PICK THE PUNK (Segue of the Day: 1/30/17)

Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):

“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**

It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of  Tom Petty or Prince.

And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.

But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.

The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.

But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.

Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.

That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.

For a while anyway.

Long enough to become iconic.

Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.

That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.

The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.

I’d love to hear it.

I won’t hold my breath.

**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)

STANDING TALL (Lesley Gore, R.I.P.)

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“Tom Doniphon, you listen to me. Where I go and what I do is none of your business. You don’t own me!”

(Vera Miles to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–1962)

“Don’t tell me what to do/And don’t tell me what to say”

Lesley Gore “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

DI: Fans have always told you how important song has been to them. Are you making “a statement” even today?

LG: No question about it. It’s the one song – after some 40 years, I still close my show with that song because I can’t find anything stronger, to be honest with you. It’s a song that just kind of grows every time you do it. It might mean one thing one year and “boom,” two years later, boy it can mean something else.

(Digital Interviews with Lesley Gore, May, 2003)

When the late Charlie Gillett published the first important history of rock and roll in 1969, he dubbed the flood of hit records by young women from the early and mid-sixties “Girl Talk.” However problematic that phrase was, it was positively enlightened compared to the “girl group” moniker which gained currency soon after and has been used as short-hand ever since by everyone from the boys’ club that re-defined rock ‘n’ roll’s quasi-official narrative in Gillett’s wake in strict accord with their own needs to those doctrinaire feminist scholars who are so often in the habit of accepting all the wrong things.

One group that never accepted the term was a number of the “girl group” participants themselves.

I don’t know how Lesley Gore felt about it, but Arlene Smith (14 when she basically invented the concept with the Chantels), Mary Weiss (15 when she defined the apotheosis with the Shangri-Las) and others always saw themselves as a vital part of a larger tradition and always understood that the term was meant, consciously or subconsciously, to segregate them from that tradition.

As it happened, it worked to separate them by more than gender.

Make of it what you will, but no other “genre” name in rock and roll or any other form of music has ever needed to not only cordon off its practitioners by gender, but also further subdivide them by race, age, number and anything else that can be brought to bear.

This was made somewhat easier by an odd circumstance. With the exception of Weiss, all of the concept’s signature lead group voices, were black (Smith, Shirley Owens, Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves, Gladys Horton, Diana Ross, Darlene Love). Meanwhile, except for Dionne Warwick and Mary Wells, the signature solo voices were white (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Nancy Sinatra and, of course, Lesley Gore). So just in case gender wasn’t handy enough on its own, some of these voices could be conveniently cut from the bunch by race…or age…or number…or just vocal inclination.

Further divisions were managed by siphoning off various groups or singers into some other category (anything would do).

Wells, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were “Motown.” Clark, Springfield and Lulu (along with Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, big stars in England who had limited success in the States) were “British Invasion.” Warwick was “Supper Club Soul” or “Adult Contemporary.” Lee and Francis were “Teen Idols” (or “Countrypolitan” or just “Pop”) and so forth.

None of this was exactly untrue. I make the distinctions myself at times.

But the trick to the official rock and roll narrative was that, once separated from the already hidebound ethos, these outliers were never let back into their moment.

I mean, if you wanna start a fight with a Rock Critic, try calling Dionne Warwick (twenty-one when she recorded her first big hit) or Brenda Lee (fifteen when she recorded hers) a Girl Group singer.

The effect, when used in tandem with the “male-producer-as-svengali” syndrome I’ve addressed pretty relentlessly on this blog, was and is to blunt the force and magnitude of the first mighty surge of cultural power ever spear-headed by a collective of young women in the history of American music.

Or, for that matter, pretty much any age women anywhere.

In any cultural (as opposed to social or political) context.

Ever.

The effect of the “girl talk” moment, both as symbolism and underlying reality, was of that part of the audience which had fought their way to the front rows at Elvis and Jackie Wilson concerts in the fifties (and, yes, fainted at Frank Sinatra concerts in the forties, though in those days they mostly stayed in their seats), literally stepping forth from the audience and taking the stage themselves.

Few of them wrote their important hits (Smith and DeShannon were rare exceptions). Even fewer produced and none ever received proper credit. So, mostly, they seized the moment by singing.

