WHEN THE CENTER COULD STILL HOLD…AND WAS STILL WORTH HOLDING ON TO (Bobby Vee, R.I.P.)

bobbyvee1 He took Buddy Holly’s place (more or less) on the day the music died. He gave Bob Dylan one of his first jobs. He put nearly forty hits on the charts and took plenty of the dubious, often nonsensical, heat for “killing” rock and roll in the supposed wasteland years between Elvis going in the army and the Beatles arriving on our shores.

He took $500 he earned playing local shows to get his band from Fargo, North Dakota to Minneapolis and into a recording studio. I’ve made that drive. It’s longer than you think.

After that, he never looked back.

Today, during this awful year that refuses to die, he passed away, having outlived his wife of forty-two years by fourteen months.

His job in the rock and roll narrative was the same as his job in the rock and roll reality: To be the sane one.

It’s not the sort of job anyone ever gets credit for here–except maybe from all the others who have those same sort of jobs and know they get paid less in part because they don’t have to put up with quite as much nonsense.

Bet they know better in the next world.

Some Nobel Prize winners even know better in this one…

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AL GREEN’S STUNNING (MOSTLY UNNOTICED) ARRIVAL (Segue of the Day: 10/20/16)

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Since I had nearly all of Al Green’s Hi albums on vinyl it was only a few years ago (about the time I started sleeping in my den, where the modern stereo equipment is) that I decided to collect them on CD. The best, cheapest way to gather them up was in three four-album, two disc collections, issued by the oldies’ label Edsel, that put two albums per disc, in chronological order.

And what’s happened now is what often happens when things that used to be separated, mentally and physically, are run together and recontextualized.

It’s now possible, perhaps even spiritually mandatory, for me to hear Green’s first two LPs, Green is Blues and Al Green Gets Next to You, as a single expression of the broadest ranging, most penetrating vision of American vocal music anyone had put together since Green’s hero, Elvis, arrived at RCA in the mid-fifties. Hearing the albums separately all those years (and not really listening to the first one that much because it’s mostly covers and there is only so much world and time), I just thought they contained a lot of great music…and that Gets Next to You was the greatest southern soul/funk album anyone had ever made.

I haven’t changed my mind about the latter, but the total vision didn’t come clear until last night when I was listening on headphones to the first two-fer for maybe the tenth or twelfth time and I finally registered that Al Green, then twenty-three years old, had just gone Late Beatles, Gershwin (the last two cuts on Green is Blues), Early Beatles (a bonus track from the same sessions), Temptations (the first, monstrous cut on Gets Next to You). More than that, he had fully re-imagined every one of them, and turned every one of them into something larger and grander.

Later on, he would do much more–throw in Hank Williams, the Bee Gees, Lulu, a bit of Bo Diddley here, a bit of James Brown there and a world or two besides. Everything really. The size of the world.

Elvis’s truest inheritor then. open to everything and up for anything. It might not be purely coincidental that he walked away–back to the church his father had kicked him out of the house for turning his back on by blasting his Elvis and Jackie Wilson records–two heartbeats after Jackie was in a coma and one heartbeat after Elvis was in his grave.

And it’s all right there in the almost beginning:

I’m sure the world would have taken greater notice, made him something more than a southern soul star who crossed over and got raves at Rolling Stone and the Voice (rare enough, but nowhere near his true measure), if he hadn’t been a black man destined to make his records for a small southern label that depended on him for its survival.

It’s no use me blaming the Yankee heathens this time, though. I should have known better years ago.

Mea culpa.

QUEEN FOR A DAY…AND OH WHAT A DAY (Theresa Saldana, R.I.P.)

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(Theresa Saldana, Wendy Jo Sperber, Nancy Allen in I Wanna Hold Your Hand)

I just learned that Theresa Saldana, the actress who played enterprising reporter Grace Corrigan in 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand, passed away in hospital a few weeks ago at age 61. I don’t have the heart to do much research, but, so far as I can tell, no cause of death has been announced.

Saldana has a fine list of credits, including Raging Bull and The Commish. But she could have been in every movie made since 1978 or never worked another day after IWHYH and I’d still remember her the same way. With Wendy Jo Sperber (1958-2005, breast cancer) and Nancy Allen, she made up the trio of high school girls at the heart of Robert Zemeckis’s otherworldly tribute to Beatlemania, which I wrote about at length here.

They were a magic threesome. America’s failure to respond to them or the film put paid to the last golden age of cinema as far as I’m concerned. The movies have been adrift right along with everything else ever since (okay, since 1980, but close enough!). Good things still happen, they’re just floating free, anchored to nothing and no one.

