SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST (Occasional Sports’ Moment #28)

Vis-a-vis the Giants-Cubs game of 10/1//16, let me repeat the rules from the Giants-Mets game of last week, when the shoe was on the other foot.

First, the new scenario: Giants lead 5-2 going to the ninth at home, trying to stave off elimination. Manager Bruce Bochte (one of the game’s best) takes out pitcher Matt Moore, who has pitched eight innings of two-hit ball with ten strikeouts (and clearly gotten stronger as the game has gone on).

The result, one inning and five pitchers later?

Book the Cubs for the NLCS.

Now for the new rules, same as the old rules:

  1. Never take a hot pitcher out if you’re tied or ahead (no, not even to pinch hit for him). This goes double for a post season game.
  2. If the other dugout wants you to take your guy out….you shouldn’t.

Yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

And now, for a little ditty:

THE RISING….1975, WHAT A CONCEPT (Sixth Memo: Mixed Race Edition)

timelife1975

As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.

Then again, there’s the music.

That’s trickier.

The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.

What a happy journey that’s been!

I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.

Or maybe politics.

I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?

I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.

I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?

Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?

I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.

And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.

Yeah. That’s always fun.

19752

(Linda Ronstadt and band, on the road in ’75)

Track 1: “You’re No Good” Linda Ronstadt

The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.

All very typical.

Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of  the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.

All still pretty typical.

Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.

It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.

Good start.

Leg up to ’75.

Track 2: “Jackie Blue” Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

By 1975, “Southern Rock” was a sufficiently big deal for some marketing genius to decide the form needed its own version of the Eagles.

Perverse genius? Or merely perverse?

Like so much else back then, and so little now, that’s for each person to decide.

Track 3: “That’s the Way (I Like It)” KC and the Sunshine Band

kc1

Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.

[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]

Track 4: “Must of Got Lost” J. Geils Band

From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”

And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.

Track 5: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” War

Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.

Track 6: “Sister Golden Hair” America

What’s that you say? 1975 deserves every kick you can give it?

“Too, too hard to find?” you say?

Okay. Maybe.

But you know, I just say, “You’re no good, Jackie Blue, and that’s the way I like it, so I must of got lost and just why can’t we be friends sister golden hair?”

I also sing along every single damn time it comes on the radio.

Track 7: “Philadelphia Freedom” Elton John

Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?

Of course it was.

But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.

Track 8: “Black Water”The Doobie Brothers

Slick West Coasters channeling Mark Twain. Literally. We’re riding along easily now. The spirit of AM Gold is achieving a touch of somnolence. Maybe the world really did need a wake up call?

Track 9: “Love is a Rose” Linda Ronstadt

Maybe. And perfectly fine. But it’s no “You’re No Good.”

Track 10: “How Long” Ace

Yes, I feel myself fading. Bobby Womack and Rod Stewart were among the many who later tried to kick this to life. They, too, were defeated.

Track 11: “Dance With Me” Orleans

And if I’m asleep, this isn’t likely to wake me.

Not that sleep is a bad thing. Necessarily.

Track 12: “Freebird” Lynyrd Skynyrd

A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.

Track 13: “You Are So Beautiful” Joe Cocker

Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.

Wish they had gone with Tanya Tucker’s version.

Track 14: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” Bad Company

A true taste divider. To some, meh. To others, the incarnation of every-wrong-mid-seventies-thing.

What I hear is a great white blues and a natural answer record to Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” which had gone top ten R&B in the fall of ’73.

Track 15: “Lady Marmalade” LaBelle

labelle1

And while we’re at it, why not a natural #1 (Pop and R&B) about a hooker suckering a chump down in old New Orleans? (And if you only link one video here…)

Track 16: “Pick Up the Pieces” Average White Band

Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?

The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing  was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.

Track 17: “Island Girl” Elton John

A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.

Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.

Of course it was.

kikidee1

Track 18: “Some Kind of Wonderful” Grand Funk

Yes, they had dropped the “Railroad.”

A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.

