MILEY CYRUS AT THE CROSSROADS, WHERE SHE’S HARDLY ALONE (Memory Lane: 2009, 2006 and Yesterday)

I remember hearing this on the radio exactly once when it came out and thinking: “Jesus, she’s got a chance to be Brenda Lee.”

I wasn’t thinking about record sales (by Billboard‘s count, Lee was the highest  charting and bestselling female vocalist of the 1960s). Once Hannah Montana broke, there was never any question about Cyrus selling records. The new model of fame generates it’s own momentum more reliably than even the previous quite reliable models.

Which meant record sales were a matter of course.

I was thinking, instead, that she could be the next in the straight, firm line that had, sticking only to the dead center, stretched from Jackie DeShannon to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow and, moving just a little outside the center, included nearly every important female rock or country singer for four decades running and produced literally hundreds of great records.

It’s a great, undervalued tradition and when I heard “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” riding around in my car in 2009, I had assumed it was dying out.

That it might be rescued by Hannah Montana brought a smile.

After that brief moment of hope, though, Miley started making “adult” records that were, of course, no better than the records all the other adults make these days. She also started selling a lot of them, pro forma, and I basically lost interest on the basis of my single, unyielding criteria: You don’t make great records, I don’t care about your shtick.

So, frankly, until this week, I assumed Miley had abandoned her talent in favor of the proper Show Biz model for the twenty-first century, as defined by John Lydon and perfected by Madonna and Donald Trump.

Make all your safe moves look like “risks.”

Or, as Hannah Montana would have it…

Understandable enough. I don’t begrudge anybody their success and there’s a reason why the easy road is easy and the tough road is tough.

But then Sheila O’Malley posted this a few days ago…

…and complicated my own easy, comfortable analysis.

I’m not sure about the reigning “let ’em do what they want, haters-gonna-hate” aesthetic either as a social model in general or a usual exception for celebrities who get to ignore the rules anyway. I don’t find the line between what I owe myself and what I owe the world to be quite so stark and I’m a little suspicious of those who do.

And, based on the YouTube surfing I did after I watched Sheila’s video link, I’m not sure Miley Cyrus is all that clear about it either.

The main problem I’ve had with her “in your face” act is that, on her, it has always felt forced and faked, by which I mean even more forced and faked than the usual forced fakery (most recently exemplified by Beyonce’s Super Bowl appearance, where the politics were faked right along with the idea that she can dance any better than oh, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus and produced the usual predictably fake outrage and seriously unfaked legion of yawns).

While it felt like that with David Bowie and Madonna sometimes, too, they were genius record-makers, in charge of every facet of their careers and their personas. And if, say, John Lydon couldn’t say the former, he could at least pretend to the latter long enough and well enough to make it stick as a kind of perverse integrity.

All these years later, it feels like Miley Cyrus, hiding back there somewhere behind the butch haircut and the hilariously (or, depending on your view, pathetically) bad twerking, is still trying to have the best of both worlds. That, for all the attempts to conform, there’s still some part of her that doesn’t quite fit and yearns to breathe free.

I suspect that part is called a singer.

Ten years after Britney Spears came to the same crossroads, she’s a footnote. If Cyrus, a much bigger talent, doesn’t want to be left beside the same highway, she’ll have to make up her mind soon.

I wonder if the choice she makes will say more about her or about us.

 

MY FAVORITE ALBUM ARTIST (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Just for fun (leaving comps and live albums aside as usual):

My favorite two-album run: Big Star (#1 Record, Radio City, 1972–1973)

bigstar

My favorite three-album run: Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, 1975–1979)

Fleetwood Mac

My favorite four-album run: The Rolling Stones (Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, 1968–1972)

rollingstones2

My favorite five-album run: The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1965–1968)

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My favorite six-album run: The Beatles (the UK versions of With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver 1963–1966, none of which I like as much as the US only Meet the Beatles, or the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver, but let’s not complicate things.)

beatles

I know, I know. Very White, very Male (notwithstanding Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie) and very Middle Class–just like the overarching narrative says it should be.

But have no fear. You can file all that away.

You can also file away Elvis, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, Curtis Mayfield (with and without the Impressions), Don Gibson, the Beach Boys, and others who made plenty of great albums but who I tend to know better through various comps and (especially) box sets.

Then, if your filing bio-part of choice (brain, eyeball, index finger, whatever else you might want to use) is still functioning, you can file away Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, War, Spinners, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground, and others who either were a tad inconsistent (Morrison, after the late seventies, Dylan, after about 1969), or just didn’t sustain long enough (the rest, with Hendrix, Janis and Ronnie Van Zant fully excused by that old reliable, early death).

Obviously, I like the canon. Just like most people. That’s why it’s the canon.

But you can file all those away, too, because none of them are my favorite album artist either.

To be my favorite album artist I have to think your albums are so consistently good that listening to a comp is faintly ridiculous and more than a little disorienting. I mean, you have to leave me feeling a little unfulfilled if that song doesn’t immediately follow that other song the way God intended. I have to think you consistently made coherent, self-conscious statements that avoided the pretension and self-indulgence which tend to define self-consciousness, not to mention “statements,” but still, by some miracle, continually either deepened or broadened what you had done before.

And, if you want to be the fave, you have to have made a whole lot of them. Preferably in a row.

It helps if you sold a lot of records.

Big Star and the Velvet Underground excepted, I’ve never been into cults.

So there’s the criteria.

Only two people ever met every standard for me.

Which means if you are going to be my favorite album artist, you have to be either him:

algreen2

Or her…

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Al Green or Patty Loveless.

Or, to put it another way: Al Green…or Patty Loveless?

I’ve been pondering this one for a couple of decades. I might as well work it out here as anywhere.

For a black guy and a hillbilly woman–definitive representatives of this land’s most despised Others–they have a surprising lot in common.

Green was born (as Albert Greene) the sixth of a sharecropper’s ten children in Forrest City, Arkansas and moved to the big city, Detroit, around the age of twelve, where he was doubtless mocked for being “country”.

Loveless was born (as Patty Lee Ramey) the sixth of a coal miner’s seven children in Pikeville, Kentucky, and moved to the big city, Louisville, at the age of twelve, where she was definitely mocked for being country. (In an interesting, perhaps not entirely coincidental. twist, on Loveless’s last album to date, the lead cut, “Busted,” recovered Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which Johnny Cash, being from Al Green’s neck of the woods, had talked Howard into changing from a coal miner’s lament to a sharecropper’s).

As a teenager, Green, already a seasoned gospel and soul performer, was kicked out of the house for listening to Elvis and Jackie Wilson and ended up on the late sixties’ chitlin’ circuit.

As a teenager, Loveless, already a seasoned country and bluegrass performer, married against her parents’ wishes (she picked a drummer, doubtless her folks knew the long odds against that ending well) and ended up on the late seventies’ Carolina bar circuit.

After middling success on the singles chart, Green released his first major album just after his twenty-third birthday, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.

After middling success on the singles chart (at one point, her label held back promotion because they were afraid her latest record would be “too successful,” you gotta love the suits), Loveless released her first album at the age of twenty-nine, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.

Each would carry a deep memory of what they had experienced chasing fame, Green’s, “He brought me safe thus far, through many drunken country bars,” (a decade into his fame)…

bleeding into Loveless’s “I used to drink ’til I dropped,” (a decade into her fame).

Each was determined to both sustain and enlarge the great traditions they had inherited: for Green, Hard Gospel and Soul; for Loveless, Hard Country (especially honky tonk and bluegrass).

Each, without compromise, reached a level of commercial success no one really thought was possible for such singers without, you know, compromise.

