THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD…THANK GOD IT ONCE HAD ROOM FOR ECCENTRICS (Gary S. Paxton and Jack Davis, R.I.P.)

I don’t have the deep knowledge to do justice to either man so I’ll keep my part brief.

Gary S. Paxton

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GARYPAXTON2Gary S. Paxton kept himself on the vital margins of Rock and Roll America throughout its founding and impetuous youth. He started out normal enough, as half of Skip & Flip (“It Was I,” “Cherry Pie”…Skip was Skip Battin, who went on the play with a late edition of the Byrds).

Then he took a left turn: lead voice on the Hollywood Argyles “Alley Oop,” which he also produced, along with Bobby Pickett’s “The Monster Mash”–in other words about as hard a left turn as the times allowed.

Then he just kept turning. First to a role as all around L.A. record man–producer, writer, engineer, label owner, whatever–with his fingerprints here, there and everywhere behind the scenes. Then, in the mid-sixties, to the town’s burgeoning country-rock scene, where he had the commitment and contacts to play in Gram Parsons’ league. Not bad for a guy who was producing Tommy Roe and the Association. But, despite starting Bakersfield International and giving the Gosdin Brothers a start, he never managed to make his particular genius achieve lift-off in the new context.

Not to fear. His commitment was real enough, more than a phase. From there he went on to Nashville, where he wrote this late signature tune for the great Don Gibson which is a particular favorite of mine:

Around the same time, God came calling, and Gary had consumed enough who-hit-John to be in a mood to listen. Despite keeping a toe in the country world, he spent the rest of his life devoted primarily to gospel, where he made heads spin from left (“Will There Be Hippies in Heaven”) to right (“The Big A = The Big M”…approach with caution) and, in a sense went back to working the road he had started down with a string of teenage bands when rock and roll was still a gleam in Chuck Berry’s eye.

Along the way there were Grammy’s, three bullets from a hit man (the early eighties, when survival was the name of the game), time in Branson and, earlier this month, the meeting with his maker. He wore a thousand faces when he was here. What they all had in common was a smile.

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Jack Davis

He did for the second half of the American Century what Norman Rockwell did for the first half–defined some elemental image of us as we wanted to see ourselves. Until I started hunting around for images on the news of his death, I had no idea how much he had shaped the visual imagination of fifty million childhoods. I’ll let a smattering of what I found tell the story.

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Yup. That’s my autobiography. Yours, too, probably.

Jack’s probably on the River Styx tonight. But, wherever he is, I bet somebody’s offering him a commission.

Mad Magazine cartoonist Jack Davis attends an event in his honor by the Savannah College of Art and Design and the National Cartoonists Society, Friday, Oct. 11, 2011 in Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)

MY VERY FIRST OFFICIAL CD REVIEW (The Paley Brothers Help Me Define How I Really Feel About Certain Things…Or Something Like That)

The Paley Brothers: The Complete Recordings

(NOTE: The Paley Brothers were a sibling harmony duo who released an album and a few singles at the height of the Do It Yourself Punk/New Wave moment in the late seventies. Their complete recordings, including some previously unissued and live tracks are now available. This is the first time I’ve ever formally reviewed a CD. Somebody was kind enough to send me a review copy so, of course, since I was obligated to write about it, it fell into that most difficult of categories–Liked-it-didn’t-love-it-even-though-I-really-wanted-to. Still, thinking about it like a “reviewer” provided an interesting experience. Unlike books or movies, which require a certain level of engagement, music can and should be experienced both deeply and casually. Hence I tried on a mix of close attention and having it on in the background over the course of several weeks. It never really grabbed me…but it did leave me with a few things to say.)

The Paley Brothers were one of those “can’t miss” acts who missed. They were slated Power Pop–a genre that never quite seemed to live up to its potential in any case–but I hear as much Retro (along the lines of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) as anything. As much Fifties as Sixties in other words.

That’s hardly a bad thing. The Paleys were certainly skilled as both writers and singers–enough that I can readily understand the cult that’s developed around these recordings even if I can’t quite join it.

I’m left on the outside by, among other things, my aversion to half-formulas.

Pop, I hear, in every second.

Power? Not so much. And, unfortunately, whatever the marketing label, all first class Pop needs it, a lesson the DIY brand the Paleys specialized in failed to learn in general.

Having said all that, I can’t deny that these recordings are quite good as knockoffs (or that I have a fondness for knockoffs). And the Brothers certainly had pedigree, or, at very least, connections. They recorded most of these sides in either the Beach Boys’ own Brother Studios or Ardent Studios in Memphis (home of Power Pop avatars, Big Star).

You can read those kind of details in the very engaging liner notes which are actually the best thing about this package. But in the end, all that information does is re-emphasize how the best Power Pop (or Retro) bands always added a little something (if not a whole lotta something). And it was that extra something–not the imitative elements–that made the Raspberries or Badfinger or Cheap Trick or Big Star or, yes, I insist, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids–special.

The Paleys, on the other hand, do some perfect imitations (especially of the Everly Brothers and late period Beach Boys, though on “Too Good to Be True,” they sneak in a Bobby Fuller Four Vibe that is perfect in every respect except for their keeping their distance in a way Fuller never would have imagined even when he was throwing one of his occasional change-ups), or, sometimes, perfect-imitations-of-imitations like a live cover of Tommy Roe’s “Sheila” which itself was a top-notch Buddy Holly homage.

To be fair, the Paleys did do a bit of anticipating as well. But it was of future Retro acts like Shaun Cassidy (who they would end up touring with) and the Stray Cats (1979’s “She’s Eighteen Tonight” could be a template for that band’s entire career). And those acts would be just that little bit better–or maybe just that little bit more focused–that is so often the difference between hitting and missing.

I do hear a lot of passion in the Paleys music, especially the vocals. But in the end, their records were always let down by something. Strange to say, given that Andy Paley went on to become a big-time producer, but there are several sides here I can imagine taking off if only a little more care or imagination had been applied to some particular element of studio-craft: “You’re the Best” and “Runnin’ In the Rain” have great melodies and fine vocals but are built around seriously undercooked arrangements (a common problem with the entire DIY movement, actually, given that arrangements are the life-blood of all great Pop) while “Magic Power” which does have a strong arrangement is dragged down by an uncharacteristically misguided lead vocal.

And–background or foreground–so it goes with this entire record and with my first exposure to the Paley Brothers. They chased after so many bits of other people’s genius that they never quite found their own.

Granted, they wore their influences so proudly on their sleeves that it amounted to a kind of integrity. But it also added up to a sound with no strong central focus. That’s what separates them from bands like the Raspberries or Badfinger, who had hits by getting within shouting distance of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. And I suspect it’s the missing ingredient, as well, that prevented them from producing a single transcendent track after the manner of Starz’ “Cherry Baby” or Sniff N’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat”, which at least scraped the Top 40 by getting within shouting distance of the Raspberries.

So I guess at bottom I can hear how something bigger might have happened for the Paleys with a small twist of fate here or there.

But, even on their magnum opus “Can You Come Out and Play,” I can also hear why it didn’t.

And in this latter, there is a certain poignance and even relevance.

If “Can You Come Out and Play” had as much vocal impact on Shaun Cassidy as I suspect, then that’s reason enough for the Paleys’ recordings–and this package–to exist. I mean, you can take my Sinatra records (well, Frank’s anyway) and do with them what you will, but you’ll have to pry “That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie” from my cold dead fingers.

The heartfelt liner-note tribute from Seymour Stein, the Sire Records label head who signed the Paleys, believed in them and stood by them as long as possible, shows how much good will and real respect they generated.

There is some real love for them there and in a lot of the quotes from other big-timers as well–not to mention a lot of positive-to-rave reviews in the here and now.

They clearly had some sort of magic.

I only wish I could honestly say it translated to my own ears.