NOT HAVING A TV….GOOD THING? BAD THING? (CD Review)

The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)

I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).

But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.

First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.

Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?

Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?

I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.

But, my God, what a missed opportunity.

Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”

One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.

That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.”  That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Well, none of that happened.

Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)

Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).

And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”

Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.

One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.

Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.

Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.

Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.

Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.

Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.

And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.

Take it Mavis:

 

 

A SOUNDTRACK FOR THE SUMMER…(Good For This Summer Only! All Future Summers Are Guaranteed By The Federal Government To Be “Different!”)

Keeping it to a baker’s dozen, so it will fit on a good old-fashioned seventies’ style piece of crap K-Tel vinyl, provided I can get Little Joey and Guido interested in backing the project as a warehouse filler tax write-off. Guaranteed to be a hot collectible in the future we threw away!

NOTE: The programming works. I promise. Joey and Guido have no say in the creative process.

Side One

Track One::

Track Two:

Track Three:

Track Four:

Track Five:

Track Six:

Side Two

Track Seven:

Track Eight:

Track Nine:

Track Ten:

Track Eleven:

Track Twelve:

Hidden Track:

Along about the latter half of August, there’s always a chance you’ll be overwhelmed by obvious, network approved soundtracking like “Street Fighting Man,” “For What It’s Worth,” and various doomy-sounding tracks from the Doors. Don’t worry you can always come here for the real thing.

Joey and Guido need to get paid, but me, I live to serve.

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:

.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)

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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.

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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

 

FUNK, FUNKIER, FUNKIEST (Segue of the Day (1): 7/20/15)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve listened more and more to harder sounds. More funk. More hard rock (though not much metal or punk, neither of which I’ve considered “hard” in any sense of the word). More hard-hearted harmonies (which is basically the Mamas and the Papas, Fleetwood Mac’s late seventies’ mega-period and whoever’s either backing Patty Loveless or duetting with her).

Of course none of this is to the exclusion of everything else. It’s more a shift of emphasis. And this is mostly the past few years, so things could shift again, now or in the future.

Mostly, though, right now, it’s hard sounds for a hard world.

And the hardest sound–the one I turn to when the world’s at its hardest–is funk.

Hard sound. Harder politics.

Simultaneously sounding the warning and providing the map to how we got here.

Mostly, when I’m not listening to somebody specific (which might include all three of the acts I’m about to mention, plus all the usuals from James Brown to Ohio Players)  I listen to one of the two great 4-disc box set overviews I happen to own, Hip-O’s let’s-avoid-overtime-in-the-marketing-department-titled The Funk Box or What It Is, Rhino’s label-specific “deep cuts” collection of Atlantic and Warner Brothers’ sides.

Frankly, they’re both too deep to ever get to the bottom of, but I keep trying.

This week, though, for a change-up I started pulling the individual discs from In Yo’ Face, Rhino’s six-volume collection that deftly combines the best of both worlds, mixing the obvious with the not so obvious.

I’ve had all six volumes for a while (usual story, had them all back in the day, sold them all in the great CD sell-off of 2002, gradually repurchased them until I have them all again, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, ooh, shah, shah), but for some reason I don’t think about them much.

Which means I don’t really have any of the sequences in my head. So, for now at least, it’s like listening to the radio. No idea what’s coming next.

What that meant last night was these three coming out of nowhere and going straight up side my head.

Whap!

Whap!

Whap!

Regarding that map from there to here, all three of these bands had politics, overt and covert. P-Funk (meaning George Clinton and whoever he had rounded up for company at a given moment) put some covert singles on the charts and enjoyed massive critical success with that part of White America which loves hearing the overt from Black America, as long as it stays on the albums and off the radio.

Keeping the radical stuff on the down low lets everybody know how brave they are.

Earth, Wind and Fire, put lots of covert singles on the charts, downplayed the overt without completely disowning it, and received at least the measure of critical praise black groups can expect when they aren’t too in-your-face and sell a bajillion records.

War, by contrast, put their overt politics in their singles.

And they had hits. “Me and Baby Brother” marked their fifth straight trip to the Pop Top 20 in two years, a run that began with “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto.” Those titles explain themselves and, if anything, “Me and Baby Brother,” was/is even more explicit.

Put another way, you could listen to every single P-Funk or Earth, Wind and Fire ever put on the pop charts and not really understand why Black America seethes with anger forty years later even when the “baby brother” who was just shot was knocking over a convenience store ten minutes earlier.

“Me and Baby Brother” doesn’t let you misunderstand. It speaks out loud: Just because somebody deserved it today, doesn’t make up for yesterday or guarantee tomorrow will be any different.

Of course that doesn’t explain everything let alone excuse anything. No one factor explains or excuses everything.

But it does serve as a reminder that every version of Black America has a history very different from every version of White America. Police shoot way too many people, white and black (something War understood long before your average Libertarian seized it as a talking point–that “for me and for you” in “The World is a Ghetto” was neither meant to be race specific nor received that way).

And, yes, some who get shot are deserving…white or black.

Among the undeserving, the imbalance may or may not be as great as some people claim. But, however unreliable PD statistics are, I don’t think there’s much doubt the injustices tip considerably one way. And, short of somebody proving otherwise–which nobody has ever done–every version of Black America is bound to sit on the volcano that War, while hardly alone, nonetheless wrote and sang about better and longer than anyone else who had access to the pop charts in those decades when the pop charts were the center of American culture, white or black.

There are those who contend that War–at least as great and epic a band as P-Funk or Earth, Wind and Fire and a far braver one–are still sitting outside the portals of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while their old rivals have long since been ushered inside (along with similar “visionaries” like Public Enemy who told the Jann Wenner crowd exactly what they wanted to hear, made them “uncomfortable” in just the way they prefer)–in spite of their courage.

You can never really prove these things, but if there were some place you could put money on it, I’d make the safer bet and say War have been left hanging not in spite of such qualities but precisely because of them.

GETTIN’ BUSY IN HERE (Quarterly Book Report: January through March, 2015)

Okay, I might have to go back to monthly reports. Suddenly I have time to read again…Meanwhile, a quarter’s worth of grab-bag:

Breakheart Pass (Alistair MacLean–1974)

BREAKHEARTPASS

By the seventies, MacLean was transferring his well-honed thriller formula to more and more exotic settings with (according to a consensus of those who plowed through his later novels at least) less and less success. This “western” version is a pretty good one, though. It’s not The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare by any means, but it moves along crisply and builds some real tension and surprise along the way. What you’d expect from an expert romanticist who was tired but not yet quite worn out.

A Game For the Living (Patricia Highsmith–1958)

AGAMEFORTHELIVING

A bit of a tease–rather like A Tremor of Forgery, the only other Highsmith I’ve read that lacked a distinctly American flavor. Even the Ripley novels, with their European settings, feel like a coming to terms with Highsmith’s homeland but here, the flavor and setting are strictly Mexico.

Still, she knew the place well, and, if you read a line like this, early on…

“Theodore did not want to get into a discussion of the Catholic versus the Protestant conscience or, what was worse, the Catholic conscience versus Ramon’s idea of ‘Existentialist’s conscience,’ which was no conscience at all to Ramon. Just because he did not torture himself, as Ramon did, for having an affair out of wedlock!”

…you might expect a narrative where souls are at stake, if not lives. But it turns out she doesn’t drum up much interest in either. Maybe she needed America and Americans more than she thought.

Anyway the novel is best when it’s searching for the soul of its setting.

“The police arrived, two ordinary policeman in uniform, and in a somewhat bored manner went over the house and listed the items Theodore said were missing and their value. Theodore knew he would never see them again. One almost never saw stolen things again in Mexico, and the POLICIA accepted robberies–little house robberies like this–with a resigned shrug. It was no doubt their conviction that people with so much money ought to be robbed now and then, that it did no harm and did the poor possibly some good. And Theodore, too, felt rather the same way.”

