NOT HAVING A TV….GOOD THING? BAD THING? (CD Review)

The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)

I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).

But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.

First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.

Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?

Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?

I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.

But, my God, what a missed opportunity.

Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”

One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.

That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.”  That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Well, none of that happened.

Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)

Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).

And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”

Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.

One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.

Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.

Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.

Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.

Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.

Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.

And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.

Take it Mavis:

 

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 10: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”)

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (U.S. Version-1965)
Artist: The Animals
Writers: (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil)

CIRCA 1966: Songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil pose for a portrait circa 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

(Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, circa, mid-sixties)

You’ve got to start somewhere.

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” seems to have started as an extra beat in Barry Mann’s ambitious heart.

Barry Mann the wannabe singer that is.

Barry had a big hit in the early sixties with “Who Put the Bomp” one of those great half-serious, half-goofy odes to rock and roll transcendence that occasionally lit up the charts back then. It wasn’t quite as great as Johnny Cymbal’s “Mr. Bass Man,” but it was still pretty darn great. That said, even “Mr. Bass Man” wasn’t quite the sort of record for a singer to build a career on. Too much competition in those halcyon days for “now what” to be the logical question about a follow up.

Besides, everybody knew who Barry Mann was. Barry Mann was a songwriter, and, especially after he met his soulmate, Cynthia Weil, a very great songwriter. (Of the three marriage/partner teams around whom the Brill Building was built, Mann and Weill were the ones who wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the ones whose marriage lasted–they call it art for a reason)

But Mann didn’t exactly give up on his idea of being both a singer and a songwriter. After the advent of the Beatles and the rise of Bob Dylan, he probably started getting ideas. And who could blame him?

If they can do it, why not me?

So he planned and schemed and wrote and used his contacts and his talent to put pressure on the powers-that-be. It wasn’t too long before he secured a recording contract with Red Bird records and decided the demo he was shopping to the Righteous Brothers (as a followup to “Lovin’ Feeling”…there’s run for you) would make his own perfect debut.

Thus he recorded this:

Not bad. Kinda different, which wasn’t the curse in those days it is now. A little murky on the production end, maybe, and Barry Mann wasn’t a Righteous Brother, let alone, two Righteous Brothers. But lots of records of similar quality found their way up the charts even in that hyper-competitive era. It could have happened for Barry.

Certainly what happened next had to leave him wondering if it was his singing career’s great might-have-been.

animals

The Animals, whose producer, Mickie Most, had been slipped a demo by the era’s most ubiquitous hustler, Allen Klein (he’d later end up managing both the Beatles and the Stones), had recorded their own version for the UK market. It had been released there days before Mann’s record was set to be released in the U.S. Mann and Weil’s overseer and friend, Brill Building honcho Don Kirshner came to break the news.

The Animals’ version had come out that week and smashed high on the British charts.

Cynthia Weil had one question.

“How do we keep it from coming out over here?”

Answer:

“We can’t.”

The Animals eventually hit #2 in the UK, with this, the “correct” official version.

Better. It was kept out of the UK top spot by the Beatles’ “Help,” which was the kind of record it took in those days to keep a record like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from climbing all the way up the mountain. In the UK, at least.

If this were the only version that existed, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” might still have become all the things it did become: a trans-Atlantic smash; a permanent oldies’ staple in both countries; something close to the official anthem of Viet Nam grunts stuck in the jungle mud, forever being asked to take some plot of ground which the brass already fully intended to give back at all costs.

Something funny happened, though, along the way.

Somehow or other, a version that was never meant to see the light of day ended up being shipped to the States and becoming the American hit.

Remarkably, what became to be known as the “U.S. version” was the stronger record (and I’m sure I’m not just saying that because I heard it first and most). The rhythm was tighter. Eric Burdon’s fine original vocal was replaced by one of his fiercest yowls. The slightly langorous space around the beat was squeezed out. The distance between lament and fury was squeezed out along with it.

More than all that, two key lyric changes were made (they’d already improved slightly on Mann’s original). One of the changes was real: “Watch my daddy in bed a dyin'” became “See my daddy in bed a dyin'” which was, as Mark Twain might have had it, the lightning bug turned into lightning, not to mention a lot more singable.

But I have to confess it was the other lyric change, the “imaginary” one, that always grabbed me.

