THE NEXT TWO WEEKS…

In a few hours, I’m heading out on a lengthy vacation visiting friends in North Dakota. I’ll have the ability to check comments, email etc but I don’t know how much, if any blogging I’ll be doing. I’ll try to at least get a couple of items up while I’m gone but this might be a good time to check my back pages if you’re so inclined. The viewership, visitations and comments have all been red hot lately so I hate to take a break but that’s the way it goes.

As always, I’m deeply grateful for your support and wish you a safe and happy early Summertime!

MARY WEISS REMEMBERS….

[NOTE: This is an interview that Mary Weiss gave to Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Miriam Linna in 2007 upon their release of Weiss’s first music in forty years. Weiss has not made any records since and the interview disappeared from Norton’s website a couple of years ago, apparently the victim of some serious weather damage to their offices. I’ve noticed that the links I once provided to that interview still draw a fair amount of interest and I’ve tried to contact Norton several times to see if they are ever planning to repost the interview. As I’ve not heard from them, I assume they are either not planning to do so or are seriously backlogged. I’m reposting the interview here because, even sans the cool graphics and trove of wonderful photos (a few of which I tracked down for some relevant passages here), it’s one of the most important interviews ever given by a rock and roll singer. If you’ve followed along on this site for a while, you know how I feel about the Shangri-Las, but, more to the point, you know how I feel about the often ridiculous narratives that were imposed on them–often by the usual well-intentioned sorts paving the usual roads to hell–during Mary’s forty years of silence. By extension, many of those same false narratives were imposed on the entire Girl Group era (another ongoing concern of this blog), and there has never been more de-bunking assembled in one place than this wide-ranging interview. If Norton re-posts this in the future I will re-link to it. If they request me to take this down, I will do so. In the meantime, I’ll post it here in the interests of historical preservation. It needs to be available somewhere. (And, of course, I encourage everyone to consider buying Norton’s products, especially Weiss’s still valuable CD, Dangerous Game, which now seems likely to be the last we will hear from her on record.)]

(MW is Mary Weiss, BM is Billy Miller, ML is Miriam Linna…I’ve retained the original’s sometimes idiosyncratic punctuation, etc.)

MW: Do you want to start with the Shangri stuff?

ML: Let’s start at the very beginning. Where were you born?

MW: Jamaica, Queens, New York. Jamaica hospital.

BM: Wow, me too. Same hospital!

ML: How about some family background?

MW: I grew up in Queens, Cambria Heights. My father died when I was six weeks old. I’m the youngest of three kids. My brother George was eight years older than me. He passed away in 1996. And my sister Liz was in the Shangri-Las with me.

ML: What drew you to the music?

MW: I became interested in music at about four or five years old. When I was a kid, I loved the Ink Spots and then with rock n’ roll, I loved the Everly Brothers and Neil Sedaka. My brother was much older, so I listened to all of the records he had. He was an Elvis freak. There were guys that sang on the street corner in my neighborhood. I would listen to them and I’d sing with them sometimes.

ML: Do you remember when you started singing.

MW: I always sang, as far back as I can remember. I sang in the church choir. I was in every shcool play and sang in all of them.

ML: Did you go to rock n’ roll shows?

MW: The only rock n’ roll show I attended was in grammar school. Our class wen to Freedomland and the Everly Brothers played. They did so much for everybody regarding harmony. By the time I was fifteen, I was always in the studio, so I didn’t get to go to shows at that time. I really didn’t go to concerts until much later.

ML: What were the local hangouts in your neighborhood for teenagers?

MW: It was a place called Ed’s. We all hung out there. There were all these groups of kids–Ed’s group, Bill’s group, Reno’s group, the 225th Street group and we all meet there, four or five groups of neighborhood kids.

ML: Who were you listening to?

MW: We’d listen to Babalu and Cousin Brucie on WABC. When I was a teenager, I bought all my records at Korvettes. They had the best record department and they were cheap.

BM: Great store! They’d print their own charts every week.

ML: How did you meet the Ganser sisters?

MW: I met the twins in grammar school although they went to public school and I went to Catholic school–so much for organized religiou! They lived a few blocks away. We hung out at their house and began singing together there and on the p layground. We all had an interest in music and our voiced blended well. At that time, we were really pursuing our own sond. We all went to Andrew Jackson High School for a while.

ML: Did you call yourselves the Shangri-Las right from the start?

MW: You know we didn’t have a name initially. We were going to make a record and we said “We better get a name–fast!” We were driving on Long Island and saw a restaurant called the Shangri-La. That’s where we got the name.

BM: Were you the lead singer from the start?

MW: Actually, my sister Liz was at first. On the first demo, on “Wishing Well,” that’s Liz. She actually sang both sides (“Hate To Say I Told You So”). She also sang “Shout.” “Wishing Well” was actually our demo and they played around with it and released it.

BM: Spokane Records. That was Artie Ripp, right?

MW: Right. Kama Sutra Productions. That was very short lived.

BM: I love that first record you made, “Simon Says” with the Lonnie Mack type guitar and the Bo Diddley beat.

MW: Liz was the lead singer on that one, too.

BM: You were singing at hops and dances, who was booking you when you started?

MW: Before we went to Red Bird, we had a manager names Tony Michaels.

BM: Now you met George “Shadow” Morton through Bob Lewis, Babalu from WABC.

MW: Right. Bob Lewis. That’s where I met George, at Bob’s apartment. Tony Michaels took us over there so he could hear us sing and get his opinion. George was there, I don’t know why he was there, but that’s how we met him. True story.

ML: In a nutshell, can you describe Shadow for us?

MW: George is one of the most colorful, unique people I’ve ever met in my life. Extremely talented. He used to be very difficult to get into a room at a scheduled time, but a brilliant man.

BM: An amazing producer.

MW: I was with George at some arena show when he met Phil Spector.

BM: Wow! What was that like?

MW: Oil and water! That’s all I can say. I was not happy to be there.

BM: There’s a 45 by a group called the Beatle-Ettes produced by a George Morton…

MW: I know what you’re going to ask and that’s not the Shangri-Las. They say a group called the Bon Bons is the Shangri-Las. That thing is everywhere. I see it all the time and go “Who the hell are they?”

BM: It doesn’t make any sense because you and Shadow pretty much started together.

MW: Right. You got me! I have no idea where people get this stuff.

BM: Did Shadow make any plans for you right away?

MW: No, not until we did the demo for “Remember.” Billy Joel played piano on it. George said he had a phone conversation with Billy years later and Billy said, “You owe me $67. You never paid me scale!”

BM: Was the demo really over seven minutes long like legend has it?

MW: I don’t think it was quite that long, it’s been exaggerated over the years, but it was longer than the actual record. At the time, it was unheard of to extend a record to more than a few minutes. That seemed abnormal to me.

BM: Still, it seems that it would be weird for Shadow to go that far out on a limb his first time out, with so much at stake.

MW: It would.

BM: So the whole reason for making the demo was that George had told Jeff Barry at Red Bird that he was a songwriter even though he’d never written anything before. In your words what transpired to bring all of this about? What exactly was the story?

MW: As far as “Remember (Walkin in the Sand)” goes, I think you should ask George Morton. My involvement with the song was in the studio.

ML: It’s a complex song.

MW: Initially it was done instrumentally and kind of evolved. I like that song a lot.

BM: And you did that at Mirasound in Manhattan?

MW: We did most of them there. We did use Ultra-Sonic sometimes. We did most of our demos there.

BM: My Boy Scout troop went to Ultra-Sonic in 1965 to see a real recording studio. I was really into it until the engineer goes, “You boys should have been here last night. The Shangri-Las were here.” That’s really not the kind of thing to tell a room full of teenage boys if you want them to keep paying attention.

MW: That wasn’t nice. It could have been fun!

BM: Now you tell me! The Shangri-Las first hit at the start of the British Invasion. That’s a mighty tough uphill battle.

MW: Absolutely. Look at the Beach Boys.

ML: When “Remember” hit, you started playing right away….

MW: Right away, yes. The Brooklyn Fox Theatre. I was traveling all the time. When I wasn’t doing that I was in the studio. When I wasn’t doing that I was rehearsing.

ML: Were you still in high school.

MW: I missed out on doing any real high school stuff. I went to professional school where you could leave if you had to tour. It was necessary. When you do television shows when you’re a kid, they put a tutor backstage in the corner with a little book. It’s the law. Kinda strange. Paul Jabara was my closest friend there. He wrote “Last Dance” for Donna Summer. Paul had the greatest sense of humor. I wish he was still around. I miss him to this day. I’d tag along to auditions with him. Once he stood on stage, pulled out his sheet music for the piano player–about ten feet long–and broke into “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” I sat in the back of theatre and was laughing so hard I was crying.

ML: When the Shangri-Las first became successful, did neighborhood friends act differently towards you?

MW: It’s a catch-22. They act differently towards you and meanwhile, you’re still hitting that handball and hanging out, but you don’t fit in anymore. It’s them that’s changed, not you. At the time, you think, “Oh, my God!”

ML: Were the twins like you? Was there a shared Shangri-Las persona?

MW: Mary Ann and Margie were more assertive, actually, as far as their public persona. Both of them were much gruffer than me. They both had great senses of humor. They were pranksters.

BM: What’d they do?

MW: Mostly stupid stuff. Margie added an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to Marvin Gaye’s door and took the ‘s’ off his last name so his door read “Marvin’s Gaye”.

ML: Did the twins have similar personalities?

MW: They were very similar personality-wise. Margie was more aggressive than Mary Ann. When my sister wasn’t in the group and it was just me and the twins, it was like “Hello? What do you mean ‘majority rules’?!” It was very devastating for Margie when Mary Ann died.

BM: Your sister didn’t tour at first, but she still sang on all the records, right?

MW: Yes, the four of us were on the records. Liz is an extremely talented singer. We’ve been through so much together. Liz looked like Bardot when she was young. She still lives near me now and has been happily married for 25 years.

ML: You went straight from playing neighborhood hops to big stages and national TV. Were you terrified?

MW: It didn’t faze me much. Maybe it should have (laughs).

BM: Those Murray the K shows at the Brooklyn Fox must have been brutal.

MW: They were real brutal. From early morning until late at night. Seven sets, back to back. You have a record on the charts–there you are! I did the Cow Palace and I don’t know how many big arenas. Right after “Remember” came out, James Brown hired us to do a Coliseum show in Texas. They had signs put up COLORED GIRLS’ and WHITE GIRLS’ bathrooms and I got in a huge fight with a cop because I used the black women’s bathroom and he drew his gun on me. I was absolutely amazed. This is backstage in a Coliseum and the white bathroom is on the entire other side of the floor. I really had to go and then get onstage!

BM: Is that where the song “What’s a Girl Supposed to Do” got its inspiration.

MW: (laughs) I’ve never seen anything like that. What surprised me more was the other women in the bathroom looking at me with their mouths open. Earlier, when we did the afternoon sound check, James Brown’s mouth fell open! He turned around and looked at me–here’s this little blonde girl. He thought we were black. All the other performers were black and we were very nervous because we didn’t know how the audience was going to respond. It turned out to be a great show!

BM: That’s wild.

MW: We worked with James a few time. I was at his house once. He lived in St. Albans, the next town over from Cambria Heights. He had “JB” on the gate. We were just BS’ing there, basically. I liked him.

BM: There’s a story of you putting Murray the K’s motorcycle on the roof of the Fox.

MW: Come on, Murray didn’t even have a motorcycle.

BM: But you did hit him in the face with a pie onstage at the Fox.

MW: That was long overdue! (laughs) One fun thing we’d do at the Fox, was if there was a really good group onstage, we’d grab a microphone behind the back curtain and there’s be four part harmony going on like a chorus. It was wonderful!

BM: You played a bunch with the Zombies.

MW: They were great guys. Still are. I just saw them play at B.B. King’s. They’re still great! I wish them the best in everything they do.

BM: What other groups did you pal around with?

MW: I didn’t get to pal around with anybody. We were so busy. It was very different then. Now these singers say how rough they have it. They don’t have a clue. Ride in a bus every night. Sleep every other night. See how that feels. People don’t realize how hard it was back then. There were no monitors at the time. Sometimes you were screaming just to hear yourself singing. The Dick Clark Caravans, they were grueling shows. Every other night you’d sleep in a hotel. Sleep on the bus, then you’d have to get up and look perky. It’s exhausting. But, there was one great thing at the end of the Dick Clark tours, because he’d have Caravans going all over the country and we’d all mee in one place and they’d have like a Battle of the Bands type thing with all the stars. Those were cool shows. You’d meet up in one arena, do one big show and then we’d all go home.

BM: Sometimes there were four of you and at various times, Liz, Margie and Mary Ann were off the road…

MW: And I was the one constant member. That was it. There’s lots of BS written about our group. I’ve seen it written that we missed concerts, that the other girls did some shows without me. That’s simply not true. I never missed a single show. I couldn’t take a break. Everyone got exhausted and could take time off. Touring was exhausting. Most of the times when I woke up, I didn’t know what state I was in. Too many buses, too many flights. Touring was a blur.

BM: Red Bird was owned by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner. What were your impressions of them.

MW: We were crazy about George Goldner. In fact, at the end of our first year on Red Bird, we bought George a huge television set, at that time, they didn’t have them that big everywhere. We gave it to him with a big gold plaque on the front as a thank you present. It said, “George Goldner, Thank You, The Shangri-Las”. It was a gesture from us. I don’t think he got enough credit for anything at Red Bird. He was a kid who never grew up. Riding around in a Cadillac with the top down. He was like a very large child. I loved him.

BM: And Leiber and Stoller?

MW: Leiber and Stoller are wonderful people. They brought a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to all their artists. I have a lot of respect for them both, but they didn’t work with us directly. They worked on songs with George Morton, then he worked with us.

BM: “Leader of the Pack” was the second Red Bird record and the biggest one. There really wasn’t a motorcycle in the studio on the session, was there?

MW: I’ve heard that, too.

BM: Yeah, because you hear it roaring away. Where did it go?

MW: Studio B. (laughs)

BM: That guy on the album cover, was he anybody special?

MW: Absolutely not! And he sure didn’t look like any biker I knew!

ML: On the Red Bird recordings, they double-tracked your voice sometimes….

MW: Yes, on a few.

BM: That was quite a team that you had in the studio at Red Bird – (producer) Shadow Morton, (engineer) Brooks Arthur and (arranger) Artie Butler.

MW: Absolutely! I know. You can’t ever give them enough credit. The Shangri-Las was one of Brooksie’s first things. That’s why we’re friends to this day. Brooks Arthur is extremely talented in so many areas. Artie Butler is one of the most brilliant arrangers I’ver ever heard. I love both those guys.

BM: Those sessions were pretty monumental. Would you come in and sing or would you get more involved in the whole process?

MW: Oh, I always stayed there. I stayed for every mixing session.

ML: Even before you had to sing your parts?

MW: Right. I was there for every step.

BM: Would they listen to your input?

MW: Oh, sure.

BM: How much free rein did the group have on vocal arrangements? On something like say, “The Train Fom Kansas City,” that introduction is extraordinary.

MW: OK, on “The Train From Kansas City,” I worked hard with Jeff (Barry) on that. You can hear the flavor to it.

BM: Unmistakably the Shangri-Las.

MW: Our group, I mean even for that time period, the harmonies were unique. The blending of the voices was unique.

BM: Like “Out in the Streets”– flawless record. That’s my absolute favorite Shangri-Las record.

MW: That’s my favorite, too.

BM: Just curious, what would be your five favorite Shangri-Las records?

MW: “Out in the Streets,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” “Past, Present and Future” and “The Train From Kansas City.” I also like the Mercury record “I’ll Never Learn.”

BM: “Out in the Streets” and “Give Us Your Blessings,” you look in the national charts, and they weren’t real huge smash hits, but here in New York, those records were monsters. You heard them everywhere.

MW: Yes, they were biggest here. Definitely.

BM: Did you know that “Out in the Streets” was the last song played on WINS before they switched from rock ‘n’ roll to all news?

MW: Yes, I did. I thought that was quite touching. Very neat. There were a lot of great Djs then. They seemed to be more involved than nowadays where it’s all programmed.

BM: I dig “Heaven Only Knows” a lot.

MW: Really? Why’s that?

BM: I guess when I boutht “Give Us Your Blessings” as a kid and I got a great B-side, it was like getting an extra record.

MW: Oh, I hated it when the B-sides on records stunk. We always wanted both sides to be cool.

BM: Your flips were all killers–“Heaven Only Knows,” “The Train From Kansas City,” “Dressed in Black”…

ML: That deliberate spoken part….

MW: I always thought “Past, Present and Future” was a unique sounding record. And everybody that’s written about it said it was about rape. That was news to me! At the time, you need to remember, people are forgetting about the teenage angst. When somebody breaks your heart, you don’t want anyone near you. Things are very different now. Kids grow up younger and younger.

ML: Right. In the Shangri-Las, you had young voices singing about pretty heavy emotional stuff. It was like “Yeah, that’s how I feel.” You don’t have to relate to adult themes.

MW: When you’re a kid, who hasn’t felt like that? When somebody blows you off or hurts you, it’s very traumatic.

ML: Especially having a girl’s voice saying it. Other girls can relate, like “I have real feelings.”

MW: I thought we all felt like that.

BM: And your approach is so powerful. It sounds like you’re crying by the end of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”

MW: I was crying. That whole sentiment…it’s kinda funny because at the time I really didn’t talk to my mother at all.

BM: Your vocal delivery on “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Past, Present and Future” was very personal, very intimate.

MW: The studio is a very private place. I always thought it should be. Actuall, at one Shangri-Las session, Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. She was pregnant at the time. I was extremely impressed that she came. I would have been very nervous if I had known in advance that she was going to be there. She’s a wonderful talent and a great person.

BM: Who’s that singing the lead vocal on “I’m Blue.”

MW: Mary Ann.

BM: What do you remember about “Right Now and Not Later?”

MW: Not a whole hell of a lot! (laughs)

BM: Were there any songs that the Shangri-Las recorded for Red Bird that never got released?

MW: No.

ML: You must have been excited when your first album came out.

MW: All this stuff is exciting. Don’t get me wrong if you’re not getting that impression. It’s wonderful stuff when you open BILLBOARD and you’ve got two pages. “There it is! All right!!”

ML: Were the Red Bird sessions specifically for singles or did you try a few things and saw what clicked?

MW: One song most of the time, especially the larger sessions like “Remember” or “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.” The strings on that? I love them. Those were huge sessions with the room full of musicians.

BM: When rock videos started appearing, I always thought they could never capture what the Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton put into my imagination. Since I first heard “Remember,” I always pictured it all taking place at Long Beach on Long Island, for some reason.

MW: I did, too. Later, I pictured it in Florida. When we went to England we found, the British spent more time setting up everything as far as television goes. They’re meticulous. I walk in the studio and the entire soundstage was filled with sand and a giant grandfather clock for one song. I just could not believe it. It was beautiful. Dusty was on that show.

BM: Dusty Springfield?

MW: Yes, Dusty is an absolutely amazing talent. The Shangri-Las were in London doing Top of the Pops and Ready! Steady! Go! Dusty was having a very large party in her flat. It started out all civilized, nice French doors and antique desks, but she liked to start food fights. And she started one and I’m hiding under this lovely French desk with her manager and fish and food are flying by! They were actually throwing pies later in the night. So Mary Annd goes to put her boots on and they were filled with fish! Dusty was a kinky girl, but a true talent. But, Mary Ann got even with Dusty. She waited and waited and the next time we were with Dusty at the Brooklyn Fox, Mary Ann put fish in Dusty’s shoes. And that’s called….payback! (laughs)

ML: Yeah!

MW: Dusty also flung crockery at the Fox. There was this place where she bought a ton of cheap crockery. We learned the fine art of throwing plates there. Stand at one end of the corridor and fling it with all your might. It makes a loud crash and gets rid of the stress. Parts of Dusty were very self-destructive, but the other side of her was so much fun. I’ll always think of her fondly, mo matter what anybody writes about her. The world will remember her talent. I’ll always remember her laughter, the fine art of crockery throwing….and her talent!

ML: Your records were pretty notorious right from the start.

MW: Look at “Leader.” It was banned in Britain. What was there to ban?

ML: In England there was a lot of trouble between the Mods and the Rockers. That’s why “Leader of the Pack” was probably banned.

MW: I was so proud. I was a Rocker!

ML: Yeah!

MW: I got off the plane dressed in black leather. They definitely knew where I stood. (laughs)

ML: And what did you make of the Mods?

MW: The Mods were just not home. To each his own. Their lifestyle was…(laughs)…I was never into fashion.

ML: Which is wild because you became such a fashion icon.

MW: I could never picture myself sitting at a runway show, could you?

ML: No, never. But that’s the great thing. You subconsiously started a whole look.

MW: Who cares?

ML: Cool!

BM: I feel like I’m a guest on The View…

ML: But you only went to England, no other countries?

MW: Pretty much. There were a million things booked. I remember sitting in Los Angeles with these Japanese people and they were giving me scripts and things and making plans for us to go there.

ML: But you never did.

MW: Never did. It should have happened but there was just no time.

ML: Did you follow the charts?

MW: The charts thing is a strange position to be in. Once you have a smash hit, the record company is like, “OK, here’s the next one. I feel sorry for artists today. They’re here and gone and hey bring on th next one. I just saw Chrissie Hynde talking about today’s artists and what they face. Nobody gets behind them or develops them anymore. Bring on the next midriff section…

BM: Do you see the Shangri-Las in any act today?

MW: Maybe like the Donnas. I can see our attitude.

ML: Who were your favorites during the Shangri-Las years?

MW: I loved Dusty. The Jefferson Airplane, that might have been a little later, but I remember I first heard them on the way to the Fox Theatre. I saw Jimi Hendrix in the Village before he was famous. My jaw dropped. You know what was a great time? I went to a big party at Andy Warhol’s one day. It was fascinating. He had a huge loft with a deck and umbrellas and the bathroom had a golden throne. Very cool. Ultra Violet was there. Lots of cool people.

BM: There was a Shangri-Las Day at the New York World’s Fair.

MW: How did you know that?

BM: Because I remember being pissed that I didn’t get to go. We were always at the Word’s Fair.

MW: Me, too. I thought it was cool. They had a Monorail with our name on it and we performed.

BM: Mary, even being a star by then, that had to be a big thrill–hometown girls make good….

MW: Oh sure. We loved it. We all did.

BM: The Shangri-Las played at the New York Paramount with the Beatles. Did you meet them?

MW: No, they were on one floor and everybody else was on another. At the Paramount, Margie saved out the window high up so that everyone thought it was the Beatles waving. The crowd went nuts!

BM: When you gals….

MW: You gals? At least you didn’t say Girl Groups.

BM: Sorry Mary. No, I know better than to mention Girl Groups.

MW: Oh, kill me now! Thank you. How do you take an entire sex and dump them into one category? Girl Groups, I mean, please! What if we all had penises?

BM: Uh, that would have seriously affected the crush I had on you as a kid.

ML: People tend to categorize….

MW: Count me out. If Girl Groups were products, what were Boy Groups? (Looking at photo) Ow! You know who did this to my hair? Monti Rock III.

ML: How did Monti Rock end up doing your hair?

MW: He did our hair on that album cover nobody likes on Mercury, where we look Mod. Monti, wherever you are, what were you thinking?

ML: But you look so sultry there, like Veronica Lake.

MW: I look stupid. I didn’t like it at all.

ML: And those boots…

MW: Are you kidding? I’ll tell you what boots I really liked. They buttoned up and they were kid leather. There were like old fashioned 1890’s boots with cool heels. I got those at Saks.

ML: Boots became your signature.

MW: Yes, that’s why I like those outfits on the LEADER album. That was my thing.

ML: Whose suggestion was that?

MW: Nobody’s. That was us. It’s funny because it created such a hoopla, like we were tough, whatever and all it is, is a white shirt, a vest and a pair of black pants.

ML: But the black slacks, slacks at all, you really did something different there. It really defined the Shangri-Las.

MW: Jeans don’t fit on everyone.

BM: Yeah, when you’d see the Supremes on Ed Sullivan, hey’d have evening gowns on, old people’s clothes.

MW: I used to get my slacks on Eighth Street in the Village in a Men’s Store. People would look at me like I was gay because I like low rise pants. I don’t get it, quite frankly.

ML: These outfits were something else. (holds up I CAN NEVER GO HOME ANYMORE album)

MW: Yes, that’s what everyone was wearing ten years later, like Spandex.

ML: Now you couldn’t have bought those in a store. You had to have those made.

MW: Absolutely.

ML: Who designed them?

MW: We did. We just sat and did them ourselves.

ML: You don’t still have your boots, do you?

MW: Do you still have your boots from 1965?

BM: She might….

ML: The Shangri-Las got a lot of magazine coverage, too.

MW: We did a lot of interviews back then. “What do you do in your spare time?” What spare time?

BM: I have a record where the Shangri-Las are being interviewed and you get asked things like, “Do guys on the street really give you a great big kiss?”

MW: (laughs) “Ew, get away from me!”

BM: You hear so many stories about how bad you were….

MW: WHAT ABOUT IT!? (laughs)

ML: There’s stories about you tying up a guy and kidnapping him.

MW: You know, I don’t remember that, but if I did, he deserved it!

BM: And that you had guns….

MW: I did purchase a gun once, a little Derringer. I bought a gun after somebody tried to break into my hotel room. There were these glass panels on the side of the door and all of a sudden I see this arm coming through. Not only was I scared to death, but there were large amounts of money in the room. You’re on the road with no protection. But, I was a little kid. I didn’t know. Back then, you could walk in anywhere and buy a gun. But the FBI came to my mother’s house and said, “Will you please tell your daughter she’ll be arrested if she gets off the plane with her gun?” We just finished a tour in Florida and I turned it in at the police station down there.

BM: Did they get a chaperone for the group at any point?