Get away from me ’75!

Track 19: “The Hustle” Van McCoy

Okay. Come back ’75. Let Van McCoy celebrate his career by naming an era-defining dance after it and tripping the light fantastic.

Track 20: “Let’s Do It Again” The Staple Singers

Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.

By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.

Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.

Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.

Speak to me ’75!

And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.

staplesingers

(The Staple Singers…reaching for higher ground)

MY FAVORITE SHANGRI-LAS RECORD…NOT BY THE SHANGRI-LAS (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Without even going into if-you’re-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail mode, it’s not difficult to hear the Shangri-La Effect seeping into the subsequent history of rock and roll. Almost anything that smacks of emotional extremism (especially extremism validated) owes them some sort of debt. That’s why large swathes of metal, punk, gangsta rap et al are hard to imagine without them even if few in those genres ever put as much of themselves at stake as Mary Weiss on an actual record…let alone one record after another.

But I’m actually going to ignore most of that–and most of the straight rips, parodies and inevitable posturing as well. I’m going to stick with the records I think actually lived up to the Shangri-Las ethos, those they might have been proud to call their own. And since even that list could get pretty long, I’ll stick to the very top where even a handful of selections amount to a shadow history of the world mostly hidden in plain sight. As ever, most to mostest:

“Love Child” Diana Ross and the Supremes (1968): A little obvious, but it’s worth noting that even Motown–hip to everything–took nearly half a decade to catch up to the implications of pretty much every song recorded by the group which was hurt most by the absence of Motown style management.

“I’m Eighteen” Alice Cooper (1970): This would have been really liberating for Weiss, who often sang as though she didn’t expect to reach eighteen. This would have needed a transfer from the first person (“he’s eighteen” for “i’m eighteen”). No problem. Weiss was all about empathy. And in case you think the Shangs weren’t adept at gender re-writes, you should check their version of Jay and the Americans’ “She Cried” and remember that Jay Traynor (the first “Jay”) was a much better singer than Alice. Well, except for maybe just this once.

“Wish You Were Here” Pink Floyd (1975): David Gilmour has acknowledged his Shangs’ influence (well, Shadow Morton’s anyway). This was the one record where the debt  turned from visceral to spiritual. I never heard it, oddly, until Fred Durst sang it at the memorial concert for the victims of 9/11. Since then, I’ve never been able to unhear it, or ever wanted to.

“Because the Night” Patti Smith Group (1978): A song Weiss expressed specific regret about (“God I would have loved to sing that song”) when she finally emerged from exile decades later. She heard her own influence–or felt her own hidden presence–even if nobody else did.

“The Coldest Days of My Life” The Chi-Lites (1972): The Shangri-Las were the basic girl group ethos in extremis. Coming from far left field, reaching for the same space, this is the Shangs’ own ethos in extremis.

“Independence Day” Martina McBride (1994): Just in case you thought country Gothic was a horse of a different color.

“Papa Don’t Preach” Madonna (1986): Certainly the greatest Shangs’ tribute record ever made, even if it was never acknowledged as such.Featuring Madonna’s greatest vocal, it even quotes “Give Us Your Blessings” directly. Apropos from the woman who benefited the most from the space the Shangri-Las opened up. Eventually, she turned that space into her own personal joke on the world, something along the lines of “Fooled ya’!” But for a brief, shining moment there, she stood on the highest mountain.

But it wasn’t quite the greatest Shangri-Las’ record not made by the Shangri-Las.

For that, you need to go back to the beginning, the one moment when the direct competition measured up in the moment.

“I’m Nobody’s Baby Now” Reparata and the Delrons (1966)

…Did I mention that summer was here? The summer of our discontent no less. Should be fun!

NEXT UP: My Favorite Truly Obscure B-Side

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.

THE LAST GOOD CHEATING SONG (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #79)

Well, the last to make the charts and actually hurt anyway.