Sing they did. Brenda Lee, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Darlene Love, Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss, Ronnie Spector, Jackie DeShannon. No genre, style or sensibility, however named, was ever graced with greater voices, and, amongst that cacophony, it fell to then seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore, she of the perfect pitch and Sarah Lawrence pedigree, to sing their anthem, the one record that most assuredly marked the future off from the past, even as the storm of the British Invasion (a genre, like any but the one Lesley Gore was slated into, where no distinction needed to be made between groups or individuals, men or women, teens or twenty-somethings, no matter how many of its acts were four or five guys with guitars) seemed to wash every other future away.

‘You Don’t Own Me,” (it’s title and ethos copped from a John Ford movie even in the unlikely event the songwriters never saw it) wasn’t her biggest hit.“It’s My Party” made #1, while “You Don’t Own Me” was stopped at #2 by the symbolic-as-hell and real-as-hell phenomenon that was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. It may not have even been her greatest vocal. I’m partial to “She’s a Fool” myself and there’s plenty of other competition.

But it’s the one that truly escaped time and found a life that was not and is not in any way bound by its original moment.

My memory plays tricks on me and I’ve never been able to track the quote down, but I’m willing to swear on anything you want that, somewhere, there’s an interview with Gore where she said it was also the one song she knew would be a hit.

When she was asked how she knew, she had a simple answer:

“Because I read my fan mail.”

Call her anything you want. Can’t mark the future off any plainer than that.

Time came for Lesley Gore today at 68.

Well…not really….

 

EVERYTHING I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW, I LEARNED FROM ROCK AND ROLL (Lesson #1: Just like Ronnie Said)

[NOTE: It’s been a while since I started a new category….Some of my friends are gonna be surprised that this wasn’t the name of my very first category….You know who you are! Any way, this category will be loosely defined as relating today’s headlines to the people-oriented history of rock and roll I try to emphasize in general….So it might get hairy at times.]

RONNIESPECTOR2

When Ronnie Bennett (at the left above) auditioned for Phil Spector (seated) with her vocal group (already called the Ronettes and here pictured with George Harrison and English publicist Tony King) Spector leaped off his piano bench and said. “Stop….That’s it. That is it.”

He was referring to what John Lennon would later call “the Voice.” and he very specifically meant the voice he had been waiting–and hoping–to find.

It was that voice–not, as has so often been assumed and reported, Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” production technique–that so captivated the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson when he first heard “Be My Baby” that it instantly became the standard by which he would measure the rest of his life (not to mention all that glorious music).

As Ronnie Spector, then, she became a legend and one of the most important vocalists of the rock and roll era.

Then she went away.

There were reasons.

She divorced Phil Spector in 1972.

He had forced her to quit performing years before. He had also kept her effectively locked up as a prisoner in his L.A. mansion. When she finally made her terrified break, it was running…on bare feet lest her shoes make noise on the driveway pavement.

In light of the daily reports this past couple of weeks concerning various forms of abuse directed at women and children (when she met Spector she was seventeen and so essentially both) by celebrity athletes, it’s worth remembering the price she paid. For anyone who had been paying attention, Spector’s eventual murder of Lana Clarkson was no more surprising than the recent video of Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice cold-cocking his wife-to-be in a casino elevator. For some, the obvious is never really obvious unless they see it with their own eyes….or the body on the floor is actually dead (as opposed to merely knocked stone cold, as Rice’s wife-to-be clearly had been in the previously released video which did not show the actual punch). For the rest of us, the obvious is, well, obvious.

Twas ever thus.

The following is from Ronnie Spector’s autobiography, Be My Baby, which (as told to Vince Waldron) was published in 1990. It’s one of the finest–and most unflinching–of all rock and roll memoirs, not least because she told the world that, no, Phil Spector, didn’t coach her singing (he was a superb talent scout before he was anything else) and that, yes, he was very, very dangerous.

RONNIESPECTOR

After our successes at Madison Square Garden and the Baths, I continued doing concerts with the girls through the rest of 1974. But nothing ever matched the excitement of those shows. We spent most of our time marching in and out of oldies revues, and that got pretty depressing after a while. I was barely thirty years old and everywhere I went people were calling me an oldie but goodie.

It drove me crazy–and it sure didn’t help my drinking problem any. I used to stand backstage at these rock and roll revivals and cringe when the emcee announced us as oldies singers. I’d be standing off in the dark somewhere in the wings and raise my Dixie Cup of vodka and Coke in a silent toast. “Here’s to little Ronnie Spector,” I’d whisper to myself. “An oldie. But a goodie!” I’d say it as a joke, but I can tell you there was nothing funny about it.

