HOSS OF HOSSES (Waylon Jennings, Vocalist of the Month: 8/16)

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 16: Country musician Waylon Jennings performs onstage with his Fender Telecaster electric guitar at the Palomino on June 16, 1970 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Near the end of Dawn at Socorro, one of those lean-as-a-tomcat westerns Hollywood turned out every other day in the fifties, Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-reform-and-waitin’-for-a-train gunfighter has somebody else’s gun handed to him at the station and is told destiny will be along “in two minutes.”

The station master pokes his head out of the office to ask if he knows who’s coming for him.

“My past,” Calhoun’s Brett Wade says, just before he steps into the street where he’ll gun down four men to keep a girl he met the day before from having to some day say the same. “Every dark, miserable day of it.”

Every great country singer’s voice carries some version of that lament within but Waylon Jennings was its most perfect embodiment.

Partly it was a matter of persona. But, regarding some matters, persona isn’t enough. Sometimes, you can’t even talk the talk without first walking the walk.

In the salons and “scenes” where the importance of everything is decided for the rest of us, Waylon’s old comrade-in-arms, Willie Nelson, is the hip one, the name-dropped one, the artiste, the one who nobody would want living in the neighborhood exactly (I mean, who’s so gauche he can’t even fox the taxman?), but who would definitely be fun at parties. If somebody’s on PBS right now talking about how they just love those “rough-voiced” eccentrics who didn’t sing too pretty, they might throw Willie in there with Louis Armstrong or Bob Dylan or even Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.

I only know this because I’ve heard them do it.

A lot.

They don’t throw in Waylon.

Oh, they’ll speak fondly of him if his name happens to come up.

Wasn’t he friends with Willie?

Such an outlaw, too. They started that whole thing, you know. Good for them!

I mean who at PBS or the Voice doesn’t love an outlaw?

They’re always a little reserved, though. Sure they love Waylon.

But they always want to get back to talking about Willie.

Or something.

Anything.

And that makes sense, because deep down, I don’t think even the dimmest pinot-sipper in the land fails to understand that if they ever find themselves in a hinterland roadhouse (presumably on some assignment roughly equivalent to reporting from the African bush), they’ll be in a world that sure does love old Willie and sure does know he’s great….and sure knows he ain’t Waylon.

When you cross that old Red River of the heart, boys, Waylon Jennings is still the king.

 *   *   *   *

How and why?

The outline of the tale is familiar. Buddy Holly’s band. Lost a coin flip for a seat on the plane.

I’ll be nice and warm at the next stop while you’re freezin’ your ass off on that bus son.

Yeah, well I hope your old plane crashes!

Words to that effect.

The future waiting to be born, son.

Every dark, miserable day of it.

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Then the rest. An all but inevitable guilt-and-recovery period in West Texas followed by the usual road to Nashville and as conventional a stardom as a genuine eccentric can have. Hits. The Opry. Whiskey river. Nicotine stains. Life on the road in a hillbilly band.

And, all along the way, a series of accumulations: of wisdom, hard knocks, gravitas, a catch in the throat. Always the spiritual and physical pull back to Texas, where, more or less inevitably, “outlaw” morphed from an attitude into what should have been a pretty disposable image, a way to sell records for a few years until the next thing came along.

Except with Waylon, it was more than just a phase. The word fit any number of people, but he was the only one who made it sound necessary, while also keeping a claim on the top of the country charts for as long as any of the perfectly respectable superstars aiming for the middle of the road. Between the “just try and make me give a shit” world represented by Billy Joe Shaver and the “send my regrets” aspirational world represented by someone as tough as even Merle Haggard, there was no guarantee of a fit–no guarantee that anyone could sing from the other side of the tracks without even pretending he wanted to cross over. Waylon Jennings was one of those singers the world didn’t know it needed–and who maybe didn’t know it needed him–until he found his true voice.

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You can hear every step of that journey, including the discomfort with form-and-formula’s easy promises that meant he would eventually have to strike out down his own path, and the disdain for form-and-formula’s easy rewards that meant no easy hat–not even the outlaw hat–would ever quite fit his head, on Nashville Rebel, the superb box set from 2006.

It’s a long way from being the only Waylon you’ll ever need, but it’s still a stunning overview, and with 93 cuts that stretch from 1958 to 1995, it’s a deep dive.

