LITTLE MISS GIANT (Vocalist of the Month for 1/18: Brenda Lee)

(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)


First my story….

Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.

I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)

One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:


I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.

Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:

I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).

blee12I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.

I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).

So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.

By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.

blee24Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.


So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.

I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).

I listened to the other CDs.

Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.

My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.

I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.

So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…

And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…

And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”

Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.

Just for a song or two, you know.

Then the song or two went by and this came on…

And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”

An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…


“What just happened?”

Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.

And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.

Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.

But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.

I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.

And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.

It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.

I’m still working through my issues.

But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.

And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…


First her life, then her art.

Her life went more or less like this….

She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.

Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….

Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school

More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.

The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA)  in 1955.

Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.

But, in order to build a career, you had to have a hit to build it on. Somewhere, some time. You can stand around and look cute. You can even go to Vegas…blee30

You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).

It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.

She just wasn’t a hit-maker.

It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.


The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline

Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.

Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.

Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…

..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?

…Then the Art

Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.

And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.

If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.

Best behave.

Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?

It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.

But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.

What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.

We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?

Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.

If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…

…and make it sound as natural as breathing.

After that, the floodgates.

For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.

So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.

And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.

And because she was a pro’s pro.

And then?

Well, she still had a life to live.

Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.

Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)

What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.

Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.

I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.

And I’ll share what you’ve lived.

It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.

She was also every-teen.

She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)

She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.

But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.

She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.

She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.

She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.

And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:

…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…

Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you  may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.

And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.

Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.

Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.

Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.

Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.

Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.

Sure they do.

And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.

That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.

The air works like that.

Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.

Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.

But she didn’t know how to be small.

Little Miss Giant she was….

Little Miss Giant she remains.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Fall, 2017 Countdown–All Vinyl Edition)

I’ve been in a vinyl mood this week. I listened to a couple of CDs as well, but, for the purposes of this list, I’m pretending I didn’t. Until the very end at least.

10) Johnny Bond Bottles Up (1965)

I found this at a local antique store (my town basically consists of such) and took a chance. Had to pull Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, which I had used the night before to cure insomnia, off the turntable to make room. One thing is for sure. Johnny Bond was way weirder than Steely Dan.  This album sounds the way the cover looks. What more recommendation do you need?


9) Kid Ory The Song of the Wanderer (1958)

And while I was there, I spotted this lovely little item, also cheap. I see a Kid Ory item I haven’t heard for five bucks, I’m gonna take a chance.

Ory was best known as a key associate of Louis Armstrong in the days when Pops was reorienting American music and, by exension, American life. This is not that. What this is, is a very pleasant, lovely and conservative jazz record from the fifties, which breezes along as though Bop and Rock and Roll had never happened, and almost as though the searing early New Orleans jazz scene, of which Ory had been such a vital component, never happened either. Music to read and smile by, then, right up until “The Sheik of Araby” comes on, at which point it is time to stop reading but not to stop smiling.

8) The Atkins String Company The Night Atlanta Burned (1975)

Generally referred to as a “Classical Country” album, with the classical part referring as much to Mozart as Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs. However defined, unique in the annals of American music.

This is a mix of standards and incidental mood music composed by John D. Loudermilk, based on his recollection of an old man from his home town who claimed to have learned scraps of what he taught the young Loudermilk from sheet music he found left in a music case (along with the mandocello the case had been built to protect) which had been rescued from the Atlanta Conservatory of Music after Sherman marched through in 1864 and since been lost again in a hobo camp. Loudermilk was wry enough to suspect every single bit of that might not have been true, but he, Chet Atkins, and assembled session players (including Lisa Silver, Paul Yandell and the legendary Johnny Gimble) made an album that deserved to complete the story. There are a few great albums that stop time, but none of them stop time in quite the same way as this one.

Meaning, gently, gently.

7) Iron City Houserockers Blood on the Bricks (1981)

A crit-fave from the late New Wave/Early Heartland phase of Rock and Roll’s decline. Listening now, it’s a lot easier to hear all the reasons they didn’t make it–lack of distinction in the singing, writing, playing and general Zeitgeist (which is derived from J. Geils and Southside Johnny, who did the same things better)–than why so many people were excited in the moment. This is typical fare, and just fine. But on this and every other side, what I hear most is “almost.”

6) Various Artists Stiff Records Presents:The Akron Compilation (1978)

This was a much better shot at sending Rock and Roll off in a new direction. There’s some failure on this record–songs or sounds that don’t quite finish somehow–but forty years on, it still sounds like something trying to be born on cut after cut. Never released on CD, It’s still the best place to hear every artist here but one. And it’s still the best place to hear that one’s greatest record (which, had it made her the star she deserved to be, might have redefined a lot of things in 1978).