Green had six gold or platinum albums and eight gold singles in the seventies as a hardcore southern soul singer steeped in gospel.

Loveless had eight gold or platinum albums in the eighties and nineties as a hardcore honky tonker steeped in bluegrass.

Uncompromised as they were, each owed much of their success to a unique ability to join the deepest commitment with genuine eclecticism: Green always ready to reach as far as this…

or this….;

Loveless the rare (only?) singer who could bridge say, George Jones…

and Richard Thompson (stay for the wild applause)…

(and never mind, for now, the night at the Kennedy Center Honors where she was the only person on the planet who could have bridged Loretta Lynn and James Brown without breaking a sweat….let’s stay on track).

Later, having climbed for a decade or so, and reached the pinnacle, each found themselves in the throes of a spiritual crisis that clearly caused them to question the value of what it had taken to stand on top of the mountain.

Each walked down.

In Green’s case a series of incidents low-lighted by a woman committing suicide when he refused to marry her finally led him back to the church, where he became the Reverend Al Green and recorded mostly gospel thereafter

In Loveless’s case, a failure to conceive a child with her second husband as nature’s time ran out (according to Laurence Leamer’s invaluable essay on her, which highlights his great Three Chords and the Truth, she saw it as a possible judgment on the abortion she had while married to her first husband….as he didn’t quote her directly, I don’t know his sourcing, only that the conclusion makes sense for anyone raised in Pentecostal air), finally led her into a “traditional” phase, where she increasingly recorded music so spare and out of touch with contemporary trends it amounted to a thumb in Nashville’s eye.

Each finally succeeded in defining the late phase of their respective genres so thoroughly that it became the last phase.

Thus, each has legions of imitators, some inspired.

Neither has a true inheritor.

Each was highly self-conscious about the journey they were on.

The way I know is, you can’t sustain their particular sort of brilliance any other way (for Green, 12 great albums between 1969 and 1978, following on those early singles that were collected on 1967’s excellent Back Up Train; for Loveless, 16 good-to-great albums between 1987 and 2009, abetted by duets and guest appearances that would probably add up to at least a couple more).

There are no weak tracks in either catalog.

One is hard-pressed to find a mediocrity.

It takes work to never, ever give in. But more than that, it takes vision.

And, as they went along, they each, without abandoning their basic approach, or chasing the radio (as opposed to letting it chase them), managed to stretch beyond all prevailing limits, into a place, abetted by style but rooted in the now-ecstatic, now-scarifying assumptions that accompany having to answer to God, where uplift and despair are eternally poised to swallow each other…

For all those reasons and more, it is possible to drive through any part of the South, listening to either, album after album, and feel a connection with what is outside the window, and what lies beneath, in terms of either time or space, that is beyond even Elvis, even the Allmans, even Otis Redding.

And, oh yeah, each was, year after year, Best Dressed.

No small thing for the audiences they cared about most, and who cared most about them.

They finally had so much in common that whatever separates them isn’t worth mentioning.

But all of that isn’t really a lot compared to being canaries in the coal mine.

I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that Al Green’s Detroit and Patty Loveless’s Appalachia are now the two most blighted regions in a land where blight spreads exponentially (while the stock market rolls merrily along, assisted by the state as necessary)? Or that the two-party-one-party state that stomps endlessly on, stomps hardest on the very places–the rural south and the inner city north–that produced the musical collusions which once represented the only real cultural threat the Man has ever felt in his bones?

Who really knows?

We all have our opinions.

You can probably guess mine.

What I do know is that it’s possible, in Al Green’s music, to hear the history of the crack cocaine epidemic that was about to descend on that part of Black America which carries southern memory with it wherever it goes a decade before it actually happened. You can hear it coming, you can hear it happening, and you can hear how hard it’s going to land on those left behind long after it has been explained away by the usual suspects. You can hear all of what you can only hear some of it artists as far-seeing as Sly Stone or George Clinton or War or Gamble and Huff.

And I know it’s possible, in Patty Loveless’s music, to hear the history of the meth epidemic that has now swept through that part of Hillbilly America which carries mountain memories with it wherever it goes, a decade before it actually happened. You can hear all of what you couldn’t hear a single bit of in the music that surrounded her on country radio in the nineties.

You can hear it coming, happening, landing….

In neither instance was the case made with words.

Canaries in coal mines are never concerned with lyrics. They’re concerned with sound. With hammering out a warning, as the old New Folk tune used to go.

The warning was always there in these two voices, right next to the exhilaration of hearing those voices meet and reach new standards that tended to transcend mere perfection even as they constantly redefined it.

But beyond all that, you can hear the push back, the constant reminder that only the path to Hell is easy–the Old Testament always looking over the New Testament’s shoulder.

It took courage to stay their particular courses. The boot isn’t really in Al Green’s face any more. And it’s not really in Patty Loveless’s face either. They’re free of those drunken country bars, have been since their first gold records. They were lifted out of hard lives–out of being born to be stomped on–by otherworldly talent which they, with conviction, would call God-given.

They aren’t the first or last who could say the same.

They are among the very, very few who never forgot, even for a moment.

I once either read or dreamed a scenario. I can’t say which, because, while my memory says I read it, some time in the late nineties, I’ve never been able to remember where. I any case, dream or experience, it went like this:

I was standing in a book store. I was at the sale table and there was a book on country music which I picked up and thumbed through (my memory says it was Leamer’s aforementioned Three Chords and the Truth, but I’ve read it since and couldn’t find the memory even though I was specifically looking for it, hence the possibility it was a dream). Whether dream or experience, there was a lengthy section on Patty Loveless which, since I didn’t have money to purchase the book, I read at length. It described her appearance at one of Nashville’s Annual Fan Fairs (just like Leamer’s book). She came on stage to perform at the end of a long day which had been filled with glad-handing super-slick superstars like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire. who seemed curiously detached from the people who stood in the endless lines to shake their hands (just like in Leamer’s book).

It’s the next part I must have dreamed. Because when she stepped to the microphone, at the height of her own considerable fame (just like in Leamer’s book). a lonely Appalachian voice, exhausted by the day’s endless hype, called out in the night.

“Sing for us!” it said.

Sing for those of us who everybody else here has already forgotten.

Dream or experience, the voice was calling to the only singer it had a chance of reaching.

I don’t know if it ever really happened.

But I know that, if it did, she answered the way she always did and the way Al Green always did.

They sang for us.

Choose between them?

Might as well ask me to choose between my left eye and my right eye.

No thanks.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Double LP)

LINDA RONSTADT…ECLECTIC WEIRDO (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #47)

I’ve always thought the biggest mistake of Linda Ronstadt’s career (whether hers or her record company’s I can only guess) was not releasing “Roll Um Easy” as the first single from the next album after Heart Like a Wheel had transformed her from a huge talent to a huge star. It would have inoculated her against the criticism that she was merely mining oldies as a surefire commercial formula. It would have laid the “she can’t rock” nonsense to rest because the single that was released, a perfectly fine version of ‘Heat Wave” which plenty of people were predisposed to hate for any number of not very good reasons, would have stayed an album track and nobody would have cared about her admission that she had trouble getting a handle on it even if they had bothered to ask.

And, while there’s no way to know these things of course, I’m pretty sure Ronstadt singing “eloquent profanity just rolls right off my tongue” over that arrangement in ’75 would have been a sure-fire number one. (“Heat Wave” did just fine, reaching #5, but, for all the album sales and steady selling singles, she never quite recaptured the chart momentum “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved” had given her.)

I’ll always think it was a mistake, then.

But lately I’ve been revising my opinion on whether it was her worst.

