It’s appropriate that he died in the shadow of a cultural giant like Doris Day. He was always the other guy.
The other guy who always stole the show. Without cracking the smile he wore so easily when he wasn’t “on.”
He was easy to take for granted. I know, because I always did. When I was a kid, I just assumed there would always be funny people on television, that people like Tim Conway were the main reason television existed.
Then I grew up and grew old and grew to understand that everything and everyone I really liked came out of a time and place that was vanishing faster than the Old West, to be replaced by things and people–some still call it “culture,” the closest to a good belly laugh you’ll find these days–which vanished even faster.
I wonder did he notice? I wonder did he think: “Maybe I’m not good for another thousand years after all?”
Well, if he’s not–and you know how I feel about where we’re headed–it’ll be the silly future’s loss, not his.
Fact is, on her way to becoming a contender for the most talented performer in the history of Hollywood, one of the few of whom it could be said there’s nothing she can’t do, she was a singer first, with 30 top twenty hits the forties and fifties. Then she was the star of low budget musicals, memorable mostly for her presence. Then she gave serious performances that would stand her in good stead with critics….decades later. Then she made the romantic comedies with Rock Hudson, James Garner, David Niven, and others, that turned her into a box office superstar.
Then, as times changed, the woman who had once refused to get an abortion even though her husband beat her for it turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate because it was “vulgar and offensive.”
Then she did a television show.
Then, having earned back the money Marty Melcher made vanish, she retired.
By then, she had been the leading female box office star seven times (a record that still stands) and the only woman to lead the entire box office four times, a record still unmatched by any she not named Shirley Temple.
That was her career.
In other strictly factual manners, she survived four marriages. Her first husband beat her up while she was pregnant with an only child who would take her third husband’s name and become Terry Melcher, one of the greatest record producers of the generation that tried so hard to obliterate her. (He died at 62, in 2004. Like her, he failed to receive the deserving accolades. Oscar never came calling for her, not even in the Lifetime Achievement category. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame never came calling for him, even in death. Beyond facts, one does wonder about these things.) That third husband managed her money and, by the time he died in the late 60s, made it all disappear.
Fact is, modernity kept rejecting her, even as far back as the atypical-to-say-the-least “Que Sera, Sera,” competing with Patti Page’s (also atypical) “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?” for the signature sound rock ‘n’ roll was born to kill. You can only imagine what the 60s were like for a woman who inspired people to say they knew her before she was a virgin. Once vulgarity and offensiveness had become watchwords for eternal hipness, people certainly called her a lot worse.
Time was on her side. You think defining an era is easy? A status that can be handed to you?
Try it some time.
Eventually, there were serious think pieces about her representation of proto-feminism (and that’s not even counting James Wolcott’s post-feminist homage to her shapely butt). Eventually, the calls for that Lifetime Oscar grew louder, though never loud enough to move an Academy which embraces offensive vulgarity like a New Religion. Eventually, her singing got encomiums from rock and rollers and old-timers alike and transformed her vocal reputation into something resembling the female Sinatra.
One day, people will look and listen long enough and hard enough to realize that, whether singing or acting, whether playing it straight or to the side, whether in comedy or drama, whether iconic or intimate, Doris Day was that rarest of all beings: Her own category.
Watch Love Me or Leave Me back-to-back with Pillow Talk some time. You’ll see what I mean.
Listen to the soundtrack of Young Man With a Horn at 3:00 a.m. with the lights off some time.
You’ll hear what I mean.
She always bounced back. I imagine she’ll bounce back from this too.
Bob Merlis and Real Gone Music were kind enough to provide me with a review copy of the re-release of 1965’s The Intimate Keely Smith. It’s been my driving around music for the past week and it’s a killer.
Back in my vinyl-diving days, I always kept an eye out for female pop singers from the fifties and sixties. Their albums tended to have jaw-dropping covers and mind-stretching versions of the pop standards that had been shoved to the margins by the rock and roll revolutions then rolling in one behind the other.