The POLICIA do, of course, investigate a little further than Theodore expects, but only because a murder is involved. As with all her novels, nothing much happens. Even murder feels ordinary. Unlike most of her novels, in this one, the nothingness behind the central murder never quite materializes into that moment of existential dread which was her specialty. What you do get a philosophy of life, which I suspect is pretty close to the author’s own unique combination of not-quite-nihilism and not-quite-not-nihilism:

“If the earth became a hunk of metal, or disintegrated and vanished in particles too small for scientists’ eyes or even their microscopes to find, wasn’t there some beauty in that, beauty in the idea, if nothing else? It seemed quite as beautiful as three billion sweating or freezing human beings creeping around on a globe.”

Highsmith’s basic idea was that murder lay in the hearts of practically everyone–perhaps more deeply in the hearts of the mundane spirits than in anyone else. Since neither of her main characters here ever seems remotely capable of murder and since no one else is developed enough for the reader to have an interest, the dread never comes.

The Dark Lady is always interesting and I always approach her with extra care, but this time she didn’t leave a mark.

Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of The Mamas & The Papas (Matthew Greenwald–2002)

MAMASANDPAPASBOOK1

First let me say (and I doubt this was the author’s fault), that this is the most incompetently produced book I’ve ever seen from a reputedly professional publisher. Spelling errors, grammatical glitches and/or malapropisms abound on nearly every page.

That being said, you should still read it if you have any interest in the group or their times. It’s not like there’s a really serious study out there and hearing this basic history in the words of the people who made it is fascinating…not least because you know you can’t trust a single one of them as far as you can throw one of those mountains you can supposedly see from the ocean California is supposed to slide into some day.

If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Sharyn McCrumb–1990)

PRETTYPEGGY

The first McCrumb I’ve read. The mystery/thriller part is standard enough, but the book is immensely valuable for its quietly effective and realistic depiction of small-town America in general and Appalachia in particular, a people and region who are rarely well-served by either fiction or life. On nearly every page you can find a little gem like this:

“Jeff McCullough found out a lot of things just because people stopped him in the street and asked about them, thinking that the local newspaperman would know more about it than they did.”

That’s the life of a small town journalist in thirty-three words and McCrumb offers up a town full of the same.

Naturally, when it came time for somebody to use this general setting for one of those “realistic” television shows that give the intelligentsia such a thrill, they picked Elmore Leonard, who couldn’t tell it from Detroit or Miami, to set the agenda.

Of course they did.

Growing Up Patton (Benjamin Patton with Jennifer Scruby–2012)

GROWINGUPPATTON

Multi-generational memoir from the grandson of the legendary WWII general and son of his highly successful namesake (also a general who served with distinction in Viet Nam). Benjamin Patton picked a different path and became a documentary filmmaker, a journey which led him to, among other things, develop a program where soldiers with PTSD (the kind his grandfather once famously slapped) document their experiences.

It’s not a “gotcha” memoir by any means, though. Rather the opposite. The grandson writes from a perspective of understanding what was valuable about his family’s military tradition and the enormous service both his father and grandfather rendered. Hence, along with stories of the many individuals they impacted, there are reams of good advice from both men, none of which is likely to be heeded by anyone conducting our present or future wars. Too bad. We’ll probably need to relearn the lessons they taught if we ever have to win one again. And we probably won’t.

For all that, the best anecdote, concerning the elder Patton, comes early on and confirms everything his admirers and critics ever dreamed or dreaded about him:

“Once when he was rehearsing his young daughter for a horse show, he berated her constantly, criticizing and cussing her, finding everything wrong, her posture, the way she handled her horse, her method of taking the jumps. He finally shouted in anger, ‘Get off that goddamn horse and let me show you how to do it.’ Meekly she climbed down, a chubby twelve-year-old, and he took her place. Resplendent and supremely self-confident in his horsemanship, he prepared to jump. As he spurred toward the obstacle, she was heard to say, ‘Dear God, please let that son of a bitch break his neck.'”

Such is love.

Garnethill (Denise Mina–1998)

GQRNETHILL1

A highly praised, 400-page snigger at the expense of rape, incest and abuse victims. It’s dressed up as empathy of course, complete with an improbably off-the-cuff revenge fanstasy and wrapped in a whodunit plot so transparent even I (notoriously bad at the game) guessed who the baddie was. The edition I bought has, as an addenda, a featured interview with the author, who reveals that she loves Glasgow (her adopted home and the novel’s setting) for its poverty and crime. Keeps it real and all.

Let me say that, having just finished her novel, I was not surprised. She does have one moment of honesty at the end of the book when the wee adorable lassies she has so fervently wished us to love and cherish throughout turn out, not as surprisingly as I suspect Mina intended, to be what they would call “pricks.”

In Glasgow slang that’s now apparently the worst thing you can call a woman. Bet you won’t need three guesses to know the worst thing you can call a man. (Hint, it starts with a c.) Ha ha ha. If this really is modern Scotland, I’m glad my ancestors got out.

[NOTE: Besides all that, I finished a Kennedy assassination book which I’m planning to review for BWW shortly. And I’m still pondering how to handle Devin McKinney’s book on the Beatles but I’ll definitely address it further in one venue or the other…I’ll also probably do a separate post on Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, which I’m currently reading and is certainly worth some extra attention…Til then.]

 

THE WORLD’S ON FIRE AND WORDS COULD NEVER EXPLAIN (Robin Williams, R.I.P.)

First the light heart:

Then the heavy heart:

I don’t doubt that Robin Williams was suffering when he hung himself a few days ago. I also don’t doubt that millions have suffered (and do suffer) far, far more without contemplating–let alone carrying out–the last deed.

But I think the extraordinary response to Willams’ death–a response that has gone far beyond the scope of his considerable fame or the necessity of appreciating his undeniable genius–is probably rooted in something that runs far deeper than it should in a country as blessed as ours.

Granted, some of that response can be attributed to simple shock. I stand in a grocery store checkout line nearly every day. I make a point of reading the tabloid headlines so I know who’s on death watch.

Robin Williams wasn’t on death watch.

So there’s that.

Plus, he hung himself. Not something that happens in the small circle of A-list fame and fortune every day.

And he was, by all accounts, a gentle spirit, devoted to small acts of kindness in both his art and his personal life.

So there was bound to be a certain amount of he-was-really-too-good-for-this-world kibbitzing among both the professional mourning class and fans grieving for someone they felt understood them.

All of that definitely adds up.

And yet…

I can’t help feeling there’s just a little bit more to it this time.

For me, it comes down to this: As long as Robin Williams was alive, it was possible to believe there was at least one man out there–and a good man at that–who thought fast enough to stay one step ahead of this world we’ve made. In the age of the twitter bomb and the sound bite and the latest jihadi beheading transmitted worldwide by social media and the arrival of that moment in history where it is finally impossible to keep up with the false narratives that day on day, hour on hour, minute on minute, swallow each other literally at the speed of sound, at least one guy seemed like he had a handle on it and was willing to translate the confusion for millions who were otherwise overwhelmed.

That’s what I’ve heard/read in the responses of everyone from close friends to talking heads who were clearly even more confused than usual when it came time to put the completely irrational acts that are now permanently twinned–Robin Williams’ doing the unthinkable and the world he had decided to stop dealing with at all deciding at once that he yet deserves forgiveness–in something more than their usual callow perspective.

And underneath all that–for reasons that are certainly just as irrational (and just as compulsive)–what I kept hearing, and holding responsible for the death of a guy who, for all I know, may have just been fed up because the Viagra wasn’t working or his wife brought home the wrong kind of chicken soup, was that world we made. A world where a rich white American male multi-millionaire who had lived his dream and been given every possible accolade could hang himself in a closet and the most common response was: Yeah, I get that.

Is it entirely a coincidence that the two songs that have run through my head for the last three days are from ‘sixty-eight, the year America keeps trying to convince itself it has finally walked away from?

I don’t know. Maybe.

Then again, maybe not. I only know they won’t stop playing. Nine voices, seven of whom checked out early….five of them at ages even younger than Robin Williams, who would have heard these in high school, when the center was just beginning to crumble.

Which maybe goes to show you’re never quite as alone as you think you are.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Audiophilia Finally Reveals Its Uses!)