Because, in purely aesthetic terms, not releasing a live album has it beat all hollow.

Though she could sometimes be a touch stiff and uncomfortable in the spotlight and wasn’t always visually compelling, she was generally looser and freer vocally on stage than in the studio.

Sometimes she even took chances.

I was taken enough with her live concert from Los Angeles in 1975 to make it the first thing I’ve ever downloaded for repeat audio consumption (there’s no video available and it makes it easier to hear just how good she could be).

But there’s nothing in that concert, or any of several others available (all excellent to one degree or another) that matches what she did here, making Dolly Parton and Warren Zevon stronger for each other’s company. It’s a measure of her vision and, believe it or not, not something just anybody could pull off, then or now, even if they thought of it:

And anybody who thinks Ronstadt wasn’t some sort of genius should check out her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, available en toto on YouTube, where, with her own voice stilled by Parkinson’s, a dream lineup of Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks were repeatedly overwhelmed by arrangements she once made sound as easy as breathing.

Somebody, please do a live box….or at very least a live single, on this woman. (And if she’s the one resisting, due to her well known obsessive perfectionism, somebody please talk her into it!)

THE GHOST IN THE RUMOURS’ MACHINE (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #44)

FLEETWOODMAC4(REPEAT)(L–R: Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie: Fleetwood Mac, circa nineteen seventy-something…What could possibly go wrong? Clearly these folks love each other!)

In the late seventies Fleetwood Mac’s music was so ubiquitous I never bothered to buy any of it. If I wanted to hear them they were never more than a radio click and half an hour away. (“Dreams” alone filled the air so insidiously that I knew the words without ever once having paid the slightest attention or even begun to wonder what they might mean.)

Anyway, I was on a budget and I kind of figured they were going to be around.

I liked them, then, when they were everywhere…but they weren’t exactly the soundtrack of my inner life.

They’ve come pretty close to being that in the last five years or so.

Sure, I’d gotten around to buying their records long before that. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk… Some comps, one or two things from their earlier period with Bob Welch and their even earlier period with the great Peter Green (eventually even the fantastic box set with all the Green-era music).

I’d even gotten around to listening to them. Quite a lot.

Good things abounded. Great things weren’t uncommon.

I think I resisted Rumours a bit more than the rest, though, kept it squarely in the like-don’t-love category for far too long, for the usual lunk-headed reason. You know, how could anything that popular (27 million sold to date “officially”…which, given the standard accounting practices of the forever-going-broke music business, means the 40 million often mentioned as the “real” number is likely still low-balling) be that good?

I mean, I’ve never thought The Dark Side of the Moon, or Thriller, or the Saturday NIght Fever soundtrack, or Born In the U.S.A. or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–to mention some albums with similarly stratospheric sales numbers that I actually like–were that good or that special.

Not change-my-life special. Not forever-deep-in-the-marrow special.

So it came as quite a surprise to me when Rumours somehow joined the list of those select few that are forever-deep-in-the-marrow-life-changing. Even more of a surprise because, even now, I’d be hard pressed to say why and how this occurred.

Normally, I’m spilling over with ideas on a subject like that.

But, with Rumours I come up dry.

Of course, bonding with rich So-Cal rock stars (who had previously been, for the most part, either semi-rich British blues-rock stars or No-Cal rich kids) is not my usual thing.

And, as far as the album’s major theme goes, I’ve never had any heartbreak romances to start with, let alone gone-to-pot-cry-in-your-cocaine aftermaths.

But that doesn’t explain much. I never particularly needed any kind of personal identification badge to bond with the musicians I loved. Just as a for instance, the soundtrack of that inner life I mentioned in the late-seventies when I was living in the deep South and politely ignoring Fleetwood Mac (and most of the rest of the decade), was the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons.

I’d never touched a surfboard or been anywhere near a knee-cracking Jersey goom-bah either. Didn’t matter.

Then again, Brian Wilson didn’t actually surf and Frankie Valli was running hard to get away from the Tony Sopranos of the world. So I learned not to be too surprised by the barriers rock and rollers could break through, including those set up by their marketing departments.

Besides, when Fleetwood Mac’s then-latest incarnation reached us down South they didn’t need a marketing department.

One day, nobody ever heard of them. Next day they were scratch-their-name-on-your-school-desk cool. With everybody. Well, probably not with punks, but if there were any punks running around my part of Jackson County, Florida in 1977, they were keeping quiet about it (which I guess would mean they weren’t really punks anyway). For everybody else, “Over My Head” was the fanfare, and Rumours, arriving the following year, was the coronation. I mean, I knew at least one person who condescended to (“You like them?”) and/or despised (“Oh God, I can’t stand them!”) every single band that mattered. The two bands everybody agreed on were the Beatles (who everybody loved…except for the few people who merely liked them) and “the Mac” (who everybody liked…except for the few people who actually loved them).

I wonder what we, and the rest of the world, would have thought if we’d heard the version of Rumors that now exists, strewn across bonus discs for the 2-CD version released in 2004 and the 3-CD set released in 2013? (NOTE; There’s also a 4-CD version, which apparently has both bonus discs, a DVD, vinyl version, etc….but that’s for when I’m really rich.)

I’ve heard both bonus discs before this week…had these particular releases around for a while and was actually quite struck by the 2004 release the one time I sat and paid attention all the way through.

What I heard this week, though, when I finally sat down to listen close, was something different, something that probably has to do with just how much I’ve absorbed the original Rumours LP over the years (especially since acquiring that 2004 version, which has “Silver Springs” restored to the original release and nesting smack dab in the middle, where it was originally slated until it was nixed at the last minute, supposedly because its length would compromise the fidelity of the album back in the pre-digital age, more likely because Lindsey Buckingham, from some combination of fear, anger and spite, wanted Stevie Nicks to have as little room to fight back as possible).

So while I still have no real idea how the original Rumours (meaning the album that the public originally heard, which, in this case maybe even more than usual, was not the album originally created) came to occupy such a place of consummate familiarity, I have all kinds of ideas why the other album nested inside it is likely to grab hold just as deeply, now that I’ve finally managed to hear it.

The first reason is that, miraculously, that underlying/undermining album isn’t merely half-formed, the usual series of interesting false starts, confined to mere allegations of the greatness that’s only waiting for a last coat of studio polish to bring it kicking to life, but a thing that’s every bit as great as the final product while also being a markedly different entity altogether.

Mind you, the perfect alternate Rumours doesn’t exist in a neat package. The cuts on the 2004 release and the 2013 release are completely different with the former being mostly outtakes (that is something close to finished tracks) and the latter mostly demos (meaning very rough early takes, often with the sparest possible accompaniment and different lyrics). Each has a few songs or fragments (other than “Silver Springs”) which didn’t make the final cut.

What’s remarkable is that just about everything deepens and enhances an album known to millions, rather than distracting from it or “replacing” anything.

There are some stunning numbers on the 2013 “demo” disc. I’d point especially to a version of “The Chain” (the one song from the finished LP not included on the 2004 extra disc) that reveals it as the Stevie Nicks’ song it was always meant to be (Buckingham and Christine McVie shared mighty leads on the finished cut); a slightly slowed down, passionate take on Buckinghham’s “Go Your Own Way” with a key line altered; a stunning track from McVie called “Keep Me There” which is as fine as anything she ever did (and which was eventually combined with Nicks’ song to make the final version of “The Chain); and a heart-stopping Nicks’ vocal on a fragment of the never-finished “Doesn’t Anything Last” that answers Buckingham’s tormented fragment of the same song on the earlier disc, the brevity of which amounts to a tragedy.

