Neal U. has a new post on Tell It Like It Was concerning the underrated talents and contributions of Beach Boys’ lead singer Mike Love to their music and legacy (and how they’ve been undermined in the group’s narrative by Love’s admittedly unpleasant personality). He invited me to take part in the discussion, which can be found here.
Here’s my favorite vocal collaboration between Mike Love and Brian Wilson to get you in the mood. Listen close…
How it was on at least one night of a tour that keeps getting extended. If it comes near you, see it if you possibly can.
1) The band comes on. Then McGuinn and Hillman walk in from the wings and launch into the opening chords of “My Back Pages,” which turn out to be as recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I’m not sure why this surprises me.
2) McGuinn turns out to be the (even) better story teller. First story of the night involves the first time he heard the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
“Sounded like bluegrass to me….”
3) Turns out he also does a killer Bob Dylan imitation. Anyone who hears him do it just before he demonstrates how he changed the dynamics of “Mr. Tambourine Man” completely (and made it a groundbreaking hit–and one of the most important records of the twentieth century–in the process) will no longer need to labor under the illusion that, in forging the Dylan/Beatles combination that came to be called folk rock (and which everyone thought was as natural as breathing the minute after it happened), the Byrds were somehow lesser.
4) Chris Hillman: “It is true that Gram Parsons and I met in a bank….” I don’t remember if that was before or after he explained how he wrote his first song when he came home from a jazz session with Hugh Masekela’s band. He does not explain why it came out a country song (“Time Between”) except to say that he does not know. This leads to other stories about actually going to Nashville with Gram in tow. The best involves McGuinn demonstrating a riff on the three-finger banjo to one of Nashville’s top session men.
You better let me do that, the fellow said.
5) Marty Stuart’s band is in support and Marty steps out in front a few times. His first memorable moment is just after the intermission when he comes out to warm up the crowd for the second half and plays something from his new album that incorporates the basic riffs from “Eight Miles High” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”
Which turn out to be as instantly recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” And “My Back Pages.”
6) Then it’s on to Sweetheart material proper and McGuinn’s complete intro to “I Like the Christian Life.”
“When we recorded this song, I didn’t know what it meant. I do now.”
7) And, of course, the umpteenth retelling of being given the cold shoulder by Ralph Emery. Still funny. Still painful. Still suggestive of lost possibilities for American music for generations to come. (He who shall remain nameless McGuinn says. Ralph! the crowd shouts.) Followed by a version of “Drug Store Truck Driving Man” that should be no more than a goof and instead, stings like a rattler. The record sounded like a petulant whine. The version I heard Sunday a week ago was tougher, meaner and funnier. By a factor of ten.
8) The musical highlight of the evening…out of nowhere: “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with McGuinn, Hillman and Stuart in three-part harmony. I’ve only been to the one show so I don’t know if they capture this every time out, but for one night in Atlanta, at least, it was beyond even the Everly Brothers. If Brian Wilson had been there he wouldn’t have needed LSD to see God again.
I wasn’t alone in thinking so. The crowd consisted largely of aging hippies. I think it’s safe to say they had, on average, a minimum of three beers apiece in them by then. And if anyone had dropped a pin between first note and last, it would have sounded like an atom bomb. (Avoid the versions available on YouTube which have spotty sound and barely hint at the quality of what I heard.)
9) For an encore: Proof that, on the right stage with the right sound system, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” rocks as hard as anything that has ever hit the air. Then the inevitable Now people tell us we sure do a great version of that Tom Petty song…which segues nicely into a tribute to Petty, the highlight of which is Stuart and his band doing a bluegrass version of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” that builds and builds and lays to rest any question of whether Tom Petty was a genius.
10) A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late….
Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman have lost none of their formidable musical skills and they both sing far better than they did in any clips from the sixties I’ve come across.
