DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Elton John Up)

“Lady Samantha”
Elton John (1969)
Did Not Make the Charts
Recommended source: To Be Continued (Box Set)

and

“Part Time Love”
Elton John (1978)
US #21
UK #15
Recommended source: A Single Man

I started listening to the radio seriously in late 1975. I was aware of Elton John before that. It was hard not to be at least aware (though if anyone could have managed it, it would have been me).

I didn’t have much of an opinion about him, even after I started listening to the radio. 1976 was sort of the break point. I loved “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (still do), liked the others he had out at the time (still do, especially “I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”). But, as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was a duet, the first record of his alone that I took entirely to heart was an obscure side I discovered when I plucked The History of British Rock Vol. 2 from some bargain bin or other, along about 1977. I was still in my discovery days. There were a dozen or more classics I encountered for the first time on this particular set (and, yes, I still have it), everything from “Brown Eyed Girl” to “The Mighty Quinn” to “Something in the Air.”

“Lady Samantha” didn’t take a back seat to any of them.

Knowing, by the chart book I was then busy memorizing (it came natural as I’d been a baseball stat freak), that, unlike those other records, it had never been a hit in either the U.S. or the U.K., I had one of my first inklings that my own taste might not line up with everyone’s, even when it came to the 60s, so it was a more than usually valuable marker.

As the seventies progressed, my stubborn streak would become more and more necessary.

“Part Time Love” was the next Elton record that I really loved and it came and went like a cool breeze. It followed a string of flops (by his standards) and didn’t do much to get him started again. By the time he did get started again (some time after the Thom Bell collaboration “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” had provided a nice respite for audience and artist alike in 1979) he was a changed man and a changed artist. He would remain a consistent hit-maker for another two decades. He would never matter again.

“Part Time Love” came and went so fast I didn’t have chance to score it on a 45 and years of hunting the used oldies bins proved fruitless. Once it left the radio, I never heard it any place except my head until a full decade later, when I picked up the album A Simple Man for .99 cents (less than I would have paid for the single in ’78) at my then favorite, now deceased, local record store.

All those years, my head was enough. A decade further on, when I was putting my first mix-tape of beat records together (there were dozens eventually and, still another decade on, I transferred most of them to CD), and I was looking for something to segue out of “London’s Burning,” I knew there was only one record that would do the trick. I still listen to the mix-disc regularly and every time I hear Paul Buckmaster’s soaring arrangement bleed out of London punk–and subsume and subvert it, all of it–I can’t keep from smiling.

I’ve learned to love a lot of Elton John’s music in the years since 1978, even some that he made after he stopped mattering as anything more than a celebrity hit-maker. But I never forget that I came to the biggest solo artist of my youth through the great records he made just before and just after he was King of the World.

That, too, makes me smile.

 

BEFORE THE FALL….JUST (Memory Lane: 1980)

(This was occasioned by an online poll seeking to name “The Best Album of 1979.” In something like the round of sixteen, the Clash’s London Calling (12/14/79) was pitted against Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes (10/19/79). Given the typical voting demographic for such contests, the Clash were a guaranteed easy winner. And, as someone who is not averse to participating in such exercises now, and was positively enthusiastic about breaking rulers to “Death or Glory” then, I can say I probably would have voted for London Calling myself if I had worked up the energy to cast a vote. No shame in that for Damn the Torpedoes. In purely musical terms (i.e. the terms in which the premiere punk bands so often failed), London Calling is one of the most exciting albums ever made, the more remarkable because it’s a double. Then again, Petty could never be accused of the kind of naivete that manages not to notice that when “one or two” evil Presidentes “have finally paid their due” it’s usually courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps, the point of the spear of a Military Industrial Intelligence Complex which has since developed sufficiently dread Leviathan characteristics that records like London Calling end up sounding like helpless bleats if you pay too much attention to the politics behind all that wondrous noise. Put another way, if I want to feel sufficiently detached from my surroundings to keep from screaming as I cruise through the American Night, running (albeit mostly in my head these days) along the crumbling superhighways of the Rust Belt or the Deep South or the West Coast or simply sitting in the Den Where I Keep My Records, I’ll play Damn the Torpedoes over London Calling every time. Same if I want to engage.That’s probably why I don’t end up participating in many of these straight up-or-down things. Still, arriving as it did at pure random from the internet ether, the main effect of this particular bracket was to remind me that, in the days when the 70s were turning into the 80s, “Train in Vain” and the hits from Damn the Torpedoes (“Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl”) were the most exciting things on the radio. if not the only exciting things on the radio. And thereby hangs a tale….)