One could dive deep in other words and I would certainly need these tracks at the very least to program the dream double-LP the thirty-four “extra” tracks spread across the two discs could easily comprise, even pared to essentials.

But, for the sake of clarity, I’ll stick to the 2004 disc as its own mystery.

Or maybe I should say its own clarification: the ghost that haunts the great heart of an LP that defined its troubled era as thoroughly as any album has defined any era before or since so thoroughly that it finally lights up the dark places and throws shadows on all the easy assumptions 40 million and counting are bound to have engendered.

The first eleven tracks of what I’ll now call the Ghost Disc, track Rumours closely. Ten of the twelve songs (including “Silver Springs”) are placed in their familiar running order, with “The Chain” and “I Don’t Want to Know” (the song that, according to Nicks, replaced “Silver Springs” on the finished LP) omitted and a track called “Think About It” added.

Deprived of that “polish” I mentioned, the Ghost Disc becomes a lot of new things: an unlikely marriage of Gram Parsons and Fairport Convention; a hard link between the “country-rock” of seventies L.A. and the “alt-country” movement that would emerge a few years later in bands like Lone Justice and Jason and the Scorchers; a sharp reminder that Rumours itself was born largely of the intersection between pain felt and pain masked.

And, most of all, a singer’s album, by which I mean an album where writing and producing and playing become truly secondary and the voices of the three greatest singers to ever join in one band (and with the possible exception of the early Temptations, the three greatest to ever be in one vocal group) to tell parts of the tale with a clarity that was bound to be blunted or buried when fame had to be validated and front office suits had to be mollified.

I don’t mean that the versions of “Second Hand News,” “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” et al, which exist here are “better” than the famous versions. That would be silly. Rumours, after all did validate their fame and pretty much every claim ever made for it or them.

For instance, I certainly wouldn’t want the world to be without the irresistible, anthemic flourish that opens the finished version of “Don’t Stop,” which here is reduced to a soft piano roll with a hint of Randy Newman in it before it gives way to the Fats Domino stomp it always was (and maybe thereby proves just how much both Randy Newman and Christine McVie owed to Fats).

But, now that I know it exists, I wouldn’t want to be without the subtle shift found in the song’s tone here either.

In it’s never-wear-out hit form it was the most optimistic song imaginable (and a breath of fresh air on Rumours itself, a welcome respite breaking up the vicious, epic cutting contest the just-broken-up Lindsey and Stevie were carrying on), a straightforward assurance that tomorrow will be better.

Here, with the production muted, the emphasis in the harmonies ever-so-slightly altered, the song becomes double-edged, precisely poised. The difference between joy and melancholy, reassurance and doubt, is left hanging on the knife edge until the  “O-o-o-o-o-h”  that lifts the hit version into the world’s best smile, shifts the tone entirely in the direction the hit refused to go.

Suddenly “don’t you look back” carries an unmistakable hint of its famous corollary….

You know…”Because something might be gaining on you.”

Then the band break up into giggles and it sounds like they’re trying to fend off a haint that just walked through the door.

No longer suitable for a presidential campaign’s theme music in other words.

Those kinds of twists and turns exist throughout the Ghost Disc.

The voices, brought forward in the mix, singly or in harmony, carry new dimensions on every single track (“Never Going Back Again,” the one track that’s now an instrumental, sounds like a delicate piece of chamber music crossed with somebody’s bluegrass record collection…in other words, it suits the mood just fine).

“Dreams” is more forceful, less wistful. “Second Hand News,” stripped of Mick Fleetwood’s thrilling, just-right, drum flourishes (here he sounds like he’s driving nails or maybe like he just learned to keep time on the kit and can’t get over the rush) becomes naked, vulnerable, as if the man singing is actually hurting rather than remembering hurt. “Songbird,” always quiet, becomes utterly still. “Silver Springs” too, becomes quieter, less epic, more personal. Ditto “Gold Dust Woman,” (which starts here with somebody screaming in the other room, rides the country guitar licks that got buried in the final mix, and then gets repeated, quieter still, more vital still, in the “demos” section of the disc). “You Make Loving Fun,” always a bit of an (admittedly deathless) sing-a-long before, here levitates between unstoppable passion and nagging doubt and moves to the very top of McVie’s vocal chart.

After that, you get a killer version of “Oh Daddy” that amounts to a duet between McVie and her ex-husband’s bass, punctuated by McVie/Nicks harmonies that  would raise the hair on a corpse.

And all of that is followed by what might be the album’s piece-de-resistance, a Nicks’ number called “Think About It.”

As deservedly famous as “Silver Springs” became over the  years for being what somebody called “the greatest song ever left off an album,” “Think About It” (a version of which ended up on Nicks’ first solo album, where it was about a tenth as good) might deserve the title even more. Since it didn’t appear on the original album, and apparently wasn’t even considered, there’s nothing to compare it to.

There or elsewhere.

The closest I can come is to say it’s probably what a band like Little Feat was always aiming for and, if they never quite got all the way there, it’s probably because they didn’t have Stevie Nicks.

There are five additional demos and two “jams” and they’re hardly incidental. They include the aforementioned extra take of “Gold Dust Woman,” Buckingham’s version of  “Doesn’t Anything Last,” and his killer guitar work on “For Duster (The Blues).” Every cut is worthy of interest. Every cut adds something to both the legacy and the mystery. Taken together they demonstrate, all by themselves, just how off-the-charts the raw talent in this band actually was when it was producing the album that defined them.

But I’ll leave it there. It will probably be years before I fully absorb the implications of all this. I haven’t encountered anything like it before–a truly “alternate” version of a truly great album that has just as much to offer–and I’ll be surprised if I ever encounter the like again.

But I listen to this and think about what might have been and God how I wish that picture at the top was a lie…that something other than paychecks and professionalism could have somehow held them together all these decades.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE BRITISH INVASION (Great Vocal Events In Rock and Roll History, Volume 1)

Okay, back to the mission here with a new category.

Yes, this past week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles arriving in America, but it also, of course, marks the same anniversary of the beginning of what came, almost instantly, to be called the “second British Invasion” and then came (in the instant after that) to be called the British Invasion.

For shorthand historical purposes, this latter phrase has ever since referred to the tide of British acts who followed immediately in the Beatles path to success in America. Like pretty much every other rock and roll moment/movement between the early fifties and the early nineties, this “British Invasion” was, first and foremost, carried along by singers. It might seem self-evident that this is so, but most of what’s ever been written about the great changes the Beatles (and the Invasion in general) wrought have tended to focus on anything but singing, focusing instead on the rise of self-contained bands, the genius of the best bands being defined as those who wrote the best songs, the veneration of guitar gods, how witty and engaging some of the lads were in press conferences, whether the Beatles really were bigger than Jesus and so forth.

But the British Invasion finally rose and fell on great singing, just like nearly every other significant development in rock history before and after. So I thought I’d round up a list of some of the key vocal performances from 1964–66 that set the standards–and the limits–of just how far this thing proved it could go as commerce and/or art.

I think I included every really formidable singer from the Invasion proper who had any success at all on this side of the pond, though, of course, most of these made many other great records, so bear in mind this is only a representative sample. (I listed lead singers for groups and harmony singers where I thought they added something significant to the record. Also, where possible, I tried to find some interesting live version of the song in question for a link. But if you only want to close your eyes and listen to one, I’d recommend “It’s My Life” which is played off the original 45 and sounds superior to any CD mix I’ve heard.)

[Final note: This list is very roughly chronological but it’s really more about the gradual opening up of psychic space, as opposed to dates on a calendar….If you want to believe that’s code for “I’m way too lazy to look up every single one of these recording dates!” well, I won’t exactly give you an argument.]

