I know some of you follow Greil Marcus’s Mailbag (which I can’t link–it’s available under “Ask Greil” if you follow the Marcus link under my blogroll). For those who don’t, here’s the text of a question from one of his readers and his response, regarding the new Docu-flick The King.
I saw The King in NYC yesterday, really enjoyed it—you had the funniest line when you mentioned “crackpot religions” in LA in the late ’60s.
Only thing I got a little turned off to was criticism of Elvis for not marching with Martin Luther King like Brando and Heston did. Why no mention that by performing material on national TV in 1956 by black artists he opened doors for them like no one before? Plus that many people—James Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, as well as Ali—truly loved him and made no secret of it.
I don’t know—what do you think—is it me?
I think it’s a hard question, less about the March on Washington than any number of civil rights protests in Memphis, and while Van Jones is a blowhard, with, here, none of Chuck D.’s dignity or thoughtfulness, he makes a serious argument. It hit home for me years before, when I looked at the Ernest Withers photo of King’s funeral procession in Memphis passing the State Theater, where the marquee has Elvis’s latest movie, Stay Away Joe—which in context, the context Withers built, means, “Elvis, stay away.” And he could have been there, in his home town, the same place where he sometimes recited the end of King’s March on Washington speech. “If I Can Dream” is about that speech and about the assassination—no, Elvis didn’t write it, but he sings it as if he’s tearing it out of his heart, unsure, tripping and stumbling, desperate to say what he means, to get it across, ignoring melody and rhythm, more like someone jumping on stage to give a speech than being paid to sing a song—but that doesn’t make up for anything. The kinship that James Brown, B. B. King, Eddie Murphy, Muhammad Ali, and Chuck Berry might have felt for Elvis, or his role as some kind of racial ambassador, doesn’t either. Sure, the Colonel would have kidnapped him and held him in Fort Knox to keep him from appearing in public in any kind of civil rights march, but hey, if you’ve seen an Elvis movie, you know he could find a way out.
This leads back to some themes I’ve hit on here before, but this feels like a good time to re-visit them.
I’ll take that attempt at pure musical criticism first:
“ignoring melody and rhythm.”
Here’s a question. If you’re relying on the counterfactual, which fact are you trying to hide?
That Elvis was using melody and rhythm in ways you don’t understand? Or merely in ways that would undermine the larger point you are about to make?
The examples Marcus gives of what Elvis did that didn’t “make up for anything” are designed to let us know that Elvis couldn’t have done anything that made up for not participating in at least one Civil Rights march, the way (as the questioner reminds us) even Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston did.
For Elvis, more than forty years after his death, the goalposts are still moving.
For everyone else, they remain the same.
Just a reminder on how this works:
Bob Dylan converted to Fundamentalist Christianity (and has never quite renounced it, preferring to dance around the question).
Neil Young and Prince loudly and proudly endorsed Ronald Reagan (whom Marcus and many other Libs consider a fascist).
John Lydon and David Lynch (two of Marcus’ great heroes) have said kind things about Donald Trump. (NOTE: Elvis is still called to account for who he might have voted for, had he lived to see the day.)
Ray Charles (no Elvis fan) was a life-long rock-ribbed Republican who sang for Reagan and George W. Bush. And you should have seen the contortions the obituarists at all the Good Liberal periodicals put themselves through when Ray had the bad taste to force-multiply the association by dying the same week as the Gipper.
Elvis Costello once got drunk and called Ray Charles a “blind, ignorant nigger.”
Totally forgiven…even by Ray Charles!
Dozens, if not hundreds, of liberal African-American icons never quite managed to march with or for MLK or the Civil Rights Movement. Too many to list, really.
All totally forgiven.
And, oh yeah, that photographer, Ernest Withers?
Elvis Presley, never marched with or for MLK.
Nothing could ever make up for that!
Now who was it again that asked the real question in the year he already knew we would never walk away from?
Just off the top of your head, name the ten most important people in the History of Rock and Roll (individuals, not groups, though group members, including your favorite Beatle, are eligible). Not your favorites or who you think was the greatest, just the most important to the history of Rock and Roll America, however you define it. Here’s mine, in chronological order, by year of their first major impact (crazy game, so feel free to argue/substitute/debate in the comments. Just remember if you add somebody, you have to take somebody out!):
1) Fats Domino (1950) The Originator
2) Elvis Presley (1954) The Driver of the Narrative
3) Chuck Berry (1955) Rock and Roll America’s First Poet Laureate
4) James Brown (1956) The Visionary
5) Berry Gordy, Jr. (1960) Master of the Game
6) Bob Dylan (1962) Rock and Roll America’s Poet Laureate Redux
7) Jimi Hendrix (1967) Traveler through Time and Space
8) Aretha Franklin (1967) The Definer of Soul
9) John Lydon/Kurt Cobain (1976/1989) The Twinned Spirits of Destruction….neither complete without the other…and no, they didn’t need their particular groups the way John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Mick Jagger needed theirs.
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..]