Thanks to Rock and Roll Time, I know what I was doing in the late afternoon/early evening hours of Feb. 12, 1980.

I was going to see my mother in the hospital.

That, in itself, would not be memorable. My mother (b. 1919) was in the hospital a lot between 1960, when she had me, far too late in life for a woman in already fragile health, and 1987, when she passed away. Over time, the visits all ran together.

The only reason I recall this particular visit well enough to look up the date (no, I didn’t note it at the time, though I probably should have), is what happened while I was driving from our house in the Florida Panhandle to Dothan, Alabama’s Southeast Alabama Medical Center.

What happened was “Train In Vain.” It was the best new thing I had heard on the radio in at least three years. I knew it was new because it was everywhere, something no record older than a few months ever was. You could only pull about three stations that played pop music in the area (well, at least if you drove a ’71 Maverick with an AM-only radio). I kept punching between all three  because, no matter how often I heard this mysterious new record which had obviously just been released (nothing hit that suddenly everywhere unless it was release day), I wanted to hear it again.

I also wanted to know what it was called.

Over twenty miles to the hospital, and, an hour or two later, twenty miles back, I heard it six times on three different stations.

Some dee-jay finally said it was “the new one from the Clash.”

I’d barely heard of the Clash and, as far as the radio in the Deep South was concerned, they didn’t have any “old” ones. Anyway, he didn’t reveal the important information: the name of the freaking record.

I wasn’t too worried. The name of the record was obviously “Stand By Me.” Or “You Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “(You Didn’t) Stand By Me. Or “(You) Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “Didn’t Stand By Me.”**

One of those.

Well, really, it didn’t matter. I mean anything that exciting that hit the radio that hard was going to be in heavy rotation for months. Somewhere, some time, some dee-jay would spill the beans….just in case I hadn’t tracked in down in some local record bin, under the letter “S.” Or “Y.” Or “D.”

One of those.

A funny thing happened though.

Make that a few funny things.

First funny thing: The next time I heard it on the radio was on a college station. Twenty-five years later.

Second funny thing: It wasn’t in any of the usual record bins. Not under “S.” Not under “Y.” Not under “D.” I tried riffing through a few huge bins (45 bins were still huge in those days, even in places like North Florida and South Alabama), to see if I could spot something–anything–by the Clash.

No such luck.

And that all led to the third funny thing…

A few months went by. One day I went into a department store in Dothan (Woolworth? Woolco? Some chain whose name I’ve forgotten? The memory hazes). It was a location I wasn’t used to frequenting and I was there for something else (a tire patch? a quart of oil?…the memory hazes) but I decided to see if they had a record bin.

They did. A small one. One small enough I could actually flip through every record. If I only had a reason.

I didn’t really. I knew department stores were no place to find what I considered “interesting” records. I could see, after looking at the first few records in the bin, that it was mostly the crap that made me stop listening to the radio that year.

(Which crap exactly? The memory does what the memory does…and you wonder why I don’t do drugs!)

But, still….it was a small bin. No more than a couple of hundred records. Probably not more than fifty titles.

Oh, well.

I was about half-way through when a kid came wandering into the area. He was a big kid. Dressed in the redneck uniform. Jeans, boots, flannel work shirt. Just about old enough to drive. (Except for the boots, I was probably dressed the same….you know how it is, the memory hazes. But I always wore sneakers in those days. That was how you cold tell me from the rednecks. Kid I was looking at wouldn’t have been caught dead in those things.)