Whether it was for good or bad, my oldies career finally came to an end during the holiday season of 1974. That was the year Dick Clark signed the Ronettes to take part in a rock and roll revival show he was staging at the Flamingo Hotel. And I’ll never forget my nightmare in Las Vegas.

It was great to be working with Dick Clark again–his shows were always professionally run, and this was no exception. I rehearsed my numbers with Chip and Denise on stage in the late afternoon and we were dynamite. Dick and everyone on his staff were predicting that Vegas would be the start of a whole new career for the Ronettes.

And when I finally saw our name up in lights outside the casino, I began to think so, too. They do everything about ten times bigger than life in Vegas. So naturally, the marquee outside the hotel was about a hundred feet tall, with the names of all the groups in the show spelled out in letters twelve feet high. I’d never seen “The Ronettes” spelled out that big, and I loved it.

Dick gave us a dinner break between the afternoon rehearsal and our first evening show, so I took the elevator back up to my room to rest up. I was so high from the excitement that I didn’t think anything could bring me down. Then the phone rang.

“It’s me,” the voice said. He didn’t bother identifying himself. He didn’t need to.

“Phil?” I hadn’t spoke to him in so long that I actually thought he might be calling me to wish me well on the show.

“Veronica,” he said. “What in God’s name makes you think you’re ready to play Vegas?”

I should have known Phil would be up to his same old tricks. “Okay,” I said. “Is that all you called for?”

“No,” he said. “I just wanted to give you fair warning that tonight could be the last time you appear on stage in Las Vegas. Or anywhere else.”

He was talking so calmly, for a minute I actually thought that he was saying something sensible, and that I was the one confused. “What ARE you talking about?”

“I always said I’d kill you if you left me,” he explained. “And tonight I’m making good on that promise. In two hours you will be assassinated on stage at the Flamingo Hotel.”

“I’m calling the cops Phil,” I told him. “If you even try to set foot in the Flamingo, I’ll have you arrested.” I tried to stand up to him, but he just laughed in my ear. It was a sound that went right down my spine.

“You don’t think I’d be stupid enough to pull the trigger?” he said. “That’s what I pay hit men for. And I’ve hired six of them on this job. Three black and three white. You might spot one, but you’ll never be able to get them all. They’ll be at your show tonight, and I’ve offered a million-dollar bonus to the one who shoots the bullet that does the job.”

I dropped the phone like it was a dried fish and ran out of the room. I figured the whole think was just one of Phil’s dumb jokes, but it still scared the hell out of me. One thing I knew about Phil is that you couldn’t second-guess him. What if today was the day the guy finally did crack up?

I decided to find Dick Clark and get his advice. But by the time I got down to the showroom, he was already gone. I walked through the casino with my hands shaking so bad I knew I had to get something to calm me down before I rattled myself to pieces. So I walked into the bar for one quick drink. But in those days they were never quick. And it was never just one.

I grabbed my nose and sucked down a vodka and tonic, then I set my hands down on the bar. They were still shivering. “One more,” I told the bartender. I felt so much better after the second drink that I was sure a third would do the trick. Five vodka and tonics later, my problem was solved. I no longer had to figure out whether to go through with the show or not. Dick Clark would make that decision for me.

He tried to look the other way when I stumbled into the backstage area that night. But Dick couldn’t ignore the fact that I was too drunk to make it through even one verse of “Walking in the Rain,” at the final dress rehearsal. “Ronnie,” he said, steering me over to a quiet corner backstage. “You’re in no shape to go on tonight. I’m sending you up to your room.”

Dick Clark and I go way back–I did my first national TV appearance on his show. So when I saw that glint of disappointment in his eyes, that hurt almost as much as being fired.

“I’m sorry, Dick,” I slurred. “I just didn’t want the hit men to get me.” I was trying to give him an explanation, but it was useless. He had no idea what I was talking about, and he had better things to do than listen.

….that little incident pretty much killed the Ronettes as an oldies act.

Not in our hearts, though…Never in our hearts:

 

 

THE ICE IS STILL SLOWLY MELTING: NANCY SINATRA HAS A TALE TO TELL (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #30)

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The current issue of The Believer has an interview with Nancy Sinatra which continues a process of de-bunking one of the Fundamentalist Rock and Roll Narratives perpetrated by the Priesthood of the Svengali (an especially pernicious subdivision of the crit-illuminati).

