STALKING THE MALLS AND LEVITATING O’ER BROADWAY (Memory Lane: 1969, 1976, 2005)

Leaving New York City through the Lincoln Tunnel, you drive through the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. On Tenth Avenue, the kids have for many years approached stopped cars at traffic lights and wiped their windows, hoping for quarters. One afternoon in 1964, the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio was leaving the city on his way home to New Jersey when he noticed that the kid smearing the glass was a girl.

“I saw her face–just the picture of her face and the clothes tattered…with holes in her stockings, and a little cap on her head,” Gaudio told Fred Bronson, author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. She finished the job and stood back as Gaudio searched his pockets for change. To his mortification, he had none. The smallest thing he had was a five.

“There was a split second where I said, ‘I can’t give her a five dollar bill.’ But I couldn’t give her nothing. So I gave her the five dollar bill. The look on her face when I was pulling away–she didn’t say ‘Thank you,’ she just stood there with the bill in her hand and I could see her in the rearview mirror, just standing in disbelief in the middle of the street with the five dollars. And that whole image stayed with me; a rag doll is what she looked like.”

(The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh, 1989)

Jersey Boys, the musical based on the lives of the original Four Seasons, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, closed its decade-plus run on Broadway this past Sunday, after playing 4,642 shows.

The one I saw in December, 2005, was in the first hundred…and thereby hangs a tale I’ll never have a better reason to share:

Back around 1969, when the Merritt Square Mall in Merritt Island, Florida opened, they had a record store.

I never went near it.

Throughout the early seventies, whenever my ten, eleven, twelve-year-old self ran loose in the mall and I happened to be walking anywhere near the record store, I always made a point of crossing over to the other side. I wasn’t under any instructions or warnings. I just thought the place looked fishy. The people who always–and I mean always–hung around the entrance looked a little too much like the pictures you saw of the Manson Family.

Oh, sure, I knew they were probably harmless. We had hippies at church now and again.

But why take chances?

Bottom line is, I never saw the inside of a record store. Not until later.

Later, I saw the inside of many record stores, more than I can possibly remember. But in those days, I heard very little of what was on the radio anyway. Even if I had cared to brave the Mansonoids at the record shop, there was no need. Let them live in their world. Let me live in mine. If Jesus ever compelled me to witness to them, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.

Until then, I deemed it best to leave well enough alone.

That all changed after we moved to North Florida in 1974. Not right away. I listened to the radio a little more because my parents seemed to play music stations a little more. I have no idea why. Maybe there just weren’t any interesting talk and/or public radio stations where we lived now, just like there weren’t any hippies.

The real change came in the fall of 1975, when my Memphis nephew, who is five years older than me (19 to my 14 then), moved in with us.

My Memphis nephew didn’t go anywhere without the radio playing music. If we went somewhere in the car, he played the radio. If we went to work on one of my father’s paint contracting sites, he played the radio. If we were just sitting in my room, shooting the breeze, he played the radio.

It was kind of interesting, kind of fun, not much more. Then, come the last few weeks of 1975, the radio started playing this:

For the next few months, wherever I was, if my nephew wasn’t there to turn the radio on, I turned it on myself. And, for the next few months, I never had to wait more than half an hour to hear “December, 1963.”

Then, as such things happen–as I did not quite yet know such things happened, never having stopped to think about it–it no longer came on every half hour, or even every hour.

Not long after that, it didn’t come on every day.

And not too long after that, it didn’t come on at all.

I thought it might be okay, though, because, in the interval, I had made a discovery.

One day, while strolling through the local Sears store in Dothan, Alabama, I had happened across a bin full of 45’s.

I only knew what a 45 was because my sister left a few behind when she got married and moved out. By a few, I mean three: “Ode to Billie Joe,” “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” and a Little Richard record which was too beat up to play (and hence too beat up to hang on to, which is why the title has slipped my memory…”Tutti Frutti”? “Long Tall Sally”? “Rip It Up”?…the memory hazes…anyway, my sister had good taste).

Now, when I say I knew what a 45 was, I don’t mean I fully grasped the concept.

Oh, no, far from it.

For one thing, I thought they made 45’s to sell to people after a song was played on the radio enough to be considered a hit. That the 45 might be the actual method of distribution to the radio stations that played the music had never occurred to me.

So, in the spring of 1976, I was excited to discover that a 45 which contained “December, 1963,” by the Four Seasons, was actually laying in a record bin in a Sears store not twenty miles from my house, where I did at least have a record player.

I would have been a lot more excited if I had possessed the $1.19-plus-tax required to purchase the 45 or any means of acquiring that sort of cash in the foreseeable future.

Such was not the case.

The first impulse I ever had to buy a 45, then, was accompanied by the first of many similar experiences where the record I held in my hand was beyond the power of my eternally limited purse.

I mean, it wasn’t the sort of thing I had any chance of cajoling my father into buying for me.

And all the money I made working for him went to my college fund.

By “all the money” I mean every last red cent.

What to do?

Start working on the idea that maybe the world wouldn’t end if the college fund was spared a few bucks every now and then? Yeah, that sounded like a plan.

My dad was Scottish. He was also attending bible college full time and we were subsisting on the poverty wages raised by those weekend paint contracting jobs. Negotiations were bound to be difficult and ongoing.

It took me until the summer to wear him down.

We were back in Central Florida by then. Painting the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton every summer was the big yearly contract that made going to bible college in the fall and winter possible. If you think painting a jai alai fronton during the summer breaks from attending bible college was a contradiction you obviously didn’t know my dad.

And, if you don’t know what jai alai is, let’s just say it’s a sport closely connected to the term “parimutuel betting.”

Anyway, come summer of ’76, my dad and I were in Orlando, staying at the fronton during the week, commuting to my sister’s house in Titusville (that’s on the east coast of Florida and, yes, the same sister with the good, if limited, taste in 45’s).

Negotiations safely concluded, I one day found myself with five dollars of my own money in my pocket.

Nearby there was a mall. (Searstown? Miracle City? The memory hazes….)

Inside the mall, there was a chain record store. (Camelot? Record Bar? The memory….well, you know what memory does.)

Inside the record store, there was a big bin of 45’s that seemed to have every record in the world, or at least every record on the charts.

On a certain beautiful day in June of 1976–first time I had the chance–I begged a trip to the mall (I was still too young to drive) and found my way to the record bin in the record store.

I had one clear intention.

That was to buy “December, 1963.”

I had the $1.19-plus-tax. I had more than that, enough to buy at least three records that cost that much.

And by then, having cracked the code, there were actually quite a few records I knew I wanted to buy.

But I was determined to make “December, 1963” the first 45 I bought with my own money.

It didn’t happen.

It didn’t happen because there was a little card in the empty slot where “December, 1963” 45’s were being stored and the little card had the number 15 crossed out next to an order date two weeks before.

Seems they crossed out the number next to the order date when they sold out. There were a lot of dates on the card, with a lot of numbers crossed out going all the way back to December of the previous year. All the numbers were crossed out. They had been selling fifteen or more copies of “December, 1963” every couple of weeks for six months straight.

It was clearly going to be at least two more weeks before I got back to the record store and while I was pretty certain they would be reordering (fifteen copies? in two weeks? six months after the record came out?…yes, they would be reordering), I had no confidence they wouldn’t all be sold out again by the time I got back.

And while there were other record stores around, since I couldn’t drive myself, there was no telling when I would see the inside of one of those.

What to do?

Swallow my disappointment and look for other records. Obviously.

Which was how, a month or so before I found a copy of “December 1963” in a Woolworth’s (right next to the jai alai fronton as it happened), this became the first 45 I ever bought:

“Fallen Angel,” was not selling like hotcakes. It had scraped the Top 40 (another concept I was just beginning to grasp). Far from playing every half hour, I had only caught it a few times. I knew I liked it, and it turned out I liked it a lot. But that wasn’t the reason I picked it from the bunch–ahead of “Shannon,” by Henry Gross and “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers–that particular day.