I was flipping idly through the records, not really imagining that he was there for a 45. He looked more like somebody interested in a set of speakers for his pickup. Either way, he did something I usually avoided like the plague. He signaled the employee who was watching over the electronics department, making sure kids like us didn’t steal anything for help.

The young man came at the kid’s call, very polite.

Very politely, the kid asked if they had “Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

I was past the “H”s by then but I kept shut about it. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen “Here Comes My Girl” but, since I wasn’t specifically looking for it (already had the album), I thought I could have seen it and not really taken note.

The employee in charge of watching over us said if they had it, it would definitely be under “H.”

They looked. It wasn’t there.

Then they wandered over to the album section.

The employee was trying to talk the kid into buying Damn the Torpedoes when this came under my hand….in the “T'”s.

I did a long double-take. I held on tight. It was the only one.

The kid who had come looking for “Here Comes My Girl” was telling the store clerk he’d really like to buy the album. Except he didn’t have the money. For the single, yes. Not the album.

I thought: “This industry does not work very well.”

Tom Petty was the kind of square who named his songs after the choruses. The kind of square who gets voted out in the round of sixteen by the hip kids four decades down the line. The kind of square who got the jeans-and-boots crowd looking for his single, which would actually be right where it could be easily found….if the store had it in stock.

And he was also the only other guy on the radio just then who had records as exciting as the one I now knew was, for some silly reason, called “Train in Vain.”***

I felt a twinge of sympathy for the young man who had found himself in a position with which I was intimately familiar. No bread….

So I did something I really never did. I offered my sympathies and some advice.

“That’s a really good album,” I said. “It’s worth saving up for.”

Maybe if the store clerk hadn’t still been standing there it would have gone over better–like a secret we could keep to ourselves.

As it stood, the kid was in no mood to thank me for my priceless advice.

“Yeah, well, I really only like that one song,” he said. “That’s a great song.”

He had felt a need to be accommodating to the store clerk, who was only doing his job.

Me, I was just butting in. It occurred to me that he probably had the money for the album. He had the look of a kid who was already working somewhere. He also had the look of a kid who only wanted what he wanted and didn’t need any advice from strangers about what that might be. He had the chip on his shoulder you found–and still find–in a certain kind of Tom Petty fan. The kind who are mostly from the South and whose other records are mostly by hardcore country singers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Or perhaps it had just been a long day. I was never to know because, on that note, he stalked away.

The store clerk looked at me and shrugged. He didn’t say anything, but he gave me a sort of “what are ya’ gonna do?” look.

Well, I knew what I wanted to do.

I held up my copy of “Train in Vain,” and said:

“I’m ready to check out.”

Better then….

(NOTE: **The actual lyric is “Did you stand by me?” I still hear “You didn’t stand by me.” I still don’t know–or care–if either way makes sense.)

(***To avoid confusion with Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” Wikipedia now tells me. I’m not sure I believe that one either.)

 

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….

 

EVE OF DESTRUCTION-BY-ELECTION SOUNDTRACK…BUT ONLY FOR THE LONELY

Tomorrow night, or maybe the morning after, half the electorate will feel we’ve been saved from Hitler/Lucifer. The other half will believe we’ve elected Hitler/Lucifer. Either way, Delusion’s reign will be secure. We won’t have elected Lucifer. But that will be him you feel turning round. And he’ll be smiling.

The soundtrack in my head will play on regardless. So, for those who don’t want to just stick to War and Creedence as they begin waking up from history in the days/months/years to come, welcome to my world. (As before, the soundtrack is programmed like a K-TEL Special…as before, I promise the content and programming make for a greater mix-disc than K-TEL ever managed.):

SIDE ONE

Track 1: Laura Nyro “Eli’s Coming”

Track 2: The Miracles “I Gotta Dance to Keep From Crying”

Track 3: Arlo Guthrie “Lightning Bar Blues”

Track 4: The English Beat “Save It For Later”

Track 5: The Pretenders “Middle of the Road”

Track 6: The 5th Dimension “Another Day, Another Heartache”

Track 7: The Go-Go’s “Foget That Day”

SIDE TWO

Track 8: The Clash “Gates of the West”

Track 9: Rosanne Cash “This Is the Way We Make a Broken Heart”

Track 10: The Youngbloods “Darkness, Darkness”

Track 11: Bob Dylan “Shelter From the Storm” (live)

Track 12: Phil Ochs “When I’m Gone”

Track 13: Jimmy Cliff “Trapped”

Track 14: The Undisputed Truth “Smiling Faces”

Track 15: Al Green “Hanging On”

[NOTE: I had to sit through about twelve Marco Rubio commercials in order to check all these out. Much more of this and I’m going to find a way to start charging.]

