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)

MEETTHETEMPTATIONS

At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.

TEMPTSSINGSMOEY2

So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.

TEMPTINTEMPTATINOS

 

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.

 

FOLK ROCK (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 2)

Continuing with this little idea inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the British Invasion last month.

As before, I’ve linked to live performances, or at least interesting video comps, where possible, even if they aren’t always the best vocal presentations–there’s usually a pure studio version next door on YouTube if you just want to listen to the record. Also, as before, I’ve listed lead singers for groups and relevant harmony singers (not necessarily every singer who appeared on every record).

And, once again, this is really a smattering. Most “vocal events” in rock and roll history are deep enough and broad enough to warrant their own encyclopedias. The Byrds, Bob Dylan and the Mamas and the Papas, for instance, could each easily sustain a list of this length all by themselves.

What I’m trying to do with each segment is give the general shape of the thing from a singing perspective–including all the most important voices, who did what, a little of why it mattered and what it may have felt like in the moment, plus how it resonates through the years. I encourage any and all to comment on any significant oversights! I do put some time into these but it ain’t entirely scientific.

As a final note, for all of this great genre’s vaunted (and revolutionary) lyricism–defined by, but not limited to, the emergence of Bob Dylan as the Voice of a Generation–it was, as always, the singing which put it across. Harmony singing, for instance, though it had (thanks to the Everly Brothers) been in the rock and roll mix from almost the very beginning and had been raised to new, exciting heights by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, had never been quite so central to American music and never quite would be again.

“When You Walk In The Room”–Jackie DeShannon: Released as a B-side, it crawled to #99 on the charts in the space between John Kennedy’s assassination and the Beatles’ arrival in America, staying there for exactly one week. Not the first time the future has come creeping in the back door. This was probably intended as a “girl group” record and, frankly, it works on that level, too. But she was already on to Bob Dylan and somebody, at least, was on to jangling guitars. Her record company refused to let her do an album of Dylan covers or the actual term “folk rock” might have been coined a year and half earlier than it was. (Heck a lot of things might have had names a year or two earlier than they did if the world had been in the habit of paying just a touch more heed to whatever Jackie was up to.) Anyway, with rockabilly and soul already deep in her skin, bones and vocal chords and every hipster in L. A. in her social circle, she really was the perfect harbinger.

“Laugh, Laugh”–The Beau Brummels (Sal Valentino, lead vocal): This broke out of San Francisco in the Winter of ’64. It sort of got lost, later on, that the Summer of Love San Francisco scene-sters nearly all started out as folkies. Odd, then, that the Beau Brummels should grab the spotlight first–and with Sly Stone producing no less. Their sound was nicely stripped down, though. Folk rock before it had a name, yes, but the “rock” part was from the garage. (Alternate: “You Were On My Mind” by San Francisco’s We Five, which radiates joy.)

“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes of Freedom”–The Byrds (Roger McGuinn, lead vocals, Gene Clark and David Crosby harmony vocals): The cataclysm. Summer of ’65. Of course, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the breakout, watershed, etc.–truly one of the most important records ever made. Dylan had been taken high on the charts as a protest poet (Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowing In the Wind,” Mary Travers leading) and slick-as-grease ladies’ man (P,P&M’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Noel Paul Stookey leading and laying it on even thicker than Dylan himself, which was maybe harder than anybody thought at the time). Now, he went to the very top–not as those or any of the multitude of other, occasionally dubious. things he was–but as magic realist. All well and good. But the purely vocal essence of both the Byrds and the larger cosmos they had latched onto, was perhaps better defined by “Chimes of Freedom,” which was not only more imaginatively arranged and deeply felt, but more magical and realist and Dylanesque as well. (Alternate: Their version of DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” also from their monumental first album, which, among other things, brought Bo Diddley’s beat into the mix.)

“Like a Rolling Stone”–Bob Dylan: Speaking of cataclysms. Greil Marcus wrote a good book about this one and I don’t think I really have anything to add except to say that it’s worth writing a book about.

“The Sound of Silence”–Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, shared lead vocals): (Also known as “The Sounds of Silence.” I’m using Simon’s preference.) Recorded a bit earlier, when folk harmony duos were all the rage on the folk scene and nowhere else. Even the success of British variants like Peter and Gordon in the wake of the Beatles success couldn’t get the concept off the ground in Middle America. But the duo (which had broken up by the summer of 65) had been signed to Columbia and, after the Byrds and Dylan smashed out, producer Tom Wilson decided to see how the folkies would sound with electric guitars and an echo chamber. Turned out it sounded like a natural #1. The boom was on. Thrown back together by the record’s unlikely ride up the charts, Paul and Artie sounded like they could finish each other’s heartbeats. They’ve been fighting ever since.

