MY FAVORITE BOX SET: VARIOUS ARTISTS (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Philly Soul: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and the Story of Brotherly Love (1966–1976)

Good title…

This might be a bit of a cheat, and, to tell the truth, if I put Gamble and Huff in the “single artist” category, this would probably be my favorite there, too. But Various Artists feels more appropriate even if the dazzling variety heard here was guided by a common vision.

However defined, a box set should be a great listening experience first and foremost and one that can be taken in all at once. My own “all at once” has a limit of around 3-4 hours. The single greatest box ever is probably this one…

But, at 6 discs and well over seven hours running time, it’s impossible to take in without setting aside the whole day. Rhino made plenty of other definitive genre boxes: for garage bands, rockabilly, surf music, doo wop, even a box of girl group rarities that never quits and comes in the greatest–or at least grooviest–ever package…

All of these are essential and will become more so as time marches along and memories of Rock and Roll America fade.

But Philly Soul has an advantage besides its relative brevity (3 discs, about three-and-a-half hours of music) and the cohesion of a strong vision. Call it an extra level of awareness. The difference between fighting the good fight in the disintegrating seventies versus riding the wave of the (mostly) optimistic sixties.

It offers a concept then, and, like any other concept album, a great box should also take you on a journey. And, if the compilers, not to mention the original artists, get it right, that journey, by dint of its sheer length, can be more complex and nuanced than any single album.

The danger is that it might quit on you.

Philly Soul doesn’t quit. It wanders now and then, perhaps in keeping with the artists’ guiding vision and the contradictions they meant to both raise….

and resolve….

But it doesn’t quit.

It almost can’t.

For one thing, the story’s too good: Black America coming to terms with itself and America in general.

Like the narrative it supports–gliding under and around all the slices of black (especially the emerging black bourgeoisie) life–it ebbs and flows. But with each wave it creeps a little closer to shore and, when it gets there, it doesn’t let you just stop and take a look around. It cries out for an ending that only the culture could have provided…and laments the absence of the clean triumph the best music here has so clearly earned, even as it questions the likelihood of justice, and the inherent naivete of expecting a reward, an acknowledgment, a resolution, all along the way.

That the culture failed to provide such an ending–and whether it was a near miss or a pipe dream all along is a question even Philly Soul cannot answer–is a tragedy that, upon sufficient reflection, rides the shoulder of every cut here, from the triumphal ebullience of Kenny and Leon’s first big hit, the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart,”…

All the way to Bunny Sigler’s somber, almost painful, re-imagining of the “Love Train.”

Along the way, themes develop: Brotherly Love of course, but also the haves trying not to be had by the have-nots….

The black family’s stand against the dark forces that would, ultimately, undermine it..

and, of course, celebrations of the beat, the beat, the beat…

It all developed from a multiracial vision, in keeping with the last vestiges of the preceding era’s hopes–the first disc features not only the Soul Survivors’ impeccable blue-eyed soul but soaring sides from Dusty Springfield and Laura Nyro, and, of course, it’s all underpinned by a hand-picked house band that looked liked this…

Mother, Sister, Father, Brother indeed.

But, beginning near the end of the first disc, there’s no question the sound in your ear–and the vision in your mind–became blacker. Hard not to when the middle passage (end of first disc to beginning of third) amounts to a cutting contest between the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ Teddy Pendergrass…with interludes that range from the hardest soul….

to the smoothest, most sublime, pop…

It’s a measure of Pendergrass’ quality that he kept it a fair fight throughout…and a testimony to his genius that he walked off with the title in the end…gospel-scatting over the last four minutes of the record that summed up Gamble and Huff’s entire ethos so thoroughly

that a pause for a spirit of reflection, long since earned–and a retreat from the top of the charts, first gradual, then sudden–was almost the only way left.

The one record that might have answered “Wake Up Everybody”–the O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy,” a close-to-the-bone account of the real Middle Passage–is the one essential cut missing from this life-affirming “pure listening” experience that doubles as the greatest documentary we’ll ever have of the moment we flew closest to the sun.

FAMILY BAND (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #117)

[NOTE: I’ve posted this video before, but in a different context. It felt right to post it again because it’s context grows by the year. So maybe call it re-found in the connection.]

I’m a sucker for hope…but it’s exceeding rare to pull up a modern clip of some group doing one of their old hits from the prime days of Rock and Roll America (50’s, 60’s, 70’s) and find it enlarged. As often than not, if there’s an exception, it’s because the Cowsills got together in some environment where they were being well-recorded, like this clip from a concert they gave as a benefit to their cancer-stricken brother Billy, who had been the group’s resident genius-in-training until their father kicked him out of the band (and the house), killing their career just as the “family group”  ethos they had more or less invented was taking off.

Believe me, no post-millennial reunion of the Jacksons, Osmonds, DeFrancos or Partridge Family ever has or could produce anything like this….let alone while playing their own instruments.

(Barry Cowsill, at the far right, would vanish in Hurricane Katrina a year later. His body washed up two months later. The others got the news of Billy’s death while they were holding Barry’s wake. I’ve heard about life being a bitch…but serendipity? It’s a bit much!)

SEGUE OF THE DAY (12/13/13)–(So, Just What Are the Limitations of Popular Art Anyway?)

Explanations below, but, for starters, a salute to the late Ms. Robinson, who died of cancer in 2000 at the age of forty-five (complete with a Paul Williams intro that demonstrates just how far Show Biz hadn’t come while the culture was moving at light speed):

Now to the main point:

A few days ago, Terry Teachout posted a link to his current Wall street Journal column in which he opines on the “limits” of popular art. You can read the whole thing here but the gist is about what you would expect from a cultural conservative and he’s certainly not entirely wrong.

But it’s funny that no one ever seems to say much about the limits of High Art. I mean, one reason so-called popular art has taken up so much space in the Post-War era is that High Art has been failing so miserably.

And, of course, I spend a lot of time around here arguing that the point of “culture” at any level called “art” is to engage. That means history, politics, sex, religion, love, hate, war, poverty and so on and so on and skooby-dooby-doo.

Oooh-sha-sha.

See, there’s Popular Art giving me a voice. Engaging.

Believe me, I’d be very happy if what passes for High Art in the modern age managed to do the same.

Now, I didn’t want to stack the deck, so rather than respond to the ideas in Teachout’s essay by specifically seeking the safest available high ground (something like the Rolling Stones in 1969, or Robert Johnson in 1937, or Raymond Chandler in 1952, the first and last of those being things Teachout has evinced a limited understanding of in the past which suggests he probably hasn’t quite thought this thing all the way through) I decided I would just weigh in on the next thing that happened to pop up in the course of my day…see how far that would take me.

So, from a few nights ago, when the “next thing” happened to be a mix disc I had just assembled as a copy of an old mix tape (Volume Fourteen of a twenty volume set, and, please, believe me when I say, social relevance was the furthest thing from my mind at the point of original assembly, unless “social relevance” means imagining just how far my Theory of Shindig and Hullabaloo Dance could stretch), here goes (original recording dates in parens):

Soul Survivors “Expressway to Your Heart” (1967)–Epochal black producers (Gamble and Huff) have their first hit guiding a white group imitating a white group imitating a black group while Philly International was still a gleam in somebody’s eye.

Young Rascals “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965)–The specific group the Soul Survivors were imitating. They happened to be white boys signed to a record label owned by white men who specialized in selling black music to, first, Black America and, later, White America as well, but weren’t above selling white acts to black people or white acts to white people if they could smell a profit. Would have made Beethoven’s head spin, I tell you, but they made it look easy.

Candi Staton “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976)–An exemplar of one of mid-period disco’s deeply mixed messages. These days, slick magazines are full of articles with titles like “Can Women Really Have It All.” Then as now, the answer was Yes and No. Sorry but I’d rather listen to Ms. Staton work out the ambiguities than read what our modern Platos have to say on the subject.

Wilson Pickett “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (1970)–A black man, who sounds like he knows he’s caught in a trap, begs–and begs, and begs–for a black woman not to leave him at the first historical moment when it was possible for her to even think about doing so.

Abba “SOS” (1974)–Swedish woman sings “I tried to reach for you but you had closed your mind” back to the man who wrote the lines for her to sing. He happened to also be her husband at the time. No, really.

John Waite “Missing You” (1984)–Okay, this is just a nice, pop-obsessive record about pretending not to miss someone who kicked your heart to pieces and who you would take back in a second if they would have you. Nothing High Art couldn’t handle in other words.

Cher “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (1971)–A major star, singing in the voice of one who never got the chance, spits back at everyone who ever spit on her.

Cher “Half Breed” (1973)–Ditto. Only more so.

Styx “Too Much Time on My Hands” (1981)–I’m actually not sure what this is about. Possibly unemployment but I’m not gonna stake my reputation on it.

Roxette “The Look” (1988)–Pure confection. No discernible higher meaning except it was the-best-Prince-record-made-by-somebody-other-than-Prince, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

The Who “Who Are You” (1977)–English rockers lament/celebrate their escape from the lives the system had planned for them. Self-destruction caught up with the drummer shortly thereafter. Whether this record would still sound like it’s chasing him if he’d somehow never been caught is one of those nice existential questions that should be mulled in Philosophy 101 classes everywhere….but probably isn’t.

AC/DC “Get It Hot” (1979)–A salute to rock and roll. Good topic. Well played.

Heart “Straight On” (1978)–An epic blues played, sung, conceived and executed by seventies-era white people from the Pacific Northwest (who many sardonics of ill repute believe are the whitest people who have ever lived so go ahead and have your snicker) and also a late-feminist sequel to the Shangri-Las’ proto-feminist “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” that demonstrates just how far the earth had turned in a decade. If there’s been a novel or play that did as much, I missed it. If I happen to run into one somewhere, I bet I’ll have the bring up the fact that it doesn’t get the job completely done in four minutes.

Randy Newman “I Love LA” (1982)–Love and mockery, joined at the hip and permanently reinforcing each other.

Randy Newman “It’s Money That Matters” (1988)–The History of America in the New Gilded Age. (The ethics of which were so thoroughly and seductively appalling/appealing that, unlike the first Gilded Age, they have survived the inevitable economic bust. More than one in fact. Goodbye us, in other words. Thanks Randy!)

Jackie Wilson “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (1967)–A call-and-response Top Ten hit and permanent radio staple that perfectly captures the last historical moment when it seemed possible for the Civil Rights movement to become a lasting social triumph as opposed to a purely legalistic one.

Steve Miller Band (1976) “RockN’ Me”–A rocker’s ode…whether to groupies or to the One Left at Home, I’ve never been quite certain.

Huey Lewis and the News (1983) “Heart of Rock and Roll”–A promise that rock and roll would keep on a goin’. Naturally it was already a bit ill, though a few years from being terminal. The song works because it is completely devoid of irony, self-awareness or any other complicating factor. Well that plus it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

Standells “Dirty Water” (1965)–The eternal, existential struggle between Puritanism and its discontents, distilled to one hundred and sixty-eight perfect seconds.

Blues Magoos “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” (1966)–“Nothing can hold us, nothing can keep us down.” I bet High Art never manages to go anywhere that line doesn’t when it finally does work up its nerve and get around to explaining either the successes or the failures of “the Sixties.”

Tommy Tutone “867-5309/Jenny” (1981)–Stalker pleads with the Object of his Affection not to change her phone number. In other words, 7,000 guest shots on the Law and Order franchise, explained well ahead of time.

The Jacksons “Enjoy Yourself” (1976)–Or, as the full line goes, “Enjoy yourself, with me…You better enjoy yourself.” Question for the class: Whose enjoyment is more important? His or hers? Hey, that’s Michael on the lead. Does that make it any clearer? Or the “better” any more disturbing?

Vicki Sue Robinson “Turn the Beat Around” 12-inch Version (1976)–Broadway chanteuse speaks in tongues over a History of Poly-rhythms so complete it proves conclusively the inherent funkiness of the flute. In direct response to Terry’s essay, I consider this aiming very high indeed. (And just as an aside, I’ve never quite been able to forgive Gloria Estefan for later deciphering the lyrics. And I’ve really, really tried. And just as another aside: I once heard a music critic explain the superiority of seventies music over sixties music–and express complete contempt for anyone who might have even thought of disagreeing with him–by using the name of this record, plus the words “Come on!” as his entire argument. As an unabashed lover of the music of both decades, I’m an agnostic in that particular debate, but I’ll just say I did know what he meant.)

Ohio Players “FOPP” (1975)– “The rich can Fopp and, uh, so can the po’, you can Fopp until your ninety-fo’” Hey, it took a while (decades or centuries depending on when you prefer to start counting), but when Democracy finally started producing Manifestos like this, the Soviets were basically toast, regardless of who we elected President.

Rick James “Superfreak Pt 1″ (1981)–The groupie as Goddess. No ambiguity about this one.

The Doobie Brothers “China Grove” (1973)–Flannery O’Connor weirdness with a slightly better sense of rhythm and no room for the abiding contempt of the human species that intellectuals of all stripes seem to find so comforting.

Of course, each of these responses amounts to only one of several possible responses. No point in making High Art’s head spin trying to keep up.

BTW: High Art, I feel like I should give you a hug. You lost this round, but a week earlier and you might have come up against Volume Twelve. Bad, that. Would have meant dealing with “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Brother Louie.”

Count yourself lucky.