You could go deeper. Just for starters, this doesn’t have his originals of “Broken Promise Land” (an album cut that was later a fine hit for Mark Chestnutt) or “Where Corn Don’t Grow” (a stiff that was later an even finer hit for Travis Tritt). I mean when you can leave this of your four-disc box set, you’re catalog is pretty much bottomless:

A close listen to that cut goes some way toward explaining why the taste-makers have never quite been comfortable embracing Waylon’s music, however much they pretend to be enamored of his image. There’s a tremulous catch that’s forever threatening to break into a sob, a device he used more than occasionally on ballads. It’s a device familiar to Pentecostal Sunday mornings, where it’s used almost exclusively by rough-hewn males overcome by some regret, real or imagined.

And with Waylon, as with the sinners he was emulating–or honoring–it’s not always possible to extricate the real emotion from the professional showmanship. Is that a true catch in his throat, or one carefully summoned for the occasion?

This, too, is a common thread among country singers, one shared with white gospel singers the way shoutin’-n’-moanin’ is shared by black gospel and soul singers. On either side of that narrow divide, sometimes the raw emotion is too real for words, sometimes too synthetic for advertising. Either way, in the voices of of the greats, it’s always posited as a means of not merely striving to connect experiences, but of telling the true believers (that is, the ones who know which part of the fakery is meant only for them and is, oddly, therefore earned) from the deep-dyed poseurs (who are always certain their b.s. detector is superior to yours) .

Waylon Jennings, who could calculate a sloppy tear-in-the-beer as well as any pew-bound side-burned car salesman who ever lived, teased out the distinctions between hard truth (lived!) and careful constructs (imagined!…or “faked”) like no one else this side of Solomon Burke. It’s a quality Robert Christgau once summed up as “grease.”

But the audience Waylon sang for knew grease doesn’t always mean Brylcreem. Sometimes it means you’ve been working the gears. Sometimes it means you’re shiny with sweat. Yeah, it still means the word-slingers at the Village Voice are looking down on you. It means that, no matter how you cut it. But some of those definitions earn you the right to slough off the others. You sweat enough, work enough, and everybody who did the same will cut you some slack on the grease-stain your head leaves on the pillow case. There are places where your work ethic–finally inextricable from your willingness to continually put yourself on the line between art and showmanship–will earn you a sneer.

Other places it just means you are walking the walk

*   *   *  *

So Waylon Jennings, with the perfect name, perfect biography, perfect voice, perfect set of sins, walked the walk up one side of country stardom and down the other.

Up to Nashville…

Disc 1-4:

Disc 1-13:

Disc 1-19:

Where some part of him could never quite fit…

Disc 1-24:

And there was no choice except to keep shearing away everything that wasn’t strictly necessary, while he walked down the other side of the slippery slope where everybody expects you to take a header…

Disc 2-8 and 2-18:

Until, if you surprise everybody and manage to stay upright, somebody in the advertising department has to come up with the obvious and call you “Outlaw”…

Disc 2-22:

Which turns out to be just a way to hide in plain sight while you dig deeper…

Disc 2-20:

After which, you have a chance to do your schtick …

Disc 3-9:

Disc 3-20:

And then, having proved yourself four times over, you earn a chance, just every once in a while, to be free…

Disc 4-6:

Disc 4-15:

Like all the greatest singers in any genre, The Hoss carried the weight of everything he had done–for and to himself, for and to others–in even his slightest performances. More than most great singers, there came a time he had done enough for and to everybody that nothing was ever really slight. Which is why this box tracks all the way to the end.

Disc 4-20:

So long Slick.

Back in the land where most of us got called Hoss by somebody or other, we haven’t forgot who the real Hoss is….

Disc 3-1:

…or that the first requirement is the ability to laugh at yourself

Waylon Jennings: 1937-2002

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(Note: I’m going to make an extra effort to get the Vocalist of the Month category going again. As part of the new day, I’m going to recommend some good starting points for anyone not already familiar with the artist. As always, I ask you to consider clicking through my site’s icon if you want to buy anything from Amazon. I get a few pennies on the dollar and any proceeds go to supporting the site or purchasing material for review.)

