OKAY HERE’S THE SCOOP…

A week ago yesterday, having become frustrated with a week’s worth of phone-tag and various snafus regarding a cholesterol test, I visited two doctor’s offices and a lab in order to straighten out some paperwork and get retested. The paperwork got straightened out. I got retested. However, coincidentally or not (and, yes, we were all wearing masks), I woke up around 4 a.m. the next morning with a nagging, persistent cough.

I wasn’t anything I hadn’t had before so I gave it a week to improve. It didn’t so today I went back to the lab and had a Covid-19 test. I should have results in 3-7 business days. The major effect on the blog is that the coughing is making it very hard to concentrate well enough or long enough to post anything. I’ll probably need a nap when I finish this post. I’ll keep everybody posted as things develop.

In the meantime, all I can say is thank God for Al Green. It’s not many people I can listen to for four days straight when I’m too weak to fight and personally keeping Ricola in business:

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2020: Volume 2)

10) Rick Nelson Garden Party (1972)

A concept LP about the joys, perils, and traps of rock stardom from a man who had seen more sides of the story than anybody but Elvis and, like Elvis, would find the road ending in the trap of an early death. I suppose it was possible in 1972, with E and Chuck Berry also back at the top of the charts, to think there would be more hit singles like the title track and ho-hum. But there weren’t and Rick doesn’t sound like someone who took his “comeback” for granted, but suspected it was only a temporary bit of well-earned good fortune. One of the first LPs I bought, because I knew I loved the hit from the radio and because it was cheap in a cutout bin: When I found out, a few years later, that Christgau had given it a B- , it was the first sign that he and I were not exactly going to get along. And it’s greater now, when it’s no longer seemly or excusable to take it for granted, than it was then.

9) Various Artists Shagger’s Delight (1981)

A fabulous collection of “beach music,” a subset of 50’s R&B and light 60’s soul that Carolina college kids turned into their own little genre in the 70’s. This is heavy on the R&B, though the real keeper is the Kingpins’ “It Won’t Be This Way Always” from the early 60’s and a bridge to the future of a lot more than beach music.

8) Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club (1985)

 

Released 20 years after Cooke’s tawdry, untimely death, this is the LP that shocked everyone who hadn’t heard his gospel music. I’d heard his gospel. I wasn’t shocked. That’s probably why, although I bought it right away, it took me a long time to hear it for what it was: A sizzling live performance in front of a sympathetic black audience by one of soul’s greatest singers and master showmen. You want to know how and why his loss was felt so deeply by so many, this is the place to start.

7) Sam Cooke The Man and His Music (1986)

Which makes this the place to finish. If I just want to sing along to some Sam Cooke, I still pull 1962’s RCA Best of. But if I want to hear as much of the whole story as I can absorb in one sitting, this double-LP is better than similar length CD-only comps. His box set doesn’t have “A  Change Is Gonna Come.” I know it was a rights issue at the time…but any journey that long has to end there. This one does….without leaving off anything from “Touch the Hem of His Garment” to “Everybody Loves to Cha, Cha, Cha,” along the way.

6)  Various Artists A History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues: Volume 1, 1950-1958 (1987)

Ya’ll know I like the democracy of the title–“a” not “the.” And this is the cream of that very large crop even it doesn’t have Fats Domino. The sound of his piano is all over this, even if he didn’t play a lick here (and it’s possible he played any number). What more do you need than that? Heck, the way Shirley and Lee start things off, you’d be halfway through a record of crickets chirping before you noticed anyway.

5) Cyndi Lauper True Colors (1986)

The version of “Iko, Iko” from the prior LP put me in mind of Cyndi’s brilliant use of it here so I listened to the whole thing….and was again reminded that it’s fine from beginning to end. There was a weird backlash at the time because it only had three hit singles instead of the five spun off She’s So Unusual. Because she had let the Rock side down by not becoming as popular as the Dance/Hip-Hop side’s Madonna at the last minute where those sides were anything like equal. And because it wasn’t the Greatest Album of the Decade! Funny, I thought there could only be one of those. Anyway, the singles were great, including her searing version of “What’s Going On,” (best heard here) which she fashioned as an answer record to Marvin Gaye’s where anyone else with her chops would have insisted on competing…and not even the Greatest Album of the Decade had a moment to match it segueing into an “Iko, Iko” to kill and die for.

4) Jackie Wilson The Jackie Wilson Story (1983)

My God he was great…”Reet Petite” and the rest of the early Berry Gordy-penned hits, which the Boss used to start Motown, right on through to the early 70’s. This beautifully chosen 2-LP set doesn’t miss a trick or slow down. It’s all great but my favorite is Side Two which kicks off with “Baby Workout” and then turns to his fabulous straight blues singing. The teenage Al Green got kicked out of his house because he couldn’t stop listening to this and Elvis and he redeemed himself by being the only man who could live up to either.