 

FOOT SOLDIERS, PART ONE (Segue of the Day: 8/3/16)

I’m working on a post about the few good films that focus on the essence of combat: taking and holding ground. When I tried to think of songs that might speak to the subject (something I tend to do with any subject), I only came up with these very strange bedfellows…now looped in my head for the near term. If you listen close for Johnny Horton’s rebel yell on the second and third choruses, you might find yourself wondering if the funny one is the serious one:

Baby, that was rock and roll.

The cost of empire, as represented by Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” will have to wait for another day. I can’t link it to anything just yet…

MY FAVORITE DOUBLE LP (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

fleetwoodmac3

I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”

It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.

Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:

Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)

Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)

The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)

Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)

Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)

Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)

Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)

The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)

London Calling The Clash (1979)

The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)

1999 Prince (1982)

Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)

Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)

I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.

That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.

So it goes.

My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dime for reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life,  The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.

Besides Tusk, that leaves:

doubalbums1 doubalbums2 doubalbums3

goodbyeyellow2

doubalbums5

These, I’ve obsessed over.

Some time or other.

Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.

Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.

Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.

That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.

Boy, do I feel foolish.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?

Well, maybe.

One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.

And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.

You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.

But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?

Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.

And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).

For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.

Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.

There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,”  in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Before I have to put this knife in your throat.

All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.

That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.

Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.

Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.

It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.

But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.

Too bad for us and too bad for them.

And I really wish I could stop listening.

But I can’t.

(NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC)

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.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (End of Empire and, As It Happens, Everything Else…Dame Helen Presiding)

PRIMESUSPECT1

[NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Prime Suspect, Season 7)

A few years back, I saw Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie having some sort of sit-down chat on C-Span and, among various other topics, they fell to discussing British vs. American politics. One thing that struck them in particular was the phony lip-service American politicians are forced to pay to religious belief.

In England, they both agreed, such cow-towing never even crosses any politician’s mind.

I don’t recall either man mentioning why he nonetheless so much preferred living in America, but I do remember thinking they needn’t worry.

Being no fan of phony lip-service (to religion or anything else), I’ll still bet that when America is sufficiently like their England, there won’t be an America.

And there won’t be an England.

If a British television series like Prime Suspect was all anyone knew of England (and bear in mind that, for many of us, it is precisely that), then it would be logical to conclude that England, as either a meaningful historical identity or a sustainable political-economy, has already vanished.

The show ran in seven different, not-always-consecutive, seasons between 1991 and 2006. It was groundbreaking in all kinds of ways with its hyper-emphasis on forensics, emphasis on teamwork as opposed to the brilliance of a single detective, realistically gruesome corpses, the persistent elongation of the good old-fashioned mono-syllabic word “shit” into anywhere from and two to five syllables (though in one instance, I heard a s-s-s-s-s-s-hit, which I take to be seven), and, of course, an admirable but genuinely prickly female detective at the center.

Except for a handful of episodes, I didn’t see the show when it aired. By the time I became aware of it in the mid-nineties, the I’ll-wait-for-it-on-video mode was already prevailing at my house. When I first gathered up the whole series and watched it several years ago I thought it was a genuinely great series (“great” being an honorific I rarely find applicable to any TV series as a whole, though I frequently find individual aspects I like), but I didn’t think much about its possible socio-political import beyond the obvious (but, alas, necessary) feminist point that “women could do the job as good as men.”