As the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll and the Inventor of it’s most prescient and enduring guitar style, Chuck Berry is not a lily that needs gilding. So I’ll just pass along this anecdote:
Back in my early thirties (say, 1992 or so), the head of my department at the publishing company where I still toil was a 40ish woman with a taste for a certain literary style of rock and roll. Pete Townshend was her particular demigod and one day while we were discussing this and that, she opined (out of nowhere? germane to some conversation we were having? the memory hazes) that some lyric from a song on one of Townshend’s solo LPs was “the greatest rock and roll lyric ever written.”
“Well what do you think it is?” she said. Her tone spoke volumes. When a certain personality type asks you a certain kind of question, it is best to answer very carefully.
Just offering up something better than whatever she was quoting (which, honest to God, I don’t remember either the song, the lyric or the album it was on) wasn’t going to cut it.
Not if I wanted to actually win the argument. And, since “rock and roll” was something I was known for having a bit of knowledge about (enough to amaze my small circle of friends and family anyway), I recognized right off that it would be an embarrassment if I didn’t score that win. The usual standoff–well, I suppose everyone’s entitled to their opinion–would be a defeat.
Yes, I had been put in the very weird position of having to defend the honor of rock and roll from a Pete Townshend fan. I knew it wasn’t impossible. It wasn’t like she had put a claim in for “Hope I die before I get old.” But neither was it easy.
I liked a lot of rock and roll lyrics better than I liked the one she had quoted. I liked a lot of Pete Townshend lyrics better than the one she quoted. But that wasn’t enough to make her back down. Quoting the Byrds (“Do you think it’s really the truth that you see?/I’ve got my doubts, it’s happened to me,” certainly crossed my mind) or even Dylan (a lot to go with there) wasn’t going to cut it.
I really had to think on this one.
So I said: “Give me a day.”
I mean, we were looking for the GREATEST rock and roll lyric EVER. That seemed a reasonable request. Anyway it was reasonable enough that she granted it, though her air was that of someone who was already two-thirds of the way around the track before the opposition got out of the starting blocks.
I had one of those noon-to-nine shifts then–half day, half night. She left at 5:00.
I spent the hours in between racking my brain. She left for the day.
Then I spend another hour or so, working of course, but pondering the while.
When it came to me around my 7:00 supper break, I smiled and thought upon it no more.
I went home and got a good night’s sleep. I showed up for the work on time the next day.
When I passed her in the hallway, around 2:00 p.m., she was walking with her head down in some paperwork, studying some supervisor problem or other. I thought she might go by without looking up, but, at the last moment, she sensed a presence looming. There was no particular sense of anticipation. I don’t think our little conversation was anywhere near being uppermost in her mind. So she was in the process of politely nodding and preparing to pass me by, when I said:
“Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.”
And she stopped.
And she looked a little puzzled.
And then she smiled and nodded.
“You’re right,” she said.
I still wonder if that little exchange was the reason she fired a dear friend of mine shortly thereafter. There certainly was no rational reason. (The absence of a rational reason was sufficiently obvious that another department head hired my friend for his department literally on the spot.)
I guess you can never know about these English major types who glom onto Pete Townshend’s solo records whilst learning to smile as they kill.
(This is a new category which I’ve been thinking about adding for a while. Most of them will also be additions to my informal, uncategorized series which I like to call “Scenes From an Actual Boyhood” a play on Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, in which he fantasized about boyhood and left out anything and everything pertaining to boys that didn’t fit the dream life of middle-age soccer moms.)
Back in the Spring of ’77, a time in American history which seems to have left no trace on the future, I was in my junior year of high school in the Florida Panhandle, that part of Florida which is sometimes jokingly, sometimes wistfully, referred to as L.A.: Lower Alabama.
One Monday morning I showed up at school, stepped out of my ride’s car in the parking lot, and felt something different….something I hadn’t felt since the spring of ’74 when I was in the eighth grade in another part of the state known, then and now, as the Space Coast.
I had been in Lower Alabama for three years by then, but the culture shock hadn’t worn off. (Comes to that, I’m not sure it’s worn off yet–must be some reason I prefer living like a hermit.) That feeling in the air when I got out of the car that Monday morning was the closest I had ever felt to a real connection between the two places.
So I knew right away it had something to do with the one thing every Southern place shares with every human space occupied by what are now called “multi” cultures: Race Tension.
The Tension soon had physical manifestations: The sound of a body being thrown against a classroom wall. Black kids with picks and blades trying to decide whether they wanted to descend from the school’s back door to a parking lot (yes, the same one my ride parked in) full of rednecks standing next to pickups with hunting rifles hung in the back windows (the black kids thought better of it–first Rumble averted). Reports of a fight. An actual fight. Then another actual fight.
That was the first couple of days.
After that: A teacher promising to give everybody ten points on next week’s test if the violence planned for Friday recess (planned by who, nobody knew….the plan had its own life, like the new Air) failed to materialize. White boys muttering darkly about the privileges granted blacks. Black kids muttering darkly about the privileges granted whites. Me telling my ride how not entirely unhappy I was to no longer be riding the bus where, in my freshman and sophomore years, I had usually been the only white kid (an experience worthy of its own post some day, now that I’ve opened this can of whup-ass memories).
And, of course, discussions all around about “here it all came from.
