WHEN THE GO-GO’S RULED…AND WHY (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #107)

I just came across this clip from a Go-Go’s’ concert on Germany’s Rockpalast. It’s from smack dab in the middle of their three-year run on the charts. There is much better live footage of them across the years. They look exhausted here, ripe subjects for burnout and Exhibit A of “paying the price for too much too soon” even if it probably felt like a hundred years to them.

But….

I’ve never seen any other clip which demonstrates so clearly why they were the last great rock ‘n’ roll band, even if it turns out the members of the last great “rock” band are waiting to be born.

Except for the Who, no band ever had so many folks fighting for so little space…and the Who thrashed at each other as often as they meshed.

The Go-Go’s had at least three people playing what amounted to lead instruments and two of those were the rhythm section. They traded their licks at a speed that made everybody else who bothered trading licks (not all that many) sound like they were playing underwater. It really shouldn’t have worked and it wasn’t exactly to their advantage that they made it look–and sound–so easy.

And, brief as it is, this is the best look at Kathy Valentine’s hands I’ve ever seen. She’s playing a top ten hit (which she wrote) at Ramones’ speed, while carrying a melody line the Ramones would have killed for….all on a bass guitar.**

And she doesn’t dominate….Because even her hands aren’t faster or more fluid than Charlotte Caffey’s or Gina Schock’s or even Jane Wiedlin’s, all of whom knew a thing or two about carrying the melody and the beat themselves, even if they only had three seconds to do it before they threw it back to whoever threw it at them.

I’ve said it before, I say it again. They were the first and last “all female” band to have a #1 album in Billboard. When folks predicted there would surely be many more such bands, I said: “Not if they have to play like that.”

When there’s only one, there’s usually a reason….it’s worth remembering that now, when we are further removed from them than they were from Fats Domino and still waiting for someone to beat their time.

**To be fair, even the Go-Go’s didn’t write many melodies as compelling as “Vacation.”

PARANOIA BLUES….ON THE RADIO NO LESS (Segue of the Day: 4/7/17)

On the way back from errands yesterday….

taking a break from the right-wing radio meltdown following the Security State’s first major win in their nearly two-year war with Donald Trump (we bombed Syria in case you missed it….John McCain’s death-mask grin and Chuck “they’ve-got-six-ways-from-Sunday-of-getting-back-at-you” Schumer’s sad, sad capitulatory eyes told all the Establishment tales worth telling, their words being, as always, post-warning, irrelevant)….

I flipped over to the Classic Rock station….

Which, in the hunt for survival, no longer confines itself to Classic Rock…

And they play Blondie….”Heart of Glass” (not just Blondie, but disco Blondie)….and I think “I’ll just listen to see if they play the ‘pain in the ass’ version….

Which they did….

…and, as it winds down, I reach for the button, prepared to be let down, thinking Alex Jones in full freak-out will probably be better than what’s coming next…

But the dee-jay says the Who are next…and, of course, if the Who are next on a day like this one, it can only be this…

…(and I flash on my Godchild, circa 2005, saying “I thought the Republicans were supposed to change all this”….appropo of which betrayal I don’t recall…what I do remember is saying ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’…and then pointing to his parents (he was a he then) and saying, ‘they got their politics from Star Trek, I got mine from rock and roll, you’ll note which of us is never surprised’….and, for once, I get Daltrey’s final scream just right)

Which puts me in such a good mood, I’m prepared to put up with the Police, even though it’s not “Roxanne”….but instead the only song it can be, if it’s playing on a day like this one and it’s by the Police….

…from 1983…and, on a day like this one, I can’t help but finally get it.

I didn’t stay in the car to find out if Hot Chocolate’s “You Win Again” was up next.

Because, hey, I got my politics from rock and roll….so I can’t possibly get fooled again, no matter who “wins.”

Weird thing was, the song that really caught the vibe of the deadened air all around….

Was the first one.

THE SPIRIT OF ’65

CD Review:

Completely Under the Covers (2016)
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

There’s always been a place in Susanna Hoffs’ voice that feels like 1965 and is all the more compelling for persistently suggesting that the only thing 1965 was ever missing was her.

This is four CDs worth of her indulging the premise.

Oh, Matthew Sweet is here also and that’s hardly insignificant (they call themselves Sid n Susie….cute). But I’ve never thought I’d be interested in hearing him sing the phone book. With Hoffs, be it lead or harmony, I’m not so sure.