“I Want To Hold Your Hand”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals): The kick-starter and a true update of the Everlys, with John and Paul as indistinguishable from each other’s heartbeats as they would ever be on record. They were never able to repeat the magic of this one live because (at least in every performance I’ve seen) they always stood at separate mikes and rather far apart. Fortunately for us, them and the world, the space they clearly needed on stage disappeared in the recording studio.

“She Loves You”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals, George Harrison, harmony vocal): Sheer rhetorical brilliance. Here were the Beatles, on their second big American single, claiming a special kinship (reinforced by the passion and intimacy of the harmonies) with the sort of staunch young female who made them a cultural phenomenon to begin with. It was a kinship they (John in particular, though Paul’s oft-expressed “well-it-would-be-nice-if-they-only-screamed-at-musically-appropriate-times” attitude speaks volumes as well) frequently made a point of disowning the moment it was commercially safe to do so. But the record itself was somehow both thunderous and sublimely intimate in its moment and has remained so in every moment since.

“I Only Want To Be With You”–Dusty Springfield: Dusty hit the charts the week after the Beatles with a record that very likely would have been an American hit in any case, providing, as it did, an instant bridge between the then reigning girl group sound and the blue-eyed soul waiting just around the corner. A solo vocal that sounds like a wave crashing on the beach. Only you, Dusty, only you.

“House of the Rising Sun”–The Animals (lead vocal, Eric Burdon): Maybe it was the JFK assassination or the Beatles on Sullivan. Maybe it was the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show. Maybe it was something else. But you could stake a fair claim on “the Sixties” really being born here. When a working class English kid could step up to the mike and deliver a blues vocal on a par with Muddy or the Wolf then all bets were off and confusion was bound to continue its reign long after the exhilaration faded.

“Do Wah Diddy Diddy”–Manfred Mann (Paul Jones, lead vocal): Okay, an epic vocal on “House of the Rising Sun” is one thing, but this couldn’t possibly have been what Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich had in mind when they wrote this.

“You Really Got Me”–The Kinks (Ray Davies, lead vocal): Dave Davies’ ripped-and-ready guitar chords get most of the love, but, great as all that is, it’s also mostly a fine variant on things Link Wray and Paul Burlison and Lonnie Mack had already gotten up to (in some cases, years before). But Ray’s vocal really was something new and astonishing, a maelstrom of self-pity turned on its head so that the anger always underlying such emotions comes boiling to the top in what was ostensibly a lyric designed to express the same aching sentiments as, for instance, Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me.” Here, the “sentiment” is basically along the lines of “if you don’t love me as much as I love you, I’ll punch you in the face.” There was one occasion later, on “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” where Ray even topped himself–there, he sounded both more plaintive and more dangerous at the same time. But this was the breakthrough. (UPDATE: My bad. It was brother Dave on the lead vocal for “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” though Ray wrote it.)

“I’m Into Something Good”–Herman’s Hermits (lead vocal, Peter Noone): This swept aside Earl Jean’s version on its way up the charts. One of the uglier aspects of the British Invasion was that it temporarily brought back the practice of “cover” versions–i.e., a white version very specifically designed to sublimate the air play of a black original–which the original rock and rollers had laid to waste. Just to complicate things a bit further, though, some fair amount of the time the record by the highly marketable English lads was just as good (see the Moody Blues’ version of “Go Now,” co-opted from Bessie Banks, or Manfred Mann’s “Sha-la-la,” co-opted from the Shirelles, for other convincing examples; see the Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” co-opted from Irma Thomas, for one among many not-so-convincing examples). Case in point is that, at least on this record, Peter Noone actually sounded like a male version of a girl group singer. For a solid year after–and despite Noone’s more usual penchant for sounding closer to an especially adenoidal Music Hall escapee (“No Milk Today” and “Must To Avoid” very much excepted)–the Hermits battled the Dave Clark Five for second place among British acts on the American charts. Evidently, young women were not entirely immune to hearing a cute boy sing themselves back to themselves.

“Needles and Pins”–The Searchers (lead vocal, Mike Pender, harmony vocal Chris Curtis): A rare great harmony record by a Liverpool band other than the Beatles themselves (more about that below), and perhaps more noted now for its influence on American folk rock via twin six-string guitars that presaged the twelve-string jangle of the Byrds’ early hits. But the vocal shouldn’t be sold short, marking as it did a kind of link between the American folk movement and the folk rock that would explode a year later.

“Is It True?”–Brenda Lee: A bit of a cheat but only a bit. Obviously Brenda’s not British. But this was recorded in London with Mickie Most (likely England’s greatest record producer)** at the console and Jimmy Page (yes, that Jimmy Page) on guitar. No way any of that was happening without the Invasion and, based on the evidence, the LP Lee reportedly planned to make in England that never materialized is a great loss indeed. Beyond its own considerable value, notable for providing proof that British vocalists would not have to rely on American studio expertise when it was time to make great records on the assembly line. If the locals could hang with Brenda Lee, they could hang with anybody.

“Glad All Over”–Dave Clark Five (Mike Smith, lead vocal): The seeds of Power Pop and Glam. Also, about as subtle as a sledgehammer–an approach well-noted by many after it started making a whole lotta money. And lots of other people did make money going down this same path–though relatively few made similar magic.

“Downtown”–Petula Clark: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Suddenly, Brits other than Dusty Springfield (i.e., Brits who weren’t geniuses) could do Bacharach-style Orchestral Pop. Now things were getting serious! It turned out that–other than Dusty Springfield–really only Petula Clark could do it and that even she could only do it so transcendently this once. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it made a lot of American session pros a great deal more nervous than “I Want To Hold Your Hand” ever did. (And just how Pop was it? Well, I first heard it in a shopping mall when I was five, with Christmas decorations festooned all around…and I promise you it changed my life.)

“My Generation”–The Who (Roger Daltrey, lead vocal): Not a big hit in America initially but an anthem an awful lot of people took to heart precisely because of its stuttering vocal. A sixties’ version of the semi-articulate angst-ridden ethos James Dean had spoken to (and for) in a much more artificial context a decade earlier. (For an even more exhilarating version of the same basic world view, see “The Kids Are Alright.” For an even nastier one, see “The Good’s Gone.”)

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”–The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, lead vocal): The Stones had made some good records before this. Mick Jagger had even waxed a few really fine vocals. But, for the most part, the fuss they kicked up in the first year and a half of the Invasion is–musically speaking–a little hard to hear these days. The band smoked from the beginning, but early Jagger generally sang as though American English (especially black American English) was a foreign language he had learned phonetically. This is where he sold his soul to the Devil so he could complete with his idols, perhaps even surpass them. Compete he did. Surpass them he even perhaps occasionally did. Beginning in about 1973, the Devil got payback–he always does, whatever you decide to call him–but it was beyond belief while it lasted and it really did begin here.

“He’s Sure the Boy I Love”–Lulu: This was a remake–not simply a cover (as it was not designed to compete with the original on the charts and was not even released as a single)–of a Crystals’ hit on which Darlene Love had sung lead. Make that, the mighty Darlene Love. No way was Lulu supposed to dig in her heels and blow past Darlene Love (even if she was greatly assisted by a superior arrangement). But it happened. On a bit of album filler no less–and it is out of such miracles that cults are born and raised. Proof, if anybody needed it, that the Brits had a pretty deep bench.

