ONCE THERE WERE GIANTS (Aretha Franklin, R.I.P.)

They grow fewer by the day…and have no heirs.

Others will say their piece and, where the terms of her importance to the world are addressed, I can’t imagine anything will be left unsaid.

I’ll stick to the personal.

The first album of hers that I owned is still my go-to.

She did other fine things before and after, but that decade (1967–1976) was really everything that mattered. Almost anything she did inside it was greater than almost anything she (or anyone) did outside it. Which is by way of saying I’m glad I got to it first–in  a bargain bin somewhere, I don’t remember where, circa 1978.

The impact of those recordings was profound, as it has been for millions before and since, however and wherever they find them.

I had a habit in those days of sticking my head next to the turntable (the speakers were built in, cheap as they come, and, in these halcyon days of Bose and digital, I still kind of miss them) and singing along with everything. I had only been buying records for a couple of years and was still in the process of discovering that, while I was nothing special singing on my own, I was an inspired mimic.

I took it very seriously, tried to get everything just right in my own head (what you heard in your head, was your business–I knew what I sounded like!), because I saw (or heard) it as a means of linking into other souls–souls I imagined were bigger and bolder than mine, who had faced things I had yet to face, or perhaps never would face, trying to reach the world through me and me through the world, who could carry me to higher ground.

Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, you can get carried away….and carried a long way up the mountain in a very short time.

When I got hold of Ten Years of Gold, I already knew I could do Frankie Valli, Diana Ross, Donny Osmond, all five Beach Boys (no matter how fast they traded off) not to mention the easy stuff like Elton John and the Beatles.

We needn’t speak of Buddy Holly. I was note perfect from the beginning, but since I was his reincarnation (as I’ve stated before, I’m sure I’m not the only one), that hardly counted.

One thing I was queasy about was singing “girl” lyrics. I loved female voices–anyone who has followed along here knows how much I still do. And I sang with them.

But I had trouble making a particular leap.

Not timbre (heck, if you can do Diana Ross, that’s never going to be an issue–and, no, I don’t have a high speaking voice–quite the opposite–life’s full of mysteries).

The trouble was lyrics.

If one just skipped by–say Come on boy see about me, that was maybe okay.

And, of course, plenty of lyrics are gender (or was it sex?…I never can remember which is supposed to be which) neutral.

Aretha Franklin was the first singer I loved and listened to close who forced a choice.

She wasn’t a girl…and nothing (by which I mean nothing) just skipped by.

I fought it for a while. A month probably. Maybe a little longer.

Not forever.

Sooner or later, I was going to have to decide–do I keep changing the gender pronouns while I’m singing?

You know, the way I had been.

I might imitate some girl…But was I going to make the soul-shift take her perspective?

Then one day, I was singing along with Aretha (who I could do like nobody’s business–Sweet Inspirations too–go figure….I once knew all the words to a song I’d never heard before and have never been able to remember them since…life’s full of mysteries) and I realized something,

If I’m worrying about changing the lyrics, I’m not being carried away.

And if I wasn’t being carried away….what was the point?

So I did it.

I pretended, for a few minutes, to be a girl. Better yet, a woman.

And never thought about it again.

It didn’t turn me effeminate or gay or queer or whatever the word was supposed to be then, when I tried to keep up, or is supposed to be now when I hardly bother.

It didn’t threaten my sense of myself.

It didn’t make me stop liking girls.

It did what great music always did.

Made me bigger.

Better.

Helped me see further.

Took me to the Higher Ground.

After Aretha (who came right after Elvis and right before the Shangri-Las, all of whom came after Jesus), I never had to get a whole lot bigger, because there wasn’t that much bigger to get.

She forced me to change to a new self…and to start at the top.

For me, it was part of a Christian journey (which, unless you have taken it, is not remotely what you think it is, peace be upon you), to a place where we not only see ourselves as others see us, but we see others as they see themselves, with all the beauty and terror that implies.

I like to think the preacher’s daughter understood.

And in case you are wondering if the song that opened the world was the one you think it was, you can stop wondering.

It was the song you think it was.

Like I said, she made me start at the top.

it was many a long year before I discovered the lyrics had been written by a man. (And mea culpa and R.I.P. to Gerry Goffin, who somehow passed away in 2014 without my hearing about it. Time does both fly and march.)

What was it the poet said…Memory believes before knowing remembers?*

Yeah, that was it.

I think I might want to crank up the Bose tonight.

Might even have to get the turntable out.

*William Faulkner, for those wondering.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Summer 2018, Countdown)

10) Leslie Kong The “King” Kong Compilation (The Historic Reggae Recordings 1968-1970) (1981)

Kong was among the most famous reggae producers and label owners and it was his records–by Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, The Pioneers, Toots and the Maytals–that broke the music internationally. All his big stars except Cliff are represented here and, while the music hardly lacks a political edge, Kong’s artists seemed to prize spiritual concerns above all.