3) Tanya Tucker Here’s Some Love (1976)

Tanya used to keep me up nights–and I mean until the sun came up–trying to figure her out. This was the LP that proved she didn’t need either Billy Sherill or Snuff Garrett to cut monster hits, her first really adult outing.  Her wild child image has been so enduring it’s easy to forget how much she contributed to the new style of Countrypolitan. This one contains a lot of hidden gems and, like many of her LPs from this period, is not on CD. Hey Bear Family, get with it. I wanna stay up all night again!

2) Gary “U.S.” Bonds Frank Guida Presents U.S. Bonds Greatest Hits (1981…I think)

If this wild ride through the swamp had been produced in New Orleans or Memphis or some other pre-qualified place it’s hard to imagine Guida, Bonds and Gene Barge not having higher profiles maybe even Hall of Fame profiles. Because it came from Norfolk, Virginia, no such luck. Too bad because it can make your day.

1) Raspberries Raspberries’ Best: Featuring Eric Carmen  (1976)

I swear I didn’t plan it this way, but this set ends where it began: with a 70’s-era concept LP about rock stardom. Only this time, it’s all about the dream of getting there, with “Overnight Sensation,” the consummate lyrical and emotional expression of the ideal, resting in the middle. It’s brilliantly programmed and every time I put it on the turntable and remember how close they came without quite making it, I have to laugh to keep from crying. Other people in my generation had “punk.” I had them. It was just enough. And this stops just short of Eric Carmen going solo and sending me into a black hole of depression!

If you want to know what it was like to live through the 70’s listen to War’s great albums If you want to know what the lost possibilities of the 70’s felt like, listen to this.

…Til next time!

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2020, Countdown)

10) The Prisonaires, Five Beats Behind Bars (1979)

The Prisonaires assembled in the Tennessee State Pen in the early 50’s. Their leader, Johnny Bragg, was a decade into his sentence after being convicted on six counts of rape at the age of seventeen. “Just Walking in the Rain,” a song the illiterate Bragg composed and gave a co-credit to a fellow inmate for transcribing the lyric, found its way to Sun Records and Sam Phillips after a local radio producer sent a tape of a show Bragg and his prison vocal group had performed in gaol. To hear the song now is to be caught between the last rock and the last hard place: Is this the pure expression of the soul of a rapist, or the spirit of Jim Crow being brought to its knees? The question haunts, because Bragg’s vocal is probably the most delicate ever recorded. Let out of prison on the strength of his musical ability and success, he was soon thrown back in for being caught riding in a car with a white woman: A violation of parole and never mind that she was his wife. Here’s the kicker, though. The whole thing is up to that standard, which leaves us with another question: If he’d never been in prison, would Johnny Bragg be as well known as Clyde McPhatter or never heard from at all?

9) Steely Dan Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

To be honest I’ve never been able to attend any of their other albums all the way through. This was one of the great debuts, though, and everything they would ever be.

You could even argue that everything they would ever be was in the first two sides, which were only “Do It Again” (a huge hit) and “Dirty Work” a non-single which has never been off the radio, whether because or in spite of vocalist-for-hire David Palmer coming as close to the spirit of Johnny Bragg as any white man who never saw the inside of a jail cell could is another question to keep you up nights while you’re trying to figure out what the crit-illuminati saw in the rest of the story.

8) Various ArtistsEasy Rider Soundtrack(1969)

If I’m being honest, I prefer listening to the soundtrack, which I’ve done three or four times, to watching the movie, which I’ve done once.

If I’m being further honest, it’s really too bad the Band’s version of “The Weight” couldn’t be used. If they had to go with Smith, they should have just put their bombastic hit version of “Baby It’s You” in the movie itself (and no, I have no idea if they had even recorded it yet). Worth all the meandering to hear Roger McGuinn close down the proceedings–and the 60’s–by reading Dylan and a version of his own self-composed title track that adds depth and nuance to the great version he did with the Byrds for their Ballad of Easy Rider LP, which is way better than either this or the movie.

7) Fairport Convention Fairport Chronicles(1976)

From 1968 to 1972, from whence the music here is drawn, Fairport and its off-shoots (Fotheringay, The Bunch) made music to equal anyone alive and this is the best of it, brilliantly programmed and sturdier than time, Stonehenge or the digital recording industry which never caught up with it. Richard Thompson was the stable genius, Sandy Denny the mercurial, self-destructive one, and for a time, they held the center of Britain’s best-ever collective of folkish musicians. It all went the way of dusty death, of course, but nothing’s ever beaten it and no CD comp comes close.