MW: If you can call an eighteen-year-old a proper chaperone. Maybe nineteen, but that’s as grown up as it got. We had a road manager, Fat Frankie, for a while, then he managed NRBQ following that. That wasn’t much supervision. One of our other road managers was a black belt in karate. Once, there was a car full of drunken guys weaving all over a bridge, waving beer bottles and stuff and it was getting very dangerous. They kept swerving into our car and it was very scary. I was so petrified, my heart was in my throat. It was as if they thought they had the right to do this. They could have killed us all. Louis stopped the car and took them all on. They were flying everywhere, all over the bridge. You had no choice in the matter. It was a dark road with nowhere to go, there were no cell phones then. I’m glad he was there. I could see the headlines now, JIMMY KILLS MARY ON BRIDGE. It was much different than now. It’s very hard to explain. Nothing was organized. It was ‘Here’a list of shows, get on the road.” I was only fifteen.

ML: Now what about the night club scene?

MW: (whispers) I shouldn’t have even been in there. I was fifteen. We’d go in them and hang out, but we were more geared to the teen clubs. But we played the Whiskey A Go Go.

ML: Did the Shangri-Las work with one booking agency?

MW: Different ones. William Morris and others. But, you’d set limitations on them or they’d beat you to death, you’d never be off. You’d have to rehearse and record and do television, too.

BM: The Shangri-Las made so many TV appearances like Shindig and Hullabaloo. Here in New York, I never missed the Clay Cole Show. You seemed to be on it all the time…

MW: All the time. We sure were.

BM: It was almost like, time for Clay Cole, let’s see what’s new by the Shangri-Las.

MW: Clay had us on a lot. That was great! I’d walk in the studio, I knew all the guards by name, they were all nice, reputable people. I really felt at home there.

BM: And The Soupy Sales Show you were on that, too.

MW: I loved Soupy Sales! White Fang and Black Tooth. I loved it!

BM: And Philo Kvetch and Onions Oregano!

MW: Oniions Oregano–yeah, yeah! They had a gazillion White Fangs’ arms becaues the man doing White Fang kept burning it with his cigar! White Fang rules! I’d love to see the old Soupy tape again.

ML: What was it like dealing with mobs of fans?

MW: A lot of times it was very frightening. One time in an aquarium there was no security and I just about had my clothes ripped off. And the fans with pens almost poking your eye out. There was no security then. We were just winging it. When there’s a lot of them and one of you, it gets scary. I was in the Village one time and there was like thirty bikers and they recognized me. Luckily, they were fans and nothing happened.

BM: When Red Bird went out of business in 1966 and you signed to Mercury, how different was it from Red Bird? Did you notice a change?

MW: Definitely. There really wasn’t much support.

BM: Mercury issued two singles and the greatest hits album. The last Shangri-Las single “Take the Time” from 1967 is weird, a pro-Vietnam record.

MW: I never wanted to record that song. I was completely against the Vietnam War and I protested accordingly. Still, the Shangri-Las supported our servicemen and women and I’ve done many shows for them.

ML: The tough appearance of the Shangri-Las, that wasn’t just an image thing, you really were tough.

MW: In certain ways I am. When you’re a kid and you’re on the road and nobody’s got your back, you better be tough. You better act as tough as you can because they’ll devour you. We scared lots of people away, made lots of bands behave and back down. What else are you going to do?

ML: That wasn’t just you. That was your sister and the twins, too?

MW: Absolutely. It was us against the world, really. Miriam, you would have done the same thing. You would. It was better when we had our own band traveling with us. It was more like a family.

ML: One thing that makes the Shangri-Las different than a lot of female acts of the day, was most of them seemed overprotected. And it virtually was always a family member calling the shots.

MW: Can you imagine? Mommy is there to wipe your nose?

ML: You wouldn’t have had a chance to be tough. It’s what makes you who you are.

MW: Absolutely not. And I’d have been a different person if my father hadn’t died. They’re all life experiences. Some good, some bad. It’s the same thing when everybody’s your best friend and then they suddenly go away. That is a very hard lesson in life. Who are your friends? That is tough stuff. I guess in a way I’m tough. I’m a survivor.

BM: Was there a defining moment when the Shangri-Las split up?

MW: Everybody around us was suing each other. Basically to me, the litigation just got so insane and it wasn’t about music anymore.

ML: Did you go back home?

MW: I moved out on my eighteenth birthday. I moved into a hotel in Manhattan, then Gramercy Park and then I moved to San Francisco for a while. It was hard to get into the music business and it was even harder to get out. I couldn’t go near another record company for ten years.

ML: For the next ten years you couldn’t record?

MW: No. It was absolutely insane. And that was also how long I was still recognized in the street, which made it even more difficult. People don’t realize how comfortable it is being Joe Blow, private citizen. Everybody wants to be a star. I never quite got that, honestly.

ML: But singing was what you wanted to do, and when that was no longer an option, it must have been horrifying.

MW: It was. I lost my way.

ML: Ten year sentence, that’s rough

MW: It was real rough.

ML: It seems like you had a positive feeling and then to have it come crashing down…

MW: Yes and no. I could have pursued it further but how much deeper do you want to get into legal nonsense? At some point you just have to cut it off. I always thought that someday I’d go back to music, I just didn’t know when.

ML: Were you being pigeon holed or typecast? Did you want to do other types of music?

MW: Afterwards? Absolutely. I could have sung lots of stuff. I was always the one who pursued things here and there and I went up to a publisher, but disco was popular and they wanted me to put a gardenia in my hair and ….(dances)

BM: At least you don’t have bad disco albums coming back to haunt you. If you had to pick one song, a post Shangri-Las song by somebody else, to tackle, what would it be?

MW: I love Patti Smith. I always wish I had recorded “Because the Night.” What a great freakin’ song.

BM: The Shangri-Las got back together in 1977 and recorded for Seymour Stein at Sire Records. Seymour worked with the Shangri-Las in the sixties, right?

MW: Seymour was our road manager for a short period of time. Margie was a complete prankster and I don’t think Seymour got it. Kids will be kids. I think the fireworks didn’t set well with him. When we were touring and we were in states that sold fireworks, we always bought them and set them off.

BM: Teenage girls with explosives, what’s not to like?

ML: But nothing you recorded with Sire was ever released. Why was that?

MW: I was very grateful to Seymour years later for giving us a shot with Sire, but it wasn’t there, material-wise. I don’t want anything released that I don’t believe in. It just wasn’t there. I wish (Richard) Gottehrer had been brought in. It just wasn’t right. I welcomed the opportunity from Seymour Stein, but it just didn’t work out. We recorded a few things, but it wasn’t happening.

BM: Did Liz and Margie feel the same way?

MW: Yes, we all did.

BM: But the Shangri-Las did one unannounced show at CBGB at the time.

MW: That was cool! It was impromptu. We just walked in and had fun.

BM: Why didn’t you do more shows like that?

MW: I didn’t want to do old stuff. I could have done that for thirty years.

ML: The Shangri-Las accomplished a lot.

MW: I come from an extremely poor family. The Gansers were relatively poor. Nobody had any money. No money for attorneys. So considering where the four of us came from, with no support, no guidance and nothing behind us, we didn’t have proper outfits onstage. I mean nothing. It’s a miracle in itself to come from those circumstances and have hit records, so I’m very grateful.

ML: So where have you been?

MW: I went to work for an architectural firm and I was seriously into it. Then I got into commercial interiors, huge projects, buildings. Then we hit a point in our lives where you go, “What am I doing?” I knew where I feel at home and I’ve never felt more at home that with music. Either I’m gonna do it or not.

ML: Cool! Welcome back.

MW: Thanks, it’s been way too long. I look forward to recording and my future in music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll.

FAKE NEWS AIN’T NOTHIN’ NEW (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #105)

One can still hear people as informed and intelligent as Little Steven Van Zandt opine that the Beatles invented the rock band, because, in addition to writing most of their own songs, they played their instruments in the studio while certain other bands (well, one particular band) only sang over tracks laid down by super-skilled session musicians. So many people have said something similar over the years I had almost taken to believing it myself. Propaganda works on you that way**

But every once in a while the internet is good for something.

Despite what many rock historians and writers have suggested over the years, the instrumental track for this enduring classic features just the Beach Boys themselves: Brian on piano, Al on bass, Carl on guitar and Dennis on drums. Like many songs from this period, the background vocals were recorded and doubled first before Brian sang the lead…

The “enduring classic” was only this…which, once you’ve heard it a thousand times, only emerges as one of the greatest (and subtlest) instrumental tracks on any rock and roll record…on top of all the other things that made you listen a thousand times to begin with:

Somewhere in that piece they suggest (or is it assert?) that “Don’t Worry Baby” was conceived as an answer record to “Be My Baby”

Now that I think of it, this sounds true spiritually, even if it’s debatable as literal fact.

And it makes both records larger….which I admit I didn’t think was humanly possible.

**Wonder if Dave Marsh still thinks (as he asserted in The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul) that Tommy Tedesco played the guitar on “Surfin’ U.S.A.”?

