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.

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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]

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)

MEETTHETEMPTATIONS

At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.

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So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.

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BOOK REPORT SPECIAL EDITION (Outlaw Blues)

Thought this was worthy of its own review ahead of the monthly book report (which is running a little late). Thanks to Neal Umphred for reminding me of its existence and encouraging me to finally track it down. You might also read it as my R.I.P. for Paul Williams and a mea culpa, since I missed the news of his passing a couple of years back and certainly would have noted it here had I known:

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Outlaw Blues (Paul Williams, 1970)

If rock criticism had a “father” Paul Williams was it. There were a lot of young men (not, so far as I can tell, many young women or many of either gender who were other than young) trying to write about the effect rock and roll was having on them and the world in the mid-sixties. But Williams was the first to actually get a national magazine off the ground (Crawdaddy) while at the same time pioneering an open-hearted writing, editing and interviewing style that, just coincidentally, would end up, after the promise of the sixties had burned off, remaining forever at odds with the continuation of Standard American Business Practice as Usual.

Outlaw Blues is a collection of early Crawdaddy pieces and catches its moment–those ever-befuddling sixties–like very little else. If Williams didn’t turn out to be quite the businessman Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner was or quite the writer Lester Bangs was, he was nonetheless more visionary than either, and the person whose work effectively broke the ground those opposing spirits spent their lives tilling.

It’s worth remembering that Williams was aging from roughly 19 to 21 when these pieces were written. Naivete is a certain part of the book’s charm. An even greater part, pretty much inextricable from that naive quality, is the sense of being there, fully present at the dawn of our current confusion, at a moment when all things, good and bad, seemed possible, a moment Williams, to a degree few did then and nobody does now, invariably expressed in terms ranging from acute:

“Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan.” (that from July, 1966)

to incisive:

“Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip ‘learn to forget’ into the middle of a seduction song.” (April, 1967)

to self-deprecating:

“Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.

“I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he’s worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.” (July, 1966)

to fervent:

“You know what I mean, that special feeling after the last words of a book, that goes on and on extending that book and yourself across forever into now, the sudden unexpected sense of the real, the flash of power and together, in your mind.” (on the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”–February, 1968)

or even to ecstasy, a near-religious euphoria:

“At this stage in its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.” (February, 1968)

Now, If Williams mostly saw the good in all that, well he wasn’t exactly alone. And he had the excuse–sometimes the advantage–of his extreme youth. In that sense Outlaw Blues is both a gift to the future we now occupy, and (if you choose to read between the lines), a warning that we might not be able to do more than occupy it.

I mean, these days, if you want to write something like “there must be more going on than the obvious, stereotyped stuff, or why do I like it so much?” or even “The Beatles are unshakable, which certainly contributes no end to their position as culture heroes, though it may someday detract from their standing as artists.” you aren’t going to catch on at Rolling Stone and you aren’t even going to start a new version of Crawdaddy. These days, if you want to be that direct, wear that much of your heart on your sleeve, take that much risk of looking either prescient or foolish, about the best you can do is start a blog.

That’s in effect what Williams did in the mid to late sixties.

You might call that seeing around the corner.

In a sense, his specific concerns hardly matter. Besides the usual Dylan/Beatles/Stones trifecta, he was deep into the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors (who I like) and the Byrds and the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson anyway) who I love. But after decades of living with them all, I found every interest (like/love/appreciation) rekindled as I was reading Williams’ long-ago, fresh from the front line, takes.

I also found hindsight even more than usually useful.

I don’t know how much effort Williams or his publisher put into the book’s organization, but given his famous “essay into rediscovery” take on The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, an album that, half a generation, probably affected my own life as profoundly as any album can, I’m guessing the overall effects of this book’s structure were not unintentional.

Which is another way of saying that placing his long interviews with the Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild and Beach Boys’ insider David Anderle near the end was a way of achieving maximum effect.

In one sense those piece were the hardest to read, because Williams was giving over the space normally occupied by his unique voice to voices that were quite typical. This doesn’t lead to discord. They were all phoning from the same area code. But it does shift the emphasis from writer to interviewer and the insights from the personal to something more generational.

