I probably don’t write enough about the experience of listening to box sets, which tend to re-contextualize their subjects like nothing else.
Most of the time, a hundred songs or so by anybody is a bit much, but in the right mood, with the right artist, it’s like being immersed in time–things keep moving back and forth, casting shadows here, letting a little new light in over there.
The psychologists tell us that it’s the sense of smell that has the most deeply associative powers, that speaks most forcefully to memory. Maybe it’s because my own olfactory nerves don’t work very well, but for me that function has always been fulfilled by music.
Hard for anyone of my generation with my set of interests to get more associative than when listening to a Supremes’ box set.
So I’m listening to the box simply called The Supremes, the one with the purple faux-velvet cover (this life does offer its perfections from time to time) and it’s all over the place and–at the same time–unbeatable. I mean, where else do you get carried from “Buttered Popcorn” (which ain’t about butter and sure ain’t about popcorn, and is the record that turned its lead singer Florence Ballard into a full-time backup when Berry Gordy basically refused to promote it) to a live turn on the Chitlin’ circuit to the snappiest pop-soul going (all those breakout singles like “Baby Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go” and about twenty others, most of which were big hits) to the existential dread of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to the theme from Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (which I’m guessing they threw in there just in case you thought the theme from The Happening, which actually went to #1, was a bridge too far even for an act aimed as dead at the heart of pure Show Biz as the Supremes)?
This was my second time through the box (like I said, I gotta be in the mood) and I tell you one thing. I sure wasn’t bored!
But one thing that was always true about the Supremes, and about Diana Ross in particular, and which is too often forgotten, is that, under all the glitz, they could throw a chill on.
So it wasn’t all that surprising to find one of the truly great juxtapositions here–one I’d missed the first time around.
Disc Two happens to end with a cut from their Live at the Copa album and it’s fascinating/disturbing in itself. Not to mention funny and lively and as polished as a ’66 Mustang that just got out of the car-wash. Programmed to the last shiny detail and painfully real for all that, maybe because all parties involved–except the audience–knew things were coming to a head between Ballard and Ross.
Then Disc Three starts with “Reflections,” the last single on which Ballard participated and–coincidentally or not, ironically or not–Ross’ greatest-ever vocal. By the time the group hit the television show circuit to promote the song, Flo had been replaced by Cindy Birdsong and was on her way to becoming the stuff of died-on-welfare-but-at-least-they’ll-make-a-movie-about-it-some-day legend.
All of which made “Reflections”–#2 in sixty-seven (kept from the top slot by “Ode to Billie Joe,” which surely must be a whole other post, if not a plot for a novel about the end-times) and the song America has been secretly dedicating to outgoing American presidents ever since (with the current president well on his way to being no exception)–haunt a little harder this time around.
Coming out of the velvet-gloved barbs from the Copa, with nothing but a quick CD change in between, it all of a sudden sounded like Diana Ross singing the song Flo Ballard might have sung to her.
“Right before my eyes, my world has turned to dust,” indeed.
Ah well. Happy times.