WE ALL GOTTA BE BORN SOME TIME, SOMEWHERE, IN SOME COUNTRY OR OTHER….(Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #116)

I normally don’t think much about Easy Rider. I saw the movie somewhere along the way and my general reaction was “I guess you had to be there.”

Then I ran across Ileana Douglas’ top ten movies at the Criterion Collection website (which you can view here), which led me to her twitter page, which led me to her podcasts, which you can sample here–highly recommended, just be sure you have some time on your hands because it’s kind of addicting.)

But one quote from her comments on the first time she saw Easy Rider stuck out.

…let me tell you, the first time I saw it on TV, all cut up, I thought: This is the movie that ruined our lives and turned us into dirty hippies? I just didn’t get it.

By “our’ and “us” she meant her own family, especially her father, who took the movie for a road map on how to live the rest of his life, an obsession that was bound to have an effect on his then five-year-old daughter.

Her father, as it happened, was the son of a famous Hollywood actor who called himself Melvyn Douglas (the family name was Hesselberg). Douglas herself, chose her grandfather’s profession and adopted his surname. And eventually she came to terms with both her “dirty hippy” upbringing and Easy Rider. Hence its inclusion in her Top Ten Criterion films (which I recommend reading in full–on top of her abundantly self-evident charms, she’s an excellent writer).

I’ll probably watch Easy Rider again at some point. Movies sometimes grown with repeated viewings. And no movie can be entirely withouh existential interest if the main characters are based on Roger McGuinn and David Crosby.

And I’ll keep Ms. Douglas’ reassessment in mind.

But I’m pretty sure one thing will stick in my craw. That’s the ending, which imagines the Modern Southern Redneck, not as the natural ally of hippie culture that he was (I’m speaking as someone who grew up around as many rednecks as Ileana did hippies), but as an extension of the Klan, come out from under the sheets and gone hunting hippies.

One can never say something-or-other didn’t happen to somebody-or-other somewhere-or-other some-time-or-other.

Maybe somewhere, sometime, some hillbilly killed a hippy for the frivolous reasons presented in Easy Rider (frivolous as in “I just don’t like them sons-a-bitches. Let’s shoot ’em!”)

For a better look at the real flavor of backwoods’ paranoia, I’d recommend Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, which came out in the early eighties (and seemed to take something out of Hill, who was never quite the same again).

But you can get the gist from the music that defined the relationship between the hillbillies and the hippies–Charlie Daniel’s “Long-Haired Country Boy,” Hank Williams Jr.’s truly paranoid “Country Boy Can Survive,” and especially Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” which circles back to Viet Nam, catches up the whole story and brings it to its natural conclusion.

The message from the hardcore hillbilly has been the same going all the way back to the Scottish highlands.

Best leave me the hell alone.

In this respect, at least, Easy Rider took the easy way out.

Just like the rest of the country.

Left us with the movie–and the world–that defined my childhood…Which was much tougher, much funnier, didn’t tell a single lie, and didn’t have the answers either.

May have to write about that some day.

Meanwhile, I’ll just keep in touch with that other world I didn’t quite grow up in the usual way. By listening…

 

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE (Chuck Berry, R.I.P.)

As the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll and the Inventor of it’s most prescient and enduring guitar style, Chuck Berry is not a lily that needs gilding.  So I’ll just pass along this anecdote:

Back in my early thirties (say, 1992 or so), the head of my department at the publishing company where I still toil was a 40ish woman with a taste for a certain literary style of rock and roll. Pete Townshend was her particular demigod and one day while we were discussing this and that,  she opined (out of nowhere? germane to some conversation we were having? the memory hazes) that some lyric from a song on one of Townshend’s solo LPs was “the greatest rock and roll lyric ever written.”

I….objected.

Strongly.

“Well what do you think it is?” she said. Her tone spoke volumes. When a certain personality type asks you a certain kind of question, it is best to answer very carefully.