5) The Beach Boys Sunflower (1970)

Commercially, the Beach Boys got swept out with the tide around the latter part of 1967. They kept on making great sides, year by year, but this was probably the best album they made between Wild Honey and Love You…and it doesn’t need to take a back seat to much else that was going on in 1970. I’ll take it over Let It Be eight days a week.

Somebody in the marketing department was either asleep at the switch or having their mind seriously altered by drugs. “Cool, Cool Water,” perfectly fine as a trippy album closer, was the least commercial single ever–and I mean ever–released by a major artist. The B-Side was one of the greatest records of their career–and definitive of the era’s often wistful secret ethos, so often lost among the noise. Sleep does these things. So do drugs.

Then there’s stupidity. For hardcore Beach Boys’ fans, a touchstone. For everyone else, a lost gem.

4) Various Artists Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill  (1985)

I don’t even remember how I first heard about this record, but it’s still my go-to for Kurt Weill, or just the Weimar mood transported.

Boy does it transport to now–even more than to 1985, which I once would have deemed impossible. As often happened with high middle-brow music of an earlier vintage, rock and rollers did better by it than anyone else, in some cases, maybe better than the music deserved. And the truest rock and roller did better by it than anyone. A fine companion piece for The Night Atlanta Burned, which is also born of defeat.

3) Various Artists Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1 (1975)

Cheeky title for a cheeky collection. Unlike the Stiff label compilation above, this is almost entirely reactionary–rock and roll as it might have  sounded if it really were made by  entirely arrested adolescents obsessed with their older brothers’ record collection. Not without its charms mind you–older brothers tended to have some cool tastes ten years before this happened. I lean towards Earthquake’s heavier take on the whole, but the closest thing to a killer is Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” which almost justifies his rep when he starts speed rapping like the world’s whitest white boy.

There was, so far as I can tell, no Volume 2.

2) Various Artists Less Than Zero Soundtrack (1987)

The sound of rock and roll closing down for good. From here there was nowhere to go but Grunge (and from there, no way to go but the Exit). Afterwards it was every man for himself, but this still sounds of a piece. It’s everything the lame movie it supported wasn’t–loose, funky, cynical to a fault. And, at the last minute when the concept of “Loa Angeles” meant anything, definitive L.A., right up to the living end, when the Bangles show up and stomp all over everybody. Certainly Aerosmith and Public Enemy, who are at their sleaziest and most self righteous, (meaning best) respectively. But also “Goin’ Back to Cali,” which has a claim on being the greatest Hip Hop record ever. And even Roy Orbison and Glenn Danzig, who have claims on being peak Roy Orbison (no more need be said) and the greatest Scott Walker record not made by Scott Walker (who made damn few to match it). Even now, it kinda makes me wonder where the world might have gone if the movie had been better. (I can’t speak for the source novel as I haven’t read it. Based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel I have read, I can’t imagine it could have been made into a much better movie.)

1) Marianne Faithfull Broken English (1979)

Disco punk and, to be honest, I never came close to getting it.

Until now.

Maybe I didn’t get it because it turns large swathes of rock and roll–often the rock and roll I love most–inside out. When I’m listening now, Brenda Lee’s throb, always vulnerable, suddenly sounds like its coming from the bottom of a barrel just before somebody seals the lid. Girl group romanticism sounds like it must emanate from the dark side of the moon. The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, out the year before and on my CD player the night before I made the deliberate decision to make this the end of this list, now sounds like the Rape Record record they always had in them–the one where they’re finally so bored they could scream, and, for the last time, do.

Perhaps the news of the moment–rapists/harassers/assaulters being turned up and out everywhere you look–has given a tiny, pitiful bit of context to the rest of us that only a woman who had literally crawled out of the gutter of addiction and homelessness after being the Queen of Swinging London (i.e., the World) to ask “Why’d you spit on my snatch?” without succumbing to self-pity or psychoanalysis (if only because one or the other might kill her), could have comprehended, let alone communicated, at any previous cultural moment.

Anyway, after sitting on my shelf for thirteen years or so (the town’s last vinyl store put dates on their price stickers) the find of the year.

And please don’t think I’m anything less than frightened by it.


So a couple of days ago I’m sitting in my local corner cafe, eating my tuna wrap, reading my F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, suddenly, unbidden, the question crossed my mind.

What exactly did we need the Brits for?

I’m sure it had nothing to do with the speaker behind my head, which was emitting a string of programmed oldies in crystal clear sound, having just yielded these two back to back…

Among other things, It made me wish all over again that I could track down the quote from Marianne Faithfull where she recalled a conversation with Jack Nitzsche, where she had repeated the Approved Narrative that rock and roll was dead until the British Invasion saved it and he proceeded to play her a bunch of records like these until she realized the error of her ways. (One reasons I’d like to track it down is to prove I’m remembering correctly. Age gets to you that way.)

