THE VISION THING (Buck Ormsby, R.I.P.)

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The Fabulous Wailers, circa early sixties. Buck Ormsby, far left

Guitar player, producer, label owner, raconteur, talent scout and record hound. And, yeah, visionary.

If anyone could be said to have “invented” the garage band ethos, Buck Ormsby, who passed on October 29th of this relentlessly horrible year, has as much claim as anyone. Much as I”m certain he’d disagree, maybe it’s just as well that, he, of all people, will not live to see what’s coming next, as the things he did as much as anyone could to prevent inevitably wash over us. If his contributions are the among the traces left behind–and you can bet they’ll be among the first things the new Overlords try to erase from human memory–then the future will at least have a chance.

The folks at the “Louie, Louie” website, The Louie Report and Ormsby pal, Dave Marsh, (full post below) have done a better job than I could of conveying Ormsby’s specific material and spiritual contributions:

RRC Extra No. 58: Buck Ormsby

SPANISH CASTLE WIZARD…. Dave Marsh writes: Buck Ormsby was the guitar player in the Wailers of “Tall Cool One” and the leader of all the madhouse rock that came after him and his great band that rescued “Louie Louie” from a trash-heap.

Now, this won’t mean a damned thing to anyone not fully steeped — soaked to the DNA — in Pacific Northwest rock’n’roll lore. But without Buck, and the shows he did with the Wailers and other bands he was in, at the Spanish Castle (not a figment of Jimi Hendrix’s imagination but a true crazoid rocker hatchery) and elsewhere in Seattle and Tacoma and Portland, that whole area, there would not have been the Kingsmen doing “Louie Louie” (because they were only doing it ‘cause they’d seen the Wailers do it), there would not have been any of the Sonics, etc. powerhouse garage punk music, there wouldn’t be any memory of “Louie” at all.

He was a pioneer in having a band own its masters (and for that matter, its record company), he was a champion of the lost memory of Rockin’ Robin Roberts, of the blues and R&B musicians they copped all their licks from before warping them into teenage overdrive. He was one of the toughest guys I ever met and although I usually couldn’t deliver, I’m proud of the fact that he always at least tried to include me in all his over-ambitious projects. He had a vision, more vision than pretty much anybody out there, certainly more vision than anybody in his area until the grunge gangs evolved (and that wouldn’t have happened without the foundations he laid, and there’s nobody part of it I can think of it who was as visionary as Buck was on a bad day). And nobody outside of Seattle-Tacoma-Portland will remember him in a half inch of obituary.

But I can’t forget. He was my shepherd when I wrote the “Louie” book. But it wasn’t just that. He was a throwback to every indomitable rock’n’roll impresario I’ve known from Jeep Holland to Frank Barsalona. He was even in his own merciless way a prefiguration of Little Steven. I own no higher praise.

I told Eric Predoehl, the “Louie” archivist who’s been close to finishing a Louie Louie documentary for the past 25 years that my reaction to the news was “Aw fuck” because I figured that was what Buck would have said. They tore down the Castle to widen the highway, or something equally useless. They will never tear down Buck Ormsby because they can’t even reach that high.

Take it from Jimi, who was there, up front copping licks from all those heroes, and didn’t neglect them as he became one:

Hang on, My Darling, Yeah
Hang on if you want to go
It puts everything else on the shelf
With just a little bit of Spanish Castle Magic
Just a little bit of daydream here and there.

Though, in the end, the musicians he aided and abetted on the road to freedom did the best job of all:

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LOSING THE PAST (More Notes from the Story that Never Ends)

“The spoken introduction [i.e., to “Johnny Reggae”] specifically recalls the Shangri-Las’ spoken introduction on their 1964-65 hit, “Leader of the Pack,” which reached number eleven on the UK chart in January 1965. Here the question is ‘Is she really going out with him?’ followed by, ‘Betty, is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?”….Whereas the majority of American girl groups were black, the Shangri-Las were most likely Jewish and positioned as white (see Stratton, 2009, ch. 2). Their songs often expressed white middle-class teenage girls’ fantasies and angst. In contrast to this American melodramatic seriousness, “Johnny Reggae” sung in a London working class accent, reads humorously as English working class bathos.”

(Source: When Music Migrates: Crossing British and European Racial Faultlines, 1945–2010 Jon Stratton, 2014)

“We can now begin to appreciate the full irony of this Jewish group’s name, invoking utopian suburbia yet singing songs of family destruction.”

(Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton, 2009)

Just so we have this straight: Stratton first definitively calls the Shangri-Las a Jewish group. Then, for the record, he goes on to build a serious argument around their Jewishness, or at least the thematic Jewishness of their songs, which were “mostly” written by Shadow Morton, who Stratton acknowledges is not Jewish.

Then, in a later book, he calls upon his own “research” as the foundation of a comparison/contrast wherein the Shangs are expressing “white middle-class teeenage girls’ fantasies and angst.”

That’s after he’s mentioned, in this later book, that they were “likely” Jewish (which, for the record, means he doesn’t know) but “positioned white” (which doesn’t mean anything to his “Jewish Blackface” argument, unless, of course, they are in fact demonstrably Jewish, in which case it might merely be banal).

Hoo-boy. Here we go again.

First, let me just state that I could care less whether any or all of the Shangri-Las were/are Jewish. But I’d never build an academic argument on the basis that they were and then admit that I didn’t know whether they were or not.

I mean, if I couldn’t find out for certain (and since it took me twenty years to determine whether Mary Weiss was indeed the lead singer, a journey I wrote about at length in the initial post for this blog, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if I remained in eternal ignorance on this other question in which I’m not terribly interested), then I would let it go.

Or just say I couldn’t find out…which might be an interesting story in itself.

I would be especially inclined to let it go if I was publishing “academic” books and therefore presumably had the resources to do a bit of checking beyond what’s available (or not) on the internet.

Mind you, I’ve long since got past the point where I expect that sort of thing from actual academics. I’m just saying that’s what I would do.

But of course, what I really always find fascinating is just how much confusion proliferates around the Shangri-Las specifically, even years after Mary Weiss finally came out of the shadows and gave a bunch of interviews that clarified just about everything except their ethnicity.

For instance, one of the other arguments Stratton makes is that “Past, Present and Future” is about rape, with the implication that this gives it a special hidden power (or words to that effect…it’s all wrapped up in dystopian angst suffered by an oppressed people trying to reach the American dream and finding only a nightmare, but then you knew that).

Just in case you didn’t happen to listen to the interview Weiss did with Suzi Quatro in 2007 (before either of Stratton’s books were published), she specifically said (as she had repeatedly done elsewhere) that such theories were news to her and (as she has done elsewhere) found them a touch ridiculous.

But what does she know?

Taken to that extent and no further, Stratton’s comments are only the usual bilge. That is, they wouldn’t be terribly illuminating even if the Shangri-Las (all famous attendees of a Catholic grammar school and a public high school) really were Jewish (which is, of course, still possible). And they hardly do more damage than dozens of other trite or false statements made over five decades and counting.

But, in this case, the fundamental fakery runs deeper than that.

For being “positioned white”–meaning positioned to take full advantage of their skin color by hiding their Jewishness and bleaching the sound and/or lyric themes of the “mostly black” girl groups–the Shangri-Las certainly had an interesting history.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, James Brown hired them for his revue on the assumption they were black. As I’ve mentioned several times before, Weiss had a Houston cop draw a gun on her before one of those shows when she insisted on using a “colored” bathroom (she used it anyway).

As I may not have mentioned before, they were also this:

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And, as I almost certainly have not mentioned before, they were virtually the last white group of the rock and roll era to cross over in any meaningful way to the R&B charts, and, so far as I can tell, the only group to do so who emerged after the British Invasion essentially re-divided the Pop and R&B charts along specifically racial lines that soon resembled 1954 (though the existence of Motown effectively disguised just how thorough the Pop bleaching otherwise was–one of several reasons that calling Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the five or six most important men in the history of rock and roll is probably underselling him…with the difference between the way the Supremes, or even the Marvelettes, were managed versus the way the Shangri-Las were managed probably being reason enough all on its own).

In other words, their songs did not appeal merely, or even mainly, to white middle-class teenage female fantasies.

To believe that, we’d have to dismiss some history.

Like the fact that on October 10, 1964, in a year when Billboard was not publishing an R&B chart because, absent the unforeseen arrival of the Beatles, the Pop and R&B charts had become so blurred as to make keeping a separate chart more trouble than it was worth, there were exactly three records by white artists in Cash Box‘s R&B Top Fifty.

The Kingsmen’s “Death of an Angel” was sitting at #29 (only God knows why).

The other two songs were “Leader of the Pack” (which had just entered the chart at #38, a slot above Aretha Franklin’s latest) and “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which was at #9, sandwiched between Jerry Butler and James Brown just above and Dionne Warwick and Sam Cooke just below.

Not that he’d have thought there was anything wrong with doing so, but I guess James could have been forgiven for assuming they weren’t merely pandering to white middle-class teenage girls..or otherwise “positioned as white.”

You know, when he saw their name next to his on the only chart that was keeping up with what Black America was listening to in 1964.

Just remember folks. The same sort of minds that come up with these little gems cover politics, write history and work in “science” departments.

So remember to trust no one just because they say so.

Well…almost no one:

 

“DEATH I PRAY, OH LORD, REMEMBER ME…” (B.B. KING, PERCY SLEDGE, JACK ELY, ERROL BROWN, R.I.P.)

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Let me tell you how big a deal B.B. King was.

CNN managed to write several hundred words to commemorate his passing and post it on their website without any obvious howlers.

Oh, they managed to emphasize his “influence” (mostly on famous white people) over his art. They neglected to mention that the reason he’s way more famous than, say, Freddie King, or Albert King (or Buddy Guy or Johnny Watson or Peter Green or Johnny Winter or a dozen or so other ace blues guitarists and/or showmen not named King) is because, unlike them, he was also a truly great singer.

But those are just the usual errors of omission.

Nothing like calling this guy an “R&B belter,” which must have been cut and pasted from the Wilson Pickett obit because wasn’t he also a black guy who recorded southern soul back in the sixties?

….Or calling this a “garage rock song”, evidently unaware that it was an R&B song, that “garage rock” describes a sound and an attitude (not a style of song, R&B or otherwise), and that, without the sound and attitude Jack Ely gave this particular R&B song, there probably would have been no need to call it something else.

…All of which makes saying this is “these days…better known as the theme song from the Louis C.K. series ‘Louie,'” merely a euphemism for “God help us all.”

Add Ben E. King to the roll call and since I’ve been doing this blog I don’t think there has been any month when rock and roll took such a hard hit. It’s getting late I guess.

And how does the world remember?

By mis-remembering.

Or reducing it to this:

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…And no doubt convening a panel of experts and having Wolf Blitzer quiz them about why the past keeps slipping down the memory hole. (“Hey, don’t you think Wolf can fill a fifteen minute slot with that? Don’t you? Sure he can!”)

Well, the man who dreamed “ain’t no difference if you’re black or white, brothers you know what I mean,” saw it coming…The prophets always do.

(For additional thoughts on Percy Sledge, you can go here or here. For Ben E. King’s recent obit, here.)

IN THE BEGINNING….(Paul Revere, R.I.P.)

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Born Paul Revere Dick, as keyboardist, hustler, entrepreneur and visionary, he ended up leading the most successful “garage” band in the history of rock and roll. It was right that they were the most successful, seeing as how they were the best and had basically helped invent the notion (he was already fronting a local band when he got together with lead singer Mark Lindsay in 1958…they had their first hit in 1961 and recorded their version of “Louie, Louie,” the same week as the Kingsmen and in the same studio, a sequence of events I wrote about here, on the eve of the British Invasion).

The revolutionary war costumes they wore were, of course, a play on his name–and a way to stand out from the crowd (not the mention the crown, as the Brits were certainly coming). Little Steven Van Zandt has repeatedly said on his great radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage that those costumes–so redolent of dread Show Biz–are the main reason the Raiders have never been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Since Little Steven’s on the nominating committee, I’ll assume he knows of whence he speaks.

So maybe, on the occasion of his passing, it’s worth remembering that Paul Revere was a conscientious objector–in 1959. (His assignment to help out on the psych ward at a mental hospital strikes a chord as it sounds very much along the lines of what happened to my father when he tried to register as a C.O. in World War II, though dad got to spend a few years fighting forest fires and a few months being a psych ward test subject first–at least that’s the way he told it some of the time).

That made Revere one of the very few sixties-era musicians who ever walked the walk, and probably the only one who did so long before it was cool to even talk the talk.

And maybe it’s also worth remembering that, however many very temporary diversions there were along the way, the bands he led for nearly sixty of his 76 years (he left the road only a few months before his death) had a single mission from first to last.

And the mission was…Aw, you know what the mission was.

STOMP!

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (A Brief History of White Boy Stomp….From Garage Bands to Quentin Tarantino)

Mojo Workout Paul Revere and the Raiders (Recorded 1964, Released 2000)

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This two-disc set was released by Sundazed in 2000. Basically, it sets out to demonstrate that, before they were the Ultimate Garage Band Made Good, Paul Revere and the Raiders (who came out of the Ultimate Garage Band Scene in the Pacific Northwest) were, well, the Ultimate Garage Band.

Most of Disc 2 is studio material from their early days on Columbia Records (where they were the first rock and roll band signed to the high-falutin’ home of folk, blues, jazz and other “adult” forms). I’d heard most of it before, and the repackaging is just fine–especially nice hearing all the gutbucket stuff in one handy, hard-hitting place.

But the real ear-opener is Disc 1, which captures a show the label arranged for the band to perform in front of a teenage audience in Columbia’s own studio.