Recommended:

Box Set:

Nashville Rebel (2006) A fantastic box, partially reviewed above, which stretches from the late fifties to the mid-nineties. There’s no better place to get a firm grasp on the scope of Jennings’ achievement. What I’ve linked above is a smattering.

Best of:

Time Life Legendary Country Singers (1996) On the other hand, if you want to limit yourself to the highlights, you can’t beat this collection, which is long out of print but tends to be readily available cheap and used.

Studio Albums:

Lonesome, On’ry and Mean (1973)
Dreaming My Dreams (1975)
Turn the Page (1985)

The pick of the litter from the half dozen or so I own. I imagine there are a dozen more of the same quality but these give a good sense of what was going on behind the hits.

Live Album:

Waylon Live! Expanded Edition (2003) A good bet for the greatest live country collection and a match for any live music released in any genre. This turns the excellent album he released in 1976 into a two-hour dream show that doesn’t quit. One of those moments (or series of related moments) when everything comes together…and everything clicks.

THE RISING: BATTLE OF THE L.A. BANDS EDITION (Fifth Memo)

Los Angeles in the 70s: Who would you trust?

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Steely Dan….or War?

H-m-m-m.

Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.

I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.

Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.

Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.

By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.

First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.

Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:

Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.

In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.

Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.

I’m not sure I could blame him.

It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.

I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer

The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.

About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.

Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.

*   *   *   *

They had a lot in common besides that.

They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:

War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.

Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)

That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.

I’ll lay into that in a bit.

But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:

Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).

Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).

Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).

Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.

Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.

Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).

And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.

So it goes.

None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.

So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.

It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.

Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.

How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?

Hm-m-m-m…Could be?

Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.

*   *   *   *

Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:

WARALLDAYMUSIC

CANTBUYATHRILL

I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.

Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.

I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.

Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?

All of the above?

None of the above?

Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).

And if it takes reading Donald Fagen’s biography to find out, I’m probably never gonna know.

A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.

In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.

This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.

The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.

Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.

Unless, of course, we just want to give up.

*   *   *   *

And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?

Maybe recognition of something elemental?

Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?

That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.

What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?

Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.

Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.

Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.

That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.

Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.

The way black people just naturally are.

On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the  Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.

They were thinkers by God!

Philosophers.

Artiste‘s even.

And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…

Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…

And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”

Ha, ha, ha.

That’s one side.

And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:

“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”

Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.

So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”

That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.

*  *  *  *

Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.

Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.

Ever.

Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.

They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.

Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.

It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)

And they did not do so “instinctively.”

They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.

Quite the opposite.

*    *    *   *

Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.

Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.

Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.

And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.

So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.

Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.

In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.

In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.

But War went further.

Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.

There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.

By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.

They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.

But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?

Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.

Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.

So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.

To be fair, War faded as well.

Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.

Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.

Hardly cosmic.

It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.

Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.

But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.

Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:

Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.

The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.

The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.

The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”

War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.

And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.

In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.

They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time

*   *   *   *

War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.

Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”

The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.

And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.

Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.

It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.

Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.

And if there is no judgment?

Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.

And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.

MY FAVORITE DOUBLE LP (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

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I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”

It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.

Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:

Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)

Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)

The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)

Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)

Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)

Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)

Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)

The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)

London Calling The Clash (1979)

The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)

1999 Prince (1982)

Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)

Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)

I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.

That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.

So it goes.

My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dime for reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life,  The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.

Besides Tusk, that leaves:

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These, I’ve obsessed over.

Some time or other.

Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.

Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.

Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.

That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.

Boy, do I feel foolish.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?

Well, maybe.

One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.

And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.

You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.

But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?

Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.

And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).

For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.

Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.

There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,”  in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Before I have to put this knife in your throat.

All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.

That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.

Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.

Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.

It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.

But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.

Too bad for us and too bad for them.

And I really wish I could stop listening.

But I can’t.

(NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC)

COWBOY (Glenn Frey, R.I.P.)

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In the days when harmony ruled, there was apparently a legal requirement that any harmony group aspiring to royalty have a resident asshole. In the Everlys, it was Don. In Simon & Garfunkel, it was Simon. In the Beach Boys, it was Mike Love. In the Beatles, it was John Lennon. In the Byrds it was David Crosby.

By most accounts, the Eagles, arriving late and assigned by history to close down the party, doubled down. In Glenn Frey and Don Henley, they offered two holes for the price of one. In a western, they’d have been the outliers, the surly cowpokes who would do the right thing or the wrong thing or simply ride away, depending on what was in it for them.