Well there’s no phone book test here, just a bunch of great songs from the Sixties (Disc 1: The original Under the Covers from 2006), Seventies (Disc 2: Under the Covers, Volume 2, from 2009 and Disc 3: Outtakes from the same sessions) and Eighties (Disc 4: Under the Covers, Volume 3 from 2012).

I didn’t make a count, but I’ll guess she takes the lead about two-thirds, him about a third, with a few trade-offs and close harmony leads throw in.

It doesn’t all work, or anyway it’s not all outstanding. I wasn’t surprised because I’ve pulled up their collaborations here and there on YouTube over the years and while the song choices always seemed compelling, the actual performances were a little too true to the originals to really add anything obvious.

Still, I thought it might be more compelling to sit down and listen to them all at once so when this came up cheap on Amazon with my birthday rolling around I sprang for it.

I wasn’t wrong either time.

Listening close, listening all at once, it’s compelling enough to amount to some sort of vision: a quarter-century of white rock and roll re-imagined as a set of well-produced folk songs. Slick but (mostly) not too slick.

Despite the slightly salacious series title, there’s nothing like sexual heat or chemistry going on here and nothing remotely like the subliminal, rivalry-based anger that drove pretty much every one of the great harmony acts that were around in ’65 (Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel….all in all, not a happy bunch). I miss the heat. I miss the subliminal, which is so often the springboard for the sublime.

But this has a pull all its own. Some of it’s just the confidence that every song is tried and true. There’s no wondering if the tunes won’t work, especially since Sweet and Hoffs work only the tiniest variations on the originals. As the songs roll on–sixty in all, including fifteen bonus tracks not previously available–it’s those variations and their subtleties that take hold: Hoffs making rare use of her soprano for two magic seconds at the fade of “You’re So Vain” pulling the song backwards and forwards at the same time while also making it do something it never quite did before, which is hurt; the gentle subversion of refusing to either switch the gender for “Maggie May” and (following Linda Ronstadt) “Willin'” or just give them to the guy; the shift from Love’s “Alone Again Or” to Bran Wilson’s “The Warmth of the Sun” that actually feels like it’s straight from a bar band stage at Ciro’s on a night when nobody wants to dance.

And, all the way up in the Eighties’ portion of the program, proof that the old alternative universe dream of Hoffs fronting the Go-Go’s (the better singer hooking up with the greater band), was, like so many alt-universe dreams–including those being dreamed from left to right in this new world we’ve made–a false flag. All this version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” does is suggest that, in our non-alternative reality, Belinda Carlisle really is some kind of genius.

That’s how it goes throughout. The highs and lows chase each other around without leaving any indication that there could ever be a consensus on exactly which is which. The notion of a place where there’s a home for Yes and the Clash, the Who and James Taylor is just as mixed up and confused as you might fear and as oddly reassuring as you might hope.

Music for these times then?

I honestly wasn’t sure until I got to the middle of the third disc–all outtakes–and, with Sweet taking the lead and Hoffs pushing him from underneath the way Jackie DeShannon might have pushed Gene Clark if God had been on the ball in, yeah, ’65, and had them do an album of duets where they submerged their personalities into each other and the spirit of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” even if the song wasn’t yet available.

It’s a song Nick Lowe wrote in 1974 about the spirit of ’65, an unofficial sequel to the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” (which, by some unfathomable mystery, is missing from this set). A short time after, Elvis Costello and the Attractions turned it into an anthem of pure fury and one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made. You can hear those versions here:

Since then, there have been a boatload of other covers. You can chase those around YouTube all day long if so inclined, but, if not, I’ll just pull up the other two good ones I found here:

That gives you some idea of the song’s flexibility…its own ability to reach forward and back.

If you listen close to Costello’s version, you can even hear that old Byrds’ jangling guitar–the secret language of white rock for the last fifty years–chiming throughout…and breaking loose in the bridge.

Now what I can’t do is post Sid n Susie’s studio version, which hit me this week the way “Turn, Turn, Turn” hit me in the spring of ’78, when I got my high school diploma and my first copy of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits in the space of about twenty-four hours.

I can’t post it because it’s not on YouTube yet and I’m not into posting music there. Maybe I should be. Because, as things stand, I heartily recommend that you avoid the live versions which are posted and give no hint of anything but professional boredom.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to take my word for it that, without Matthew Sweet being anywhere near a Byrd (or Elvis Costello) vocally, or the band being anywhere near able to generate the Attractions’ mind-meld, Sid n Susie made me feel the gap between 1965 and now like nothing I’ve heard in decades. Like it still might be possible–just…and just for a moment–to wake up tomorrow and find that Peace, Love and Understanding had finally, in the moment when the children of ’65 have so far lost their minds that they’re holding their breath waiting for the CIA to save the Republic and the next Democratic Congress to convene anti-anti-communist versions of HUAC hearings, become not so funny at all.

It’s almost enough, all by itself, to redeem the idea of spending this last horrific decade treating rock and roll as folk music with which black people had nothing to do while pretending that such oversights are in no way responsible for our current predicament.

Well, that plus doing right by bubbling unders from the Left Banke….

 

FORESHADOWING (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #89)

I’m starting to put my Eve of Destruction-by-Election Soundtrack together (Coming to a Blog Post Near You, November 7th!). Rummaging around, I found this little item. I have no idea whether it depicts a world busy being born or busy dying. I went to a gathering of Shades and asked the Shade of the Prophet, but he couldn’t tell me either (not only that, he refused to call me a Seeker…May the Nobel Committee take back his prize and Timothy Leary spike his dope in the Great Beyond!).

I like that about it.

What I really like, though, is that the crowd can’t tell whether they’re supposed to be dancing fast or slow. If that’s not a metaphor for the century after the American Century (and the Splendid Life of Keith Moon), I don’t know what is…

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT…MAYBE (Memory Lane: 1982, 1984 and Yesterday)

Just for starters, this memory was triggered by “We Got the Beat” playing on the radio between here and the grocery store last night. It made me smile, of course, but it also made me realize something I had not quite gleaned from the other thousand times I’ve heard it, which was that it was the last great hit surf instrumentalt, not recognized as such because it was disguised by the presence of a few strung-together words and the fact that the band was the wrong gender. Then as now, everybody recognized how affirmative the Go-Go’s were. Then as now, very few understood how disrupting they were. Or how unlikely.

The word back then was “well, there will surely be a lot of big girl bands now.”

My word was: “Not if they have to play like that, there won’t be.”

More on how that all worked out later.

And now for 1982…and a little bit of 1984.

1982 was the year I literally didn’t walk across the street to see the Go-Go’s.

They played the Tallahassee Leon County Civic Center in September. I still lived in the tiny, roach-infested apartment that had been home to my FSU years. I would move to a bigger, less crummy, apartment a few weeks later. But in the meantime I was literally a stone’s throw from the TLCCC. The only space separating its front door from mine was the back yard of the FSU Law School.

And the only post-70s band that ever had or would matter to me the way so many sixties and seventies bands had or would was playing in support of the first album by a self-contained all-female band to hit #1 in Billboard.

I already loved them so I kind of wanted to go. Three things held me back.

I was broke.

I would have had to go alone.

I thought there’d be more time.

It was probably the third reason that kept me from going. I was (and am) used to being broke. I was (and am) used to doing things alone.

And, back then, I was used to thinking there would be more time.

I wasn’t used to thinking this last part all the time. Part of the time I was used to thinking my time would end very shortly. This made doing certain things difficult. Among those certain things was arranging to attend a concert you didn’t strictly have the money for and would have to attend alone, even if it was right across the street and even if the band playing was the Go-Go’s.

It would have been doable. But I would have needed to achieve and sustain a certain mood.

I didn’t achieve or sustain the mood, so I didn’t go. At the back of it all, “There will be more time” was double-edged for me.

I was sure there would be more time for them, that they would last many years, make many albums. I wasn’t so sure about me.

So-o-o-o-o….

On the night that they played Tallahassee I ventured from my apartment to the grocery store. Kind of like last night.

Only that night, unlike last night, the concert was just letting out and there was a little more traffic than usual. Not killer traffic, not like a football game, but enough to have me waiting at a light in front of a long line of cars when the door of the car behind me opened and what I soon discerned was a Top Five girl got out and started running towards my car.

(In case you’re wondering, a Top Five girl is one of the handful you never forget. Sometimes there are more than five, sometimes less, but five’s a good average. Nobody has many more than that. And nobody who manages to survive–as, improbably, I did–has many less.)