I picked it from the bunch–and first–because it was a Frankie Valli record and I knew he was the lead singer of the Four Seasons. I did not know, at that point, that “December, 1963” was the first of the Seasons’ many hits he had not sung lead on (he sang second lead, behind Gerry Polci).

Had I known, it probably would not have made any difference. The point for me was to honor the Four Seasons and still walk out of the record store with a record in my hand. The closest I could come, on that day, was “Fallen Angel.”

And, for the next thirty years, that was basically a footnote in my record collecting history: “Fallen Angel” was the first 45 I bought because Frankie Valli was the lead singer of the group whose record I really wanted to buy. And I really wanted to buy that other record in part because it had an impossibly cool vocal sung by someone other than Frankie Valli.

The memory of settling always did bring a smile…and a shake of the head.

This crazy world. What can a poor boy do?

You only get the buy your first record once. Then you gotta live with it. Who knew.

For thirty years, all that was just another stone laid in the pathway of life.

Then came 2005. Thirty years gone by.

In 2005–very late in 2005–I decided to give myself a vacation.

Through a weird series of events, I found myself with a windfall that meant I could go anywhere in the U.S. that a thousand bucks could take me. In my world that is a whole lotta money, but, wherever I was going, I wanted it to be worth it, because I also hadn’t had a real vacation in almost six years.

I was leaning toward Cleveland (hadn’t been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since my last vacation) or San Francisco (hadn’t been there since 1991, when I didn’t get to stay long) or Chicago (1993 and ditto), when, by some freakish chain of coincidences, I was following an internet thread one night and it took me to a rave review of what appeared to be a new Broadway show based on….The Four Seasons?

It’s hard now–after a decade long run, a movie version, a new box set, a hatful of Tony awards and the like–to convey just how shocking this news was at the time.

The Four Seasons on Broadway?

Before that moment, New York wasn’t even on my radar. After that moment, the idea started lighting up my brain.

I hunted around and read more reviews. I investigated hotel and airfare prices. I did mental calculus and then actual addition and subtraction on a scratch pad.

I figured I could just barely manage it.

And I figured I had to, because, well you only live once…and it was the Four Seasons.

But, still….

I had to come up with a few hundred bucks extra. I had to pre-plan way more of the trip than I had ever planned for any trip before (my understanding was that they didn’t let just anybody in to a hit Broadway show…and that booking a Manhattan hotel was not exactly like stopping off at the Best Western by the interstate). I had to fly in winter (one previous experience, not a good one as I have a habit of developing stopped heads in winter…a stopped head at 30,000 feet is not a pleasant experience…when I did this a third time, in December, 2015, I temporarily lost my hearing).

I began to have second thoughts.

I decided to do a little more research.

I mean, Four Seasons or no Four Seasons, I had never heard anything good about a so-called jukebox musical. How good could it really be?

Before I made this kind of commitment, even for the Four Seasons, I needed to look beyond the hype.

So I asked myself: “I wonder what songs are in this show?”

It seemed an important question because who were the Four Seasons if not their songs? I hadn’t exactly stopped at “December, 1963” after all. Within a year or two of buying my first 45, the Four Seasons had become one of my two or three favorite groups and they had remained that through thick and thin. I had grown used to defending them against all comers–and in those days, there were a lot of comers. To put it bluntly, the Seasons never had the cred that the Beatles or Stones or Beach Boys or Byrds (or any of a dozen other groups) had. For a lot of people (then more than now, though it’s still a problem), they were some kind of early version of Bon Jovi: Sold a lot of records, impressed a lot of girls (and God knows they never count), never got themselves much written about in the proper journals.

Jersey boys indeed.

I knew they deserved better–that they had gotten shafted a bit for lacking a sensitive Brian Wilson-type genius, when dozens of lesser bands had better crit-reps that existed on that and nothing more. And even those who did have something more, even a lot more (think Arthur Lee and Love, think Skip Spence and Moby Grape), still weren’t the Four Seasons.

I knew the Four Seasons and I knew they deserved a hit show on Broadway.

But that still didn’t mean it was a must see.

To make that judgment, I needed to know about the songs. Absent a sensitive genius, the songs would be what such a show rose or fell on.

So I made a point of looking for a song list and was pleasantly surprised to find one. A long one. From an official source (i.e., the show’s website).

Long and reliable then.

So long that it took me more than a glance or two to get to the bottom–by which time I had concluded that they certainly were being thorough. Except for “Silence is Golden”–admittedly a B-side–they had everything in there that I would have insisted on if they had asked me.

And I still wasn’t quite convinced.

Yes they were hitting all the high points. All the songs any Seasons’ lover would insist on. But what about filling in the cracks? In a catalog as deep as the Four Seasons’ shouldn’t there be at least one off-beat pick? One sign of eccentricity? “C’mon Marianne” was nice (speaking of sensitive genius bands, maybe the show would mention how the Doors lifted the intro for “Touch Me,”) but it was still a pretty big hit and available on every major Seasons’ comp I ever saw.

I kept looking for a sign….

And then, very near the end, two or three songs from the bottom of a list of dozens, I saw this:

“Fallen Angel”

That’s when I knew I was going to New York.

*   *   *   *

So I went. Had a grand time. Got swept away by the museums and the shows (if I was going, I wasn’t putting all my eggs in one basket!) and the food and all the other stuff people get swept away by if they tourist in New York with at least a little money in hand.

I flew up on a Thursday. I went to a museum and an off-Broadway show on Friday. I went to another museum on Saturday morning and a Broadway show on Saturday afternoon. I saw St. Patrick’s Cathedral by moonlight. I ate fabulous meals in little hole-in-the-wall joints that my dad had trained me to spot back in the days when we traveled together.(“Watch where the Chinese people go,” he told me once when we were in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We did, and, if you ignored the cockroach that crawled out of the phone book on the chipped Formica counter and concentrated on the food, it was beyond belief.) I walked around for two days with a giddy smile on my face. Hell, I even figured out the subways. Not so hard, I found, when you were always going to and from Manhattan (i.e. Grand Central)–another trip, years later, when I made the mistake of chintzing and staying somewhere else, learned me that it ain’t hard to turn into an Out-of-Towner.)

And then, finally, it came Saturday night. The big event…

I wore a black denim shirt and white jeans. I didn’t care if it was after Labor Day. I was going to see Jersey Boys on a Saturday night on Broadway, a month after it opened a hop, skip and jump (or anyway a fast cab ride) from Newark (where at least one Broadway blue-nose had suggested it should have stayed). A month after it opened, Jersey Boys was being heavily attended by a mostly Jersey crowd–by the one group of people in the world who didn’t need to be told that the Four Seasons were every bit as good and important as the Beatles or the Beach Boys.

Give or take a vowel or two, I was, at last, among my people.

And still I wondered.

Would it really be worth all that?

Then the show started with a rap version of “December, 1963,” and I really started to have my doubts.

Then the guy playing Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff–a few months later he would win a Tony) walked out on stage and announced that was the version that had just been a hit in France.

Thirty seconds later, I said to myself: “This is where I’m supposed to be.”

 *  *   *   *

Jersey Boys is a long show. Two-and-a-half hours with a fifteen minute intermission.

By the intermission, I was wandering around the lobby thinking of all the people I wished had been there with me. I was also wondering how it was possible for me to have had such high expectations and see them all surpassed within the first five minutes–and then surpassed again and again.

I wondered if they could possibly keep it up.

Five minutes into the second half I stopped wondering. I knew it wasn’t going to play me–or itself–false.

Then, near the very end, the stage went dark and a familiar chord rose from the orchestra pit…and, in the space of that single chord, I remembered what I had forgotten.

I had forgotten “Fallen Angel.”