I found lots of good music that way, and, inside those gorgeous record sleeves, uncovered the three artists who changed how I thought about “Pop”: Julie London, Doris Day and the torch side of Nancy Sinatra.
Sad to say, I never came across any Keely Smith. Like a lot of people, I knew her almost exclusively as Louis Prima’s straight man. Great as she was in that role, it was my loss, because, if this album is any indication, she conceded nothing to any other genius of the Midnight Blues, including Frank Sinatra himself, for whose label she was recording by the mid-sixties (and with whom she has a rather desultory duet included as a bonus track here).
Intimate was released in 1965, which meant at least three quake-sized shocks to the Show Biz system she was raised in (and rose to the top of), had occurred in the previous decade: mid-fifties rock and roll; the much under-appreciated ballad revolution of the early sixties, which nearly wiped out traditional pop singing; and the British Invasion. In that context The Intimate Keely Smith must have sounded like the profound expression of an almost religious faith, because Smith actually sings as if none of those earth-shattering events had ever taken place much less left a mark.
Listening now, half a roiling century later, Keely’s “intimacy” sounds more like a dare. She goes so far inside at least half of these songs that it amounts to an assertion of the individual’s primacy over not only whatever “times” are passing by the window of her mind but any times that might have come and gone or will later come and go. In other words, it’s as personal as personal gets.
That couldn’t have been a small thing in 1965, even if such music was all but automatically excluded from contemporary radio play. It’s certainly not a small thing now, when the world outside is simmering like a brush fire and we’re all holding a breath waiting to see whether the fire dies or leaps whatever tiny ditch is left between Civilization and its opposite.
I won’t say encountering such an album in such a time is a shock. I never quite forgot those Julie London lessons. But having it for riding around music was instructive. I couldn’t help noticing that, in Keely’s Intimate world, it was always midnight now matter how bright the sun was shining. And that makes this a reassertion of the midnight pop singer’s oldest, truest promise: that what happens in the song is happening to them and that no one within the sound of their voice will be immune, in 1965 or 2016 or, if Civilization somehow manages to hang on, a hundred years from now.
A highly recommended Christmas gift if anyone on your list is even remotely susceptible to such as this!
Blues isn’t really a narrow form. Sometimes it can seem that way, but any proper definition of blues singing would, for instance include not just the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, but Louis Armstrong, Hank and Lefty, Haggard and Jones, Ronnie Van Zant, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, Patty Loveless, Otis Redding, sixties’ era Charlie Rich, Percy Sledge, not to mention Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis. My own favorite unlikely blues LP is the soundtrack to Young Man With a Horn, a collaboration between Harry James and Doris Day which is as It’s-Always-3:00 A.M.-in-the-Dark-Night-of-the-Soul as any record you can name even if you go way further than I’m going here and drill down deeper than the top of your head.
That being said, any collection from the Bear Family titled The Roots of it All: Acoustic Blues is bound to be as thin as a hatpin stylistically. When the set runs to four 2-disc volumes that contain about twelve hours of music, you might think it would slog a bit.
I didn’t find it so.
I didn’t find it so, even though the set wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting when I picked it up cheap a while back. Having only perused the set list on the first two volumes to see what I was getting into, I assumed “the roots of it all” meant sticking to the narrow form’s heyday of the twenties through the mid-forties after which even the Delta moved to the city and electric guitars took center stage. Boy was I wrong.
Turned out the eight discs are dedicated to the decades stretching from the twenties to the nineties, with each decade treated in roughly equal measure.
And here’s the really amazing thing. Except for a small stretch at the end of disc seven, when Taj Mahal’s version of “Fishing Blues” (not as warm or engaging as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s light-electric version from back in the sixties) ushers in a stretch of blues academia that isn’t entirely ushered out until Keb Mo’s “You Can Love Yourself” (a first cousin of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” speaking of unlikely blues) starts a strong closing run nine cuts later, it never, ever flags.
There are too many highlights to mention. If you like classic blues, you should just track down the sets and carve out some time and space to fully engage. I found the scariest stuff on Volume 3, which had versions of Muddy’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Skip James’ “Sickbed Blues” I hadn’t heard before plus a live version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” from his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, whence the “no electricity” rule was evidently still in full force!
So I was going to hook you up with that, at least, (and I will), but when I went looking, I also found this…
..and was reminded that, until Spike Lee and Chuck D came along, it was almost never the artists who said stupid stuff about Elvis.
And, in case you think the world was ever simple, here’s the version from 1960….
,…with Hooker being accompanied by Spike’s dad on acoustic bass.
That’s just in case you ever wondered whether Spike actually has good reason to know better.
THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?
NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.
(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)
This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journal) here and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).
Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.
But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.
The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.
And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)
More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:
Along about now, I should make two things clear.
First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.
Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”
What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.
And only me.
I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).
The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)
I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.
Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.
Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?
Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!
Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.
To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.
Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.
Boy was I wrong.
“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.
Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.
I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.
Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.
So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.
That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!
I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.
On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.
That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….
Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.
How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.
I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.
I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.
So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.
So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.
In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.
And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…
…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.
Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.
Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.
Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”
Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.
So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.
I’ve never had strong opinions on whether Rock and Roll is ‘”album music” or “singles music.”
The debate more or less opened up in the wake of Dylan and the Beatles way back when. I don’t know if it gets a rise out of anybody these days, when every music is “download music.” But I started thinking along those lines (again) after all these years, in response to some of the on-line Hall of Fame discussions, which often center around the general conflict between Commerce (almost always code for a string of hit singles) and Art (almost always code for critically acclaimed LPs).
Of course, there have been a handful of acts, from the Beatles onwards, for whom the distinction was virtually meaningless..
But, trying to wrap my mind around it from a twenty-first century, middle-age perspective, I started counting up who–in Rock and Roll and Rock and Roll only–I really thought of as “album” artists.
For the purposes of this little list, then, I’m leaving out quite a bit.
No comps or live albums (certainly no box sets). No pre-rock artists (which for me would be Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and Doris Day, make of that what you will) or contemporary artists who aren’t considered Rock and Roll, even in my own strictly big tent version. And no playing favorites (that would, incidentally, be a different list by at least half).
With that for the context, I stuck to artists who have made five or more original, studio albums I know well enough to have what I call sequence response: That is, if I hear something from that album in some other context (radio, commercial, computer mix, etc.), I’ll likely get a little jolt of surprise when the next song I expect to hear–i.e., the next song from the original album–doesn’t follow.
I thought there would be at least ten Rock and Roll acts who met this criteria, possibly as many as fifteen or twenty.
Not even close.
I only made it to six.
Turns out five is a very high number, when it comes to making compulsory-listening albums.
And all those reasonable caveats I mentioned above do dwindle the list considerably.
Which sort of confirms a suspicion I’ve long had about my listening (and judging) habits.
I tend to go free-form (not just comps but multi-artist comps, or else a lot of running back and forth to the shelves)….or very, very concentrated (box sets, the bigger the better).
So a lot of artists who have a great box set, or made way more great tracks than required to fill five (or even ten) LPs, still don’t make my list of five actual albums–James Brown, Brenda Lee, Janis Joplin, the Impressions, Aretha Franklin (who almost made it anyway) all come readily to mind.
So do the Jackson 5 and Jackie DeShannon, if you really want to know how deep a fifty-great-tracks list might run.
One qualification that would not have expanded the list much, however, is including non-rock acts from the rock (or now post-rock) era.
Again, there are plenty of favorites who have a wealth of great sides (Bobby Bland, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, maybe a couple of dozen country singers, not just the usual–Merle, Loretta, Patsy, Waylon, George, Dolly, Buck, but lesser known geniuses like Don Gibson and Connie Smith as well). But, for any number of reasons–time and money preeminent among them–I’ve never really listened to many of their studio albums at length.
The one exception is Patty Loveless, who is also the only artist of the last quarter century in any format whose albums I have any deep, consistent connection with.
It’s not that I don’t try–and not that I don’t find an occasional LP that moves me (Pink’s Missundaztood (2001) and the Roots’ Undun (2011) are fairly recent discoveries, for instance). But, if I said I heard great stuff all the time and probably just don’t have enough time to stay caught up (a frequent excuse as we get older), I’d be lying.
So I guess I could have included Loveless–on the grounds no one’s likely to be joining her on my little list.
I didn’t, though, because I’ve written extensively about her elsewhere and, again, I wanted to get down to the nitty gritty about specifically rock and roll album acts, So suffice it to say hers would be the longest list here, and would also cover the longest time-span, exceeding even Elvis. It’s possible–just–that compiling this list has sent my respect for Ms. Loveless (aka, “the Awesome One”) even higher. Which is fine, because compiling lists like this is partly an exercise in pinpointing what we value–and partly an excuse to ruminate a bit on what it all means, not just to us, but to the Cosmos.
Which brings me to my last point:
Great rock and roll album acts–at least by my lights–tend to have a great run in them, which also tends to exhaust them on some level.
The most extreme example is the Rolling Stones. They made what I think is their greatest album in 1972, at the end of nearly a decade of sustained brilliance (and over half a decade of sustained album brilliance).
Then they were replaced by pod people.
But, except for Elvis (whose larger story is, in some ways, even more extreme), everyone on this list could be described by some version of the same story.
In rock and roll, when the real greatness goes, it tends to go fast, hard and for good (no matter how much “good” music is left–and often there’s quite a lot).
The same is true, incidentally–with little exception–for my near misses (Dylan, Aretha, Hendrix, Van Morrison, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin–see the complete list below).
These were acts that had three or four on my list and maybe a near miss or two.
The oddest cases were Dylan, who missed because I’ve never really connected with Blonde on Blonde and Morrison, who missed because I didn’t count his two fantastic albums with Them (which might be unfair, but I was sticking to the strictest criteria possible) and would have made it anyway if I’d ever connected with Astral Weeks or if my vinyl version of Into the Music didn’t have some weird fuzz on Side Two that made it unlistenable-but-unreturnable when I bought it new (and thus never replaced)!
I throw in that last to emphasize just how arbitrary such “judgments” are if you don’t get your records for free.
But I think the main point still holds. Except for Elvis (and Patty Loveless), everybody who made, or nearly made, this list, made their best five to eight (or even three to four) original albums in the space of a decade (usually much less). And that’s all irrespective of whether these are my six “favorite” artists or I think they are “the greatest.”….As it happens, my six favorite rock and roll acts, if somebody put a gun to my head, would probably look a lot different…only Elvis would be guaranteed (though the Byrds and Al Green would certainly be in strong consideration).
Make of that what you will.
In any case, I’d really like to hear from anybody who has a different take (or artists they’d put on their own list).
As you’ll see, I’m not exactly after rearranging the canon here!
(*Denotes what I think is the artists’ greatest LP, or, if you prefer, my personal favorite–order is chronological, from date of the first LP that qualified for my list).
Elvis Presley (Two gospel albums and a Christmas LP here….but I included them because that was his version of rock and roll. And he would have made the list anyway):
1957: Christmas Album
1960: Elvis is Back!
1960: His Hand In Mine
1967: How Great Thou Art
1969: From Elvis In Memphis*
1971: Elvis Country!
1975: Promised Land
1964: Meet the Beatles
1964: The Beatles 2nd
1965: Help! (UK)*
1965: Rubber Soul (US)
1966: Revolver (UK)
1968: The Beatles (White Album)
[Note: Several of the early Beatles’ LPs, especially Hard Day’s Night, would almost certainly be here (perhaps substituting for US versions) if I had acquired the UK versions back in the days when I listened to them a lot more than I do now–I’m limiting these lists to albums I actually own (a function of finance), know backwards and forwards (a function of time spent), and happen to think are great listening experiences (a function of taste). See, I told you it was arbitrary.]