Anyway, Top Five girl was drop dead gorgeous and she ran up to my window–it was a ’71 Maverick, no AC, so, it being September in Florida, I didn’t need to roll the window down–and started talking a mile-a-minute about the concert and how great it was and whether I had gone?

“No,” I said. “No money.”

“It’s too bad,” she said. “They were so-o-o-o great.”

After that, we chatted amiably for a bit. Then the light changed and she said “Well, bye!” and sprinted back to the car full of kids which she had no doubt left on one of those dares that get offered to certain personality types just because they are those types and get answered by them for the same reason.

I’m sure she didn’t mean to depress me. It didn’t come across as an “I’m gorgeous and having fun and riding in a cool car and you’re so-o-o-o-o not” kind of moment. She seemed to be mostly interested in making a memorable night a little more memorable. And, to tell the truth, if she hadn’t done just that, I probably wouldn’t remember the circumstances of the night I didn’t walk across the street to see the Go-Go’s very vividly at all.

Instead, it became seared in the memory, an indelible part of my “Go-Go’s Experience,” which I’m still considering writing about at length one of these days.

What happened last night, though, after “We Got the Beat” on the radio opened this particular seam, was I went searching for videos on YouTube and the comments’ sections of several of those videos led me to a search that led, in turn, to this bit of news.

The Go-Go’s are saying farewell.

Well, the Go-Go’s, like many bands, have said “farewell” before. They said farewell for the first time in 1984, barely two years after I didn’t walk across the street to see them the only time they would ever play my neck of the woods, and barely two months after they delivered the bit of rock and roll (about which, maybe more some day) that allowed me to survive myself (I wasn’t threatened by anything or anyone else, unless you count the Devil, which, honestly, I didn’t).

So maybe this isn’t really farewell. Heck, the Who are doing a farewell tour this year, too, and I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve said farewell.

In any case, I won’t be going to see them. I won’t, even though their opener, in Clearwater, is within reach. I won’t even consider it because they said farewell to Kathy Valentine a couple of years ago and, with the Go-Go’s as with so few others, if it’s not all of them, it’s not them.

I knew that back in 1982. I certainly knew it in 1984.

I haven’t forgot, because I haven’t forgot who they were, even if maybe, sadly, they have. They were the first all-writing, all-singing, all-playing all-female band to put an album at the top of the Billboard chart. Yes, they were that. And thirty-four years later, they are still the last.

Like I said then: “Not if they have to play like that.”

And like I’ve said before: When there is only one of something, there is usually a reason.

The Go-Go’s were first and last for a very simple reason, a reason that came to mind yet again when they came on the radio last night.

They were perfect. Right down to the last track on what, if they really are saying farewell, will be their last album….

THE CHANGE IT HAD TO COME….(Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #71)

..I knew it all along.

But it sure took a while

For most of the last year, I couldn’t afford a television hookup so I spent way more time than usual monitoring talk radio, the wackier the better. Back when Donald Trump first entered the Republican race, though, I had an unwacky day where I happened to be listening to NPR and the host asked two top level political reporters (so called, I don’t remember their names), if Trump had any chance whatsoever to get the nomination.

Both reporters went to great lengths to outdo each other in their absolute assurances that this could never, ever, ever, ever, ever happen in umpty billion years.

And I thought: “If you think he hasn’t got a chance, you’re crazy.”

I didn’t just arrive at that little insight by monitoring right wing radio, which, in fact, has provided plenty of push-back against Trump and Trumpism. (Glenn Beck, Mark Levin and Dana Loesh out-and-out hate him and only the wackiest wackies, Michael Savage and Alex Jones, have offered anything like strong support.)

No, I arrived at my conclusion because I’ve been monitoring the weight of the Republican party’s consistent betrayal of social conservatives and evangelicals (i.e., most of my friends and family) for three decades plus. And I had noticed that in the past five years or so, things had changed.

I was not surprised that the national media missed the story.

I’ve never seen any evidence that evangelicals in particular are in the least bit understood by what Bernie Sanders–who sounds more like an Old Testament prophet than anyone in this race–never fails to call the political, economic and media establishments.

That lack of understanding is surely why those establishments were left clutching their pearls when Trump’s rough language, for instance, failed to turn off churchgoers in South Carolina. Or when the very reasonable arguments put forth by his opponents that, until the day before yesterday, he was reliably liberal on virtually every hill-to-die-on social issue that my fellow Christians, knowing full well they would be punched in the face economically, sold their votes for over three decades.