Like somebody from the actual west, I suppose.

It’s possible this is precisely what allowed them to embody some weird contradictions and, having aimed squarely for the middle of the road, where they dug a permanent groove in the asphalt right where the yellow stripe was supposed to be, elicit far stranger and more disruptive responses than most bands who craved disruption for its own sake.

Crosby repeatedly professed to find them boring, which, given the projects he’s proudly participated in since he left the Byrds, took more than mere chutzpah. Robert Christgau professed to find them misogynistic, which, given his life-long devotion to the Rolling Stones (not really waved away, I think, by his recently arrived at suspicion that Mick and Keith really aren’t the nicest people…and, get this, may never have been!), is a real knee-slapper.  I’m guessing they would have both enjoyed having a beer with the weekend softball warrior I once heard saying he didn’t want his wife to drive if she was “just gonna play that goddam Eagles crap.”

Or maybe not.

On the occasion of Frey’s death, one website, reliably standing in for the rest, declared the Eagles “about as polarizing as any band in rock history,” before also declaring, de rigeuer, their personal indifference.

So it goes. So it’s gone for forty years.

From the interviews I heard on television last night, it seems Frey was the hard-driving perfectionist in a band that was often criticized, not without some justification, for prizing perfection above all else. If that kept the Eagles from being, say, the Byrds–imposed a certain set of limitations that meant there were few of the surprises that preclude indifference–then I guess he’ll have something to answer for at the next stage.

But that’s just one way of looking at it.

I can’t pretend the Eagles were ever my favorite band (happens the Byrds were/are, and have been since the first moment I heard them, which was also the first moment I realized indifference could be banished in such matters, and, coming in the spring of 1978, was long after I’d not only heard but absorbed the Eagles).

Like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, though, it seems like most of flak Frey’s band caught was really for appealing to the wrong people.

And, in my experience, mostly those people were/are women.

Anybody surprised?

Also like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, I’ll take them, and their “misguided” fans, over most of those representing the alternative.

And while the half-dozen to a dozen of their records that I really love might be somewhat, or even completely, different than the same number the next casual Eagles fan you meet feels the same way about, I don’t gainsay anyone who loves it all. I lived through the seventies. Believe me, anyone who could pursue perfection to a useful end in that chaotic moment had real value, even if some fools were bound to mistake it for “boredom” or worse.

Glenn Frey was a solid guitar player, a first class singer/songwriter, and a harmony singer extraordinaire, never more sublime than when he was breath-to-breath between screaming matches with his asshole buddy Don Henley. And if their best records really were oh-so-perfect, nobody ever doubted it was the kind of perfection that only rests on the other side of hardcore professionalism. That means different things to different people, but all it ever meant in the suburbs and trailer parks where copies of the Eagles Greatest Hits became as ubiquitous as Budweiser and the Bible was that it was bought and paid for the hard way.

Nothing wrong with that.

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MY FAVORITE MURDER BALLAD (Not So Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

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Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits [Columbia, 1975]
As if recalling Appalachian roots, the youngest superstar and sex symbol in country music history adds rape, murder, and bastardy to familiar themes like drunkeness, poverty, abandonment, and love-is-the-answer. Kid stuff it ain’t. Her burred contralto is an American dream, some weird hybrid of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Marilyn Monroe, and Will Rogers–dirty plainsong. But though I enjoy almost everything she does as soap opera–the bloodier the better–I don’t believe a word. B+ (Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the ’70s)

As if?

It’s funny. Growing up among a bunch of transplanted Appalachians (including my parents) in Florida, I found that the general reaction to Tanya Tucker songs was along the lines of “sounds like Cousin Jimmy’s side of the family.”

I suspect it was more or less the same everywhere from West Virginia to West Texas.

We believed every word

Not literally of course.

Just spiritually.

We believed she knew what we knew. And we believed she knew who we knew.

We believed she knew of whence she sang.

I still believe we were right.

Robert Christgau can go suck an egg.

I don’t mean to say that Tanya was universally beloved. Even when she started out and was still prone to at least saying all the things everybody from West Virginia to West Texas was trained to expect, “wild child” was still the phrase that was made to fit. It didn’t take her too long to make it fit literally. But she had one quality from the beginning that every real country star needs for long term acceptance: the ability to get people who never met her to talk about her as if she was one of the family.

