Swamp Rock is now almost forgotten. Not the music, which was defined by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe South and a rotating cast of characters who drift in and out of the definitions provided by critics and cultists, but the moniker. I haven’t heard it referred to in years.
Back when it was referred to at least now and then in mainstream journals–and recognized as a key link in the chain that stretched from rockabilly to southern rock–nobody embodied it more fully than Tony Joe White. His moment was brief, maybe three years.
Well, people have said more in a career, but few said more in a moment. His one big hit as a performer was good enough even Elvis at his best couldn’t quite steal it…
But his greatest impact was as a writer…
…and a spirit who helped define the moment that defined him, the moment when the shore that had heaved in sight during the sixties began to fade away in the fog…
…a moment even the Persuasions at their best couldn’t quite steal from him.
Tony Joe White epitomized the sort of talent who could flourish only in Rock and Roll America. With that America in tatters, we’d do well to hang on to his memory.
The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)
I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).
But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.
First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.
Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?
Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?
I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.
But, my God, what a missed opportunity.
Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”
One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.
That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.” That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)
Well, none of that happened.
Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)
Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.”Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).
And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”
Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.
One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.
Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.
Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.
Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.
Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.
Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.
And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.
First, an excerpt from the opening pages of the rock and roll detective novel I just started shopping around:
“Somebody must have died,” Robbie said.
His brother was a preacher.
Red kicked the block in place before he looked up.
“Well, if it’s your sister, at least you won’t catch any more hell about all them babies you killed in Nam.”
Robbie brushed his dirty blonde mustache with the back of his forefinger.
“Damn straight. And if it’s the kid, I won’t have to hear any more about Iggy and the goddam Stooges either.”
Even without context, you can probably judge that my detective, Robbie Boone, and his drug-smuggling partner, Red Coombs: a) have a sardonic view of life and death, b) that Robbie has a testy relationship with his siblings, and c) anything his radical sister may have said to him about his time in Nam has nothing to do with anything that actually happened and doesn’t annoy him near as much as having a little brother who prefers the Stooges to Creedence or an older brother who wants to save his soul.
Still, if I’m published and my novel becomes the stone cold classic it deserves to be, I can expect to find myself chastised for perpetuating a myth–in this case, that Viet Nam vets were routinely subjected to humiliation by lefty war protesters which included being spat upon, denied sex by beautiful women and just generally being made to feel bad for things they never did.
Or maybe even harangued by their sisters.
I mention all this because Ken Burns’Vietnam (why we use one word when the Vietnamese themselves use two, I’ve always been too slow to understand–gee, I hope it’s not the old Ignorance/Arrogance thing) has just started. I can’t watch it in real time because there’s a tree branch growing in front of my satellite dish and there’s not much point paying the bill until I can afford a service to come and remove the impediment.
But it’s already stirring up discussion and the discussion is already forming around predictable patterns with Myth and Counter-Myth being put through one more spin cycle and everybody pretending that if one or the other finally prevailed we would “heal” (a word the dread Burns–still living off the Civil War series that is the only half-good thing he ever did–has apparently used in interviews), or, in other words, finally walk away from 1968.
Hell, even my novel won’t help us do that. The best it might do–that anything might do–is hammer out a warning to a future we will not live to see.
I am comforted, however, in knowing that when the Thought Police come for me in the much nearer future, it will be in the name of Nuance and a Better Understanding….Same as when they implant the microchip that will help me finally become the Better Person I will then be convinced I always dreamed of being.
So I tried to go to a movie tonight in order to fulfill my new obligation to my “At the Metroplex” category and see at least one movie in a theater every month. When I got there at 6:50 for a 6:55 show they said the projector for that theater was down and they didn’t expect it to be fixed before Thursday. Was there anything else I’d like to see?
That’s the reason I was driving home in the new dark, on a night when Donald Trump, who I think is best described as an opportunist, is about to deliver his first big speech to a congress. He’ll deliver that speech to a body, which, like the country it purports to represent, is divided ever more neatly between parties who, absent the inconvenient historical baggage involved, would be calling themselves Confederates and Communists by now.
And what should chance to come on the radio?
followed by this…
Hell, we haven’t even walked away from 1861.
That’s what happens when everybody keeps insisting on walking backwards. The past keeps catching up.
You don’t believe me, wait til summer comes and the time is right for fighting in the streets that won’t be limited to the boys this time.
This is a pretty brave piece, but one not-very-brave line stood out:
“The idea that it’s OK to publish an allegation when you yourself are not confident in what your source is saying is a major departure from what was previously thought to be the norm in a paper like the Post.”
My immediate response was “Who thought this? I want their names!”
It could be I’ve just been conditioned by thirty-five years of what my friends like to call paranoia and what I, watching them recede ever further into their cocoons, like to call reality.
You know, as in: It’s not paranoia just because the rest of ya’ll are too damn stupid to know they’re out to get you too.
Or it could be I was just extra-sensitive because I had been listening to a little Creedence over the New Year’s break….because that’s always good for some perspective on a bright, sunny new year. And what I thought when I played this one particular video (part of a small DVD package that comes with the Creedence Singles‘ collection), was that I had not only missed the significance of John Fogerty’s ability to measure up to Marvin Gaye’s finest paranoid hour, but the significance of his band being able to measure up to the Funk Brothers’ finest hour of any sort period.
Which then further made me consider, to a degree I hadn’t before, that I never really missed what the Beatles left undone because I never thought they left anything undone. But if I could turn back time and change a few things, having Creedence stay together, and somehow always be as they were here, would be high on my must-do list.
It also made me consider that, if Van Morrison really was the most important white blues singer between Elvis and Ronnie Van Zant, then it was really saying something, because the competition was even fiercer than I thought.
Tomorrow night, or maybe the morning after, half the electorate will feel we’ve been saved from Hitler/Lucifer. The other half will believe we’ve elected Hitler/Lucifer. Either way, Delusion’s reign will be secure. We won’t have elected Lucifer. But that will be him you feel turning round. And he’ll be smiling.
The soundtrack in my head will play on regardless. So, for those who don’t want to just stick to War and Creedence as they begin waking up from history in the days/months/years to come, welcome to my world. (As before, the soundtrack is programmed like a K-TEL Special…as before, I promise the content and programming make for a greater mix-disc than K-TEL ever managed.):
Track 1: Laura Nyro “Eli’s Coming”
Track 2: The Miracles “I Gotta Dance to Keep From Crying”
Track 3: Arlo Guthrie “Lightning Bar Blues”
Track 4: The English Beat “Save It For Later”
Track 5: The Pretenders “Middle of the Road”
Track 6: The 5th Dimension “Another Day, Another Heartache”
Track 7: The Go-Go’s “Foget That Day”
Track 8: The Clash “Gates of the West”
Track 9: Rosanne Cash “This Is the Way We Make a Broken Heart”
Track 10: The Youngbloods “Darkness, Darkness”
Track 11: Bob Dylan “Shelter From the Storm” (live)
Track 12: Phil Ochs “When I’m Gone”
Track 13: Jimmy Cliff “Trapped”
Track 14: The Undisputed Truth “Smiling Faces”
Track 15: Al Green “Hanging On”
[NOTE: I had to sit through about twelve Marco Rubio commercials in order to check all these out. Much more of this and I’m going to find a way to start charging.]
Keeping it to a baker’s dozen, so it will fit on a good old-fashioned seventies’ style piece of crap K-Tel vinyl, provided I can get Little Joey and Guido interested in backing the project as a warehouse filler tax write-off. Guaranteed to be a hot collectible in the future we threw away!
NOTE: The programming works. I promise. Joey and Guido have no say in the creative process.
Along about the latter half of August, there’s always a chance you’ll be overwhelmed by obvious, network approved soundtracking like “Street Fighting Man,” “For What It’s Worth,” and various doomy-sounding tracks from the Doors. Don’t worry you can always come here for the real thing.
Joey and Guido need to get paid, but me, I live to serve.
Since my first post on the Hall several years ago, at least a few of the acts I considered egregious oversights (Donna Summer, Linda Ronstadt, The “5” Royales) have found their way in. I’m confident I’ve had nothing whatsoever to do with this, except maybe cosmically, but the cosmos must be attended, so I take heart and keep plugging away. My lists of the most deserving not yet inducted are still very much the same and can be found HERE, HERE and HERE.
I try to do something a little different each year, simply because my relationship to each new batch of nominees is bound to change at least a little. This year, it’s a simple breakdown: 1) Acts (well, one anyway) who are in my own pantheon and therefore no-brainers; 2) Acts I have at least some strong feeling for, either because I think they filled some place in Rock History that can’t be entirely ignored or I just like their records a lot; and 3) Acts I don’t pretend to get.
So, in reverse order:
Acts I don’t pretend to get (or can at least easily eliminate from this particular ballot):
Nine Inch Nails and The Smiths: Charter members of the Gloom Squad, representativesof which, given the air of stagnation and hopelessness that began to dominate the culture in the late eighties and has continued to suck at our collective oxygen supply every single day since, we are almost certainly stuck with in perpetuity. If they are your thing, peace be upon you, but let’s do cancel the dinner reservations.
Yes: I really like “Roundabout.” But, as one record arguments go, it’s not exactly “La Bamba,” or “Summertime Blues.”
The J.B.s.: Very worthy. Please induct them immediately in the Musical Excellence or Sidemen category, as should have been done long ago. Can’t see spending a vote on them in the performer category.
Chicago: I’m at least a little torn on this one. I do like a lot of their records (more than I think I do actually, unless some event like this one forces me to focus). But I can’t say I’ve listened to them a lot so I just don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. I will say their lack of critical respect and their capacity for annoying the crit-illuminati by selling millions of records hardly count against them in my book. That said, if the ice is beginning to thaw around the idea of acknowledging AM giants as a necessary and vital part of Rock and Roll History, give me Three Dog Night or the Fifth Dimension any day. Not to mention Tommy James.
Chaka Khan: I could see voting for her some time, especially if (as happened in the past) she was being considered along with her great interracial funk band, Rufus. But she might be one of those acts I can always consider voting for in theory who just never happens to crack the top five on any given ballot. Time will tell. BTW: Interracial funk bands have a way of getting overlooked by the Hall: Think War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band. Apparently Sly and the Family Stone are enough for the “Hey I’m not really opposed to the concept” crowd. I’d like to see this change, so Rufus would be more likely to get my vote than Chaka alone.
Acts I’d at least strongly consider:
Janet Jackson: She’s a strong candidate and, as someone who generally chides the Hall for seriously slacking on recognition of women and black people, she should be a natural. She was a major superstar and I even like a lot of her records. I can’t say I ever had that special “moment” with her, though. There’s no one record that makes me pull her records off the shelf at least every once in a while. Since this is very rare for me with any rock and roll act who had even a modest run of sustained success I have to be at least a little bit suspicious. Why Janet? Why aren’t we connecting like we should? Why are Chaka and Chicago in the not-ready-for-consideration category when no record you ever made is on a level with “Tell Me Something Good” or “Just You ‘n’ Me?” Why does life hold so many mysteries? Withholding judgment on this one…
N.W.A.: The other act on this ballot who are considered a likely slam dunk. Overall that’s a good sign. I can’t remember the last time the two favorites going in were African-American. Wish I liked their music as well as their story. I mean, should burnishing my street cred feel so much like eating my broccoli? Or reading my Chomsky? Withholding….yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.
Chic: Yes, yes they should be in. I love “Le Freak” unconditionally (as well as a number of Rodgers and Edwards’ productions for other artists) so there is no problem with the “connection” missing in the previous two entries. And yes, I’m probably going to vote for them. I still don’t quite get why they’ve been on the ballot ten times and Barry White and KC and the Sunshine Band have zero nominations between them…But I’m probably still going to vote for them. Let’s wait and see.
Deep Purple: I was keener on them until I started listening to Joe South again and realized his version of “Hush” not only wastes theirs on the, you know, emotional level where you except a singer-songwriter to have an advantage, but actually rocks harder. Still, they had a real role in making hard rock “heavy.” And I wouldn’t want to put together the classic rock comp that’s going to play on the Celestial Jukebox at the End of Time without “Highway Star” or “My Woman From Tokyo” somewhere in the mix.
Los Lobos: They made one truly great album. That was enough for Guns N’ Roses, whose great album wasn’t quite as great (though it sold a lot more and caused a lot more head-banging). It’s enough for me to certainly put them under strong consideration. I wish they were a little less professorial, of course. But if rock and roll is truly democratic, surely there must be room for the professors too….Mustn’t there?
Steve Miller: The Hall is often perverse. Should we even be surprised that this very long in coming nomination is for Miller alone and not The Steve Miller Band, which is the title under which he made his records? Sure there were a lot of different people in those bands, but the Hall has made room for similar aggregations before, so who knows what the thinking is. As for the records themselves, I’m obviously putting him ahead of Chicago, even if it’s only a hair. I’m hazy on his early, more critically acclaimed work. It was out of San Francisco so familiarity with it, might make me feel more strongly for or against (in a Grateful Dead, no, Jefferson Airplane maybe, CCR or Sly or Janis, yes, sort of way). Which leaves me wondering if the lead-in riff to “Jet Airliner” is enough to make him worthy all by itself? I lived the Seventies. I very specifically lived 1977. And I have to say it’s a very close call.
Cheap Trick and The Cars: Gee, not a month ago I was gently lamenting that I clearly liked Power Pop a lot better than the Hall did, and here they go and put two of the Big Five on the ballot at once. Granted I don’t listen to either as much as Big Star or Raspberries or the Go-Go’s, but they’re both fine bands and the Cars have the additional lift of being the most popular band in the little-genre-that-couldn’t-quite-save-rock-and-roll-but-sure-had-fun-trying. Hall worthy? Definitely. Possible to vote for one and not the other? Tough call. I think I can manage it. I think I’ll probably have to. Which one?….Which one, knowing that the chances of the three even greater bands being considered in the future ride heavily on how these two do? Which one, knowing that these two have the decided advantage of being mysteriously accepted at “classic rock” formats?…Oh, God.
Spinners: The premiere vocal group of the seventies, the last decade when the competition was fierce and the distinction therefore amounted to an epic accomplishment. Stop the nonsense. Stop dumping on seventies R&B. Stop dumping on vocal groups. Put them in already, so I can start banging the drum for the Stylistics and the Chi-Lites! (insert maniacal laughter here!)
(and a Rodgers and Edwards bonus….)
…First alternate, the Cars…
If you want to participate in fan balloting you can access the Future Rock Legends site here (you have to scroll down a bit). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s actual ballot, which has a very small effect on actual voting (but, I suspect, may have a very real effect on considerations for future nominees) is here.
This year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot was released recently. I’ll have a post on all the nominees and who I voted for in the fan ballots later. First I wanted to concentrate on the acts that are the year’s two most deserving by a wide margin (not that either is being treated that way in either the press or the fan polls–wrong color), who also played a big role in the category I recently started here.
I don’t know if War was the greatest American band of the seventies–I’d call it a close run between them and Lynyrd Skynyrd–and, depending on how one defines “the Seventies” (do Creedence or Sly and the Family Stone belong?) or “American” (does Fleetwood Mac belong?), there are other contenders. But they were certainly the most Cosmic–the same way the Byrds were the most Cosmic band of the Sixties.
Cosmic as in “boundless” or “limitless.”
Or just far-reaching.
Put another way, they were the perfect band for Cosmic times. Especially Cosmic times that were beginning to close down and leave us with the set of boundaries and limits within which we now live.
They’re just buzzwords now. A big, mixed up stew of psychic jolts barely detectable from each other.
Vietnam. Watergate. Woodstock. Altamont. Manson Family. Summer of Love. Love Generation. Weatherman. SDS. Kent State. Days of Rage.
Assassination. Riot. War (the socio-political concept, not the military one that involves the truly bloody and costly task of taking and holding ground and certainly not the Cosmic band).
It’s all in the past now. Part of the times.
Except “the times” still have a hand around our throat. Our ignoring it hasn’t made it go away–just led us here, to the place of lost opportunity.
The Rising was meant to warn us, to keep us off the wrong track.
War was The Rising’s strongest voice.
For a half-decade plus–from backing Eric Burdon on 1970’s “Spill the Wine” (a far more subversive record than just about anybody has ever cared to admit–probably because it arrived at the only moment when a white man fantasizing about an orgy in the Hall of the Mountain Kings while the African Kings [albeit with a Danish harmonica player] of L.A.’s Chicano East Side laid down the funk and Miss Puerto Rico whispered sweet nothings in his ear, going #3 Billboard, seemed not all that far-fetched) on through “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World is a Ghetto” and “Cisco Kid” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”
Along the way, they had the best-selling album of 1973–a phenomenon (now mostly forgotten, along with the rest of The Rising) I wrote about here, plus a string of Go-rilla-sized radio hits that crossed every conceivable barrier (which I wrote about here).
So why aren’t War in the Hall already?
Well, I can only speculate–few voters or nominating committee members ever explain themselves, which is their right. But, if I had to guess, I’d say the obvious reason is the lack of a convenient hook: no charismatic leader like Sly Stone or George Clinton to attract the attention of the Radical Chic combo (black revolutionaries, white luminaries) that tends to excite intellectual discourse; no easily defined style (I read the phrase “Latin funk” a lot…er…okay); a complete misunderstanding of rock and roll history that allows those sitting in judgment to think War was “just another funk band,” ignoring how their unique style was forged from L.A. doo-wop and garage bands, late-sixties neo-soul and West Coast jazz, with respect for, but relatively little deference to, James Brown or Sly Stone (a process of assimilation which is best defined on Rhino’s great, little noted, three-volume collection Brown Eyed Soul which I can’t recommend too highly).
The greatest sin of all then.
No easy answers.
Or, to use a throwback cliche–prophets are often without honor in their own land.
More precisely and emphatically than anyone working in the seventies–in rock and roll or elsewhere–War were the prophets of the backlash present.
Hello “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World Is a Ghetto,” and “I hear you’re working for the C.I.A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” Hey White America…you didn’t listen then, how’s it feel to join us, here at the precipice of the long fall defined by the new buzzwords? Decline. Collapse. Credit Default. Drone Warfare. Air Strikes. Government Shutdown. Or, the best description of the American prison system–even better than the New Jim Crow–Gulag?
Should have listened I guess.
Probably still should….
War were West Coast–East L.A. and universal. Old Testament prophets informed by a wary version of New Testament grace.
Spinners were East Coast, Philly by way of Detroit (a long apprenticeship at Motown that ended when their great, Stevie Wonder-produced breakout hit “It’s A Shame” was followed by an even greater Stevie Wonder-produced wonder called “We’ll Have it Made” which failed to cement their success).
They weren’t prophets themselves, but they served one. His name was Thom Bell and, as arranger, producer and (most often with his great partner, Linda Creed) songwriter, he operated under the guise of a Romantic Poet.
Though he had hits with a lot of artists, Bell had three principal vehicles during The Rising. Spinners (there was properly no “the” in their prime period), were the pinnacle of a crescendo that rose from the Del-fonics (very fine) and the Stylistics (truly great, but, due to their reliance on Russell Thompkin’s Jr., ultimately held within limits which Spinners, with three great leads and the kind of harmonies that come only from years of finishing each others breaths, easily transcended).
Bell had a vision that seemed apolitical. It seemed that way even on something as direct as “Ghetto Child.” It seemed that way then, and, if you don’t pay the extra-close attention which those glorious arrangements and heart-stopping vocals can so easily deflect, it might seem that way now.
Don’t be fooled. Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade where that distinction meant anything. They were also the vehicle where Bell (with and without Creed) invested the best of himself.
What we want Bell and Spinners essentially said, over and over, is to belong.
If War were already counting the loss (even as they hoped for the best), Bell’s Spinners were exploring a promise that would never quite be kept…on the assumption that, even if it wasn’t, it would be worth articulating.
One of the other acts on this year’s ballot is N.W.A., the gangsta rap pioneers who eventually sprang from the Compton streets War long before warned were slipping away. I didn’t vote for N.W.A. this time around (though I think they are worthy and will get in at some point).
Put simply, the rejection of the visions War and Spinners offered during The Rising–our inability to hear and heed the warning they sometimes implied and sometimes stated openly–made N. W.A. inevitable, necessary, cathartic and nowhere near effective.
The legal barriers once confronted by the Civil Rights movement are down. They were down in 1970, when War and Spinners had their first big Pop hits.
The walls that divide the “modern” acts on this year’s ballot (indie acts like Green Day and Nine Inch Nails along with N.W.A.–page still white, ink still black, still no gettin’ together) from each other are still standing.
Higher than ever.
Really, really should have listened….Really, really still should.
North of fifty, it’s exceedingly rare to find myself listening to anything “new” with the old addictive spirit of youth. This week it happened twice.
The month’s entertainment budget went to acquiring a couple of 1969 releases by one-hit wonders from the fifties, one of which I’d been chasing for thirty-plus years, the other I just heard about a few weeks ago.
Wouldn’t you know they link up, there in the shadows–though not as obviously as I might have suspected if I was into suspecting things.
After “Susie Q” (circa 1957) Dale Hawkins released a string of follow-ups that–after the manner of the insanely competitive times–didn’t go anywhere. His original guitarist, James Burton (all of fifteen when he played “Susie Q”’s classic riff) soon hooked up with Ricky Nelson on his way to Merle Haggard, Elvis and a career’s worth of legend-building session work. Hawkins went behind the scenes (promotion, production, the usual) and knocked around the music industry for most of the new decade, waiting, as it turned out, for his sound to come back in style.
By the late sixties, it had.
Creedence kicked off their staggering run of mind-blowing singles with a revival of Hawkins’ hit. A sub-genre called “swamp rock,” which in theory was updated rockabilly, but in practice reached as far as Joe South and Vegas-era Elvis, was soon in full swing. That–plus his decade’s worth of contacts in the Music Biz–was no doubt why Hawkins was able to convince somebody to let him make an album, called L.A., Memphis and Tyler, Texas, after the three cities he recorded it in.
I never heard about it until a few weeks ago when Kim Morgan wrote about one of its tracks here. Having lived with it a bit now, I can’t say I’m as taken with Dale’s version of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” as she is, but it’s certainly interesting and I’m grateful for her take in any case because it led me to the rest of this. Hawkins wasn’t the greatest singer in the world, but he was committed. His was one of those voices rock and roll had let through the gate and it’s to his credit that, after a decade spent wandering around inside the castle walls, he had not reached a point of taking anything for granted.
You can hear the peak of the result here (I’m pretty sure ZZ Top got their entire career out of the opening riff), but the whole album’s a grabber:
Wilbert Harrison’s path was more than a little similar to Hawkins’. He was a bit older and he was hard-core R&B where Hawkins was hard-core rockabilly, which meant he had a place to go when he, too, failed to follow up an epic hit (“Kansas City”) with any chart success at all. He was able to make a living on the one-nighter-in-the-local-bucket-of-blood trail that is always available to anybody with a hit in their shady past who is willing to stick with it. Eventually he turned himself into a one-man band–presumably to cut expenses–and his persistence finally paid off in a chance to make an album with New York record man Juggy Murray, one of those independent hustler/promoter types who Dale Hawkins might have become with only the smallest twist of the Fate Dial.
I got onto the resulting album, Let’s Work Together, the way I suspect a lot of people did–in the “Treasure Island” portion of Greil Marcus’ Stranded, first published in 1979. There are albums on that list I still haven’t heard but every once in a while, no matter how broke I am, I get in a certain “Hey thirty-four years is long enough and it’s cheap on Amazon” kind of mood. I figured it would make a nice double bill with Hawkins and it does.
But they run in opposite directions.
While Hawkins’ LP is a clear (and successful) attempt to update his basic ethos–to move forward–Harrison went back beyond the beginning.
I don’t know what exactly possessed him to reach back behind the hard-driving, urban R&B that had once made him famous (however briefly) and drop an album-length field holler–complete with a version of Fats Domino’s segregation-era “Blue Monday” that sounds both ancient and prescient, as though Jim Crow had never really ended (ancient) and never really would (prescient)–into the Age of Aquarius.
Maybe it was just good old artistic integrity. It’s sure hard to believe anybody meant to sell records that way in 1969.
But sell records he did.
Despite (I don’t think there was any “because”) a vocal which utterly belies the optimism of its presumed message, the title track became one of the most unlikely hits (#32 on the Hot 100) of the entire revolution and, in its full album version (see below), it, along with the rest of the album, proved one of history’s oldest lessons.
If you want to look forward, look back.
“Let’s Work Together” is the furthest thing from slick imaginable. It makes even Dale Hawkins sound like Mel Torme. Heck, it makes the Wilbert Harrison of “Kansas City” sound like Mel Torme. But, in 1969 and now, it served/serves as a nice reminder that the basics upon which the disco-fied, hip-hopping future would be built went back much further than James Brown, or Fats Domino, or, for that matter, Jim Crow.
And, no matter how well I think I’ve learned these lessons, it’s always nice to be reminded by something that has a good beat to it even if I can’t dance a lick.