At the top of Mann’s version, the “real” lyric was clearly “In this dirty old part of the city,” and, in the subsequent UK and “live” versions, Eric Burdon clearly sang those words.

But what I heard for years, in the “U.S.” version–and what I hear now, is the far more forceful and poetic “In the still eye of the city.”

Or, if you like:

“in the still-l-l-l EYE of the city…”

Now, I know those aren’t the real words. No lyric sheet anywhere on the internet suggests such a change. No live version Burdon has sung, from the mid-sixties to yesterday, that I can find on YouTube, suggests he ever so much as thought of singing any words except “In this dirty old part of the city.”

Even the recorded UK version doesn’t quite suggest it, though if you listen close you could almost get confused.

But the U.S. version–the one most Americans heard for two decades, before the CD releases began and Klein, still owning the master, began insisting on the “proper” version being the only version–exchanges all that clarity for another sort of clarity.

Namely, that, whatever technological trick (or malfunction) was applied to the accidental release–whatever splicing or compression gave my ear “still eye” where “dirty old part” should have been, doubled the record’s power and turned “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from a really good record into something that actually deserved everything it became.

These days, you can find the “U.S.” version on a comp or two (2004’s Retrospective has it for sure). You can also hear it on YouTube…

..and, of course, you are free to hear it any way you want. Just don’t think you’re gonna change what I hear.

That’s hardly where the story ends. In whatever version,  “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” went as many places, affected as many lives, as any record ever has.

The most interesting story I ever heard was some years back on Public Radio. Mann and Weil were being interviewed by Terry Gross, and, inevitably, the subject of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” came up. Gross was well aware of the song’s history and pressed them for details on their feelings about having what was supposed to have been Mann’s big shot at a solo career effectively pulled from under him by a twist of fate.

About that, Mann waxed philosophical. Regrets, sure, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t had a great life.

Then Gross asked if he preferred his own version to the Animals. Mann danced around the question for maybe two minutes before conceding that, yes, maybe the Animals’ version was better. It became the hit, after all.

Eventually, he quit talking.

Without being asked, Cynthia Weil immediately added:

“I prefer the version by Barry Mann.”

After which I no longer needed to wonder why theirs was the marriage–and the partnership–that lasted.

SOUTHERN MAN (Vocalist of the Month for 9/14: Ronnie Van Zant)

RONNIEVANZANT1

(NOTE: This is getting to be more like “vocalist of the six months”….It’s been a busy year on a lot of fronts and I’m just getting back in the blogging swing so I hope to start picking up the pace, here and elsewhere. Meanwhile….This is a sequel to the piece I posted here.)

I suspect every white boy who was born around 1960 (like I was) and grew up in the South (like I did) has at least one Lynyrd Skynyrd story.

Most of us have a lot more than one. Sort of a routine litany.

Stories like mine.

There’s the “Come to think of it John, I never have seen you drunk on your ass,” story and the “You better not let any of those Alabama boys hear you say that” story and the high school talent show story and the “girls cried when Elvis died and boys cried when Ronnie died” story (now there’s one common to all!) and the speakers blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” in the softball field parking lot story and the “My second husband never listened to nothin’ but country and Lynyrd Skynyrd” story and probably a few others I’m not calling to mind just now.

But I’ll leave those aside and let one story suffice.

It’s the summer of 1979 and I’m working in the girls’ camp at the Southern Baptist Convention Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. Nice social experience, dreary job. There were five of us on that particular assignment (all college boys), plus two camp cooks.

The cooks were brothers–Texas born and raised, worldly, early thirties, mostly-reformed rowdies, a year or two apart in age. The older one was a Type B, cool, calm, collected. The younger was a Type A, charming, witty, talkative, possessed of a temper which he worked hard at keeping in check. (The one day he lost it, he took a swing at his brother, missed, then let go an animal yell and ran out the door. He came back about five minutes later, soaking wet. He had jumped in the lake where the campers took canoeing lessons, shirt, shoes and all, as we used to say. He apologized all around. Seemed to have gotten it out of his system. Us younger lads–when we got over our mild shock–sort of looked at each other and nodded rather sagely. No word needed to be spoken. He was clearly what we had suspected all along–even before we knew he and his brother had played in rock bands and once opened for the Animals in front of ten thousand people somewhere in Texas. He was, undoubtedly, a product of The Sixties!)