According to the liner notes, this came about because, after an initial dry run–made dry in part because famous ass-dragger Mitch Miller (whose sing-a-longs were, of course, the contemporary standard of “maturity”) had scotched proper promotion of the band’s version of “Louie, Louie” which was subsequently stomped by the Kingsmen–some of the honchos were having a hard time remembering exactly why they had signed the band in the first place.

I don’t know if the resulting explosion of atomic level noise and energy made the suits any happier. I can bet it didn’t make Miller any happier and, certainly, little of the show saw the light of day at the time (though the band did soon thereafter proceed with its glorious near-decade run of hit singles).

But, however it came to pass, it now stands as a true signifier of the garage-band ethos as it has come down to us in the present day. It’s a kind of pure (or impure) reminder that “garage” bands–so called because there was a perception, which, to my knowledge has never been proved or dispoved, rather like the existence of the Deity, that many of them had formed in garages–were a phenomenon that could only have been produced by a Land of Garages, i.e., a culture that was just beginning to glimpse the possible end of its five hundred year winning streak.

To that end, it’s a joyful noise, reveling in its complete and utter abandon (to steal a phrase and turn it into a paraphrase) to an extent that can only be achieved by not giving a rip about winning streaks, cultural or otherwise. The Raiders came from a place that epitomized an attitude that wasn’t so much committed to either stealing or honoring black music as stomping all over it. Whether the object was to replace one America with another (and whether the new America would be whiter or blacker), or simply level it all into a great fruited plain shared by all is unknowable. There may have been some up-and-comers in the scenes the Raiders both participated in and inspired who contemplated such questions, but this particular band became Ultimate by leaving all of that to one side most of the time and most especially here.

Heck, by the time they break into “Crisco Party” (all the boys on one side, all the girls on the other side, now everybody….disrobe) they even manage to make orgies sound like something they are inherently not.

Namely, democratic.

Baby that was one version of Rock and Roll that has gone the way of the dodo and taken democratic America right along with it.

And, while, they may or may not have been honoring the spirit that made the streak possible (stomping on things was certainly part of that spirit), I doubt they were threatening its continuance nearly as much as the purely cynical decisions being taken concurrently in the Corridors of Power regarding troop movements in South Viet Nam (to be announced immediately after the forthcoming election…still a few months hence when this was recorded!)

True Romance, 1993

TRUEROMANCE

Tony Scott (Ridley’s hackier brother) directed. That he did so with a little more distinction than usual was probably due to Quentin Tarantino’s script, which has plenty wrong with it, but also has some promising, non-nihilistic aspects which, aside from the anomalous Jackie Brown, (based on an Elmore Leonard story that, like this one, has a likable and unlikely couple emerging from the mayhem) his own directing career has never come close to realizing.

Too bad.

Yeah, the I’m-so-racist-I-can’t-possibly-be-an-actual-racist-because-no-actual-racist-would-think-he-could-get-away-with-this-hee-hee attitude is there, as is the cartoon violence masquerading as some kind of arty “statement” (or, more likely, the dread non-statement statement which is such a close cousin of the political world’s style of non-apology apology that emerged around the same time) and the mind-numbing ethnic/racial/regional stereotypes.

But there was still a lot to like. Yeah, Patricia Arquette is playing a Hollywood Southerner, and, because the script has her being from Tallahassee–a place I know something about–it was more than usually annoying to note that she did not remotely remind me of anyone I’ve ever known in my forty years of hanging about the place. That plus she’s called Alabama. Which, believe me, she wouldn’t be. Not if she was from around here. The only place you would be less likely to find somebody called Alabama than Tallahassee is Alabama.

Then again, she’s Patricia Arquette, so after a few minutes I didn’t care. Whatever comes in that package, I’ll gladly buy.

That, plus Christian Slater in his all-to-brief likeable phase, a few pretty good sub-Donald-Westlake plot twists and a handful of effective music interludes (something Tarantino became famous for elsewhere, though, except for Nancy Sinatra at the beginning of one of the Kill Bill movies, I’ve never for the life of me understood why–good Lord, the man muffed Santa Esmerelda’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which, until I saw/heard it with my own eyes/ears, I would have deemed beyond mere human capacity–I mean, with that playing, ten minutes of black screen should have been mesmerizing) kept the whole thing chugging along pretty well until the ending, which has a couple of genuinely clever and touching moments.

I’m not making any claims for it being a great movie or anything, but, if I’d seen it when it came out, I would have tagged the writer as having some genuine promise (I think I would have known Tony Scott wasn’t responsible for very much). And genuine promise he had, even after Pulp Fiction.

Shame he squandered it.

Bigger shame we rewarded him for not living up to his potential.

But you know what they say. All winning streaks–large and small–gotta end some time.