“Look Through Any Window”–The Hollies (Alan Clarke, lead vocals, Graham Nash and Tony Hicks, harmony vocals): One interesting, little-noted fact about the Invasion was that, having been made possible by a great harmony vocal group, it produced relatively little great harmony singing aside from the Beatles themselves. While the Fab Four’s own vocal impact in America was enormous (with implications that stretched from the Byrds in ‘65 to Buckingham/Nicks’ era Fleetwood Mac in the seventies to the Bangles in the eighties, and that’s just scraping the surface), only one of the British harmony groups who arrived in their wake were remotely in their league. This was their best early record and if they–or anyone–bettered it later on, it wasn’t by much.

“Gloria”–Them (Van Morrison, lead vocals): Displaced Irishman on his way to becoming the Invasion’s greatest singer howls at the moon and gives every garage band in the history of the world from that moment forward a reason to exist–not to mention hope. (Not to mention a break from playing “Louie, Louie”!)

“It’s My Life”–The Animals (Eric Burdon, lead vocal): “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was just as great and certainly more iconic–it’s still the go-to record for anyone who wants to short-hand Viet Nam-as-nightmare. But I’m going with this one because it’s possibly the angriest vocal ever recorded. By the end of it, Burdon actually sounds like somebody who might stab you in the throat–but only if you get in his way.

“Gimme Some Lovin'”–The Spencer Davis Group (Stevie Winwood, lead vocal): The first instance of a popular record that involved speaking in tongues. Can’t say the idea caught on, but it’s still out there, waiting….

“Help” (John Lennon, lead vocal, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, harmony vocals) and “I’m Down” (Paul McCartney, lead vocal, John Lennon and George Harrison, harmony vocals)–The Beatles: Two sides of a 1965 forty-five. Side A featured John the acerbic rocker at his most vulnerable (he said in later interviews that he should have done it as a ballad). Side B featured Paul the romantic doing his crazed Little Richard imitation (and matching the original). All of which helps explain just how they were able to stay on top of this incredible wave for its duration.

“Friday On My Mind”–The Easybeats (Stevie Wright, lead vocal): Although an American studio confection who called themselves the Strangeloves made some classic, self-consciously primitive records while pretending to be Aussies (to exploit the Invasion, naturally), the first real Australian hit (albeit one recorded in England) was this garage-style classic from sixty-six. The only thing stranger than the combination of passion and opacity suggested by too much contemplation of a line like “Even my old man looks…good” is hearing Wright actually sing it. I might be delusional but, at this distance, I swear at least a hint of everything that bubbled up from down under afterwards is contained in this record: the Bee-Gees, Olivia Newton-John, AC/DC….whatever. I tilt my head this way and that and I hear it. Every bit of it. No really.

“Season of the Witch”–Donovan: A droogy, starry-eyed Scottish lad–who never did anything else even remotely similar–defines the future and names the era we’re still living in. Let’s just say that the psychological distance between this record and what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the present,” is considerably less than the distance between this record and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” which had been recorded two years earlier. (Note: I reserve the right to pick this one again when I do my inevitable “Greatest Folk Rock Vocals” post!)

**(Most produced five of the records on this list and his range went from the Animals to Herman’s Hermits. Later on, his range went from “To Sir With Love” to “You Sexy Thing.” He really should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

LAST OF THE OLD, FIRST OF THE NEW (R.I.P. Phil Everly)

Rock and roll reached a long way, never further than when somebody proved that the least likely of the tried-and-true source traditions–the brother duo singing mountain harmony–could fit right in.

The proof came courtesy of Phil Everly, who passed yesterday, and his brother Don. Groomed in the world of the Blue Sky Boys and the Stanley Brothers–a world that sounded even older, lonelier and more isolated from modernity than it was–they created a world where the possibilities reached as far and high as any American music ever has or ever will.

Hundreds came after, some obvious (the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, much of the history of rock for a generation in other words) some not so obvious (Mary Weiss has said that the Shangri-Las found themselves by practicing to the Everlys records, Stevie Nicks assuaged the hurt of having “Silver Springs” rejected for Rumours by taking solace in the fact that the song which replaced it, “I Don’t Want to Know,” gave her and Lindsey Buckingham a chance to do what she termed “our Everly Brothers thing,” and, frankly, any two people who have ever put their heads next a microphone to sing either close or contrapuntal harmony since the late fifties could say some version of the same).

Considering that this list only scratches the surface and further considering how far those acts reached, it’s entirely possible that the Everlys, in purely direct and musical terms, influenced more great records than even the greatest and most visionary of their contemporaries.

That’s saying a mouthful and of course its a mouthful that’s not subject to mathematical proof. But if you listen to what came after with an open ear and an awareness that rock and roll is vocal music before and after it is anything else you certainly find them in as many places–expected and unexpected–as anyone, be it Elvis or Ray or Chuck or James or whoever.

Make no mistake though.

Legions came after, sure enough.

Nobody touched them.

(NOTE: On the day after a white southerner who changed the world infinitely for the better passed away, he still came second on my initial Google search among his Christian name-sakes to Phil Robertson, a man who has evidently never acknowledged the need for those changes and who could never have gotten anywhere near celebrity in the hidebound fifties. As I have been known to say: Goodbye us.)

 

WELL, HERE’S ANOTHER ONE BORN STANDING UP AND TALKING BACK (Stevie Nicks–Vocalist of the Month, 8/13)

First some actual history (which you’ll need, in order to comprehend just how little sense is contained in some of the statements posted immediately thereafter):

Chart action for Fleetwood Mac’s first seven American singles after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band in 1975:

Song                                   Entered chart        Peak Pos (Billboard Hot 100)
(Lead Singer)

From Fleetwood Mac:

Over My Head
(Christine McVie)               11/8/75                 #20 (14 weeks on the Chart)
Rhiannon
(Stevie Nicks)                      3/6/76                  #11 (18 weeks)
Say You Love Me
(Christine McVie)                 7/4/76                  #11 (19 weeks)

From Rumours:

Go Your Own Way
(Lindsey Buckingham)        1/8/77                  #10 (15 weeks)
Dreams
(Stevie Nicks)                    4/16/77                   #1 (19 weeks)
Don’t Stop
(C. McVie/Buckingham)      7/9/77                    #3 (18 weeks)
You Make Loving Fun
(Christine McVie)            10/15/77                    #9 (14 weeks)

And now, bearing all that in mind, a bit of commentary:

“The ‘Fleetwood Mac’ herein is the great group led by Peter Green, not the Californian mob with Stevie Nicks.”

(Source: Elvis Costello, “Costello’s 500: Elvis Costello picks the 500 Greatest Albums Ever”, Vanity Fair, November, 2000)

“Released in 1977, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’ was the initial single from Rumours, which eventually sold more than twelve million copies. As the first shot by the group since their quadruple-platinum Fleetwood Mac, ‘Go Your Own Way’ should have been an automatic smash, no matter what it sounded like, but it surfaced a few times and then vanished, quickly replaced by ‘Dreams,’ a soft ballad, which sailed easily to number one. ‘Go Your Own Way’ was rough, harsh, hard to follow. From its opening notes it was a maelstrom, excitement and nothing else. It was an assault, hammering, the singer moaning and threatening, pleading and damning; it didn’t let up for a second.

“Coming two thirds of the way through the performance, the requisite instrumental break should have provided a rest: instead it raised the stakes. When Lindsey Buckingham dropped his words for a guitar solo–a shattered, severed solo almost drowning in a dozen more overdubbed guitar parts, the off-beat rhythm chasing his lead, then overtaking him, then seeming to wait for him to catch up, which he never quite did–the song began all over again. Ten years later, I flinch every time it comes on the radio, knowing what’s coming, knowing that no matter how completely I can predict what’s going to happen, I won’t be able to catch up: the instrumental passage supersedes not only the singing that precedes it, but the ability of memory to enclose it. And the record got its due: ‘Dreams’ hasn’t been on the air since it dropped from the charts, while ‘Go Your Own Way’ has never been off the air.”