All that said, the pieces are as vital as anything else and in some ways more enlightening. I had more trouble getting through the Morrison piece because I’m not as interested in the Doors as I am in the Beach Boys. But in both instances, I knew I was getting more insight into why Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson self-destructed in ten thousand words than in anybody else’s ten thousand pages.

Because that was part of Williams’ gift too. Getting people to talk. You get a sense of both the overwhelming charisma that the most gifted rock stars (meaning rock stars who are something more than “stars”) tend to project, and the tremendous fragility of egos being pressed to literally define the world for millions of people.

Not to mention the degree of free-floating sycophancy that was bound to attach itself and suffocate just about anyone who possessed enough life force to be in that position in the first place–an atmosphere Williams comes dangerously close to aiding and abetting himself.

Of course, it’s easy to judge such things from this distance. We know what happened to Jim Morrison and we know what happened to Brian Wilson.

But Williams could not have been entirely surprised. After all, in the moment itself, he saw far enough ahead to write this:

“Beware the baldersnatch, my son. Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are. Remember that you are only you, remember that your prime concern should be doing what is most important to you, but that you have a responsibility, a very real responsibility to every person other than yourself who gets involved in the achieving of your personal goals.”

Believe me, few people who covered rock and roll for a living wrote like that then.

Nobody writes like that now.

Before and after he was anything else, Paul Williams was that good old distinctively American type: The Seeker. It isn’t only rock criticism that finds such folks in short supply these days.

BOYS AGAINST THE GIRLS (Segue of the Day: 5/25/15)

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I’ve mentioned my fondness for Time Life’s old rock n’ roll collections from the eighties and nineties before. (They’ve been recycling the concepts to ever diminishing returns ever since.) They don’t exactly make up for the collapse of radio, though I suppose they might if I accumulated enough of them.

For now, I make do with what I have. Want to listen to the oldies? Be reminded why they matter, how much they still have to say about where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re likely headed? Well, you could do worse.

Today, the second volume of 1965, from the “Classic Rock” series–classic rock, in this case, meaning a more or less random selection of the best top 40 music from any given year.

And, lo and behold, what develops out of not entirely thin air while I’m bopping around the den, is a kind of battle of the sexes.

The White Boy Ravers against the (mostly black) Girl Talkers.

There are other cuts that confuse the issue. Aren’t there always?

Black men  crooning or pleading (Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Marvin Gaye) or at least not raving (Levi Stubbs, always in supreme control, no matter the tempo). Appropriating Girl Talk space rather than assaulting it. Like the white men harmonizing or rhapsodizing (Byrds, Beach Boys, Beau Brummels, Turtles).

But that still leaves an album’s worth of thematics: Barry McGuire’s Old Testament prophecy of doom on “Eve of Destruction” (itself a nice juxtaposition with “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the Byrds’ insistent plea on behalf of the New), followed by Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me.”

The world ending in fire versus Bass playing John the Baptist to Aretha Franklin’s Jesus.

And that’s just the warm-up.

Later on, the Kinks crash through “All Day and All of the Night” only to have Martha and the Vandellas hammer out a warning on “Nowhere to Run.” Roy Head leers “Treat Her Right” like treating anybody right is strictly for suckers. The Ad Libs dream right back, the lead singer imagining “The Boy From New York City,” who sounds like the kind of guy who was born not needing Roy Head’s advice, will love her until she dies.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

And then the apocalypse. Seduction as the sound of a freight train. Try protecting your girly, intimate space from this (or anyway, try wanting to)…

Or this…

And, if you think it can’t be done, that the space can’t possibly be reclaimed, you might try this, which I confess until now I never really heard for the push back it surely is…

Or this…which always sounded like it was pushing back against a lot more than Ravers invading the intimate space….

After that, the Gentrys’ “Keep On Dancing,” which sounds great in just about any other context, ain’t got a chance.

Space preserved.

Girls win…this time. Proof of the verities: When in doubt, pull out the Shangri-Las.

Happy Memorial Day!

ONE SAD EYED LADY TO RULE THEM ALL, ONE SAD EYED LADY TO BIND THEM….THINKING OF GAIL RUSSELL (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #39)

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Quite often, I think I’m going to write about something here…and then I don’t.