Nancy was one of many pre-Janis, pre-Aretha female singers who were perceived as the product of some producer’s singular genius which would have worked just about as well with any other lucky girl said genius happened to pick from the bunch.

Over the last twenty years or so, the young women who (outside of their records) were given no voice in the early and mid-sixties when they re-made the world as surely as Elvis or the Beatles, have told their stories (the stories that everyone from Tom Wolfe to Rolling Stone assiduously ignored both in the moment and for a long time afterward).

Those stories have a lot of common themes, most of which are voiced below.

So, joining Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Cher Bono, Mary Weiss and many others, Nancy once again assures us that, in the real world, people are not clay models or sock puppets being maneuvered about by mad geniuses (in her case Lee Hazlewood) however wonderfully talented those geniuses may have been. Unfortunately the entire interview is not available on-line, so I’ve pulled some choice quotes and highly recommend the issue (and the magazine generally) to those who can find and afford it:

On acceptance in the music industry:

NS: They had a lot of great artists join the label (Reprise) at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the womens movement or anything like that. They just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

On an enduring myth:

BLVR: At what point did Lee famously instruct you to start singing ‘like a fourteen-year-old girl who screws truck drivers’? (NOTE: Now there’s the crit-illuminati mindset and value system in a nutshell for you.)

NS: I don’t know where that twisted version of what said came from. I know that that’s been floating around in various forms for a long time. He said much more gently to me, ‘You’ve been married, you’ve been divorced, and people know that. They know that you know what’s going on in life, so you’ve got to behave on the record like you do know.’

On the working relationship between herself, Hazlewood and musical director Billy Strange:

NS: Lee’s lyrics were the guiding light for us, because he wrote these wonderful fantasies. Billy took them and put them to music. And what I did was follow along. The beauty of it was that I added enough to it to make it happen. Lee had done a lot of this stuff with other people and he didn’t get anywhere with it. Lee’s muse in those days was Suzi Jane Hokom. Suzi Jane sang on all those duets. And he sang with Ann-Margret and several other ladies. But it just didn’t have the magic that Nancy and Lee had. So I told him in no uncertain terms over the years that he really owes me a lot, too. He wasn’t the Svengali that he thought he was. So it was a symbiotic relationship that turned out some pretty damned special music. I’m proud of all of it and proud of my contributions to it.

On those fashion statements (though not this one, especially):

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NS: All those clothes that I wore in the early 60’s were [Mary Quant’s]. I brought them from London to Los Angeles and wore them all around. At that point nobody knew what a miniskirt was, so I’d get people throwing me lines like ‘The tennis court is over there,’ stuff like that….And the fact that I ran into her when I was in London promoting those silly songs (from early in her career)–God’s hand must have been on my shoulder. I was at the right place at the right time. Little did I know that I would run into a song called “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and that I already had the outfits. I didn’t have to go shopping for them.

On her legacy:

NS: I’m very glad that I saw it and could take advantage of working with Lee. But I don’t know, honestly, if any other woman singing in those days would have tolerated the treatment from Lee that I put up with over the years. We had the classic love/hate relationship. I’m not ashamed to say that. I think he would say the same thing.

Just as a final note. Hazlewood passed away in 2007 from cancer. Like Shadow Morton and Sonny Bono and most of the others who either sought Svengali-hood or had it thrust upon them in that age-gone-by, he was a man who had his faults, many of which he owned up to in time. He was not, like Nancy’s close friend Phil Spector or England’s Joe Meek, a monster. Like all of them, man or monster, he made beautiful records….

 

 

PSYCHOLOGY 101 (Great Quotations)

Anybody who spends any time here at all knows I’m highly skeptical of the “Svengali” theory of rock (or just culture), which holds that pretty much every great vocal ever delivered by a “non-writer” in the last sixty years was coaxed by a record producer. This theory extends so far that it even takes in Elvis from time to time (especially in the Sun days).

But it is especially all-encompassing when it is applied to great records sung by young women of whatever ethnicity and produced by young white (or at least crit-illuminati approved) males. Read the standard rock “histories” and you might come away thinking that Mary Weiss and Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love and Mary Wells needed Shadow Morton or Phil Spector or Smokey Robinson to go to the bathroom for them.

