tell the truth, Landecker also does a pretty good job of at least giving the Shangs’ myth-narrative a framework for beginners and she’s not half bad on the music itself, especially as it related to her personally (always the best way to write about rock and roll if not about everything). I can easily imagine her convincing someone who hadn’t heard, say, “He Cried,” to give it a listen–or, better yet, convincing someone who had heard it without really listening to give it another try. That’s certainly one of the objects of an exercise like this, and on that level, I think Landecker again largely succeeds.
As to the cultural analysis…Well, let’s just say to get all the way through this, you’ve got to be willing to give some slack to phrases like “ecstatic fatalism” (Interesting concept that: I mean if ecstasy really can accompany fatalism, I’ve been missing out something terrible!)
Or you might run into something like “The Shangs were liminal figures. That is, they were one of the first female groups to inhabit a strong and aggressive image usually reserved for men.” You can go here (which happened to be the first time I laid eyes on the Shangri-Las “inhabiting” their “image usually reserved for men”) and see if the attempt to reconcile this statement with the available reality makes ants run around under your collar as it did mine.
There’s a lot of that kind of thing in this essay, which is disappointing and worse, distracting. And there’s at least one statement that’s something worse than a disappointment: Namely that “The internet holds precious little information on these four women and what is available is often anecdotal, apocryphal or of a nonspecific nature at best. Perhaps they wanted it that way.” (Italics mine.)
I say worse, because I don’t think anyone who has seen this video (which Landecker’s text strongly indicates she has) could possibly think “they” wanted it that way. On the other hand, anyone who has tried to fit the jagged pieces of the group’s story together over the years can certainly attest that a lot of other people wanted it just that way.
Anything that is written about the Shangri-Las at this point–especially anything written by a passionate fan, as Landecker surely is–should be dedicated to clearing the fog, not intensifying it by allowing emotion and romanticism to override–as opposed to aid and abet–reason and reality.
What Landecker’s mixed bag approach really proves–yet again–is that, after all this time, there is still something about the Shangri-Las and their music that induces irrationality.
In that sense, the author losing the plot even in this compressed essay form is depressing….but certainly familiar.
The Shangri-Las did not merely trade new boxes for old. They stepped into a brief spotlight and invented a new way for female performers to be. The consequences have been reverberating ever since and if it doesn’t look all that revolutionary now, that’s just a measure of how right they were to be themselves in a land that had always demanded young women be anything but when they stepped out on a stage.
Landecker flirts with the why of all this, but doesn’t really penetrate beyond the surfaces this very music should have taught her to distrust. So while I do recommend this, albeit with some fairly heavy qualifications…I’ll keep hoping for better.