A general consensus formed, among white folks at least, that a black kid from New York had moved to the area. Though he didn’t go to our school, he shared Vo-Tech classes with some who did. Word was he had a habit of calling the local kids Uncle Toms for not standing up to the Man, meaning White People, meaning….us. Word was some of them had decided to show him–and us–what they were made of.
It seemed outside agitators had come to Lower Alabama.
Once that idea took hold, no amount of Confederate cannon-fire could have dislodged it.
The additional word was this had all come to some sort of head–at a party? a club? an impromptu meeting of a newly formed local chapter of the Black Panthers?–the weekend before the Monday I showed up at school and, from the nearly empty parking lot, with no evidence available to the eye or ear that suggested it was anything but another school week, I thought, unbidden: This feels like eighth grade.
Through all that I’ve described above and more, that feeling persisted and grew for two full weeks. Every day a little stronger.
There were moments when it not only seemed possible that some terrible thing might happen but that–no matter how many times we white kids reassured ourselves that it would be absurd, ridiculous, suicidal, for black kids to “riot”–there was simply no way it wouldn’t happen.
It was coming. There was no way to avoid it.
Because it was in the Air.
And what did I, no great respecter of the Air, do through all this?
I did what I always did.
i practiced the careful art of doing nothing.
Except for the day when the art of doing nothing sort of accidentally became the art of doing something.
My usual nothing consisted of sitting around during break times–recess, lunch, school assemblies I had a habit of spending in the library—with my nose in a book.
None of that changed during the two weeks of the Race Tension.
Come recess, lunch, assembly, you could still find me, alone in a room, or off in a corner somewhere, reading.
And the time you could be most alone, I found, was recess.
I actually did get out and about a bit at lunch. Even I had to eat.
And not even I could get out of every assembly.
But literally nobody else stayed in his seat reading a book during recess.
Which is why I found it a little odd, on Wednesday of the second week of the Tension–to find myself in Social Studies (my next class), during recess….and not alone.
I was sitting in my usual seat. Second row if memory serves (and dammit, memory, you better serve–this is a memory piece!). And there were several kids sitting behind me.
The room had risers, so they were not only behind me but above me. All black kids–four? five?–whispering among themselves. Whispering, I assumed, because they did not want to be heard by the only other occupant of the room. Namely me. The only white boy.
As time passed, their voices got a little louder. This was a phenomenon I was already a bit familiar with, one which time has consistently reaffirmed: If you are in a room with a group of people from which you are for some reason excluded, they will begin by worrying about whether you can overhear them. If you are quiet long enough, they will become worried that you don’t hear them.
So their voices got louder. And, eventually, I heard them.
They were talking about the Rumble. The new Rumble that was going to be, if nothing else, more effective than the Rumble that had broken on the wave of all those rednecks standing next to all those shotguns. It was going to be more effective because it wasn’t going to be a Rumble. At least not according to any definition I had ever heard.
This was all going to be planned, rather like D-Day. Nothing would be left to chance this time!
Come Friday recess, every black kid was going to find a white kid–their special white kid, by prearrangement with all the other black kids, so there would be no duplication of effort–and “get even.”
This was the memo.
By the Wednesday before the Friday of the new, improved Rumble, everybody had gotten it. Some of the white kids were complaining because all they were allowed to pack was a pocket knife, which wasn’t much good against a steel pick. At least a couple of white kids were rumored to have started carrying their own steel picks (though I confess I never saw one).
And what the black kids who were sitting up behind me at recess on Wednesday in my Social Studies classroom were talking about–I see you Michael. I see you Daryl, Jeffrey, Ricky….Walter, is that you?–was the memo.
Who was going after who.
More time passed and I heard some names: “I got ____!” “You got____?” “Who got ____?”
I also heard their growing indifference to my presence becoming mingled with their increasing need to engage me–their awareness of my awareness of their awareness.
So, finally, one of them–Jeffrey, is that you?–speaking low enough to pretend he didn’t want me to hear and loud enough I couldn’t miss it.
“Who got Ross?”
At which point there was a small silence.
Apparently nobody had Ross.
Which I took for a good excuse to put my finger in my book, bend the page over the finger, and turn around.
I made sure to smile the smile with which Michael and Walter, at least, were intimately familiar and to shake my head.
Then I rolled my eyes.
Then I held up my book.
“If ya’ll get it figured out,” I said. “You know where I’ll be.”
At which point we all started laughing.
Did it matter? Did it matter that it was me? That it was them? That I reacted the way I did? That they reacted the way they did? That I was there, where I always was? That they were there, where they never were?
Maybe the Rumble–the Big One, the Efficient One, the One that Couldn’t Possibly Fail to Come Off This Time!–would have failed to come off anyway.
Maybe one of the hundred other things that can prevent such a thing would have happened and the whole thing would still have died on the vine.
Maybe one–or ninety-nine–of those things did happen and I never heard about it.
So far as I know, none of the others who were in that room with me, ever ventured any ideas about why it never came off. They certainly didn’t say anything to me. After the other kids started filing in, on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday after recess, it was like it never happened.
What I did notice was that, for me–and I suspect for them–the air broke in that moment we all started laughing.
It broke because, in a single instant and all together, we realized how stupid it all was–and, far more important in our teenage world, how stupid it would all look….if it even tried to come off.
Suddenly, we all saw there was only one way for it not to come off stupid, not to come off looking the one thing no teenage boy ever wants to come off looking–and that was for it to never come off at all.
Coincidentally or not, it didn’t come off.
Of course, when I got out of that class an hour later and walked the halls again, amongst all those people who hadn’t been in that room, I realized that the Air hadn’t broken for anyone else. For everyone else the Tension was still real and palpable. For them, the Rumble was still inevitable and queasy-making. It was still all of that even on Friday afternoon, after first recess, then lunch, had passed into history, and the Rumble hadn’t come off.
Even then, the Air was still the Air.
It still promised we had come to a place–a place perhaps even teenagers in Lower Alabama in a time as lost as the late seventies must come to now and again to feel alive–where anything was possible.
And me and the kids who didn’t know the answer to “Who got Ross?” and everybody else, spent the weekend wondering what the following week would bring.
The confidence in the power of absurdity to finally embarrass everyone into inaction–the power I had felt so strongly in my Social Studies room at recess on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday–waxed and waned.
Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I shook my head. Sometimes I felt a little queasy.
Monday morning my ride took me to school like always.
Monday morning, on the drive in, me and my ride made some lame jokes to each other about what the new week would bring.
Monday morning, we drove into the parking lot and nothing felt any different there inside the car, where it was just us, with the Air left over from the weekend and the Friday before.
Monday morning, we rolled to a stop and then opened our car doors like usual.
Monday morning, we stood up in the actual air…and knew instantly that the Air was normal again, and that there was no more explanation for the return of Normalcy than there had been for its abandonment exactly two weeks earlier.
That was when I learned to respect the Air.
Since then, I’ve learned to pay attention to it as well.
It’s how I once knew something as historically insignificant as that it was okay to stay in our seats the last time FSU and the local HBC, Florida A&M, played basketball, even though a hellacious fight (which ultimately resulted in the suspension of the game) was breaking out on the court.
It’s also how I knew, as far ago as the summer before last, something as historically significant as that Donald Trump–a man I had never previously spent ten seconds thinking about–had a real chance to become President of the United States (and why I felt confident predicting his win on this blog).
It’s useful, respecting the Air.
Among many other things, it keeps you from being too surprised.
And, as I’ve mentioned here a time or two, it’s also defined my respect for artists, especially popular artists.
The best of them know the Air far better than you or I do.
They also know it way-y-y-y-y better than the highbrows do.
The Air belongs to the pulps, the singers, the comedians.
That’s why Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were able to dream Rock and Roll America into being while the intelligentsia slept. It’s why Philip K. Dick’s “science fiction” novels have the jittery feel of the modern Security State down to a tee, while Norman Mailer’s “political” novels feel like ad copy and the famous dystopian models of Orwell and Huxley read like tracts. It’s why Ross Macdonald’s detective stories carry the weight of impending middle class doom and John Updike’s are strings of adjectives. It’s why Mary Weiss’s voice, from 1964, carries everything true that would come to pass in the cross-cultural maelstrom known as “punk” and why Johnny Rotten–who didn’t have the Air–always sounded like a fake to anyone who did. It’s why the primal scream of the inner city crack epidemic can be heard and felt, years earlier, in the voices of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, or the comedy of Richard Pryor, but not in the most beautiful or painful or lucid essays of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. It’s why the muffled moan of the “White Death” meth epidemic that has since descended upon Appalachia can be heard in Patty Loveless’s voice a quarter century ago.
The Artists–the real artists–know. They’re the canaries in every modern coal mine. They’ll tell you about the Air if you let them.
And they’ll keep on telling you.
Whether the big Rumble building just now comes to pass or not.
10) Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt) The Complete Trio Collection (1987-1999) (2016)
This collects the two albums the superstar “trio” made in the eighties and nineties, plus an extra disc of unreleased and alternate takes.
The released albums were always a little too pristine for my taste. Hearing the tracks all at once didn’t exactly reverse that judgment, though it did allow me to fully appreciate the sheer craft-work driven improbability of it all.
Given the restrictive natures of both Harris’s and Ronstadt’s art–we’re talking about two people who always had a hard time loosening up–it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the real keepers are on the throwaway disc. The women who were never all that comfortable with the spotlight light up when it’s off, while Dolly just keeps on being Dolly. In that context, it seems no more than natural that “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a great song that’s been searching for a home for decades, would finally get the definitive take it deserves.
2) Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersEcho (1999)
A modern blues, filled with all the hit-maker’s recognizable touches and a lot of things too many people assumed he couldn’t do besides.
Maybe that assumption was rooted in not paying enough attention. If so, I certainly do not exempt myself.
One effect of getting to know this album in recent years has been a better understanding of just how deep those hits had to strike–again and again, back when it seemed they lived entirely on the surface–in order to reach one generation after another in a way that was almost unheard of for any other rocker of his generation. Singling out the first cut is a little obvious, but first cuts are for leading you in. This leads you in.
8) The OrlonsBest of(1961-1966) (2005)
Auteurs of the Watusi and, you might think, the most faceless of the handful of girl groups who sustained even a modest string of hits.
While I wouldn’t say personality was their strong suit, this still sustains easily over half a decade and twenty sides. “Wah-Watusi” aside, they may never have been trend-setters (even that was a cover). But they kept up, no small thing when the Pop World was moving as past as it did during the years in question.