Heck, even the likes of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield weren’t immune, and, coming forward in time, neither were Donna Summer (who actually wrote many of her hits and produced more than a few, but that’s another story for another time) and Linda Ronstadt.

So it’s pretty funny to discover that, once upon a time, along about 1970, the one Rock-era, non-writing woman who pretty much is immune from this particular style of condescension found herself resisting a song that she didn’t think she could do anything with.

Here’s her producer, Richard Perry, from an interview in 2011:

“She wanted to cancel the session….I said ‘I’ll cancel the session right now if you want. But I can’t believe that Barbra Streisand would back down from a challenge.'”

The ploy worked. They didn’t cancel the session. And the challenge ended up being this:

The record (covering the great Laura Nyro) ended up being Streisand’s first top ten record since “People” in 1964, as well as the first (and best) of many rock-tinged hits (several of them duets with the aforementioned Ms. Summer) in the years following.

But she didn’t need to wait for the charts to validate her response to Perry’s challenge. To finish the quote:

“After we did the first take…I called her in for a playback because it was clear that this was going to be a very special record….And while it was playing, she whispered in my ear ‘You were right and I was wrong. But it’s nice to be wrong!'”

Okay, as Svengali moments go, it wasn’t exactly Phil Spector locking his wife in the house and making her watch Citizen Kane every single day, but I’m glad Perry was on the job this particular day…and I bet Barbra is too!

(NOTE: All this was brought to the forefront of my ever-wandering attention this week after Streisand’s “Back to Brooklyn” special ran last weekend during the local PBS station’s pledge week. She spent the first part pulling off an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Shangri-La in the year she hit with “People.” And both her voice and her singing (which way too many people need to be reminded aren’t quite the same thing) were better than I’ve ever heard them be. Which is saying something….And just as a final note, the intro to the video here is a tad strange, but I loved the sound….A needle dropping on Promo vinyl of a classic 45 and then running in the groove. Doesn’t get any better than that. UPDATE: Scratch that last, the video disappeared. Perils of YouTube. But you can still enjoy the record!)

TRACEY ULLMAN TAKES ME ACROSS A BRIDGE (Memory Lane: 2006)

First, a look at the picture sleeve of a forty-five:

TraceyULLMAN

Then the memory:

Between 2003 and 2007 I had what you might call problems.

I got diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 2002, and was, not long after, told I had probably had it my entire adult life (which was roughly twenty years at that point). I was then further told I had severe Diabetic Retinopathy which needed immediate and extensive laser treatments, etc.

Then there was a year of seeing what I’ll politely call the “wrong” doctor, after which I was told I would need major surgery and was, in fact, worse off than I had been to begin with (even though my Glucose numbers had long since normalized).

I ended up getting a second opinion and moving on to a real doctor, under whose care I got better, though not enough better to avoid having the surgeries eventually. Too much damage and too much recurrence as it turned out. Something called Vitrectomies ensued. One for each eye.

That’s where they cut an incision in the eyeball, suck out the vitreous fluid, replace it with a saline solution, and scrape any residual scar tissue off your blood vessels.

They keep you awake so you can move your eyes if necessary, which means you can also see them picking the scar tissue off the back of your eyeball.

it’s as pleasant as it sounds.

By the summer of 2006, one way and another, between the disease and the treatments, I had lost about twenty percent of my eyesight, mostly on the periphery, though there was also a permanent hole in my right eye’s field of vision.

I had also been told for a good two years, by then, that I should have stabilized by now.

And I hadn’t.

So I had no reason to believe that I wouldn’t continue to lose my sight at a similar rate in the years ahead.

I had gotten past breaking down over it–had managed to remind myself, yet again, that Faith is not for the good times–but it still wasn’t exactly the cheeriest period of my life. Faith moved the mountain of despair a little, but many more days than not, I was much more afraid than not.

Coming home from my sister’s house in South Florida after a 4th of July visit in that summer of 2006–three years into a pattern of deterioration that seemed more and more likely to be permanent–part of me wanted to just get on home, like usual, which would mean–like usual–I-95 or the Florida Turnpike.

Another part of me wanted to head up U.S. 1 and cruise the old neighborhood where I was born and partly raised, because who knew how many more chances there would be?

That nostalgic part won.

Now, it happens I had cruised my “old” neighborhood (we left in 1974) before.