Now if he only could have gotten hold of the staff at Rolling Stone!

BTW: I’m still working on the answer to that question. F. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t helping a bit. Maybe looking long enough at this will…


MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)


(My favorite rock critic, at 41, the year I was born.)

The earliest memory I retain with any certainty happened when I was four (or five) years old. It was the Christmas season of 1964 (or 1965). My favorite rock critic and and my sister and I were walking through a shopping mall (somewhere in Florida…my memory says Merritt Square, the internet says it didn’t open until 1970 so maybe it was Titusville or even Orlando…I know I wasn’t nine, I swear my memory is at least that clear). My favorite rock critic was holding my hand (or else my sister was). They were piping music through the mall (or whatever it was). I wasn’t paying the least attention to the music. Until I was. Something new and wonderful started playing (or maybe it was the chorus that got me) and I broke away from whoever was holding my hand and started running towards that sound.

The only problem was, the sound was being piped over speakers that pointed from every direction. This probably saved me from getting lost in a bustling Christmas crowd, because, having completely lost my senses, I started running around in circles. My favorite rock critic could no longer run, so it was left to my sister to finally catch me, after which they both kept asking me “What is it?”

I couldn’t tell them.


(My favorite rock critic, my brother-in-law and me, circa the time period in question. Memory says the play list was heavy on Peter, Paul & Mary. Lovely. But they were not who was playing at the mall…or wherever.)

I probably knew the words “music” and “song.” They were concepts my favorite rock critic lived for. But, in that moment, overwhelmed by that sound, I wasn’t able to call up the words. My senses weren’t merely lost but overwhelmed. I was, for the first and last time in my life, experiencing a strange, benumbing combination of physical pain and an insistent inner command to laugh out loud, which, for some reason, I could not obey.

All I could do was keep pointing at the roof of the mall (or wherever it was).

And that was all I was ever able to do.

Years later, when I finally bought the record that was playing over some set of surround sound speakers somewhere in Central Florida in 1964 or 1965 (on an “oldies” 45, which I still have), I didn’t even think to ask my favorite rock critic if she remembered this little incident. Nor did I ever think to ask afterwards. Because I didn’t think to ask, I’ll never know.

She loved the record. I remember that much. My favorite rock critic had killer taste. Just listen and hear…

 *    *    *    *

My favorite rock critic never bought records herself (she was into sheet music).


(My favorite rock critic, a little later on. With her sheet music….Or somebody’s.)

There were some kids’ records around the house when I was growing up, and some albums my father picked up at thrift stores, mostly Broadway soundtracks or easy listening instrumentals. I listened here and there after I learned to work the stereo’s record player. If I listened to the radio, it was to Braves’ games or college football. Never the radio. If I knew the words to any pop song, “Snowbird” say, it was from my favorite rock critic’s song books, the vast majority of which were religious. My favorite rock critic arranged and directed church choirs when she wasn’t singing in them or, more likely, in front of them. There was music everywhere at my house. Just not much rock and roll.

The first peak at my own future came when my sister moved out, for the last time, after my brother-in-law came back from Viet Nam. She left her 45s, which consisted of a Little Richard that was too beat up to play (I can close my eyes and still see every single thing on that Specialty label except the title), Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing In the Sunshine,” which I liked well enough to learn the words to (and which I still have), and this one (which I also still have):

Unless maybe it can be traced to that experience above (about which more later…reveal at the end!), I don’t doubt my inordinate affection for what, in those days, were still called “girl” singers, dates from the summer afternoons when I was ten, eleven, twelve, when I played “Ode to Billie Joe” ten, eleven, twelve times in a row, day after day, while my favorite rock critic went about her business, never once asking me to stop or play something else or even becoming the least exasperated when I asked her, yet again, for the tenth or eleventh or twelfth time “What does it mean?”

“There were a lot of rumors when it came out,” she would say. “But nobody really knows.”

I was convinced, in those days, that my favorite rock critic, the most honest person I knew (or ever would know), was keeping some horrible adult secret from me. I was convinced of it, even though she never had the least bit of trouble telling me I was too young if I really was. Such is the power of the Gothic tale.

By the way, I’ll save my deep thoughts for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” post some day, but this much I can say here: There are still a lot of rumors about what “Ode to Billie Joe” means. And just because Bobbie Gentry has taken a stab at explaining it herself, doesn’t mean anybody really knows.