Type A going off and Type B’s modest reaction–“He gets a little belligerent some times but he’ll be alright”–were pretty definitive elements of their respective characters.

But what really defined them was that they had been intimates of Lynyrd Skynyrd–part of the inner circle via their friendship with Skynyrd’s last drummer, Artimus Pyle. The only way they could have been any cooler was if, say, one of them (Type B, naturally) had been asked to be the road manager of the band’s next-to-last tour–the one right before the one that ended in a plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines.

Naturally, we all wanted to know why Type B didn’t take the gig.

There were two simple reasons.

Reason One was that his daughter had just been born and he wanted to spend time with her.

Reason Two was that he was told one of his main duties would be keeping Ronnie out of fights.

The way he told it, it was pretty clear Reason Two would have been enough, if Reason One hadn’t existed.

If he had been around enough to be asked to be their road manager, he had certainly been around enough to know that–at least some of the time–Ronnie Van Zant was who we all thought he was.

*   *   *   *

When Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first album in 1973 (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd‘), Ronnie Van Zant became an instant, virtually official, representative of a part of the population which had been judged by the content of its character for at least a century before Martin Luther King said we all should be and been found permanently wanting by everyone but themselves.

Hillbilly, Redneck, Cracker, White Trash. Hard to find an honorific in there.

And that was just the neighbors talking.

By the time Van Zant died in a plane crash four years later, he and his band had managed to demonstrate just how difficult such stereotypes are to shake. Deepen them, shred them, laugh at them, live for them, die for them and still, your most devoted fans and your bitterest detractors will insist on thrusting them right back on you.

When the music was playing, though, Skynyrd transcended such contradictions again and again. Then and now.

Ronnie himself was the essential reason for the transcendence. And his singing–Chuck Berry’s sly intonations riding in, around, over and under the moral undertow of a Delta man, with the mythic weight resting now on the former, now on the latter, often within the context of a single line–was the reason within the reason.

Not to say that the whole package wasn’t definitive. We live now in an age when the likes of the Who or Led Zeppelin are routinely going around accepting things like Kennedy Center Honors. If Elvis Presley, or even Hank Williams, had lived long enough, it’s not hard to imagine them racking up similar signifiers of middle-brow acceptance.

I can even imagine a future where “hard-core” rappers get the same treatments. Ice Cube maybe. Or Chuck D.

And why not? Heck, George Jones made it that far, whiskey bones and all.

You can be sure, though, that if that airplane had somehow stayed in the air, no such accolades would have ever been in the cards for Ronnie Van Zant. Not even if he had tried.

Which he wouldn’t have.

*   *   *   *

Evidence?

Well, it’s always courting danger to ponder alternative universes, but, all in all, I’d say at least a few assumptions are safe.

First off, if your plane goes down the week you are releasing an album where you sing lines like “you won’t find me in an old folks home” and “whiskey bottles, brand new cars, oak tree you’re in my way,” and you are fond of telling anyone who will listen that you won’t see thirty, then a plane falling or not falling hardly means the fate you are courting won’t find you some other way.

Of course a lot of so-called punks, from Pete “Hope-I-Die-Before-I-Get-Old” Townshend on down, used to brag about being on the same sort of journey, and some still do. Some even follow through. But none of them were/are really philosophical (or any way off-hand) about it. Their brag came from a place Van Zant never thought of visiting. He didn’t say he wanted to die before he got old, just that he would–big difference, and, if you don’t want to admit it, wait til the next world comes and you can be sure that if the Void don’t care to explain it to you, then either John Calvin or Lucifer will be waiting to step up for a word with you please.

So much for “first off.”

Second off–and more significant–is that Van Zant grew up in my world.

Just the other side of the tracks I was just this side of, maybe–but my world all the same.

And I know this much.

You can run away from it. You can never really leave it.

It was a world where everybody had a more than sneaking suspicion that the Devil decides–and, if everybody carries certain sneaking suspicions around with them every single minute of every single day, then the habits of suspicion (and the beliefs those habits both spring from and reinforce) are bound to linger.

You can run away from all of that. Sure you can. Plenty have.

But you can never really leave it all the way behind.

Ronnie was definitive–definitively “us” even when “us” was me, who never did get drunk on his ass and learned to turn the other cheek when he was nine–because he never tried to leave anything behind–never once tried to run away from who he was, even though he knew what he was up against.

He had liberal views but none of the Liberal’s version of arrogance (condescension). And, lacking bluster (the Conservative’s version of same), he had no place to hide away.

So he was never going to be “home.”

Maybe that was why home worried him so much–became the source of his two great themes.

Home as haven. Home as trap.

In an age when nihilism was already running rampant everywhere except the middle of the road (which meant it wouldn’t be long before it was there, too–1980 to be exact), he clearly expected to pay for his sins.

Pay he did, ultimately.

Here’s what else he managed along the way.

*   *   *   *

In a little over four years, between 1973 and 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded five studio albums plus an epic live double and another album’s worth of out-takes and demos.

All were worthwhile, most were great. That string of rapid-fire greatness made them virtually the last mainstream rock and roll artists to work at such a white-hot pace while sustaining both a creative vision and a wide audience. The difference between their dozen or so radio staples–a number matched or exceeded by only a handful of bands in any form but especially in the “classic rock” format, where only Led Zeppelin (the Beatles of the form) produced so many in such a short span–and whatever you think their worst side is, was minuscule. The vision could seem narrow, no doubt.

But once you stepped inside it–once you got past the cracker facade–it was bottomless.

They set the parameters of that vision, and primed the expectations of their core audience, on the first two tracks of their first official release (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd). “I Ain’t the One” was hard rock at its slyest (and hardest). “Tuesday’s Gone” was a wistful ballad, nearly as mythic as it was mournful and mysterious. Plenty of fine bands have lived on much narrower turf for decades. Skynyrd would be pushing and shifting and re-setting their turf–digging ever deeper–until almost literally the day they went down (in a plane Aerosmith had refused to fly in) and Ronnie’s death ended the band’s meaningful existence as anything other than a cash cow being milked for the very qualities–cheap nostalgia, boogie-for-its-own-sake–he had always disdained.

That urgency–the sense of constant movement within what seemed, on the surface of the very loud, often spine-rattling noise, to be such obvious restrictions–sprang almost entirely from Van Zant’s genius as a writer, bandleader and, especially, vocalist.

*   *   *   *

The writing part was, by all accounts, pretty mystical itself. Van Zant’s band-mates have described composing sessions as often amounting to them working up a riff while Ronnie wandered down by the lake and, at some point when they were getting on toward an arrangement, he would walk in and have the lyric in his head, ready to go. Working, in other words, the way Quincy Jones has suggested is more typical of jazz musicians and rappers, though, if you substitute arrangements for words, and the parking lot for a lake, it also sounds like a typical Elvis session.

There’s some significance to that, I think.

There’s a point at which this sort of “process” becomes well known and can be self-consciously imitated. In jazz, this had probably happened by the mid-sixties or so. In rock, it had certainly happened by the late seventies. In rap, maybe a decade later.

It might not be a coincidence that stories of loosely run sessions are found most frequently when the musicians spring from America’s two traditionally despised demographics–blacks and poor Southern whites–or from someone who is specifically trying to imitate them.

These are also the demographics where concepts like the posse, the gang, the crew, the extended family (which might be based on blood relations or simply communal associations, generally developed no later than high school), take their strongest hold. Among these two groups, that hold tends to trump everything that tries to break it–including fame, fortune and common sense.

That’s probably because they are the two groups who are most purely and deeply defined by a physical and psychic space they are bound to defend, generation after generation, in order to retain any cultural identity at all.

Better a cultural identity that catches you in a trap, the reasoning goes, than none at all.

Once an “out” group accepts that it can never really be “in,” then “we are who we are” tends to be the most reliable fallback position. Once the acceptance becomes truly ingrained, then you don’t even need to fall back, because the wall is something you learn to keep your back against to begin with.

Out of that, what are you going to get except the far edges of the blues, honky tonk, rockabilly, gangsta rap and, for the purposes of this particular discussion, Southern Rock?

And inside each of those concepts (yeah, they’re musical forms, too, but, at their furthest reach, never just that) you get an occasional genius.

Ronnie Van Zant ended up being the principal genius of Southern Rock in part because his singing brought so many vital elements of those other concepts together in one place to a degree that was matched by very few others–all of whom (Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, James Brown, Al Green) have received far more accolades (not only from places like the Kennedy Center…and not only because most of them lived a lot longer).