Dekker’s records (especially “The Israelites”) are likely the ones recognizable to general American audiences (Cliff broke really big after Kong’s untimely death, producing his own biggest hits in a style clearly influenced by Kong’s earlier productions for him, fair enough since he was the one who induced Kong to start a recording label in the first place–both Cliff and Desmond Dekker reported undergoing deep spiritual crises after Kong died, which perhaps speaks to the sort of man it took to produce these visionary sides). In 1970, Kong wanted to release a comp of early tracks he had cut on Bob Marley’s Wailers. Bunny Wailer allegedly threatened to put a curse on him if he did so. Kong released the record anyway and died within the year.

That’s one theory on his unfortunate demise. My own involves the C.I.A.

I only had to hear this record once to know it wasn’t God.

9) The Beatles (1962-1966) (1973)

The “Red” album (and the accompanying Blue album, about which more in a minute) is how a lot of us who just missed the sixties got to know the Beatles. Well that and the air, where, like Elvis (and no one else, then or now), they were ever-present.

And, from this distance, this is still the best way to learn (or relearn) just how astonishing they were. Yes, there are dozens of tracks from the period I wouldn’t want to live without that aren’t here….But if you just want the essence, this can hardly be bettered. I bought this a week or two after I skipped my senior prom and took my mom to see I Wanna Hold Your Hand instead. In a life filled with mistakes, that might be the best series of decisions I ever made.

8) The Beatles 1967-1970 (1973)

I’ve always been an “early Beatles” devotee…and I’ve always known how silly the distinction is. This does just as fine a job of narrating their fall as the Red album does their rise. Hearing it now (after not having listened to it for a few years while watching more than the usual amount of water flow beneath the bridge) I can hear a lot of brilliance I previously cottoned to only as craft. (“Old Brown Shoe” anyone? “Let It Be?” I could go on.)

I’ve always leaned toward them having broken up at the right time, too–a feeling once locked into place by hearing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” segue into “Honky Tonk Women” on an oldies station…Ouch!.

But “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was the only thing I heard this time that didn’t make me wonder if I’d been wrong all along.

And…..

I can say all that and still admit I’ve never believed they meant a word of it, or needed to. I just don’t know if it makes me better or worse than those who need to believe otherwise.

7) Blondie (1976)

A stunning debut that, unsurprisingly, went mostly unnoticed at the time because Debbie Harry had dropped in from another planet. The look was futuristic with a pre-civilizational undertow (and who could resist that combo), but the voice was something new under the sun and the not-quite-flat affect was pure cult. No way would a woman who looked like that and wrote such whip-smart lyrics ever fail to become a star. No way would any woman who sounded like that ever be more than a novelty success.

One thing you can hear that might split the difference even now is how she had assembled–or latched onto–a band that could do most anything (never mind whether the vocal is from a Betty Boop contest in a Dada club, why is the guitar break from a spaghetti western?….Forty years later and it’s still confusing.) Of course, we know which way it went. She changed just enough. I’m glad. But I’m glad this exists, too. The world can always use a smile, especially if there will never be any way to know whether the joke’s on you.

6) Brenton Wood 18 Best (1991)

Southern born, L.A. raised (and based) soul singer who you probably think just about defines “journeyman.”

I’d give this a close listen  before you settle on a conclusion. His two big hits, “Gimme Little Sign” and “The Oogum Boogum Song,” catch him in prime form, but he stretched that form so gently and often that his comp amounts to a mysterious shape all its own.

I wasn’t surprised, reading up on him, to find he was an acolyte of L.A. r&b legend Jesse Belvin–Wood’s style seems an updating of the Belvin ethos. He floats like a butterfly, and, as this goes along, you start wondering just how many places he can land without getting swatted. Pretty soon, you’ve listened to the whole thing with a smile on your face and you know why he was a hero everywhere from East L.A. to the Carolina beaches to Leslie Kong’s island.

5) Neil Young Tonight’s the Night (1975)

Along with 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, my go-to Neil Young.

I seriously hope these are the two bleakest albums the man has recorded. But, being hooked on them, I don’t know if I can relate to him being any happier. (Which, except for “Rockin’ in the Free World”–where he ain’t all that much happier–he isn’t on any of the other stray tracks I love from across his career.)

One thing I admire is that he never made another Death Record. It’s not only cheating if you make more than one, it means you’ve made less than one. Now I hear there’s a live version from 1973, when this was recorded. Some say it’s even bleaker.

I’m thinking hard on whether that makes two…and whether I really want to go there to find out.

4) Elton John Rock of the Westies (1975)

Along with 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, my go-to Elton John album. I don’ t know if this and Tonight’s the Night are my favorite 1975 albums…but if you told me those were the only two I could keep, from a year Fleetwood Mac and Al Green were going strong, I wouldn’t kick.

Pop gems throughout. And if “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” isn’t Elton’s finest vocal I don’t know what is. It’s certainly Bernie Taupin’s greatest lyric. I don’t know much, but I know when the gay English dude can dance with the pretty senorita in a border town without having a knife pulled on him and being told to get back home, we’ll all be living in a better place.

3) David Lindley, El Rayo-X (1981)

This is a nice debut album from a west coast sideman who had played with everybody who was anybody in the California Rock scene. The closest his ethos comes to resembling a big name’s is probably Warren Zevon, though it’s crossed with Jackson Browne and a light, but persistent south of the border flavor.

There are twelve tracks and eleven of them go down easy.

Where the one exception came from nobody knows, because for fury, menace and freedom, it has seldom been matched anywhere, and there is no additional evidence, on this fine album or anywhere else, that David Lindley is the sort of dude who would run straight over you with his ’49 Mercury and never even notice.

2) Moby Grape Live (2018)

I made this my impulse buy of the summer on the recommendation of Robert Christgau. He gave it an A- and scribbled something about the drummer and this being the best live music he’d heard from the famous San Francisco scene of the late sixties.

What is it really? A bunch of jamming musicians’ musicians who opened at Monterrey Pop and had the same chance to wow the world that was seized upon by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Otis Redding. As I was listening to it (a not unpleasant experience mind you–they always played better than they sang, even in the studio–but not making me wish I did drugs so I could relate either), I remembered that Christgau once gave B+ grades to Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits, Chirpin’ and Beauty and the Beat.

I know taste is subjective, but the onset of senility can’t be discounted.

1) Smokey Robinson Smokin’ (1978)

CD version of Smokey’s live album from ’78. Long difficult to find on vinyl so this is the first time I’ve heard it.

It’s a wonderful album, filled with great moments from both the singer and his crack touring band. Needless to say, they don’t lack for material. I especially love the interaction with a black audience neither he nor they had reason to suspect would become permanently mixed again when the following year’s “Cruisin'” put his solo career back in the cultural space he had earned as frontman for the Miracles. And Smokey was as great on stage as he was in the studio–just one more way he was the complete poet Bob Dylan surely meant when either his mind or his mouth called him America’s greatest living example of same.

And nothing–not even “Mickey’s Monkey”–can match the first moment, when he steps to the mike in front of what he must have assumed would always be Black America and only Black America to open the show with “The Tracks of My Tears” and invests it with such shattering intensity it feels like he’s trying to save the American Experiment single-handed–and as if he just might be the only man who can.

If you lived through 1978, it might take you the rest of the day to shake that off.

I’m chalking up the album’s obscurity to the same forces that killed Leslie Kong.

Your mileage may vary.

“You say it, we play it….”

Til next time.

WHAT I FREE ASSOCIATE ABOUT WHEN I’M LISTENING TO MUSIC THAT WAS MEANT FOR DANCING

Since this is, among other things, an homage to the dancers who lit up the Hollywood Rock and Roll shows in the sixties (especially Hollywood A Go-Go), I’ll let this lovely photo of Roberta Tennes stand in for all of them. She passed away in 2015. Time is merciless. R.I.P.

I don’t know how many mix tapes/discs I’ve made in my life. Probably less than a hundred. Definitely more than fifty.

A modest number then. The point of a mix for me is to approximate the surprise juxtapositions you run into on radio or, these days, YouTube.

Of course, if you listen to a disc too often, the surprise element goes away. The sequence can become as ingrained and automatic as your favorite Beatles album…until you let it sit on the shelf long enough to forget.

And when you come back (in this case, after maybe seven or eight years, to a disc I originally put together as a tape in a series I called Cavern Classics, all based around music I could picture the Hollywood A Go-Go dancers dancing to at the Sock Hope at the end of the Universe), sometimes it makes you smile….

Here’s Volume 20 of the Cavern Classics…with stray thoughts attached:

“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” Elton John & Kiki Dee (1976): A sneaky good side-starter. Don’t go breaking my heart the guy says. I couldn’t if I tried, the girl answers. Wait….what? Next thing you know, feet start tapping. Somebody had been listening to a lot of Philly Soul.

“Jingling Baby” LL Cool J (1990): I still haven’t figured out quite what’s jingling. But I’ll always listen for the poetry of Taking out suckers while the ladies pucker/And rolling over punks like a redneck trucker. Oh, wait. He says its earrings that are jingling. Yeah, that’s probably it.

“Hawaii Five-O” The Ventures (1969): Of course it all has to make sonic sense. “Jingling Baby” to this: One of my top five transitions all time. Dance, girls, dance!

“The Boys are Back in Town” Thin Lizzy (1976): And here’s a song about somebody escaping the club and going downtown and driving all the old men crazy. I’m betting the late, great Phil Lynott–the second greatest Irish rock and roller after Van Morrison–had seen Hollywood A Go-Go some time or other.

“Ffun” Con-Funk-Shun (1977): Mystic chords of memory. They played Disney World the night of my senior Class Trip. I was elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom when they took the stage. Elvis wasn’t the only one who knew how to be lonely in the middle of a crowd. I don’t want to talk about it.

“It’s So Easy” Linda Ronstadt (1977): Dave Marsh once said he would prefer having records to masturbate to on his Desert Island to enduring Linda Ronstadt’s company in person. Back when this was on the radio, we used to have a word for guys like Dave: Afflicted. I think we should bring this word back.