 *   *    *    *

You might think that, having been captured by a 45, I would seek to replicate the experience. I did not. I’m not sure why. Money would certainly have been an object. I didn’t have any. I did not get an allowance. Any money I made working for my father, from nine to nineteen, went into a college fund (which would remain untouched and, in its interest-bearing entirety, one day pay for exactly three months at university…there were reasons we did not buy many records at my house).

But it’s just as possible that, being surrounded by music in the house, I did not feel any great need to seek it elsewhere. And still more possible that being captured by that particular 45 put a brake on what might otherwise have been my natural development.

In any case, time passed, and we moved to another part of the state. For reasons I went on at some length about here and here and here, I became a record junkie.

And a smart aleck.

One day, in my full-blown smark alecky phase–sixteen maybe, or seventeen–I was listening to the radio in my room (yeah I listened to the real radio by then, a lot). The local Top 40 came out of South Alabama and played a mix of current hits and oldies. It was a Saturday and me and my favorite rock critic were cleaning my room and one of Roy Orbison’s ballads came on. “Only the Lonely” if memory serves. Roy at his greatest. Elvis’ favorite singer. I thought I’d play a smart aleck joke on my favorite rock critic, who was a huge Elvis fan, so I spent two and half minutes convincing her it was Elvis. She didn’t buy it at first, but I was so convincing, and she so much believed I was sufficiently like her that I wouldn’t treat such a thing frivolously or pointlessly, that she finally accepted my truth. Elvis sang “Only the Lonely.”

And then?

One of Elvis’s ballads came on. God help me if it wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” which, perhaps sacrilegiously, I’ve never really considered primo Elvis and, as a record, wouldn’t consider in the same league with “Only the Lonely” even to this day.

Except…The joke, my joke, was about the voices. Not the records.

As my favorite rock critic liked to tell people with a smile ever after, when she, never I, would bring up the story: “And you could hear the difference….Right away.”

By which she meant, you could hear why Elvis was Elvis, even on “Love Me Tender” and why even Roy Orbison wasn’t, even on “Only the Lonely.”

And, God help me, you could.

That was the last time I tried to play a musical joke on anybody, let alone my favorite rock critic.

But something about that moment made us closer (perhaps I should say even closer) than we had been. I think the shock I felt at being so coyly betrayed by the Cosmos, and the clarity with which I learned my lesson, left her with a feeling that we might meet in the middle on my new favorite subject…that she might yet teach me something about it that couldn’t be learned in books.

She taught me.

One thing she taught me was not to take professional rock critics too seriously. A few years later, I gave her Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with which I was very much impressed at the time, to read. Her response to the Elvis part was, “Well, at least he treated him with some respect.” Which was her way of saying he didn’t quite get it, a judgment time has confirmed. On the other hand, her response to Marcus’s description of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” (“a vision of heaven superimposed on a vision of hell”), which I read to her right after I played her the record, was: “Yes, that’s perfect.” Meaning both the record and the description, judgments time has also confirmed.

And she “got” things I didn’t get but someday would: Everything from Grease to, yes, Elvis.

Most of all, my favorite rock critic got voices. Their power, their seduction and, above all else, their cost. The only two voices she ever described as being “like an angel,” were Martin Luther King’s and Karen Carpenter’s. I’m not sure I took that comparison (which she never made directly) all that seriously. Kinda silly really. Until Karen Carpenter turned up dead. Turned out, my favorite rock critic knew, just by listening, who was likely to be chased out of this world by hellhounds. So while I didn’t know if she was wise beyond her years, I soon learned she was wise beyond mine. There was, for instance, no chance anyone raised by my favorite rock critic would ever be taken in by Johnny Rotten (the way to dusty death for me, whatever he meant to you).

Thus, there were some happy days, of which a few still stand out:

One day I was listening to this…

…and she asked me who it was. When I told her, she smiled and nodded and said: “I knew it had to be brothers. Only families can harmonize like that.”


Another day, (the day after I brought it home and played it as incessantly as I’d played “Ode to Billie Joe” once upon a time), this…

My favorite rock critic: “Now who did that song you were playing last night.”
Me: “A group called the Shangri-Las.”
My favorite rock critic (with her familiar smile and nod): “I thought it was them. I always remembered them because they were always so different.”


Another day, this…

…to which, assuredly: “That’s as good as Little Richard.”


Another day, this (just out on the radio)…

The opening chord was chiming as we pulled into a parking space at the bank, me driving (she didn’t), me in control of the radio (she always let me), me ready to go inside, her saying: “Oh let’s listen to this.” To this day, I don’t know whether my favorite rock critic loved the song or just knew I did. She’d have told me if I asked. But my favorite rock critic knew I wouldn’t.

Voices. Or maybe just sounds.