These days they’re master showmen as well, but, better than that, they’re Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the surviving core of the greatest band assembled on American shores after Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Just to be in a hall with them was a life-defining experience for me. That there would be so much real magic was almost too much to hope for.
Brother, I’d do it again.
And I confess I didn’t realize this was as close as they would get to either Waycross (Gram Parsons’ principal childhood home) or South Carolina (of the many tall pines)….but, looking back, there might have been a ghost or two wandering about.
I don’t remember how long it took me to get hold of Rhino’s original Doo Wop Box (released in 1994). Not long as I recall. When the great CD selloff of 2002 became necessary, it was one of the items I was most reluctant to let go of.
My reluctance wasn’t ill-considered. It took me until four months go to reacquire it. It’s taken me until this week to get around to listening (I wanted it to have my full attention–something that’s harder to achieve as I get older).
Today, in the car, on the third disc, I ran into a forgotten pairing, which were this….
followed by this….
I first heard these songs in later versions by the Shangri-Las and Beach Boys respectively. And to be honest those versions waste these. No shame in that: Mary Weiss and Brian Wilson were two of the finest singers of the entire rock and roll era, their groups stood at the pinnacle of harmony vocals. Almost everything good about these lovely records was enhanced by a factor of ten on the versions I heard first.
But what came home today, hearing the originals for the first time in years, was that nothing which came later, however great, could capture the pure weirdness of early rock and roll quite like the style that came to be called doo wop.
In its original version, absolutely nothing about “You Cheated, You Lied” makes any kind of formal musical (as opposed to emotional) sense. Even here, in the company of a hundred other doo wop songs, the lyrics, arrangements, lead and backing vocals don’t go anywhere they, properly speaking, “should” go. And while “So Young” isn’t quite as dissonant, it’s still a reminder of how much we now take for granted–how many assumptions about taste–actually came from people who have been all but forgotten.
I don’t doubt Mary Weiss and Brian Wilson loved what they were covering–that they were, in part, paying homage. And it wasn’t their fault they were better singers, working in far more professional environments. The world isn’t best served by turning backward (no matter how often the barbarians–always in the name of progress–tell you otherwise).
But knowing there was a quality in those records they loved that even they, masters of their own kinds of weirdness, couldn’t catch makes me smile…and shake my head in wonder.
“We had so much fun in two years, there was no more fun to be had.”
John Phillips (from A Gathering of Flowers, intro to “California Dreamin'”)
The career of the Mamas & the Papas played out with a kind of classical purity. They embodied the dark and the light of “the Sixties” by living lives that were consummately hedonistic and making music that was almost completely self-referential.
“Don’t worry,” their best music said, and says, ” if you aren’t here yet, you will be.”
“It’s also entirely possible,” that same music said, and says, “that we’ll have moved on by then.”
To make it work, they needed to carry off a style of organic arrogance that made the Rolling Stones look like supplicants.
They made it work.
Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.
Funny thing, though.
I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.
And I can’t.
Oh sure, there were greater groups. Greater artists. And I have no idea how they seemed in their own time. I was in second grade.
I know how they seem now, from this time: Unfathomable.
And what better description of their time can you get?
Their backstory became famous. In “Creeque Alley” they even made it sound famously typical, which, except for selling millions of records, it maybe was.
But, when I say there were greater artists, I really only mean there were artists whose greatness the Great Narratives imposed by others accepted more readily.
Because whenever I want to cast myself back there–and boy do I–there’s nobody I listen to more, nobody more dangerous, more unsettling, more….thrilling. Their time was the time worth understanding, the time we never walked away from in either dream or (more’s the pity) reality.
And, in memory at least, they are the ones who held it in their hands, more one with that time than literally anyone, one of exactly two sixties’ acts–two any-era acts really–who might have had a deal with the Devil in place.
They were different than the Stones, though. Mick and Keith (well, mostly Mick) just went ahead and made a straight deal. Why not? What did it cost them?
Send Brian Jones to the funeral pyre he was already bound for and tweak John Lennon’s nose now and again and what riches might await!
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Besides, they were Brits and there was never going to be any more England anyway. Big whoop.
But to have punched a hole in the American boat, to have had your wings melt so close to that sun, ah, now we’re talking subversion–and arrogance–of truly epic proportions.
Come hither, their deal said, and you’ll be the only act alive who can (as the liner notes for one of their many anthologies had it) bridge Rodgers & Hart and Monterey Pop.
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Well, somebody like me maybe. But that’s different. I was in second grade.
When I was in fourth grade, a couple of years after the Mamas & the Papas broke up (their two years of so much fun there was no more to be had having run out), I took the other deal, the Christian believer deal. I took it, knowing even then, that the biggest part of the deal lay in knowing I’d never be safe from the Devil who makes the deals (he doesn’t bother with the nonbelievers once they make their deal, why would he?) and never have so much fun there’d be no more to be had.
That’s as much as I ever knew about the deal. What my background and choices did prepare me for was understanding singers and their power.
And, oh what singers they were, those four, when they were together in their time. Nobody like them. And it wasn’t like they didn’t know it. Their knowing it is evident in pretty much every photograph they ever sat for.
…and pretty much every line they ever sung.
How they got together was famous even in their own time. They didn’t have to wait for biographers, which was just as well, since there’s never been a good one.
Naomi Cohen reimagined herself as Cass Elliot, then Mama Cass. Then she hung around until the others took her in, or on, or…something.
John Phillips reimagined himself as the type of erstwhile folkie who could end up with Michelle Gilliam, who soon reimagined herself as Mrs. Phillips (“I liked folk music,” she said much, much later, “but what I really liked were folk musicians!”)
Denny Doherty, a touch uncomfortable imagining himself as settling for the title of Mister Cass Elliot, soon reimagined himself as somebody who could have an affair with Mrs. Phillips and was lucky–or was it unlucky?–enough to find her willing to share his illusion, be it ever so briefly.
That was just the personal stuff.
Out of that, the music.
John Phillips said, as often as anyone would listen, that he couldn’t write from anything but experience. So they had experiences. That whole thing about a lifetime’s worth in two years was just an excuse to make hits and money. No experiences, no hits. No hits, no money. The legend only came about because they were so good at living lives so many others wished they could live, and even better at singing about it. They reeled off a dozen radio classics in short order and four albums that stagger about a bit, but never quit yielding surprises when you stop and listen close enough. (A fifth, from a contractually obligated “reunion” gig a few years later, was desultory….there was no more fun to be had.)
Their own rise, their own Zeitgeist, their own fall, their own destruction: all right there in the music that came out of the experiences.
For about twenty-five or thirty perfect months (depending on who’s counting and who’s defining perfect), they lived more dreams than four mere lifetimes could hold.
But in order to get the loot, they had to let the world in on it, and from the release of “Go Where You Wanna Go” (instantly pulled in favor of the just-as-perfect “California Dreamin’,” which somebody had initially made the very weird mistake of imagining as a Barry McGuire record) to having the commercial failure of “Safe In My Garden” assured by their sudden absence from their own lives (no more touring, no more television appearances, no more pretending everything, or even anything, was all right) the world grabbed hold. You could say the world has never let go.
And the arc was perfect.
“Go Where You Wanna Go” can’t be plumbed. Don’t even try. Even if you make a definitive decision on You don’t understand, that a girl like me can/can’t have just one man–that is, whether you want to stick with the lyric sheet (the groupie/muse’s ultimate lament) or what the ear can’t help hearing (Women’s Lib on speed!) at least some of the time–it doesn’t really help, so there’s no need to get all balled up about it. I’ve gone there for you and my sincere advice is to go right on thinking it’s simple. It’s not. It’s not even complicated in any ordinary dictionary sense of the word. More like kaleidoscopic.There’s so much going on that if you stop believing it’s simple or go on pretending that it’s complicated but only in the usual ways, it will eat your mind out from the inside.