Jennifer Nettles has been reliably good for a little over a decade on country radio (first as the voice of Sugarland, lately solo). She’s crossed over into transcendence once, on 2007’s “Stay.” It’s a cheating song with a twist and you wouldn’t think that would be any big deal on a country record, even in this super-polished new century of ours.

By itself, it’s not. There are still plenty of cheating songs on country radio. But there are two elements that made “Stay” a grabber on the radio and indelible in the memory. One is the lyric twist, which is the best on the theme since the Shangri-Las’ “Never Again” (which didn’t even get released as a B-side). That’s the one where Mary Weiss starts out pleading with her boyfriend to “stop playing games” which include his threat to “walk out that door,” then spends the song talking herself into ignoring his latest empty promise and walking out the door herself.

Well nothing could top that, but “Stay” at least gets in the ball park. Nettles plays what sounds at first like a cheated-on wife, begging her husband to stay with her instead of running off to his mistress. Soon enough it becomes clear that she’s actually the mistress, begging the cheater not to run back to his wife. That part’s clever, even moving. But the twist sinks in when it ends up being an updated version of “Never Again.” The woman proceeds to talk herself, and the man she’s about to let go of, into a new proposition.

You know: Next time you’re in her bed and thinking about coming over…”Why don’t you stay.”

If you’ve got a voice like Jennifer Nettles, you can put a chill on that. It may be that she needs a lyric that complex to give the voice its full expression, because she’s never been anywhere near that space that exists way out past “reliable” on any other record.

Where she has been near, and even in, that space now and again is in her live performances. Big arenas match the size of her voice, too, so there is plenty of evidence on YouTube that she’d go from good to great if she could manage to achieve the intimacy she routinely creates in front of twenty thousand people with any regularity in a recording studio.

But, until yesterday, I never believed a version of “Stay” (and I’d heard several) could soar past the record like this one does.

That’s probably because one thing I never imagined, for “Stay” any more than for “Never Again,” was that it might benefit from audience participation….

LOOKS AREN’T EVERYTHING…BUT THEY AREN’T NOTHING (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #78)

I came across this picture of what the Shangri-Las looked like when they looked like what every record company wanted every teen girl group to look like:

shangri-lasyoung

And after they decided what they wanted to look like (becoming, so far as I can tell, the first rock and roll women to force such a choice on the world)?

This…

shangrilasalbum1

“That’s why I like those outfits on the Leader album. That was my thing.”
“Whose suggestion was that?”
“Nobody’s. That was us.”

(Mary Weiss, from the Norton Records interview posted at their website in 2007, which, unfortunately, has been removed. Suffice it to say she went on at some length to also suggest it was no big deal. She shopped the Village thrift stores. That was how they dressed. Trust me, it was/is a big deal. Enough of a big deal that a number of folks spent a lot of time and effort across several decades suggesting/implying they couldn’t possibly have thought of it themselves.)

Not that they needed those outfits, or any other sympathetic element, to get their point across, or keep their cool….Not even in the presence of the man who inspired Elvis to shoot televisions–that’s Robert Goulet on the motorcycle, mocking them–on the show hosted by the man who had Elvis sing to a basset hound–it’s Steve Allen’s show.

MARY WEISS REMEMBERS…AND I REMEMBER (Segue of the Day: 5/31/16)

First, Mary Weiss remembers 1964.

I probably should have linked to these a while ago. Just slipped my mind actually, but I ran across them again today–two snippets from an interview Mary Weiss gave at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame several years back. I wish they would post the whole thing, but the small segments made available are worth listening to in their entirety. Key quote for those in touch with the spirit of this blog:

“Plus I think it was very difficult back then because I truly believe that a lot of men were considered artists, whether or not other people wrote for them, where women were considered product. And I always found that difficult to accept because rock and roll has no sex to me. Maybe my thinking’s screwed up. But I don’t think so.”

Other key quote, on the Everly Brothers:

“…an encyclopedia of harmony.”

Personally, I’d like to see the Shangri-Las inducted into the Hall if only to hear what further bits of sanity Weiss might have to impart in the inevitable round of interviews, not to mention her induction speech. Maybe my thinking’s screwed up…..But I don’t think so.

…and just in case you think the inability to lie ever goes away (as I remember 2007):

 

 

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Thirteenth Maxim)

This was almost going to be an update to The Story That Never Ends. Recent inductee Steve Miller’s call for more women artists to join him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has evoked a few responses here and there which makes me hopeful there is a groundswell developing that might ultimately benefit some long overlooked artists.

Then again, with friends like these….

Rolling Stone‘s contribution to the conversation is under a title-only-a-committee-of-future-commissars-could-conceive: “Fifteen Women Who Could Be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (I think we’re about two elections away from whoever came up with that being put in charge of inducing famine in the northern plains’ states…but I digress.)

No, it doesn’t really name “fifteen women”–rather fifteen female acts (several being groups). But we’ll let that pass.

No, it doesn’t limit itself to redressing the legitimate grievance–that a number of actual “rock and roll women” have been given short shrift. It’s littered, instead, with crit-faves from other forms (Joan Baez from folk, Patsy, Dolly and Loretta from country–all good candidates for my recommended category of “Contemporary Influence” but not really credible as rock and roll performers). But we’ll let that pass.

And it does make a pretty good case for the Shangri-Las. That’s always welcome news around here. Admittedly, this phrase is passing strange: “…they’re perhaps the girl group most beloved of critics and rock fans.” I don’t know about fans, but if critics, who make up most of the nominating committee, loved the Shangri-Las more than any other girl group, they probably would have nominated them some time (as they have the Shirelles, the Supremes, the Ronettes and Martha and the Vandellas, all Hall members, or the Chantels or the Marvelettes, both at least nominated in the past). Of course, they should have done just that, but they haven’t, so that part in an otherwise not entirely incoherent paragraph, is gibberish.

But we’ll let that pass.

Have to, for now, because the very next entry is for Dionne Warwick and it reads like this:

Kicking off her career with the wounded, yet stalwart “Don’t Make Me Over,” the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B. Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts. Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks. 

I don’t normally do interpretations of cluelessness and Bad English, but since no one can be expected to swallow that whole, I’ll take a shot.

the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B…

Well, no one voice ever “defined the sound of R&B,” not even Fats Domino’s or Little Richard’s or James Brown’s or Otis Redding’s or Aretha Franklin’s. Dionne Warwick came pretty close to defining supper club soul, an honorable, if much derided sub-genre, which she more or less invented and which gave both soul and rock much wider audiences than they otherwise might have expected during the heart of the era when those forms dominated both the charts and whatever part of the culture still had meaning. So why not just say that?

Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David…

Her phrasing and power had nothing to do with how catchy her songs were. The catchiness was provided by the aforementioned writers (Bacharach did the melodies, David the lyrics). She inspired those songs and provided their heartbreak. So why not just say that?

…and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts.

This is what’s called a non sequitur. Actually, since it finishes the sentence begun by the previous phrase, it’s at very least a double non sequitur. It could be a triple non sequitur, since the previous phrase quite possibly contains its own non sequitur (power and phrasing having nothing to do, strictly speaking, with the catchiness for which she was not responsible anyway), but my head already hurts so we’ll leave that alone, too. In any case, the catchiness of her songs has, in this purely linguistic context, nothing to do with her being the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England (which, in turn, has nothing to do with why she should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as the same honor might easily have befallen, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Nancy Wilson or any number of others who also sang catchy songs and exemplified the various ways in which African-American women could be supper club classy without coming anywhere near “rock and roll,” lest you think I was kidding when I said Dionne invented the “soul” part of that equation or that I failed to clarify that it’s the precise reason she should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since), which, in turn, has nothing to do with “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” coming out the same year (that’s best called a coincidence, I think, though other descriptions might apply as well).

[Note: There was a time, not that long ago, when writing like this in a high school English class would have drawn a bunch of red marks and the student would have been required to write it over. There was a time, not that long ago, when the same thing might have happened at Rolling Stone….But we’ll let that pass.]

Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks. 

Okay, I don’t really know what any of that has to do with Dionne Warwick’s worthiness for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (except that the writer(s) may have had a nagging suspicion they had somehow failed to clinch the case with their previous points of emphasis). But I think what it basically means is that they believe “That’s What Friends Are For,” godawful even by the standards of “cause-minded tracks,” is greater than this…

…one of the greatest records–and greatest vocals–ever waxed.

Cause enough, all by itself, for this…

The Thirteenth Maxim: Learn English so that thou wilt not make thy reader’s teeth grind and, in true non sequitur fashion, bring about the End of Days!.

MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

87

(My favorite rock critic, at 41, the year I was born.)

The earliest memory I retain with any certainty happened when I was four (or five) years old. It was the Christmas season of 1964 (or 1965). My favorite rock critic and and my sister and I were walking through a shopping mall (somewhere in Florida…my memory says Merritt Square, the internet says it didn’t open until 1970 so maybe it was Titusville or even Orlando…I know I wasn’t nine, I swear my memory is at least that clear). My favorite rock critic was holding my hand (or else my sister was). They were piping music through the mall (or whatever it was). I wasn’t paying the least attention to the music. Until I was. Something new and wonderful started playing (or maybe it was the chorus that got me) and I broke away from whoever was holding my hand and started running towards that sound.

The only problem was, the sound was being piped over speakers that pointed from every direction. This probably saved me from getting lost in a bustling Christmas crowd, because, having completely lost my senses, I started running around in circles. My favorite rock critic could no longer run, so it was left to my sister to finally catch me, after which they both kept asking me “What is it?”

I couldn’t tell them.

76

(My favorite rock critic, my brother-in-law and me, circa the time period in question. Memory says the play list was heavy on Peter, Paul & Mary. Lovely. But they were not who was playing at the mall…or wherever.)

I probably knew the words “music” and “song.” They were concepts my favorite rock critic lived for. But, in that moment, overwhelmed by that sound, I wasn’t able to call up the words. My senses weren’t merely lost but overwhelmed. I was, for the first and last time in my life, experiencing a strange, benumbing combination of physical pain and an insistent inner command to laugh out loud, which, for some reason, I could not obey.

All I could do was keep pointing at the roof of the mall (or wherever it was).

And that was all I was ever able to do.

Years later, when I finally bought the record that was playing over some set of surround sound speakers somewhere in Central Florida in 1964 or 1965 (on an “oldies” 45, which I still have), I didn’t even think to ask my favorite rock critic if she remembered this little incident. Nor did I ever think to ask afterwards. Because I didn’t think to ask, I’ll never know.

She loved the record. I remember that much. My favorite rock critic had killer taste. Just listen and hear…

 *    *    *    *

My favorite rock critic never bought records herself (she was into sheet music).

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(My favorite rock critic, a little later on. With her sheet music….Or somebody’s.)

There were some kids’ records around the house when I was growing up, and some albums my father picked up at thrift stores, mostly Broadway soundtracks or easy listening instrumentals. I listened here and there after I learned to work the stereo’s record player. If I listened to the radio, it was to Braves’ games or college football. Never the radio. If I knew the words to any pop song, “Snowbird” say, it was from my favorite rock critic’s song books, the vast majority of which were religious. My favorite rock critic arranged and directed church choirs when she wasn’t singing in them or, more likely, in front of them. There was music everywhere at my house. Just not much rock and roll.

The first peak at my own future came when my sister moved out, for the last time, after my brother-in-law came back from Viet Nam. She left her 45s, which consisted of a Little Richard that was too beat up to play (I can close my eyes and still see every single thing on that Specialty label except the title), Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing In the Sunshine,” which I liked well enough to learn the words to (and which I still have), and this one (which I also still have):

Unless maybe it can be traced to that experience above (about which more later…reveal at the end!), I don’t doubt my inordinate affection for what, in those days, were still called “girl” singers, dates from the summer afternoons when I was ten, eleven, twelve, when I played “Ode to Billie Joe” ten, eleven, twelve times in a row, day after day, while my favorite rock critic went about her business, never once asking me to stop or play something else or even becoming the least exasperated when I asked her, yet again, for the tenth or eleventh or twelfth time “What does it mean?”

“There were a lot of rumors when it came out,” she would say. “But nobody really knows.”

I was convinced, in those days, that my favorite rock critic, the most honest person I knew (or ever would know), was keeping some horrible adult secret from me. I was convinced of it, even though she never had the least bit of trouble telling me I was too young if I really was. Such is the power of the Gothic tale.

By the way, I’ll save my deep thoughts for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” post some day, but this much I can say here: There are still a lot of rumors about what “Ode to Billie Joe” means. And just because Bobbie Gentry has taken a stab at explaining it herself, doesn’t mean anybody really knows.

 *   *    *    *

You might think that, having been captured by a 45, I would seek to replicate the experience. I did not. I’m not sure why. Money would certainly have been an object. I didn’t have any. I did not get an allowance. Any money I made working for my father, from nine to nineteen, went into a college fund (which would remain untouched and, in its interest-bearing entirety, one day pay for exactly three months at university…there were reasons we did not buy many records at my house).

But it’s just as possible that, being surrounded by music in the house, I did not feel any great need to seek it elsewhere. And still more possible that being captured by that particular 45 put a brake on what might otherwise have been my natural development.

In any case, time passed, and we moved to another part of the state. For reasons I went on at some length about here and here and here, I became a record junkie.

And a smart aleck.

One day, in my full-blown smark alecky phase–sixteen maybe, or seventeen–I was listening to the radio in my room (yeah I listened to the real radio by then, a lot). The local Top 40 came out of South Alabama and played a mix of current hits and oldies. It was a Saturday and me and my favorite rock critic were cleaning my room and one of Roy Orbison’s ballads came on. “Only the Lonely” if memory serves. Roy at his greatest. Elvis’ favorite singer. I thought I’d play a smart aleck joke on my favorite rock critic, who was a huge Elvis fan, so I spent two and half minutes convincing her it was Elvis. She didn’t buy it at first, but I was so convincing, and she so much believed I was sufficiently like her that I wouldn’t treat such a thing frivolously or pointlessly, that she finally accepted my truth. Elvis sang “Only the Lonely.”

And then?

One of Elvis’s ballads came on. God help me if it wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” which, perhaps sacrilegiously, I’ve never really considered primo Elvis and, as a record, wouldn’t consider in the same league with “Only the Lonely” even to this day.

Except…The joke, my joke, was about the voices. Not the records.

As my favorite rock critic liked to tell people with a smile ever after, when she, never I, would bring up the story: “And you could hear the difference….Right away.”

By which she meant, you could hear why Elvis was Elvis, even on “Love Me Tender” and why even Roy Orbison wasn’t, even on “Only the Lonely.”

And, God help me, you could.

That was the last time I tried to play a musical joke on anybody, let alone my favorite rock critic.

But something about that moment made us closer (perhaps I should say even closer) than we had been. I think the shock I felt at being so coyly betrayed by the Cosmos, and the clarity with which I learned my lesson, left her with a feeling that we might meet in the middle on my new favorite subject…that she might yet teach me something about it that couldn’t be learned in books.

She taught me.

One thing she taught me was not to take professional rock critics too seriously. A few years later, I gave her Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with which I was very much impressed at the time, to read. Her response to the Elvis part was, “Well, at least he treated him with some respect.” Which was her way of saying he didn’t quite get it, a judgment time has confirmed. On the other hand, her response to Marcus’s description of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” (“a vision of heaven superimposed on a vision of hell”), which I read to her right after I played her the record, was: “Yes, that’s perfect.” Meaning both the record and the description, judgments time has also confirmed.

And she “got” things I didn’t get but someday would: Everything from Grease to, yes, Elvis.