A Gathering of Flowers, The Mamas & the Papas (2013)

GATHERINGOFFLOWERS

Collecting comps drawn from the Mamas & the Papas’ four 1960s’ albums is a kind of mini-hobby of mine. (The less said about their early-seventies, contractually obligated, reunion album the better.) I’m now up to two collections on vinyl and five on CD, which, for me, given my budget and how much overlap there is in the musical selections, is a boatload.

I won’t bore you with my matrix of reasons for this quixotic little pursuit (though I should probably mention that these seven “collections” were acquired over a period of a mere thirty-seven years, so its not like I spent every waking hour on the task), but, at least since the dawn of the digital age, one of the reasons has been a search for “the best sounding version ever!”

Or words to that effect.

I’m a long way from being an audiophile. But some artists invite purely aural appreciation–reverence for purity of tone if you will–more than others. And the vocal sound of the Mamas and the Papas was/is the equivalent of a tone poem. Basically, anything that I think can help me get closer to the heart of the mystery is worth a shot.

To that end, I took a chance on Real Gone’s reissue of A Gathering of Flowers and I have to say that the job they’ve done in remastering this strange collection from 1970 is a revelation.

The set has its problems. For some unfathomable reason, it excludes any material from their fourth album and certainly no collection of this group can be definitive without “Twelve Thirty” or “Safe In My Garden.” And while the reminiscences from John Phillips and Cass Elliot, so close to the time of the original recordings, are invaluable (and entertaining), I’m never fond of overlapping the intros! Great for scholarship, maybe not so great for repeated listening.

But, man….I’ve read frequently through the years that the group’s original masters were lost, so, irrespective of whatever magnificent claims anyone might have made for restoring them, the general consensus has been that, unless you owned the original albums released in the sixties on clean vinyl, you weren’t hearing the real vocals laid down by what Cass herself was not shy about saying was the best vocal group of the era (and, laying aside the Temptations, who admittedly had an approach that was far enough afield to make comparison difficult in the extreme, I’m not shy about agreeing with her–or in repeating, as I often do, that it was the true golden age of American singing).

I think the consensus now is that if Real Gone’s Mike Milchner hasn’t recaptured the full glory of those lost masters, then no one ever will. I’m not going to do the usual link to a song, because nothing played on a computer would do it justice (even if I could be sure I was linking to Real Gone’s mix!).

But I will mention that I have another mini-hobby, which is playing seek-and-find with cool pictures and matching them to cool sounds. So I’ll just say Real Gone is a name I’m going to remember. Because they’ve produced a collection that’s a little like this photograph. No matter how much time you spend with it….you ain’t gonna get to the bottom.

CASSANDMICHELLE

…And is it too much to hope that they’ll redo the whole catalog? I mean, seven comps and counting, but I’m willing to go eight!

(And one last note: A word of thanks to whoever it was at ABC/Dunhill who conceived this collection at the time. The intermingling of interviews, studio chatter, etc. was nowhere near as common then as now. And, especially given Cass’ early death, the value of that conception is priceless.)

OH YEAH, NOW I REMEMBER WHAT I WAS MAD ABOUT (Bob Dylan, the Coen Brothers and Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #11)

Inside Llewyn Davis–Coen Brothers, 2013

BOBDYLAN

One reason I keep listening to music–even really familiar music–is that it keeps paving the road to understanding (not to mention truth, beauty, peace, love and harmony, besides which, people who can dance can dance to it and make me smile).

When I saw this in the theater I considered writing a long, semi-angry piece on its shortcomings (while acknowledging it had some of the Coen Brothers’ usual strengths). Time and circumstance intervened and I basically abandoned the idea.

But, this being Bob Dylan week at my house and all, I found a moment from his eponymous first album that crystalized why I thought the movie failed.

I already knew (and, had I managed to finish that original piece, would certainly have emphasized), that this (see below!) was faster, funnier, more melodic and, you know, TRUER (not to mention autobiographical, though I hasten to add that is not always the same thing as “true,” since autobiography can lie its shiny white posterior off as fast as anything else in this god-almighty-world) than any single element of Inside Llewyn Davis, forget the whole mish-mashed thing.

But “Creeque Alley” was told looking back, from the standpoint of what turned out to be not-very-stable fame and fortune which did not yet know quite how very-unstable it was going to be.