Based on the DVD commentary and what I’ve been able to find on-line, I’m not sure the makers thought much beyond that either. And, of course, I have no idea what England was/is really like, circa 1991, 2006, or today. But I do know what the collapse of culture and politics in America feels like and, what with so many of their intellectuals preferring it here (a reverse of the old days when, if we produced a Henry James, he was likely to head straight over there and stay for a lifetime), I assume England really might be in worse shape than we are.

Certainly Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennison begins the series in the familiar position (amidst all the then unfamiliar “realities” I mentioned above) of defending civilization from the monsters. And certainly there are monsters throughout the fifteen-year-run.

But, perhaps because, for entirely whimsical reasons, I watched seasons six through one in reverse order this time around, saving seven for the last, I was struck by England’s absence.

The upper classes with whom we Americans, at least, associate royalty and posh affluence (anything from Buckingham Palace to Downton Abbey), is barely glimpsed. But the middle class (presumably filled with all those Austen and Dickens and LeCarre readers) is even less in evidence. If not for occasional forays into Tennison’s private life it would be completely missing.

Essentially, then, and more so as the series progresses, Jane Tennison is defending an England no longer worth defending. The world of the series looks, sounds and most significantly, feels, like a police state which is kept from complete savagery only by the still barely perceptible presence of a liberal, common law, tradition.

It’s an England overrun by slums at the low end, and deep-set corruption at the high end. Nothing feels permanent, or even multi-generational. And by nothing, I mean nothing–not just buildings or roads or hairstyles or belief systems are decaying or putting up false fronts, but order itself.

What we have is a fifteen-year run through a nation that will produce no more glory. No more Shakespeares or MIltons. No Austens or Brontes. No Gladstones or Churchills. No Beatles or Stones.

Hell, no Clash or Sex Pistols.

Even they had to have something more than a black hole to rail against.

But, perhaps more to the point, this is an England that will produce no more Jane Tennisons.

In case anyone had kept such faith as the show permits (that is, in case anyone might assume my reading is, as the Brits say, daft), the final season gives us a younger version of Tennison herself. We don’t need to guess at this. She says as much herself and more than once.

It’s so much a younger version of herself (presented by the fresh-faced presence of Laura Greenwood), that, for once, and on the verge of her own retirement, she’s blinded to the sort of reality that she’s made a career of shoving in other people’s faces.

They’re bound together by intelligence, slash-n-bob haircuts, black coats worn as protection against the ever falling rain, a love of art, a deep-seated rebellious streak.

Somebody’s record collection.

Whether that last is Tennison’s, her dying father’s or some mixture of both is unclear, but it yields, for a start, Mirren’s lonely Jane dancing to Dusty Springfield’s “Stay Awhile” and, for a finish, a matched, bracketing sequence of Greenwood’s lonely Penny dancing to something else but clearly lost in the same past.

Of course, it’s really just Tennison’s past, a remnant of the middle class/middlebrow world her middle class/middlebrow father provided for her to rebel against, and perhaps flee from, by becoming the top-flight detective she wanted for herself instead of the artist her father, who we know from an earlier season was a liberator of Nazi death camps, wanted for her.

Penny’s a product of the new middle class. Her dad’s a statutory rapist who slept with one of her friends. By the time she’s dancing to the old records in Tennison’s dad’s house, she’s already a murderess and working up to a second try. She’s completely lost and, in the environment the series has built, not just in the final season (when Tennison is ravaged by alcoholism and so separated from any semblance of a normal life that she can’t even be in the same room with her surviving relatives without making an ass of herself, the last vestiges of middle class civility having been erased by her own choices), but in the entire corrosive atmosphere built up over a decade and a half, that primitivism is getting back its own and fresh-faced murder feels at least as natural as anything else.

This is an England where the air is permanently poisoned. And, long before the “reveal,” you can see and feel the inevitability of it all.

You don’t need plot-points or exegesis or the best role the actress of the age–definer of the wild child, the gangster’s moll, Morgana Le Fay, the first Elizabeth, the second Elizabeth–is ever likely to have, to know there’s no more England.

You just need to look, long before the aforementioned reveal, at the body language of the girl who will never have anything to defend.