Greil Marcus (Source: “Music,” Artforum, March 1987. Reprinted in Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, 1994)

MJB (Mary J. Blige): That is amazing. That song is so simple but very strong, like “Thunder only happens when it’s raining/Players only love you when they’re playing.” That line [from “Dreams”]is so amazing.

SN (Stevie Nicks): Isn’t it weird how today some people we know [in the music business] are referred to as ‘total players’? And that’s really what I was saying when I wrote that in 1976. ‘Players only love you when they’re playing,’ which means as a woman in rock, many of the different affairs and relationships I had were built around the music and being on tour. And then, when the music was over, the relationships were over.

MJB: I felt that. I can hear that. I don’t think that kind of stuff ever changes, you just get wiser or dumber about it.

(Source: Stevie Nicks interviewing Mary J. Blige, Interview Magazine, Feb. 2008)

“Lindsey had an amazing way of taking my songs and making them wonderful–when he was happy with me.”

(Source: Stevie Nicks, VHI Classic Albums–Rumours)

“Whatever Stevie’s music was, somehow I was this soul mate, that just knew exactly what to do with it. And that never went away, it just became a little bittersweet, in terms of WANTING to do it. There were times when I had the urge not to want to help her.”

(Source: Lindsey Buckingham, VH1 Classic Albums–Rumours)

“‘Dreams’ was hopeful. You know, it saw the breakup coming but it was hopeful that we would be okay, unlike ‘Go Your Own Way,’ which was not hopeful that we would be okay, you know? That was the thing that Lindsey and I argued about a lot, was that I try to be somewhat optimistic. In my songs, somewhere, you know, to pull out some kind of ray of light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t make up stories. They have to be real.”

(Source; Stevie Nicks, VH1 Classic Albums–Rumours)

“The songs that he wrote about me were horrifying. You know ‘Go Your Own Way’ is one way to say…the really worst thing you know?….You know, ‘shacking up is all you want to do,’ which was not true! And I had to listen to him sing it on stage every night and he’d look at me when he’d say it and I would just be going, ‘You know, don’t look at me when you say that!’ that tender love song that you wrote for me, you know…How mean.”

(Source: Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac documentary footage, circa 1990’s)

“Tolerable in a group that was vying for a Dorian Gray medallion by decade’s end, she proved a menace solo, equally unhealthy as role model and sex object.”

“not a diva–a transgendered arena-rock god in all his/her grand self-regard”

(Source: Noted feminist Robert Christgau’s entire commentary on Stevie Nicks’ solo career, Christgau’s Consumer Guide–first quote from 1980’s edition, 2nd quote from 1990’s review of Time Space: The Best of Stevie Nicks)

“‘Women, shit!’ the tall convict said.”

(Source: William Faulkner, final line of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem–aka, The Wild Palms, 1939)

And now, an attempt to wrest some sort of meaning from this tangle:

Stevie Nicks stomped through the California Rock scene in the seventies the way Michelle Phillips had done in the sixties: taking scalps, sampling the moment’s hip drugs, providing a certain aura of quintessence. That much they had in common.

There were some differences.

Michelle Phillips was a good harmony singer who needed confidence lessons from Mama Cass out front no matter how many A-list movie stars bowed down at her feet behind closed doors. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew her place.

Stevie Nicks was a strong writer, a mesmerizing, cantankerous front woman, and one of the greatest singers of the rock era. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew it wasn’t her place to bow down to anybody.

The quotes above are representive, but, even without them, there would be no need to guess which one drove the crit-illuminati stone cold crazy.

That might seem a little strong ,but when the lady in question has people pretending (that’s the kindest word I can think of to describe someone claiming the radio has ever stopped playing “Dreams”) that your biggest hit left the air for good when it “dropped from the charts,” to make way, ultimately, for the most famous of the “horrifying” songs your ex wrote about you, then, well, “stone cold crazy” seems just about right.

And it seems just about right even before one gets to such enlightened fare as “transgendered arena rock god” (written at just about the last moment when a Liberal-Playing-at-Radical like Christgau could use “transgendered” as an insult before the next round of re-education set in–there will, of course, never be a moment when the wrong sort of woman can’t be described as a “menace” by the cramped souls in the cheap seats or when “unhealthy…sex object” isn’t code for either cooties or VD). At that point, I guess she should just be grateful for small favors: the occasional backhanded compliment–the term “guilty pleasure” comes up a lot–and whatever relief she can manage to feel that we don’t still dip witches in the village pond and hang ’em if they don’t drown.

For the record, Fleetwood Mac went from being a very good band to an important one the moment Stevie Nicks (and, yes, Lindsey Buckingham) joined and went from being an important band to a very good one the moment she (not Buckingham) decided to focus most of her energy on one of the very few major solo careers any singer who got famous in a rock band has ever managed (and, near as I can tell, the only one anyone has ever managed on a similar scale without ever really leaving their original band).

To steal a phrase from Reggie Jackson, another misunderstood seventies-era visionary, in Fleetwood Mac’s truly epic period, Stevie Nicks was the straw that stirred the drink and everybody, including the other members of the band, pretty well knew it.

That does not mean she was musically more important than the others. That’s a totally different call. It would, for instance, be hard to be more important than Lindsey Buckingham himself, who, as an ace singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer, was an extremely rare quadruple threat. And nobody ever said Christine McVie was anything but a great singer, or that Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were anything but an awesome rhythm section. I mean, one measure of just how great Fleetwood Mac was at that point was that Stevie Nicks didn’t completely dominate it.

But she was the combustible element. And if you listen to the albums the band made in the five years before she showed up–or even the scorching guitar blues records made by the original lineup Elvis Costello loves so much in the years before that–what you hear, always, is a real good band that was very much in need of some combustion.

How she managed this was some blend of “bleeding obvious” (there was the talent, the drop-dead looks, the tendency to actually dress like a witch, or at least like nobody else) and “who the hell knows?” (whatever was inside her that drew great, angry songs like “Go Your Own Way” out of Buckingham, whose real passions otherwise were mostly for techno wizardry, or that lifted Christine McVie out of her previously–and subsequently–unbreachable comfort zone, or that made Mick Fleetwood figure he had to get in the scalp line himself at least once, and so on and so forth).

Whatever her “it” factor finally was, the public nearly always responded to it just a little bit more than it responded to the rest of the group.

The extent to which Buckingham–or the record company, or somebody–would go to counter this effect seems to have been considerable. “Landslide” and “Gold Dust Woman” were natural singles from their respective era-defining albums that went unreleased–and got picked up by the radio and played for the next forty years anyway. “Silver Springs” was left off of Rumours (where it would have been one of the strongest tracks on one of the greatest albums ever made) for “time and length” reasons that have always sounded frankly ridiculous. Released as the flip of–get this–“Go Your Own Way,” it became arguably the most famous B-side to come out after the 1960’s (when flip-hits were still pretty common) and has constantly bobbed to the surface on various re-releases ever since. (And it’s another measure of how great Fleetwood Mac was that they could leave a track as strong as “Silver Springs” off an album that was following a jillion-seller without knocking a hole in the boat.)

The upshot of all of that and more was that every attempt to rig the game in the alpha-male’s favor effectively backfired.

Partly this was just due to the quality of Nicks’ voice. She was, without much doubt, the most prominent and gifted heir of Brenda Lee-style husk and Lee had been the most popular female vocalist of the sixties. And being gorgeous never hurts commercially. Hard to hide all that.

