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…

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It helps if you sold a lot of records.

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

So there’s the criteria.

Only two people ever met every standard for me.

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

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Or her…

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Al Green or Patty Loveless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or this….;

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

and Richard Thompson (stay for the wild applause)…

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

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

Each walked down.

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

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

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

Thus, each has legions of imitators, some inspired.

Neither has a true inheritor.

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

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

There are no weak tracks in either catalog.

One is hard-pressed to find a mediocrity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who really knows?

We all have our opinions.

You can probably guess mine.

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

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

You can hear it coming, happening, landing….

In neither instance was the case made with words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sing for us!” it said.

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

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

I don’t know if it ever really happened.

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

They sang for us.

Choose between them?

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

No thanks.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Double LP)

COWBOY (Glenn Frey, R.I.P.)

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In the days when harmony ruled, there was apparently a legal requirement that any harmony group aspiring to royalty have a resident asshole. In the Everlys, it was Don. In Simon & Garfunkel, it was Simon. In the Beach Boys, it was Mike Love. In the Beatles, it was John Lennon. In the Byrds it was David Crosby.

By most accounts, the Eagles, arriving late and assigned by history to close down the party, doubled down. In Glenn Frey and Don Henley, they offered two holes for the price of one. In a western, they’d have been the outliers, the surly cowpokes who would do the right thing or the wrong thing or simply ride away, depending on what was in it for them.

Like somebody from the actual west, I suppose.

It’s possible this is precisely what allowed them to embody some weird contradictions and, having aimed squarely for the middle of the road, where they dug a permanent groove in the asphalt right where the yellow stripe was supposed to be, elicit far stranger and more disruptive responses than most bands who craved disruption for its own sake.

Crosby repeatedly professed to find them boring, which, given the projects he’s proudly participated in since he left the Byrds, took more than mere chutzpah. Robert Christgau professed to find them misogynistic, which, given his life-long devotion to the Rolling Stones (not really waved away, I think, by his recently arrived at suspicion that Mick and Keith really aren’t the nicest people…and, get this, may never have been!), is a real knee-slapper.  I’m guessing they would have both enjoyed having a beer with the weekend softball warrior I once heard saying he didn’t want his wife to drive if she was “just gonna play that goddam Eagles crap.”

Or maybe not.

On the occasion of Frey’s death, one website, reliably standing in for the rest, declared the Eagles “about as polarizing as any band in rock history,” before also declaring, de rigeuer, their personal indifference.

So it goes. So it’s gone for forty years.

From the interviews I heard on television last night, it seems Frey was the hard-driving perfectionist in a band that was often criticized, not without some justification, for prizing perfection above all else. If that kept the Eagles from being, say, the Byrds–imposed a certain set of limitations that meant there were few of the surprises that preclude indifference–then I guess he’ll have something to answer for at the next stage.

But that’s just one way of looking at it.

I can’t pretend the Eagles were ever my favorite band (happens the Byrds were/are, and have been since the first moment I heard them, which was also the first moment I realized indifference could be banished in such matters, and, coming in the spring of 1978, was long after I’d not only heard but absorbed the Eagles).

Like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, though, it seems like most of flak Frey’s band caught was really for appealing to the wrong people.

And, in my experience, mostly those people were/are women.

Anybody surprised?

Also like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, I’ll take them, and their “misguided” fans, over most of those representing the alternative.

And while the half-dozen to a dozen of their records that I really love might be somewhat, or even completely, different than the same number the next casual Eagles fan you meet feels the same way about, I don’t gainsay anyone who loves it all. I lived through the seventies. Believe me, anyone who could pursue perfection to a useful end in that chaotic moment had real value, even if some fools were bound to mistake it for “boredom” or worse.

Glenn Frey was a solid guitar player, a first class singer/songwriter, and a harmony singer extraordinaire, never more sublime than when he was breath-to-breath between screaming matches with his asshole buddy Don Henley. And if their best records really were oh-so-perfect, nobody ever doubted it was the kind of perfection that only rests on the other side of hardcore professionalism. That means different things to different people, but all it ever meant in the suburbs and trailer parks where copies of the Eagles Greatest Hits became as ubiquitous as Budweiser and the Bible was that it was bought and paid for the hard way.

Nothing wrong with that.

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