6) The El Dorados Low Mileage – High Octane: Their Greatest Recordings (1984)

Of all the bottomless rock ‘n’ roll genres, doo wop is the deepest. The El Dorados were one of the hundred or so 50’s era vocal groups that managed a hit (“At My Front Door”) among the more than ten thousand who made a record and God knows how many who tried. I’ve got a few dozen comps by the style’s “one hit wonders”….and every one of them is magnificent. Is it an accident that Black America’s tendency to ruthlessly compete against itself (on the way to competing with the world) has produced so much fine culture, and that the self-defeating tendencies of ruthlessness have forced so much of it to remain in the shadows? I don’t know…but I’ll never get tired of trying to figure it out.

5) The Clash London Calling (1979)

Did anyone else ever make a double LP where every song rode a killer riff? I don’t just mean a catchy riff, like Tusk or the White Album, but a killer riff?

If somebody did, please let me know. I mean even Exile on  Main Street lets up for a song or two and Prince, well he would always start noodling after a while when you gave him that much space.

Not this. This keeps punching from beginning to end and also flows like water. For that, I can forgive the politics being a tad naive, even for 1979. Wish I could feel that way again, so this wouldn’t carry the weight of a lost time and it wouldn’t give me a sense of peace it was never mean to convey. But so it goes.

4) Joe Tex I Gotcha (1972)

Yeah, Joe Tex, who was he anyway. He’d been making records since the 50’s, had a string of hits since the mid-60’s and in 1972, this got lost. Christgau gave it a B- (and didn’t grade the next item here at all). I’m not sure anybody else mentioned it at all. Too bad. Shame on them. The man who helped invent Southern Soul and get it on the charts was still going strong. This was as good as anything released in it’s year. If Otis Redding or Al  Green had done it, it would have been slavered over. But then, the white boy illuminati never did have room for more than one black southern male genius at a time. Heck, if Otis hadn’t died, I bet even Al would have been put on hold. You know that’s how it was, because this is as good as Al Green.

3) Joe Tex From the Roots Came the Rapper (1972)

So is this, which came out the same year, and without a big single (like I Gothca‘s title track), got even less attention.

Interesting that Rap became the dominant musical form of a subsequent age without ever challenging the limits of what Tex did in the early 70’s. The only people who really responded to his mix of country, soul, R&B, pop crooning and high comedy were record buyers. Plus maybe the black women he spent his career mocking, celebrating and humanizing by turns. Nobody ever got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doing that. If somebody ever does, it will be this guy.

2) Dion and the Belmonts 24 Original Classics (1984)

There have been a lot of ace Dion comps, up to and including his box set. This double-LP is the best (released on CD some time in the Dark Ages but evidently long out of print).

More than almost any other comp of its kind, it traces a journey–from the scorching, white hot doo wop of his youth through his dalliances with folk rock, heroin addiction, singer songwriter sensitivity, rehabilitation and a return to roots. There was more to the man to be sure–Christian music, a series of blues albums (which I really need to get hold of), and a standout version of Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” that might be my favorite of anything he ever did. But while I’m listening to this, I can’t be convinced anything’s been left out.

1) The Four Tops Greatest Hits (1968)

The Tops can sustain a much longer comp. Their three-record vinyl set is one of the strongest in Motown’s old Anthology series and I’ve got a 50-side double CD that does’t quit. But this straight hit between the eyes is one of life’s perfect things. I wonder how many people feel the desperation in something as jaunty sounding as “I Can’t Help Myself?” And how many think Levi Stubbs was a second-stringer based on his uncanny ability to shield them from the point? Although if you start obsessing on “Reach Out I’ll Be There” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love” where the desperation is impossible to miss–or run from–you can understand how they came out confused.

til next time…

JUST FOR FUN (Something I NEVER Do…)

There’s evidently a meme going around (or perhaps Terry Teachout is trying to start one) called Seven Albums to Know Me By….

I just picked the first seven that came to mind…but I bet if I thought about it a long-g-g-g-g time, it wouldn’t look much different:

The Impressions The Vintage Years (1958-72, released 1977)

The greatest album ever assembled and the history of Black America from the late 50’s to today…in 28 impeccable sides.

The Go-Go’s Talk Show (1984)

Well, it did save my life. Funny: Beauty and the Beat, which I’ve listened to far more often, wouldn’t tell you a thing about me. Art is funny that way.

Elvis Presley From Elvis in Memphis (1969)

Not even really the cream of the greatest vocal sessions ever recorded. But programmed as its own kind of perfection…and “Long Black Limousine” carries E’s you-lookin’-at-me-lookin’-at-me-lookin’-at-you-lookin’-at-me ethos, evident as far back as the Sun sessions, to its natural conclusion. Living in two minds and observing one’s self from afar–these things I am in touch with.