There were some pretty good reasons I no longer did it very often.

The working class community I grew up in was run into the ground. The space-race jobs that fueled the local economy had long since dwindled to a fraction of their former numbers and left the place on life support. The people I knew (and loved more than I knew, as it turned out) were long gone or, at very least, lost to my circle of acquaintance. The church I was saved in, testified in, sang in, heard my mother sing in and saw my father ordained in, had–according to the sign anyhow–gone from Southern Baptist to some sort of utilitarian symbol which I assumed meant non-denominational though I never researched the matter fully.

Some things are better left undone.

For whatever reason, this particular day, I was willing to risk the company of an even blacker dog than the one that was already riding me to see just how much further things had gone downhill.

No explaining it. Maybe I just wanted to at least feel the place again.

After all, there was no way to know how many more times I would have the option of ignoring it.

Whichever direction I had gone that day, I had music for the occasion–a set of cassette tapes with a lot of my old 45s (none of them bought until I moved away and found I needed something to fill the space left by all the things I no longer belonged to, call it “community” if you like) captured on them.

I had recorded the tapes with no particular rhyme or reason. Just stuff I liked well enough, some time or other, to buy on a piece of plastic, and still liked well enough, all those years later, to record for driving music.

It was a true mix-tape.

All of which meant that I had little idea of what was coming next when I drove over a bridge just south of the hospital where I was born and a beautiful, peaceful view of the Indian River (which, to tell the truth, doesn’t often conjure romantic notions) on an early Sunday afternoon opened up.

Just as that view filled my somewhat impaired vision, what came up on the tape was Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know,” a tribute to the girl group era which she, having been born almost exactly a year before me, must have just missed (like me) and, given the improbable heart she put into both the single and the album it was drawn from (the oughta-be-immortal You Broke My Heart In 17 Places) must have also (like me) regretted missing on some very personal level.

It might have been just a nice moment, except that some combination of that song and that view of the river and that set of memories made me think, unbidden:

“If this is all there’s going to be, it’s okay.”

I didn’t really do much cruising of the old neighborhood that day, or any day since. And a year or so later, I figured out it was the diabetic medicine I was taking that was making my eyes bleed. I had to argue with a lot of doctors, of course, but I stopped taking the medicine. The round of laser treatments-shots-surgeries ended soon thereafter and hasn’t resumed.

To date, I haven’t lost any more eyesight. Well, not much anyway.

Things worked out, in other words. At least as much as they ever do. The mountain moved…just enough.

But those things that eventually worked themselves out–and which I had no way of knowing ever would in the summer of 2006–weren’t what brought me a last measure of peace.

What brought me that peace was driving over a bridge next to the Indian River, just south of the hospital where I was born, and, at that exact moment, hearing Tracey Ullman–a woman who got justifiably famous in the years hence by dint of a sheer, undaunted genius for never taking anything seriously (not even a talk show interview, which takes some doing in the Age of Narcissism)–put everything she had into a song that might have been designed to do any number of less-than-admirable, campy, things (and might have even accomplished some of them, these little bits of genius being what they are), but which she sang as though she fully intended to live up to Mary Weiss and Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love and didn’t much care who knew it.

And for one moment–luckily for me–live up to them she did.

(And, hey, it’s Tracey Ullman, so the video is hilarious…but, for a markedly different experience, don’t be afraid to put yourself in my shoes and close your eyes one time through.)

 

IT’S THE SINGERS STUPID….(Great Quotations)

Dionne Warwick “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Television Performance)

“Without these limitations….Suddenly you know…Hello! She can go that high. And she can sing that low. She’s that flexible and she can sing that strong and that loud and be so delicate and soft, too. And the more you saw that, the more I was exposed to that, musically, the more risks, the more chances I could take.”

(Burt Bacharach, discussing Dionne Warwick, The Songmakers Collection DVD, 2001)

As I’ve stated before on this blog, any narrative of rock and roll which moves singers and singing out of the center is a false one. The great voices matter most. The great voices don’t date. The great voices were by far the most powerful element that was set free by the rock and roll revolution. And, in rock and roll, the great voices set the parameters and imaginitive limits for the great writers and producers–not the other way around. This is about as bluntly as I’ve ever heard his particular truth put (though Shadow Morton has said similar things about Mary Weiss in recent years and Phil Spector and Brian Wilson said similar things about Ronnie Spector once upon a time).