Such things don’t tend to matter when you finally decide to swing back.

When you decide to swing back, you look for the biggest hammer in the room.

All those sold votes–sold souls in some cases–netted nothing. Republicans quite predictably collected reliable votes from the pews and, from 1980 to now, gave nothing in return. Hence, it was only a matter of time before this bargain unraveled. The only question was which election cycle would provide the tipping point.

It’s here. The bargain is dead.

And Donald Trump is the biggest hammer in the room.

I know lots of evangelicals and take the temperature of many more on the radio and online.

I haven’t found a single one who likes him and very few who aren’t disgusted by him. I think a lot of their sentiment can be summed up here (in the most frightening and salient report I’ve read on the Trump phenomenon).

But while I have trouble imagining myself voting for Trump, and will certainly hold that linked essay in my head as a warning lest I be tempted to cross over to the dark side, I can understand why others have given in. I’ve never been particularly invested in “social issues” as a political matter–the law is always helpless against any personal practice the culture cannot enforce and the culture collapsed long ago. I don’t get worked up about the issues because I tend to think of America in the past tense–as something to be studied and learned from.

We had a shot.

We didn’t listen to our own prophets (see, particularly, my posts on the Rising at right).

We blew it.

I’m resigned.

But mine is a minority opinion.

Anger is a powerful emotion in any breast clinging to hope.

And there is very little in this world more satisfying than the moment you realize you finally have a venue for speaking directly to people who have held you in open contempt for a lifetime. No matter how vigilant you are in your quest to let the red letters in the King James guide your behavior, it’s hard to resist the simplest gut-level response, the one that has reverberated throughout this campaign and can be hurled back at every puzzled pundit face on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, every hour of the day:

“I hate you back.”

Without coming anywhere near putting it so strongly, that’s what Jerry Falwell, Jr. meant this evening on Fox, when he was pressed on why and how so many evangelicals (including himself) have chosen Trump over, for instance, Ted Cruz, one of their own.

It’s not the old days he said.

It’s not about social issues anymore. The politicians have had their day and been found dismally wanting.

“It’s like that old Who song,” Falwell, Jr. finally said.

Then he named the song.

If you don’t think we’re in some sort of New Age, try to imagine Falwell’s late father (a huckster who, along with Pat Robertson, was long ago appointed to speak for evangelicals by the same corrupt payola-style process, and for the same contemptuous reasons, that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were designated to speak for Black America–brothers and sisters, I feel your pain, because the question of whether it is better to be badly represented than not represented at all is not any easy one), dropping a Who reference.

And having the reference be nothing more than a statement of the obvious, too long in coming:

The only question now is the obvious one.

If Trump wins, will the new boss really be any different than the old boss?

I fear not. If someone has a thumb in the eye of the man who has a boot in your face, it’s easy to think he must be offering a better way. It becomes easy to look past the boots he’s wearing, to miss that they are heavier and thicker and have hobnails in the soles.

But, if you want to look for a silver lining, perhaps finally asking the question is healthier than continuing to ignore it.

And if not now, when?

Something to hold on to, I guess.

I do wonder what would happen, though, if, in this very same season, Black America were to somehow wake up in time to ditch Hilary for Bernie…and if we could then somehow keep from fighting in the streets with our children at our feet.

What then?

New day? Or past tense forever?

I’ll keep watching.

And dreading.

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

 

BOOK REPORT SPECIAL EDITION (Outlaw Blues)

Thought this was worthy of its own review ahead of the monthly book report (which is running a little late). Thanks to Neal Umphred for reminding me of its existence and encouraging me to finally track it down. You might also read it as my R.I.P. for Paul Williams and a mea culpa, since I missed the news of his passing a couple of years back and certainly would have noted it here had I known:

OUTLAWBLUES

Outlaw Blues (Paul Williams, 1970)

If rock criticism had a “father” Paul Williams was it. There were a lot of young men (not, so far as I can tell, many young women or many of either gender who were other than young) trying to write about the effect rock and roll was having on them and the world in the mid-sixties. But Williams was the first to actually get a national magazine off the ground (Crawdaddy) while at the same time pioneering an open-hearted writing, editing and interviewing style that, just coincidentally, would end up, after the promise of the sixties had burned off, remaining forever at odds with the continuation of Standard American Business Practice as Usual.