Another day, this…

My favorite rock critic, with her eyes closed, ten seconds into hearing it for the first time and not knowing the Band from Adam: “They must have played together for years to have that kind of timing.”

Voices. Or sounds.

Another day, it might be this…

or this….

And my favorite rock critic would say something like “Where do you find these?” and I would be able to recount little tales of the record collector’s art that, among other things, demonstrated that professional rock critics were not always entirely worthless!


(My favorite rock critic in her element. That’s our long-gone stereo behind the chair. I still have the guitar. I can’t play a lick and it’s one of exactly three physical possessions that will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.)

Then, one day, it was late in the game, toward the change, when the happy days weren’t so common and were more typified by me playing something like this…

And my favorite rock critic, eyes closed, her own voice racked by age and disease, sighing and saying, “I used to sing like that.” To which my father, befuddled, said “You never sounded like that.” Meaning my favorite rock critic was an operatic soprano, not a soul baritone. To which I said, as gently as I could: “That’s not what she meant.” Meaning even my favorite rock critic never spoke truer.



(My favorite rock critic, near the end of happy days)

Anybody who has followed the blog knows my favorite rock critic was a major Elvis fan.

They may not know that she always thought if she could have reached Elvis somehow she could have saved his life. Tom Petty was among the many who thought the same. I doubt anyone could have, but if anyone could have, I’d have bet on my favorite rock critic before I bet on anyone else.

They may know that my favorite rock critic used to tell stories about singing with the hobos, who eventually taught her to hop trains, in the Salisbury, North Carolina train yard when she was barely older than I was when I had my first musical memory.

They may not know that she started to give me and our pastor’s son guitar lessons but went in the hospital two lessons in for one of her longer stays. By the time she got out, the pastor’s son was on summer vacation. By the time he got back, his father had found a new church. I don’t think either she or I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to take guitar lessons again was that my nine or ten year old self–not much younger than she was when she hopped those trains and rode them only to the edge of town–arrived at some subconscious conclusion that guitar lessons equaled hospital visits and there were enough of those already.

That’s how it is, sometimes, when your favorite rock critic happens to be the person who brought you into this world.

If I’m even a little bit better person than I was born to be, I have my favorite rock critic to thank. And wherever she is now, I know she can see and hear my earliest memory–wherever and whenever it was–far more clearly than I can.

And, if she ever thinks about that moment when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, wherever and whenever it was, I know she’s smiling, knowing it turned out okay.

Here’s to then….And to Voices. And sounds.

Happy Mother’s Day!

(Next Up: My Favorite Music to Break Rulers By…By Which I Mean the Kind You Can Use for Drumsticks If You Don’t Have Drums)


Like last year, no Tanya Tucker. Like last year (and every year), no drama. Like last year, three worthy inductees that cover a broad spectrum. They all happen to be natives of my mother’s home state, but I’d say sincere congrats if they were from Mars. In case you think “country music” covers only a narrow spectrum, you can listen below and be disabused.

As Recording/Touring Musician, Fred Foster, who, among countless others, produced these…

and, with Kris Kristofferson, wrote this…

In the Veteran’s Category, Charlie Daniels…as performer…

and songwriter…

And in the Modern Era category, Randy Travis….

For at least the last couple of years, the Country Music Hall of Fame has had the very good sense to have Brenda Lee announce and introduce the nominees. Highly recommend listening to the ceremony for anyone who is remotely interested in this stuff.


Or, what might this…


have to do with this…


and this…?


More than I would have guessed.

It’s always fun to think of some small new twist on a story that’s been done to death. Not too many stories have been worked over more thoroughly than The Story of the Beatles.

But one thing I’ve never done before is try and listen to the music that made them big in England, a year and half before ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and The Ed Sullivan Show sent them into the international stratosphere, in the context of what was happening on American radio in the months must before which we’ve always known they had an ear for.

How much of an ear?

Well, their first album, finished in February, 1963, included fourteen songs. Eight were Lennon/McCartney originals. One was a recent Broadway tune (“A Taste of Honey”). The other five were hits of recent vintage (no fifties’ rocker stuff, as there would be on later albums), three of them straight from the Brill Building (though one of those was by way of the Isley Brothers) and another, “Boys,” that might as well have been.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but outside of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “There’s a Place” (that last, a space even the Beatles never got back to) and, at a stretch “Love Me Do,” the Brill Building cuts, real and faux, are the strongest stuff on the album. “Chains” is solid. The other three (“Boys,” with Ringo’s first recorded vocal and his best until “It Don’t Come Easy,” plus “Baby It’s You” and “Twist and Shout”) all epic.