It will make it like the good part of the Sixties never even happened except in dreams.
You don’t want that!
Better to just go on a journey. “California Dreamin'” so to speak.
It’s a journey only they can take you on and the magic’s in the music for sure–the mostly sharp writing, the Wrecking Crew time and again measuring up to the instrumental challenge of matching and underpinning the vocals, the formal elements of the bottomless harmonies.
But mostly the magic’s in the elements there is no real vocabulary for, musical or otherwise.
It’s not in the come hither. It’s in the nah-na-na-na-nah.
..Which starts right there in “California Dreamin’.”
I mean, from this distance you can hear the fear in it–and you can hear it overridden, stomped on. Put out to pasture. it was the sound that mattered and it was the sound that did it.
We’re so close, the sound said, that the obvious–and fierce to the point of at least metaphorical bloodletting–competition going on, can be turned on its head. They were so determined to be as one that all the counterpointing in the harmonies, all the “yeah’s” that meant “no” and all the “no’s” that meant “yeah”–or “yeah?”–were as nothing. I mean, just listen to them! And, as Lou Adler would have it (naming their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, easily the best-ever album title, after his first audio/visual impressions of the group) just look at them.
The imagery was perfect, almost as if it had been guided into existence by the unique, unsurpassable blend of their voices.
Or perhaps those voices demanded the acceptance of any old imagery they chose as the new definition of perfection.
The dream of the “Sixties” is, after all, right there.
Today will be what we want it to be.
You know, go where you wanna go.
Even the drugs will be cool. I mean….especially the drugs will be cool…
And, by extension, if today will be just what we want it to be, tomorrow will be even better!
In one fell swoop, the Folkies from Everywhere–Mexico, So-Cal, No-Cal, Nova Scotia, Alexandria (Virginia, but it might as well have been Egypt), the Hungry I and the Village and the Virgin Islands, fusing into one–had re-formatted the Protestant Reformation’s promise of a future Golden Age (itself the rejection of the age-old idea that the Golden Age lay in the past, a rejection that set Europe’s Ice People on a staggering five-hundred-year winning streak of which, as of 1966, “Go Where You Wanna Go” seemed like no more or less than the natural conclusion and justification–yes it meant, and means, that much–your refusal to believe in it doesn’t negate its refusal to acknowledge your silly refusals).
There was, of course, no direction to head from there except Utopia or the Long Fall.
We know–perhaps they even knew–where that fork in the road always leads.
You can have the greatest vocal group in history and just happen to include among your number one of the Rock Era’s two or three finest vocal arrangers who just happens to be an ace songwriter.
You can hook up with a great producer and have unlimited access to the best session players in the world–the only people, perhaps, who could ever hope to match your Utopian vocal and visual presence to sounds worthy of comparison (and, believe me, if you ever get around to listening to what’s going on behind the vocals, you’ll find the Wrecking Crew at the far edge of their own weighty experience–not even for Pet Sounds or Frank Sinatra did they reach further). You can be the only group of any era to have great male and female lead singers, breathtaking close and counterpoint harmonies, the ability to answer male and/or female calls with male and/or female responses, and to have the answers be vocal/lyrical affirmations and/or refusals.
You can hold all that in your hand while you take the coolest drugs, ride around in the fastest cars, sleep in the biggest, spookiest movie star mansions with the partners of your choice under the world’s most beautiful skies.
You can even promise to share it with your listening audience–to transport them into your world, three golden minutes at at time.
And you can deliver over and over again.
But that choice between the Garden you found and the Mean Old World you couldn’t quite leave behind will linger on.
For you and the world.
That deal you made with the Devil will still have a payoff–and a due date.
For you….and the world.
In their case the payoff was in a run of gold records. Hell, they even sold albums like hotcakes, in an age when not many did.
The due date was the same as America’s. And the world’s.