“Mickey’s Monkey” The Miracles (1963): Okay, this is literally about spreading a new dance all around. The Cavern is not unaffected. From now on, girls, no matter what plays, everybody will be doing Mickey’s Monkey. (Warning: the video link is to the actual Cavern….this is where I learned that Rock and Roll America’s basic dances could be performed to almost anything with a beat.)

“Pay Bo Diddley” Mike Henderson & the Bluebloods (1996): No, you don’t get permission to stop! Not even for “Pay Bo Diddley.” Keep doing Mickey’s Monkey. Okay….maybe you can do a little hand jive, too. Yeah, and maybe a little of that other thing. Just keep those feet moving. What? No, you absolutely cannot do that! Not until Mike gets Bo paid. Speaking of poetry–is rhyming IRS and Leonard Chess Rock and Roll America’s funniest line? Now, I’m not gonna help you with the answer….

“Radar Love” Golden Earring (1973): The intro always damn near brings a mix to a halt. I’ve stuck it in a few, though. Because soon enough the shuffle starts (dance, girls dance!) And somewhere in there the singer’s gonna insist the radio is playing some forgotten song/Brenda Lee…coming on strong. It’s the absence of “is” that makes it.

“We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” “It’s My Life,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” The Animals (1965): Once in a while on these things, I do suites. Call this The Animals Suite. If “punk” really meant what the crit-illuminati like to pretend it means, it would mean the sound of Eric Burdon shouting “Don’t push me!” right smack dab in the middle of this suite.

Program Break (Note: Because I started with tapes, my mixes always ran about forty-five minutes. Feel free to go to the bathroom!)

“Summer of ’69” Bryan Adams (1985): Bryan Adams has tried to explain this song more than once. Shut up and sing Bryan. Play your guitar maybe. Lead your band. Count your money. Any damn thing. There are a few people who can get away with explaining perfection. You’re not one of them.

“Be-Bop-A-Lula” Gene Vincent (1956): Take Gene for instance. Gene’s not trying to explain. And he’s talking about a girl in her red blue jeans who’s the Queen of the Teens! Get it?

“Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” “Cool it Down” The Velvet Underground (1970): This is the Velvet Underground Suite or, if you like The Loaded Suite. Now I’m not saying these things are meant to define any band as great as the Animals or the Velvets. But by the time they hit the chorus of “Cool it Down” here, and all the girls are dancing like spinning tops in the Cavern, you might  be forgiven for thinking so. Singing along is permitted by the way. Did I forget to mention that?

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” The Rolling Stones (1968): When it was recently revealed that the FBI called its operation to “help” Donald Trump “Crossfire Hurricane,” there were many hilarious attempts to explain that “this is a reference to the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ which was also the name of a Whoopi Goldberg movie.” And you wonder why Trump is rolling over these punks like a redneck trucker?

“Tear Stained Letter” Patty Loveless (1996): Sprightly. (This is supposed to let the people dance, remember? Look, they’re back to doing Mickey’s Monkey!) Putting this together in the late nineties might have been the first time I realized Loveless and the Stones had some sort of weird connection. It wasn’t the last. Now let me list all the other country singers I ever thought of sticking between the Rolling Stones and War on a mix disc….

Still thinking.

“Cinco De Mayo” War (1981): Did I mention War was coming up. Dance, girls, dance!

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (12″ version) Santa Esmeralda (1977);  The twelve-inch version of Santa Esmeralda’s cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” runs ten-and-a-half minutes. I don’t know how many minutes of that Quentin Tarantino (coming along years after I got all those girls dancing in the Cavern, mind you) used in Kill Bill. It felt like seventy-five or eighty. All I know is, until I saw Kill Bill, I believed Leroy Gomez and company could make a sprayed roach lying flat on its back get up and dance. I still believe that. I just know even they couldn’t make me think I was watching anything but a sprayed roach lying flat on it’s back while Kill Bill was playing.

“Gloria” Santa Esmeralda (1977): “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” can never be part of a suite. It is its own thing (heck it’s even called that officially–“The Esmeralda Suite”). But nothing else can follow it to close out a mix. I like when the Latin guy makes the Irish guy’s “i-yi-yi-yi” sound like “ay-ay-ay-ay.” There might be a revolution starting in there somewhere. Have to think it over.

Okay girls, you can stop doing Mickey’s Monkey now.

Girls….I say there….Girls?

Wait, what do you call that now?

Don’t you make me….

GIT YER CLOTHES BACK ON!

The mind is a funny thing. I’m sure glad I didn’t waste mine.

I think I’m gonna dedicate a song to Roberta’s memory…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zC_o7XZHbLs

I GIVE MYSELF UP TO THE ROAD…THE ROAD GIVES BACK

Last week I made the four-hour drive to Monroeville, Alabama (home town of Harper Lee and Truman Capote) to meet my sister and her boyfriend for a holiday reading of Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory,” (which I didn’t mind telling the folks, including the actress who One-Woman-Showed the story so beautifully, was the subject of the essay that won me the Freshman English Award for 1979 at Chipola Junior College, which sits a little less than half-way between me and Monroeville). It was a lovely experience in itself–the reading takes place every year in the courthouse where Lee’s father practiced law, which was meticulously copied for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. A good time was had by all.