PRIMESUSPECT2

Yes, by all means. Let’s be more like England.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Rock and Roll Through the Ages….As Bottomless as I Always Suspected)

Item #1: The local “path” station, which tries to be free-form and fresh and, every once in a while, succeeds, ran the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (a hit in 1984 and a radio staple ever since) into the Clash’s “London Calling” (title track to their epochal 1980 album). It felt exhilarating and also–after the manner of good free-form listening across the board–like a bit of a competition. Go-Go’s won of course. Not so much because they could play rings around everybody (not just the Clash) or any one of their five members could take over any record they made at any second (a rock and roll ideal if ever there was one) as because “Been running so fast, I nearly lost all track of time” and “The whole world’s out of sync” and “I waited so long, so long to play this part” all feel a lot more appropo of the modern malaise than “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” or “the Ice Age is coming” or, especially “I have no fear.” Look, the Clash were great. Really great. I broke more rulers banging to “Death or Glory” than any other record in existence back when I still had my share of youthful angst. But music and politics are funny things and, sooner or later, in rock and roll, you have to be able to stomp and you have to tell a truth that won’ t wear out. Both bands did their share of that. But, great as Joe Strummer and the boys were, they couldn’t quite stomp or tell the truth like the band that had Belinda Carlisle for a lead singer. Probably because they strained just a little too much for those very effects. Passing strange that. And very rock and roll. (All apologies: There is no half-way decent audio on ANY of the versions of “Head Over Heels” on YouTube at present and I’m way too swamped to upload it myself…so, in this case, you’ll just have to take my word for it, that, when it’s cranked up loud, it’s even better than this:)

Item #2: Caught Cyndi Lauper’s Live At Last concert from 2004 (Thanks YouTube–Nice makeup!). Just FYI: It took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 16 years to induct the epic white female vocalist of the sixties (Brenda Lee). It took them 22 years (and the announcement of a debilitating disease) for them to induct the epic white female vocalist of the seventies (Linda Ronstadt). How long for the epic white female vocalist of the eighties I wonder? 30 years? 40? Who knows. (I mean, I like the Hall. And, eventually, they get most things right. But it would be nice if they got on the stick for once.) In other words, how long before race and gender really don’t matter? You know, the way it was supposed to be. Now…where was I? Oh yeah, the Cyndi Lauper concert from 2004. Jaw-dropping. But then her concerts pretty much always are.

Item #3: Johnny Ace: Aces Wild. (Fantastic Voyage, 2012). Speaking of jaw-dropping. I’ve had the Johnny Ace Memorial Album for decades and I’ve gotten to know it pretty well but not exactly inside and out. This greatly expanded 2-CD look at his career came up cheap in a sealed copy on Amazon so I took a tumble. It’s got one of those seemingly grab-bag formats that almost never work but somehow comes together here: All Johnny’s solo stuff for most of Disc One (great..and revelatory…never knew, for instance, that he did a duet with Big Mama Thornton). Then five (count ‘em, five!) tribute records released in the immediate aftermath of his Christmas, 1955, murder/suicide/accident (depends on who’s doing the telling). Not the greatest records (nor is the additional one at the end of the second disc), but solid enough, and their very existence tells a lot about the mans’ impact.

The second disc consists of Ace’s fine piano session work for three other artists: A good solid R&B cat named Earl Forest, who would probably sound really, really good in pretty much any other context, but sounds pretty pedestrian here because he’s splitting time with a couple of guys named B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And not just any old B.B. and Bobby, but young, hungry haven’t-quite-made-it versions of same and man do they smoke.

One thing, though. B.B. King and Bobby Bland were greater–I’d even say much greater–singers than Johnny Ace. But they couldn’t match him for weirdness. And they didn’t end up on the wrong end of a gun on Christmas day. So Johnny Ace, morose, affected, stranded at the bottom of a well, at times nearly toneless, has one thing on those greater artists who can’t help breathing fire and presence into the room: He can’t really be explained. That’s probably why, even after an hour’s worth of truly scorching sides from his pals bringing their very best, it was still “The Clock” and “Pledging My Love” that hung in the air when I retired for the night and got ready for a very Happy Easter!