Meaning it maybe had an unfair advantage over a fictional film that was set in the days just before the Greenwich Village folk scene became a big, freaking deal.

Catching up with Dylan’s first this week, though, I was taken back to the heart of the moment–the very point in time which the Coens were trying to recapture (albeit for purposes that remained obscure both while I was watching the film and, later, wondering what I might have missed).

And, this time, it was the man whose ascendance would be part and parcel with all the reasons why anyone would want to make a film about that moment fifty years later, who brought the point home.

By being–you guessed it–faster, funnier, (at least a bit) more melodic, and, you know, TRUER (not to mention autobiographical in ways that almost certainly amounted to Robert Zimmerman lying his shiny white posterior off).

The point is, you can listen to either one of these records for the five hundredth time and still have no doubt the people who wrote and sang those words had lived lives worth making movies about–and that they were the tip of a communal iceberg.

I left Inside Llewyn Davis wondering if the early sixties’ folk scene had even happened at all–let alone how the world I had just seen depicted (if it really did exist) could have ever amounted to anything anyone might care about.

I probably took the smug nature of the film’s failures a little more personally than usual because those failures were, for me, a tad personal. I didn’t feel defensive about what the film mocked, because none of the things (or people) it mocked came anywhere near representing anything (or anyone) remotely realistic.

But I did care about what it ignored–which was the music itself.

I mean, they didn’t get any of it right. Some of it was pretty, some of it was “authentic,” some of it was “poetic,” some of it was obviously meant to be parodic. But the stuff that worked didn’t work the way commercial folk music worked and the stuff that failed (which was almost all of it) didn’t fail in the ways commercial folk did either.

If I took all this a little too hard, it was perhaps because commercial folk music–the music of big city Leftists–was my first musical love. It was my first musical love because it found its way to my conservative Christian world by virtue of the very good hearts so many of the folkies wore so proudly on their sleeves–conscientious hearts which seemed very much in tune with the world I knew.

And if that didn’t give me enough of a stake, there was the added fact that encountering the music that grew out of that scene–the folk rock of the Byrds specifically–was the first great leap to freedom I ever found in art (and, not at all incidentally, fully at one with the leap I had long since found in faith).

In other words, if somebody was going to make a movie about Greenwich Village in the early sixties, I wanted it to be skillful, sure (which Inside Llewyn Davis certainly is), but I also wanted it to be, you know…

True.

By which I very specifically do not mean merely “factual.”

What I really wanted was for it to maybe, just maybe, catch the spirit–in what is very likely to be the most high profile film ever made about this “scene”–of at least one of the thousand or so great records that (directly and indirectly) went forth from it and changed the world just a little bit for the better.

Like this, maybe:

And this–the thing that would have been worth doing, if you were going to make a film about that particular time and place which could not have been set in any other time or place because it honored what was unique about its subject matter–is something Inside Llewyn Davis, sadly, did not even attempt.

Fortunately, we do still have all those records. So maybe I’ll just keep listening.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #4: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, 1966)

MAMASANDPAPAS

“Barry (McGuire) had said that he had some friends coming through San Francisco, could I take a listen to ‘em. I had a habit of when I listened to a new group I tried not to look at the group, so not to be influenced in any way by the way they looked, but hear them as I would hear them on a record. And so they went through the four or five songs and I opened my eyes, looked up at ‘em, and that’s how I got the title of the first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, after hearing how fantastic it was and then to see what they looked like. I mean they were just back from the Caribbean, and they were scruffy as could be and Michelle was as beautiful as could be and Cass was as big as she could be and John was as tall as he could be…”

Producer/Label Owner Lou Adler (Source–California Dreamin’: The Songs Of The Mamas & The Papas DVD (2005))

I have no idea how it came across in 1966. From this distance it’s the cynosure of cool (and, yes, I kind of have a feeling it was then, too).

Weird, but I never noticed the apostrophes before. I was probably too busy worrying about the toilet (which was covered up when the album started to sell).

Or maybe Michelle’s boots.

Or what was in them.

Perfect in any case, because it was such a transcendent blend of Show Biz and Counter Culture–kind of like the music that was waiting inside.