The Beach Boys:
1964: All Summer Long
1965: The Beach Boys Today!
1965: Summer Days (And Summer Nights)
1967: Wild Honey*
and a fantastic live version:
1965: Mr. Tambourine Man
1965: Turn, Turn, Turn
1966: Fifth Dimension
1967: Younger Than Yesterday
1967: The Notorious Byrd Brothers*
1968: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
1969: The Ballad of Easy Rider
The Rolling Stones:
1966: Aftermath (US)
1968: Beggar’s Banquet
1969: Let It Bleed
1970: Sticky Fingers
1972: Exile on Main Street*
1971: Gets Next to You
1972: Let’s Stay Together
1973: Call Me
1973: Livin’ For You
1974: Explores Your Mind
[Note: It’s worth mentioning that, in three of the six cases here, I thought the last great album on the list was the greatest. And, in the case of the Byrds, the two albums I list after Notorious Byrd Brothers were made with significantly different lineups. So, four times out of six, some point of crisis was reached. And the artists’ in question–be it faux-Satan worshiper Mick Jagger or the Reverend Al Green–were never really the same again. Something to bear in mind in any discussion where the spiritual cost of making great rock and roll happens to come up.]
(Near misses: Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Rod Stewart, Prince (if I only counted doubles as two!), Aretha Franklin, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, The Who, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac and, a very recent discovery, Spinners–I guess it’s pretty obvious I don’t think albums have progressed much after about the early eighties, but then, neither have singles.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about ballads lately. By “a lot” I guess I mean, even more than usual.
The more than usual bit kicked in around a week or so ago, when I listened to a couple of “Ballads” comps from Hip-O Select’s series of such. Hearing their James Brown collection for the first time–and being blown away by it, by the fact that this was about the tenth best thing we think of when we think of James Brown and that it’s both mind-blowing and past any easy exegesis–led me to the other disc I have from the series, which is a similarly staggering set from Brenda Lee.
And all of that got me to thinking–or remembering–that the real reason rock and roll took over the world for thirty-plus years wasn’t just because the fast and loud singers got better (as opposed to just faster and louder, which is what the common narrative would have us believe) but because the ballad singers got better, too.
I know, I know. Me on my high horse again, contending that Tony Williams and Jackie Wilson and Roy Orbison went places even Doris Day and Nat “King” Cole (my picks for the greatest pre-rock balladeers) simply couldn’t go. Once more admitting I’d rather listen to Clyde McPhatter than Billie Holiday (great as she is) or Elvis in full-on strings-and-horns mode over Sinatra being eminently tasteful (or enervated, depending on your perspective).
What can I say? Guilty as charged.
But this recent bout of contemplatin’ got me wondering just how deep the divide really runs. I mean, how many rock and roll balladeers would I have to list before I got to a pop singer (we’ll leave country and gospel out of this for now–though I’ll say they are a lot closer to the spirit of rock and roll than Tin Pan Alley and some heavy Don Gibson time these past few weeks has certainly brought home just how much closer)?
I decided it would run pretty deep. I didn’t make a list or anything, but–given the modern definition of “ballad,” which is pretty much anything that tries to pack an emotional wallop into a slow tempo–I’m guessing I might get to thirty or forty before I even started considering any Pop singers besides Doris and Nat, and maybe fifty or more before I actually put another one in place.
Even after all that, it turned out I wasn’t quite through, because yesterday, on the daily run to the grocery store (hey, it gets me out of the house, which, believe me, I need)–I turned to an actual music station for the first time in about a month and ran into the Rolling Stones’ doing “Angie” (#1 in 1973–their last except for the disco-ish “Miss You” in 1978) backed up by Neil Young doing “Heart of Gold” (his sole #1, from 1972).
It happens I wasn’t really thinking of Mick Jagger or Mr. Young for my “top balladeer” list. And you have to use that stretcher of a definition I cited above to really call these ballads. But they do demonstrate the depth of field that was operating at rock’s high tide.
As it also happens, I have some emotional ties to both.
“Heart of Gold,” always brings back rides to baseball practice in the spring of ’72. I was eleven. My dad worked in the afternoons. My mom didn’t drive. The baseball fields weren’t anywhere near my school. Nobody on the team lived near me. That meant I was riding with my brother-in-law, who would pick me up on his way from Titusville to Merritt Island every afternoon and deposit me at the practice fields about twenty minutes late, where I would get dirty looks from all the coaches and most of my fellow players even though everybody knew I didn’t have a choice. Male bonding!
That was the year I almost quit baseball–five years before it quit me. Mixed memories to say the least and I can understand why my brother-in-law doesn’t remember it. Sometimes I’d like to forget itmyself. But “Heart of Gold” played on the local Top 40 station every day that spring at the same time on the late rides into practice and I seldom encounter it without thinking of those times and smiling a little over how long it took me to become a Neil Young fan!
“Angie” was sort of wrapped up in male bonding, too. Or maybe I should call it male anti-bonding. It was the first Rolling Stones’ single I bought (from one of those oldies’ bins I had started to haunt, some time in the late seventies) and one of the first songs I ever had to “defend” in one of those snark-fests young males get into when they are calling each other’s tastes into serious question.
The extent of my defense was not exactly the stuff high school legends are made of. Following a rather lengthy rant from the other guys about how there was this really great, slow, acoustic guitar playing and then Mick had to start whining and make everybody want to puke, I think my response basically amounted to “Hey, I like it. Sounds good to me.” That and a little smirk that was designed to suggest I just might be onto something. End of discussion!
I learned early. The more mysterious the better.
So, whenever I heard “Angie” through the years–and I’m pretty sure, given the proximity of their release dates, that it and “Heart of Gold” have been chasing each other around quite a bit over these four decades–I mostly thought about the weirdness of me sticking up for a record by the Stones (about whom I have always maintained a certain ambivalence) against rabid Stones lovers who happened to hate the first Stones’ record I loved.
Then, on September 11, 2002–the first anniversary of you know what, when it was already evident that “you know what” was not going to be taken seriously and that, except for the soldiers we asked to get shot and blown up for the privilege of accepting our “thanks,” we really were all going to go shopping and let it go at that–I was riding around, listening to the radio, and heard those acoustic guitar chords my long-ago debate club buddies had praised, not because they liked beautiful acoustic guitar lines (trust me, they didn’t) but because whatever Keith did was cool (even if it was just duet-ing with Mick Taylor) crawling through my speakers.
The song changed for me in that instant.
Listening to Mick sing it that day didn’t change it back.
It just cemented the change in place. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years, just what/who the song was about. I’ve read that “Angie” was supposed to be Marianne Faithful, Angie Harmon, Keith’s daughter and none of the above.
Take your pick.
As for me: From September 11, 2002, to now it’s always been about the sound of goodbye and, whatever it was supposed to “mean,” I’ve also developed a sneaking suspicion that the what/who Mick Jagger was really saying goodbye to was himself.
There has certainly never been any recorded evidence on this side of the divide that the man who was responsible for so much transcendent music that had been recorded in the previous decade still exists.
I snuck up to Birmingham last weekend for a first visit to the Alabama Theater, a heaven-sent, beautifully refurbished movie palace with easy access, a friendly staff, popcorn in boxes and, on this particular lazy Sunday afternoon, a Hitchcock double-bill of Psycho (with Miles playing the ultra-responsible sister of the Master’s most famous snuff victim) and the fifties’ version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (with Day playing the wife of James Stewart’s Indianapolis-doctor-cast-adrift-in-Eric-
I had not seen either film on a big screen since the mid-eighties and, as I suspected, these two sneaky great performances–both far beyond the capacity of my ignorant youth–gain considerable power with their nuances writ large.
Anybody interested in knowing why rock and roll had to happen when and how it did, could do worse than spend a few hours watching these thirty-ish actresses use every second of the screen time they were granted inside genre pictures made by the world’s greatest story-boarder to render sharp, telling definitions of repressed middle-class American women yearning to breathe free.
Miles’ Lila Crane is the much smaller part, of course, and the actress had the burden of knowing Hitchcock wanted desperately to be done with her (for reasons too complicated to go into here).
But she specialized in compression so the inch he gave her is enough.
The movie that opened the seam into the underbelly of modernity turns on her response to John Gavin’s assertion that he “can’t believe” his suddenly missing girlfriend, Marion Crane (the Janet Leigh character butchered in the famous shower scene), would commit the one completely unforgivable American sin and steal a large wad of cash from a guy who could afford to lose it.
Miles has no more than a full second to respond before Hitchcock cuts away but it’s all she needs to send the movie spinning off into the deep, subliminal recesses where it has to go in order to transcend mere shock value. In that perfect second of evasive stillness she reveals what the script either can’t or won’t–that clearly there’s nothing she wouldn’t believe, and thereby nothing you shouldn’t believe, especially where Marion is concerned.
Constricted as that moment is, Doris Day’s Jo Conway McKenna would probably have killed for it. She’s the perfect fifties’ housewife–right down to giving up her glamorous career because her husband wants to stay in Indianapolis–so she doesn’t get to breathe for anything like a full second, either before or after her son is kidnapped.
Forget her life–the closest she comes to seizing control of anything at all is in one of the London scenes that unwind after her son has been snatched and she senses the first real chance to get him back.
She’s outside a church, becoming less and less polite with the British bobbies who are practicing the fine arts of officialdom everywhere–obfuscation and appeasement. Finally, they start to think it might ease things along if they looked a little closer at the surface of the situation. No further mind you. No sense digging underneath and courting anarchy just because the Indiana housewife is getting her period.
Stalking their stroll, hurrying them along, Day’s entire body language changes–shoulders forward, rear tucked, legs pistoning.
I was once at a baseball stadium with a young mother who had just been informed that her daughter (about the same age as Day’s son in the movie and, like him, an only child) hadn’t shown up where she was supposed to. Happily, the girl had not been kidnapped by international assassins and was found quickly enough, but the memory of that mother’s carriage when she lit out in search of someone who could tell her what the hell was going on has always made Day’s similar immersion in the task–and burden–of restoring the order men are forever undoing by violence and stupidity instantly recognizable even on the occasional TV viewing.
Here, with plush curtains and Jim Crow-era balcony shadows looming all around, it jumped.
It jumped so much I finally remembered to ask myself if Day had been a mother herself at that point.
Well, of course she had.
I had to look up the exact details when I got home the next day, but a fast memory-twitch allowed me to grok the essence right off.
One son, roughly fourteen at the time of filming–not much older than the boy in the story. Fathered by Day’s first husband (who apparently did everything but kick her in the stomach when she refused to have an abortion), he eventually took the last name of her third (who bilked her fortune down to a box full of I.O.U.s before dying young).
So, as Terry Melcher, he became one of the great American record producers of the sixties and, along with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, the unwitting but essential contact point between hip, heady, show-biz L.A. and Charles Manson, the man whose perversion of society’s fundamental building block–“family”–would soon after use Melcher’s last known place of residence as a stage to make America long for the halcyon days when everybody knew the smile on Mom’s face was permanent and sincere, and–precisely because this was so assuredly true–Norman Bates was still the worst you could imagine having to put up with in a boy next door.
I would go on about the cosmic significance of it all–what connections, if any, exist between motherhood, society’s yearning need for rock ‘n’ roll and Tex Watson finding the chance to stab a pregnant actress to death in part because Doris Kappelhoff’s first husband had the decency to settle for punching her in the face.
However, since doing it justice would take a book and a stronger stomach than I presently possess, I’ll just have to leave it in the “food for thought” category for now.
If nothing else, this may help me preserve the happy illusion that it means nothing at all!