Just offering up something better than whatever she was quoting (which, honest to God, I don’t remember either the song, the lyric or the album it was on) wasn’t going to cut it.

Not if I wanted to actually win the argument. And, since “rock and roll” was something I was known for having a bit of knowledge about (enough to amaze my small circle of friends and family anyway), I recognized right off that it would be an embarrassment if I didn’t score that win. The usual standoff–well, I suppose everyone’s entitled to their opinion–would be a defeat.

Yes, I had been put in the very weird position of having to defend the honor of rock and roll from a Pete Townshend fan. I knew it wasn’t impossible. It wasn’t like she had put a claim in for “Hope I die before I get old.” But neither was it easy.

I liked a lot of rock and roll lyrics better than I liked the one she had quoted. I liked a lot of Pete Townshend lyrics better than the one she quoted. But that wasn’t enough to make her back down. Quoting the Byrds (“Do you think it’s really the truth that you see?/I’ve got my doubts, it’s happened to me,” certainly crossed my mind) or even Dylan (a lot to go with there) wasn’t going to cut it.

I really had to think on this one.

So I said: “Give me a day.”

I mean, we were looking for the GREATEST rock and roll lyric EVER. That seemed a reasonable request. Anyway it was reasonable enough that she granted it, though her air was that of someone who was already two-thirds of the way around the track before the opposition got out of the starting blocks.

I had one of those noon-to-nine shifts then–half day, half night. She left at 5:00.

I spent the hours in between racking my brain. She left for the day.

Then I spend another hour or so, working of course, but pondering the while.

When it came to me around my 7:00 supper break, I smiled and thought upon it no more.

I went home and got a good night’s sleep. I showed up for the work on time the next day.

When I passed her in the hallway, around 2:00 p.m., she was walking with her head down in some paperwork, studying some supervisor problem or other. I thought she might go by without looking up, but, at the last moment, she sensed a presence looming. There was no particular sense of anticipation. I don’t think our little conversation was anywhere near being uppermost in her mind. So she was in the process of politely nodding and preparing to pass me by, when I said:

“Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

And she stopped.

And she looked a little puzzled.

And then she smiled and nodded.

“You’re right,” she said.

I still wonder if that little exchange was the reason she fired a dear friend of mine shortly thereafter. There certainly was no rational reason. (The absence of a rational reason was sufficiently obvious that another department head hired my friend for his department literally on the spot.)

I guess you can never know about these English major types who glom onto Pete Townshend’s solo records whilst learning to smile as they kill.

They’re a slippery lot.

But there’s one sure defense, even against them….

 

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….

 

IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN….THOUGHTS ON THE 2017 ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES

This year’s performing nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced last week. I always like to put in my two cents and I try to come up with a new approach each year. This year, with artists I have strong feelings about being in short supply on the ballot, I’ve decided to list the actual nominees next to the artist they most resemble (spiritually or temporally) who is more deserving.

You know. According to me.

And rock and roll. Let’s not forget rock and roll.

It’s a long ballot this year, so be sure to strap on your seat-belt. And please, if your sphincter is, as Ferris Bueller might have it, prone to making diamonds from charcoal, proceed with caution…

Actual Nominee: Bad Brains. I don’t really know much about them, but, listening on YouTube, they sound like every other hardcore band except the Minutemen. Like most such bands (not the Minutemen), they started out pretentious (jazz fusion according to Wikipedia and who is surprised?) until they found out where the true belief they could ,milk a ready-made cult career from lay. I only listened to a few cuts, but they certainly sound as if they always knew which side of the bread the butter was on.

Dream Ballot: The Minutemen. I listened to one of their albums all the way through once when I was in my twenties. I’m in my fifties now and I’m still waiting to reach an emotionally secure place before I listen again. I don’t know much about hardcore but I know real genius and the sound of nerves being scraped raw when I hear it.