The Persuasions: Chirpin’ (1977)

The greatest album cover. The music? No words. Nothing defines you quite like that which leaves you speechless.

Al Green The Belle Album (1977)

He brought me safe thus far…through many drunken country bars.

My spiritual autobiography even though I’ve never been near a drunken country bar. Art being funny again.

The Four Seasons Story (1962-70, released 1975)

Absurdist high harmonies and drums loud enough to lock the world out. If you know that much about me, you know me very well. There have been greater collections on CD, but this was there when I was in survival mode.

The Byrds Greatest Hits (1965-66, released 1967)

If not for this…who knows about the rest?

(If seven had been ten: Shangri-Las ’65, War Greatest Hits, Dusty in Memphis).

…and now back to the Democratic Primary Season! bwahahahahahahahahaha!

HOWLIN’ WOLF aka THE ROCKIN’ CHAIR ALBUM (Track-By-Track)

Howlin’ Wolf (The Rockin’ Chair Album) (1962)

[NOTE: This is the second in my series of Track-By-Track appreciations of my twenty favorite vocal albums of the twentieth century.]

Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) was the roughest of the post-war blues singers, the one closest in sound and spirit to prewar bluesmen like Texas’s Blind Willie Johnson and especially Wolf’s mentor the Delta’s own Charley Patton.

If he sounds slightly more accessible to modern ears, it’s likely due to better recording circumstances that improved on the primitive technology of the 1920s. Like all blues singers worth their salt, he wanted to be successful, to sell records, to escape plantation life. Unlike most–especially those who were incapable of the compromises that open most doors in the record business, the radio world, Las Vegas (whether someone, even the Wolf, is unwilling to make such compromises is another, perhaps unknowable story)–he was successful. Perhaps not by pop star standards, but he was able to make a living doing what he wanted to do.

For me, finding the Wolf among the blues singers was like finding Louis Armstrong or Elvis or Al Green or Patty Loveless elsewhere.

Aha, I thought. This is the one.

Where I found him was here, on the second collection of his 50s/early 60s singles put out by Chess records.

I was led to The Rockin’ Chair Album by the conventional wisdom which held that it represented him at his peak.

For once, the conventional wisdom was not just blowing smoke up my skirt.

“Shake for Me”–A lot of singers have expressed something along the lines of “shake it for me.” No one else made it sound like lives depended on it…his and hers.

The Red Rooster”–The Little Red Rooster, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. It’s not exactly as if it was given to him, it’s that he’s taking it anyway. Just try and stop him. The Wolf will laugh at you. Speed up the rooster? The one who’s too lazy to crow for day? Good luck with that.

“You’ll Be Mine”–An unholy noise, the vocal equivalent of a pile-driver. And yet, there’s a delicacy of feeling, a nuance of romanticism that belies the mighty yowl. In this reading, You’ll be mi-i-i-i-i-ine!, is equal parts joy of expectation, fear of loss, and something not quite definable. Terror of what he’ll do if it turns out she won’t be his perhaps? A lifetime of listening hasn’t yielded the answers. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to ponder it in the next life?

“Who’s Been Talkin'”–My favorite Wolf record, the very sound the Rolling Stones spent their early years chasing. The band may have even gotten there, and there would come a time when Mick Jagger had made enough deals with Lucifer to approximate Wolf’s capacity for excising everything inessential from a vocal. What he could never match–few could–was the ease available to a singer who dealt in souls himself. Ask me what My baby bought the ticket, long as my right arm means and I can’t tell you in words. But, in the place where words don’t count, I know exactly what it means.

“Wang Dang Doodle”–Like most of the songs on this album, this was written by Willie Dixon. Unlike most of Willie Dixon’s songs, here and elsewhere, this one is channeling “Young Goodman Brown.” Chester Burnett does Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Hawthorne descended from the Salem Witch Trial judge who never repented. Ah yes, it all makes sense now, this America!

“Little Baby”–Wolf turns ghost or is it stalker? He promises to follow the girl to church or jail. He swears he won’t let anything keep him from holding the money she wins at wages or playing the ponies. You go, and I’ll come with you, little baby.  So much for the light-hearted side.

“Spoonful”–Now you flip the record over and it gets deep. Deep enough to make the wicked guitar–wicked even for a Wolf record, maybe the very wickedest–take second place.

“Going Down Slow”–This is the one where he sings about having things kings and queens ain’t never had. Anybody else would be bragging, including the richest rock stars, especially the ones who settled for knighthoods. Silly buggers. They ain’t the Wolf. He ain’t bragging. Just telling it like it is.

“Down in the Bottom”–This is the one where he sings If you see me runnin’ you know my life’s at stake. What’s remarkable about the way he sings it–what turns it inside out and lands it on its head, and yours–is it sounds almost matter of fact. And it’s the “almost” that puts the smell of fear and danger in the air. Comic fear, sure. Comic danger. But the kind that whispers: Next time, you won’t be so lucky!

“Back Door Man”The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. Anything else you need to know?

“Howlin’ for My Baby”–This is the one where he takes a couple of minutes off to provide a prototype for a side of Otis Redding that never quite came out of Otis himself. If it had, he would have wasted Janis, Jimi, and the Who at Monterey. For the Wolf? A day at the office. Hey ya’ll, I think I just invented the future again. Make sure Mr. Chess gets my check now.

“Tell Me”–Trouble shows up at Wolf’s door….to tell him his baby is gone. He promises to forget in a voice that says he won’t. Oh, goodbye. Goodbye baby got to go. Trouble keeps knocking all the way through the fade. It knocks still. Wolf promises it will knock forever, whether he gets paid or not.

Next up: Bobby “Blue” Bland Two Steps From the Blues. (My complete review from 2012: “By which he means “not even two inches.” Should be fun!)

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2019, Countdown)

10) Louis Armstrong: An American Icon (1998)

One good theory of American music (okay, mine, but that’s not the only reason I like it), is that white music tends to preserve order and black music tends to challenge or disrupt it. The over-arching geniuses of the twentieth century’s three fundamental American music movements (it’s too constricting to call them genres or even styles) all achieved their preeminence by complicating this theory to the point of obliteration. What Elvis did for rock & roll and James Brown did for hip hop, Louis Armstrong did for jazz and this set concentrates on the orderly side. The brilliance of his 20s-era playing and early 30s-era singing is mostly reined in over three discs that cover the rest of his career (a later live version of “Black and Blue” proves he could smooth the rough edges off of anything), but that only goes to show how far genius can take you. Not the first Armstrong I’d give somebody who didn’t know what he was about, but it fills an essential niche.

9) Various Artists: The Funk Box (2000)

Speaking of James Brown, he kicks off this 4-disc set from Hip-O with a couple of early 70s tracks that prove just how elemental and elementary his basic vision was. Everybody else spent the next decade trying to catch up and, while there’s plenty of fine music here, it sort of falls between the cracks. Apparently, the licensing was limited to a couple of labels so too much that’s essential is missing for it to be a definitive history of Funk as it reached the mainstream. And, unlike the label-specific What It Is!, it’s not quirky enough to amount to an eccentric vision. Really good then, no weak tracks. But I find it a little four-square in the matter of representing funk’s reach, and a little meager in representing the power of its full punch.

8) Cyndi Lauper: Twelve Deadly Cyns…and Then Some. (1994)

Cyndi Lauper sang like she had been put in the world to disprove my main theory: white music that challenges and disrupts everything. One of the great 80s comps (and one of the few that can stand with the great 60s and 70s comps), a concept album made from a conceptual career, beginning with a reimagining of her already incendiary Blue Angel-era cover of Gene Pitney’s (yes, already incendiary) “I’m Gonna Be Strong” and winding its way through America’s turn to imperial darkness to arrive at a sadder, wiser remake of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Come on Home.” Nobody ever swore she’d “take it like a man” with more conviction. It still lifts me.

7) Otis Redding: Pain In My Heart (1964)

I was able to get hold of a box set of Otis Redding’s complete LPs thanks to some gift certificates. This was his first and the first time I’d heard it complete. It reminded me of the Beatles’ first UK release from 1962: shafts of brilliance shooting out from a hardworking set of principles. Should it be a surprise that he was of yet only a functional rock and roller but already a brilliant ballad singer? Well, I can’t stay I was too surprised. Either way, I’m looking forward to the rest.

6) The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (1974)

The Stones didn’t need to wait for the 80s. They gave up on the world right here. Not that the better half of it can’t still knock your teeth out if you aren’t on your guard. Who thought they could pull off “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”? Surely not anybody who remembered them trying to take on “My Girl.”

5) Various Artists: Doo Wop From Dolphin’s of Hollywood Vols. 1 & 2. (1991)

Two volumes, forty-nine sides, dozens of lost gems, not a hit in sight. Proof of how deep the ocean was, once upon a time.

4) John Mellencamp: Words & Music (2004)

Possessing nothing like the vocal power or ingenuity of Al Green or Patty Loveless, Mellencamp sold more records than either with a similar act of faith in a Fallen Land. What Green did for Black America and Loveless for Appalachia, Mellencamp did for Heartland America–pointed a finger and told the truth. This mixes his occasional didacticism with his frequent populism and his pervasive romanticism over two discs that get the shape and size of his career just about right. The remastering makes it sound and feel like he and his band are sitting next to you, which suits their ethos just fine and gives this a disorienting feel the match the times being transcribed.