The black sheep maybe, the one you had to keep an eye on maybe, but still.

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Given all that, it was actually kind of reasonable she would get to sing a murder song or two, no matter how young she was.

Murder songs aren’t unheard of in American music, of course. One even makes the charts now and then. Country has maybe had a few more than its share, though not nearly as many as your average Ivy Leaguer  who loves his bluegrass collection might assume. As hits go, they aren’t really as common as other kinds of death songs: suicide songs, accident songs, I feel like I’m gonna die songs.

It takes a very special kind of singer to pull off a straightforward, ice-cold murder song and leave the camp out of it–to make it sound like something that seeped out of the air as naturally as the weather. Bessie Smith used to do it. Ralph Stanley used to do it. Hank Williams could have done it if he had put his mind to it.

None of them were fifteen.

That makes a difference. Fifteen-year-olds who are born performers don’t tend to have a filter. They develop one, eventually. It’s necessary to their own survival and maybe more necessary if they’ve come out of the gates selling millions of records. But there tends to be a phase in there where everything inessential is cut away and whatever they really invest in goes straight from their brain to your brain, if you’re willing to let down your guard and meet them on their own level.

So it was with my favorite murder ballad…

Considering the number of folks in my neighborhood who spoke wistfully of the days (several months before) when she sang stuff like “The Jamestown Ferry,” where she merely chased her man “through his kingdom of honky-tonks and bars,” remembering all the great sex they had back in the days when he swore he’d never leave her, it wasn’t a slam dunk that such a song would be a hit, let alone become the permanent most requested number on Goth Night in The Hall of the Mountain Kings.

But I’ve seen the file, tucked away in the bowels of the Security State, and, even if that’s a whole other story, I promise I wouldn’t lie to you.

And just FYI: I’m giving it the slightest nod over “No Man’s Land” because it was a hit and because about ten years back, on the only occasion I’ve heard it on the radio since the seventies, it wasted everything programmed within ten miles of it in any direction I cared to turn.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Harmony Group Singer: Rock and Roll Division….Probably preceded by my carefully considered definition of a rock and roll harmony group).

ALTERNATIVE VISIONS (Segue of the Day: 11/26/15…Thanksgiving Edition!)

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I’ve been playing around for awhile with a concept I’m calling Modern Disintegration Blues, a kind of record in which artists from across the musical spectrum, acting with or without premeditation, capture the Zeitgeist that best represents the arc of the developed world in my lifetime.

Yes, it’s just as much fun as it sounds.

Anyway, I’ve been limiting it to records from this century and up until the listening jags inspired by my pill-induced stupors of the last two weeks (and boy does this disintegrating world offer up the pills!) I had discovered a nice round number of two: Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul II  (2009) and the Roots’ Undun (2011), which, for the last year and half or so, I’ve taken to listening to almost exclusively in tandem

I should mention that the concept is also limited to records by artists who have or have had some kind of following. No cult acts allowed, however brilliant.  You want to define a Zeitgeist, I want you to at least have a gold record or two on your wall, even if they don’t include the MDB albums themselves.

I should also mention that, given my lack of engagement with the music of this century generally (a lack enforced more by budgets and time than a willingness to keep up, though a little of the latter has crept in of late), there could be dozens of such albums out there, yes, even by popular acts, that I simply don’t know about.

Maybe I should also mention that every time Marcus or Christgau suggest something that sounds like it might be up this little alley, I rush to YouTube. Let’s just say the results have not inspired me to make out new budgets.

Anyway, during the early stages of my semi-convalescence last week, I developed an acquaintance with Tom Petty’s Echo, which pretty clearly pushes the concept back to 1996. It has the same kind of “better stop dreaming and concentrate strictly on survival” vibe and, except for a couple of cuts, is delivered as a dirge. In 1996, that was pretty visionary for a guy known for hooks, hits and staying on the surface.

So I started wondering just how far back the idea might stretch. And while I can’t say I’ve thought of anything else that fits all the specifics of my little concept, I’m currently sold on Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1972) as a likely starting point and definite subject for further research. Like, maybe I don’t know it as well as I thought!

I might write about any or all of those albums later and I might develop the concept a lot further or not at all. Who can say where the mind will wander if I manage to wean myself off of my ibuprofen habit?

What I want to write about today, though, as a kind of tangent, was where the search led me next, which was a place where I was listening to Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) and Jackie DeShannon’s Jackie (1972), partly because I was already groping around in the early seventies, partly because I love both albums unconditionally and think they’re among the greatest ever made (one acknowledged, one unacknowledged and you probably already know which is which, though if you  don’t and follow this blog, you can definitely guess), and partly because they sit right next to each other on the CD shelf, which means every time I pull one, I’m reminded of the other.

Mostly, though, I wanted to write about them because, in their current incarnations, they represent an aspect of modernity that need not be depressing.

There’s certainly room for disagreement on this–God knows I love vinyl–but the ability to turn a four-sided double-LP like Layla into one long, uninterrupted listening experience seems an unmitigated good. And the ability to change a really good album like Jackie (released as one LP with twelve cuts back when) into a monumental, seamless 24-cut epic is basically a godsend.

Both albums seem bigger frankly (and I wouldn’t have thought, back in the day, that Layla could seem bigger) because of what modern technology–not a small factor in the Disintegration Blues–has made, or remade, of them.

There’s a sense of loss, of course, deep in the bones of both LPs, whatever the format. Eric Clapton made the best music of his life, the only sustained music that was truly free, because he told his best friend’s wife if she didn’t leave her husband, he would become a heroin addict, which he proceeded to do.

That the woman in question and the friend in question, this woman and this friend as it happened…

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were Pattie Boyd and George Harrison and that she eventually did leave him for one Eric Clapton, who then actually married her only as an extremely cheap and nasty publicity stunt (you can get the details in her autobiography, which I reviewed here), gives the story an epic sheen, of course. But any gossipy glamour has long worn away and what’s left is a man who sounds like he won’t get out of this moment. Just about everybody has acknowledged that “Layla” sounds like that, just as absolutely everybody knows “Layla” is specifically about Pattie Boyd.

What’s weird is how obvious it is that the whole album sounds like that and the whole album is about her–including the covers–and how little that is acknowledged. I mean, to read Wikipedia these days (and think what you want, but it does an excellent job of reflecting the common wisdom), you’d think Boyd was only tangential to “Layla” itself, forget “Bell Bottom Blues” or “Anyday,” or pretty much everything else. And forget that Eric Clapton never sounded like this, before or since, for more than a minute or two.

What’s doubly weird is that I could imagine pushing the date back another couple of years and making Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs the foundation of my Modern Disintegration Blues concept. Even knowing that Eric Clapton was basically a jerk and his mad love was as much an ego-driven whine as a desolate blast of passion doesn’t take the edge off. It’s always possible the world’s disintegration can emerge from one man’s version of it within himself.

Which kind of makes this woman even more valuable…

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I’m not sure where she would place in a carefully considered “sanest person of the sixties” list, but I bet it wouldn’t be outside the top three.

She was just as sane in 1972 and ’73, when the tracks that now make up the Rhino Handmade version of Jackie were recorded. It didn’t do much business in its time (the second set of tracks was supposed to comprise a new album which Atlantic promptly shelved) and it hasn’t done much since. Nor did it yield one of DeShannon’s periodic hits-for-others.

And its not really disintegrative. More like a restorative. The kind of album you listen to after Layla or There’s a Riot Goin’ On or Echo or Undun or Mountain Soul II.

That’s weird, too. Because it aches from every groove or chip or beam or whatever mechanism now applies. And yeah, it’s probably the best album she ever made, but it’s of a piece, too, with her entire luminous career.

She didn’t need to blackmail her best friend’s husband to reach her version of transcendence. She just needed to be.

You can guess which artist is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times and which is still waiting.

Then you can join me in wondering where the Modern Disintegration Blues really begins.

Happy Thanksgiving!

THE LATEST UPDATE FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS….

Wonders never cease and there remain glimmers of proof that the world is not going entirely to hell.

The “5” Royales are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Victor Jara’s killers are at least having to face a day in court. And now this, from p. 375 of Greil Marcus’s just released collection Real Life Rock:

Note; We were all fooled and none of us had done our homework: The show was a fake. Marge Ganser died of breast cancer in 1996.

That’s following the reprint of Marcus’s June 30, 2004 column for City Pages, which included a lengthy diatribe from Robert Christgau who was, at GM’s behest, reporting on a terrible concert supposedly given by Ganser and her daughter under the Shangri-Las’ name, shortly before.

Just for the record, my main objection was never so much to the factual error (not only was Ganser long dead, she had died childless), or even how easily taken in two such pros were by the highly dubious assumption that any Shangri-La would have been involved in such an enterprise (no group has ever been more fiercely resistant to having their name exploited, even if they haven’t been very successful at stopping it). The real capper was that Marcus and Christgau surely allowed themselves to be duped so easily because they wanted an excuse to feel superior to the great unwashed.

That said, this is a genuine and appropriate apology and, having gone straight to the index when the book arrived to check on this very possibility, I was pleasantly surprised and extremely glad to see it. The original column entry can be found here, along with some of my other objections.

The Shangri-Las, of course, had their response ready fifty years ago…They weren’t fooled:

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)

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At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.

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So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.

TEMPTINTEMPTATINOS

 

WRITERS WHO SING…AND SINGERS WHO DON’T NEED TO WRITE (Segue of the Day: 6/2/15)

Critical reputations can be strange, incomprehensible things. I’ve given singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, a reliable barometer of rock-crit good taste since the late seventies and, in theory, everything I should love, plenty of shots over the years. But it’s only just now, with the help of YouTube, that I’ve put my finger on what puts me in the opposite camp from her followers.

It’s the way she sings ‘away” in the second line of this.

I mean, if I ever need a definition for “affectation” that puts flesh and blood on the dictionary’s meager offering, that will serve.

I doubt it would have come so clear, though, if I wasn’t so familiar with this…

…which could serve as the definition for “cutting out everything inessential.”

Definitively unaffected then.

Even without considering which one is deemed politically reliable, you don’t really need to guess who Robert Christgau’s given seven A- or better grades to and who’s never gotten a single full review, do you?

And at least Christgau’s heard of Patty Loveless, even if he hasn’t really heard her. That puts him a cut above most rock critics.

But that’s not what gets me.

What gets me is that one of these singers is singing the song from the inside. And it’s not the one who wrote it.

Wiiliams is a classic bohemian. A middle class kid who craves “authenticity” and has spent decades on the road chasing it…and making sure everybody knows that’s what she’s after.

Loveless is a coal miner’s kid who, I suspect (which is all I can do, because she’s careful not to let anybody know what she’s after), craves security if not respectability.

She’s the one who lived the life Williams is writing about (though the bars were in Carolina rather than Texas).

But she’s also the one who can make anything sound like she lived it.

That’s why, in every sense except the copyright (which, oddly enough, is the one sense every first class bohemian affects to despise), she tends to own whatever she sings, while Williams tends to sound like an interested observer of her own songs not to mention her own experiences.

It’s the difference (as I’ve written about Loveless before) between wearing a coat and wearing a skin.

It’s a quality you can’t buy.

Not with any amount of money.

And it’s a quality you can’t catch.

No matter how long and devoted the chase.

 

STEVIE NICKS CALLING (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #43)

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a long piece on Stevie Nicks, which was built around her biggest hit “Dreams” (from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours) operating as an answer record to Lindsey Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way.” I’ll let the piece explain how I felt about her, the song, and why I thought she and it were significant.

I’ve just found an interview with Nicks on YouTube which was literally posted about a month after I wrote the piece. I think it makes a nice companion/sequel.

For those who don’t care to listen to the whole thing (and I highly recommend it if you have the time), I draw special attention to the segment from 34:30 to 37:30 where she discusses the pact she and Christine McVie made when Lindsey and Stevie joined the band about how they intended to be treated as women in the male-dominated rock god world.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Nicks and McVie, who kept their decision to themselves (that is, they lived it out rather than promoting it), were routinely slagged as exactly the wrong kind of role models for the enlightened world that punk-feminism (or something) was going to bring us. (You can read the quotes from enlightened fellows like Elvis Costello and Robert Christgau in my piece to get the general flavor. Believe me, there was a lot more where that came from and not all of it from men…As late as 1997, Christgau’s wife, Carola Dibbell, was calling Nicks a “crazy aunt.” As a compliment, of course.)

Anyway, this was one of the shortest hours I’ve ever spent: