More fruits of my time on YouTube–here are the Temptations being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and turning the affair into a tribute to their fallen brother, Paul Williams, who would have been the lead singer in ninety-nine percent of the vocal groups who ever lived and accepted third lead (and best dancer) in the Tempts because, well, that’s what brothers do:
And lest we forget…If it’s love that your running from….:
I’ve spent a lot of my rehab time listening to “Reaction” videos on YouTube. For those who aren’t familiar, the reactions consist mostly of young people, the majority of whom seem to be black people, listening to older music (by what seem to be mostly white performers) for the first time. The results range from hilarious to heartbreaking to cringe-inducing to eye-opening (imagine someone reacting to “Night Moves” without understanding the significance of 1962 or “Ode to Billy Joe” without knowing what the Tallahatchee River represents).
One of my favorite follows is some black kids called Dean Bros, fellow North Florida natives who appear in various combinations but always bring infectious enthusiasm. They just recently discovered Karen Carpenter. I have a delicate relationship with Karen. My mother–also my favorite rock critic–was an incredibly gifted singer, with an appreciation for all kinds of music. I only heard her compare two human voices to angels. One was Karen Carpenter, the other was Martin Luther King.
The spiritual element in Carpenter’s voice wasn’t missed by me…I didn’t inherit my mother’s talent but I did inherit her ear. I’ve always told anyone who would listen that if you had shown me two photographs in 1978, one of Karen Carpenter and one of Johnny Rotten, and guaranteed one of them was a Show Biz lifer and the other was being ridden by a Hellhound, I would have pointed to Karen as the latter. If you had asked me how I knew, I would have said: “I’ve heard her sing.”
As our fat, unhappy nation now resumes the spiral back into spiritual numbness, a process that began in earnest around the time of her death, it’s a treat for me to hear a bunch of kids from my neighborhood get instantly what three generations of crit-illuminati didn’t so much fail as refuse to notice.
Back in 2017, I wrote a post delving into the connections between the country churchyard where my parents are buried and the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” which you can read (and listen to) here.
Shortly after that, a kerfluffle broke out (yet again…o’er the years there have been many) on Greil Marcus’ website mailbag section, regarding whether the “Robert E. Lee” in the song was a reference to the General or a steamboat. People took it very seriously. Marcus used his in with the song’s composer, Robbie Robertson, to email him and ask direct. Robbie said “There’s no boat in the song.”
Next step in the process involved me writing into Marcus’s mailbag with my explanation for the possible source of the confusion (basically, the practical Yankee mind which knows Robert E. Lee was never in that part of the country vs. the romantic Southern mind which knows he is with us always and everywhere) to which Greil offered a brief but gracious response.
Now cut to this morning,very early in the A.M., with me sitting on the throne, fending off another coughing fit while I wait for my Covid-19 test results, reading the latest edition of Marcus’ most famous book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.
It was first published in 1975, with six main chapters, one of which deals with the Band. I first read it in the spring of 1982, when I used the free week I had at the FSU music library before I officially became an alumni and would lose my lending privileges to check it out. I was suitably impressed, sorry I couldn’t keep it, loaned it to my mother so she could read the famous essay on Elvis which closes the book. She was less impressed. Her wise words were “Well, at least he took him seriously,” as if that was the most you could expect from an intellectual. I’ve got whole categories on this blog dedicated to the idea she was right but that’s another story for another time.
For now, I have to get back to this morning, when I was sitting in my bathroom, reading the 7th edition of the book and the third I own. For those who wonder why I would buy more than one edition of the book, it’s because with every new edition, Marcus updates a “Notes and Discography” section that, by now, is longer than the original book itself and is generally at least as interesting as the original text. Given endless resources, I’d own every edition, but as it is I’m satisfied to check in every decade or two.
This latest, however, is likely to be definitive because it’s from The Folio Society, a London house which specializes in bringing out collectible editions of classic works in all fields. I collect Folio when I can. I collect Mystery Train when I can. It made sense to celebrate my getting out of bankruptcy this Spring by ordering a copy which promises (and delivers) a bunch of stunning photos and greatly expanded Notes in addition to Folio’s usual slipcase and superior print craftsmanship.
Instead of reading the book straight through, I’ve been reading a chapter and then the notes associated with that chapter. So this morning I had finished reading the third chapter, which is the one on the Band, and was now reading the notes.
And right there on page 285, Folio Society Edition, 2020 I let my weary eyes wander down to a footnote* that takes up nearly half the page….and what do I see:
*”A week or so ago,” the musician Oliver Hall wrote in 2006, “[we] passed through Greenville, North Carolina, and a wonderful space of appearances called Spazzatorium gallery. Afterwards, we sat around with some locals and we sang loud, drunken harmony together: Woody Guthrie, Carter Family, some Civil War ballads I didn’t know (one in which “Jeff Davis rides a dappled grey mare, Abe Lincoln rides a mule”). When we were well in our cups, I began to sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but after the first chorus, the Southerners begged me to stop. They had tears in their eyes and said the song was too painful for them to sing.” When in 2017 an online controversy broke out over whether or not, in certain live performances, Levon (Helm) himself sang not “There goes Robert E. Lee,” in other words the person, but “there goes the Robert E. Lee,” which, as denoting a Mississippi steamship, would properly be, “the Robert E. Lee,” Robbie confirmed “There is no boat in the song.” John Ross added: “For the record, every white citizen in the South who had a living memory of the Civil War believed they had caught a glimpse of Robert E. Lee, just as every white citizen thereafter has believed they’re related to him. Stoneman’s Cavalry left from my father’s back yard and ended up in my mother’s so I know a little about this. Sorry I can’t pass on what all Virgil told my uncle. But I promise you he’d be amused by this.”
Okay, so I was a little disappointed I didn’t make the Index, like my Medium partner Lew Shiner (Marcus referenced one of his short stories in the Robert Johnson Notes). And I’ll still hope for the day when some future edition reads “novelist John Ross added:”
But, as it stands, I’ve got a worthy mention in the definitive edition of the most famous and important book of rock criticism written in the twentieth century.
A couple of weeks ago I ended a decades long search for Tanya Tucker’s first four Columbia albums on CD. Turns out they’re now available in one glorious, affordable set from Morello Records. A couple of nights ago I sat down and listened to them and was reminded of why she used to keep me up nights. I cried a few times, but nothing hit quite like this, a modest hit just as she was leaving the label where she became a superstar at thirteen. It was conceived and recorded in the mid-70’s, at the height of the New Nashville, and might as well be a three-hundred-year-old Childe ballad about a thousand-year-old memory, a reminder that it takes thousands of years to build civilization and one generation to tear it down.
There’s a new documentary out on Suzi Quatro, the pioneering rocker who sold fifty million records worldwide but is best known in her native land for a hit duet and a part-time role on Happy Days. Sheila O’Malley reviewed the documentary for Ebert.com. You can find the review by following the link here.
Then Sheila and I got into a wide-ranging chat about women in rock (which you can find by following the link above and scrolling to the comments) and she sent me a link to something I just gotta share here. Please look, listen and smile:
If the YouTube thread sends you straight to “Stumblin’ In” like it did me…just keep listening.
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
KJV Matthew 7:5
Little Steven Van Zandt posted a question to his followers on Twitter asking them to name the first album or single they bought. One of the responses was Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd (the hilarious, self-mocking title of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first LP).
In reply someone whose Twitter handle is TrumpIsaCriminal wrote:
@littlestevenug should play Skynyrd for a lark. They were not as ahead of the curve as the Allman Brothers, but they were not racists ( though some of their fans might have been).
I immediately thought “As opposed to who else’s fans I wonder?”
It got hilarious, though, when I scrolled through the first two hundred or so responses and found not a single black person had replied, and only one person had mentioned a black record (Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep On Truckin'”). To be fair I had been led to the feed in the first place by Odie Henderson’s funny tweet about going into a record store to buy the Four Tops’ “Reach Out” and hearing Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” on the store speakers and buying that instead. So one black person DID reply, even if he is a professional film critic.
I mean, if Ronnie Van Zant was still alive and had a Twitter account and asked his followers to list the first records they ever bought, the response wouldn’t have been more racist than that would it?
I last kept track of Miley Cyrus here…Nothing’s changed. She’s the fakest faker in the history of fakery. The wild child act was/is no more real than the Hannah Montana girl next door or the pansexuality or the weeping on camera when Hilary lost. Which is why, on the rare occasions where she does reveal herself she’s the only modern singer who can still deliver a shock–something like what rock ‘n’ roll once delivered by the hour.
The latest is her performance of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on Saturday Night Live, the fakest fake show in the history of fakery. It already has two million hits on YouTube, which exists to promote and preserve such things. I recommend closing your eyes. The visual part is pure distraction, the hedging of the bet right down to the social distancing between her and the guitarist. It’s the voice that’s real…and the unwillingness (or is it inability?) to use it this way more than once every few years that’s the tragedy:
…Bob Dylan’s recorded the sequel to “Desolation Row”…minus the optimism. I know plenty of people who come here will already know about it, but some won’t and I sure wouldn’t want anyone to miss it. It will probably take more years than the world has left to plumb the lyrics, but the sound is all you really need to know everything words could possibly convey and that sound doesn’t let up from first note to last. Listen now, before Greil Marcus has a chance to tell us what it all means!
Just on first listen, it was the Warren Zevon/Carl Wilson and Stevie Nicks references that got to me….maybe because I once tried to write a song that began, “Heard something yesterday on ninety-eight point two/Was it ‘Gold Dust Woman’ that came crawling through?/Well, the others heard Stevie, but I heard you/Singing like we used to.”
I gave up on finishing it when I realized FM stations don’t end in even numbers and AM stations don’t start until long after 98. I know it was a good verse, though, because I hadn’t thought of it in more than thirty years and it came back to me today in an instant…maybe because I’m getting ready to pitch the novel I finally wrote about the two girls the lyric was about (I forgot the lyric but I never could shake them, no matter how many times their names changed).
Mickey & Sylvia: Love is Strange (All the Hit Singles A’s & B’s 1950-1962)
Together and apart, Mickey Baker and Sylvia Robinson (nee Vanterpool) chased various formulas until they hit on “Love is Strange” in 1957. Then they chased more formulas (including some they invented) into the early 60’s before Baker finally gave in and moved to France.
Robinson persisted in the music industry, eventually landing a big hit with “Pillow Talk” in the 70’s and becoming a founding mother of Hip Hop when she started Sugarhill Records and released “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message.” But that’s another story for another time.
The reason I do deep dives on one hit wonders is…you never know what you’ll find, especially in 50’s R&B.
I found plenty of fine sides among the 56 collected here, but the killer was “Two Shadows on Your Window,” which is as far from the ambiance of “Love is Strange” as you can get….and proof you should never stop looking:
NOTE: This later live version (still fine) is from later on, but all that’s available on YouTube. I’ll keep an eye out for the real thing, which has a beautiful intimacy all its own.
In speaking of the motives which actuated Mr. Astor in an enterprise so extensive, Mr. Irving, we are willing to believe, has done that high-minded gentleman no more than the simplest species of justice. “He was already,” says our author, “wealthy beyond the ordinary desires of man, but he now aspired to that honorable fame which is awarded to men of similar scope of mind, who, by their great commercial enterprises, have enriched nations, peopled wildernesses, and extended the bounds of empire. He considered his projected establishment at the mouth of the Columbia, as the emporium to an immense commerce; as a colony that would form the germ of a wide civilization; that would, in fact, carry the American population across the Rocky Mountains, and spread it along the shores of the Pacific, as it already animated the shores of the Atlantic.”
(Edgar Allan Poe, reviewing Washington Irving’s biography of John Jacob Astor, Jan. 1837–“Astoria,” The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe, Running Press 1983 edition)
You see, it’s never really about the money. Poe, Irving and Astor understood and accepted that the crucial American enterprise was conquest. If you could make money off it, so much the better, but first, conquest.
Or, as they wold have called it, just before it became a dirty word: Empire.