By the time it was done, they were done.
Then the Mean Old World moved on–or pretended to.
They gave up and disbanded, the first of the great Utopian Sixties’ groups to do so. (The Byrds never really disbanded–pieces just kept falling off until nothing was left but the name. A very different process, but those were the two paradigms. Break up…or linger on. When the Doors and the Beatles broke up, they were copping the Mamas & Papas’ style. When everybody else lingered on, the pieces just kept falling off and they ended up being worse than nothing.)
That left the question of who got it and who didn’t.
Time has given us the answers, even if nearly everyone is reluctant to admit it.
We need not speak of what Lyndon Johnson, lingering on in the White House, understood. But in the Pop World that existed in the summer of ’68, it turned out that only Elvis Presley, reporting to a series of TV sound stages and with God on his side, and the Mamas & the Papas, cooped up in John and Michelle’s mansion a few miles away, concluding their deal with the Master of this world, understood that we would never walk away from 1968.
From a Pop Political standpoint, the Beatles now sound like clever children, the Stones like mere cynics. Bob Dylan was already retreating into the rusticism his great mid-sixties albums had promised an escape from. The Byrds lay in pieces on the ground and Brian Wilson had already blown his mind.
And, as Pop Prophets went, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were finally only self-destructive.
But at least they made great music.
Never mind the Thinkers. No need to pay even a modicum of attention to them.
Whoever you thought they were, time has already washed them away.
We’re left with who got it. Who looked around at the world of 1968 and said: We’ll never walk away from this.
Well, these people:
Naomi Cohen (32) died of heart failure in a London hotel in 1974.
John Phillips died in 2001 (65) never having emerged from the drug-induced haze produced by having so much fun in two years there was no more to be had.
Denny Doherty (66) died in Mssissauga, Ontario in 2007, worn down by years of alcoholism.
Michelle Philips will still show up to defend her group’s legacy. She probably hopes you won’t ask too many questions about the incest allegations John’s oldest daughter has made.
It all seems so very long ago.
And so very present.
Today, you might go on the internet and find an essay that describes “Safe In My Garden” as “happy” and “bucolic,” as though it represents an ode to a safe space replete with milk and cookies and teddy bears.
That represents real fear, I think. An understanding–an awareness of the terror abiding within the song’s formal beauty, right down to its meandering close-out, as though the group–and the world–have literally run out of places to wanna go and things to wanna do and whoevers to wanna do it with.
Else oblivion. An almost insanely pure ability to resist the obvious–the persistence in demanding that, contra Philip K. Dick, if you stop believing in reality, it will stop believing in you.
Reality still believes. The Mamas & the Papas are still the ones who recognized and sang about it, half-shouting, half-crooning, straight from the heart of the dying dream.
The world’s on fire, they sang.
We know, because we struck the match. they did not have to sing.
On the outtake disc for whatever Special Edition of Tusk it is that I own, Fleetwood Mac’s version of the Beach Boys’ “Farmer’s Daughter” has never sounded like much more than Lindsey Buckingham’s throwaway homage to Brian Wilson.
Caught at random on YouTube the other day, it sounded like one of those secret gifts the radio used to bring. …
…I wonder if that’s because, in ways that the mere calendar can’t do more than hint at, we’re so much further away from them than they were from 1962?
Commenter abqchris expressed an interest in some of my autobiographical links. Since I seem to have picked up a new round of viewers the past few months and multiple links don’t always work from the comments section I thought it might be a good idea to just collect them in a post. Once or twice a year I’ve opened myself up a bit on here. These are the longish posts where I’ve gotten the most “personal.”
In 2008, Collector’s Choice put out a collection of Jan & Dean’s Liberty singles. More on that later.
As a listening experience, I doubt any comp has matched the old 2-record vinyl Anthology everybody had back in the day (and, yes, some of us still do), which looked like this:
That was one of the great album covers as well (designed by Dean Torrence himself if memory recalls)–the group, the scene and the era, all summed up in six panels and a color scheme.