But I think those qualities still come a long way behind the main factor–the real reason I suspect Nicks has been inordinately popular among the women vocalists who have come after and seems to strike an especially strong chord with hip-hop era black women.

To put it as succinctly as I know how: Stevie talked back.

Not only that, she talked back in a direct and forceful way that hadn’t happened quite so forcefully and directly before in rock or pretty much anywhere else. She talked back–directly–to a man who was somewhat obsessed with publicly–and directly–cutting her down. And who very pointedly wasn’t going to make up with her in the last reel. Whatever the realities of her relationship with Buckingham during Fleetwood Mac’s transcendent period, whoever was really to blame for what, that was the way the dynamic played out in public.

“Go Your Own Way” hit the radio and the record bins and, despite Greil Marcus’ delusional claim otherwise, was in fact a very big hit. A very big hit which was a straightforward “you-know-she’s-really-a-whore/slut-don’t-you?” attack on the woman singing harmony and standing next to him on stage every night–a harmony and a stage presence, incidentally, that won him a degree of fame he, for all his talent, almost certainly never could have achieved without her.

That was strange enough by itself–at least as weird as any dynamic that had ever existed in the Mamas and the Papas or the Jefferson Airplane or Abba.

But Grace Slick tended to write and sing more memorably about the times than her feelings and the other women in those groups didn’t write at all, so it meant something different when you could flip the 45 of “Go Your Own Way” and listen to “Silver Springs” not as a throwaway, but as an equally great record that literally told the other side of the story.

And if anybody wanted to wait four months until “Go Your Own Way” dropped off the charts (after performing right in line with the band’s previous singles), then they could hear “Dreams” following hard after–“Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do,” chased onto the airwaves by, “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom, well who am I to keep you down?”

That sort of thing might (or might not) seem fairly mundane now, a generation and a half after riot girl power erupted (in the underground at least). But it wasn’t mundane then. If you wanted to hear some sort of female empowerment in the mid-seventies Top 40, you mostly would be settling for songs about hanging in there like “I Will Survive.” Great record, no doubt–and necessary–but it wasn’t exactly moving the ball forward.

That’s where Stevie Nicks came in.

Not only did she offer in-time responses to age-old attacks on “wanton” women, but these were responses that rang out like gentle curses. The woman who could rock as hard as anybody alive tended to whisper when, without turning around, she was–magically if you will–parrying the knives aimed at her back.

So in a sense, for all that she accomplished after–a solo career that produced another solid handful of radio staples (and not a few magnificent performances–see below), a decade or more as rock’s go-to harmony session singer (which made her as much a descendant of Darlene Love and Merry Clayton as of Brenda Lee), a career as a “role model” that worked out just fine no matter how many rock critics followed Lindsey Buckingham’s lead–her place in the pantheon was secure the minute “Dreams”–that “soft ballad” that worked as a knowing, inescapable psychic knee in the groin of the sexual element of male privilege that, no matter how far we think “civilization” has come, is still the foundation stone upon which all the other privileges are built–started up the charts.

That makes “Dreams” a pretty big deal even now. Because if that was all there was to Stevie Nicks, it would be enough. If there were no cataclysmic live version of “Edge of Seventeen,” no glorious throwaways like her Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson covers, no definitive take on “Silent Night,” no bridge to transcendence on the version of “The Insider” that appears on Tom Petty’s 30th Anniversary Concert DVD, no three and half additional decades of popping up from the ether every few years and reminding us who she really is, there would still be “Dreams,” the song that made the crit-illuminati start lying their collective asses off the moment it appeared and has never stopped annoying them since.

Of course it was inevitable (more or less) that all that other stuff would exist–once the impulses that created “Dreams” did. There was no way anyone as driven and gifted as Nicks was going to remain in the shadows, or go back to them once she had fully emerged–and frankly she had already emerged before “Dreams” was a record. Probably even before it was an idea. I’m not even sure it’s her signature record. Plenty would vote for “Rhiannon” or “Landslide,” and I wouldn’t say they were wrong.

But “Dreams” was the no-going-back point. The way into the future.

Not the first time a woman stood toe to toe with men generally. That had happened plenty–even in rock.

Just the first time a woman stood toe-to-toe with the particular man who was saying particular things about her.

In the same band.

Or, as Elvis Costello would have it (and I’m sure the fact that he was never able to stay on the radio himself had nothing to do with his failure to comprehend all this), in a “Californian mob,” which, of course, happened to be three-fifth’s English.

Goodness knows we should be used to the six thousand degrees of separation from reality that the boys with the thinking caps and the typewriter minds practice by now, let alone the sort of rock musician who lives to impress them.

But I’m pausing here, this particular month, to celebrate the woman who made the idea that we should accept it utterly obsolete the minute she showed up.

Annoy on, lady. I’m with you.

Fleetwood Mac “Rhiannon” (Live on The Midnight Special: 1976)

Fleetwood Mac “Go Your Own Way” (Live Performance: 1977)

Stevie Nicks “Edge of Seventeen” (Live at Red Rock: 1986)

Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty “The Insider” (Live Performance, 2006)

Stevie Nicks and Chris Isaak “It’s Late” (Live on Television: 2009)

 (NOTE: Steven Rubio has rightly pointed out in comments that Brenda Lee being the most popular female vocalist of the 1960s is a contestable statement. I just want to clarify that I was referencing Joel Whitburn’s Billboard research, specifically Top Pop Singles: 1955-1999, which places Brenda third overall for the decade behind the Beatles and Elvis and, of course, first among female vocalists. As I’ve explained in a number of my Elvis posts, “charts” are not definitive barometers of “popularity.” But they are the only useful objective public evidence that exists. Apologies for the short-hand and thanks to Steven for pointing out the need for a clarification.)

 

MYSTERY ACHIEVEMENT…(Glenda Collins, Vocalist of the Month for 7/13)

So four whole months into my Vocalist of the Month category, I’ve basically figured out that sometimes it’s gonna be eight thousand words and sometimes it’s gonna be closer to eight. That’s the fun of it.

I had planned for Stevie Nicks to be featured in July but I’m a thought and a half short of finishing a long piece on her, so–in the interests of keeping this blog free of silly deadlines–I decided I would keep it simple and harken back to another, slightly less famous, Brenda Lee acolyte (Stevie took Brenda’s timbre, Glenda took her phrasing).

Collins was known–to the extent she was known at all–for being a sort-of discovery of the legendary British producer Joe Meek (she had recorded before, but he must have thought she had something because he kept trying and he was a man who had kicked David Bowie, the Beatles and Rod Stewart to the curb, among others).

Meek had put a record on top of the American charts two years before the Beatles (“Telstar” by the Tornadoes). He was a contemporary of Phil Spector and fellow mad obsessive, right down to eventually killing an innocent woman to prove he really was crazy, though Meek did it forty years earlier and at least had the decency to off himself immediately afterwards.

Glenda Collins was as good a singer as Meek ever chose to work with, but, truth be told, she was also, for the most part, a good singer in search of an identity.

Just once, though, on a record produced by Meek–and, evidently, recording her vocal in a bathroom–she found the sort of magic that makes rock and roll eternally bottomless.

Like all of her other records–all her pretty good records that is–it was not a hit.

Every time I hear it, I can hear why it wasn’t a hit in this world. And I can also hear why it would have been a smash–the smash I can easily imagine she believed (and had every right to believe) it would be when she heard the playback–in that slightly better world that seems to be resting permanently just out of reach.

Like a lot of one-shot rock and rollers, she’s got a little piece of forever anyway.

As Orson Welles used to say….It only takes one.

Glenda Collins “Something I’ve Got To Tell You” (Studio Recording…No idea if the cheesecake photo at the end is her!)