Actual Nominee: Chaka Khan. Fine. Unlike most rock and roll narrativists, and most of the Hall’s voters, I’m not ready to forget about black people in the seventies. Speaking of which…

Dream Ballot: Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan. Yes, Chaka should be in. She should be in with her great interracial funk band, and they should pave the way for the other great funk bands, interracial (War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band), and otherwise (Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players, Commodores). It seems like the more the nominating committee screws these things up, the more things stay the same.

Actual Nominee: Chic. They should be in. They’ve been consistently nominated for years but can’t overcome the disco hatred. No surprise there. Donna Summer had to die to get in. Even so, they aren’t the most deserving in this genre. That would be…

Dream Ballot: Barry White. Chic has been on the ballot ten times. You’d think they could nominate an even more popular, more innovative and more iconic artist from the same basic gene pool at least once. Come on people. Let’s at least try to make it look like we know what we’re doing!

Actual Nominee: Depeche Mode.Drone music. Admittedly, not my thing. Lots of hits in England and I don’t like to step on other people’s tastes, let alone their passions, but If somebody asked for indisputable evidence of why Britannia no longer rules the waves and soon won’t rule Britannia, I’d play them Depeche Mode music all night long. They could make up their own minds about whether that’s a good thing. Might be more useful if they at least pointed to something better, instead of a black hole.

Dream Ballot: Roxette. I was gonna go with Eurythmics, though they aren’t of the same ilk either (and might actually get on the real ballot some day). But, broadly, this is all Europop, and if there is going to be Europop, then there ought to at least be a fun single every now and then.

Actual Nominee: Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). The early lineup included Roy Wood, and the RRHOF is including Wood in the lineup that will be inducted if they get the votes. They aren’t including Roy Wood for what he did in ELO,  which means they are tacitly acknowledging that this really ought to be…

Dream Ballot: The Move/ELO. They did this for Faces/Small Faces which actually made less sense (The Faces were a much cleaner break from the Small Faces than ELO were from the Move) but certainly opened up nominating possibilities. If you have two borderline deserving bands linked by shared membership, why not just put them together? We could have Free/Bad Company or Manfred Mann/Earth Band, maybe one or two others I’m not thinking of right now. It makes more sense than a lot of other sins of commission/omission presently on the Hall’s head. The Move were probably deserving on their own, despite their lack of success in America. ELO are marginally deserving anyway, and not just because of their massive success in America. Why oh why does the Hall continually shadow box. You had a good idea there a few years back. Run with it.

Actual Nominee: The J. Geils Band. It’s not that the J. Geils Band aren’t deserving. They are. And it’s getting late. They’ve been eligible for a long time. But if we’re mining the White Boy Stomp vein, then let’s go with my old standby…

Dream Ballot: Paul Revere and the Raiders. One of my criteria is that if you either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one, you should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Raiders had a hand in inventing what came to be called garage rock. They certainly helped define it, ergo it doesn’t matter if you call garage rock major or minor. And they were the only band that fits well within even the narrowest definition of the ethos to have a major run of hits. That they’ve never been on the ballot for a hall that includes the Dave Clark Five and the Hollies (both deserving, but still) is silly, really. [Alternate pick: Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.]

Actual Nominee: Jane’s Addiction. A sort of thrash band with sort of Power Pop vocals. They started in the mid-eighties and you can feel them giving in to the awfulness of the times on just about any record I’ve heard (which I confess isn’t all that many, those I’ve heard not making me feel like I’ve missed anything except more dreariness, more unearned angst, more acceptance of defeat as the natural and permanent human condition we should all just learn to live with). Again, I realize these punk/alternative/alt metal//indie/thrash/etc. bands have had a profound impact on somebody’s life. I hate having to dis anybody’s taste. Still….nobody should take the world this hard unless they’ve been in a war.