That’s how it is with genius and concepts.

The concepts you can predict. The genius not so much.

It goes its own way.

*   *   *   *

Of course, as with all the others I mentioned, hanging a label on Ronnie Van Zant and his great band is a bit of a trap in itself. The labels end up being technically correct and fundamentally ridiculous in the manner of calling Romeo and Juliet a teen romance or The Searchers a western or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an especially fine example of Southwest Humor.

Some artists are just born to turn the cliches of form and formula on their heads and, inevitably, to put new ones in their place.

The way Van Zant went about practicing his particular acts of subversion was always rooted in a voice that was a perfect match for his lyrics–lyrics that, like the now-lilting, now-growling, now-shouting voice, held edges that were forever cutting both ways. So “Lord knows I can’t change,” (from “Freebird,” the career-defining closing track from their first LP) seems almost mock-ably straightforward until you actually listen to it being sung, after which it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the brag it so obviously seems to be on its face and the somewhat (though only somewhat) bitter confession of loneliness and isolation it surely is underneath. And that’s before you get to the next album’s second cut, “I Need You,” which plays like a sequel that promises everything “Freebird” denied, unless, of course, it’s denying everything “Freebird” promised.

And all of that is before you even get around to singing, you know, “In Birmingham they love the governor–boo, boo, boo,” and having the folks who love you without reservation completely agree with the folks who hate you the same way that you must be a big fan of “the governor.”

So it goes

One thing you learn, hanging out in Calvinist air–love and hate never do much nuanced listening.

So what can a genuinely poor boy do?

Become the only white blues singer whose voice carried no hint of either strain or homage? Claim the music in the off-handed way that a dozen or more singers leading equally fine blues-based bands–singers as great as Gregg Allman or as committed as Eric Clapton, fronting bands as great as the Allman Brothers or Cream–could only dream about? Cry for home every time you hit the road and cry for the road every time you come home? Maybe at the very same time make it sound like you never cried in your life? Make it sound like you’ve lived every single moment in the moment and never regretted a thing….unless it’s every single moment you weren’t thinking about the past or the future?

Celebrate with warnings?

Switch sides in the middle of a song?

Make it sound like “oak tree you’re in my way,” is you talking back to somebody (some preacher’s kid maybe) who is trying to make you see the error of your ways and then make it sound like “one hell of a price for you to get your kicks,” is you talking to somebody you are tying to save–somebody who may or may not be your own self?

Well, you could do all that. If you happened to be one poor boy in particular.

It’s not something that could have been easily predicted. With “art” you only know what’s possible once somebody reaches the limits.

We know what a “western” can be because John Ford existed. That’s true whether you like John Ford or not. We know what “country blues” can be because Robert Johnson existed. Ditto and so on and so forth.

We know what a poor white boy can actually do with what he himself called “the black man’s blues” because Ronnie Van Zant existed.

Ditto.

And so on and so forth.

*   *   *   *

He couldn’t have come from anywhere else. God knows we know, because we know how many others–from here, there and everywhere–have tried.

He couldn’t have come from anywhere except the only part of White America which never expects to assimilate and the only part that knows that whether they just don’t want to or just don’t think it’s possible isn’t a secret they are likely to share even if they come to some conclusion about it themselves.

I don’t know whether Ronnie Van Zant came to any conclusions or not and I won’t pretend I could have found out by asking him in some parallel universe where he did live to see thirty and I used my contacts with the camp cook who almost managed one of his tours to meet him somehow. I doubt his ever-supple management of his own duality–the relationship that had to exist between man and persona that was probably necessary for him to get as far as he did, to claim any audience at all in his own moment or have any claim on the future he knew he wasn’t going to live to see–would have been set aside for my sake.

You live with your back to the wall and–live or die–you give up certain things to gain others. You can’t sing the blues the way Ronnie Van Zant did–the epic, eternal way–and retain your ability to let down your mask so you can explain things to the preacher’s kid.

Or live to see thirty.

*   *   *   *

The manner and timing of Ronnie Van Zant’s death worked to ensure that the element of caricature which clung to him in life–clung no matter how diligently he tried to shed it, how deftly he put it to use as necessary camouflage–clung ever so much tighter once he wasn’t around to be diligent and deft and nuanced about it.

You want a single, reliable watchword for the deep, abiding contempt that college radio, or hip commentary, or thousand-dollar-a-plate fund-raising dinner attendees for either political party or just plain old Liberals-Who-Aren’t feel for the great unwashed?

“Lynyrd-Skynyrd” is all you need.

You need a similar word for the “nostalgia” of second husbands, or Conservatives-Who-Aren’t, or for anyone who thinks they’ve found comfort for the world view that truly believes this world would be a better place if, for starters, black people and “pencil pushers” just learned to stay in theirs?

Say the same.

I suspect no amount of asking people to listen closer will ever change this.

The need to be better than someone else is deeper than any ocean and, sometimes, being the voice who warns ignorance against itself and turns every easy assumption on its head doesn’t mean you are going to reap any easy reward.

Sometimes it just means there is only going to be one of you.

And, sometimes, being the only one means there is no safe haven, even in death.

So forget the “punks.”

If you really want to know what it’s like to never quite fit in–and to know you never will–then Ronnie Van Zant’s your man.

Rest in peace if you can, brother.

Rest in peace if you somehow found a place where they’ll let you.

RONNIEVANZANT3

 

THE SCOTTISH LASS GOES SOUTH (Vocalist of the Month for 3/14: Lulu at Atlantic)

“My only sadness is that it didn’t continue until the day I die.”

Lulu (on her time at Atlantic)

By the time Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie was signed to the Atco subsidiary of the American soul giant Atlantic Records in the fall of 1969 she was twenty years old and entering the third distinctive phase of her recording career.

In the first phase, which started when she acquired her stage name, Lulu, and fronted a band called the Luvvers, she had made the journey from Glasgow to London and become a British sensation with a knockout cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (her version charted perennially on the British charts for the next three decades).

She was all of fifteen and, despite an occasionally ragged relationship with the beat that was common among the era’s youngest rockers (among true youngsters, only Brenda Lee consistently sang with anything like old-fashioned assurance–rock n’ roll was never as easy as the masters made it sound or the haters wanted you to think), pretty close to being the hardest soul singer the Isles produced. Her enthusiasm occasionally got ahead of her talent in those days but there were some scorching highlights. Her ballad singing was assured from the beginning (she did a particularly lovely job of re-imagining Van Morrison’s “Here Comes the Night,” as a torch song). And her knockout, hard-rock covers of “Dream Lover” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” are a long way ahead of pretty much anything the young Mick Jagger did in his pre-“Satisfaction” days. Say what you want about Lulu covering the classics but at least she never sounded like she had learned American English phonetically.

That said, the early period was uneven to say the least. Between production values that were oft-times barely professional (a bit of a general problem in England at the time), dicey material (“Choc Ice”…really?) and lack of a clear direction, the voice seldom got its due even on her best records.

That changed somewhat when she signed with Mickie Most (probably England’s top producer of the period), landed an acting gig in the Sidney Poitier vehicle To Sir With Love and entered her second phase with a bang.

The title song of To Sir With Love, written by a friend at the by-then seventeen-year-old singer’s request when she refused to sing what the studio had in mind, became Billboard’s official #1 record of 1967 after it was released as a B-side and American dee-jays flipped it. It was also one of the best sung records of the greatest era for vocal music we’re likely to know. One might have thought that Most would know what to do from there–namely run off a series of hit singles, as he had done for Herman’s Hermits, Donovan and the Animals previously (talk about covering some ground), and would do for Hot Chocolate later on.

Instead–and despite a handful of genuinely wonderful records which didn’t do much commercially–he steered her toward ever more banal material, finally climaxing with the already world-famous Lulu actually winning the Eurovision Song contest (usually reserved for those still chasing their fortune) for 1969 with a track called “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” which the singer herself has occasionally–and with some justification–referred to as possibly the worst song ever written.

Unlike most of the really good records she and Most had made together, it was a substantial hit, at least in England and Europe.

The disconnect between quality and success guaranteed a lot of sleepless nights, crying jags, and the absolute certainty that she would not renew her contract with Most when it ended a few months after the Eurovision win.

While all that was going on, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, the only female British singer who was a talent-match for Lulu (and who was, perhaps understandably, going by “Dusty Springfield”) had signed with Atlantic Records, a label known mostly for deep soul acts, and gone South to make an album which came to be called Dusty In Memphis. In addition to being one of the greatest albums ever made–“vocal” or otherwise–Dusty In Memphis produced a big hit single, “Son of a Preacher Man,” and set Atlantic mogul Jerry Wexler searching for more of the same.