But, for me, the arrival is mostly an excuse for the journey. For whatever reason, I never feel any music has proved itself fully until it proves itself on the road.

Here’s what proved itself last week:

Aftermath (UK Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I’ve always loved the American version of Aftermath, always thought it was the peak of the Brian Jones years and the first time Mick had his act together for an entire album. Imagine my disappointment a decade or so back, when I managed to score all the Stones’ original UK albums at Best Buy for bargain prices (if you want to know how fast the world moves, try and imagine anything like that happening at Best Buy, or any other box store now–such experiences have gone the way of searching the 45 and cutout bins at Woolworth’s and in less than half the time) and discovered that the UK version of my favorite from the Stone’s early period was missing “Paint It Black” not to mention the perfect running order of the US version, climaxing with the eleven minutes of “Going Home” one of the all time LP closers. Plus, the great, disorienting American cover–so in tune with the album’s sound–had been re-replaced by the much more generic cover it had replaced in the first place.

Aftermath (US Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I listened through dutifully, of course. Then I dismissed it to the shelves, where it had remained ever since. If I wanted to hear Aftermath, I got out my old US version on vinyl.

But a funny thing happened a few years ago. My replacement CD player–in every respect but one superior to the really old one that died–was supposed to be a stop-gap until I could afford a good one. Still waiting for that day (the cheap ones that are still readily available. in places like Best Buy, don’t have a cable hookup compatible with my head-phones…which are not cheap). In the meantime, I discovered the one respect in which my newer (still not very new) player was at a disadvantage compared to my old one.

Won’t play my Rolling Stones’ CDs before Sticky Fingers. (NOTE: From Sticky Fingers on, I have everything through Emotional Rescue, but issued on the Stones’ own label, rather than ABKCO and hence playable–what this means, in practice, is that I’ve been listening to a lot of 70s Stones, about which, perhaps more later. I also have one of their later albums. Talk about things that don’t get played.)

It also won’t play my Kinks’ albums and a few others (like ABKCO’s fine Animals’ comp). Annoying. I really need to find a solution.

Meanwhile, the one place I can hear those albums (other than my computer, which I’m not fond of using as a listening station–I have enough trouble concentrating as it is!) is in my car.

And I usually listen on long trips. Which I don’t take much anymore. You know, due to being broke.

But when I do take trips, I choose the music pretty carefully. Quite often, I take things I think might deserve some sort of second chance or closer attention than I’ve been willing or able to give them previously.

This time…Aftermath.

And Between the Buttons, which I’ve never really been able to get into–and which ABKCO re-released in its American version anyway.

But first…Aftermath.

In its UK version.

Which, I learned on the back roads of southwest Georgia and southeast Alabama, is great!

I’m still not sure I can ever make the leap and completely give myself over to an Aftermath which sticks “Goin’ Home” in the middle and denies the listener “Paint it Black,” but what’s there definitely makes its own statement…and makes me want to get that good CD player real soon!

After that, I was excited for Between the Buttons. And, just like always, I stayed excited through what used to be the first side.

Between the Buttons The Rolling Stones (1967)

After that, my attention gradually wandered. Just like always. I’m still not sure why. Is it because that’s about the time Brian Jones transitioned from inspiration to “problem?” Is it merely coincidence that I’ve still never heard the followup, Their Satanic Majesties Request (their last with Jones fully on board) in its entirety? I’ll want to correct that oversight some day, but you can see where it’s not a priority when it’s unlikely I can listen to it anywhere but the car.

Meanwhile…man was Aftermath a revelation!

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player Elton John (1973)

And I will admit that Between the Buttons was still more engaging than Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, which seemed too cute by half, starting with the almost great title. Has any piano player working a joint where he was likely to be shot at ever said “only” instead of “just?” Just asking.

Otherwise, Elton’s usual mixed bag. It did yield “Elderberry Wine” and “Midnight Creeper” which were new to me and hardly nothing. But south Alabama does not offer a lot of distractions. It’s not hard to concentrate on the music when it’s giving something back and, except for those two, and the inevitable radio classics (“Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock,” which I confess, though still fine, are not the most inevitable) I found it hard not to let my mind wander off through the pines.

Which brought me a little past the half-way point of the outward journey and this…

The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs (1988)

There was no problem with attention spans here. It’s quiet as death, first story to last. I’ve had the vinyl version for years but just recently acquired the CD. Been waiting for a chance to be alone with it. South Alabama seemed as good a place as any. The last hour of a drive to the birthplace of the author of In Cold Blood seemed as good a time.

It was almost too much. Taking in twenty of Tom T. Hall’s stories at once on a lonely stretch of southern highway with ghosts all around is like submitting yourself to three straight productions of Chekov–interspersed with a unique style of absurdist comedy, most of it of the quiet chuckle and shake the head variety, until all the moods merge in his scariest song, a tale of mass murder and the death penalty that creates a black hole even the Rolling Stones could never approach. To think he ever sang it on television is more surreal than L’Age d’Or.

it was probably just as well the outward journey came to an end just about the time “Before Jessie Died” closed things down.