Stick it in the CD player and drive.

3) Ohio Players: Funk on Fire–The Mercury Anthology (2002)

Industrial funk from Mellencamp’s Heartland, a generation earlier. Outside of the go-rillas you know so well (“Fire,” “Who’d She Coo?,” “Love Rollercoaster”) it still strikes a match because their great theme was celebrating black women as the epitome of desire–and, in “Far East Mississippi,” recognizing how deeply interconnected such celebrations are with  the worst forms of oppression. They don’t ‘low no skinny dippin’ in far east Mississippi you know.

And we all know the reason.

2) Prince: The HIts/The B-Sides (1993)

He made a lot of good albums, but his ethos still lends itself to a generous comp. This is that. Something always jumps out and this time it was “Alphabet Street.” Barely remembered among the stream of radio riches here, it would have been a career definer for almost anyone else. He was too narcissistic to really celebrate anyone but himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn a lot from the Ohio Players and James Brown and, who knows, maybe even Pops Armstrong and John Mellencamp. Cyndi Lauper certainly learned a lot from him: everything except how to guard herself. This is the sound of a genius unto himself, letting us in on secrets a more open-hearted man would have taken to his grave. He’d have made a great spy.

1) Manfred Mann: The Best of

I spent years trying to get hold of this. It was one of those easily available yet somehow elusive collections: I ordered it at least three previous times only to meet with “just sold the last one” or “sorry we sent you the wrong version” or “why won’t this disc play.” The curse is now over!

And the verdict: Spottier than it should have been. 26 tracks and no “With God On Our Side” (where they wasted Dylan)? No “John Hardy”? Come on!  But the dozen best that are here still make me ask why exactly the Hollies, Moody Blues, Dave Clark Five, Zombies, are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Mann, who made great records with three different bands for more than a decade, and Mike Jones, who could sing every one of those bands under the table, have never even been nominated?

On that note:

Til next time.

STARTING AROUND FRIDAY…

…I’m going to be busy for a while.

Friend’s birthday party Friday night. High school reunion (hurricane damage permitting) Saturday night. Sunday, I leave for a nine-day trip in which I’ll be visiting North Carolina (my brother), Nashville (my nephew) and Memphis (my oldest sister). On that first Sunday, good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll be in Atlanta to catch the tail-end of Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman’s tour celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

I’m looking forward to all of it but especially the concert. McGuinn and Hillman are in their seventies. Though both still tour a good bit on their own, they don’t get together all that often. Any time might be the last time. My bucket list is pretty short (limited to my living heroes: them, Mary Weiss, a truly reunited Go-Go’s and Al Green’s church…that’s about it). Knocking off even one of them is a big deal.

The plan originally involved catching the show at the Ryman in Nashville (see nephew above) on the 8th. Then Durham on the 15th became a possibility (see brother above). In the end, between work schedules (my nephew’s and mine), my brother’s travel plans (he and his wife took a New England cruise for his 75th birthday), and being priced out of various venues (the Ryman went from $35 to $400 while I was trying to get my act together–eventually came down but it was too late by then), Atlanta became the only option. Looks like a great venue and the ticket was $50 so it all worked out.

I say all that by way of explaining why I may be away from the blog for long stretches between now and the end of the month. If I can get to the blog and have a chance to post from the road I will…and I plan to post on a regular basis between now and Sunday, time and energy permitting.

But, in any case, I don’t want you to think I won’t be thinking of you! Because without all who visit, comment, suggest and make me smile, I’d be diminished more than I can say:

TRACK-BY-TRACK: I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
Aretha Franklin

Aretha deserved every encomium she’s received, alive or dead.

But I found it curious, in the wake of her recent passing that I didn’t read much that really tried to place her in time–it was as though she was always there, or bound to be there. Her simultaneous arrivals at Atlantic Records, the altar of Artistic Genius, and the apex of Soul were noted but only as signposts along some inevitable road.

There was nothing “inevitable” about it.

When Jerry Wexler took his latest signing down to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the first weeks of 1967, hoping to catch some of what Percy Sledge had laid down there a year earlier, he had already pronounced that he was going to “let Aretha be Aretha.”

A fine sentiment, but it was no-wise clear, to him or anyone else, what that even meant.

Aretha had been a gospel prodigy, then a semi-successful purveyor of supper club pop, gaining a reputation as a singer’s singer while releasing nine modest sellers at Columbia records in the first half of the sixties.

The record on how committed she was to making it as a pop singer is mixed–my guess is Aretha would have been more than a little satisfied if those records had sold well enough to make her the new Sarah Vaughn.

But there was a world beyond her (or anyone’s) ambition, and the world of 1967 was roiling with social and political cross-currents that left a lot of people wondering if the center would hold.

In the year of there’s something happening hear what it is ain’t exactly clear, and Janis, Jimi and the Who torching (literally and figuratively) the stage at the Monterey Pop festival (Rock and Roll America’s first serious turn toward paganism, coming soon to a theater near you!), not to mention relentless bad (or anyway nervous) news from Viet Nam, the inner city, the college campus, I Never Loved a Man was a strange sound indeed.

When the white boy critics who still make up the vast bulk of the crit-illuminati  write and speak of Gospel, they have a habit of setting if off from the world, as though it were some form of exotica, like third-world cuisine or the day they discovered the Kama Sutra.

One more way Black America is both eminently exploitable and not-quite-real.

Dollars-to-doughnuts not one of them is capable of holding the meaning of “gospel” (or Gospel) in his head for more than five seconds.

Adding a few actual black people (or women) to the mix has not altered this dynamic in the least.

They’re all still proudest of their atheism (i.e., their distance from belief).

I Never Loved a Man is, among many other things, the last shout of the gospel-based Civil Rights Movement. (By 1967, the old, non-violent, New Testament coalition was already strained at the seams by the New Militancy. Whether Martin Luther King could have held it together is an open question. Making sure it stayed open long enough to become a faded, not-quite-real, memory was the biggest reason so many people who had means, motive and opportunity wanted him dead.)

That’s appropriate enough. Gospel means the same whether it’s lower or upper case.

It means Christian revelation.

Or Revelation.

Every day of the week, including Saturday night.

Since it entered History, it’s  been the source of every move towards liberation History offers.

Same in 1967 as it ever was.

The preacher’s daughter knew. By 1967, she already had a lifetime of experience, in and out of the church.

Listen again:

“Respect”–Aretha “stole” Otis Redding’s song (his word, not mine) by taking the sound straight back to church and thereby lifting the lyric from the personal to the universal. If you listen deep enough you’ll hear why the Gospel message spread like wildfire through the ancient world from slave’s mouth to mistress’s ear. In the eyes of the new god, every man was suddenly a king, every woman suddenly a queen. Maybe the message had been around before. If so, it had failed to convince. No longer. R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Find out what it means to me in other words. And that’s not even counting the part about not wanting all your money.

“Drown in My Own Tears”–Sunday morning piano backing a confessional vocal devoted to worldly abandonment. You get it reverend.*

“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”–Sex presented as the thing Jesus most needs to save you from. The question stays in the air for the length of the song: Can He? Can even He? A decade later, singing “Belle,” Al Green answered in the affirmative. Aretha left it open-ended. Neither approach can ever wear out, because it’s an (if not “the”) eternal question.

“Soul Serenade”–Dave Marsh was one of the few critics who later picked up on the value of Aretha’s pop career. Church singing aims for abandonment, pop is built around avoiding that very temptation. This is a perfect blend. It starts quiet–a consummate display of discipline–and builds as if the singer and her audience…er, congregation…are lifted, moment by moment.

“Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream”–A reverie that almost slides by. Smooth right until the end, when she takes off for the sky.

“Baby, Baby, Baby”–Is reach out for me boy still directed at the man she loved the way she loved a man before? Either way, she’s the guilty one….but only if loving him is a crime. Believe me, that’s a Pentecostal voice. No surprise she wrote it with her sister.

“Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)”–The church piano reasserts itself. There’ s no build. She jumps right in. Sometimes you have to grab ’em right off. Wouldn’t want anybody nodding off in the back pew…let alone the front pew. This is the Sex Sermon folks. Second Sunday of the month! Wake up!

“Good Times”–Perhaps its time to mention that the girl had guts. Taking on–and taking down–Otis Redding might be enough for some people, but not for Aretha Franklin in 1967. She set her sights on Sam Cooke too. And if nobody could ever take down Sam Cooke, she certainly looked him in the eye on the way to higher ground. With an Ode to Saturday Night of course!

“Do Right Woman–Do Right Man”–Great as the vocal is, a surer sign of Aretha’s command of the studio (doubtless another benefit of the Columbia experience) is the overdubbed organ and piano, both played by her. I Never Loved a Man wasn’t only a vocal triumph, after all. She was in the process of proving herself a brilliant keyboardist and arranger as well.

“Save Me”–If there can be such a thing as a hidden gem on an album this popular, epic and influential, this would be it. A gut-bucket lick. A wailing vocal. The simplest arrangement on the record…and it just explodes. And somebody–maybe even the record company–knew albums exist for set ups….And the only song that could close this epic was….