Most of all, my favorite rock critic got voices. Their power, their seduction and, above all else, their cost. The only two voices she ever described as being “like an angel,” were Martin Luther King’s and Karen Carpenter’s. I’m not sure I took that comparison (which she never made directly) all that seriously. Kinda silly really. Until Karen Carpenter turned up dead. Turned out, my favorite rock critic knew, just by listening, who was likely to be chased out of this world by hellhounds. So while I didn’t know if she was wise beyond her years, I soon learned she was wise beyond mine. There was, for instance, no chance anyone raised by my favorite rock critic would ever be taken in by Johnny Rotten (the way to dusty death for me, whatever he meant to you).

Thus, there were some happy days, of which a few still stand out:

One day I was listening to this…

…and she asked me who it was. When I told her, she smiled and nodded and said: “I knew it had to be brothers. Only families can harmonize like that.”

Voices.

Another day, (the day after I brought it home and played it as incessantly as I’d played “Ode to Billie Joe” once upon a time), this…

My favorite rock critic: “Now who did that song you were playing last night.”
Me: “A group called the Shangri-Las.”
My favorite rock critic (with her familiar smile and nod): “I thought it was them. I always remembered them because they were always so different.”

Voices.

Another day, this…

…to which, assuredly: “That’s as good as Little Richard.”

Voices.

Another day, this (just out on the radio)…

The opening chord was chiming as we pulled into a parking space at the bank, me driving (she didn’t), me in control of the radio (she always let me), me ready to go inside, her saying: “Oh let’s listen to this.” To this day, I don’t know whether my favorite rock critic loved the song or just knew I did. She’d have told me if I asked. But my favorite rock critic knew I wouldn’t.

Voices. Or maybe just sounds.

Another day, this…

My favorite rock critic, with her eyes closed, ten seconds into hearing it for the first time and not knowing the Band from Adam: “They must have played together for years to have that kind of timing.”

Voices. Or sounds.

Another day, it might be this…

or this….

And my favorite rock critic would say something like “Where do you find these?” and I would be able to recount little tales of the record collector’s art that, among other things, demonstrated that professional rock critics were not always entirely worthless!

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(My favorite rock critic in her element. That’s our long-gone stereo behind the chair. I still have the guitar. I can’t play a lick and it’s one of exactly three physical possessions that will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.)

Then, one day, it was late in the game, toward the change, when the happy days weren’t so common and were more typified by me playing something like this…

And my favorite rock critic, eyes closed, her own voice racked by age and disease, sighing and saying, “I used to sing like that.” To which my father, befuddled, said “You never sounded like that.” Meaning my favorite rock critic was an operatic soprano, not a soul baritone. To which I said, as gently as I could: “That’s not what she meant.” Meaning even my favorite rock critic never spoke truer.

Voices.

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(My favorite rock critic, near the end of happy days)

Anybody who has followed the blog knows my favorite rock critic was a major Elvis fan.

They may not know that she always thought if she could have reached Elvis somehow she could have saved his life. Tom Petty was among the many who thought the same. I doubt anyone could have, but if anyone could have, I’d have bet on my favorite rock critic before I bet on anyone else.

They may know that my favorite rock critic used to tell stories about singing with the hobos, who eventually taught her to hop trains, in the Salisbury, North Carolina train yard when she was barely older than I was when I had my first musical memory.

They may not know that she started to give me and our pastor’s son guitar lessons but went in the hospital two lessons in for one of her longer stays. By the time she got out, the pastor’s son was on summer vacation. By the time he got back, his father had found a new church. I don’t think either she or I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to take guitar lessons again was that my nine or ten year old self–not much younger than she was when she hopped those trains and rode them only to the edge of town–arrived at some subconscious conclusion that guitar lessons equaled hospital visits and there were enough of those already.

That’s how it is, sometimes, when your favorite rock critic happens to be the person who brought you into this world.

If I’m even a little bit better person than I was born to be, I have my favorite rock critic to thank. And wherever she is now, I know she can see and hear my earliest memory–wherever and whenever it was–far more clearly than I can.