Or “Fun, Fun, Fun”?

Or “I Get Around”?

For the record….Tedesco did play on this one:

YOU DO WANT TO DANCE, DON’T YA? (Bobby Freeman, R.I.P.)

Any time? Any time at all? Anywhere? Anywhere at all…

….Including heaven tonight..

STALKING THE MALLS AND LEVITATING O’ER BROADWAY (Memory Lane: 1969, 1976, 2005)

Leaving New York City through the Lincoln Tunnel, you drive through the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. On Tenth Avenue, the kids have for many years approached stopped cars at traffic lights and wiped their windows, hoping for quarters. One afternoon in 1964, the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio was leaving the city on his way home to New Jersey when he noticed that the kid smearing the glass was a girl.

“I saw her face–just the picture of her face and the clothes tattered…with holes in her stockings, and a little cap on her head,” Gaudio told Fred Bronson, author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. She finished the job and stood back as Gaudio searched his pockets for change. To his mortification, he had none. The smallest thing he had was a five.

“There was a split second where I said, ‘I can’t give her a five dollar bill.’ But I couldn’t give her nothing. So I gave her the five dollar bill. The look on her face when I was pulling away–she didn’t say ‘Thank you,’ she just stood there with the bill in her hand and I could see her in the rearview mirror, just standing in disbelief in the middle of the street with the five dollars. And that whole image stayed with me; a rag doll is what she looked like.”

(The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh, 1989)

Jersey Boys, the musical based on the lives of the original Four Seasons, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, closed its decade-plus run on Broadway this past Sunday, after playing 4,642 shows.

The one I saw in December, 2005, was in the first hundred…and thereby hangs a tale I’ll never have a better reason to share:

Back around 1969, when the Merritt Square Mall in Merritt Island, Florida opened, they had a record store.

I never went near it.

Throughout the early seventies, whenever my ten, eleven, twelve-year-old self ran loose in the mall and I happened to be walking anywhere near the record store, I always made a point of crossing over to the other side. I wasn’t under any instructions or warnings. I just thought the place looked fishy. The people who always–and I mean always–hung around the entrance looked a little too much like the pictures you saw of the Manson Family.

Oh, sure, I knew they were probably harmless. We had hippies at church now and again.

But why take chances?

Bottom line is, I never saw the inside of a record store. Not until later.

Later, I saw the inside of many record stores, more than I can possibly remember. But in those days, I heard very little of what was on the radio anyway. Even if I had cared to brave the Mansonoids at the record shop, there was no need. Let them live in their world. Let me live in mine. If Jesus ever compelled me to witness to them, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.

Until then, I deemed it best to leave well enough alone.

That all changed after we moved to North Florida in 1974. Not right away. I listened to the radio a little more because my parents seemed to play music stations a little more. I have no idea why. Maybe there just weren’t any interesting talk and/or public radio stations where we lived now, just like there weren’t any hippies.

The real change came in the fall of 1975, when my Memphis nephew, who is five years older than me (19 to my 14 then), moved in with us.

My Memphis nephew didn’t go anywhere without the radio playing music. If we went somewhere in the car, he played the radio. If we went to work on one of my father’s paint contracting sites, he played the radio. If we were just sitting in my room, shooting the breeze, he played the radio.

It was kind of interesting, kind of fun, not much more. Then, come the last few weeks of 1975, the radio started playing this:

For the next few months, wherever I was, if my nephew wasn’t there to turn the radio on, I turned it on myself. And, for the next few months, I never had to wait more than half an hour to hear “December, 1963.”

Then, as such things happen–as I did not quite yet know such things happened, never having stopped to think about it–it no longer came on every half hour, or even every hour.

Not long after that, it didn’t come on every day.

And not too long after that, it didn’t come on at all.

I thought it might be okay, though, because, in the interval, I had made a discovery.

One day, while strolling through the local Sears store in Dothan, Alabama, I had happened across a bin full of 45’s.

I only knew what a 45 was because my sister left a few behind when she got married and moved out. By a few, I mean three: “Ode to Billie Joe,” “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” and a Little Richard record which was too beat up to play (and hence too beat up to hang on to, which is why the title has slipped my memory…”Tutti Frutti”? “Long Tall Sally”? “Rip It Up”?…the memory hazes…anyway, my sister had good taste).

Now, when I say I knew what a 45 was, I don’t mean I fully grasped the concept.

Oh, no, far from it.

For one thing, I thought they made 45’s to sell to people after a song was played on the radio enough to be considered a hit. That the 45 might be the actual method of distribution to the radio stations that played the music had never occurred to me.

So, in the spring of 1976, I was excited to discover that a 45 which contained “December, 1963,” by the Four Seasons, was actually laying in a record bin in a Sears store not twenty miles from my house, where I did at least have a record player.

I would have been a lot more excited if I had possessed the $1.19-plus-tax required to purchase the 45 or any means of acquiring that sort of cash in the foreseeable future.

Such was not the case.

The first impulse I ever had to buy a 45, then, was accompanied by the first of many similar experiences where the record I held in my hand was beyond the power of my eternally limited purse.

I mean, it wasn’t the sort of thing I had any chance of cajoling my father into buying for me.

And all the money I made working for him went to my college fund.

By “all the money” I mean every last red cent.

What to do?

Start working on the idea that maybe the world wouldn’t end if the college fund was spared a few bucks every now and then? Yeah, that sounded like a plan.

My dad was Scottish. He was also attending bible college full time and we were subsisting on the poverty wages raised by those weekend paint contracting jobs. Negotiations were bound to be difficult and ongoing.

It took me until the summer to wear him down.

We were back in Central Florida by then. Painting the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton every summer was the big yearly contract that made going to bible college in the fall and winter possible. If you think painting a jai alai fronton during the summer breaks from attending bible college was a contradiction you obviously didn’t know my dad.

And, if you don’t know what jai alai is, let’s just say it’s a sport closely connected to the term “parimutuel betting.”

Anyway, come summer of ’76, my dad and I were in Orlando, staying at the fronton during the week, commuting to my sister’s house in Titusville (that’s on the east coast of Florida and, yes, the same sister with the good, if limited, taste in 45’s).

Negotiations safely concluded, I one day found myself with five dollars of my own money in my pocket.

Nearby there was a mall. (Searstown? Miracle City? The memory hazes….)

Inside the mall, there was a chain record store. (Camelot? Record Bar? The memory….well, you know what memory does.)

Inside the record store, there was a big bin of 45’s that seemed to have every record in the world, or at least every record on the charts.

On a certain beautiful day in June of 1976–first time I had the chance–I begged a trip to the mall (I was still too young to drive) and found my way to the record bin in the record store.

I had one clear intention.

That was to buy “December, 1963.”

I had the $1.19-plus-tax. I had more than that, enough to buy at least three records that cost that much.

And by then, having cracked the code, there were actually quite a few records I knew I wanted to buy.

But I was determined to make “December, 1963” the first 45 I bought with my own money.

It didn’t happen.

It didn’t happen because there was a little card in the empty slot where “December, 1963” 45’s were being stored and the little card had the number 15 crossed out next to an order date two weeks before.

Seems they crossed out the number next to the order date when they sold out. There were a lot of dates on the card, with a lot of numbers crossed out going all the way back to December of the previous year. All the numbers were crossed out. They had been selling fifteen or more copies of “December, 1963” every couple of weeks for six months straight.

It was clearly going to be at least two more weeks before I got back to the record store and while I was pretty certain they would be reordering (fifteen copies? in two weeks? six months after the record came out?…yes, they would be reordering), I had no confidence they wouldn’t all be sold out again by the time I got back.

And while there were other record stores around, since I couldn’t drive myself, there was no telling when I would see the inside of one of those.

What to do?

Swallow my disappointment and look for other records. Obviously.

Which was how, a month or so before I found a copy of “December 1963” in a Woolworth’s (right next to the jai alai fronton as it happened), this became the first 45 I ever bought:

“Fallen Angel,” was not selling like hotcakes. It had scraped the Top 40 (another concept I was just beginning to grasp). Far from playing every half hour, I had only caught it a few times. I knew I liked it, and it turned out I liked it a lot. But that wasn’t the reason I picked it from the bunch–ahead of “Shannon,” by Henry Gross and “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers–that particular day.

I picked it from the bunch–and first–because it was a Frankie Valli record and I knew he was the lead singer of the Four Seasons. I did not know, at that point, that “December, 1963” was the first of the Seasons’ many hits he had not sung lead on (he sang second lead, behind Gerry Polci).

Had I known, it probably would not have made any difference. The point for me was to honor the Four Seasons and still walk out of the record store with a record in my hand. The closest I could come, on that day, was “Fallen Angel.”

And, for the next thirty years, that was basically a footnote in my record collecting history: “Fallen Angel” was the first 45 I bought because Frankie Valli was the lead singer of the group whose record I really wanted to buy. And I really wanted to buy that other record in part because it had an impossibly cool vocal sung by someone other than Frankie Valli.

The memory of settling always did bring a smile…and a shake of the head.

This crazy world. What can a poor boy do?

You only get the buy your first record once. Then you gotta live with it. Who knew.

For thirty years, all that was just another stone laid in the pathway of life.

Then came 2005. Thirty years gone by.

In 2005–very late in 2005–I decided to give myself a vacation.

Through a weird series of events, I found myself with a windfall that meant I could go anywhere in the U.S. that a thousand bucks could take me. In my world that is a whole lotta money, but, wherever I was going, I wanted it to be worth it, because I also hadn’t had a real vacation in almost six years.

I was leaning toward Cleveland (hadn’t been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since my last vacation) or San Francisco (hadn’t been there since 1991, when I didn’t get to stay long) or Chicago (1993 and ditto), when, by some freakish chain of coincidences, I was following an internet thread one night and it took me to a rave review of what appeared to be a new Broadway show based on….The Four Seasons?

It’s hard now–after a decade long run, a movie version, a new box set, a hatful of Tony awards and the like–to convey just how shocking this news was at the time.

The Four Seasons on Broadway?

Before that moment, New York wasn’t even on my radar. After that moment, the idea started lighting up my brain.

I hunted around and read more reviews. I investigated hotel and airfare prices. I did mental calculus and then actual addition and subtraction on a scratch pad.

I figured I could just barely manage it.

And I figured I had to, because, well you only live once…and it was the Four Seasons.

But, still….

I had to come up with a few hundred bucks extra. I had to pre-plan way more of the trip than I had ever planned for any trip before (my understanding was that they didn’t let just anybody in to a hit Broadway show…and that booking a Manhattan hotel was not exactly like stopping off at the Best Western by the interstate). I had to fly in winter (one previous experience, not a good one as I have a habit of developing stopped heads in winter…a stopped head at 30,000 feet is not a pleasant experience…when I did this a third time, in December, 2015, I temporarily lost my hearing).

I began to have second thoughts.

I decided to do a little more research.

I mean, Four Seasons or no Four Seasons, I had never heard anything good about a so-called jukebox musical. How good could it really be?

Before I made this kind of commitment, even for the Four Seasons, I needed to look beyond the hype.

So I asked myself: “I wonder what songs are in this show?”

It seemed an important question because who were the Four Seasons if not their songs? I hadn’t exactly stopped at “December, 1963” after all. Within a year or two of buying my first 45, the Four Seasons had become one of my two or three favorite groups and they had remained that through thick and thin. I had grown used to defending them against all comers–and in those days, there were a lot of comers. To put it bluntly, the Seasons never had the cred that the Beatles or Stones or Beach Boys or Byrds (or any of a dozen other groups) had. For a lot of people (then more than now, though it’s still a problem), they were some kind of early version of Bon Jovi: Sold a lot of records, impressed a lot of girls (and God knows they never count), never got themselves much written about in the proper journals.

Jersey boys indeed.

I knew they deserved better–that they had gotten shafted a bit for lacking a sensitive Brian Wilson-type genius, when dozens of lesser bands had better crit-reps that existed on that and nothing more. And even those who did have something more, even a lot more (think Arthur Lee and Love, think Skip Spence and Moby Grape), still weren’t the Four Seasons.

I knew the Four Seasons and I knew they deserved a hit show on Broadway.

But that still didn’t mean it was a must see.

To make that judgment, I needed to know about the songs. Absent a sensitive genius, the songs would be what such a show rose or fell on.

So I made a point of looking for a song list and was pleasantly surprised to find one. A long one. From an official source (i.e., the show’s website).

Long and reliable then.

So long that it took me more than a glance or two to get to the bottom–by which time I had concluded that they certainly were being thorough. Except for “Silence is Golden”–admittedly a B-side–they had everything in there that I would have insisted on if they had asked me.

And I still wasn’t quite convinced.

Yes they were hitting all the high points. All the songs any Seasons’ lover would insist on. But what about filling in the cracks? In a catalog as deep as the Four Seasons’ shouldn’t there be at least one off-beat pick? One sign of eccentricity? “C’mon Marianne” was nice (speaking of sensitive genius bands, maybe the show would mention how the Doors lifted the intro for “Touch Me,”) but it was still a pretty big hit and available on every major Seasons’ comp I ever saw.

I kept looking for a sign….

And then, very near the end, two or three songs from the bottom of a list of dozens, I saw this:

“Fallen Angel”

That’s when I knew I was going to New York.

*   *   *   *

So I went. Had a grand time. Got swept away by the museums and the shows (if I was going, I wasn’t putting all my eggs in one basket!) and the food and all the other stuff people get swept away by if they tourist in New York with at least a little money in hand.

I flew up on a Thursday. I went to a museum and an off-Broadway show on Friday. I went to another museum on Saturday morning and a Broadway show on Saturday afternoon. I saw St. Patrick’s Cathedral by moonlight. I ate fabulous meals in little hole-in-the-wall joints that my dad had trained me to spot back in the days when we traveled together.(“Watch where the Chinese people go,” he told me once when we were in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We did, and, if you ignored the cockroach that crawled out of the phone book on the chipped Formica counter and concentrated on the food, it was beyond belief.) I walked around for two days with a giddy smile on my face. Hell, I even figured out the subways. Not so hard, I found, when you were always going to and from Manhattan (i.e. Grand Central)–another trip, years later, when I made the mistake of chintzing and staying somewhere else, learned me that it ain’t hard to turn into an Out-of-Towner.)

And then, finally, it came Saturday night. The big event…

I wore a black denim shirt and white jeans. I didn’t care if it was after Labor Day. I was going to see Jersey Boys on a Saturday night on Broadway, a month after it opened a hop, skip and jump (or anyway a fast cab ride) from Newark (where at least one Broadway blue-nose had suggested it should have stayed). A month after it opened, Jersey Boys was being heavily attended by a mostly Jersey crowd–by the one group of people in the world who didn’t need to be told that the Four Seasons were every bit as good and important as the Beatles or the Beach Boys.

Give or take a vowel or two, I was, at last, among my people.

And still I wondered.

Would it really be worth all that?

Then the show started with a rap version of “December, 1963,” and I really started to have my doubts.

Then the guy playing Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff–a few months later he would win a Tony) walked out on stage and announced that was the version that had just been a hit in France.

Thirty seconds later, I said to myself: “This is where I’m supposed to be.”

 *  *   *   *

Jersey Boys is a long show. Two-and-a-half hours with a fifteen minute intermission.

By the intermission, I was wandering around the lobby thinking of all the people I wished had been there with me. I was also wondering how it was possible for me to have had such high expectations and see them all surpassed within the first five minutes–and then surpassed again and again.

I wondered if they could possibly keep it up.

Five minutes into the second half I stopped wondering. I knew it wasn’t going to play me–or itself–false.

Then, near the very end, the stage went dark and a familiar chord rose from the orchestra pit…and, in the space of that single chord, I remembered what I had forgotten.

I had forgotten “Fallen Angel.”

Not only had I not thought about it since I arrived at the August Wilson Theater or in the city of New York, I hadn’ t thought about it since I saw it in the show’s song list on-line and knew instantly where I would be a week before Christmas in 2005.

It was the forgetting that made it memorable. If I had been thinking about it all along, or anywhere along, I would have known it was coming–would have been wondering how they were going to fit it in, when, unlike all those dozens of hits known to all, it could not really be part of the Four Seasons’ story.

Turned out it was the heart of the Four Seasons’ story. By the time I heard that first chord and it all came rushing back–1969, 1975, 1976, a month before–I knew a whole lot about the Four Seasons I hadn’t known before and I also knew that the young woman walking across the stage was representing the ghost of Frankie Valli’s daughter, whose death-by-overdose he blamed on an absent fatherhood created, in part, by the fame and fortune he had crawled across broken glass to reach, and in larger part by the three hundred nights a year he played for a decade and more to pay off Tommy DeVito’s seven-figure gambling debts because DeVito had gone to prison rather than snitch on him when they were teenagers back in the ‘hood.

That’s the best moment I’ll ever know in a theater, sitting with two thousand locals who worshiped the Seasons and realizing I was probably the only one who knew what was coming from the first chord–the one unrecognizable, eccentric, off-beat musical selection that was the show’s big payoff. All those dozens of hits, but only one of them was called “Fallen Angel,” so, to fit the harshest fact of Frankie Valli’s life–and Tommy DeVito’s–it had to be there, even if it never made the top thirty.

The show didn’t end there. It ended with the Seasons reunited, rising from the floor at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (which also served as Valli and DeVito’s personal reunion after years of not speaking) to sing the greatest of the records that had made them the truest American working class heroes between the fall of the original fifties’ legends and the rise of Creedence Clearwater Revival*….

which made #1 in 1964, in the teeth of the British Invasion, as the A-side of my pick for the greatest-ever two-sided single, the B-side of which was…

…the only thing the show was missing.

But, by then, I had forgotten all about that, too. Even with an un-programmed encore of–you guessed it–“December, 1963,” giving me one last reminder that this had been where I was supposed to be, and a three-block hike to my hotel that amounted to levitating above the sidewalk, I knew which highlight I would always remember first.

My only regret is that–like buying that first 45–it could only happen once.

*The fantastic book for Jersey Boys was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. During one of the early development meetings, Brickman mentioned to Gaudio that he had missed out on the Seasons in the sixties, in part because he had been so heavily engaged politically, especially in protesting the Viet Nam war. Gaudio’s reply was “Well, when you’re writing this show, just remember that my audience were the ones fighting it.” The beat goes on.

THE SPIRIT OF ’65

CD Review:

Completely Under the Covers (2016)
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

There’s always been a place in Susanna Hoffs’ voice that feels like 1965 and is all the more compelling for persistently suggesting that the only thing 1965 was ever missing was her.

This is four CDs worth of her indulging the premise.

Oh, Matthew Sweet is here also and that’s hardly insignificant (they call themselves Sid n Susie….cute). But I’ve never thought I’d be interested in hearing him sing the phone book. With Hoffs, be it lead or harmony, I’m not so sure.

Well there’s no phone book test here, just a bunch of great songs from the Sixties (Disc 1: The original Under the Covers from 2006), Seventies (Disc 2: Under the Covers, Volume 2, from 2009 and Disc 3: Outtakes from the same sessions) and Eighties (Disc 4: Under the Covers, Volume 3 from 2012).

I didn’t make a count, but I’ll guess she takes the lead about two-thirds, him about a third, with a few trade-offs and close harmony leads throw in.

It doesn’t all work, or anyway it’s not all outstanding. I wasn’t surprised because I’ve pulled up their collaborations here and there on YouTube over the years and while the song choices always seemed compelling, the actual performances were a little too true to the originals to really add anything obvious.

Still, I thought it might be more compelling to sit down and listen to them all at once so when this came up cheap on Amazon with my birthday rolling around I sprang for it.

I wasn’t wrong either time.

Listening close, listening all at once, it’s compelling enough to amount to some sort of vision: a quarter-century of white rock and roll re-imagined as a set of well-produced folk songs. Slick but (mostly) not too slick.

Despite the slightly salacious series title, there’s nothing like sexual heat or chemistry going on here and nothing remotely like the subliminal, rivalry-based anger that drove pretty much every one of the great harmony acts that were around in ’65 (Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel….all in all, not a happy bunch). I miss the heat. I miss the subliminal, which is so often the springboard for the sublime.

But this has a pull all its own. Some of it’s just the confidence that every song is tried and true. There’s no wondering if the tunes won’t work, especially since Sweet and Hoffs work only the tiniest variations on the originals. As the songs roll on–sixty in all, including fifteen bonus tracks not previously available–it’s those variations and their subtleties that take hold: Hoffs making rare use of her soprano for two magic seconds at the fade of “You’re So Vain” pulling the song backwards and forwards at the same time while also making it do something it never quite did before, which is hurt; the gentle subversion of refusing to either switch the gender for “Maggie May” and (following Linda Ronstadt) “Willin'” or just give them to the guy; the shift from Love’s “Alone Again Or” to Bran Wilson’s “The Warmth of the Sun” that actually feels like it’s straight from a bar band stage at Ciro’s on a night when nobody wants to dance.

And, all the way up in the Eighties’ portion of the program, proof that the old alternative universe dream of Hoffs fronting the Go-Go’s (the better singer hooking up with the greater band), was, like so many alt-universe dreams–including those being dreamed from left to right in this new world we’ve made–a false flag. All this version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” does is suggest that, in our non-alternative reality, Belinda Carlisle really is some kind of genius.

That’s how it goes throughout. The highs and lows chase each other around without leaving any indication that there could ever be a consensus on exactly which is which. The notion of a place where there’s a home for Yes and the Clash, the Who and James Taylor is just as mixed up and confused as you might fear and as oddly reassuring as you might hope.

Music for these times then?

I honestly wasn’t sure until I got to the middle of the third disc–all outtakes–and, with Sweet taking the lead and Hoffs pushing him from underneath the way Jackie DeShannon might have pushed Gene Clark if God had been on the ball in, yeah, ’65, and had them do an album of duets where they submerged their personalities into each other and the spirit of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” even if the song wasn’t yet available.

It’s a song Nick Lowe wrote in 1974 about the spirit of ’65, an unofficial sequel to the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” (which, by some unfathomable mystery, is missing from this set). A short time after, Elvis Costello and the Attractions turned it into an anthem of pure fury and one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made. You can hear those versions here:

Since then, there have been a boatload of other covers. You can chase those around YouTube all day long if so inclined, but, if not, I’ll just pull up the other two good ones I found here:

That gives you some idea of the song’s flexibility…its own ability to reach forward and back.

If you listen close to Costello’s version, you can even hear that old Byrds’ jangling guitar–the secret language of white rock for the last fifty years–chiming throughout…and breaking loose in the bridge.

Now what I can’t do is post Sid n Susie’s studio version, which hit me this week the way “Turn, Turn, Turn” hit me in the spring of ’78, when I got my high school diploma and my first copy of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits in the space of about twenty-four hours.

I can’t post it because it’s not on YouTube yet and I’m not into posting music there. Maybe I should be. Because, as things stand, I heartily recommend that you avoid the live versions which are posted and give no hint of anything but professional boredom.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to take my word for it that, without Matthew Sweet being anywhere near a Byrd (or Elvis Costello) vocally, or the band being anywhere near able to generate the Attractions’ mind-meld, Sid n Susie made me feel the gap between 1965 and now like nothing I’ve heard in decades. Like it still might be possible–just…and just for a moment–to wake up tomorrow and find that Peace, Love and Understanding had finally, in the moment when the children of ’65 have so far lost their minds that they’re holding their breath waiting for the CIA to save the Republic and the next Democratic Congress to convene anti-anti-communist versions of HUAC hearings, become not so funny at all.

It’s almost enough, all by itself, to redeem the idea of spending this last horrific decade treating rock and roll as folk music with which black people had nothing to do while pretending that such oversights are in no way responsible for our current predicament.

Well, that plus doing right by bubbling unders from the Left Banke….

 

TIME PASSAGES (Segue of the Day: 10/11/16)

I always kind of liked the Beach Boys’ version of “California Dreamin'” from back in the eighties. I discovered the video version a few months back, but it was only this week that I found the time to live in it. There’s not really a definitive version on YouTube. One version has a good picture and no graphic overlays, but muddy sound. The only other version up right now has great sound but a murky, blurred picture. If you play both a few times in rapid succession, though, it’s possible for the genius of the concept to sink in. John Phillips shows up as a Preacher who likes the Cold and moonlights as a Saxophone God (Steve Douglas maybe?). Roger McGuinn plays a troubador (natch). Michelle Phillips plays a dreamboat from an old Mamas and Papas’ song (i.e., her own ghost). The Beach Boys themselves play men who know their time is up and it’s all filmed in elegaic black and white, the better to remind you that the age they sprang from occurred in the brightest, shiniest Technicolor the world will ever see, in or out of the Hollywood these people once took over and let go of (or had wrested from them) in the space of a heartbeat.

Good sound…lousy picture:

Good picture….lousy sound:

And, just a few YouTube clicks away, one might find Hanson, from this year, playing their hard won role as the only Boy Band who ever aged gracefully, which makes sense, since they were the talented ones:

I know which is more joyous. As the most rightfully dreaded Election Day since 1860 draws nigh, I can’t decide which is more wistful.

LO-FI-NO-FI-RETRO-AMERICANA….ALL TRANSCENDED, ALL REDEEMED (CD Review: John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This)

John Mellencamp
No Better Than This (2010)

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I’m a Mellencamp fan and I’d heard good things about this when it came out, but it was only a year or so back that I acquired it. I gave it a couple of cursory listens and then filed it away as a subject for future investigation.

The future came this week and it hit me upside the head, maybe just about the time Mellencamp’s po’ boy loner–the kind of weary cliche that makes me throw up every defense I have and which no previous singer has so completely broken down–sings about the wife who takes a frying pan upside his head.

Except she isn’t his wife. She’s a woman he’s just spotted her on the street somewhere and exchanged a friendly glance with before spending a few moments describing to the listener–as if they’ve already happened–all the things he could imagine happening if that friendly glance led to matrimony and such. Naturally, by the end of the song, he’s ready to move on, leaving all the possibilities you thought were realities unexplored.

Upon the album’s release, Mellencamp got a lot of publicity out of its gimmick, which was recording the thirteen tracks he had written–every one of which sounds like a folk song or a blues pulled from the bottom of a stack of 78s no one ever heard of, let alone heard out loud–in the Sun Studio, the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson was recorded, and a slavery-era church in Savannah, Georgia.

As Greil Marcus and a few others pointed out at the time, the gimmick shouldn’t work but does, because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. What nobody seems to have gotten around to fully explaining (I can’t say I read every review, but I read a bunch), is just why it doesn’t feel that way, which is because it’s the boldest example of a common conceit–that rare reach that actually qualifies as something nobody pulled off, or probably even thought of, before.

Starting somewhere in the mid-sixties–maybe with the Beach Boys’ Party! LP from 1965, there have been constant attempts of reach back to a mythic past, sometimes near, sometimes distant, and imagine what might have been if rock and roll had gone in a slightly different direction. At its best, in the early music of the Band, or Party! itself, this approach could be revelatory and break open spaces that would have otherwise lain fallow. At its worst, which was most of the time, it could be soul-crushing. Somewhere in between, it could be anything from heartfelt and detailed enough to qualify as honorable, smile-inducing homage (the best work of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids or Tracey Ullman) to earnest folk music (where I’ve always slotted the strain in Bruce Springsteen’s music that began, and peaked, with Nebraska).

Some of this music got called bold because it seemed to exist in a world where rock and roll never happened. Most of it existed only because rock and roll happened.

On No Better Than This, Mellencamp stretches both ideas past their logical extremes: In the real world, the one we actually live in, he’s a man who could never have been a star without rock and roll because no world but this one would have had him. In the world he creates on this record, he uses his real-world status to imagine–and perfect–a world not where rock and roll never happened (been done) but one where rock and roll is just about to happen. That difference, once it locks in, makes the difference. This week, starting with a casual listen that was different from my previous listenings because I put on headphones, I began to suspect something was up about midway through the first song. By the time Mellencamp closed with a wry chuckle, twelve and a half songs later, I had a new obsession, the kind that rarely happens to me anymore, because I almost never need to listen to something until I figure it out.

The leap between this and every bit of proto, in-the-moment, or retro Americana I’ve ever heard is that, in one key respect, Mellencamp remains who he is. He’s reaching back to the early fifties, not as a star-in-the-making, some great lost voice who would have taken rock and roll in a whole new direction if only some visionary producer or enlightened audience had understood his genius, but as a gifted journeyman with his own ideas about how things should be. He hasn’t gone back in time to be Woody Guthrie or LIttle Richard. He’s gone back to be Harmonica Frank or Lowell Fulson, or, better yet, a forgotten contemporary, with his own little weird niche, which may (Fulson) or may not (Harmonica Frank) one day lead to a modest career.

In other words Mellencamp has imagined the fix he’d be in if rock and roll hadn’t exploded into something that could make somebody like John Mellencamp a star.

How consciously he did this I don’t know, but sometimes–quite often really–the artist knows better than the man. This is an album that keeps asking: “What if this had been all there was?” and then supplies its own answer. Which is along the lines of: “We think we’re lucky we didn’t have to find out…but are we?”

Now you know we’re lucky (i.e. “better off”). And I know we’re lucky. And John Mellencamp sure knows we’re lucky.

But the guy on the record isn’t so sure. And for the length of this record, he stood in the place where John Mellencamp used to be.

I’m not sure any album has ever asked and answered this path-not-taken question in quite the same way before. More than thirty years into a career that could never have happened unless we, and he, have been very lucky indeed, John Mellencamp dared to raise the question of his own worth and the worth of the world we’ve made since rock and roll, with its unbounded promise, first danced out of the shadows.

And I’m going to play you a track now, but I guarantee there is no way to comprehend how exhilarating and disturbing this eerily quiet “mono” music is without getting hold of the album and finding some zone quiet enough and slow enough to absorb it whole, without interference from the modern world.

MY FAVORITE TRULY OBSCURE B-SIDE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Easy Part: Define “B-Side.”

“The side of a 45 that was not meant for primary radio promotion…at least until some enterprising dee-jay turned the boring A-Side over and his audience started lighting up the switchboard.”

The most famous case of this was probably the process that, by means I can’t seem to track down in precise detail, led to this UK release…

LULU1

Being turned into this US release….

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and leading (many years after “To Sir With Love” failed to chart in Britain and was the number one American record for the year 1967 in Billboard) to the Scottish Lass’s priceless quote re American dee-jays: “Bless their cotton socks.”

Now here’s a trick.

Define “obscure.”

Then define “truly obscure.”

You’re liable to get deep in the weeds before you find any real agreement on that last. Your gem of obscurity, held close to the heart (or, if you’re a little paranoid, the vest, right next to your pearl-handled revolver), and heard by only a precious few in the History of Man, will be somebody else’s “Pfah! I’ve got five copies of that in my basement and I didn’t even start looking until I was twelve!”

But I’m a sucker for punishment so I’ll have a go.

First Rule: It can’t be anything by the B-Side kings: Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. They all routinely turned out B-sides that would have been career makers for anybody else. But even their worst or scarcest material isn’t obscure. So “I’m Down” and “Kiss Me Baby” don’t qualify. And neither does anything that doesn’t reek of genius.

Second Rule: It can’t be anything by a popular artist which has been given extensive exposure by cover versions or inclusion on “best of” compilations. None of this, then:

Third Rule: It can’t have been talked about so much or praised by so many critics that any reasonably aware record collector knows it backwards and forwards.

None of this…

Or this…

Fourth Rule: It can’t be mentioned in some well-known bible of taste like Greil Marcus’ “Desert Island” section at the end of Stranded or Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Which is really too bad…

Fifth Rule: Of course to be really, truly obscure, the fifth rule is, if not a must, at least the first sub-rule of tie-breakers:

No official release on CD.

It’s not that hard to find B-Sides never released on CD. Way harder than it used to be, but still not beyond the pale.

What’s a little harder is to find something I really love that’s never been released on CD.

I thought I might have to settle for something that at least hasn’t been released often. Something like this…

or this…

…both of which lead straight into the second sub-rule of tiebreakers...

A record gets a leg up if I actually first experienced it as a B-Side, something that put a smile on my face once upon a time when I got home from the record store and played through the stack and realized I had gotten two for one.

What for instance, might have lain on the other side of this….?

Not another big hit because the Poppy Family, despite making a number of distinctively elegiac records, didn’t have any other big hits outside their native Canada, (though “That’s Where I Went Wrong” made the top thirty…and Greil Marcus’s “Island”).

Also not a record that’s ever been released on CD.

And not a record that was even released on a vinyl album.

Now we’re getting pretty close to “truly obscure.” You can go deeper–the way your average troll defines it, obscurity really is a bottomless concept–but probably not with somebody who had at least as much success as the Poppy Family.

And, even if you did go deeper, I bet you wouldn’t find a classic cover, in this case of a 1958 hit by Jody Reynolds, that doesn’t so much rewrite a great original as restore its initial meaning.

In the fifties, Reynolds was forced to rewrite the lyrics to a song he had called “Endless Sleep” before his record company would release it.

They wanted him to rewrite it because they wanted a happy ending….to a record called “Endless Sleep.”

So they could release it on Demon Records.

I mean, any time they try to tell you the fifties weren’t weird….

Hey, he made it work anyway. But I was a little shocked when I finally heard Jody’s version. It didn’t jibe at first. How could it? I’d already absorbed this version…which does not end happily.

As far as I know, everything else the Poppy Family recorded was on one of their two albums. I assume this was a consummate throwaway, a true B-Side done up on the spot to get the wannabe, gonnabe hit–which turned out to be a monster–out the door.

Not the sort of thing that happens anymore, as we’re all too busy making those other plans the old B-Side King John Lennon used to talk about.

Thin gruel this brave new world has turned out to be.

But I remember how crazy and full life, love and the recording industry used to be.

POPPYFAMILY1

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

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

becerkandfagen2

WAR2

Steely Dan….or War?

H-m-m-m.

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

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

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

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

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

First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.

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

Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.

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

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

I’m not sure I could blame him.

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *   *

They had a lot in common besides that.

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

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

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

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

I’ll lay into that in a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it goes.

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

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

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

Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.

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

Hm-m-m-m…Could be?

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

*   *   *   *

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

WARALLDAYMUSIC

CANTBUYATHRILL

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

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

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

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

All of the above?

None of the above?

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

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

A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *   *

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

Maybe recognition of something elemental?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way black people just naturally are.

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

They were thinkers by God!

Philosophers.

Artiste‘s even.

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

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

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

Ha, ha, ha.

That’s one side.

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

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

Ever.

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

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

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

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

And they did not do so “instinctively.”

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

Quite the opposite.

*    *    *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But War went further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be fair, War faded as well.

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

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

Hardly cosmic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if there is no judgment?

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

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