“A Change is Gonna Come” –After the heartfelt intro–he had been a family friend, she didn’t have to pretend–Aretha didn’t add anything to Sam Cooke’s original, either temporally or spiritually. No one could. She sounds like she knows it–this is as reverent of its source as “Respect” was irreverent. But she also sounds like she knows that the moment could add something–that, two years after Cooke’s death, the idea that change was not going to come, had already reasserted itself. To turn that reassertion on its head was, perhaps, to rage against the dying of the light. Else affirmation of the sinner’s doubt. Given all that was at stake, no one who felt the loss, then or now, could blame her for trying too hard.

Aretha Franklin used the I Never Loved a Man sessions to set herself free–to insist that anyone not reaching for Higher Ground will soon be walking on the Devil’s dirt. The brilliance–and the resistance to the tides of History–flowed for a decade before the weight of carrying a burden no one should have to carry alone overwhelmed her. Being Queen proved as lonely as being King. At some point she retreated to the safe harbor of professionalism. There was no long fall and she always retained the capacity to, now and again, lift the heart.

But every reason she ever mattered was born in 1967, at the sessions, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and New York, that produced this album.

Whether she–or any of the tiny number who could ever be called her peers– lived and sang in vain will, alas, be up to us.

FINALLY, SOMETHING WORTH GETTING MAD ABOUT! (Segue of the Day: 8/3/18)

Some time in the last twenty-four hours, one of the Twitter accounts I follow (doesn’t matter which one) linked to a meme that was something like Name a cover that’s better than the original, Jeff Buckley and Sinead O’Connor don’t count.

Well I wasn’t gonna play, either here or on Twitter. Sorting through a thousand treasured covers so I could pick one seemed like an exercise for people with too much time on their hands, never one of my particular problems (even less so in a week when I’m contemplating making The Byrds Play Dylan–which might yield half a dozen contenders all by itself-my next Track-by-Track).

But I couldn’t help clicking through and scrolling down a list of other people’s picks. The day was slow enough for that.

It was the usual mishmash. Jimi’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” was the most frequently mentioned by far and, except for maybe the predictability of it all, I got no problem with that. Then there were all the Twitter people playing How obscure can I get?

Then, just as I was about to move on to some other page, I saw this:

Take Me to the River.

And then somebody wrote Yes! And I love Al Green.

Look.  War, famine and pestilence I accept as part of our fallen world.

But preferring this…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ar2VHW1i2w

to this…

Is why God sends plagues.

I’ll spare you what I thought about Green Day’s version of “I Fought the Law” being better than the Clash’s “original.”

(NOTE: Sinead O’Connor is famous for her scintillating cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” What Jeff Buckley is famous for covering I have no idea…Enlightenment appreciated.)

DIFFERENT LYRICS…

….Same music.

I don’t usually just link to something simply because it resonates with me on a personal level. I tend to stick to the state of the world. It’s safer.

But when I at long last got around to reading this famous essay by the late, great Ellen Willis I found it deeply moving. She and I were born nearly twenty years apart and share next to nothing in terms of background, upbringing or world view. Doesn’t matter. Her journey–even if it was taken partly vicariously through observance of her brother’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism–had some striking similarities to mine.

Sure, I met God on a dirt road between the church and my house in the summer of 1970, when I was nine years old, and, in the end, she never met Him at all. She chased the Truth through LSD and the Sexual Revolution instead. If you meet God on a dirt road when you’re nine, there isn’t much LSD or Sexual Revolutions can offer. They don’t even count as temptations.

And where she had Bob Dylan to save her from terminal depression, I had the Go-Go’s.

Still, in many ways it was the same train, different time. And, oddly enough, she wrote this essay in 1977–the same year I began to spiral down, not to emerge until the summer of ’84. I have no idea how I would have felt if I had encountered her journey then. Frightened probably–but possibly empowered. (It wouldn’t  have mattered to my own Faith. I met God on a dirt road when I was nine. Once that happens you keep right on meeting Him and the Devil both. Suckers hardly leave you alone for a minute, but, when you’re suffering severe depression you always know which one is whispering in your ear–his trick is to make you not care.)

Serendipitously or not, the song this essay put me in mind of–my spiritual autobiography even if exactly none of the material details are pertinent (no drunken country bars when you meet God on a dirt road when you’re nine, but you’ll never need to have “He brought me safe this far” explained)–was released in 1977 too.

The essay must be fifteen thousand words. It took me half the afternoon and three shifts to read. And I heard the Rev in my ear every minute…

Strange how many paths to God there are…and how, no matter how many friends are gathered round, every one of them must still be walked alone.