Not only had I not thought about it since I arrived at the August Wilson Theater or in the city of New York, I hadn’ t thought about it since I saw it in the show’s song list on-line and knew instantly where I would be a week before Christmas in 2005.

It was the forgetting that made it memorable. If I had been thinking about it all along, or anywhere along, I would have known it was coming–would have been wondering how they were going to fit it in, when, unlike all those dozens of hits known to all, it could not really be part of the Four Seasons’ story.

Turned out it was the heart of the Four Seasons’ story. By the time I heard that first chord and it all came rushing back–1969, 1975, 1976, a month before–I knew a whole lot about the Four Seasons I hadn’t known before and I also knew that the young woman walking across the stage was representing the ghost of Frankie Valli’s daughter, whose death-by-overdose he blamed on an absent fatherhood created, in part, by the fame and fortune he had crawled across broken glass to reach, and in larger part by the three hundred nights a year he played for a decade and more to pay off Tommy DeVito’s seven-figure gambling debts because DeVito had gone to prison rather than snitch on him when they were teenagers back in the ‘hood.

That’s the best moment I’ll ever know in a theater, sitting with two thousand locals who worshiped the Seasons and realizing I was probably the only one who knew what was coming from the first chord–the one unrecognizable, eccentric, off-beat musical selection that was the show’s big payoff. All those dozens of hits, but only one of them was called “Fallen Angel,” so, to fit the harshest fact of Frankie Valli’s life–and Tommy DeVito’s–it had to be there, even if it never made the top thirty.

The show didn’t end there. It ended with the Seasons reunited, rising from the floor at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (which also served as Valli and DeVito’s personal reunion after years of not speaking) to sing the greatest of the records that had made them the truest American working class heroes between the fall of the original fifties’ legends and the rise of Creedence Clearwater Revival*….

which made #1 in 1964, in the teeth of the British Invasion, as the A-side of my pick for the greatest-ever two-sided single, the B-side of which was…

…the only thing the show was missing.

But, by then, I had forgotten all about that, too. Even with an un-programmed encore of–you guessed it–“December, 1963,” giving me one last reminder that this had been where I was supposed to be, and a three-block hike to my hotel that amounted to levitating above the sidewalk, I knew which highlight I would always remember first.

My only regret is that–like buying that first 45–it could only happen once.

*The fantastic book for Jersey Boys was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. During one of the early development meetings, Brickman mentioned to Gaudio that he had missed out on the Seasons in the sixties, in part because he had been so heavily engaged politically, especially in protesting the Viet Nam war. Gaudio’s reply was “Well, when you’re writing this show, just remember that my audience were the ones fighting it.” The beat goes on.

BEFORE I HEAD INTO A RATHER PERSONAL SPACE…

I’m planning a couple of more than usually personal posts in the coming days (one I’ve been working at, off and on, for over a year, and another I haven’t started on anywhere but inside my head) so I thought a trip to the impersonal (which, for me, is contemporary politics, which I hold at arm’s length to defy madness) might be in order.

In a political season, I monitor political blogs much more than usual. I read voraciously and across the board (even more so this season, because I don’t have time to read history, which I take very personally, at the moment). By far the smartest commentary I’ve found on the Donald Trump phenonenom, in the blogosphere or elsewhere, comes from John Michael Greer and Scott Adams. Not surprisingly, both men are at least as detached from modern political passions than I am. Emotions cloud reason, and I’m sure one reason I think they’re both such smart guys is that they’ve articulated a lot of things I had intuited.

By way of anecdote: My interest in this political season was peaked last summer, when I was riding around in my car listening to PBS (which I almost never do anymore) and Diane Rehm asked a panel of Beltway reporters (if you’ve ever listened to PBS or watched their television news hour, you know the kind I mean) if Trump had any chance of getting the nomination. The reporters then spent several minutes trying to top each other with metaphors/analogies/etc. for just how impossible a serious Trump candidacy was. At the end, one of them stated flatly: “He has no chance.”

My own response in that moment, based on nothing but the air I breathe in my little world far from the Beltway, and my understanding of the long arc of declining empires, was “If you think he has no chance, you’re crazy.”

What I actually meant by “You’re crazy” was “You’re an idiot.”

Since the person talking was clearly not an idiot in the IQ sense of the word, what I really meant was “You’re sprinkling garlic because you think a vampire just walked into the yard and you think garlic really works on vampires and that’s the sort of nonthinking that turns people into idiots.”

If you want to read some analysis that has finally given shape to my raw impulse, you can find a typical Greer take here and a typical Adams take here.

Taken together, what they say seems about right, though I only give Trump an even chance of winning the presidency (which is less than either Greer or Adams give him but more than the present polls–see I told you I was dispassionate!). In any case, I just want to add that I do not find it the least bit surprising that the two people who have the surest take on our present crisis are, respectively, a Druid and a Cartoonist.

Unless, of course, you count the real prophets:

.

 

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.

TEMPTSSINGSMOEY2

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.

TEMPTINTEMPTATINOS

 

THE GHOST IN THE RUMOURS’ MACHINE (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #44)

FLEETWOODMAC4(REPEAT)(L–R: Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie: Fleetwood Mac, circa nineteen seventy-something…What could possibly go wrong? Clearly these folks love each other!)

In the late seventies Fleetwood Mac’s music was so ubiquitous I never bothered to buy any of it. If I wanted to hear them they were never more than a radio click and half an hour away. (“Dreams” alone filled the air so insidiously that I knew the words without ever once having paid the slightest attention or even begun to wonder what they might mean.)

Anyway, I was on a budget and I kind of figured they were going to be around.

I liked them, then, when they were everywhere…but they weren’t exactly the soundtrack of my inner life.

They’ve come pretty close to being that in the last five years or so.

Sure, I’d gotten around to buying their records long before that. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk… Some comps, one or two things from their earlier period with Bob Welch and their even earlier period with the great Peter Green (eventually even the fantastic box set with all the Green-era music).

I’d even gotten around to listening to them. Quite a lot.

Good things abounded. Great things weren’t uncommon.

I think I resisted Rumours a bit more than the rest, though, kept it squarely in the like-don’t-love category for far too long, for the usual lunk-headed reason. You know, how could anything that popular (27 million sold to date “officially”…which, given the standard accounting practices of the forever-going-broke music business, means the 40 million often mentioned as the “real” number is likely still low-balling) be that good?

I mean, I’ve never thought The Dark Side of the Moon, or Thriller, or the Saturday NIght Fever soundtrack, or Born In the U.S.A. or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–to mention some albums with similarly stratospheric sales numbers that I actually like–were that good or that special.

Not change-my-life special. Not forever-deep-in-the-marrow special.

So it came as quite a surprise to me when Rumours somehow joined the list of those select few that are forever-deep-in-the-marrow-life-changing. Even more of a surprise because, even now, I’d be hard pressed to say why and how this occurred.

Normally, I’m spilling over with ideas on a subject like that.

But, with Rumours I come up dry.

Gotta say, of course, that bonding with rich So-Cal rock stars (who had previously been, for the most part, either semi-rich British blues-rock stars or No-Cal rich kids) is not my usual thing.

And, as far as the album’s major theme goes, I’ve never had any heartbreak romances to start with, let alone gone-to-pot-cry-in-your-cocaine aftermaths.

But that doesn’t explain much. I never particularly needed any kind of personal identification badge to bond with the musicians I loved. Just as a for instance, the soundtrack of that inner life I mentioned in the late-seventies when I was living in the deep South and politely ignoring Fleetwood Mac (and most of the rest of the decade), was the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons.

Trust me when I say I’d never touched a surfboard or been anywhere near a knee-cracking Jersey goom-bah either.

Then again, Brian Wilson didn’t actually surf and Frankie Valli was running hard to get away from the Tony Sopranos of the world. So I learned not to be too surprised by the barriers rock and rollers could break through, including those set up by their marketing departments.

