When I was in junior high and high school (1972-78), if a kid came in and told the class “Dad threw a shoe at the TV last night” nobody had to ask who had been on. Not Johnny Rotten, not Mick Jagger, not David Bowie or Alice Cooper or some politician.
The only person who drew that kind of response in my part of the world–the only real threat to order–was Helen Reddy. I always thought that made her the truest rock ‘n’ roller since Elvis. After 1978, my local oldies’ stations did not agree, because they never played her records again and by “never” I mean not once. She was dropped down the memory hole. I’m sure they played her somewhere. Just nowhere I was.
I pity those who missed her. There was no combination of sights and sounds to quite match Ms. Reddy in a bare midriff halter and hip huggers belting “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore” on one TV show after another, so ubiquitous you couldn’t miss her, even at my house, which seldom had a functioning television set.
I assumed she would be a permanent fixture in my generation’s lives. Instead she was kicked to the curb as soon as she stopped being a force on the radio. Some of this may have been by her own design…but surely the larger part of it was due to other forces. The same forces that spent the last forty years screwing up literally everything else.
Nothing damns our present more than memory-holing the feminist who had the best idea of where it all might have gone.
And yet, if I listen close, I still swear I can hear a roar, like a seashell held right next to the ear, intimate and epic in equal measure:
David Winters with Joey Heatherton, sometime in the ’60s! Better then.
Nothing was more important to the ethos of Rock and Roll America than the idea we might dance together. No one was more important to that idea’s broad acceptance than David Winters, who passed away this week at the age of 80.
He choreographed The T.A.M.I. Show, Elvis and Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas (among several Elvis movies), and Nancy Sinatra’s killer TV special Movin’ With Nancy. His dance troupe, the David Winters Dancers, was deep in the iconic DNA of Shindig! and Hullabaloo.
Before and after he did other things as actor, producer, director, memoirist, matchmaker for Alice Cooper and his wife of forty-three years.
Before and after, he managed to win a hall full of awards and force the television academy to invent a new Emmy category for choreographers.
Along the way, he worked with practically everybody and if anyone ever had a bad word to say, I’ve never seen it.
It is not hard to see him as the soul of generosity. It’s almost impossible to convey how liberating his vision was even when a born wallflower like me first encountered it two decades later on scrappy, crappy bootleg videotapes scrounged from the pages of Goldmine magazine at the onset of the Frozen Silence that was specifically designed to squash the freedom his whirling dervish, multi-racial dancers once promised.
We may or may not ever emerge from that Silence, and God only knows what will replace it if we do.
But we’ll never fly closer to the sun than when his way was the way.
Without even going into if-you’re-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail mode, it’s not difficult to hear the Shangri-La Effect seeping into the subsequent history of rock and roll. Almost anything that smacks of emotional extremism (especially extremism validated) owes them some sort of debt. That’s why large swathes of metal, punk, gangsta rap et al are hard to imagine without them even if few in those genres ever put as much of themselves at stake as Mary Weiss on an actual record…let alone one record after another.
But I’m actually going to ignore most of that–and most of the straight rips, parodies and inevitable posturing as well. I’m going to stick with the records I think actually lived up to the Shangri-Las ethos, those they might have been proud to call their own. And since even that list could get pretty long, I’ll stick to the very top where even a handful of selections amount to a shadow history of the world mostly hidden in plain sight. As ever, most to mostest:
“Love Child” Diana Ross and the Supremes (1968): A little obvious, but it’s worth noting that even Motown–hip to everything–took nearly half a decade to catch up to the implications of pretty much every song recorded by the group which was hurt most by the absence of Motown style management.
“I’m Eighteen” Alice Cooper (1970): This would have been really liberating for Weiss, who often sang as though she didn’t expect to reach eighteen. This would have needed a transfer from the first person (“he’s eighteen” for “i’m eighteen”). No problem. Weiss was all about empathy. And in case you think the Shangs weren’t adept at gender re-writes, you should check their version of Jay and the Americans’ “She Cried” and remember that Jay Traynor (the first “Jay”) was a much better singer than Alice. Well, except for maybe just this once.
“Because the Night” Patti Smith Group (1978): A song Weiss expressed specific regret about (“God I would have loved to sing that song”) when she finally emerged from exile decades later. She heard her own influence–or felt her own hidden presence–even if nobody else did.
“The Coldest Days of My Life” The Chi-Lites (1972): The Shangri-Las were the basic girl group ethos in extremis. Coming from far left field, reaching for the same space, this is the Shangs’ own ethos in extremis.
“Independence Day” Martina McBride (1994): Just in case you thought country Gothic was a horse of a different color.
“Papa Don’t Preach” Madonna (1986): Certainly the greatest Shangs’ tribute record ever made, even if it was never acknowledged as such.Featuring Madonna’s greatest vocal, it even quotes “Give Us Your Blessings” directly. Apropos from the woman who benefited the most from the space the Shangri-Las opened up. Eventually, she turned that space into her own personal joke on the world, something along the lines of “Fooled ya’!” But for a brief, shining moment there, she stood on the highest mountain.
But it wasn’t quite the greatest Shangri-Las’ record not made by the Shangri-Las.
For that, you need to go back to the beginning, the one moment when the direct competition measured up in the moment.
“I’m Nobody’s Baby Now” Reparata and the Delrons (1966)
…Did I mention that summer was here? The summer of our discontent no less. Should be fun!