THE RETURN OF MARY WEISS (Memory Lane: 2007)

{NOTE: I’m kinda’ swamped at the moment so, to cap the week, I’m posting one from days gone by. Rock and Rap Confidential was kind enough to distribute a slightly edited version of this piece in their on-line newsletter at the time Mary Weiss’ solo album Dangerous Game was released in 2007. I don’t see any reason to alter any of its basic assumptions. Weiss, not surprisingly for someone who tends to let silence speak volumes, has recorded nothing since, though she has toured occasionally. For anyone new to the site, you can track some of my personal history with the Shangri-Las in the SHANGRI-LAS FOREVER category at the right. In any case, this is an accurate reflection of how things stood between me and Mary Weiss when she finally came out of the shadows. FYI: You can follow the Norton Records link below to find Weiss’ interview at the time, which I’ve linked before but can’t possibly be over-publicized.]

About fifteen years ago, driving through middle Georgia, I happened across a very small black gospel station of the sort that proliferate throughout the south. It was a Sunday afternoon and the programming consisted of a live, obviously local choir performance.

The choir featured a very young female soloist who sounded remarkably like….SOMEBODY. I drove along–slowly!–mentally riffing through dozens of favorite black female singers, trying to place the similarity. After about thirty minutes, hearing her off and on, I finally realized I had been on the wrong track. The striking resemblance wasn’t to a black woman at all. It was to a white teenager.

Just before I passed out of the tiny station’s limited range, never learning the young singer’s name, or even the name of the choir she was fronting, I realized she was a dead ringer for the Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss–Ah, yes, Queens and the Georgia plains, together again!

A few months back, at the Norton Records’ website, Weiss related a wonderful story about reverse-integrating a women’s bathroom while a Houston cop drew down on her during a show she played with James Brown. I certainly wasn’t surprised to learn that the lead singer of the Shangri-Las was not intimidated by racist cops. And because of that Sunday afternoon in Georgia, I wasn’t even surprised to learn that Augusta’s own James Brown had hired the Shangri-Las because he assumed from their records that they were black.

But Weiss’ return is far more than a nostalgia trip with a lot of great stories attached. This is one comeback that is tremendously important to both history and the moment.

As to history: In breaking a lifetime of silence regarding her career with the Shangri-Las, Weiss has driven about a hundred new nails in the coffin of Standard Rock Theology’s most damaging falsehood–that because they were female and often impossibly young, many of the greatest singers of the rock and roll era owed their success primarily to svengali-like male producers rather than their own drive and talent.

This lie is rooted in a deep, almost willful misunderstanding of singing as a creative process, fully equal to writing and producing. It has probably kept the Shangri-Las (and Arlene Smith and the Marvelettes and Mary Wells, among others) out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, if reading and hearing Weiss’ modest, convincing voice doesn’t kill it for good, nothing will

From her, we learn that the Shangri-Las’ revolutionary dress and stage manner–which instantly and permanently changed the way women could present themselves in popular culture and left a long, deep shadow on the New York street scenes that would eventually produce both punk and rap–were entirely their own. That they worked closely with their producers and arrangers at every stage concerning what they would record and how. That their impeccable, drop-dead harmonies, always a vastly under-appreciated aspect of the female group sound, were forged by years of practice in a hyper-competitive environment** where literally hundreds of fine groups never made it off the streets and only a handful ever had a hit (let alone the near-dozen chart records, including four top twenties, notched by the Shangri-Las).

As to the moment: Weiss’ new album–the first music in forty years by one of rock’s signature voices–has been consistently damned with faint praise that grows straight out of the old, false mindset. Most mainstream reviews have been content to convey two basic ideas: 1) Gee, the old girl sure does sound like herself and 2) it’s always nice to have an excuse to name-drop Shadow Morton.

Don’t be fooled.

On Dangerous Game, Weiss is backed by the fine southern garage band, Reigning Sound, whose Greg Cartwright supplied most of the first-rate songs. The sound and style are as far from Morton’s justifiably storied extravagance as you can get.

But after a dozen listens, I’m convinced this music is of a piece with Weiss’ long-ago greatness not because of her still unmistakable timbre, but because of her ability to bring her great themes–trust and betrayal–to bear on any situation anyone is ever likely to write a song about.

There’s no doubt either, that they are her themes. Morton’s wonderful songs–and Cartwright’s–have frequently emanated from the mouths of others without once acquiring the capacity to either wound or heal. Weiss has nearly always made them do one or the other. At her very best, as on “Remember” and “Never Again” forty years ago or “Cry About the Radio” and “Stitch in Time” here, she’s done both in the same song.

The inability of the modern rock press to address her in these terms–the terms due a singer who owns the idea that no relationship worth having can ever be entirely safe as surely as Roy Orbison owns romantic paranoia and John Fogerty owns righteous anger–simply reinforces their own irrelevance.

(**As a poignant footnote, when Weiss began touring and giving interviews shortly after this piece was published, she was asked why she was reluctant to sing some of her old songs on stage. Though she has, of course, sung at least some of her oldies live, her answer, essentially, as to why she preferred not to, was that those songs were arranged for particular voices and those voices–two of which belonged to the deceased Marge and Mary Ann Ganser–no longer existed.)

Mary Weiss “Cry About the Radio” (Audio Recording)


6 thoughts on “THE RETURN OF MARY WEISS (Memory Lane: 2007)

  1. It makes me happy that in at least one place on this best and worst entity that mankind has ever dreamt up, this Internet, the phrase “singing as a creative process, fully equal to writing and producing” can be found.

    I also dig what you’ve divined from the Norton interview. The Shangri-Las were indeed self-invented, and their vocals — their subjectively, deep-down-personally, *creatively* performed vocals — were indeed what breathed life into the song skeletons presented to them.

    (How the aggressively sexual allure of stretch-Lurex pants didn’t occur to them is beyond me. Maybe it indicates an innocence that I don’t entirely fathom as a forty-five-year-old musician in 2017, an innocence appropriately found in innocent-aged people that the first half of the ’60s gave up to the second half.)

    While I’m at it — and since your insightful piece above is as fitting an old entry as any beneath which to take up space with unaccountably long-winded comments — fleeting moments that also make me happy include a certain camera shot from the only existing live performance (as opposed to the lip-synchs) of “Give Him a Great, Big Kiss”: the Shindig one that we’ve been on about lately. I’ve only recently noticed the particular cool moment in question.

    When Mary hits the first high, sustained note at the end of “Look how he walks,” a couple of shrieks are heard from girls in the crowd (“Wow! It’s really THEM!”).

    Mary stands at the far end of the next shot. In the past, I never noticed her facial expression just after the screams. (I’m not sure how often I’ve watched the film since I first saw _The Story of a Sound._ It’s such a fun live version of the song that it bears revisiting every so often.)

    She appears to be genuinely delighted, and even caught off-guard, when she hears the girls squealing at, atypically, girls. Maybe it’s the sudden awareness that certain members of this audience have shown up specifically to see her and her sisters-in-arms. They’ve bought the record. They know her voice. She’s made a connection.

    They’re perhaps even sharing the Shangs’ just-about-perceptible sense of humor regarding the lyrics: the song’s sense of “What the hell! It’s only rock’n’roll, after all, so let’s celebrate the fact that we don’t always have to be serious,” that terrific air of abandon so often found in the still relatively new musical form.

    Mary’s open-mouthed smile in said long shot, as she inhales for the next line, is among the fleeting moments that make me happy, because one gathers from her later interviews that being “genuinely delighted” was a rare occurrence during her youth.

    Putting up with record companies, grabby-handed musicians and hotel-room intruders just to build a singing career…waking up on a bus without knowing which state it’s hurtling through…feeling afraid to say “No” to musically irrelevant radio promo spots and Revlon commercials…it has all culminated in this moment, when hearing her new friends in the crowd shriek in recognition of her voice makes everything worth it, when hearing such appreciation reminds her that this type of music party was why she got into public performance in the first place.

    Or maybe I read too much into such things.

    If so, I apparently don’t care, because I also wonder if the girls were pleased a bit later when they noticed that the whole crowd was clapping along with the “walking” part of the song.

    Another (briefer, I promise) observation that makes me happy to recall is that after dealing throughout the Shangs’ career with whatever her emotional problem was, and after the group’s litigation-based disillusionment made them choose an early retirement, and after trying and failing to become Ms. Anonymous, she somehow emerged with a high self-value:

    Bob Stanley, BBC interviewer: “When I told [Mary] she was looking well, she said, ‘That’s ’cause I work out three hours a day! How else do you think I’d look like this?'”

    [grammar and punctuation fixed by me]

    Taking such great care of oneself, and showing oneself worthiness in terms of good health (and even in drawing physical admiration), is an indication of self-respect and even self-protectiveness. Of course, exercise is said to be the best cure for depression, so maybe she read that somewhere.

    Sorry for the usual verbosity. I haven’t found any other place, online or elsewhere, in which comments like this would even be read in full, much less encouraged. I was evidently jonesing to discuss rock records with like minds, but never quite realized it!

    • Conversations like this were why I started this blog, so there can never be too much verbosity (especially about this subject!)

      And, of course, you’ve gone and done it…made me watch this clip repeatedly…something I NEVER do otherwise (hahahaha).

      I think your points are spot on. The thing that jumped out at me the first time I ever encountered that video, beside the “presence” we’ve already discussed, was the joie de vrie, the pure joy of performing. That’s something that has basically gone out of public performance. For all the “liberation,” sexual and otherwise, that we keep congratulating ourselves for, our Puritan roots keep reaching out…Everyone is now consumed with proving how hard they are working at it (that’s what all the endless melisma and fake angst are about…trying to get to the New Heaven). And, as I wrote about in a review of The Last Waltz once, there’s also a sense of condescension toward the audience in modern performance that can best be described as: “if you were really cool, you’d be up here on the stage with us.”

      There’s none of that here. The connection to the real audience in the studio and the imaginary audience on the other side of the camera is palpable and all the more remarkable because it’s the complete flip side of “Remember” or “Out in the Streets.”

      Music is really good at conveying three things: Joy, Melancholy and Angst. Mary and the Shangs (and most of the really top acts from rock n roll’s first decade and a half) were great at all three. These days, Joy and Melancholy are no longer permissible in public performance. Angst is all, and therefore it must be continually faked: else everyone would have to kill themselves, not just those like Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse who are truly tormented.

      But, of course, the REAL reason the music industry has died is….TECHNOLOGY! (hahahahaha)

      And, just as a final note on this performance, when Shadow Morton famously said he didn’t realize what a great actress Mary was (until he had spent decades trying to find another like her), this–the most joyous song they did–could be Exhibit A. The joy is real, but she’s in TOTAL control as well. Everything she did, either in the studio or on TV, felt lived in. That’s a quality the very best always make look easy…and anybody who knows anything about performing knows how hard-earned it is.

      [Just as an aside–this song should only be performed by women. I love the New York Dolls (and God knows, they loved the Shangs), but their version sounds like a creepy stalker thing.]

  2. What great points. You’re right on the money about the “too cool for joy or melancholy” filter that was installed between performers and audiences at some point during our lives. (MTV certainly helped to thicken it.) It’s true in movies, as well. I’ve always called it “cooler-than-thou nihilism,” but that’s a bit vague. I like your damning slogan “Angst is all” more.

    I should probably give the Dolls another chance. The guys in my first band were nuts about them (this is going back to the ’80s, when Dolls LPs and cassettes, as well as Thunders’ So Alone, were hard to come by…I don’t know how those guys found the Dolls’ debut album and Too Much Too Soon, but they did).

    When I heard Johansen rip off the beginning of “…Great, Big Kiss” before he started singing some song about looking for a kiss, I swore at the stereo and swore off the Dolls, without ever having really heard them. Of course, my bandmates were amused. “Ooooooh, don’t plagiarize the Shangri-Las around Chris.” I had no context at all besides, “Those drag queens stole lyrics from my favorite girl group.”

    I know this won’t sit well with you, but I’ve always hated the Grease soundtrack (never saw the movie) for similar reasons. Not only was disco-fied nonsense made out of ’50s and ’60s rock’n’roll, but in my least favorite song ever passed from someone’s bowels, “Summer Nights,” the “tell me more” refrain from the same Shangs tune was ripped off, and the bass line was stolen from Mann / Weil / The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.'”

    I was very young when I decided, for the reasons above, that I hated Grease, and would hate it for the rest of my life. Kids who are fanatics about their favorite records tend to take things too seriously, and can only see things in black and white before they grow up and gradually notice all the gray areas. Having said that, I guess my contempt stuck, as even to this day, even accidentally thinking about “Summer Nights” makes me angry. The song makes a mockery of my favorite kind of music.

    (Maybe that just means I *still* need to lighten up!)

    Bonus verbosity: Weiss named the Ink Spots among her early favorites. The Ink Spots are often cited as the first popular group to interject spoken interludes in their songs. Nifty coincidence!

  3. Yeah, it’s getting into a discussion of a whole social revolution (or more accurately counter-revolution). There was a moment in the 50s when all these voices came out of the shadows…and a moment in the 80s when the overlords (who had been trying to do it since Elvis got on television) figured out a way to push back. So they took voices out of the music industry and faces out of the film industry. Once you do that, the two most powerful components of popular culture (which in the U.S., is pretty much THE culture) are neutered at best and harmful at worst, because they lose the human element that made them so compelling in the first place. The point of early rock and roll (and even through the seventies) was, to cop a phrase from Elvis, to “sound like nobody else.” The suits won when they finally crafted an industry that went back to the pre-rock standard of “you gotta sound like EVERYBODY else.” Next stop, cultural collapse…which don’t bother the overlords one little bit!

    On the Dolls–they had their limits (I once heard David Johansen being interviewed and, though he called the Shangri-Las “perfect” he also didn’t think they could sing….that might be your entire explanation for why punk never caught on, right there!) But I like the energy on their first two albums and I always took the reference you mention as homage rather than rip-off. I’d recommend giving them a spin or two, but they’re definitely built for cult-hood which is, uh….not my very highest compliment!

    Speaking of homage…

    On Grease–I never caught the “tell me more” connection, despite my obsession with Shangs’ references, so good catch! I totally didn’t get the movie the first time I saw it, because it’s basically a parody of pop culture references I wasn’t yet privy to. My mom loved it, which was the only reason I went to see it when the 20th anniversary edition came out (it was also the tenth anniversary of her death). By then, I was well steeped in all the things I missed, and, sitting in an empty theater, it finally made sense to me. So I’ve had plenty of affection for it since…but where I think it’s good-natured, plenty of others are VERY put off by it. And I never listen to the soundtrack by itself. The only song I really like for itself is “You’re the One that I Want” and there are plenty of better ways to hear it. It’s certainly not a movie I would defend as art….but I confess it makes me smile. There aren’t so many of those I can afford to let one go! Where I don’t agree with some critics, is that it’s an exercise in cynicism or mockery. It’s way too goofy for that.

    Interesting that Brenda Lee and Elvis–the two best “spoken word” artists after Mary–were also huge Ink Spots fans (Brenda came up with the spoken bit for “I’m Sorry” in the studio when the record came too short and she was specifically inspired by the Ink Spots…that was literally the same week, and in the same studio, that Elvis recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”)….coincidence?….or inspiration!

    Which reminds me that one of these days, I gotta write about The Ballad Revolution…So much world, so little time!

  4. I hasten to add that such bitching on my part (the Dolls, Grease) is always 100% subjective — it’s not meant to be criticism of fans of stuff that I simply don’t get. That’s hopefully taken for granted, but it couldn’t hurt to type it out. The only reason the world still manages to remain interesting is that everyone has different tastes. Hell, *I’ll* defend Grease as art, for the specific reason that I feel there’s no difference between art and entertainment. Art is just something that somebody makes. Everything is valid. (That’s a long comment post in itself…I’ll spare you!)

    Just for Fun Department: In case you’ve never heard the Muffs, here’s a couple of links to a couple of great songs. We opened for them in the ’90s and I told Kim, the singer, “You sound like you’re trying to be a heavier Go-Gos. I mean that as praise.” She said, “I took it as praise. Thanks!”

    Of course, she doesn’t sing as well as Belinda, but few ever have.

  5. Ah, well, I’ll buy that everything is art (including Grease), but there’s only so much of it I’m prepared to defend…Good sound on the Muffs. Thanks for putting them on my radar. I have to confess I didn’t realize how good Belinda Carlisle was (thought she was possibly dispensable even)….until I heard the several thousand others who tried.

    Keep the band stories coming BTW…”tell me more”

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