And, as often happens with these “obscure” artists, there’s a knockout hidden in the shadows that will lay you flat if you have your back turned.
I always loved the English spelling. Made it seem like it should be some kind of genteel sequel to a Cat Stevens album.
I know it’s sold a bajillion copies (thirty, forty million, like that) and been played to death…but it never wears out. Certainly not in 2016, when it sounded more contemporary than ever and stayed at the top of my playlist for the year. Another thing I like about it is that it broke contemporaneously with Punk Rock, which it buried then and buries now, not least because it’s a lot more “punk” than “God Save the Queen”…if by “punk” we mean “alive.”
Of course, these days it’s become even stronger. This edition restores Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Springs” to its original running order (the 3-Disc version released subsequently puts it at the end for some reason) and includes a disc of outtakes that, for once, deepens and contextualizes the finished product. You can click on the link above for my full take on all that. But in case you don’t make it over there, this little killer should still not be missed.
6) Mark ChesnuttThe Ultimate Collection (Complete MCA Singles: 1990-2000) (2011)
Playing next to Patty Loveless or even George Strait on the radio in his golden decade, Chesnutt seemed like a real if modest talent who reached an epic high now and then.
From this distance, across thirty tracks and a quarter of a century, he seems more like a minor miracle. He certainly wasn’t afraid of competition. He doesn’t embarrass himself on Don Gibson’s “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” or John Anderson’s “Down in Tennessee,” and bests Waylon on “Broken Promise Land,” which is one of those epic highs I mentioned.
It’s not like I didn’t know he had a solid best of in him. “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” “It Sure is Monday”–the titles alone always could bring a smile. But this sustains, in part, because his most epic high point of all–as great a song ever written about the intricacies of not breaking up–came early and two long discs gives the listener time to develop some perspective.
If you click the link, be sure to crank the volume.
5) The Easybeats The Definitive Anthology (1965-1969) (1996)
Speaking of cranking the volume.
Here’s fifty-six tracks that make a case for the boys who built the bones of Australia’s not-exactly-inconsequential rock and roll legacy by being the greatest garage band this side of Paul Revere and the Raiders.
I’m not gonna say they ever quite got up to “Friday On My Mind” again but not many got there once and, of those who did, few outside the legends sustained anything like this level of interest. Of course, they should never have taken on “River Deep, Mountain High,” but it brought a smile to think they had the nerve to try. And smile was what just about every other one of these fifty-six tracks made me do as I listened to them chase every trend of the era and catch one after another for the briefest, most transient, most exhilarating moment. Pick to Click: “Good Times” (which sure sounds like it cops at least one of its riffs from the Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up”).
4) The PlattersThe Ballads (1953-1959) (2013)
Shelter from the storm.
If ballad singing is ever given its proper place in the Rock and Roll Narrative, the Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams, will be as celebrated as Chuck Berry. Until then, you can search around for ways to hear him: this is the best I’ve found.
Great as any individual cut–or any short compilation–may be, you can’t really feel the weight of Williams’ accomplishment until you dig into something like this: thirty-three slices of heaven right here on earth.
A sly turn of the cards: Here, the Isleys cover mostly white acts, though not necessarily the ones who had spent the previous decade so profitably covering them.
It might have been conceived as a gimmick, but they dug in too deep for it to come across that way on record. “Ohio” meant more in their hands than any other, not just because they cross-bred it with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun’,” but because they were from Ohio. Unlike say, Kent State survivor, Chrissie Hynde, who grew up being persecuted by the white middle class in Akron and got out as soon as possible, they never left home spiritually, no matter how far their feet roamed.
I wonder if that’s why I–who always heard “Fire and Rain” as a great record even in its callow original–find their cover illuminating far beyond the usual “black people are deeper” shuck and jive? I’ve stated it before, but this is the sound of some lost soul looking for his people over the next hill. Pick to click: “Cold Bologna” (the only cut besides “Machine Gun” that doesn’t “give back” to a white boy).
2) Dwight YoakumGuitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)
Thus began the odd, often glorious career of Dwight Yoakum, slick traditionalist.
Right there at the beginning–too clever title and all–I don’t hear the concept quite working. Pleasant enough but not as inspired as its rep. So when I put this one on it’s mostly for background music.
1) Martha & the VandellasLive Wire: The Singles 1962-1972 (1993)
Martha Reeves might be due a Vocalist of the Month essay pretty soon, so I’ll leave any deep thoughts for later. This beautiful thing was part of a three-artist series released in conjunction with similarly glorious 2-Disc sets on the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. There’s not a weak track on any of them.
What I hadn’t realized before was that if Dwight’s “South of Cincinnati” ever needs a sister record, it’s right here, in Martha’s finest vocal, equal to anything the powerhouses at Motown ever managed and, unlike most of the theirs and most of hers–which were only “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run,” “In My Lonely Room”– half-hidden by time.
I’ve never listened all that close to Bob Dylan’s first two albums until here recently. What changed is that I acquired The Original Mono Recordings box set a couple of years back and I’ve since been able to listen to the legend “busy being born” in clear crystal sound instead of my old battered used vinyl copies.
Even so, I never really bore down on the experience until this week, when I decided to try and put my finger on why I like the first album, simply titled Bob Dylan, which sold 5,000 copies when it was released, so much better than the second, TheFreewheelin’ Bob Dylan.That’s the one that set Greenwich Village on fire on the way to changing the world and all.
It’s certainly not the covers. The cover is the best thing about the second album. It even sort of promises that what’s inside will be the main thing it’s not, which is “freewheein’.”
Even decades of general familiarity (you could end up knowing a lot about Dylan’s second album–like the lyrics to a lot of the songs–just by being alive for the last fifty years) left me unprepared for how safe the newly minted “Bob Dylan” was prepared to play it after that first album flopped.
And, by safe, I mean, of course, vocally. Which, as most of you know, is what matters around here.
Getting to know that first LP in the last year or so has been a revelation, so much so that I wonder how I could have possibly missed it before, irrespective of the quality of my old, used vinyl. It wouldn’t be fair to say Dylan made it sound like he was breathing a revolution (the quality that made so many intellectual gatekeepers underestimate the art that went into the early efforts of Fats and Elvis and Little Richard). But he was still the freest voice to enter popular music since the mid-fifties. And he was mostly singing other people’s songs. As so often happens–as it had happened with Hank Williams and Chuck Berry, among others–you start out thinking it’s the songs, but it’s really the voice.
Nearly as startling as Dylan’s first voice–and the way he used that voice–was his harmonica playing. Not just the fire and dexterity he put into it, but the way he wove it into his singing, as though it were simply an extension of his singing, constantly challenging and enlarging itself.
I know all this is hardly news to long-time Dylanistas who have followed him since whenever. But, however much I’ve loved his mid-sixties music since it first whopped me up side the head in the late seventies, I wasn’t prepared to have what I had imagined to be Dylan-the-Burgeoning-Folkie make such a purely vocal impression and then sustain it for the length of that first album.
And that, in turn, might be why I was/am so unprepared for the restrictions he put on himself when it came time to make his second album. On the first four tracks (which only include “Blowin’ In the Wind,” and “Masters of War”), he doesn’t sound so much like he put his harp in his pocket as somebody shoved it up his sphincter. Sorry, but this doesn’t sound like a man breaking free. Maybe it did then. Maybe the mere fact that he didn’t “sing pretty” was liberating and forward-looking. These days, it sounds almost impossibly affected, the epitome of everything every note of his first album had been prepared to mock–the sound of freedom reduced to the sound of surrender.
And, except for his always cutting way with a talking blues (though he cut even deeper on live shows from the period), he sounds like he’s sleepwalking through the whole thing.
Given what I know about both the purely cynical crony capitalists who are forever lingering somewhere in the background of every inexplicable thing and the highly gullible earnest folkies who snatched up Freewheelin’ and then carried Dylan right up to the moment he stabbed them in the face by “going electric,” I suspect this is the sound of a supremely calculating young man who has judged the odds and accepted what must be done to get where he is going from where he’s been.
It’s also the sound of a man who might be harboring a grudge against more than just the masters of war–a grudge that would carry him right past his core audience when it was finally time to merge the various “Dylans” of these first two LPs into the full might and fury of Highway 61 Revisited.
Heard that way, Freewheelin’ becomes almost as subversive as either Bob Dylan or its own legend.
That’s how genius rolls, I guess–if you’re moving a little too fast…slow down and wait for the main chance.
And, as always, God bless Peter, Paul and Mary and/or Albert Grossman for hearing hits in “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
I not only wouldn’t have, I still don’t. Miracles happen.
What I can’t understand is why Blacks can’t achieve royal status when it comes to forms that they have largely created? I mean there’s a White King of Rock n’ Roll, there’s a White King of Jazz, how come we can never achieve titles of royalty in these fields we are supposed to prevail in? They held a so called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the other night, where White judges credit people who resemble them with the invention of Rock and Roll. I didn’t even see Blacks in the audience.
There would be no Rock and Roll without Ike Turner, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, etc. Fake ghetto books and fake ghetto music. Elvis Presley, whom they idol, is merely a karaoke makeover of James Brown and Chuck Berry.
(Ishmael Reed, interview with Counterpunch, March 15, 2008. Interview can be read here.)
I’ll set the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jibe aside, except to note that all of the men Reed mentions had been inducted into the Hall years earlier. That’s just standard public intellectual ignorance.
And we’ll leave Paul Whiteman and the tendency of marketing departments to equate royalty with sales out of this.
As to the Elvis part:
Reed is, perhaps unwittingly, using a classic propaganda technique: criticizing fake narratives by utilizing a fake narrative.
I say perhaps unwittingly, without putting any percentages on it, because, like most fake narratives, this one is rooted in ignorance born of emotion. Reed wants what he says to be true, therefore it is true. Or will be, if enough people just keep repeating it.
As to facts? Those stubborn things?
Sorry, but once in a while, we have to slog back through the actual record, tiresome though the march may be.
Of the five men he mentions, only two of them had made a record before Elvis made his first.
Of those, Ike Turner was a band leader and session man who was indeed repeatedly ripped off by white business men (mostly Sam Phillips and the Bihari brothers, for whom Ike later claimed to have written more than seventy hits they copyrighted under their own names, which is probably even more tunes than Don Robey stole from Bobby Bland**) throughout the early and mid fifties. He did in fact lead the band for this enormously influential record:
The record was written and sung by Jackie Brenston. But Ike played the galvanizing piano part, which was a straight cop on the other man Reed mentions, Fats Domino.
Fats Domino, who had his first big hit in 1950, was the actual and undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, at least in the sense he and Elvis understood the term before Elvis exploded the original definition into smithereens.
The way I know this, besides having ears, is Elvis said as much.
He said it at an obscure little international press conference forty years before Ishmael Reed (who, unlike Elvis, doesn’t know his history on this subject, and, unlike Elvis, clearly relates to the very specific “black people” he mentions as something other than people) got Fats mixed up with a lot of other guys because he was giving an interview in which he spent the bulk of his time criticizing (rightly, it should be said) a lot of other people for getting things mixed up.
And then he let what he heard somewhere and never bothered to check up on for himself rule his thinking.
Of course, most of what Reed says in his interview is true or at least plausible. I encourage you to follow the link and read the whole thing.
But a lie never does more damage than when it’s surrounded by truth.
Makes it seem, you know, credible.
Nonetheless, Elvis made this..
…and a lot of other “rock and roll” records before Chuck Berry or James Brown (the only person not in Elvis’ inner circle who was allowed to spend time with his corpse and who later wrote in his autobiography, “I wasn’t just a fan. I was his brother.”) ever made it to a recording studio.
Funny, it’s never occurred to me to accuse them of doing a “karaoke makeover” of Elvis just because they likely (in Chuck Berry’s case), or certainly (in James Brown’s case), heard him before he heard them.
And why not?
Because that would make me look stupid?
Yeah, that’s part of it.
But the main reason is this little creed of mine:
When the house is on fire, don’t strike a match.
Not even a little one.
No matter how good it makes you feel.
(**NOTE: Neal U. makes a good point in comments that theft in the record business was not limited to white businessmen ripping off black artists. He covers the main points in his comment which I encourage you to read. I’d only add that black businessmen ripping off white artists was uncommon because the dynamic just didn’t occur that often. With every other racial combination, copyright theft was rampant.)
It’s always fun to think of some small new twist on a story that’s been done to death. Not too many stories have been worked over more thoroughly than The Story of the Beatles.
But one thing I’ve never done before is try and listen to the music that made them big in England, a year and half before ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and The Ed Sullivan Show sent them into the international stratosphere, in the context of what was happening on American radio in the months must before which we’ve always known they had an ear for.
How much of an ear?
Well, their first album, finished in February, 1963, included fourteen songs. Eight were Lennon/McCartney originals. One was a recent Broadway tune (“A Taste of Honey”). The other five were hits of recent vintage (no fifties’ rocker stuff, as there would be on later albums), three of them straight from the Brill Building (though one of those was by way of the Isley Brothers) and another, “Boys,” that might as well have been.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but outside of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “There’s a Place” (that last, a space even the Beatles never got back to) and, at a stretch “Love Me Do,” the Brill Building cuts, real and faux, are the strongest stuff on the album. “Chains” is solid. The other three (“Boys,” with Ringo’s first recorded vocal and his best until “It Don’t Come Easy,” plus “Baby It’s You” and “Twist and Shout”) all epic.
Having four sides in the can (the A’s and B’s of their first two singles) when they prepared to cut the album, their assigned producer George Martin asked Paul and John what else they had. They answered “our stage act.”
Meaning all that Broadway/Brill Building/Faux Brill Building stuff of such recent 1960–63 vintage wasn’t thrust upon them. It was what they liked. What inspired them.
Which is odd, given that for several decades after, as professional rock criticism bloomed, flowered, withered and died, the basic narrative pretty much held that rock had “died” in those years. (You can still find Greil Marcus going on about it in his latest, which I’m still loving by the way.)
For many reasons, the strongest maybe being because I came in at the Beach Boys (first national hit, albeit one I never much cared for, released June, 1962) and, especially, the Four Seasons (first national hit, August, 1962), I never bought that particular narrative myself.
Later on, when I got to know much more about Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Brenda Lee and Gene Pitney and Ray Charles and girl groups and surf rock and second-generation doo wop and early Motown and so on and so forth, I bought it even less.
But, amongst all those “nevers” I still never thought to actually play the Beatles first album next to a well chosen anthology of the music that was in their LIverpool-to-Hamburg-to-London air, via Pirate Radio or the BBC or their record collections or whatever other distribution methods were targeting their demographic at the time.
Then, this week, I found myself with my latest additions to Time Life’s year-by-year collection, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” which happened to be the two discs devoted to 1962. And, since I was duty bound to listen to them anyway, I went, “h-m-m-m-m.”
Why not stick the Beatles’ first, Please Please Me between Time Life’s 1962 and 1962 Still Rockin’?
That was Monday, which makes this Segue of the Day a week late and a little bit of a cheat, but what’s a blog for if you can’t bend a cheap concept like Time out of shape once in a while to suit a narrative?
Anyway, it sent me off on that whole tangent I mentioned in my other posts this week, and I might still have one or two posts to go before I exhaust that particular day.
The day itself didn’t exhaust me. I found it pretty exhilarating
Because listening to a multinational corporation’s repackaged definition of what the Beatles were trying to fit into as they climbed their first mountain made both experiences bigger and better.
In the first place, I learned something.
Listening to all this music thrown together, I could finally begin to understand the belief held by so many about rock’s “demise.” There are 44 tracks on the two Time Life collections and, even with the names I mentioned above being mostly absent (except for Gene Pitney), the period was heavy on reaching for quiet spaces. That wasn’t quite the rejection of Little Richard and Chuck Berry so many assumed. More like a broadening of perspective. But I can see how some might have been fooled.
Because while there are rockers (the Isley’s “Twist and Shout” among them, though it doesn’t rock like the Beatles, who tended, along with everything else, to be smart about choosing their battles), the major emphasis is on introspection, heartbreak, longing.
That really shouldn’t be surprising.
These are the kind of things you might expect the era’s outsiders: black people, urban immigrants, girls, perhaps even the occasional hillbilly (throw Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” up against “Love Me Do” some time if you need evidence history doesn’t always move in a straight line even in the short run), to be especially invested in communicating as a dual language: part public, part secret.
The Beatles certainly didn’t miss that. A lot of that first album, including something as joyous and up-tempo as “Please Please Me,” reaches for those very same qualities. Sometimes they missed. Several cuts tend to commodify rather than amplify the melancholy, skate over it rather than deepen it (something else they would also always be very good at and which the public accepted enough, in the immediate wake of February, 1964, to make cuts like “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” into big hits–what happened with the Beatles, there was a reason they called it Mania).
But about half the time, they grabbed hold. On top of which they, or somebody, had the sense to start and end strong. “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Please Please Me” frame the first side of the British debut LP; “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout” the second.
All to the good.
Believe me, coming out of Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” and Don and Juan’s “What’s Your Name” (both wonderful) at the end of the first 1962 volume, “I Saw Her Standing There” really is a leap in the dark, a rush that feels like “What’d I Say” must have felt in 1959 or “Tutti Frutti” must have felt in 1955. In fits and starts at least, Please Please Me still sounds like some sort of revolution.
By the end, with this…
closing the record*, it becomes possible to think Americans must have been flat out deaf and stupid not to respond to the various attempts to sell the Beatles over here throughout the latter months of 1962 and all of 1963.
That, in fact, is just what I was thinking.
But then I put on the second Time Life disc.
And it started with a reversal of form: The Beatles’ quiet-place-bleeding-into-a-loud-place becoming a loud-place…
bleeding back into a quiet place…at a party no less…
And I was yet again reminded that the competition in early rock and roll was literally insane. That maybe the miracle wasn’t so much the Beatles didn’t make it here sooner, but that they made it at all.
In the Contours’ Detroit, after all, and Sam Cooke’s Chicago-or-L.A., and a whole lot of other American spaces, they might have gotten lost in the crowd.
Well, until Rubber Soul anyway.
By which time they probably would have had other jobs.
*Sorry, no decent studio cut was available. Even YouTube isn’t perfect.
Anybody sufficiently steeped in classic rock has an idea about the riff of riffs. It’s not a riff anybody ever actually played, really, but a repeating motif that’s bound to bring a smile of recognition when some version of it bursts forth in the middle of a hardworking, seventies-era midwestern band’s live double or radio staple.
Even counting those who weren’t in hardworking midwestern bands, the job of defining that idea ultimately belonged to no more than a few dozen people. REO Speedwagon’s Gary Richrath, (born Peoria, Illinois, died Burlington, Illinois…what more need be said) came as close as anyone to being at the center of that definition.
The way the crit-illuminati always had it, it was a job most anybody could do, and the few who became famous were basically lottery winners. In reality the competition was cutthroat. All you had to do to work your way to a spot at the sop of the mountain, aspired to by thousands, was bring some level of imagination to basic Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry riffs, have a textbook knowledge of blues idioms, know how to build a power ballad with a few carefully chosen licks, and fire up an arena with a blistering solo composed of all of the above plus a little art rock flash.
If you were Gary Richrath, you might also throw in a signature tune now and then.
If Hi Infidelity‘s “Take It on the Run” was the only moment when REO Speedwagon came closer to defining the times than being defined by them, that’s one more moment than half the bands in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can claim.
Richrath wrote it solo, which means he was responsible for one of the very few post seventies songs that hit me like a ton of bricks when it came on the radio not to mention a record that belongs on the short list for the greatest ever power ballad.
Notably, it’s not a personal showcase. The fantastic playing is entirely at the service of the song. Like always.
He was a guitar player in a rock and roll band and like other under-sung heroes, the Hollies’ Tony Hicks, say, or .38 Special’s Jeff Carlisi, all he ever did was exactly what every single song needed. No more, no less. He certainly wasn’t the only reason his band started out competing for Grand Funk undercards and ended up vying with first generation hip hop acts for spots in the MTV rotation. But it probably wasn’t entirely a coincidence that REO’s long run of hits ended when he left.
He passed away at 65 last week, cause of death unannounced.
But when a rock and roller passes at 65, we always know the cause. The candle burns bright. It burns at both ends. It gives a lot….