“Do You Believe In Magic”–The Lovin’ Spoonful (John Sebastian, lead vocal): Here, the “magic” was rock and roll, which was a pretty heady admission for any folkie as deep-dyed as John Sebastian–I mean, the man played an autoharp. Probably the best example, among an army of such, of a singer–and a band–forced out of their collective comfort zone by the times. They retreated soon enough, but while the walls were down they went a lot further than anybody could have guessed in the days before Bob Dylan and Jackie DeShannon came along. Never further than this, their brightest of many shining moments.

“It Ain’t Me Babe”–The Turtles (Howard Kaylan, lead vocal): A heartbeat earlier, they were the Crossfires and you know a concept is breaking big when it catches up the local surf band and turns them into singing folkies. And you also know the local surf band isn’t just any old band–that they might have a run of hits in them–when they make it sound this good.

“I Got You Babe”–Sonny and Cher: What was it George Melly said? Revolt into style? Something like that. (Alternate: “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, which sounds even better but lacks the essence of a Zeitgeist that’s bound to occur whenever Cher is involved in either the revolt or the style. NOTE: It could be my imagination, but judging by the chilly audience reception in the otherwise very charming Top of the Pops clip I linked, the Brits may really have seen folk rock as a very specific threat to the Pop hegemony the Beatles had established on an almost gut-level. In which case, they were right. Or maybe Sonny had ticked somebody off. Yeah, that could be it.)

“Turn, Turn, Turn”–The Byrds (Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, shared lead vocals, David Crosby, harmony vocal): Go tell it on the mountain. Look forward, look back.

“Eve of Destruction”–Barry McGuire: Go tell it on the mountain again. Tell everybody an earthquake is coming.

“California Dreaming”–The Mamas and the Papas (Denny Doherty, lead vocal; Cass Elliot, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, harmony vocals): The greatest pure vocal group in folk rock and probably in all of rock and roll, with two fantastic leads (one male, one female) and, because of the unrivaled gender balance, so many ways to approach harmony that my lifetime of listening has never stopped yielding surprises. And their credentials were fully established before they escaped the first line of their first record. (Incidentally, I heard a right wing talk show host play this coming out of a commercial break just the other day. He wanted to make some point about the uselessness of hippies–yes they still do that. He thought this was the song to do it with. Believe me, it was a mistake.)

“Go Where You Wanna Go”–The Mamas and the Papas: Lead? Harmony? Who knows. The dynamics are literally head-spinning. The lyric is a great shout of freedom, something you might have expected from the early Beatles. The vocal arrangement, which might be the tightest in the history of the universe, is also so expansive that it actually amounts to a shout of maniacal laughter directly in the face of any and all listeners (let alone any rival singers) who try to keep all the way up. All that without being too tricky for its own good. Given what happened–to them and the world–it winds up in a rather disorienting place. Every time it starts, I think it’s bound to end happily and every time it ends I can’t believe I got fooled again. Can’t get more folk or rock than that. (By way of comparison, the Fifth Dimension, who have a claim on being one of the dozen or so greatest vocal groups of the rock and roll era themselves, covered this, had a hit with it, and sounded like somebody had stranded them in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.)

“Sloop John B”–The Beach Boys (Brian Wilson and Mike Love, lead vocals, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, harmony vocals): Having had no small amount of influence on the scene themselves, it figured they’d make at least onr classic of the form. That it would be an actual folk song–and from the West Indies at that–was maybe not so obvious. Nor was the fact that they would improve the concept so dramatically.

“For What It’s Worth”–(Stephen Stills, lead vocal, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin, harmony vocals): Stills looked out the window (or something) and saw some kids being hassled over protesting the closing of a night club (or something). Wrote this song, waxed his greatest vocal by far, and proved a point: All politics is local (or something).

“Different Drum”–The Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt, lead vocal): Not my favorite Ronstadt by a long shot, but a necessary deep breath in the wake of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” and a look ahead to some essential elements of California Rock (and, actually, pretty darn great for all that).

“Too Much of Nothing”–Peter, Paul and Mary (Mary Travers, lead vocal, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, harmony vocals: They had put Bob Dylan on the charts, and done it so far ahead of anybody else that it is hardly a given he would have gotten there at all if they hadn’t made him–and management–a bucket-load of money practically right out of the box. (Laugh if you want, but it never happened for Woody Guthrie and the times hadn’t changed all that much.) That said, there wasn’t much “rock” in their early sound. They smoked this, though, and, on the live version I linked, you can hear (and even see, frankly) Stookey’s roots in doo-wop.

“She Belongs to Me”–Rick Nelson: A chance for a rocker–and a weary teen idol–to pause, take his time, find his natural rhythm, maybe grow up. (Alternate: Bobby Darin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” and ditto.)

“Abraham, Martin and John” and “Sonny Boy” and “Daddy Rollin”–Dion: There had to be one definitive topical record in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive tribute to the blues in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive song about drug addiction in a genre that was so deeply associated with the radicalizing aspects of the sixties. Happened that the same guy sang all three–in 1968, when all that stuff pretty much had to happen. Not saying that guy had to be a New York doo-wopper recovering from his own drug addiction of course. But it worked out that way. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a link to “Sonny Boy.”)

“Meet On the Ledge”–Fairport Convention (Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, dueling lead vocals): The Beatles and the Stones were hardly immune to folk rock and its key practitioners were hardly immune to them. But the Fabs really were a tad slick and the Stones really were a bit louche. That’s a lot of what made them great, mind you, but for a genuine British variant of “folk” and “rock,” I think this dove much deeper into the connection than, say, “Yesterday,” or “Ruby Tuesday.” (Alternate, looking forward: Robert Plant and Denny dueling on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin IV–an album that represents but one of the interesting directions this concept took in the seventies. Alternate, looking back: Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” which I wrote about in the British Invasion portion of the program linked above.)

“Freedom”–Richie Havens: Now there had to be something great in the form that would become attached at the hip to Woodstock. Without that, the cosmos really would have gone all out of whack–God might no longer recognize us at all. And why shouldn’t it be by the dude who owned the coffee-house circuit in the days when the idea of moving so many masses was just so many gleams in so many folk-singer’s eyes? Actually, why would it be by anybody else?

“Get Together”–The Youngbloods (Jessie Colin Young, lead vocal, Jerry Corbit, harmony vocal): A song so many people had taken a shot at that, by 1969, when this became a hit, it must have seemed next to impossible that anybody would ever define it. Turned out somebody already had, all the way back in 1967, when they recorded it. Very folk, that. And very rock and roll. (The link is to a medley, of which “Get Together” is only a small piece…but it’s too perfect a time capsule to pass up. Where else can you find Milton Berle asking for a “warm recession?”)

“Put a Little Love In Your Heart”–Jackie Deshannon: An apotheosis from the founding mother–understatement and urgency tugging on each other’s sleeves. Perhaps the finest purely vocal evocation of the better world waiting that, of course, never arrived.

“We Can Be Together”–Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick and Marty Balin, shared lead vocals, Paul Kantner, harmony vocal): Had to get some genuinely radical politics in there somewhere. The difference, if you will, between waiting for a better world and demanding it. Not that it ended up making much difference, but it’s nice to recall that somebody–anybody, however callow–once actually tried.

“Ohio”–Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Neil Young, lead vocal, David Crosby, harmony vocal, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, additional harmony vocals): The dirge of history and tragedy and violence that was lying under the folk part of folk rock all along (not to speak of the righteous anger), finally boiling all the way to the surface, with a guitar line that always makes it seem impossible any singer can live up to it, right up until Neil Young opens his mouth.

“Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Maggie May”–Rod Stewart (Maggie Bell and Long John Baldry, harmony vocals on “Every Picture Tells a Story”): Well, like I said, the concept went in interesting directions, including straight back to the blues. I suspect the narratives of these two songs are the sort of story the Coen Brothers were really trying to tell in their recent homage to the early sixties folk scene Inside Llewyn Davis (a scene which Rod Stewart, of course, had nothing to do with but it turned out that a wannabe soccer hooligan diverted by his talent into lasting fame and fortune knew more about it than all their research could discover). Not too surprisingly, they lacked the nerve. Then again, their considerable skill was bound to be squandered. No amount of mere nerve would have let them tell these tales anywhere near as well.

“Lean On Me”–Bill Withers: Back to the healing basics, sans any trace of  the old utopianism. And actually a purer example of this style by now so fully incorporated it could go almost anywhere than, say, “Heart of Gold” or “Horse With No Name.” And I’m pretty sure this was the only folk rock record to ever hit #1 on the R&B charts, which it reached the week after the Watergate break-in and initial arrests sent an early sign that the reactionary chill which always follows a revolution (no matter the outcome) and was bound to leave us in need of a little basic healing, had begun in earnest.

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”–Bob Dylan: World weary theme from a Sam Peckinpah movie. Hard to think of a better way to close down the concept than that.