It turned out to be an artistically satisfying venture which bore relatively little commercial fruit. Eventually, Jackie DeShannon, Betty LaVette and Cher would each get her turn. And Jackie and Cher at least got their records released (with Jackie’s being a classic in its own right…I haven’t heard Cher’s Atlantic sessions, though they eventually got a CD release on Rhino Handmade). Betty had to wait another thirty years and achieve an unlikely late-career discovery by the Public-At-Large for her fine sides to even see the light of day.

Lots of amazing music then.

But Lulu was the next in line and the music she recorded between the fall of 1969 and the summer of 1972 constitutes a body of work that bears comparison to anything that was going on anywhere in the period.

It probably helped that Wexler and others (Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, like that) still had the wind of Springfield’s success at their backs when they all went back South (Muscle Shoals this time…with Duane Allman sitting in) to record New Routes.

The album concedes nothing to Dusty in Memphis except that Dusty’s is perfect and New Routes has a misguided version of “Mr. Bojangles” that features an awkward gender rewrite which pretty much undermines an otherwise great sounding record. (i.e., Lulu couldn’t very well pretend to be sharing a jail cell with Bojangles, so they are in….a park! Ouch.)

But that album or the next (Melody Fair, recorded in Miami with another crack southern session unit, the Dixie Flyers), both long afterwards available only on reasonably scarce vinyl (my used copy of New Routes came with a sticker that read “Duane Allman!!!”…cool people, having received their values from the crit-illuminati need to know why a price has been boosted from the usual $0.99 to $2.99!!!), are, amazingly, not the entire point of the great 2007 package Lulu: The Atco Sessions, 1969-72.

There you get two discs–the first covering the two released albums, the second collecting various singles, alternates and unreleased material.

As a listening experience, it’s of a piece. Heartbreaking for itself (there is no more plaintive voice and it was never more consistently plaintive than here…you can ask Lulu fans like Aretha Franklin and Al Green if you need further testimony) and for the different kind of break it so definitively represents–a kind of last look back before the rise of the machines.

This package is the sound of a singer who had already successfully traversed hard-edged rock and R&B and classy pop and was now remarried to her first love: straight soul music.

From this distance, it’s easy to hear just how fragile the moment was. Between bombastic rock and sleek dance music, glorious though much of it would be, amplifiers and synthesizers were setting the stage for the re-caging of the liberating human voices which rock and soul had brought to the center of Pop Culture–which, as I occasionally note here, was already the only culture America had left.

I don’t think you necessarily need that context to hear the fundamental sadness-tinged-with-liberating-joy that characterized these sessions. But knowing the context makes that quality inescapable.

Maybe because she had such an oddly shaped career (she went from these sessions to a fling with David Bowie–studio only–that produced a few truly great sides but, again, no real overarching vision) Lulu is a bit of an odd duck historically: a respected singer who isn’t quite revered; a commercial singer whose hits are strung out here and there over a couple of decades; a fine live performer who was always in the moment but rarely on top of it.

But she was also the kind of singer who used to arrive on the charts on a regular basis–distinctive, soulful, possessed of a genuine ache that never descended into phony angst or belting for the sake of belting–and do not arrive at all anymore.

And her time at Atlantic, at least, was priceless. She’s not the only one who regrets that it didn’t continue until the day she died.

So, beginning with a track that was straight and hard enough to fit right in on the (equally priceless) What It Is!  funk box set a few years back and proceeding through the soul and pop part of our evening before finishing with a lovely and moving homage to shag haircuts:

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.

“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.)

I KNOW THERE’S A HEAVEN SOMEWHERE… (The Shangs On Campus. Found In The Connection: Rattling Loose End #19)

…Because at least one guy found it:

shangs66

This is a photo of a local presenter (sophisticated college kid) posing with the Shangri-Las (who, uh, did not go to college) in 1966, at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Laugh if you want, but I know exactly how he feels!

They were there to give a concert, incidentally. Part of a double bill…

shangs662…with the freaking Animals.

I mean, I joke about it some times…and, truthfully, much as I hate to admit it, there are many, many things which actually are better now.

And then there are those certain other things…before which the mind reels.