Outlaw Blues is a collection of early Crawdaddy pieces and catches its moment–those ever-befuddling sixties–like very little else. If Williams didn’t turn out to be quite the businessman Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner was or quite the writer Lester Bangs was, he was nonetheless more visionary than either, and the person whose work effectively broke the ground those opposing spirits spent their lives tilling.

It’s worth remembering that Williams was aging from roughly 19 to 21 when these pieces were written. Naivete is a certain part of the book’s charm. An even greater part, pretty much inextricable from that naive quality, is the sense of being there, fully present at the dawn of our current confusion, at a moment when all things, good and bad, seemed possible, a moment Williams, to a degree few did then and nobody does now, invariably expressed in terms ranging from acute:

“Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan.” (that from July, 1966)

to incisive:

“Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip ‘learn to forget’ into the middle of a seduction song.” (April, 1967)

to self-deprecating:

“Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.

“I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he’s worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.” (July, 1966)

to fervent:

“You know what I mean, that special feeling after the last words of a book, that goes on and on extending that book and yourself across forever into now, the sudden unexpected sense of the real, the flash of power and together, in your mind.” (on the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”–February, 1968)

or even to ecstasy, a near-religious euphoria:

“At this stage in its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.” (February, 1968)

Now, If Williams mostly saw the good in all that, well he wasn’t exactly alone. And he had the excuse–sometimes the advantage–of his extreme youth. In that sense Outlaw Blues is both a gift to the future we now occupy, and (if you choose to read between the lines), a warning that we might not be able to do more than occupy it.

I mean, these days, if you want to write something like “there must be more going on than the obvious, stereotyped stuff, or why do I like it so much?” or even “The Beatles are unshakable, which certainly contributes no end to their position as culture heroes, though it may someday detract from their standing as artists.” you aren’t going to catch on at Rolling Stone and you aren’t even going to start a new version of Crawdaddy. These days, if you want to be that direct, wear that much of your heart on your sleeve, take that much risk of looking either prescient or foolish, about the best you can do is start a blog.

That’s in effect what Williams did in the mid to late sixties.

You might call that seeing around the corner.

In a sense, his specific concerns hardly matter. Besides the usual Dylan/Beatles/Stones trifecta, he was deep into the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors (who I like) and the Byrds and the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson anyway) who I love. But after decades of living with them all, I found every interest (like/love/appreciation) rekindled as I was reading Williams’ long-ago, fresh from the front line, takes.

I also found hindsight even more than usually useful.

I don’t know how much effort Williams or his publisher put into the book’s organization, but given his famous “essay into rediscovery” take on The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, an album that, half a generation, probably affected my own life as profoundly as any album can, I’m guessing the overall effects of this book’s structure were not unintentional.

Which is another way of saying that placing his long interviews with the Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild and Beach Boys’ insider David Anderle near the end was a way of achieving maximum effect.

In one sense those piece were the hardest to read, because Williams was giving over the space normally occupied by his unique voice to voices that were quite typical. This doesn’t lead to discord. They were all phoning from the same area code. But it does shift the emphasis from writer to interviewer and the insights from the personal to something more generational.

All that said, the pieces are as vital as anything else and in some ways more enlightening. I had more trouble getting through the Morrison piece because I’m not as interested in the Doors as I am in the Beach Boys. But in both instances, I knew I was getting more insight into why Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson self-destructed in ten thousand words than in anybody else’s ten thousand pages.

Because that was part of Williams’ gift too. Getting people to talk. You get a sense of both the overwhelming charisma that the most gifted rock stars (meaning rock stars who are something more than “stars”) tend to project, and the tremendous fragility of egos being pressed to literally define the world for millions of people.

Not to mention the degree of free-floating sycophancy that was bound to attach itself and suffocate just about anyone who possessed enough life force to be in that position in the first place–an atmosphere Williams comes dangerously close to aiding and abetting himself.

Of course, it’s easy to judge such things from this distance. We know what happened to Jim Morrison and we know what happened to Brian Wilson.

But Williams could not have been entirely surprised. After all, in the moment itself, he saw far enough ahead to write this:

“Beware the baldersnatch, my son. Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are. Remember that you are only you, remember that your prime concern should be doing what is most important to you, but that you have a responsibility, a very real responsibility to every person other than yourself who gets involved in the achieving of your personal goals.”

Believe me, few people who covered rock and roll for a living wrote like that then.

Nobody writes like that now.

Before and after he was anything else, Paul Williams was that good old distinctively American type: The Seeker. It isn’t only rock criticism that finds such folks in short supply these days.

JUST HOW HARD IS IT TO BE CONSISTENTLY….GREAT

Very….

I’ve never had strong opinions on whether Rock and Roll is ‘”album music” or “singles music.”

The debate more or less opened up in the wake of Dylan and the Beatles way back when. I don’t know if it gets a rise out of anybody these days, when every music is “download music.” But I started thinking along those lines (again) after all these years, in response to some of the on-line Hall of Fame discussions, which often center around the general conflict between Commerce (almost always code for a string of hit singles) and Art (almost always code for critically acclaimed LPs).

Of course, there have been a handful of acts, from the Beatles onwards, for whom the distinction was virtually meaningless..

But, trying to wrap my mind around it from a twenty-first century, middle-age perspective, I started counting up who–in Rock and Roll and Rock and Roll only–I really thought of as “album” artists.

For the purposes of this little list, then, I’m leaving out quite a bit.

No comps or live albums (certainly no box sets). No pre-rock artists (which for me would be Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and Doris Day, make of that what you will) or contemporary artists who aren’t considered Rock and Roll, even in my own strictly big tent version. And no playing favorites (that would, incidentally, be a different list by at least half).

With that for the context, I stuck to artists who have made five or more original, studio albums I know well enough to have what I call sequence response: That is, if I hear something from that album in some other context (radio, commercial, computer mix, etc.), I’ll likely get a little jolt of surprise when the next song I expect to hear–i.e., the next song from the original album–doesn’t follow.

I thought there would be at least ten Rock and Roll acts who met this criteria, possibly as many as fifteen or twenty.

Not even close.

I only made it to six.

Turns out five is a very high number, when it comes to making compulsory-listening albums.

And all those reasonable caveats I mentioned above do dwindle the list considerably.

Which sort of confirms a suspicion I’ve long had about my listening (and judging) habits.

I tend to go free-form (not just comps but multi-artist comps, or else a lot of running back and forth to the shelves)….or very, very concentrated (box sets, the bigger the better).

So a lot of artists who have a great box set, or made way more great tracks than required to fill five (or even ten) LPs, still don’t make my list of five actual albums–James Brown, Brenda Lee, Janis Joplin, the Impressions, Aretha Franklin (who almost made it anyway) all come readily to mind.

So do the Jackson 5 and Jackie DeShannon, if you really want to know how deep a fifty-great-tracks list might run.

One qualification that would not have expanded the list much, however, is including non-rock acts from the rock (or now post-rock) era.

Again, there are plenty of favorites who have a wealth of great sides (Bobby Bland, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, maybe a couple of dozen country singers, not just the usual–Merle, Loretta, Patsy, Waylon, George, Dolly, Buck, but lesser known geniuses like Don Gibson and Connie Smith as well). But, for any number of reasons–time and money preeminent among them–I’ve never really listened to many of their studio albums at length.

The one exception is Patty Loveless, who is also the only artist of the last quarter century in any format whose albums I have any deep, consistent connection with.

It’s not that I don’t try–and not that I don’t find an occasional LP that moves me (Pink’s Missundaztood (2001) and the Roots’ Undun (2011) are fairly recent discoveries, for instance). But, if I said I heard great stuff all the time and probably just don’t have enough time to stay caught up (a frequent excuse as we get older), I’d be lying.

So I guess I could have included Loveless–on the grounds no one’s likely to be joining her on my little list.

I didn’t, though, because I’ve written extensively about her elsewhere and, again, I wanted to get down to the nitty gritty about specifically rock and roll album acts, So suffice it to say hers would be the longest list here, and would also cover the longest time-span, exceeding even Elvis. It’s possible–just–that compiling this list has sent my respect for Ms. Loveless (aka, “the Awesome One”) even higher. Which is fine, because compiling lists like this is partly an exercise in pinpointing what we value–and partly  an excuse to ruminate a bit on what it all means, not just to us, but to the Cosmos.

Which brings me to my last point:

Great rock and roll album acts–at least by my lights–tend to have a great run in them, which also tends to exhaust them on some level.

The most extreme example is the Rolling Stones. They made what I think is their greatest album in 1972, at the end of nearly a decade of sustained brilliance (and over half a decade of sustained album brilliance).

Then they were replaced by pod people.

That’s extreme.

But, except for Elvis (whose larger story is, in some ways, even more extreme), everyone on this list could be described by some version of the same story.

In rock and roll, when the real greatness goes, it tends to go fast, hard and for good (no matter how much “good” music is left–and often there’s quite a lot).

The same is true, incidentally–with little exception–for my near misses (Dylan, Aretha, Hendrix, Van Morrison, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin–see the complete list below).

These were acts that had three or four on my list and maybe a near miss or two.

The oddest cases were Dylan, who missed because I’ve never really connected with Blonde on Blonde and Morrison, who missed because I didn’t count his two fantastic albums with Them (which might be unfair, but I was sticking to the strictest criteria possible) and would have made it anyway if I’d ever connected with Astral Weeks or if my vinyl version of Into the Music didn’t have some weird fuzz on Side Two that made it unlistenable-but-unreturnable when I bought it new (and thus never replaced)!

I throw in that last to emphasize just how arbitrary such “judgments” are if you don’t get your records for free.

But I think the main point still holds. Except for Elvis (and Patty Loveless), everybody who made, or nearly made, this list, made their best five to eight (or even three to four) original albums in the space of a decade (usually much less). And that’s all irrespective of whether these are my six “favorite” artists or I think they are “the greatest.”….As it happens, my six favorite rock and roll acts, if somebody put a gun to my head, would probably look a lot different…only Elvis would be guaranteed (though the Byrds and Al Green would certainly be in strong consideration).

Make of that what you will.

In any case, I’d really like to hear from anybody who has a different take (or artists they’d put on their own list).

As you’ll see, I’m not exactly after rearranging the canon here!

(*Denotes what I think is the artists’ greatest LP, or, if you prefer, my personal favorite–order is chronological, from date of the first LP that qualified for my list).

Elvis Presley (Two gospel albums and a Christmas LP here….but I included them because that was his version of rock and roll. And he would have made the list anyway):

1957: Christmas Album
1960: Elvis is Back!
1960: His Hand In Mine
1967: How Great Thou Art
1969: From Elvis In Memphis*
1971: Elvis Country!
1975: Promised Land
1975: Today

The Beatles:

1964: Meet the Beatles
1964: The Beatles 2nd
1965: VI
1965: Help! (UK)*
1965: Rubber Soul (US)
1966: Revolver (UK)
1968: The Beatles (White Album)

[Note: Several of the early Beatles’ LPs, especially Hard Day’s Night, would almost certainly be here (perhaps substituting for US versions) if I had acquired the UK versions back in the days when I listened to them a lot more than I do now–I’m limiting these lists to albums I actually own (a function of finance), know backwards and forwards (a function of time spent), and happen to think are great listening experiences (a function of taste). See, I told you it was arbitrary.]

The Beach Boys:

1964: All Summer Long
1965: The Beach Boys Today!
1965: Summer Days (And Summer Nights)
1965: Party!
1967: Wild Honey*

and a fantastic live version:

The Byrds:

1965: Mr. Tambourine Man
1965: Turn, Turn, Turn
1966: Fifth Dimension
1967: Younger Than Yesterday
1967: The Notorious Byrd Brothers*
1968: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
1969: The Ballad of Easy Rider

The Rolling Stones:

1966: Aftermath (US)
1968: Beggar’s Banquet
1969: Let It Bleed
1970: Sticky Fingers
1972: Exile on Main Street*

Al Green:

1971: Gets Next to You
1972: Let’s Stay Together
1973: Call Me
1973: Livin’ For You
1974: Explores Your Mind
1977: Belle*

[Note: It’s worth mentioning that, in three of the six cases here, I thought the last great album on the list was the greatest. And, in the case of the Byrds, the two albums I list after Notorious Byrd Brothers were made with significantly different lineups. So, four times out of six, some point of crisis was reached. And the artists’ in question–be it faux-Satan worshiper Mick Jagger or the Reverend Al Green–were never really the same again. Something to bear in mind in any discussion where the spiritual cost of making great rock and roll happens to come up.]

(Near misses: Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Rod Stewart, Prince (if I only counted doubles as two!), Aretha Franklin, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, The Who, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac and, a very recent discovery, Spinners–I guess it’s pretty obvious I don’t think albums have progressed much after about the early eighties, but then, neither have singles.)