Besides, when Fleetwood Mac’s then-latest incarnation reached us down South they didn’t need a marketing department.

One day, nobody ever heard of them. Next day they were scratch-their-name-on-your-school-desk cool. With everybody. Well, probably not with punks, but if there were any punks running around my part of Jackson County, Florida in 1977, they were keeping quiet about it (which I guess would mean they weren’t really punks anyway). For everybody else, “Over My Head” was the fanfare, and Rumours, arriving the following year, was the coronation. I mean, I knew at least one person who condescended to (“You like them?”) and/or despised (“Oh God, I can’t stand them!”) every single band that mattered. The two bands everybody agreed on were the Beatles (who everybody loved…except for the few people who merely liked them) and “the Mac” (who everybody liked…except for the few people who actually loved them).

I wonder what we, and the rest of the world, would have thought if we’d heard the version of Rumors that now exists, strewn across bonus discs for the 2-CD version released in 2004 and the 3-CD set released in 2013? (NOTE; There’s also a 4-CD version, which apparently has both bonus discs, a DVD, vinyl version, etc….and, er, that’s for when I’m really rich.)

I’ve heard both bonus discs before this week…had these particular releases around for a while and was actually quite struck by the 2004 release the one time I sat and paid attention all the way through.

What I heard this week, though, when I finally sat down to listen close, was something different, something that probably has to do with just how much I’ve absorbed the original Rumours LP over the years (especially since acquiring that 2004 version, which has “Silver Springs” restored to the original release and nesting smack dab in the middle, where it was originally slated until it was nixed at the last minute, supposedly because its length would compromise the fidelity of the album back in the pre-digital age, more likely because Lindsey Buckingham, from some combination of fear, anger and spite, wanted Stevie Nicks to have as little room to fight back as possible).

So while I still have no real idea how the original Rumours (meaning the album that the public originally heard, which, in this case maybe even more than usual, was not the album originally created) came to occupy such a place of consummate familiarity, I have all kinds of ideas why the other album nested inside it is likely to grab hold just as deeply, now that I’ve finally managed to hear it.

The first reason is that, miraculously, that underlying/undermining album isn’t merely half-formed, the usual series of interesting false starts, confined to mere allegations of the greatness that’s only waiting for a last coat of studio polish to bring it kicking to life, but a thing that’s every bit as great as the final product while also being a markedly different entity altogether.

Mind you, the perfect alternate Rumours doesn’t exist in a neat package. The cuts on the 2004 release and the 2013 release are completely different with the former being mostly outtakes (that is something close to finished tracks) and the latter mostly demos (meaning very rough early takes, often with the sparest possible accompaniment and different lyrics). Each has a few songs or fragments (other than “Silver Springs”) which didn’t make the final cut.

What’s remarkable is that just about everything deepens and enhances an album known to millions, rather than distracting from it or “replacing” anything.

There are some stunning numbers on the 2013 “demo” disc. I’d point especially to a version of “The Chain” (the one song from the finished LP not included on the 2004 extra disc) that reveals it as the Stevie Nicks’ song it was always meant to be (Buckingham and Christine McVie shared mighty leads on the finished cut); a slightly slowed down, passionate take on Buckinghham’s “Go Your Own Way” with a key line altered; a stunning track from McVie called “Keep Me There” which is as fine as anything she ever did (and which was eventually combined with Nicks’ song to make the final version of “The Chain); and a heart-stopping Nicks’ vocal on a fragment of the never-finished “Doesn’t Anything Last” that answers Buckingham’s tormented fragment of the same song on the earlier disc, the brevity of which amounts to a tragedy.

One could dive deep in other words and I would certainly need these tracks at the very least to program the dream double-LP the thirty-four “extra” tracks spread across the two discs could easily comprise, even pared to essentials.

But, for the sake of clarity, I’ll stick to the 2004 disc as its own mystery.

Or maybe I should say its own clarification: the ghost that haunts the great heart of an LP that defined its troubled era as thoroughly as any album has defined any era before or since so thoroughly that it finally lights up the dark places and throws shadows on all the easy assumptions 40 million and counting are bound to have engendered.

The first eleven tracks of what I’ll now call the Ghost Disc, track Rumours closely. Ten of the twelve songs (including “Silver Springs”) are placed in their familiar running order, with “The Chain” and “I Don’t Want to Know” (the song that, according to Nicks, replaced “Silver Springs” on the finished LP) omitted and a track called “Think About It” added.

Deprived of that “polish” I mentioned, the Ghost Disc becomes a lot of new things: an unlikely marriage of Gram Parsons and Fairport Convention; a hard link between the “country-rock” of seventies L.A. and the “alt-country” movement that would emerge a few years later in bands like Lone Justice and Jason and the Scorchers; a sharp reminder that Rumours itself was born largely of the intersection between pain felt and pain masked.

And, most of all, a singer’s album, by which I mean an album where writing and producing and playing become truly secondary and the voices of the three greatest singers to ever join in one band (and with the possible exception of the early Temptations, the three greatest to ever be in one vocal group) to tell parts of the tale with a clarity that was bound to be blunted or buried when fame had to be validated and front office suits had to be mollified.

I don’t mean that the versions of “Second Hand News,” “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” et al, which exist here are “better” than the famous versions. That would be silly. Rumours, after all did validate their fame and pretty much every claim ever made for it or them.

For instance, I certainly wouldn’t want the world to be without the irresistible, anthemic flourish that opens the finished version of “Don’t Stop,” which here is reduced to a soft piano roll with a hint of Randy Newman in it before it gives way to the Fats Domino stomp it always was (and maybe thereby proves just how much both Randy Newman and Christine McVie owed to Fats).

But, now that I know it exists, I wouldn’t want to be without the subtle shift found in the song’s tone here either.

In it’s never-wear-out hit form it was the most optimistic song imaginable (and a breath of fresh air on Rumours itself, a welcome respite breaking up the vicious, epic cutting contest the just-broken-up Lindsey and Stevie were carrying on), a straightforward assurance that tomorrow will be better.

Here, with the production muted, the emphasis in the harmonies ever-so-slightly altered, the song becomes double-edged, precisely poised. The difference between joy and melancholy, reassurance and doubt, is left hanging on the knife edge until the  “O-o-o-o-o-h”  that lifts the hit version into the world’s best smile, shifts the tone entirely in the direction the hit refused to go.

Suddenly “don’t you look back” carries an unmistakable hint of its famous corollary….

You know…”Because something might be gaining on you.”

Then the band break up into giggles and it sounds like they’re trying to fend off a haint that just walked through the door.

No longer suitable for a presidential campaign’s theme music in other words.

Those kinds of twists and turns exist throughout the Ghost Disc.

The voices, brought forward in the mix, singly or in harmony, carry new dimensions on every single track (“Never Going Back Again,” the one track that’s now an instrumental, sounds like a delicate piece of chamber music crossed with somebody’s bluegrass record collection…in other words, it suits the mood just fine).

“Dreams” is more forceful, less wistful. “Second Hand News,” stripped of Mick Fleetwood’s thrilling, just-right, drum flourishes (here he sounds like he’s driving nails or maybe like he just learned to keep time on the kit and can’t get over the rush) becomes naked, vulnerable, as if the man singing is actually hurting rather than remembering hurt. “Songbird,” always quiet, becomes utterly still. “Silver Springs” too, becomes quieter, less epic, more personal. Ditto “Gold Dust Woman,” (which starts here with somebody screaming in the other room, rides the country guitar licks that got buried in the final mix, and then gets repeated, quieter still, more vital still, in the “demos” section of the disc). “You Make Loving Fun,” always a bit of an (admittedly deathless) sing-a-long before, here levitates between unstoppable passion and nagging doubt and moves to the very top of McVie’s vocal chart.

After that, you get a killer version of “Oh Daddy” that amounts to a duet between McVie and her ex-husband’s bass, punctuated by McVie/Nicks harmonies that  would raise the hair on a corpse.

And all of that is followed by what might be the album’s piece-de-resistance, a Nicks’ number called “Think About It.”

As deservedly famous as “Silver Springs” became over the  years for being what somebody called “the greatest song ever left off an album,” “Think About It” (a version of which ended up on Nicks’ first solo album, where it was about a tenth as good) might deserve the title even more. Since it didn’t appear on the original album, and apparently wasn’t even considered, there’s nothing to compare it to.

There or elsewhere.

The closest I can come is to say it’s probably what a band like Little Feat was always aiming for and, if they never quite got all the way there, it’s probably because they didn’t have Stevie Nicks.

There are five additional demos and two “jams” and they’re hardly incidental. They include the aforementioned extra take of “Gold Dust Woman,” Buckingham’s version of  “Doesn’t Anything Last,” and his killer guitar work on “For Duster (The Blues).” Every cut is worthy of interest. Every cut adds something to both the legacy and the mystery. Taken together they demonstrate, all by themselves, just how off-the-charts the raw talent in this band actually was when it was producing the album that defined them.

But I’ll leave it there. It will probably be years before I fully absorb the implications of all this. I haven’t encountered anything like it before–a truly “alternate” version of a truly great album that has just as much to offer–and I’ll be surprised if I ever encounter the like again.

But I listen to this and think about what might have been and God how I wish that picture at the top was a lie…that something other than paychecks and professionalism could have somehow held them together all these decades.

 

RECORD MAN (Bob Crewe, R.I.P.)

BOBCREWE2

(Bob Crewe, left, with Frankie Valli in the recording studio. Bob Gaudio, Crewe’s frequent Four Seasons’ writing partner with the beard in the background, circa 1960s)

If the particular style of writer/producer who emerged in the late fifties/early sixties were to be judged only by the quality and importance of the records he made (as opposed to the will and ability to self-mythologize), Bob Crewe would be as well known and respected as Phil Spector.

Alas, he never managed to lock his wife in the house for five years and make her watch Citizen Kane every night or, better yet, commit a murder, so Crewe’s death this week at age 83 did not elicit the kind of front-page headlines Spector’s will when he shuffles off this mortal coil.

That’s a shame, because as a record man and talent scout–as the things that should matter–he was pretty much Spector’s equal.

Whatever modern notoriety Crewe had attained at the time of his passing was by virtue of being a minor–if flamboyant–character in Jersey Boys, the story of the Four Seasons that was lifted off the ground a decade back by beat cops and waitresses, unused to having what they cared about celebrated, who took to paying Broadway prices to see it ten and twenty times and has been running ever since. Evidently in real life, Crewe–besides being adult, urbane and sane (Mortal Sins all, in the eyes of the crit-illuminati)–was actually pretty discreet about being a gay man in a macho industry. Discreet enough that I certainly have no idea how he felt about being so often criminally ignored. (And I know I sound like a broken record, but, no, he isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Perhaps he felt the records themselves were the best revenge.

It’s certainly interesting to note that his genius productions with the Seasons are more likely to annoy the right people these days than anything the Beatles or the Stones ever did.

I perhaps owe him a special debt. The Four Seasons were my way into rock and roll and it takes nothing away from their own genius to admit they wouldn’t have been anybody’s way into anything without him.

And they were only a small part of his achievement, which–as writer, producer, or both, covered everything below and much, much more. Phil Spector need not be ashamed that he didn’t best Crewe’s achievements.

Few did.

As writer (warning, the second one might make your head explode):

As producer:

As writer and producer:

And his signature achievement…as co-writer and producer…As I like to say…Hey, Time? You think you caught Bob Crewe?….Catch this:

Hope freedom’s ringing wherever you are man, because you sure left a lot of it here.

(NOTE: Regarding the link in the text above, I’m always looking to add lifetime memberships to the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade. Anyone who prefers the Tremeloes to the Four Seasons certainly qualifies. Welcome Kathy Shaidle!)

HARD LUCK WOMAN (Evie Sands: Vocalist of the Month, 9/13)

Evie Sands was one of rock and roll’s great near-misses and great lost voices.

So it sort of makes sense that I discovered her in a case of forty-fives a friend of mine swapped me during our senior year in high school for helping him cheat on an algebra test that he ultimately failed anyway.

I suspect the main reason he went ahead and made the deal despite being grounded for the rest of the school year by my inability to lift him over the line–and thereby losing the stakes that made it a big enough deal for him to consider cheating in the first place (studying, of course, was simply not a cool option)–was because they were his sister’s forty-fives.

He swore she’d never miss them.

Since I already had enough vinyl in my veins to risk flunking a teacher’s aide class on my way to graduation day–don’t worry, when I was trying to change those neat little minuses into neat little pluses with a mechanical pencil the teacher knew good and well had no place in grading papers (red markers were preferred then as doubtless they still are), he was looking straight over at me, which told me that Edgar Allen Poe knew a thing or two about guilt and that, having cooked up this deal less than forty-eight hours earlier, my friend had probably spent some part of the interim running his mouth about how he had the test in the bag because he had me in the bag–it’s more than a little likely I would have run into Evie somewhere along the way.

Still, that particular forty-five of hers that was hiding in a stack of my friend’s sister’s purloined stash represented a real marker in my development as a record fanatic.

I had already noticed that some records I loved didn’t stay on the radio very long, but when it came to judging the past I was stuck with what still lingered in the air or in the written record–in oldies’ formats or K-tel commercials or my trusty chart books or even stray conversations with people who had been around “back then.”

You know, back in the good old days of five or ten years before when I was technically alive but thoroughly oblivious.

But Sands and her record fit no ready frame of reference in my 1978 world. So “Any Way That You Want Me,” which had come out when I was eight years old, reached me like a talisman from a lost time.

Odd that is had this peculiar effect, because by 1978 I had actually heard enough “oldies” to know that a lot of the record’s elements were perhaps over-familiar. To, in effect, know what I didn’t know.

I did not know, for instance, that the bridge was a direct lift from “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but if somebody had told me it was, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I mean, hadn’t the Doors ripped the intro to “Touch Me” from the Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne?” Sure they had. And didn’t I like springing that one on anybody who thought the Doors were the coolest band ever and made retching noises any time Frankie Valli’s name came up?

Sure I did.

I didn’t doubt there were a lot of reasons why “Any Way That You Want Me” couldn’t be heard on the radio anymore (if it ever had been), why there were no tantalizing snippets on cheesy TV ads, why there was no mention of it in my chart or reference books, which in those days, never seemed to stretch to include anything which hadn’t made the Top 40 unless it was from some serious “artist”’s cool album.

Believe me, I knew Evie Sands singing “Any Way That You Want Me’ wasn’t cool.

I’d have known that much even if it hadn’t been pilfered from a girl.

Maybe some place. Maybe some time.

Not where I lived. Not then.

I even knew–sort of–that there might be troubling socio-political implications in the lyric scenario of a woman pleading with a man to take her any way he’ll have her.

I also knew none of that mattered.

Because the two things that grabbed me were the tone of desperate pleading and the quality of the singer’s voice.

I related.

Sometimes that’s all it takes to stop caring about what is cool.

Evie Sands made lots of fine records. As an up and comer with big talent in the New York scene that was turning out the likes of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, she should have had a hit with “Take Me For a Little While” in the mid-sixties. Should have, that is, except that somebody swiped the master, took it to Chicago, cut it with soul singer Jackie Ross (who wasn’t aware of the subterfuge), got it on the streets first and muddied the waters so badly that neither version ended up charting nationally even though both caught fire wherever they were played. The fallout within the industry was bad enough to scotch Evie’s followup “I Can’t Let Go,” which was stronger than the hit versions by either the Hollies or, much later, Linda Ronstadt (two artists I happen to love).

Not too long after that the great writer/producer Chip Taylor waxed his masterpiece “Angel of the Morning” with her (after Connie Francis reportedly turned it down) and, again, her killer version took off in numerous local markets.

The orders poured in just as the record label was closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy.

Not long after, Merrilee Rush cut an equally killer version for a record company that wasn’t going bankrupt and her take soared into the top ten, becoming a permanent radio fixture and a direct model for Juice Newton’s big hit in the early eighties.

So it went, until “Any Way That You Want Me” was released in 1969.

It wasn’t quite as much a mystery in its own time as it was a decade later when I encountered it somewhere in the middle of my friend’s sister’s nice little collection of Three Dog Night and Jackson 5 and Isley Brothers’ records and felt myself getting–as the retro-phrase now often used for entirely separate reasons to describe those years goes–dazed and confused.

Like Sands’ earlier major efforts, the record had been a big hit in a bunch of different local markets, including Birmingham, Alabama, which probably had at least some influence on the southern Alabama region that contained the Top 40 stations for the section of the Florida Panhandle where I would pass through high school–the market, that is, where high school girls who had gone off to college by the time I came along and left their forty-five collections unprotected from their dope-smoking, not-into-studying-but-really-don’t-want-to-get-grounded little brothers, were likely to hear the records that drove them into stores with whatever part of their baby-sitting money went for something to spin on the Dansette.

So, unlike those previous near-misses, “Any Way That You Want Me” did not sink without a trace, to await the high end collectors who have kept Evie Sands’ name alive in the collective memory bank, two, three and four decades on. It was, in fact, something of a hit, reaching the middle of Billboard’s Hot 100 nationally and selling around 500,000 copies.

Even then, something held it slightly in check. It rambled around the middle of the charts and became (with, of all things, Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles”) the record that spent the most time on Billboard‘s main chart without cracking the top 50.

Seventeen weeks as it happened.

There have been plenty of top ten and even #1 records that spent less.

Something, then, kept it from breaking out all the way.

Perhaps the fact that the Troggs, who had hit #1 a couple of summers earlier with Taylor’s “Wild Thing”–as far from the sensibilities of “Any Way That You Want Me” as Void is from the Creation (I’ll leave it to each Earthling to decide for his or herself which record is which, and just gently remind all and sundry that one cannot exist without the other)–had released a hit version in the UK in 1966, tipped the Cosmos just slightly.

Or maybe Evie’s version was simply a little too strong, a little too mysterious, contained just a little too much genuine ache, to find its home anywhere but the edge of the frame.

Maybe it was destined to remain half-hidden, waiting for us kindred spirits to discover it by our own haphazard methods.

Some records are like that.

Evie’s career went on for a bit–was, in fact, just winding down when my path intersected hers.

She got an album out of the single’s success and it’s quite fine, featuring the kind of soulful, folkish material that smoky-voiced goddesses like Jackie DeShannon and Bobby Gentry were doing around the same time and, strictly as a vocalist, Sands was very much in their league, even as the plaintive aspects of her timbre put her in a league of her own.

In my world–then and now–that’s saying something.

Unfortunately, the future was already behind her. The chance for sustained, long term success had already flown. There were a couple of modest hits later in the seventies. A couple of decades further along, there was a reunion with Chip Taylor and his partner, Al Gorgoni, which produced a lovely CD called Women In Prison. She still tours and occasionally produces other artists.

The early days are still where the magic is, though.

The magic and the ache.

Boats against the current.

What might have been.

You know the drill.

I happened to first encounter her in that phase of any music lover’s life when discoveries are happening on a near-daily basis. But I suspect that she would have broken through with spectacular force whenever and wherever I found her.

Heck, I don’t even suspect. I know.

I live in America in the age of decline and fall and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The past never seems nearer and dearer than when we know the future is behind us.

Even if it only hit #53 in Billboard!

 

THE HISTORY OF SPEAKING UP…

That’s the definition I gave rock and roll here (discussing a song which, just oh-by-the-way, I consider more “adult” than any broached below).

A few posts back I also mentioned Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout’s praise of Donald Fagen’s recent solo album as an example of another definition of rock and roll–children’s music very occasionally redeemed by a fellow collegian.

I meant my own comment somewhat sardonically but Teachout has, sadly, doubled down in an article titled “How to Be an Aging Rocker,” which manages to be a sort of perfect summation of certain falsehoods that were born in rock’s early dawn and have been repeated with such numbing regularity–by friends and enemies alike–that they have long since achieved the force of government sponsored propaganda.

By all means read the whole thing, but the basic argument is distilled in the following sentence:

“One of the reasons why so much first- and second-generation rock n’ roll has aged so badly is that most of it was created by young people for consumption by even younger people.”

Oh, my. Here we go again.

First, let me reiterate that I’m not down on Teachout, Fagen or Steely Dan, all of whom I admire.

But goodness, talk about pulling out all the usual stops:

Aren’t you embarrassed by that stuff you listened to when you were young?

Did you know that Steely Dan used to employ honest-to-God JAZZ musicians who could really play on their albums?

Have you noticed that the Rolling Stones really suck these days?

Mind you, Terry was a serious young man. He assures us his teenage musical diet was filled with Crosby, Still & Nash and the Jefferson Airplane. I’m guessing if he had gone in for the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys (the way I did, a decade later, when it was really uncool, though not nearly as uncool as my affection for the likes of John Denver and Olivia Newton-John!), he would probably have shot himself by now.

Which would be a real shame, because when Teachout is blogging, i.e., writing in a genuinely personal way, he’s quite astute and charming.

When he’s writing for hire, alas, he is prone to bouts of moral and mental paralysis.

Thus are dubious thought processes that happen to coincide with the prevailing interests of even more dubious establishmentarianism sustained, generation by generation.

So the article–couched in the false assumption that, compared to other art forms, “rock n’ roll” has aged badly–leaps from one zone-of-safety-falsehood-disguised-as-hard-risk-taking-truth to another.

All the usual methods are deployed:

There’s the straw-man argument. To which, what can I say?

Yes, the Rolling Stones really do suck and have for a long time. Of course, band inspiration is notoriously hard to sustain–much harder than individual craft and/or genius. So why not compare Fagen to Neil Young or Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen or late-period Bob Dylan, to name only the most obvious candidates? Maybe because, making the argument that they have spent decades making specious, “immature” music is quite a bit harder to sustain (even if, like Fagen, they may not have quite sustained the brilliance of youth)?

Well, yes, that could be it. Maybe. Or probably. Or certainly.

(That lays aside of course the argument that the Rolling Stones earned the right to suck because they once reached and sustained heights Steely Dan never even aspired to, heights far beyond mere “maturity.”…I’m laying it aside because I think that’s another argument.)

As for a statement like “Unlike the bluntly bluesy garage-band sound of the Stones, Mr. Fagen’s music is a rich-textured, harmonically oblique amalgam of rock, jazz and soul. It is, in a word, music for grown-ups.”

Even if, by chance you don’t think say “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” is a better “amalgam” of rock, jazz and soul, than anything Fagen has ever managed (and even if, by chance you find the attachment of the word “soul” to Fagen’s music a bit odd), you might want to consider another question or two.

Like whether the Nashville cats who played on “Heartbreak Hotel” way back when would have had any trouble keeping up with a Steely Dan session? Or whether the “country” lyricists of such immature music–or the Memphis hillbilly who turned a hot-musical-trend into a full blown cultural revolution by his manner of presenting them–had trouble comprehending Dan-style irony?

You know, way back when.

And if you know the answers to those questions (respectively, “no” and “no”)–as Teachout and oh, so many others doubtless would if they were allowed to maintain the habit of thinking for themselves all of the time instead of just some of the time–then you also know whether it’s the rock and rollers who should be embarrassed by their absence of “maturity.”

(Incidentally, if immaturity there must be, let it be as below…Sure wish we had torn down those walls. And let us also remind ourselves that somewhat different ideas of where that whole notion of an “amalgam of rock, jazz and soul” actually came from do still exist:)

Jefferson Airplane “We Can Be Together” (Live in Studio, 1970)

(And, of course, here are the Rolling Stones, being all blunt and “garage-band” sounding as they take the next-to-the-last-step to the place from whence they could not, would not, did not return:)

Rolling Stones “Moonlight Mile” (Studio recording…with unusually excellent photo montage)

 

WHERE I CAME IN…

I grew up in a musical household. My mother was director, vocal coach, choral arranger and principal soloist for the church choir (youth and adult most of the time) and eager participant in any community chorus that asked. She walked around the house humming arrangments, picking out tunes on the piano, exercising her voice, practicing runs for operatic solos. She collected sheet music and choir books: pop, folk and religious. I still have them packed away in about ten boxes–her version, I realized only after she was gone, of my record collection.

She didn’t go much for records herself.

Perhaps her depression-raised sensibility saw them as a luxury. In any case she didn’t need them.

However much she loved others, to her, music was what she could make of it and what you could make of it. She had the performer’s instinct for absorbing what was in the air for the purpose of sharing it and then moving on to the next thing she could share. She wasn’t really formally trained musically but her talent and commitment were deep enough that she could hear in seconds what might take a talented amateur ear like mine months or years to pick up.

No comment she made about music was ever less than astute and thus my informal training (she frequently urged me, incidentally, to pursue it some way or other and that I didn’t was my loss just as she knew it would be–youth only happens once) was considerable.

Musically speaking, I was prepared for everything I heard in the world at large.

Or so I thought.

I’ve been chasing what the world wanted to share with me–musically speaking–since about nineteen seventy-five, which was when I first realized you could actually walk into a store and buy the stuff you heard on the radio (which I had also just started listening to on a regular basis).

Granted I only had a few dollars here and there at that point and not much more for years afterward, but I was fairly discriminating. Whatever I could get, I latched onto and whatever I heard that I couldn’t get, I stored in the memory bank.

Lots of things thrilled me in those early years.

Nothing shook me.

I didn’t hear the Sex Pistols’ records when they first came out for instance. But, if I had, they wouldn’t have made any more impression on me than they did five years later when I bought that famous first-and-only LP of theirs which is still there on the shelf, played maybe three times in the thirty years since.

I don’t mean that as reverse snobbery. It’s just that I’d grown up with “Ode to Billy Joe” (courtesy of my sister’s left-behind 45 collection) and “Blood Red and Going Down,” (courtesy of the country radio that was ubiquitously playing when my mother’s friends drove her to the endless doctor’s appointments),  not to mention “Power In the Blood,” (courtesy of Sunday mornings in the pews). I was pretty sure I couldn’t be shook.

Musically speaking.

I was mostly right, too. Wrong only once.

So we’ll start this blog there–with me being shook:

*  * * *

I’m standing in a shopping mall record store in Panama City (the one in Florida, not the one in Panama where the U.S. Marine Corps arranges for new bosses to replace the old bosses every now and then).

It’s 1979.

I’ve been gone all summer so it has to be some time in the fall.

I have my spending money–what’s left of fifty dollars maybe–in my pocket…

45s were still hanging on in those days and the stores–the mall stores anyway–put them in bins. Current hits arranged by chart position, oldies alphabetically.

By 1979 I was mostly interested in oldies.

So I stood there after an hour or so, weighing my options. I had picked out the number of records I could afford, plus a few more, then went through the daunting process of culling until I was down to holding my last two “maybes” in my hand.

Then I re-figured the cash total in my head and accepted that, yes, I had to leave one more of them behind.

Mind you it was going to be six months–more likely a year–before I got back to this, the only real record store within reach.

College kid. Heck I wasn’t supposed to be spending fifty dollars (which wasn’t all for records since gas and Big Mac money were being deducted–I had to drive seventy miles each way to get to that particular mall–the nearest one that sold oldies, and, yes, there were a couple of albums under my arm as well).

That’s not a play for belated sympathy–the world was a mean place then as now and I’m well aware that it’s been a whole lot meaner  to others than to me–just a reminder that an actual decision was involved.

No file-sharing back then.

One of the records I held in my hand was “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las. I can’t say what the other one was. Memory does not permit. But I remember I had never really heard either record. I just knew they were big hits from the sixties and I had a by-then well established track record of liking just about anything thus defined.

I also had a habit of perusing a book called Rock Almanac, which told me what those hits were.

As I stood there, literally staring at the two records, trying to decide which one to add to the final stack–pretty much asking one of them to circumvent the trivial laws of nature and speak to me, burning bush style–I happened to flip “Leader of the Pack” over and see that a song called “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” was on the other side. Vaguely–and then not so vaguely–I recalled that it had been a big hit as well (according to Rock Almanac).

“Sure. Number five in sixty-four,” I would have thought. I had a mind that worked like that back then. (And, actually, it probably still would work that way–if it still worked.)

Anyway, I looked at the flip side of the other destined-to-be-purchased-at-some-later- date-but-never-again-to-be-connected-to-this-moment record.

Nothing rang a bell.

The Shangri-Las it was.

No doubt as I was going through the rest of this process–decision to buy, re-binning the discard, trip to the counter, slightly weightless walk to my ’71 Maverick bereft of the fall of seventy-nine’s spree-money, long drive home, sift through the stack deciding what to play first–the only real analysis of the Shangri-Las I had ever read to that point was wafting around in my head, touching down here and there, pressing on things.

Memory.

Nerve ends.

Something.

I may have even pulled out Rock Almanac (full title: Rock Almanac: Top Twenty American and British Singles and Albums of the 50s, 60s and 70s–with a title like that, I find it sort of satisfying that you can look at the spine these days and tell it’s pretty close to being the oldest book in the music section of my library) when I got home and given it a once over as I was listening to all the doubtless wonderful records I had purchased that day. (Can’t say for sure that’s what I did but it’s possible. Even likely…I told you I had a weird mind…Back then.)

If I didn’t do this specific bit of recall-research beforehand I certainly did it after.

The “analysis” was from an article in the beginning of the Almanac by someone named Mark Sten (whose by-line I have never seen anywhere else). The article was titled–or mis-titled–”The In-Between Years (1958–1963).” Near the end, whenever it was I got around to looking, I would have found these words:

“It’s kind of sad the Shangri-Las got so camp so fast, because their first record (“Remember” 5:8/64) was a killer, futuristic in its leaden, chorded heaviness, with one of the best climaxes on wax. She really was an excellent singer, the best blonde in the business, gifted with a powerful, expressive delivery and one of the half-dozen most distinctive voices of the whole girl-group period. Besides, she’s dead.”

So–if I remembered a previous reading or bothered to look it up when I got home that day–that, plus a few chart positions and dates next to the titles of records, was the sum total of what I knew about a sixties’ girl group called the Shangri-Las when I cued up “Leader of the Pack.”

The record itself knocked me over. I played it twice in a row, which was rare anytime and unheard of when I had a stack of new forty-fives on hand. I mean, even if I knew I was going to wear a record out, I didn’t play it twice in a row right out of the box!

So yeah, the record impressed me mightily, but I think I also wanted to make sure I had heard the whole thing correctly–wasn’t the girl in the song supposed to be dead, too…just like the “Leader of the Pack?,” not to mention “the best blonde in the business?”

Had I missed the part where she was narrating as a ghost?

It seemed more than likely, but, no, I listened extra close that second time and there was no doubt–she had lived through that one.

Whew!

Then, as I was about to move on through the stack…I remembered.

There’s a hit on the other side.

Oh well, I’ve already got it out of the sleeve.

Might as well give it a spin….

*   *   * *

Look, I was gonna be a record junkie anyway. If my fate hadn’t been sealed the day I heard the Four Seasons doing “December, 1963” on the radio (December, 1975), there was certainly no turning back after The Byrds Greatest Hits and “Turn, Turn, Turn” made the journey from the Woolco bargain bin to my cheap-o record player the week I graduated from high school (June, 1978).

I mean, I was studying chart books and so desperate to learn things about those charts and the people who put records on them that I was reading lines like “She was the best blonde in the business….Besides, she’s dead,” and thinking if such things didn’t quite make any sense, the fault must lie in me…in my own lack of understanding!

(And if you think that’s a non sequiter, let me tell you that the next line in Sten’s article–standing alone, utterly unconnected to anything that came before or after was:

“Flo Ballard was on welfare when she died.”

Flo Ballard, for those who may not know, was an original member of the Supremes. And–unlike the “best blonde in the business,” who is healthy, happy and still touring occasionally these days–was actually dead. Hah! Try figuring that one out!)

What I’m saying is: when you think garbled syntax is not garbled syntax but a mystery worth solving just because you want there to be mysteries worthy of the records you are listening to, you’re already a goner.

So “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” didn’t change me that way.

It just shook me. Shook me in a way no record–really, no art–had before or has since.

I played it six, seven, eight times in a row. (I doubt if I could have given you an exact number even then–after about the second time the needle rose to be placed again at the beginning, such things stopped mattering. And if you want a measure of how disorienting the whole experience was, feel free to stop and reflect on what the comforting exactitude of real-life numbers might have meant to an eighteen-year-old who kept testing near-genius level in math even though he hated it and could stand in a record store seventy miles from his house in 1979 and decide to buy a record he had never heard because the flip side was “number five in sixty-four.”)

In the end I simply couldn’t process it and that was what really knocked me off-center. I just didn’t get it! I couldn’t even really enjoy the record–no matter how wonderful the sound, no matter how haunting that voice on the top of the maelstrom was–because I simply couldn’t get my mind around it.

So–in the months and years to come–since I never could really process “Remember (Walkin’ In the Sand),” I chased the Shangri-Las….

Most particularly, I chased “the best blonde in the business.”

I will say that even at the very beginning, after those six-seven-eight spins of “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” it made perfect sense to me that she was dead.

But how had it happened and when? Bear in mind that the record itself had only been recorded fifteen years earlier–within my young lifetime if not quite within my memory.

And it was monumental. Earth-shattering.

Heck it had even been a big hit.

So there had to be some hard news about it somewhere. Something more than Rock Almanac was giving me.

Well–as those months and years eventually revealed–there was and there wasn’t.

Oh sure, somewhere down the line–I don’t even recall exactly where–I decided to believe that the Shangri-Las really had consisted of four young women from Queens, NY, including two brunette twins named Marge and Mary Ann Ganser and two blonde sisters named Mary and Betty (or Liz, or Elizabeth) Weiss. Some time a long, long time after that I decided to believe that Mary Weiss had actually been the lead singer who reoriented my world in the fall of nineteen seventy-nine, and was–happily–still alive.

Less happily, since I came to accept that much, I also had to accept that some of the others really were no longer with us.

Certitude did indeed set in–more or less.

As of 1971 (or 1972), Mary Ann Ganser was dead. Of ecephalitis. Or, depending on the source, a drug overdose….

Unless, of course, you believed Dave Marsh’s (otherwise invaluable) The Heart of Rock and Soul: 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, published in 1987, where she was listed as the (very specifically) blonde lead singer.

Which would mean the Weiss sisters were the brunettes and the Gansers were the blondes…and maybe it was Mary Weiss who had died of encephalitis or an overdose.

As of 1996 Marge Ganser was also dead, of cancer….

Unless, of course, you believed Robert Christgau, who reported to Greil Marcus’ Real Life Top Ten column of June 30, 2004 (then appearing for the last time in City Pages) on a then-recent concert in New York City where Marge Ganser (“the one who didn’t die of a barbiturate overdose”–you can already guess how reliable that particular nugget was/is) was leading a group of fake Shangri-Las, who included her daughter, through a batch of uninspired, generic oldies.

I’m going to make this easy for you and just say that Marsh, Marcus and Christgau, the three biggest names in rock criticism and all professed fans of the Shangri-Las, were all–like the first part of “Leader of the Pack,” the official vinyl Mercury release of Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las and the Dutch import Leader of the Pack, (each of which identified “Betty” as the lead singer), and, like a volume on “death discs” I once picked up in a book store, (which identified Marge Ganser as the lead)–really, really wrong.

Mary Ann Ganser really did die in 1971 (or 1972)–of something.

Marge Ganser really did die–childless, like all the Shangri-Las except Elizabeth Weiss–of cancer, in 1996.

Mary Weiss really is alive, well and blonde. And she really did sing lead on the vast majority of the Shangri-Las’ records (and on all the great ones, which–thanks to her–were just about all of them).

She came out of the shadows in 2007 to make a (very fine) solo album after forty years in retirement and give a batch of extremely revealing interviews which blew most of the silly myths that had grown up around the Shangri-Las and their music to smithereens and–unbelievably, because this is quite rarely the case–replaced them with truths that were far more interesting (the best of those interviews can still be found at the Norton Records website).

This chasing and verifying over the course of what you can now see was an unreasonably long search (i.e., half a lifetime) for information that should have been readily obtainable could never be abandoned–never quite work its way out of my craw–for a few reasons.

The first reason is/was that when somebody does something that alters the shape of my existence, I’d just like to know as much about them as possible.

Starting with their actual names.

The second reason–or maybe the first reason–is/was the music I found. Wherever, whenever.

Expensive import in chain record store. Falling apart cassette in 24-hour grocery bargain bin. Beat-up Red Bird 45 in a used record store. Cheap knock-off import LP. Comps. Original Mercury 45’s from their late career move.

Didn’t matter. When I came across anything by them that had even one song I didn’t have, I bought it and a whole lot more often than not, what I found just deepened the mystery and the need to know more–or at least find that next missing record that might finally explain everything!

The third reason is/was that my experience chasing the Shangri-Las–with being continually told one true thing after another only to find it soon contradicted by another true thing which I had no cause to believe was either more nor less valid than the first true thing–made me also realize that the thing we most desperately want to be true very often finds its validity in our desperation rather than anything resembling objective proof.

A lot of people wanted the mysteries of the Shangri-Las–and those of many, many others who were, perhaps not coincidentally, the wrong race (any but white), the wrong gender (female), the wrong class (working) or some combination thereof–to remain mysteries.

There was something perhaps quite wonderful in their music–and something perhaps quite ugly in the way people who step out of the shadows to claim a space no one has ever claimed before are likely to be judged even by the most enlightened members of an intelligentsia that is bound to represent (i.e., to receive paychecks from) the prevailing interests who pushed those voices to the margins in the first place–that called for this to be so.

Me, I just kept hoping the same thing for them that I hoped for everybody else who had stepped out of those shadows to sing or play or write the records that kept me off of suicide watch at the institutions designed for such through the years.

I kept hoping they were alright.

That the solace they brought me had, by some miracle, not cost them as much as I–the son of a very great singer who never had a chance to make a record–suspected it might have.

Maybe in the case of the Shangri-Las I hoped it a little more–was a little more saddened by the fate of those who didn’t make it through, a little more gladdened by the fate of those who did–because when I was eighteen years old, I already knew I was going to have to work at staying afloat–call it staying sane if you like–and that the cheap, disposable objects I named this blog after were my ticket out.

Encountering “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” was the can’t-turn-back moment when I realized the real value of rock and roll–why it was so culturally cataclysmic in both the frightening and the exhilarating senses of that word: It was the one place in the center of my culture–the one place out of the shadows and into the light–where every voice had a chance to count.

So if this blog is going to be about any one thing it will be about that.

Studying and appreciating voices that have made themselves count.

If you don’t get that–or don’t want to–be warned you probably won’t find any of this very useful or interesting.

If you do get it–or want to–welcome aboard…