There have been numerous “expanded” versions on the same theme in the CD era. I recall this one (which got away from me in the Great CD Selloff of 2002), being plenty good:
But the one I have now, the aforementioned Collector’s Choice set, is this one…
…which has its own lesson to teach.
Minus the energy of the weird doo-wopping, I-can-but-hope-these-are-parodies, “Jennie Lee” and “Baby Talk” (which were on Dore), and rendered in crystal clear remastered sound, the A and B sides of their first five Liberty singles seem to exist as proof that Jan Berry was the lamest singer of the entire rock and roll era–and no great shakes as a writer or producer either….it all culminated in this….which was actually a small step up from some of what they had been up to previously.
Be sure to make yourself listen to every second. Then imagine nine other tracks on that level or worse.
Then know that their very next record was this…conceived after a certain someone who was about to become King of L.A. gave them a half-written song to finish. Short of getting hold of the album yourself and listening all the way through (which experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone) there’s no way to convey the shock of the transition from all of that, to all of this:
Gee, it’s almost like Brian Wilson was some kind of transcendent genius or something.
Okay, that we all knew.
But what’s weird is that this particular interaction seems to have turned Jan Berry into Chuck Berry….because the rest of the first disc of the Collector’s Choice set rolls out “Honolulu Lulu,” “Drag City” “Schlock Rod” “Dead Man’s Curve” “The New Girl in School” and their all-time killer “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” in such short order it’s almost a relief that they throw in a couple of B-side mediocrities to let you catch your breath.
Clearly, there was some kind of trade-off. Whether Brian Wilson sprinkling pixie dust on Jan Berry in return for Jan introducing him to the Wrecking Crew (whom Dean Torrence has long credibly insisted were put together by Jan) was a fair trade is a matter to be adjudicated on the Last Day.
I just hope the vote is by secret ballot.
I wouldn’t want to give anything away. Especially then.
[NOTE: Brian Wilson lost interest in finishing “Surf City” (and gave it to Jan & Dean) because he was intent on another record called “Surfin” U.S.A.” which became his own band’s first top five record around the same time. Years later, one Chuck Berry successfully sued Wilson for copyrght infringement, claiming he lifted the melody for “Surfin’ U.S.A.” from “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Years after that, Chuck Berry’s piano man, Johnnie Johnson, sued Berry for a portion of his entire catalog—again successfully–for failing to give him a composer credit on virtually everything Berry had ever written. There’s some kind of karma operating there somewhere. That too, will be adjudicated on the Last Day,, no matter who gets paid for what under U.S. Copyright Law the meanwhile..]
One can still hear people as informed and intelligent as Little Steven Van Zandt opine that the Beatles invented the rock band, because, in addition to writing most of their own songs, they played their instruments in the studio while certain other bands (well, one particular band) only sang over tracks laid down by super-skilled session musicians. So many people have said something similar over the years I had almost taken to believing it myself. Propaganda works on you that way**
Despite what many rock historians and writers have suggested over the years, the instrumental track for this enduring classic features just the Beach Boys themselves: Brian on piano, Al on bass, Carl on guitar and Dennis on drums. Like many songs from this period, the background vocals were recorded and doubled first before Brian sang the lead…
The “enduring classic” was only this…which, once you’ve heard it a thousand times, only emerges as one of the greatest (and subtlest) instrumental tracks on any rock and roll record…on top of all the other things that made you listen a thousand times to begin with:
Somewhere in that piece they suggest (or is it assert?) that “Don’t Worry Baby” was conceived as an answer record to “Be My Baby”
Now that I think of it, this sounds true spiritually, even if it’s debatable as literal fact.
And it makes both records larger….which I admit I didn’t think was humanly possible.
**Wonder if Dave Marsh still thinks (as he asserted in The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul) that Tommy Tedesco played the guitar on “Surfin’ U.S.A.”?
I found this on YouTube when I was searching for the right track to use for my next Late Night Dedication (which, being topical, I’ll have to post some time later tonight before everybody forgets the now two-day old event it refers to).
It made me smile, but it also ties in with a lot of themes I’ve pursued on this blog for five years and was therefore doubly appropriate for the century mark of my sort-of blog defining category (i.e., the one I can turn to when all others fail and I feel myself fading).
Mostly it’s a reminder that, in addition to all the other things they were, the Go-Go’s were one of the very greatest surf bands. Sure, they did a B-Side called “Surfing and Spying” back in the day, and Charlotte Caffey’s surf guitar was all over their epic first album….But it was only right that some day, before their final crackup (or should I say wipe out?), they’d be on stage somewhere playing “Surf City” at a Brian Wilson Tribute….and killing it.
Back when Phil Spector started hiding his soon to be wife, Ronnie Bennett of the Ronettes, from the world (and the Beatles), John Lennon would ask him “Where’s the Voice?”
When Brian Wilson first heard “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes’ first big hit, on the radio, he pulled off the road, and has said more than once that he’s played it every day since. He’s also said it wasn’t Phil Spector’s production that made the impact.
Ronnie herself reported her first meeting with Spector in her autobiography and described his response to first hearing her sing as something along the lines of “That’s it. That’s the voice I’ve been waiting for!”
Phil also frequently described himself as the only person who could have made Ronnie. or any of his other discoveries, stars, or at very least famous.
After reading Ronnie’s memoir years back (early nineties’ I’m guessing), I built some vague ideas and questions that had been rattling around in my head for about a decade (about how long it had been since I first heard “Be My Baby”), into a conclusion.
The conclusion: Phil Spector was the only person who could have kept Ronnie Bennett from becoming a superstar, and he used a three-step process. He signed her. Then he married her. Then he–no other word for it–tortured her.
You can read the book and find out the details–including the day John Lennon visited divorce court as a friend of both parties and came face to face with who Phil Spector really was.
Knowing all that, I still never quite understood “Be My Baby” as anything more than a great record with a great vocal.
Today, though, listening to the final volume of the Bear Family’s bottomless survey of “doo-wop,” broadly redefined as the vocal music of Black and Urban Immigrant America from 1938 to 1963, prepared for “Be My Baby” to fit the concept just like so many others (especially the early Motown acts, even including the Supremes and the Temptations) who aren’t usually included in the narrative had done.
I was still prepared for it when the famous intro, courtesy of Hal Blaine, brought the usual smile.
I wasn’t prepared for the Voice.
Having heard it a thousand times didn’t prepare me for it to cut through not only Spector’s gargantuan production, but every record that preceded it, not only on this final disc, but every disc that covered the twenty-five previous years. Today, on the way back from the doctor’s office, it hit me the way it must have hit Phil Spector, John Lennon, Brian Wilson….as something new and startling in the world.
It hit me as something completely new, no matter how much its similarities to Frankie Lymon and Brenda Lee were still obvious. They never had to fight Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and none of those who did ever made it sound so easy to blast a clean hole through it.
Today, Ronnie did.
Maybe it was the Bear Family’s famously superior mastering or having surround sound in the car or just the mood I was in (getting past my annual with the endo is always a relief).
Maybe it was just that the sprinkling of girl group records in the latter volumes of the series had made me rediscover how different the quality of female yearning was from any attitude copped by the boys of that or any era.
Whatever it was, today, like no day before, she was the Voice, maybe because the Lost World she represented seemed even more lost than all the other Lost Worlds surrounding her.
Be sure to stay tuned for the conversation which, among other things, covers their plans for the upcoming “Christmas album” which would be A Christmas Gift tor You from Philles Records (later Phil Spector), the greatest Christmas album ever made and, of course, released the day John Kennedy was assassinated…the day John Lennon had to step in and save us from.