A couple of months back–under the fresh spell of the Criterion release of 1944’s The Uninvited–I was set to write a piece pondering whether the movie’s heroine, Gail Russell, (giving one of her several indelible performances, each markedly different from the rest, each forever attributed to her ability to “play herself” as it was well known she “couldn’t act”) might have been in the DNA of Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

I was coming down on the side of “yay, verily” (yes, I know it was probably “about” Dylan’s then wife Sara Lownds if it was about anybody, but, genius or no, it’s hard to believe that title would ever occur to any man who had never seen a Gail Russell movie).

Time got away from me. YouTube wouldn’t let me post the best scene from the movie. I decided to let it go.

Then a couple of weeks back, I was considering a piece on Rick Nelson’s fabuloso box set Legacy, which, after many a long year, had finally come within range of my budget via the used-on-Amazon-and-I-know-from-long-experience-that’s-the-cheapest-it’s-ever-gonna-get routine.

It was going to have something to do with him being at the core of so much that became “California” rock, even as far back as the late fifties (that is, long before the Byrds or even the Beach Boys), when he was supposedly a teenage idol being manipulated hand-foot-and-mouth by puppet-masters.

In the further, relentless press of time, I let that go, too.

I tend to let go of a lot. In this case I really regretted it, though.

I mean, I even had to let go of my own personal Gail Russell anecdote, which had to do with me saying, “She had a sad life,” after I had identified the mystery starlet in the 8X10 I was purchasing to the lady behind the counter of an antique store in North Dakota, to which the lady replied, “Yes, I think you can see that in her eyes.”

Then, this week, I came across this:

“I’ve learned you can’t satisfy everyone. You start and then, all of a sudden, it stops and you can’t even please yourself.” (Gail Russell to Hedda Hopper: Source “Gail Russell Memoriam” Los Angeles Times, 2007)

Russell died, alone in her apartment, in 1961. The cause was essentially acute alcoholism leading to liver failure. She was 36.

I’m guessing this quote would have been printed in some fan mag that was circulating in Hollywood, circa the late fifties, where Rick Nelson had grown up on television, very much a part of the world that produced that quote from an actress who, despite being on the short list of “most beautiful woman in the history of Hollywood” (and my own personal pick), suffered hobbling, then crippling, bouts of stage fright, insecurity, depression.

There’s no way of knowing if Nelson ever read that quote. If he did, he probably didn’t take any special note or remember it for the ages.

Strange, though, that a decade after Russell was found dead (her life and death bearing striking similarities to certain others: Marie Provost, a thirties’ star who had passed away at a similar age in similar circumstances and would become the inspiration for one of Kenneth Anger’s fantasies in Hollywood Babylon, which in turn became the source for Nick Lowe’s “Marie Prevost,” wherein Anger’s tale of Provost dying alone in her apartment and being partially consumed by her pet dachshund in the days that passed before the body was discovered was granted the power of myth; and, a year after Russell’s own death, she was joined by the pathologically insecure Marilyn Monroe, crippled by many of the same demons, playing out a truly myth-making version of the same tale), Rick Nelson would come off a bad gig at Madison Square Garden and scribble a song about the experience.

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Somewhere in there, if you get the bifocals out and peer close enough, you can read the words that revived Nelson’s career (and shattered any doubt that he was ever anybody’s puppet):

Well it’s alright now
I’ve learned my lesson well
You see you can’t please everyone
So you got to please yourself.

And hey, a little more than another decade on, he died in a plane crash. But at least he didn’t die scared and he didn’t die alone.

He learned Gail Russell’s lesson well–took her truth to heart in a way she never could, even if he never knew it was hers before it was his.

But here’s something even stranger.

Once I started thinking about it, I realized Russell might just as well have been in the DNA of another Bob Dylan song.

The one that went “she never stumbles, she’s got no place to fall” and (nice line for a movie star who wrecked as many cars under the influence as Gail did and missed vehicular homicide only by the grace of some mysterious God) “she’s nobody’s child, the law can’t touch her at all.”

Which just happened to become an actual hit in the version done by….aw, you know how it works with mysterious muses around here: