SIGNS OF THE….END TIMES? (Segue of the Day: 1/2/17)

A friend of mine sent me a link to this Rolling Stone story, which is worth reading in its entirety. Let us hope Matt Taibbi is not soon resting with Michael Hastings. 

This is a pretty brave piece, but one not-very-brave line stood out:

“The idea that it’s OK to publish an allegation when you yourself are not confident in what your source is saying is a major departure from what was previously thought to be the norm in a paper like the Post.”

My immediate response was “Who thought this? I want their names!”

It could be I’ve just been conditioned by thirty-five years of what my friends like to call paranoia and what I, watching them recede ever further into their cocoons, like to call reality.

You know, as in: It’s not paranoia just because the rest of ya’ll are too damn stupid to know they’re out to get you too.

Or it could be I was just extra-sensitive because I had been listening to a little Creedence over the New Year’s break….because that’s always good for some perspective on a bright, sunny new year. And what I thought when I played this one particular video (part of a small DVD package that comes with the Creedence Singles‘ collection), was that  I had not only missed the significance of John Fogerty’s ability to measure up to Marvin Gaye’s finest paranoid hour, but the significance of his band being able to measure up to the Funk Brothers’ finest hour of any sort period.

Which then further made me consider, to a degree I hadn’t before, that I never really missed what the Beatles left undone because I never thought they left anything undone. But if I could turn back time and change a few things, having Creedence stay together, and somehow always be as they were here, would be high on my must-do list.

It also made me consider that, if Van Morrison really was the most important white blues singer between Elvis and Ronnie Van Zant, then it was really saying something, because the competition was even fiercer than I thought.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (When the Singers Ruled Motown and I Spy Goes Places We Haven’t Caught Up To Just Yet)

Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959–1971 (Disc One)

“Disc One” runs through the latter part of 1964. It’s nowhere near a complete record of the label’s hits from the period–not even of its really big hits. But it’s a telling overview just the same.

For anyone who may not know, “Motown” was the brain-child of Berry Gordy, Jr., who, along with Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, was one of the three truly essential men in the rise of rock and roll from a sub-genre of rhythm and blues to the cultural cataclysm that was already well established by the time the Beatles arrived in America.

What is less well known–or at least recognized–is how much early Motown depended almost completely on singers.

Mind you, this is before the Temptations or the Four Tops or the (generally underrated) Supremes. And before Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or even Smokey Robinson became the powerhouse geniuses of later years. This was the era of the Marvelettes and Mary Wells and one shots like Barrett Strong and the Contours.

But on the first fourteen tracks of this particular collection, which run from Strong’s “Money” to Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips–Part 2″ and cover four full years, there is not a single case where the lead vocal isn’t the strongest element on the record (with only the wild, doo-wopping vocal arrangement on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” coming anywhere close to one-upping the lead).

Mind you, a good bit of the writing, producing and arranging talent that would mark mid-Sixties’ Motown’s glory run was already in place.

So were most of the crack session men who became known as the Funk Brothers.

But none of them were quite there yet, especially in the first year or two, when any new label’s very survival is at stake.

What was there was a glorious run of fantastic lead vocals. If the Supremes are underrated (far too often dismissed as producer’s pets–as though that has ever really opened a door for anyone who didn’t have the talent to step through it to begin with), then the Marvelettes and especially Mary Wells are, outside of the usual cult circles, criminally neglected.

Later on, even singers as great as the Temptations or the Tops’ Levi Stubbs or Marvin Gaye did not have to CARRY records the way the label’s early vocalists did. Beginning with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in the summer of 1963, the rest of the label’s talent pool began rapidly catching up. By the time the label’s really big acts broke through, the instrumental tracks alone on records like “My Girl,” or “Come See About Me” or “Uptight” or “Heard It Through the Grapevine” could have carried many a lesser talent to the top of the charts.

But there at the foundation, Barrett Strong (whose vocal on “Money” is every bit as great as John Lennon’s on the epic Beatles’ remake–it’s the rest of the track that comes short) and the young, still unpolished Smokey Robinson and Gladys Horton and Mary Wells and all the rest had to put it over on their own.

And they did.

The rest of the box lets you hear how much Berry Gordy learned from the experience–how deeply he understood the importance of voices. Because he spent the rest of the decade not only developing the locals (Tempts, Tops, Supremes and so forth) but rounding up singers like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Isley and the Spinners from afar.

Then, of course, he forgot.

Not only did he let much of that talent slip away at the end of the decade (with Knight, the Isleys and the Spinners becoming three of the biggest acts of the seventies elsewhere) but he lost the knack–or perhaps the will–to seek out new talent of the same caliber. From 1970 onward, only the Jacksons and the Commodores came anywhere close to matching the singers of Motown’s earliest days, let alone its peak.

Not coincidentally, they were the label’s biggest acts as it passed–also not coincidentally–from being an iconic cultural force to being that greatest of all American Dreams….a successful business enterprise.

Pity, that.

I Spy: Season One (1965)

The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby spy series has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, saved for a rainy day. Lots of rainy days this week, so I began working my way in.

Nicely done for its period, meaning for any period. Of course it has weaknesses, but good things are always good. Played by two white guys it would have been just as enjoyable, assuming the second white guy was as gifted and relaxed in the role as Bill Cosby–unlikely but not entirely impossible.

But what’s really striking about this “groundbreaking” series is that, unlike pretty much every other dare television has ever taken (including, I suspect, the ones it is taking right-now-this-very-minute-in-case-you-hadn’t-heard!), it’s precisely the groundbreaking element–the easy, natural relationship between the two leads–that hasn’t dated.

I don’t mean that their relationship feels contemporary. Just that it feels like a world that never arrived.

Robert Culp’s commentary on several early episodes stresses that this particular sort of interracial relationship “had never been done,” (at least on television) and he’s right about that. The closest any white/black relationship had come anywhere on-screen to feeling so naturalistic was actually the Mammy/Scarlett duet pulled off by Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Leigh in you know what.

But Culp and Cosby went that one better because they stepped outside of the time-space continuum and made the impossible–a black American and a white American interacting on a daily basis in a public space with no sliver of race laying between them, as though history had never happened–seem easy as pie.

Culp says in his commentary that it was a conscious decision between himself and Cosby to make race a nonissue–that their statement would be to make no statement.

Fair enough.

But I don’t think he gave himself and his co-star enough credit. There is nothing harder than making a statement by making no statement and this particular nonstatement statement has never been made quite as convincingly since.

So good for them. Good for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, who turned out to be a couple of splendidly unique human beings.

Shame about the rest of us.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Beatles at High Tide and Linda Ronstadt in Germany)

You know me, I like starting new categories. I don’t know if something will impress me every week, but I hate to keep letting things go by when they do just because they don’t fit anywhere else!

So, this week:

The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966)…yes, them again!

I thought reading Pattie Boyd’s autobiography last month would put me in a Beatles’ mood and it sort of did, but I didn’t really dig below the surface until this week.

Granted, when it comes the Beatles, I’ve never found much beneath the surface to begin with. I just have to keep granting that it’s an awfully compelling surface.

And, listening to the crystal clear, remastered, original-English-running-order versions that are now pretty much what’s available (with Revolver somewhat the better for it and Rubber Soul significantly for the worse–Ringo’s vocal on “What Goes On” is so doltish it makes his work on “Yellow Submarine” sound like Otis Redding)–I was knocked out by a lot of the guitar work on these two albums. So much so that I was all prepared to give Boyd’s gloomy-visaged hubby (that’s George Harrison for those of you have may have inexplicably found more interesting things to do with your time than keep up with my monthly book reports or Beatle marriages!) a big shout-out, until I started checking the usual references and found out that most of the stuff I was really impressed with (particularly the lead guitar parts on “Drive My Car” and “Taxman,” the two tone-setting album openers) was played by Paul McCartney.

So now I’m thinking maybe all those Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve who keep saying McCartney was the really talented one–not because they know or care anything about talent in general or the Beatles in particular, but because he wasn’t a pinko-commie like John Lennon–have accidentally stumbled onto something!

Oh, the humanity!

Harrison did, among other things, contribute the effective sitar on “Norwegian Wood” and the attack-mode lead on “She Said, She Said.” So it might be that what we should really be giving George credit for in this period is pulling John Lennon’s increasingly bitter (and, it must be said, increasingly sing-songy) chestnuts out of the fire on more than one occasion.

Anyway, we all know what happened next. The Beatles soon gravitated from art to artiness and thenceforth to solo careers which, excepting Lennon’s first solo LP and a handful of monumental singles here and there (“It Don’t Come Easy,” “What Is Life,” “Jet,” “Band On the Run,” “Watching the Wheels,”–I think that about covers it), have meant less and less as the years go by.

I guess the miracle wasn’t so much that it came apart as that it held together as long as it did.

The Beatles “Drive My Car” (Studio Recording)

Linda Ronstadt: Concert in Offenbach, Germany, 1976

There were/are those–then and now–who liked to say she couldn’t rock or something. I’d say she was one of the few who understood what “rocking” actually was in its post-“Heartbreak Hotel” sense, which was a place for the various mighty rivers of American music–not to speak of the American zeitgeist and just plain old American life–to run together and either fight it out or learn to live together accordingly.

So, in 1976, in Germany, clearly worn-but-not-beaten by the road, she stood in a spotlight in a place called Stadthalle Offenbach and, without moving more than a few feet the whole night–or more than a few inches on the majority of the songs–she did what I’ve always thought a real rocker should do: melded folk, rock, country, soul, shlock, all those good American things, into a unified whole.

That particular night it meant measuring herself against Buddy Holly and Lowell George and Neil Young and Patsy Cline and Smokey Robinson and the Everly Brothers and Ry Cooder and Warren Zevon and Paul Anka and the Eagles and she hung all the way in there with every single one of them (and got past not a few).

If she didn’t quite come up to Tracy Nelson on “Down So Low,” well, all I can say is no one ever has and no one ever will.

And if she didn’t quite come up to “Heat Wave,” I’ll just say not having the Funk Brothers (or the Vandellas!) behind her probably had a whole lot more to do with it than many folks (including the famously nice Ms. Ronstadt herself) have generally been willing to admit.

These days, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can, with a little patience and some basic software, download a pretty decent copy of the whole thing and piece it together. That’s assuming you don’t want to pay the $199.99 it’s going for on Amazon at this moment.

Linda Ronstadt “Love Is A Rose” (Live Performance)