Dream Ballot: Big Star. It doesn’t even matter who you (or I) like. The RRHOF has a responsibility to history. Putting Jane’s Addiction on a ballot where Big Star have never appeared amounts to criminal negligence.

Actual Nominee: Janet Jackson. No problem here. Miss Jackson had an enormous career and deserves to be in, maybe even on this ballot. But I’m curious…

Dream Ballot: Cyndi Lauper. Leaving aside why Dionne Warwick–Dionne Warwick!–has never appeared on a ballot, and sticking to the same era, why not do the all the way right thing and go with Cyndi?  She made the best album of the eighties, was the last truly inventive vocalist of the rock and roll era (just before the suits allowed the machines to take over–and at a loss on the profit sheet, too–because the machines never talk back), and her acceptance speech would likely be even more priceless than her average interview.

Actual Nominee: Joan Baez. Inducting Joan Baez into the RRHOF as a performer would be a joke. She’s never made anything resembling a great rock and roll record. She’s a perfect candidate, however, for my long-running common sense proposal to have a “Contemporary Influence” category, especially now that the “Early Influence” category is running dry. Other worthy candidates for a concept which could acknowledge great artists who influenced their rock and roll contemporaries without being quite “of” them, would be oft-mentioned names like Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson (country), the Kingston Trio (folk), or even Barbra Streisand or Dean Martin (pop). It would have also been the right category for Miles Davis (already inducted as a performer) and a number of blues acts. But, if this category is not to exist, then at least go with….

Dream Ballot: Peter, Paul and Mary. They were the ones who put Bob Dylan on the charts, two years before the Byrds. If you think this–or Dylan becoming a major star–was merely inevitable, you weren’t quite paying attention. Woody Guthrie never made it…and don’t think he couldn’t have, if PP&M had been there to provide the bridge to the mainstream (whether he would have accepted it is another question, but my guess is he would have). Besides, unlike most of the people who would properly belong in a Contemporary Influence category, they actually made a great rock and roll record…which is not nothing, even if they just did it to prove they could to people who thought “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” was only a joke.

Actual Nominee: Joe Tex. No complaints. No arguments. Joe Tex is the last of the first-rank soul men not to be inducted. He should be.

Dream Ballot: Joe Tex.

Actual Nominee: Journey. I love, without irony or reservation, “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin.” It’s a great record, period. And I don’t hate the stuff everybody else hates. i don’t listen to it, but I don’t run screaming from the room if it’s on either, or get a knot in my stomach that makes me want to start ranting about the decline and fall of civilization (and you know I can find endless reasons to do that). Plus, they sold a bajillion records. Still….Seriously?

Dream Ballot: Three Dog Night. The only reason Three Dog Night weren’t in a long time ago is they didn’t write their hits. If you follow along here, you know that’s not a good reason. Especially when, on average, their hits were a lot greater than Journey’s. (Alternate pick: Def Leppard…they have the advantage of being better than Journey and a more direct replacement. They just weren’t as good as Three Dog Night.)

Actual Nominee: Kraftwerk. Another good candidate for Contemporary Influence, especially since the Nominating Committee, which would control such a category, seems to love them. Again, this not being the case…

Dream Ballot: Roxy Music. Actually, I’m not the best person to make a case for them, but at least they had some hits and a tangential connection to rock and roll. This would also tacitly acknowledge and directly honor the fine work from Brian Eno’s and Bryan Ferry’s solo careers. And does anyone really believe they were less influential than Kraftwerk?

Actual Nominee: MC5. I let my MC5 CDs go in the great CD selloff of 2002. I liked them pretty well, but I never got around to buying them back. As one of the six great bands (The Stooges, Big Star, The Ramones, Mott the Hoople and one I’m about to mention were the others) who bridged the garage band ethos to punk, they should be in. I’d pick them last, mind you (The Stooges and the Ramones, the two I might have picked them ahead of, are already in), but they should be in. Some day. Meanwhile…

Dream Ballot: The New York Dolls. I wonder what might have happened if they had lasted longer. I always loved this performance on The Midnight Special (that they were even on tells you how great The Midnight Special was), where they start with about six fans and end with about eight. I don’t know how far another five years would have taken them…to a hundred maybe? a thousand?….but I bet they’d be in the Hall already if they had made it that far.

Actual Nominee: Pearl Jam. Of course they’ll get in. All that cred. They can’t miss. And that’s fine. They helped define grunge. That’s vital, maybe even major. Well deserving of induction. But here’s the thing…

Dream Ballot: The Shangri-Las. Just curious, but besides turning up the amps and groaning a lot, what did Eddie Vedder do in a quarter-century that Mary Weiss didn’t do, without a trace of his trademark stridency, in three minutes on her first hit? What new place did he get to? Go ahead. Explain it to me. Please….

[NOTE: For any of my fellow Shangs’ aficionados, this link contains an intro I’ve never heard before, plus the extended finale that I’ve linked in the past. It’s the story that never ends.]

Actual Nominee: Steppenwolf. Is Biker Rock really a genre? Is introducing the phrase “heavy metal” to the world enough, in and of itself, to ensure enshrinement? I’m not sure, but if either of these be the case, Steppenwolf should be voted in immediately. Just in case it’s otherwise…

Dream Ballot: Lee Michaels. Why not? If we’ve come this far down the where-can-we-find-more-White-Boys-to-nominate road, aren’t we just messing with people? (Alternate pick: The Guess Who.)

Actual Nominee: The Cars. Cheap Trick got in last year and it’s nice to see to see Power Pop getting some love. The Cars were probably also the most successful New Wave band after Blondie (already in), so I’d always consider voting for them. However…

Dream Ballot: Raspberries. If you really started and/or mainstreamed the Power Pop thing (to the extent that somebody was going to be forced to give it a name), and if your best records are better than anything the thing produced afterwards (well, except for the Go-Go’s maybe), and your front man was the biggest single talent in the whole history of the thing, then shouldn’t you be first in line?

Actual Nominee: The Zombies. I like the Zombies plenty. But the depth of the Nominating Committee’s love for them is a little odd. A few great singles and a cult album (Odessey and Oracle) that has traveled the classic critical journey once outlined by Malcolm Cowley (it boiled down to everything now underrated will eventually be overrated and vice versa) is a borderline HOF career at best.

Dream Ballot: Manfred Mann. Especially if you include all its incarnations (and after the  Hall-approved Faces/Small Faces induction, why wouldn’t you?), the never-nominated Manfreds are more deserving on every level. The first version made greater singles and more of them. The second version morphed into Bob Dylan’s favorite interpreters of his music and, along the way, made an album (called The Mighty Quinn in the U.S.) which sounds better to these ears than Odessey and Oracle ever did. Then the third and fourth versions (called Chapter Three and Earth Band) became long running jazz fusion/classic rock troupers. (And yeah, I love their “Blinded By the Light” in both its single and album versions. We all have our heresies.) Mann’s greatest genius was for discovering standout vocalists to sell his concepts every step of the way. And, whatever gets played from the stage of next year’s induction ceremony, I bet it won’t be as good as this…

Actual Nominee: Tupac Shakur. If this is going to re-open the door for pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa or LL Cool J or Eric B. and Rakim, then fine and dandy. They’ve all been on the ballot before. I hope they won’t be forgotten in the coming years, when pressure to induct more modern hip-hop acts grows and when five will get you twenty the Hall’s obvious but never acknowledged penchant for quotas and tokenism remains firmly in place. Still, for me…

Dream Ballot: Naughty By Nature. Yes, even above all the rest. I still think “O.P.P.” is the greatest hip-hop record. I still think “Mourn You Til I Join You,” is the greatest tribute record in a genre that has required far too many. I still think “How will I do it, how will I make it? I won’t, that’s how,” is the finest rap line, (just ahead of Ice-T’s “How can there be justice on stolen land?”) Plenty of early rockabilly stars made it in on less (and deservedly). So sue me.

Actual Nominee: Yes. Prog rock. Yes, of course. That will be very useful in the days to come. Most helpful.

Dream Ballot: Fairport Convention. This year, of all years, we really should find every excuse to listen close. Admittedly, next year promises to be worse.

Happy Holidays ya’ll…Don’t let the Grim Reaper get ya’!

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD…THANK GOD IT ONCE HAD ROOM FOR ECCENTRICS (Gary S. Paxton and Jack Davis, R.I.P.)

I don’t have the deep knowledge to do justice to either man so I’ll keep my part brief.

Gary S. Paxton

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GARYPAXTON2Gary S. Paxton kept himself on the vital margins of Rock and Roll America throughout its founding and impetuous youth. He started out normal enough, as half of Skip & Flip (“It Was I,” “Cherry Pie”…Skip was Skip Battin, who went on the play with a late edition of the Byrds).

Then he took a left turn: lead voice on the Hollywood Argyles “Alley Oop,” which he also produced, along with Bobby Pickett’s “The Monster Mash”–in other words about as hard a left turn as the times allowed.

Then he just kept turning. First to a role as all around L.A. record man–producer, writer, engineer, label owner, whatever–with his fingerprints here, there and everywhere behind the scenes. Then, in the mid-sixties, to the town’s burgeoning country-rock scene, where he had the commitment and contacts to play in Gram Parsons’ league. Not bad for a guy who was producing Tommy Roe and the Association. But, despite starting Bakersfield International and giving the Gosdin Brothers a start, he never managed to make his particular genius achieve lift-off in the new context.

Not to fear. His commitment was real enough, more than a phase. From there he went on to Nashville, where he wrote this late signature tune for the great Don Gibson which is a particular favorite of mine:

Around the same time, God came calling, and Gary had consumed enough who-hit-John to be in a mood to listen. Despite keeping a toe in the country world, he spent the rest of his life devoted primarily to gospel, where he made heads spin from left (“Will There Be Hippies in Heaven”) to right (“The Big A = The Big M”…approach with caution) and, in a sense went back to working the road he had started down with a string of teenage bands when rock and roll was still a gleam in Chuck Berry’s eye.

Along the way there were Grammy’s, three bullets from a hit man (the early eighties, when survival was the name of the game), time in Branson and, earlier this month, the meeting with his maker. He wore a thousand faces when he was here. What they all had in common was a smile.

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Jack Davis

He did for the second half of the American Century what Norman Rockwell did for the first half–defined some elemental image of us as we wanted to see ourselves. Until I started hunting around for images on the news of his death, I had no idea how much he had shaped the visual imagination of fifty million childhoods. I’ll let a smattering of what I found tell the story.

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Yup. That’s my autobiography. Yours, too, probably.

Jack’s probably on the River Styx tonight. But, wherever he is, I bet somebody’s offering him a commission.

Mad Magazine cartoonist Jack Davis attends an event in his honor by the Savannah College of Art and Design and the National Cartoonists Society, Friday, Oct. 11, 2011 in Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)

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:

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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.

MEMORIA (Everything I Really Needed to Know, I Learned From Rock and Roll: Lesson #2)

“Do you think it’s really the truth that you see?
I’ve got my doubts, it’s happened to me.”

(The Byrds, “Artificial Energy,” 1967)

The morning after the Challenger explosion, the 106 students in Psychology 101 (“Personality Development”) at Emory University filled out questionnaires on how they had first heard of the disaster. That established a baseline for their memories within twenty-four hours of the event itself in January of 1986. Then, in October of 1988, the forty-four of 106 students still at Emory were requestioned (only 25 percent remembered the original questionnaire!) and their two answers compared. Finally, in March of 1989, follow-up interviews were given to the forty students willing to participate in the final phase of the experiment. Here is one example of two questionnaire answers from the same subject:

Report of Memory
after 24 hours (Jan. 1986)

I was in my religion class and some people walked in and started talking about [it]. I didn’t know any details except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher’s students had all been watching which I thought was so sad. Then after class I went to my room and watched the TV program talking about it and I got all the details from that.

Report of Memory
after 2 1/2 years (Oct. 1988)

When I first heard about the explosion I was sitting in my freshman dorm room with roommate and we were watching TV. It came on a news flash and we were both totally shocked. I was really upset and I went upstairs to talk to a friend of mine and then I called my parents.

That case, as the researchers explain, was not unusual: “None of the enduring memories was entirely correct, and…many were at least as wide of the mark… [T]hose questionnaires revealed a high incidence of substantial errors” (Nesser and Harsch). One other student, for example, who later recalled hearing the news from a girl who ran screaming down her dorm corridor, had actually heard it in the cafeteria and been too sick to finish her lunch. Another student later thought she had been at home with her parents when it happened, although she had actually been on campus.

When those second versions were compared with first ones for accuracy and graded on a 0-7 scale for major (location, activity, informant) and minor (time, others) attributes of the event, “the mean was 2.95, out of a possible 7. Eleven subjects (25%) were wrong about everything and scored 0. Twenty-two of them (50%) scored 2 or less; this means that if they were right on one major attribute, they were wrong on both of the others. Only three subjects (7%) achieved the maximum possible score of 7; even in these cases there were minor discrepancies (e.g., about the time of the event) between the recall and the original report. What makes these low scores interesting is the high degree of confidence that accompanied my of them.”

Confidence in the inaccuracy is surely much more disquieting than the inaccuracy itself; and the visual vividness with which the inaccuracy was recalled was even more disquieting. The mean for accuracy was 2.95 out of 7, as I noted; the mean for confidence was 4.17 out of 5, and the mean for “visual vividness” was 5.35 out of 7! In the instance given above, for example, the subject rated the confidence of her 1988 memory at a 5 (“absolutely certain”) for location, activity, informant, others and at a 4 for time (2:00 or 3:00 P.M., rather than 11:39 A.M. EST). Its actual rating was 0.

In the follow-up interviews after the twin questionnaires had been compared, the researchers made another significant discovery. The subjects’ memories for their second-version accounts remained “remarkably consistent” between October of 1988 and March of 1989, and when the researchers tried to help the subjects recover their first-version accounts, they found that “none of [their] procedures had any effect at all” (Nesser and Harsch). Even when subjects were shown their own original reports, they never “even pretended that they now recalled what was stated on the original record. On the contrary, they kept saying, ‘I mean, like I told you, I have no recollection of it all’ or ‘I still think of it as the other way around.’ As far as we can tell, the original memories are just gone.”

(John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity. 1998)

“And you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!”

(The Clash, “London Calling,” 1979)

“Scientists spend their lives discovering what the poets already know.”

(Me, a few years back, dispensing folk wisdom to my brother, one of the very few scientists I knew would get a laugh out of it.)

R.I.P. to the Challenger explorers on the thirtieth anniversary of their deaths. I still wonder if it would have happened if my buddies’ dads hadn’t all been transferred to Grapevine and my old U.S. 1 neighborhood hadn’t been turned into a ghost town.

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

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

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

bigstar

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

Fleetwood Mac

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

rollingstones2

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

byrds1

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

beatles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It helps if you sold a lot of records.

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

So there’s the criteria.

Only two people ever met every standard for me.

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

algreen2

Or her…

ploveless2

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)

MY FAVORITE HARMONY GROUP SINGER: ROCK AND ROLL DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.

With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic  and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.

So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):

The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.

That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.

Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)

If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.

As for a favorite?

Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.

You just have to think of a little test.

Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?

You, Carl. Only you.

I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.

[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]