As often happens, I was able to separate the journey from the arrival and thoroughly enjoy myself. But when I headed home a day-and-a-half later, I was glad I had brought something to continue the mood. Hated to leave all those ghosts just hanging about out there.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Anthology Warren Zevon (1996)

I think I probably just grabbed this one out of instinct. I’ve had it a while. I play it a lot. It goes a little slack in the middle of the second disc.

But something must have been nudging me, saying “you’ll need this.”

After Tom T. Hall and (speaking of Chekovian moods) “A Christmas Memory,” I needed it. It delivered, too, eased me right back into my Dr. Sardonicus mode, very handy for living and driving.

And then, right in the middle of that second disc that goes slack here and there (not so bad on the road, really–sometimes you can use a break from anything), Zevon started merging with Barry Seal. I started asking myself things like: Did Warren Zevon just decide at some point he was only going to write songs about Barry Seal…or did Barry Seal decide he wanted to live his life like a Warren Zevon song? it’s a legit question because, really, it could have happened either way. And once the connection was made, I couldn’t break it. The question rose, track after track: Could this be Barry? And the answer came back every time: You bet. And not always in obvious ways.

It was spooky. I’m not sure I can convey how spooky, even as it made me laugh like a loong. It’s possible I can never listen to this again. At least not without watching the movie too (whether before or after is something I’ll have to work on).

Well, you can imagine what kind of mood that left me in. The choice for the home leg was John Mellencamp or bootleg Dylan.

Bob Dylan Live 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Officially Released 1998)

Choice?

Come on. Barry Seal and Warren Zevon had just merged in my head. What choice?

And this is something I’ve been wanting to give a real chance, since it’s never really reached me. I never heard the famous bootleg that circulated for years, but I heard plenty about it, so being a big Dylan fan, and having been assured-to-the-point-of-annoyance by all in the know that I hadn’t really heard Dylan until I heard this, I snapped it up the minute it became available in 1998. After it did not survive the Great CD Selloff of 2002, I didn’t make a high priority of reacquiring it, but it wasn’t something I could safely leave alone, so I picked it up again a few years ago.

And had the same reaction I had the first time around, which was: Meh.

It happens sometimes. An album acquires so much mythic weight that, by the time you finally get to hear it, probably nothing could live up to the expectations generated by the intervening years.

Certainly not this….One CD of Dylan alone, breathing (as Greil Marcus would have it) ver-y-y-y-y softly. One CD of him and the band (the Hawks, soon to be the Band) assaulting their amps–and the crowd–with white noise. Plus English people shouting stuff you can’t make out without an interpreter.

But, being fair, I had never road-tested it.

And?

Sure enough, it kinda’ sorta’ revealed itself. Mostly by reversing itself.

Dylan’s real assault on his audience–the one in the hall (which, yes, we know, wasn’t the Royal Albert Hall that had been advertised all those bootleg years), and, by extension, the one beyond the hall, the one that had cheered his every move before dividing over his move to Rock and Roll–came in the “quiet” early part of the show.

That’s the part where he refuses to give anything at all. The singing is flat, even for his oh-so-sincere, folkie voice. There are no jokes, no repartee, no pronouncements, no attempt to be liked or disliked. Nothing. One song, breathed softly. Then another, breathed even more softly.

Let me tell you, divested of Dylan-being-Dylan, they mean less than you think, at least on the back roads of Alabama.

But the one thing about having the CDs queued up in the car is there’s no pause to switch the discs.

And it was only in that context that the white noise finally made sense.

Turns out, sucking all the life out of “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” was prelude, a perfect setup. One can hear why people were shocked-to-the-bone by the juxtaposition (there must have been some sense in the hall, even if only subconscious, that Dylan’s sermon-straight reading of his most sacred texts had been a form of mockery….although I grant you a really determined folkie can miss a lot).

Quiet as a mouse, moment after moment for an hour. Then this…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PsNFgRYWEw

And then on like that for most of another hour.

At least on the back roads of Alabama, nothing could live up to that first shock wave, not even the cataclysmic version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that closes the show.

But I finally got what all the excitement was/is about.

Whether I’ll ever want to listen to that first disc again, just so I can find out if the jolt at the top of the second transcends first experience, is a question I’ll have to leave for another day.

That’s what the road is for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Elton John Up)

“Lady Samantha”
Elton John (1969)
Did Not Make the Charts
Recommended source: To Be Continued (Box Set)

and

“Part Time Love”
Elton John (1978)
US #21
UK #15
Recommended source: A Single Man

I started listening to the radio seriously in late 1975. I was aware of Elton John before that. It was hard not to be at least aware (though if anyone could have managed it, it would have been me).

I didn’t have much of an opinion about him, even after I started listening to the radio. 1976 was sort of the break point. I loved “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (still do), liked the others he had out at the time (still do, especially “I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”). But, as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was a duet, the first record of his alone that I took entirely to heart was an obscure side I discovered when I plucked The History of British Rock Vol. 2 from some bargain bin or other, along about 1977. I was still in my discovery days. There were a dozen or more classics I encountered for the first time on this particular set (and, yes, I still have it), everything from “Brown Eyed Girl” to “The Mighty Quinn” to “Something in the Air.”

“Lady Samantha” didn’t take a back seat to any of them.

Knowing, by the chart book I was then busy memorizing (it came natural as I’d been a baseball stat freak), that, unlike those other records, it had never been a hit in either the U.S. or the U.K., I had one of my first inklings that my own taste might not line up with everyone’s, even when it came to the 60s, so it was a more than usually valuable marker.

As the seventies progressed, my stubborn streak would become more and more necessary.

“Part Time Love” was the next Elton record that I really loved and it came and went like a cool breeze. It followed a string of flops (by his standards) and didn’t do much to get him started again. By the time he did get started again (some time after the Thom Bell collaboration “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” had provided a nice respite for audience and artist alike in 1979) he was a changed man and a changed artist. He would remain a consistent hit-maker for another two decades. He would never matter again.

“Part Time Love” came and went so fast I didn’t have chance to score it on a 45 and years of hunting the used oldies bins proved fruitless. Once it left the radio, I never heard it any place except my head until a full decade later, when I picked up the album A Simple Man for .99 cents (less than I would have paid for the single in ’78) at my then favorite, now deceased, local record store.

All those years, my head was enough. A decade further on, when I was putting my first mix-tape of beat records together (there were dozens eventually and, still another decade on, I transferred most of them to CD), and I was looking for something to segue out of “London’s Burning,” I knew there was only one record that would do the trick. I still listen to the mix-disc regularly and every time I hear Paul Buckmaster’s soaring arrangement bleed out of London punk–and subsume and subvert it, all of it–I can’t keep from smiling.

I’ve learned to love a lot of Elton John’s music in the years since 1978, even some that he made after he stopped mattering as anything more than a celebrity hit-maker. But I never forget that I came to the biggest solo artist of my youth through the great records he made just before and just after he was King of the World.

That, too, makes me smile.

 

HEAVEN SENT A STRING MAN (Paul Buckmaster, R.I.P.)

The personnel for Elton John’s breakthrough album. Paul Buckmaster second from the left.

Strange and disorienting serendipity because this Child of the Seventies is just now–literally this week–catching up to Elton John’s first five albums, where Paul Buckmaster was an insistent and insidious presence.

Buckmaster–classically trained instrumentalist, composer, conductor and ace arranger–was the definer of Orchestral Rock for Modern Ears. In other hands, that would almost certainly would have been a dubious distinction. On some of those Elton John records it was a dubious distinction.

But his fingers were on (usually all over) a number of wonderful era-defining records in the early seventies: “Space Oddity,” “You’re So Vain,” “Without You,” Terrapin Station, numerous projects that involved him working with everyone from John (for whom he arranged the breakthrough hit “Your Song,” and “Tiny Dancer,” the closest Sir Elton ever came to a statement of balladeering purpose and one that has grown with the years) to Leonard Cohen to Blood, Sweat and Tears to Miles Davis.

It may not be a coincidence that Carly Simon, Harry Nillson, Elton John and Mick Jagger all waxed tracks that were contenders for their finest vocals when Buckmaster was handing them arrangements that begged for something more than they themselves may have thought they could deliver.

Which brings us to this, the greatest album closer in the history of Rock and Roll if only because it closed so much more than an album…and ushered in a New Age where all concerned would be subsumed….Including, just today, Paul Buckmaster.

Him and God should be having a very interesting talk about now. I’m rooting for a better understanding.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJXKvOvgias

R.I.P.

THE RISING….1975, WHAT A CONCEPT (Sixth Memo: Mixed Race Edition)

timelife1975

As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.

Then again, there’s the music.

That’s trickier.

The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.

What a happy journey that’s been!

I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.

Or maybe politics.

I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?

I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.

I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?

Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?

I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.

And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.

Yeah. That’s always fun.

19752

(Linda Ronstadt and band, on the road in ’75)

Track 1: “You’re No Good” Linda Ronstadt

The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.

All very typical.

Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of  the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.

All still pretty typical.

Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.

It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.

Good start.

Leg up to ’75.

Track 2: “Jackie Blue” Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

By 1975, “Southern Rock” was a sufficiently big deal for some marketing genius to decide the form needed its own version of the Eagles.

Perverse genius? Or merely perverse?

Like so much else back then, and so little now, that’s for each person to decide.

Track 3: “That’s the Way (I Like It)” KC and the Sunshine Band

kc1

Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.

[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]

Track 4: “Must of Got Lost” J. Geils Band

From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”

And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.

Track 5: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” War

Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.

Track 6: “Sister Golden Hair” America

What’s that you say? 1975 deserves every kick you can give it?

“Too, too hard to find?” you say?

Okay. Maybe.

But you know, I just say, “You’re no good, Jackie Blue, and that’s the way I like it, so I must of got lost and just why can’t we be friends sister golden hair?”

I also sing along every single damn time it comes on the radio.

Track 7: “Philadelphia Freedom” Elton John

Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?

Of course it was.

But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.

Track 8: “Black Water”The Doobie Brothers

Slick West Coasters channeling Mark Twain. Literally. We’re riding along easily now. The spirit of AM Gold is achieving a touch of somnolence. Maybe the world really did need a wake up call?

Track 9: “Love is a Rose” Linda Ronstadt

Maybe. And perfectly fine. But it’s no “You’re No Good.”

Track 10: “How Long” Ace

Yes, I feel myself fading. Bobby Womack and Rod Stewart were among the many who later tried to kick this to life. They, too, were defeated.

Track 11: “Dance With Me” Orleans

And if I’m asleep, this isn’t likely to wake me.

Not that sleep is a bad thing. Necessarily.

Track 12: “Freebird” Lynyrd Skynyrd

A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.

Track 13: “You Are So Beautiful” Joe Cocker

Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.

Wish they had gone with Tanya Tucker’s version.

Track 14: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” Bad Company

A true taste divider. To some, meh. To others, the incarnation of every-wrong-mid-seventies-thing.

What I hear is a great white blues and a natural answer record to Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” which had gone top ten R&B in the fall of ’73.

Track 15: “Lady Marmalade” LaBelle

labelle1

And while we’re at it, why not a natural #1 (Pop and R&B) about a hooker suckering a chump down in old New Orleans? (And if you only link one video here…)

Track 16: “Pick Up the Pieces” Average White Band

Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?

The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing  was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.

Track 17: “Island Girl” Elton John

A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.

Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.

Of course it was.

kikidee1

Track 18: “Some Kind of Wonderful” Grand Funk

Yes, they had dropped the “Railroad.”

A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.

Get away from me ’75!

Track 19: “The Hustle” Van McCoy

Okay. Come back ’75. Let Van McCoy celebrate his career by naming an era-defining dance after it and tripping the light fantastic.

Track 20: “Let’s Do It Again” The Staple Singers

Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.

By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.

Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.

Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.

Speak to me ’75!

And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.

staplesingers

(The Staple Singers…reaching for higher ground)

SISTERHOOD (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #80)

“Heartache Tonight” as rendered by Olivia Newton-John (it was her TV special and kudos to her for giving the competition that much freedom to shine), Toni Tennille, Tina Turner, Linda “Peaches” Greene, Karen Carpenter and a cast of thousands.

….Or “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” nearly half a decade early. And on a song that never sounded like any fun at all when it was done by anyone not saddled with early-eighties TV production norms, regrettable hair-styles, Elton John imitating Dan Aykroyd, and semi-awkward line-dancing.

Forget what it looks like. It’s a great sound and any meaning male vocalist(s) could have ever given it is completely subverted. If somebody put it on CD, I’d listen all day long. Give me your celebrity female vocalists, yearning to breathe free:

MORE NOTES FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS–April, 25, 2106 Update (Mary Weiss and Donald Trump)

Mary Weiss, from about a month ago, on Donald Trump using “Leader of the Pack,” at his rallies. (Note: I’ve seen it mentioned on playlists reported by the media but have never actually heard it at post-Trump rallies, which I often make a point of catching as they tend to be the most hypnotically intriguing bit for those of us who fear we’re all just circling the drain and can’t get too worked up about getting flushed one way or the other.)

“I do not want anyone to think that I would in any way shape or form endorse this man. A letter will be sent, but if you hear one of our songs at any of his engagements, please note I did not and never would authorize it. Thank you for your understanding. Actually I throw up in my mouth a little knowing that this is being done! Of all the people…I will never endorse hatred of any groups of people and would never give my permission to use this song. Thank you, Mary.”

(Source: “Donald Trump Is Not The Leader of Mary Weiss’s Pack” Bust.com, 3/21/16)

For the record, I would be very happily surprised to learn Weiss or the Shangri-Las own any of their copyrights. So, for the record, this is almost certainly purely rhetorical.

Also for the record, this is by far the strongest, most direct statement made by any of the musicians who have had their lawyers issue some sort of  “we weren’t asked for permission to use this song” statement (Steven Tyler, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Adele, et al) and have made it clear they so-o-o-o-o do not endorse Donald Trump!

Which means that she, the only one who is not extremely rich and famous, is also the only one I’d ever bet my life wouldn’t play his inaugural for any amount of money.

Of course she is.

MY FAVORITE DOUBLE LP (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

fleetwoodmac3

I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”

It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.

Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:

Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)

Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)

The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)

Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)

Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)

Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)

Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)

The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)

London Calling The Clash (1979)

The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)

1999 Prince (1982)

Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)

Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)

I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.

That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.

So it goes.

My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dime for reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life,  The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.

Besides Tusk, that leaves:

doubalbums1 doubalbums2 doubalbums3

goodbyeyellow2

doubalbums5

These, I’ve obsessed over.

Some time or other.

Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.

Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.

Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.

That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.

Boy, do I feel foolish.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?

Well, maybe.

One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.

And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.

You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.

But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?

Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.

And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).

For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.

Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.

There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,”  in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Before I have to put this knife in your throat.

All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.

That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.

Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.

Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.

It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.

But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.

Too bad for us and too bad for them.

And I really wish I could stop listening.

But I can’t.

(NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC)