AND THEN THE EIGHTIES HAPPENED….(Jonathan Demme, R.I.P.)

…To all of us, alas.

Though he was most famous for his Oscar bait from the early nineties (The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), Jonathan Demme did his best work in the eighties. He made two of that dreary, trend-setting decade’s best films (Melvin and Howard and Something Wild), both notable for their fluid, easy use of popular music. He had a knack for scoring small visual moments that worked to enlarge both the song and the scene, none more so than this one…

…though his use of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in the much more pedestrian (fi still frightening) The Silence of the Lambs was just as revelatory. The music Demme’s characters listened to in his films was the music his characters actually would have listened to if they’d been real people. That’s been such a rare gift in American cinema, that his losing it was as much a tragedy as us losing him.

Of course, in that same decade, he also made Stop Making Sense, one of the most acclaimed rock and roll concert films. Not being much of a Talking Heads’ fan, I’ve never seen the whole thing, but the clips I’ve caught over the years look astounding, so that’s an oversight I’ll have to rectify someday.

Something seemed to go out of him when he tried to remake Charade (as The Trouble With Charlie) and produced both a bloody mess and one of the worst films ever made. Coming on the heels of the eighties, the nineties were like that. They sucked the life out of everybody.

There was a key hiding in a line of a music video Demme directed. It’s of the only good record ever made by one of the ad hoc charity organizations that sprang up as we went about the world with our “terrible notions of duty.”** Turns out “Why are we always on the wrong side?” had an easy answer. In South Africa as elsewhere (where we’ve “helped” them into increasing their murder rate by a factor of a thousand, the victims being no longer worthy of any “charity” recordings by hot shot western superstars….or reporting by western media), there was no “right” side. Now there’s a tragedy for you.

But the power of seduction–of Pornographic Idealism–remains. We will insist on doing good until it hurts. And we will keep on insisting, no matter who it hurts. The Christian conscience nags, it seems, even when the Christ part is discarded.

And, therefore, “Sun City” is as good an epitaph for the unfulfilled promise of that very representative modern American, Jonathan Demme, as any.

**“We’re so prone to these things, with our terrible notions of duty.” (A.H. Clough)…from the famous epigram that begins Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American, from which we could have learned a thing or two, had we been less inclined to gag on our own hype.)

PICK THE PUNK (Segue of the Day: 1/30/17)

Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):

“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**

It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of  Tom Petty or Prince.

And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.

But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.

The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.

But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.

Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.

That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.

For a while anyway.

Long enough to become iconic.

Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.

That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.

The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.

I’d love to hear it.

I won’t hold my breath.

**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO…(Winter, 2016 Countdown)

10) Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt) The Complete Trio Collection (1987-1999) (2016)

This collects the two albums the superstar “trio” made in the eighties and nineties, plus an extra disc of unreleased and alternate takes.

The released albums were always a little too pristine for my taste. Hearing the tracks all at once didn’t exactly reverse that judgment, though it did allow me to fully appreciate the sheer craft-work driven improbability of it all.

Given the restrictive natures of both Harris’s and Ronstadt’s art–we’re talking about two people who always had a hard time loosening up–it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the real keepers are on the throwaway disc. The women who were never all that comfortable with the spotlight light up when it’s off, while Dolly just keeps on being Dolly. In that context, it seems no more than natural that “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a great song that’s been searching for a home for decades, would finally get the definitive take it deserves.

2) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Echo (1999)

A modern blues, filled with all the hit-maker’s recognizable touches and a lot of things too many people assumed he couldn’t do besides.

Maybe that assumption was rooted in not paying enough attention. If so, I certainly do not exempt myself.

One effect of getting to know this album in recent years has been a better understanding of just how deep those hits had to strike–again and again, back when it seemed they lived entirely on the surface–in order to reach one generation after another in a way that was almost unheard of for any other rocker of his generation. Singling out the first cut is a little obvious, but first cuts are for leading you in. This leads you in.

8) The Orlons Best of (1961-1966) (2005)

Auteurs of the Watusi and, you might think, the most faceless of the handful of girl groups  who sustained even a modest string of hits.

While I wouldn’t say personality was their strong suit, this still sustains easily over half a decade and twenty sides. “Wah-Watusi” aside, they may never have been trend-setters (even that was a cover). But they kept up, no small thing when the Pop World was moving as past as it did during the years in question.

And, as often happens with these “obscure” artists, there’s a knockout hidden in the shadows that will lay you flat if you have your back turned.

7) Fleetwood Mac Rumours  (1977) (2-Disc version, aka Ghost Rumours, released 2004)

I always loved the English spelling. Made it seem like it should be some kind of genteel sequel to a Cat Stevens album.

I know it’s sold a bajillion copies (thirty, forty million, like that) and been played to death…but it never wears out. Certainly not in 2016, when it sounded more contemporary than ever and stayed at the top of my playlist for the year. Another thing I like about it is that it broke contemporaneously with Punk Rock, which it buried then and buries now, not least because it’s a lot more “punk” than “God Save the Queen”…if by “punk” we mean  “alive.”

Of course, these days it’s become even stronger. This edition restores Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Springs” to its original running order (the 3-Disc version released subsequently puts it at the end for some reason) and includes a disc of outtakes that, for once, deepens and contextualizes the finished product. You can click on the link above for my full take on all that. But in case you don’t make it over there, this little killer should still not be missed.

6) Mark Chesnutt The Ultimate Collection (Complete MCA Singles: 1990-2000) (2011)

Playing next to Patty Loveless or even George Strait on the radio in his golden decade, Chesnutt seemed like a real if modest talent who reached an epic high now and then.

From this distance, across thirty tracks and a quarter of a century, he seems more like a minor miracle. He certainly wasn’t afraid of competition. He doesn’t embarrass himself on Don Gibson’s “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” or John Anderson’s “Down in Tennessee,” and bests Waylon on “Broken Promise Land,” which is one of those epic highs I mentioned.

It’s not like I didn’t know he had a solid best of in him. “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” “It Sure is Monday”–the titles alone always could bring a smile. But this sustains, in part, because his most epic high point of all–as great a song ever written about the intricacies of not breaking up–came early and two long discs gives the listener time to develop some perspective.

If you click the link, be sure to crank the volume.

5) The Easybeats The Definitive Anthology (1965-1969) (1996)

Speaking of cranking the volume.

Here’s fifty-six tracks that make a case for the boys who built the bones of Australia’s not-exactly-inconsequential rock and roll legacy by being the greatest garage band this side of Paul Revere and the Raiders.

I’m not gonna say they ever quite got up to “Friday On My Mind” again but not many got there once and, of those who did, few outside the legends sustained anything like this level of interest. Of course, they should never have taken on “River Deep, Mountain High,” but it brought a smile to think they had the nerve to try. And smile was what just about every other one of these fifty-six tracks made me do as I listened to them chase every trend of the era and catch one after another for the briefest, most transient, most exhilarating moment. Pick to Click: “Good Times” (which sure sounds like it cops at least one of its riffs from the Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up”).

4) The Platters The Ballads (1953-1959) (2013)

Shelter from the storm.

If ballad singing is ever given its proper place in the Rock and Roll Narrative, the Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams, will be as celebrated as Chuck Berry. Until then, you can search around for ways to hear him: this is the best I’ve found.

Great as any individual cut–or any short compilation–may be, you can’t really feel the weight of Williams’ accomplishment until you dig into something like this: thirty-three slices of heaven right here on earth.

And in one respect,Tony was even greater than Chuck Berry. Plenty of guitar players have forged out past Chuck on some ground or other that he broke open. No ballad singer has ever gotten past this anywhere…unless maybe it was Tony Wiliams.

.3) The Isley Brothers Givin’ It Back (1971)

A sly turn of the cards: Here, the Isleys cover mostly white acts, though not necessarily the ones who had spent the previous decade so profitably covering them.

It might have been conceived as a gimmick, but they dug in too deep for it to come across that way on record. “Ohio” meant more in their hands than any other, not just because they cross-bred it with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun’,” but because they were from Ohio. Unlike say, Kent State survivor, Chrissie Hynde, who grew up being persecuted by the white middle class in Akron and got out as soon as possible, they never left home spiritually, no matter how far their feet roamed.

I wonder if that’s why I–who always heard “Fire and Rain” as a great record even in its callow original–find their cover illuminating far beyond the usual “black people are deeper” shuck and jive? I’ve stated it before, but this is the sound of some lost soul looking for his people over the next hill. Pick to click: “Cold Bologna” (the only cut besides “Machine Gun” that doesn’t “give back” to a white boy).

2) Dwight Yoakum Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)

Thus began the odd, often glorious career of Dwight Yoakum, slick traditionalist.

Right there at the beginning–too clever title and all–I don’t hear the concept quite working. Pleasant enough but not as inspired as its rep. So when I put this one on it’s mostly for background music.

Same thing this time.

This time, like every other time, I left what I was doing and came into the room for this.

1) Martha & the Vandellas Live Wire: The Singles 1962-1972 (1993)

Martha Reeves might be due a Vocalist of the Month essay pretty soon, so I’ll leave any deep thoughts for later. This beautiful thing was part of a three-artist series released in conjunction with similarly glorious 2-Disc sets on the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. There’s not a weak track on any of them.

What I hadn’t realized before was that if Dwight’s “South of Cincinnati” ever needs a sister record, it’s right here, in Martha’s finest vocal, equal to anything the powerhouses at Motown ever managed and, unlike most of the theirs and most of hers–which were only “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run,” “In My Lonely Room”– half-hidden by time.

 

 

 

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).

130

(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!

75

(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.

90

(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)

ALTERNATIVE VISIONS (Segue of the Day: 11/26/15…Thanksgiving Edition!)

LAYLA1

JACKIE1

I’ve been playing around for awhile with a concept I’m calling Modern Disintegration Blues, a kind of record in which artists from across the musical spectrum, acting with or without premeditation, capture the Zeitgeist that best represents the arc of the developed world in my lifetime.

Yes, it’s just as much fun as it sounds.

Anyway, I’ve been limiting it to records from this century and up until the listening jags inspired by my pill-induced stupors of the last two weeks (and boy does this disintegrating world offer up the pills!) I had discovered a nice round number of two: Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul II  (2009) and the Roots’ Undun (2011), which, for the last year and half or so, I’ve taken to listening to almost exclusively in tandem

I should mention that the concept is also limited to records by artists who have or have had some kind of following. No cult acts allowed, however brilliant.  You want to define a Zeitgeist, I want you to at least have a gold record or two on your wall, even if they don’t include the MDB albums themselves.

I should also mention that, given my lack of engagement with the music of this century generally (a lack enforced more by budgets and time than a willingness to keep up, though a little of the latter has crept in of late), there could be dozens of such albums out there, yes, even by popular acts, that I simply don’t know about.

Maybe I should also mention that every time Marcus or Christgau suggest something that sounds like it might be up this little alley, I rush to YouTube. Let’s just say the results have not inspired me to make out new budgets.

Anyway, during the early stages of my semi-convalescence last week, I developed an acquaintance with Tom Petty’s Echo, which pretty clearly pushes the concept back to 1996. It has the same kind of “better stop dreaming and concentrate strictly on survival” vibe and, except for a couple of cuts, is delivered as a dirge. In 1996, that was pretty visionary for a guy known for hooks, hits and staying on the surface.

So I started wondering just how far back the idea might stretch. And while I can’t say I’ve thought of anything else that fits all the specifics of my little concept, I’m currently sold on Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1972) as a likely starting point and definite subject for further research. Like, maybe I don’t know it as well as I thought!

I might write about any or all of those albums later and I might develop the concept a lot further or not at all. Who can say where the mind will wander if I manage to wean myself off of my ibuprofen habit?

What I want to write about today, though, as a kind of tangent, was where the search led me next, which was a place where I was listening to Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) and Jackie DeShannon’s Jackie (1972), partly because I was already groping around in the early seventies, partly because I love both albums unconditionally and think they’re among the greatest ever made (one acknowledged, one unacknowledged and you probably already know which is which, though if you  don’t and follow this blog, you can definitely guess), and partly because they sit right next to each other on the CD shelf, which means every time I pull one, I’m reminded of the other.

Mostly, though, I wanted to write about them because, in their current incarnations, they represent an aspect of modernity that need not be depressing.

There’s certainly room for disagreement on this–God knows I love vinyl–but the ability to turn a four-sided double-LP like Layla into one long, uninterrupted listening experience seems an unmitigated good. And the ability to change a really good album like Jackie (released as one LP with twelve cuts back when) into a monumental, seamless 24-cut epic is basically a godsend.

Both albums seem bigger frankly (and I wouldn’t have thought, back in the day, that Layla could seem bigger) because of what modern technology–not a small factor in the Disintegration Blues–has made, or remade, of them.

There’s a sense of loss, of course, deep in the bones of both LPs, whatever the format. Eric Clapton made the best music of his life, the only sustained music that was truly free, because he told his best friend’s wife if she didn’t leave her husband, he would become a heroin addict, which he proceeded to do.

That the woman in question and the friend in question, this woman and this friend as it happened…

PATTIEBOYD

were Pattie Boyd and George Harrison and that she eventually did leave him for one Eric Clapton, who then actually married her only as an extremely cheap and nasty publicity stunt (you can get the details in her autobiography, which I reviewed here), gives the story an epic sheen, of course. But any gossipy glamour has long worn away and what’s left is a man who sounds like he won’t get out of this moment. Just about everybody has acknowledged that “Layla” sounds like that, just as absolutely everybody knows “Layla” is specifically about Pattie Boyd.

What’s weird is how obvious it is that the whole album sounds like that and the whole album is about her–including the covers–and how little that is acknowledged. I mean, to read Wikipedia these days (and think what you want, but it does an excellent job of reflecting the common wisdom), you’d think Boyd was only tangential to “Layla” itself, forget “Bell Bottom Blues” or “Anyday,” or pretty much everything else. And forget that Eric Clapton never sounded like this, before or since, for more than a minute or two.

What’s doubly weird is that I could imagine pushing the date back another couple of years and making Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs the foundation of my Modern Disintegration Blues concept. Even knowing that Eric Clapton was basically a jerk and his mad love was as much an ego-driven whine as a desolate blast of passion doesn’t take the edge off. It’s always possible the world’s disintegration can emerge from one man’s version of it within himself.

Which kind of makes this woman even more valuable…

JACKIEDESHANNON1

I’m not sure where she would place in a carefully considered “sanest person of the sixties” list, but I bet it wouldn’t be outside the top three.

She was just as sane in 1972 and ’73, when the tracks that now make up the Rhino Handmade version of Jackie were recorded. It didn’t do much business in its time (the second set of tracks was supposed to comprise a new album which Atlantic promptly shelved) and it hasn’t done much since. Nor did it yield one of DeShannon’s periodic hits-for-others.

And its not really disintegrative. More like a restorative. The kind of album you listen to after Layla or There’s a Riot Goin’ On or Echo or Undun or Mountain Soul II.

That’s weird, too. Because it aches from every groove or chip or beam or whatever mechanism now applies. And yeah, it’s probably the best album she ever made, but it’s of a piece, too, with her entire luminous career.

She didn’t need to blackmail her best friend’s husband to reach her version of transcendence. She just needed to be.

You can guess which artist is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times and which is still waiting.

Then you can join me in wondering where the Modern Disintegration Blues really begins.

Happy Thanksgiving!

WELL, HERE’S ANOTHER ONE BORN STANDING UP AND TALKING BACK (Stevie Nicks–Vocalist of the Month, 8/13)

First some actual history (which you’ll need, in order to comprehend just how little sense is contained in some of the statements posted immediately thereafter):

Chart action for Fleetwood Mac’s first five singles after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band in 1975:

Song                                   Entered chart        Peak Pos (Billboard Hot 100)
(Lead Singer)

From Fleetwood Mac:

Over My Head
(Christine McVie)               11/8/75                 #20 (14 weeks on the Chart)
Rhiannon
(Stevie Nicks)                      3/6/76                  #11 (18 weeks)
Say You Love Me
(Christine McVie)                 7/4/76                  #11 (19 weeks)

From Rumours:

Go Your Own Way
(Lindsey Buckingham)        1/8/77                  #10 (15 weeks)
Dreams
(Stevie Nicks)                    4/16/77                   #1 (19 weeks)
Don’t Stop
(Christine McVie)                7/9/77                    #3 (18 weeks)
You Make Loving Fun
(Christine McVie)            10/15/77                    #9 (14 weeks)

And now, bearing all that in mind, a bit of commentary:

“The ‘Fleetwood Mac’ herein is the great group led by Peter Green, not the Californian mob with Stevie Nicks.”

(Source: Elvis Costello, “Costello’s 500: Elvis Costello picks the 500 Greatest Albums Ever”, Vanity Fair, November, 2000)

“Released in 1977, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’ was the initial single from Rumours, which eventually sold more than twelve million copies. As the first shot by the group since their quadruple-platinum Fleetwood Mac, ‘Go Your Own Way’ should have been an automatic smash, no matter what it sounded like, but it surfaced a few times and then vanished, quickly replaced by ‘Dreams,’ a soft ballad, which sailed easily to number one. ‘Go Your Own Way’ was rough, harsh, hard to follow. From its opening notes it was a maelstrom, excitement and nothing else. It was an assault, hammering, the singer moaning and threatening, pleading and damning; it didn’t let up for a second.

“Coming two thirds of the way through the performance, the requisite instrumental break should have provided a rest: instead it raised the stakes. When Lindsey Buckingham dropped his words for a guitar solo–a shattered, severed solo almost drowning in a dozen more overdubbed guitar parts, the off-beat rhythm chasing his lead, then overtaking him, then seeming to wait for him to catch up, which he never quite did–the song began all over again. Ten years later, I flinch every time it comes on the radio, knowing what’s coming, knowing that no matter how completely I can predict what’s going to happen, I won’t be able to catch up: the instrumental passage supersedes not only the singing that precedes it, but the ability of memory to enclose it. And the record got its due: ‘Dreams’ hasn’t been on the air since it dropped from the charts, while ‘Go Your Own Way’ has never been off the air.”

Greil Marcus (Source: “Music,” Artforum, March 1987. Reprinted in Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, 1994)

MJB (Mary J. Blige): That is amazing. That song is so simple but very strong, like “Thunder only happens when it’s raining/Players only love you when they’re playing.” That line [from “Dreams”]is so amazing.

SN (Stevie Nicks): Isn’t it weird how today some people we know [in the music business] are referred to as ‘total players’? And that’s really what I was saying when I wrote that in 1976. ‘Players only love you when they’re playing,’ which means as a woman in rock, many of the different affairs and relationships I had were built around the music and being on tour. And then, when the music was over, the relationships were over.

MJB: I felt that. I can hear that. I don’t think that kind of stuff ever changes, you just get wiser or dumber about it.

(Source: Stevie Nicks interviewing Mary J. Blige, Interview Magazine, Feb. 2008)

“Lindsey had an amazing way of taking my songs and making them wonderful–when he was happy with me.”

(Source: Stevie Nicks, VHI Classic Albums–Rumours)

“Whatever Stevie’s music was, somehow I was this soul mate, that just knew exactly what to do with it. And that never went away, it just became a little bittersweet, in terms of WANTING to do it. There were times when I had the urge not to want to help her.”

(Source: Lindsey Buckingham, VH1 Classic Albums–Rumours)

“‘Dreams’ was hopeful. You know, it saw the breakup coming but it was hopeful that we would be okay, unlike ‘Go Your Own Way,’ which was not hopeful that we would be okay, you know? That was the thing that Lindsey and I argued about a lot, was that I try to be somewhat optimistic. In my songs, somewhere, you know, to pull out some kind of ray of light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t make up stories. They have to be real.”

(Source; Stevie Nicks, VH1 Classic Albums–Rumours)

“The songs that he wrote about me were horrifying. You know ‘Go Your Own Way’ is one way to say…the really worst thing you know?….You know, ‘shacking up is all you want to do,’ which was not true! And I had to listen to him sing it on stage every night and he’d look at me when he’d say it and I would just be going, ‘You know, don’t look at me when you say that!’ that tender love song that you wrote for me, you know…How mean.”

(Source: Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac documentary footage, circa 1990’s)

“Tolerable in a group that was vying for a Dorian Gray medallion by decade’s end, she proved a menace solo, equally unhealthy as role model and sex object.”

“not a diva–a transgendered arena-rock god in all his/her grand self-regard”

(Source: Noted feminist Robert Christgau’s entire commentary on Stevie Nicks’ solo career, Christgau’s Consumer Guide–first quote from 1980’s edition, 2nd quote from 1990’s review of Time Space: The Best of Stevie Nicks)

“‘Women, shit!’ the tall convict said.”

(Source: William Faulkner, final line of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem–aka, The Wild Palms, 1939)

And now, an attempt to wrest some sort of meaning from this tangle:

Stevie Nicks stomped through the California Rock scene in the seventies the way Michelle Phillips had done in the sixties: taking scalps, sampling the moment’s hip drugs, providing a certain aura of quintessence. That much they had in common.

There were some differences.

Michelle Phillips was a good harmony singer who needed confidence lessons from Mama Cass out front no matter how many A-list movie stars bowed down at her feet behind closed doors. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew her place.

Stevie Nicks was a strong writer, a mesmerizing, cantankerous front woman, and one of the greatest singers of the rock era. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew it wasn’t her place to bow down to anybody.

The quotes above are representive, but, even without them, there would be no need to guess which one drove the crit-illuminati stone cold crazy.

That might seem a little strong ,but when the lady in question has people pretending (that’s the kindest word I can think of to describe someone claiming the radio has ever stopped playing “Dreams”) that your biggest hit left the air for good when it “dropped from the charts,” to make way, ultimately, for the most famous of the “horrifying” songs your ex wrote about you, then, well, “stone cold crazy” seems just about right.

And it seems just about right even before one gets to such enlightened fare as “transgendered arena rock god” (written at just about the last moment when a Liberal-Playing-at-Radical like Christgau could use “transgendered” an an insult before the next round of re-education set in–there will, of course, never be a moment when the wrong sort of woman can’t be described as a “menace” by the cramped souls in the cheap seats or when “unhealthy…sex object” isn’t code for either cooties or VD). At that point, I guess she should just be grateful for the small favors: the occasional backhanded compliment–the term “guilty pleasure” comes up a lot–and whatever relief she can manage to feel that we don’t still dip witches in the village pond and hang ’em if they don’t drown.

For the record, Fleetwood Mac went from being a very good band to an important one the moment Stevie Nicks (and, yes, Lindsey Buckingham) joined it and went from being an important band to a very good one the moment she (not Buckingham) decided to focus most of her energy on one of the very few major solo careers any singer who got famous in a rock band has ever managed (and, near as I can tell, the only one anyone has ever managed on a similar scale without ever really leaving their original band).

To steal a phrase from Reggie Jackson, another misunderstood seventies-era visionary, in Fleetwood Mac’s truly epic period, Stevie Nicks was the straw that stirred the drink and everybody, including the other members of the band, pretty well knew it.

That does not mean she was musically more important than the others. That’s a totally different call. It would, for instance, be hard to be more important than Lindsey Buckingham himself, who, as an ace singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer, was an extremely rare quadruple threat. And nobody ever said Christine McVie was anything but a great singer, or that Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were anything but an awesome rhythm section. I mean, one measure of just how great Fleetwood Mac was at that point was that Stevie Nicks didn’t completely dominate it.

But she was the combustible element. And if you listen to the albums the band made in the five years before she showed up–or even the scorching guitar blues records made by the original lineup Elvis Costello loves so much in the years before that–what you hear, always, is a real good band that was very much in need of some combustion.

How she managed this was some blend of “bleeding obvious” (there was the talent, the drop-dead looks, the tendency to actually dress like a witch, or at least like nobody else) and “who the hell knows?” (whatever was inside her that drew great, angry songs like “Go Your Own Way” out of Buckingham, whose real passions otherwise were mostly for techno wizardry, or that lifted Christine McVie out of her previously–and subsequently–unbreachable comfort zone, or that made Mick Fleetwood figure he had to get in the scalp line himself at least once, and so on and so forth).

Whatever her “it” factor finally was, the public nearly always responded to it just a little bit more than it responded to the rest of the group.

The extent to which Buckingham–or the record company, or somebody–would go to counter this effect seems to have been considerable. “Landslide” and “Gold Dust Woman” were natural singles from their respective era-defining albums that went unreleased–and got picked up by the radio and played for the next forty years anyway. “Silver Springs” was left off of Rumours (where it would have been one of the strongest tracks on one of the greatest albums ever made) for “time and length” reasons that have always sounded frankly ridiculous. Released as the flip of–get this–“Go Your Own Way,” it became arguably the most famous B-side to come out after the 1960’s (when flip-hits were still pretty common) and has constantly bobbed to the surface on various re-releases ever since. (And it’s another measure of how great Fleetwood Mac was that they could leave a track as strong as “Silver Springs” off an album that was following a jillion-seller without knocking a hole in the boat.)

The upshot of all of that and more was that every attempt to rig the game in the alpha-male’s favor effectively backfired.

Partly this was just due to the quality of Nicks’ voice. She was, without much doubt, the most prominent and gifted heir of Brenda Lee-style husk and Lee had been the most popular female vocalist of the sixties. And being gorgeous never hurts commercially. Hard to hide all that.

But I think those qualities still come a long way behind the main factor–the real reason I suspect Nicks has been inordinately popular among the women vocalists who have come after and seems to strike an especially strong chord with hip-hop era black women.

To put it as succinctly as I know how: Stevie talked back.

Not only that, she talked back in a direct and forceful way that hadn’t happened quite so forcefully and directly before in rock or pretty much anywhere else. She talked back–directly–to a man who was somewhat obsessed with publicly–and directly–cutting her down. And who very pointedly wasn’t going to make up with her in the last reel. Whatever the realities of her relationship with Buckingham during Fleetwood Mac’s transcendent period, whoever was really to blame for what, that was the way the dynamic played out in public.

“Go Your Own Way” hit the radio and the record bins and, despite Greil Marcus’ delusional claim otherwise, was in fact a very big hit. A very big hit which was a straightforward “you-know-she’s-really-a-whore/slut-don’t-you?” attack on the woman singing harmony and standing next to him on stage every night–a harmony and a stage presence, incidentally, that won him a degree of fame he, for all his talent, almost certainly never could have achieved without her.

That was strange enough by itself–at least as weird as any dynamic that had ever existed in the Mamas and the Papas or the Jefferson Airplane or Abba.

But Grace Slick tended to write and sing more memorably about the times than her feelings and the other women in those groups didn’t write at all, so it meant something different when you could flip the 45 of “Go Your Own Way” and listen to “Silver Springs” not as a throwaway, but as an equally great record that literally told the other side of the story.

And if anybody wanted to wait four months until “Go Your Own Way” dropped off the charts (after performing right in line with the band’s previous singles), then they could hear “Dreams” following hard after–“Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do,” chased onto the airwaves by, “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom, well who am I to keep you down?”

That sort of thing might (or might not) seem fairly mundane now, a generation and a half after riot girl power erupted (in the underground at least). But it wasn’t mundane then. If you wanted to hear some sort of female empowerment in the mid-seventies Top 40, you mostly would be settling for songs about hanging in there like “I Will Survive.” Great record, no doubt–and necessary–but it wasn’t exactly moving the ball forward.

That’s where Stevie Nicks came in.

Not only did she offer in-time responses to age-old attacks on “wanton” women, but these were responses that rang out like gentle curses. The woman who could rock as hard as anybody alive tended to whisper when, without turning around, she was–magically if you will–parrying the knives aimed at her back.

So in a sense, for all that she accomplished after–a solo career that produced another solid handful of radio staples (and not a few magnificent performances–see below), a decade or more as rock’s go-to harmony session singer (which made her as much a descendant of Darlene Love and Merry Clayton as of Brenda Lee), a career as a “role model” that worked out just fine no matter how many rock critics followed Lindsey Buckingham’s lead–her place in the pantheon was secure the minute “Dreams”–that “soft ballad” that worked as a knowing, inescapable psychic knee in the groin of the sexual element of male privilege that, no matter how far we think “civilization” has come, is still the foundation stone upon which all the other privileges are built–started up the charts.

That makes “Dreams” a pretty big deal even now. Because if that was all there was to Stevie Nicks, it would be enough. If there were no cataclysmic live version of “Edge of Seventeen,” no glorious throwaways like her Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson covers, no definitive take on “Silent Night,” no bridge to transcendence on the version of “The Insider” that appears on Tom Petty’s 30th Anniversary Concert DVD, no three and half additional decades of popping up from the ether every few years and reminding us who she really is, there would still be “Dreams,” the song that made the crit-illuminati start lying their collective asses off the moment it appeared and has never stopped annoying them since.

Of course it was inevitable (more or less) that all that other stuff would exist–once the impulses that created “Dreams” did. There was no way anyone as driven and gifted as Nicks was going to remain in the shadows, or go back to them once she had fully emerged–and frankly she had already emerged before “Dreams” was a record. Probably even before it was an idea. I’m not even sure it’s her signature record. Plenty would vote for “Rhiannon” or “Landslide,” and I wouldn’t say they were wrong.

But “Dreams” was the no-going-back point. The way into the future.

Not the first time a woman stood toe to toe with men generally. That had happened plenty–even in rock.

Just the first time a woman stood toe-to-toe with the particular man who was saying particular things about her.

In the same band.

Or, as Elvis Costello would have it (and I’m sure the fact that he was never able to stay on the radio himself had nothing to do with his failure to comprehend all this), in a “Californian mob,” which, of course, happened to be three-fifth’s English.

Goodness knows we should be used to the six thousand degrees of separation from reality that the boys with the thinking caps and the typewriter minds practice by now, let alone the sort of rock musician who lives to impress them.

But I’m pausing here, this particular month, to celebrate the woman who made the idea that we should accept it utterly obsolete the minute she showed up.

Annoy on, lady. I’m with you.

Fleetwood Mac “Rhiannon” (Live on The Midnight Special: 1976)

Fleetwood Mac “Go Your Own Way” (Live Performance: 1977)

Stevie Nicks “Edge of Seventeen” (Live at Red Rock: 1986)

Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty “The Insider” (Live Performance, 2006)

Stevie Nicks and Chris Isaak “It’s Late” (Live on Television: 2009)

 (NOTE: Steven Rubio has rightly pointed out in comments that Brenda Lee being the most popular female vocalist of the 1960s is a contestable statement. I just want to clarify that I was referencing Joel Whitburn’s Billboard research, specifically Top Pop Singles: 1955-1999, which places Brenda third overall for the decade behind the Beatles and Elvis and, of course, first among female vocalists. As I’ve explained in a number of my Elvis posts, “charts” are not definitive barometers of “popularity.” But they are the only useful objective public evidence that exists. Apologies for the short-hand and thanks to Steven for pointing out the need for a clarification.)