Having four sides in the can (the A’s and B’s of their first two singles) when they prepared to cut the album, their assigned producer George Martin asked Paul and John what else they had. They answered “our stage act.”

Meaning all that Broadway/Brill Building/Faux Brill Building stuff of such recent 1960–63 vintage wasn’t thrust upon them. It was what they liked. What inspired them.

Which is odd, given that for several decades after, as professional rock criticism bloomed, flowered, withered and died, the basic narrative pretty much held that rock had “died” in those years. (You can still find Greil Marcus going on about it in his latest, which I’m still loving by the way.)

For many reasons, the strongest maybe being because I came in at the Beach Boys (first national hit, albeit one I never much cared for, released June, 1962) and, especially, the Four Seasons (first national hit, August, 1962), I never bought that particular narrative myself.

Later on, when I got to know much more about Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Brenda Lee and Gene Pitney and Ray Charles and girl groups and surf rock and second-generation doo wop and early Motown and so on and so forth, I bought it even less.

But, amongst all those “nevers” I still never thought to actually play the Beatles first album next to a well chosen anthology of the music that was in their LIverpool-to-Hamburg-to-London air, via Pirate Radio or the BBC or their record collections or whatever other distribution methods were targeting their demographic at the time.

Then, this week, I found myself with my latest additions to Time Life’s year-by-year collection, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” which happened to be the two discs devoted to 1962. And, since I was duty bound to listen to them anyway, I went, “h-m-m-m-m.”

Why not stick the Beatles’ first, Please Please Me between Time Life’s 1962 and 1962 Still Rockin’?

That was Monday, which makes this Segue of the Day a week late and a little bit of a cheat, but what’s a blog for if you can’t bend a cheap concept like Time out of shape once in a while to suit a narrative?

Anyway, it sent me off on that whole tangent I mentioned in my other posts this week, and I might still have one or two posts to go before I exhaust that particular day.

The day itself didn’t exhaust me. I found it pretty exhilarating

Because listening to a multinational corporation’s repackaged definition of what the Beatles were trying to fit into as they climbed their first mountain made both experiences bigger and better.

In the first place, I learned something.

Listening to all this music thrown together, I could finally begin to understand the belief held by so many about rock’s “demise.”  There are 44 tracks on the two Time Life collections and, even with the names I mentioned above being mostly absent (except for Gene Pitney), the period was heavy on reaching for quiet spaces. That wasn’t quite the rejection of Little Richard and Chuck Berry so many assumed. More like a broadening of perspective. But I can see how some might have been fooled.

Because while there are rockers (the Isley’s “Twist and Shout” among them, though it doesn’t rock like the Beatles, who tended, along with everything else, to be smart about choosing their battles), the major emphasis is on introspection, heartbreak, longing.

That really shouldn’t be surprising.

These are the kind of things you might expect the era’s outsiders: black people, urban immigrants, girls, perhaps even the occasional hillbilly (throw Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” up against “Love Me Do” some time if you need evidence history doesn’t always move in a straight line even in the short run), to be especially invested in communicating as a dual language: part public, part secret.

The Beatles certainly didn’t miss that. A lot of that first album, including something as joyous and up-tempo as “Please Please Me,” reaches for those very same qualities. Sometimes they missed. Several cuts tend to commodify rather than amplify the melancholy, skate over it rather than deepen it (something else they would also always be very good at and which the public accepted enough, in the immediate wake of February, 1964, to make cuts like “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” into big hits–what happened with the Beatles, there was a reason they called it Mania).

But about half the time, they grabbed hold. On top of which they, or somebody, had the sense to start and end strong. “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Please Please Me” frame the first side of the British debut LP; “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout” the second.

All to the good.

Believe me, coming out of Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” and Don and Juan’s “What’s Your Name” (both wonderful) at the end of the first 1962 volume, “I Saw Her Standing There” really is a leap in the dark, a rush that feels like “What’d I Say” must have felt in 1959 or “Tutti Frutti” must have felt in 1955. In fits and starts at least, Please Please Me still sounds like some sort of revolution.

By the end, with this…

and this…

closing the record*, it becomes possible to think Americans must have been flat out deaf and stupid not to respond to the various attempts to sell the Beatles over here throughout the latter months of 1962 and all of 1963.

That, in fact, is just what I was thinking.

But then I put on the second Time Life disc.

And it started with a reversal of form: The Beatles’ quiet-place-bleeding-into-a-loud-place becoming a loud-place…

bleeding back into a quiet place…at a party no less…

And I was yet again reminded that the competition in early rock and roll was literally insane. That maybe the miracle wasn’t so much the Beatles didn’t make it here sooner, but that they made it at all.

In the Contours’ Detroit, after all, and Sam Cooke’s Chicago-or-L.A., and a whole lot of other American spaces, they might have gotten lost in the crowd.

Well, until Rubber Soul anyway.

By which time they probably would have had other jobs.

*Sorry, no decent studio cut was available. Even YouTube isn’t perfect.




Given where technology and “markets” (i.e., viable distribution systems) are headed, the various series the Bear Family has been putting out lately, dedicated to fifties’ R&B, country, sixties’ soul, doo wop and so forth, are probably going to serve future generations in a capacity similar to that provided by the Irish monks who preserved scripture in the Dark Ages.

I’ve spent this year working on the Street Corner Symphonies series and I’m up to 1956, which was even more of a watershed year than 1953 or 1954 (which I wrote about here) or 1955.

Bill Dahl, whose been an R&B historian for about as long as there has been such a thing, did the notes for the series, and he rightly notes that ’56 was the year rock and roll supplanted blues and gospel as the unifying force in the era’s vocal group dynamics.

But that just means those older styles were subsumed, not that they vanished. Here, they’ve moved from conscious to subconscious but their force is still present, the submergence creating a new dynamic that would last until the rise of punk and rap in the late seventies.

Just how much the world had opened up in the space of a year hit’s home in the distance covered by tracks 7 and 8, both uber-familiar, both as fresh as the day they were recorded.

First you get the Platters, with Tony Williams doing everything it’s possible to do with a pop ballad–everything anybody had ever done and everything anybody, including Roy Orbison, would ever do…

Then, without warning, you get the kind of head snap that put rock and roll in the center of the culture overnight and kept it there for the next thirty years. It took that long for the overlords to get their feet completely back under them. They’ve been stepping on us ever since and, absent a cataclysm no sane person will want to live through, I doubt they’ll let the boot slip again. But you can still listen to this, coming out of the song above, and know why it was so hard…and why a sliver of hope always remains.

I mean, who knew people were capable of this, the minute before it happened?

Certainly nobody in Tin Pan Alley.

That’s why, within a few years, the operative catchphrase for the same basic process had changed to “Brill Building” and the scene was being run by twenty-two year old kids with classical training they could utilize or discard at will.

No real surprise. After the segue above, the conservatory and the street were bound to meet somewhere above the old timers’ heads.

And all of that’s before you get the Cookies (who would soon be the Raelettes) pushing the dawn of the girl talk ethos back a full year before the Bobbettes and Chantels….

and the Six Teens offering proof of just how far Brian Wilson’s knowledge of the L.A. doo wop scene really extended….

and some guy named James Brown, showing up at the very end, sounding more “traditional” than anyone on this disc, and also pointing the way to a future that couldn’t be denied.

I’m done for now. I plan to quietly fold my hands in my robe in preparation for spending the rest of the day in meditation and perhaps copying a chapter or two from the Book of Judges.


I’ve been thinking a lot about ballads lately. By “a lot” I guess I mean, even more than usual.

The more than usual bit kicked in around a week or so ago, when I listened to a couple of “Ballads” comps from Hip-O Select’s series of such. Hearing their James Brown collection for the first time–and being blown away by it, by the fact that this was about the tenth best thing we think of when we think of James Brown and that it’s both mind-blowing and past any easy exegesis–led me to the other disc I have from the series, which is a similarly staggering set from Brenda Lee.

And all of that got me to thinking–or remembering–that the real reason rock and roll took over the world for thirty-plus years wasn’t just because the fast and loud singers got better (as opposed to just faster and louder, which is what the common narrative would have us believe) but because the ballad singers got better, too.

I know, I know. Me on my high horse again, contending that Tony Williams and Jackie Wilson and Roy Orbison went places even Doris Day and Nat “King” Cole (my picks for the greatest pre-rock balladeers) simply couldn’t go. Once more admitting I’d rather listen to Clyde McPhatter than Billie Holiday (great as she is) or Elvis in full-on strings-and-horns mode over Sinatra being eminently tasteful (or enervated, depending on your perspective).

What can I say? Guilty as charged.

But this recent bout of contemplatin’ got me wondering just how deep the divide really runs. I mean, how many rock and roll balladeers would I have to list before I got to a pop singer (we’ll leave country and gospel out of this for now–though I’ll say they are a lot closer to the spirit of rock and roll than Tin Pan Alley and some heavy Don Gibson time these past few weeks has certainly brought home just how much closer)?

I decided it would run pretty deep. I didn’t make a list or anything, but–given the modern definition of “ballad,” which is pretty much anything that tries to pack an emotional wallop into a slow tempo–I’m guessing I might get to thirty or forty before I even started considering any Pop singers besides Doris and Nat, and maybe fifty or more before I actually put another one in place.