But, whatever the strengths of IWHYH or the rest of her career, Saldana was a rare actor whose career wasn’t defined by her work. She survived a horrific attack from a stalker in the early eighties and spent the rest of her life devoting perhaps her best efforts to helping pass laws to protect both real and potential victims of stalking. I saw I Wanna Hold Your Hand in a theater with my mother in the spring of 1978 in Dothan, Alabama. I doubt either one of us ever laughed harder. Hard as the road got for my mother in the years after, I know for a certainty that she never laughed that hard again. So if you had told me when I walked out of that theater that one of the actresses I had just seen would do more good in the world than she and her cohorts had just done for us, I would have called you a liar.

And I would have been wrong. I hope God’s blessing her tonight.

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

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

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

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

You’ve got to start somewhere.

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

Barry Mann the wannabe singer that is.

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

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

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

If they can do it, why not me?

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

Thus he recorded this:

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

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

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

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

Cynthia Weil had one question.

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

Answer:

“We can’t.”

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

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

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

Something funny happened, though, along the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, if you like:

“in the still-l-l-l EYE of the city…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually, he quit talking.

Without being asked, Cynthia Weil immediately added:

“I prefer the version by Barry Mann.”

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

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Commodores Up)

“This Is Your Life”
The Commodores (1975)
Billboard R&B: #13
Did not make the Pop Chart
Recommended source: Commodores Gold

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“This Is Your Life” was the Commodores fifth single. After some fair-to-middling success as a (first rate) hard funk band, it was meant to launch them as a ballad act, featuring their rather odd-looking and odd-sounding crooner in residence, Lionel Richie.

It didn’t. Their previous release “Slippery When Wet” had been their most successful to date, topping the R&B chart and reaching #19 Pop, outdoing even their debut killer “Machine Gun.” Maybe the shift was too sudden, but “This Is Your Life” was a severe comedown on the charts.

Their label, Motown, had once held a reputation for sticking with acts it believed in and having it pay off with legendary careers once the sweet spot was identified. But with the Commodores, it might have seemed that the sweet spot was already identified–a place next to Kool & the Gang and Ohio Players as purveyors of reliable funk to a devoted audience who could provide the basis for occasional pop crossover and a place to come home to once the crossover moment passed. And, anyway, what Motown had once done routinely, it was not so committed to doing at all by the mid-seventies.

And so there it might have stayed.

Except Lionel Richie had other ideas. In later years, he put it pretty simply: “I wanted us to be the black Beatles.” That meant doing all kinds of music and selling all of it to a multiracial audience.

“This Is Your Life” was his first reach for the stars and he more or less came up empty…at least on the charts.

He–or somebody–kept on believing. The followup single, “Sweet Love,” was the first from their next album. It went #5 Pop, #2 R&B, and sent The Commodores/Lionel Richie on a decade long run of crossover success that made them, if not the black Beatles, at very least superstars in their own right and, more significantly, last stand upholders of an aspirational cultural and political black bourgeoisie tradition that has since been lost at no small cost to us all. If it hangs around, waiting to be redeemed, it hangs around at least in part due to them and their ability to extend it a decade past its natural sell-by date.

That their contribution wasn’t lost in the cradle was due to persistence and belief.

Because “This Is Your Life” has every element that made Commodores’ balladry great (especially the killer arrangement). There was no good reason for it to fail and no good reason to keep believing future attempts at the same would succeed.

It wasn’t like even the greatest of them–not “Sweet Love,” not “Easy,” no, not even “Sail On,”–would be better. But believe they did….

(Note: This is the longer album version. Just because it’s better. Maybe the record company should have believed in it enough to avoid a radio edit!….Talk about an alternative universe.)

 

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Bangles Up)

“Set You Free”
The Bangles (1989)
Foreign market single version
Recommended Source:The Bangles’ Greatest Hits

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The last great harmony vocal by the last great harmony vocal group, “I’ll Set You Free” was originally featured on the Bangles’ last album released before their initial breakup (1988’s Everything). The version featured here (and available on the album linked above) is a remix (by Bernard Edwards no less) featuring a new lead vocal by Susanna Hoffs, which was later variously released as a single in overseas markets as either a farewell to their fans or a not unreasonable attempt by the record company to milk a final hit from the group, depending on who’s telling the tale. In any case it was never released in the U.S. and didn’t take off anywhere else, barely scraping the  charts in Australia and the U.K.

There’s a tale in that. The Bangles were almost single-handedly responsible for keeping Everly/Beatles’ style vocal harmony alive as something more than seasoning for synth-sounds throughout the eighties. When they were gone from the charts, so was the harmony ethos that the Everlys had so literally and improbably brought down from the mountain in rock’s early dawn.