And, if she ever thinks about that moment when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, wherever and whenever it was, I know she’s smiling, knowing it turned out okay.

Here’s to then….And to Voices. And sounds.

Happy Mother’s Day!

(Next Up: My Favorite Music to Break Rulers By…By Which I Mean the Kind You Can Use for Drumsticks If You Don’t Have Drums)

MORE NOTES FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS–April 26, 2016 (The Shangri-Las, Greil Marcus and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

From Marcus’s latest “Real Life” column (and from whence, upon a little further research, came yesterday’s post):

8. The Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack” (Red Bird, 1964) Another shot on the Trump rally soundtrack—against the objections of Shangri-Las lead singer Mary Weiss. But really, Trump ought to know the song. He was 18 in New York when the New York group hit the top of the charts. Doesn’t he realize the leader of the pack dies?

(Source: Pitchfork, “Real Life Rock Top 10” 4/25/16)

The answer, incidentally, is you bet he does. Many sources have confirmed that Trump picks his own rally music. I believe them, and, however comforting the notion might be, I don’t believe anything is there by virtue of accident or misunderstanding.

As to what it means? Well Marcus took a stab at it, following on from his next entry, which turned on Steve Miller’s recent laudable call for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “to keep expanding your vision. To be more inclusive of women. And to be more transparent in your dealing with the public. And to do much more to provide music in our schools.”

Women: the Shangri-Las have never been nominated, let alone inducted. But maybe that’s why Donald Trump doesn’t really know “Leader of the Pack”—they’re losers, and he doesn’t truck with scum.

Well, maybe. But that’s only going skin-deep. Trump’s appeal isn’t exactly to the winners. If it were, he never would have gotten off the ground. The “winners” always have an embarrassment of lackeys to choose from and Trump’s one really fascinating quality is the fear he has struck into every one of the kingmakers. Frankly, I liked Weiss’s response (posted yesterday) better. It was angry and policy based, not merely contemptuous and dismissive. I don’t think Marcus even realizes how much he has in common with the overlords on this subject.

But far more significant to me, is the Rock Hall part. I seem to remember that Marcus long ago turned down an opportunity to be on the Hall’s nominating committee, a place from whence he might have been enormously influential. As far as I know, he has mostly observed silence on the subject ever since. So for him to be making some much needed noise is highly welcome news. And it wasn’t in a vacuum, because all of this followed on his answer to a question about the Hall’s relevance on the “Ask Greil” feature of his website (which is fascinating in any case) from a few days ago:

I know this: regardless of what we may think of the white boys club, its myopia, its kitschiness, or the way they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel with Cheap Trick and Deep Purple to avoid the Shangri-Las, the Adverts, X-Ray Spex, the Mekons, the Chiffons—are the Shirelles in? How could they not be?—not to mention keeping NWA out as if they had to wait politely by the door like children or dogs, being in there means everything to the performers. It makes them think they did something good with their lives, and that they won’t be forgotten. That’s a lot.

I’ve been beating this drum since the early nineties, when it first became evident that women artists were clearly being shoved to one side in the Hall’s process. (I wrote a long-g-g-g-g letter to Dave Marsh at the time. He was then, and still is, on the nominating committee. Coincidentally or not, several of the acts I mentioned, including the Shirelles, got in over the next several years, though, of course, anyone who follows this blog knows that it remains, ahem, a problem). But Greil Marcus has a much bigger platform than I do and his assessment of why the Hall matters is perfect.

This is the most Hall buzz the Shangri-Las have had since right after the Ronettes were inducted in the wake of former nominating committee member Phil Spector being indicted for murder. It’s fair enough, since, perhaps inadvertently, the willingness of Marcus and so many other first generation rock critics to swallow anything “white boy” svengalis like Spector and George Goldner told them, helped set in stone the narrative that the producer was king.

The cracks in that stone continue to grow. I do my best to track every single one of them.

Because, believe me, when it’s finally rolled away, we’ll all be living in a better world.