Even after all that, it turned out I wasn’t quite through, because yesterday, on the daily run to the grocery store (hey, it gets me out of the house, which, believe me, I need)–I turned to an actual music station for the first time in about a month and ran into the Rolling Stones’ doing “Angie” (#1 in 1973–their last except for the disco-ish “Miss You” in 1978) backed up by Neil Young doing “Heart of Gold” (his sole #1, from 1972).

It happens I wasn’t really thinking of Mick Jagger or Mr. Young for my “top balladeer” list. And you have to use that stretcher of a definition I cited above to really call these ballads. But they do demonstrate the depth of field that was operating at rock’s high tide.

As it also happens, I have some emotional ties to both.

“Heart of Gold,” always brings back rides to baseball practice in the spring of ’72. I was eleven. My dad worked in the afternoons. My mom didn’t drive. The baseball fields weren’t anywhere near my school. Nobody on the team lived near me. That meant I was riding with my brother-in-law, who would pick me up on his way from Titusville to Merritt  Island every afternoon and deposit me at the practice fields about twenty minutes late, where I would get dirty looks from all the coaches and most of my fellow players even though everybody knew I didn’t have a choice. Male bonding!

That was the year I almost quit baseball–five years before it quit me. Mixed memories to say the least and I can understand why my brother-in-law doesn’t remember it. Sometimes I’d like to forget itmyself. But “Heart of Gold” played on the local Top 40 station every day that spring at the same time on the late rides into practice and I seldom encounter it without thinking of those times and smiling a little over how long it took me to become a Neil Young fan!

“Angie” was sort of wrapped up in male bonding, too. Or maybe I should call it male anti-bonding. It was the first Rolling Stones’ single I bought (from one of those oldies’ bins I had started to haunt, some time in the late seventies) and one of the first songs I ever had to “defend” in one of those snark-fests young males get into when they are calling each other’s tastes into serious question.

The extent of my defense was not exactly the stuff high school legends are made of. Following a rather lengthy rant from the other guys about how there was this really great, slow, acoustic guitar playing and then Mick had to start whining and make everybody want to puke, I think my response basically amounted to “Hey, I like it. Sounds good to me.” That and a little smirk that was designed to suggest I just might be onto something. End of discussion!

I learned early. The more mysterious the better.

So, whenever I heard “Angie” through the years–and I’m pretty sure, given the proximity of their release dates, that it and “Heart of Gold” have been chasing each other around quite a bit over these four decades–I mostly thought about the weirdness of me sticking up for a record by the Stones (about whom I have always maintained a certain ambivalence) against rabid Stones lovers who happened to hate the first Stones’ record I loved.

Then, on September 11, 2002–the first anniversary of you know what, when it was already evident that “you know what” was not going to be taken seriously and that, except for the soldiers we asked to get shot and blown up for the privilege of accepting our “thanks,” we really were all going to go shopping and let it go at that–I was riding around, listening to the radio, and heard those acoustic guitar chords my long-ago debate club buddies had praised, not because they liked beautiful acoustic guitar lines (trust me, they didn’t) but because whatever Keith did was cool (even if it was just duet-ing with Mick Taylor) crawling through my speakers.

The song changed for me in that instant.

Listening to Mick sing it that day didn’t change it back.

It just cemented the change in place. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years, just what/who the song was about. I’ve read that “Angie” was supposed to be Marianne Faithful, Angie Harmon, Keith’s daughter and none of the above.

Take your pick.

As for me: From September 11, 2002, to now it’s always been about the sound of goodbye and, whatever it was supposed to “mean,” I’ve also developed a sneaking suspicion that the what/who Mick Jagger was really saying goodbye to was himself.

There has certainly never been any recorded evidence on this side of the divide that the man who was responsible for so much transcendent  music that had been recorded in the previous decade still exists.

So here’s to our nation of shoppers.

Goodbye us.



Opera great Ben Heppner says farewell at his retirement party…with Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” a number one hit in the early sixties and a top ten as a ballad remake in the mid-seventies.

I especially like the way the (presumably) hoi-polloi audience starts out by assuming it’s a campy joke. Maybe they forgot–or didn’t know–that, in the era when Sedaka’s hit first charted, he was competing with folks like Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson and the post-Army Elvis, among others, who were actually doing things a young Ben Heppner might have found inspirational.

Whether that was the case or not, I bet Heppner, at least, hasn’t forgot the possibility.

And, by the time he’s done, neither has anyone else:

My only regret is that he didn’t do the comma-comma-down-doo-bee-doo-down-down part. I’m sure Richard Wagner’s response in the afterlife would have been ve-r-r-r-y interesting!