Modernity preferring histrionics (which harmonies tend to harness), monotonously rigid rhythm structures (which harmonies tend to undermine) and supreme self-involvement (which harmonies tend to disperse), this record marked the end of an era. Like most of the endings we fail to observe at our peril, i.e., those that mark the loss of something vital within ourselves, it passed unnoticed at the time.

Except maybe by the people who sang it.

 

THAT MRS. JONES, SHE WAS A LUCKY LADY (Billy Paul, R.I.P.)

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Kenny Gamble spotted Billy Paul in a jazz club in the late sixties. By then, Paul had been knocking around the music business since the early fifties, had served in Elvis’s unit in Germany (where he tried, unsuccessfully, to get Elvis to join his band), boxed a little, had the standard sixties’ experience of being knocked out by the Beatles in general and John Lennon in particular.

Gamble heard something special and immediately signed Billy to the new label he was starting with Leon Huff. Paul’s mostly self-produced first album was the second release on Gamble Records, which, not too long after, morphed into Philly International, the most important black music label of the 1970s (if not the most important label period).

Paul was a perfect fit for the new label’s defining sensibility, which emphasized an aspirational style of Black American bourgeoisie that delivered on every musical promise and, for a fleeting instant, made real social and political assimilation seem nearer than it had ever been before or has ever been since. No record embodied that sensibility, or the promises it implied, than Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones.” He made plenty of more militant sides, the most famous of which was the sticky wicket “Am I Black Enough For You?” But, like most really effective political records “Me and Mrs. Jones” worked subterraneously. It carried its message in its bones, the fluid marrow of which was Paul’s inimitable voice.

The message was simple enough: Sex and longing and sneaking around and meeting in corner cafes without much idea of where it might lead beyond the pleasure of the moment was neither a black or white thing, simply a human thing. If, these days, you think that’s no big deal, then that just means the record’s once revolutionary notions have been sufficiently absorbed to make them seem as natural as breathing. Paul ended up making a slew of fine records. Cruise around YouTube and I doubt you’ll be able to find a weak track. I know I couldn’t. And, working with the finest producers and session men in the world, the best thing about any Billy Paul record was always Billy Paul.

But his one big pop hit couldn’t really be followed, any more than it could be forgotten.

Paul passed away from cancer this week, at 81. Like his contemporary Donnie Hathaway, he remains seriously under-appreciated outside of Black America.

Bet they know better where he’s gone to now.

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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.

LIFE BEYOND MARS…UPDATED (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #72)

Jimmy Carter, wherefore art thou?

So today The National Enquirer outed the “morality” candidate, Ted Cruz, as a hound dog. Allegedly, of course. Like Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Jessie Jackson, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, and other previous tabloid deniers before him, he has issued heated categorical denials. We shall see.

Anyway, pursuing the leads on-line, I ran across this, which is the most succinct analysis of our present down-the-rabbit-hole state I’ve seen. I mean one is never surprised, but…

Anybody who thinks Donald Trump is merely an obnoxious doofus who sprang from nowhere and is riding a periodic wave of Standard American Nativist Paranoia to inevitable defeat is sadly mistaken. His (or his campaign’s) canny use of popular music was, as I suspected, a canary in the coalmine. He came from this tabloid world, was in fact created by it, and understands it better than anyone he’s running against. Way better.

And, having done his research (boy did he do his research), and smelled an opportunity, he’s tearing it down, board by maggot-ridden board, on his way to a presidency which his five predecessors–three Republicans and two Democrats–have gradually prepared the entire electorate, half the country at a time, to accept as a purely authoritarian office, subject to no oversight but the executive’s own will.

There’s a certain irony in a man who may have privately benefited from our increasingly public combination of social libertinism (the obsession of the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate, not-so-discreetly enabled by the “right”) and economic feudalism (the obsession of the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve, not-so-discreetly enabled by the “left”), more than any other single individual on the planet, taking a wrecking ball to the inevitable consequences. If he does indeed turn out to be some sort of proto-fascist, he’ll have been one of our own making and exactly what we deserve. Donald Trump–and Hilary Clinton (a pure product of the world captured in the link above and now likely the only person who can prevent him from becoming president, thus preserving half the present style of corruption for another round or two)–are what emerge from the walls only after the foundational timbers have rotted.

So here’s to Ted Cruz, while we await his inevitable tearful apology concerning the “pain he caused in his marriage”:

And to the “Republican” Establishment, which finally swallowed its own tongue and threw in with the previously leper-like Cruz mere days before Trump put him in his sights: