In the Broadway version of Jersey Boys, the Four Seasons’ most anonymous member, Nick Massi, described himself as “the Ringo of the group.” It got a big laugh in the theater, but, of course, Nick Massi was selling himself short. (Frankie Valli has said that Massi’s arranging skills were on a par with Don Costa or Burt Bacharach.** He would know.)
If there had been a Broadway show about the Monkees (and why hasn’t there been?) the line could have been handed to Peter Tork and gotten just as big a laugh….and been just as not-quite-true.
Tork answered the audition for a new TV show in 1965 at the urging of his friend, Stephen Stills, who had just flunked an audition himself. When Tork got the part–playing a guy in a fictional rock and roll band–he was surprised (well, shocked actually) to learn his considerable musical skills would not be required. In the end, he and the other Monkees did play their own instruments, with Tork the one who played the most–and the most variety (half a dozen instruments by the time they made Headquarters).
He nonetheless remained the quiet man of the group. It’s easy to think they could have got along without him, just as it has been easy for some to think the Four Seasons could have got along without Nick Massi or the Beatles could have got along without Ringo.
But chemistry is a tricky thing. Take even the most gifted performer out of the context where they rose to Rock and Roll fame and, almost always, something is missing. Take even the most “token” member from a great Rock and Roll group (and the Monkees were a fantastic Rock and Roll group even if many were and are too hidebound by their preconceived notions of what all that was supposed to be to admit it), and, again, something is invariably lost.
And no group, not even the Beatles, needed “all four” more than the Monkees.
Tork’s best musical moment came on Mann and Weil’s “Shades of Gray,” where he shared the lead vocal with Davy Jones.
Given where the world has gone in the years since, it is fitting, perhaps, that they should be the first to go…
**(For evidence, listen to the records the Seasons made between 1962 and September 1965, when Massi departed. Or just listen to the two-sided single “Rag Doll”.”Silence is Golden,” both of which are among the greatest arrangements of the rock & roll era–or, as I like to call it, The History of Arranging.)
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.
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.
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.
Leaving New York City through the Lincoln Tunnel, you drive through the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. On Tenth Avenue, the kids have for many years approached stopped cars at traffic lights and wiped their windows, hoping for quarters. One afternoon in 1964, the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio was leaving the city on his way home to New Jersey when he noticed that the kid smearing the glass was a girl.
“I saw her face–just the picture of her face and the clothes tattered…with holes in her stockings, and a little cap on her head,” Gaudio told Fred Bronson, author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. She finished the job and stood back as Gaudio searched his pockets for change. To his mortification, he had none. The smallest thing he had was a five.
“There was a split second where I said, ‘I can’t give her a five dollar bill.’ But I couldn’t give her nothing. So I gave her the five dollar bill. The look on her face when I was pulling away–she didn’t say ‘Thank you,’ she just stood there with the bill in her hand and I could see her in the rearview mirror, just standing in disbelief in the middle of the street with the five dollars. And that whole image stayed with me; a rag doll is what she looked like.”
(The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh, 1989)
Jersey Boys, the musical based on the lives of the original Four Seasons, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, closed its decade-plus run on Broadway this past Sunday, after playing 4,642 shows.
The one I saw in December, 2005, was in the first hundred…and thereby hangs a tale I’ll never have a better reason to share:
Back around 1969, when the Merritt Square Mall in Merritt Island, Florida opened, they had a record store.
I never went near it.
Throughout the early seventies, whenever my ten, eleven, twelve-year-old self ran loose in the mall and I happened to be walking anywhere near the record store, I always made a point of crossing over to the other side. I wasn’t under any instructions or warnings. I just thought the place looked fishy. The people who always–and I mean always–hung around the entrance looked a little too much like the pictures you saw of the Manson Family.
Oh, sure, I knew they were probably harmless. We had hippies at church now and again.
But why take chances?
Bottom line is, I never saw the inside of a record store. Not until later.
Later, I saw the inside of many record stores, more than I can possibly remember. But in those days, I heard very little of what was on the radio anyway. Even if I had cared to brave the Mansonoids at the record shop, there was no need. Let them live in their world. Let me live in mine. If Jesus ever compelled me to witness to them, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
Until then, I deemed it best to leave well enough alone.
That all changed after we moved to North Florida in 1974. Not right away. I listened to the radio a little more because my parents seemed to play music stations a little more. I have no idea why. Maybe there just weren’t any interesting talk and/or public radio stations where we lived now, just like there weren’t any hippies.
The real change came in the fall of 1975, when my Memphis nephew, who is five years older than me (19 to my 14 then), moved in with us.
My Memphis nephew didn’t go anywhere without the radio playing music. If we went somewhere in the car, he played the radio. If we went to work on one of my father’s paint contracting sites, he played the radio. If we were just sitting in my room, shooting the breeze, he played the radio.
It was kind of interesting, kind of fun, not much more. Then, come the last few weeks of 1975, the radio started playing this:
For the next few months, wherever I was, if my nephew wasn’t there to turn the radio on, I turned it on myself. And, for the next few months, I never had to wait more than half an hour to hear “December, 1963.”
Then, as such things happen–as I did not quite yet know such things happened, never having stopped to think about it–it no longer came on every half hour, or even every hour.
Not long after that, it didn’t come on every day.
And not too long after that, it didn’t come on at all.
I thought it might be okay, though, because, in the interval, I had made a discovery.
One day, while strolling through the local Sears store in Dothan, Alabama, I had happened across a bin full of 45’s.
I only knew what a 45 was because my sister left a few behind when she got married and moved out. By a few, I mean three: “Ode to Billie Joe,” “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” and a Little Richard record which was too beat up to play (and hence too beat up to hang on to, which is why the title has slipped my memory…”Tutti Frutti”? “Long Tall Sally”? “Rip It Up”?…the memory hazes…anyway, my sister had good taste).
Now, when I say I knew what a 45 was, I don’t mean I fully grasped the concept.
Oh, no, far from it.
For one thing, I thought they made 45’s to sell to people after a song was played on the radio enough to be considered a hit. That the 45 might be the actual method of distribution to the radio stations that played the music had never occurred to me.
So, in the spring of 1976, I was excited to discover that a 45 which contained “December, 1963,” by the Four Seasons, was actually laying in a record bin in a Sears store not twenty miles from my house, where I did at least have a record player.
I would have been a lot more excited if I had possessed the $1.19-plus-tax required to purchase the 45 or any means of acquiring that sort of cash in the foreseeable future.
Such was not the case.
The first impulse I ever had to buy a 45, then, was accompanied by the first of many similar experiences where the record I held in my hand was beyond the power of my eternally limited purse.
I mean, it wasn’t the sort of thing I had any chance of cajoling my father into buying for me.
And all the money I made working for him went to my college fund.
By “all the money” I mean every last red cent.
What to do?
Start working on the idea that maybe the world wouldn’t end if the college fund was spared a few bucks every now and then? Yeah, that sounded like a plan.
My dad was Scottish. He was also attending bible college full time and we were subsisting on the poverty wages raised by those weekend paint contracting jobs. Negotiations were bound to be difficult and ongoing.
It took me until the summer to wear him down.
We were back in Central Florida by then. Painting the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton every summer was the big yearly contract that made going to bible college in the fall and winter possible. If you think painting a jai alai fronton during the summer breaks from attending bible college was a contradiction you obviously didn’t know my dad.
And, if you don’t know what jai alai is, let’s just say it’s a sport closely connected to the term “parimutuel betting.”
Anyway, come summer of ’76, my dad and I were in Orlando, staying at the fronton during the week, commuting to my sister’s house in Titusville (that’s on the east coast of Florida and, yes, the same sister with the good, if limited, taste in 45’s).
Negotiations safely concluded, I one day found myself with five dollars of my own money in my pocket.
Nearby there was a mall. (Searstown? Miracle City? The memory hazes….)
Inside the mall, there was a chain record store. (Camelot? Record Bar? The memory….well, you know what memory does.)
Inside the record store, there was a big bin of 45’s that seemed to have every record in the world, or at least every record on the charts.
On a certain beautiful day in June of 1976–first time I had the chance–I begged a trip to the mall (I was still too young to drive) and found my way to the record bin in the record store.
I had one clear intention.
That was to buy “December, 1963.”
I had the $1.19-plus-tax. I had more than that, enough to buy at least three records that cost that much.
And by then, having cracked the code, there were actually quite a few records I knew I wanted to buy.
But I was determined to make “December, 1963” the first 45 I bought with my own money.
It didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen because there was a little card in the empty slot where “December, 1963” 45’s were being stored and the little card had the number 15 crossed out next to an order date two weeks before.
Seems they crossed out the number next to the order date when they sold out. There were a lot of dates on the card, with a lot of numbers crossed out going all the way back to December of the previous year. All the numbers were crossed out. They had been selling fifteen or more copies of “December, 1963” every couple of weeks for six months straight.
It was clearly going to be at least two more weeks before I got back to the record store and while I was pretty certain they would be reordering (fifteen copies? in two weeks? six months after the record came out?…yes, they would be reordering), I had no confidence they wouldn’t all be sold out again by the time I got back.
And while there were other record stores around, since I couldn’t drive myself, there was no telling when I would see the inside of one of those.
What to do?
Swallow my disappointment and look for other records. Obviously.
Which was how, a month or so before I found a copy of “December 1963” in a Woolworth’s (right next to the jai alai fronton as it happened), this became the first 45 I ever bought:
“Fallen Angel,” was not selling like hotcakes. It had scraped the Top 40 (another concept I was just beginning to grasp). Far from playing every half hour, I had only caught it a few times. I knew I liked it, and it turned out I liked it a lot. But that wasn’t the reason I picked it from the bunch–ahead of “Shannon,” by Henry Gross and “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers–that particular day.
I picked it from the bunch–and first–because it was a Frankie Valli record and I knew he was the lead singer of the Four Seasons. I did not know, at that point, that “December, 1963” was the first of the Seasons’ many hits he had not sung lead on (he sang second lead, behind Gerry Polci).
Had I known, it probably would not have made any difference. The point for me was to honor the Four Seasons and still walk out of the record store with a record in my hand. The closest I could come, on that day, was “Fallen Angel.”
And, for the next thirty years, that was basically a footnote in my record collecting history: “Fallen Angel” was the first 45 I bought because Frankie Valli was the lead singer of the group whose record I really wanted to buy. And I really wanted to buy that other record in part because it had an impossibly cool vocal sung by someone other than Frankie Valli.
The memory of settling always did bring a smile…and a shake of the head.
This crazy world. What can a poor boy do?
You only get the buy your first record once. Then you gotta live with it. Who knew.
For thirty years, all that was just another stone laid in the pathway of life.
Then came 2005. Thirty years gone by.
In 2005–very late in 2005–I decided to give myself a vacation.
Through a weird series of events, I found myself with a windfall that meant I could go anywhere in the U.S. that a thousand bucks could take me. In my world that is a whole lotta money, but, wherever I was going, I wanted it to be worth it, because I also hadn’t had a real vacation in almost six years.
I was leaning toward Cleveland (hadn’t been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since my last vacation) or San Francisco (hadn’t been there since 1991, when I didn’t get to stay long) or Chicago (1993 and ditto), when, by some freakish chain of coincidences, I was following an internet thread one night and it took me to a rave review of what appeared to be a new Broadway show based on….The Four Seasons?
It’s hard now–after a decade long run, a movie version, a new box set, a hatful of Tony awards and the like–to convey just how shocking this news was at the time.
The Four Seasons on Broadway?
Before that moment, New York wasn’t even on my radar. After that moment, the idea started lighting up my brain.
I hunted around and read more reviews. I investigated hotel and airfare prices. I did mental calculus and then actual addition and subtraction on a scratch pad.
I figured I could just barely manage it.
And I figured I had to, because, well you only live once…and it was the Four Seasons.
I had to come up with a few hundred bucks extra. I had to pre-plan way more of the trip than I had ever planned for any trip before (my understanding was that they didn’t let just anybody in to a hit Broadway show…and that booking a Manhattan hotel was not exactly like stopping off at the Best Western by the interstate). I had to fly in winter (one previous experience, not a good one as I have a habit of developing stopped heads in winter…a stopped head at 30,000 feet is not a pleasant experience…when I did this a third time, in December, 2015, I temporarily lost my hearing).
I began to have second thoughts.
I decided to do a little more research.
I mean, Four Seasons or no Four Seasons, I had never heard anything good about a so-called jukebox musical. How good could it really be?
Before I made this kind of commitment, even for the Four Seasons, I needed to look beyond the hype.
So I asked myself: “I wonder what songs are in this show?”
It seemed an important question because who were the Four Seasons if not their songs? I hadn’t exactly stopped at “December, 1963” after all. Within a year or two of buying my first 45, the Four Seasons had become one of my two or three favorite groups and they had remained that through thick and thin. I had grown used to defending them against all comers–and in those days, there were a lot of comers. To put it bluntly, the Seasons never had the cred that the Beatles or Stones or Beach Boys or Byrds (or any of a dozen other groups) had. For a lot of people (then more than now, though it’s still a problem), they were some kind of early version of Bon Jovi: Sold a lot of records, impressed a lot of girls (and God knows they never count), never got themselves much written about in the proper journals.
Jersey boys indeed.
I knew they deserved better–that they had gotten shafted a bit for lacking a sensitive Brian Wilson-type genius, when dozens of lesser bands had better crit-reps that existed on that and nothing more. And even those who did have something more, even a lot more (think Arthur Lee and Love, think Skip Spence and Moby Grape), still weren’t the Four Seasons.
I knew the Four Seasons and I knew they deserved a hit show on Broadway.
But that still didn’t mean it was a must see.
To make that judgment, I needed to know about the songs. Absent a sensitive genius, the songs would be what such a show rose or fell on.
So I made a point of looking for a song list and was pleasantly surprised to find one. A long one. From an official source (i.e., the show’s website).
Long and reliable then.
So long that it took me more than a glance or two to get to the bottom–by which time I had concluded that they certainly were being thorough. Except for “Silence is Golden”–admittedly a B-side–they had everything in there that I would have insisted on if they had asked me.
And I still wasn’t quite convinced.
Yes they were hitting all the high points. All the songs any Seasons’ lover would insist on. But what about filling in the cracks? In a catalog as deep as the Four Seasons’ shouldn’t there be at least one off-beat pick? One sign of eccentricity? “C’mon Marianne” was nice (speaking of sensitive genius bands, maybe the show would mention how the Doors lifted the intro for “Touch Me,”) but it was still a pretty big hit and available on every major Seasons’ comp I ever saw.
I kept looking for a sign….
And then, very near the end, two or three songs from the bottom of a list of dozens, I saw this:
That’s when I knew I was going to New York.
* * * *
So I went. Had a grand time. Got swept away by the museums and the shows (if I was going, I wasn’t putting all my eggs in one basket!) and the food and all the other stuff people get swept away by if they tourist in New York with at least a little money in hand.
I flew up on a Thursday. I went to a museum and an off-Broadway show on Friday. I went to another museum on Saturday morning and a Broadway show on Saturday afternoon. I saw St. Patrick’s Cathedral by moonlight. I ate fabulous meals in little hole-in-the-wall joints that my dad had trained me to spot back in the days when we traveled together.(“Watch where the Chinese people go,” he told me once when we were in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We did, and, if you ignored the cockroach that crawled out of the phone book on the chipped Formica counter and concentrated on the food, it was beyond belief.) I walked around for two days with a giddy smile on my face. Hell, I even figured out the subways. Not so hard, I found, when you were always going to and from Manhattan (i.e. Grand Central)–another trip, years later, when I made the mistake of chintzing and staying somewhere else, learned me that it ain’t hard to turn into an Out-of-Towner.)
And then, finally, it came Saturday night. The big event…
I wore a black denim shirt and white jeans. I didn’t care if it was after Labor Day. I was going to see Jersey Boys on a Saturday night on Broadway, a month after it opened a hop, skip and jump (or anyway a fast cab ride) from Newark (where at least one Broadway blue-nose had suggested it should have stayed). A month after it opened, Jersey Boys was being heavily attended by a mostly Jersey crowd–by the one group of people in the world who didn’t need to be told that the Four Seasons were every bit as good and important as the Beatles or the Beach Boys.
Give or take a vowel or two, I was, at last, among my people.
And still I wondered.
Would it really be worth all that?
Then the show started with a rap version of “December, 1963,” and I really started to have my doubts.
Then the guy playing Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff–a few months later he would win a Tony) walked out on stage and announced that was the version that had just been a hit in France.
Thirty seconds later, I said to myself: “This is where I’m supposed to be.”
* * * *
Jersey Boys is a long show. Two-and-a-half hours with a fifteen minute intermission.
By the intermission, I was wandering around the lobby thinking of all the people I wished had been there with me. I was also wondering how it was possible for me to have had such high expectations and see them all surpassed within the first five minutes–and then surpassed again and again.
I wondered if they could possibly keep it up.
Five minutes into the second half I stopped wondering. I knew it wasn’t going to play me–or itself–false.
Then, near the very end, the stage went dark and a familiar chord rose from the orchestra pit…and, in the space of that single chord, I remembered what I had forgotten.
I had forgotten “Fallen Angel.”
Not only had I not thought about it since I arrived at the August Wilson Theater or in the city of New York, I hadn’ t thought about it since I saw it in the show’s song list on-line and knew instantly where I would be a week before Christmas in 2005.
It was the forgetting that made it memorable. If I had been thinking about it all along, or anywhere along, I would have known it was coming–would have been wondering how they were going to fit it in, when, unlike all those dozens of hits known to all, it could not really be part of the Four Seasons’ story.
Turned out it was the heart of the Four Seasons’ story. By the time I heard that first chord and it all came rushing back–1969, 1975, 1976, a month before–I knew a whole lot about the Four Seasons I hadn’t known before and I also knew that the young woman walking across the stage was representing the ghost of Frankie Valli’s daughter, whose death-by-overdose he blamed on an absent fatherhood created, in part, by the fame and fortune he had crawled across broken glass to reach, and in larger part by the three hundred nights a year he played for a decade and more to pay off Tommy DeVito’s seven-figure gambling debts because DeVito had gone to prison rather than snitch on him when they were teenagers back in the ‘hood.
That’s the best moment I’ll ever know in a theater, sitting with two thousand locals who worshiped the Seasons and realizing I was probably the only one who knew what was coming from the first chord–the one unrecognizable, eccentric, off-beat musical selection that was the show’s big payoff. All those dozens of hits, but only one of them was called “Fallen Angel,” so, to fit the harshest fact of Frankie Valli’s life–and Tommy DeVito’s–it had to be there, even if it never made the top thirty.
The show didn’t end there. It ended with the Seasons reunited, rising from the floor at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (which also served as Valli and DeVito’s personal reunion after years of not speaking) to sing the greatest of the records that had made them the truest American working class heroes between the fall of the original fifties’ legends and the rise of Creedence Clearwater Revival*….
which made #1 in 1964, in the teeth of the British Invasion, as the A-side of my pick for the greatest-ever two-sided single, the B-side of which was…
…the only thing the show was missing.
But, by then, I had forgotten all about that, too. Even with an un-programmed encore of–you guessed it–“December, 1963,” giving me one last reminder that this had been where I was supposed to be, and a three-block hike to my hotel that amounted to levitating above the sidewalk, I knew which highlight I would always remember first.
My only regret is that–like buying that first 45–it could only happen once.
*The fantastic book for Jersey Boys was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. During one of the early development meetings, Brickman mentioned to Gaudio that he had missed out on the Seasons in the sixties, in part because he had been so heavily engaged politically, especially in protesting the Viet Nam war. Gaudio’s reply was “Well, when you’re writing this show, just remember that my audience were the ones fighting it.” The beat goes on.
Or, as someone said on some appropriately famous occasion: Oh the humanity!
Well, so some people think. I’ll just have to set them straight.
First off, I like that they didn’t call it Grease! That was a stroke of genius right there. Somebody must have thought, If we’re gonna underplay one thing and one thing only, let’s have it be the title. Leave off the *&^# exclamation point why don’t ya?”
Second off: Here’s the plot of Grease in seven frames.
Sandy and Danny…
I was a jerk…will you go with me?
…No, but, will you go with me?
And if you do, can we live happily ever after?
Yes…Yes we can!…In our flying car.
That’s a classic structure folks. Shakespeare didn’t do better with Romeo and Juliet...or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
There are, admittedly, several subplots, all done in equally primary colors–the drag race, the pregnancy that turns out to be a false alarm, the dropout who goes back to school, and so on and so forth. Not a spot of nuance anywhere, or a dropped stitch…or a missed opportunity to mock something or other that probably meant a lot to somebody once upon a time. Add in that the leads were 24-year-old John Travolta and 29-year-old Olivia Newton-John, backed up by 28-year-old Jeff Conaway and 24-year-old Stockard Channing, all playing high school seniors, and the result should have been as slick and empty as the title (! or no !), and as sterile as the show’s Broadway-Does-Rock-N-Roll roots.
But it’s not. It’s way too goofy for any of that and just because everybody’s a little long in the tooth for their parts doesn’t mean they’re not perfect. Complaining that they’re a little too perfect–as in so perfect no mere Broadway casting call could have matched them in a thousand years–misses the point. If these characters had been played as anybody identifiably human the whole thing would would have gone poof, probably accompanied by a socially impolite noise that would have ripped every Dolby speaker in America apart along about the summer of ’78.
Instead it went over like gangbusters.
I confess I missed it. The phenomenon, I mean. I saw the movie in the theater that very summer. In high school, I used to take my mom to afternoon movies because she couldn’t drive and my dad didn’t like going to movies (especially the part where you had to pay to get in). She loved Grease, thought it was a hoot. I was an English major in training, possessed of superior taste, so I admitted I liked it okay (which I did), but I didn’t see what the big deal was.
Twenty years later, when the anniversary edition was released to theaters, I went to see it again, mostly out of affection for the memory of one of her last uncomplicated happy experiences and, even in an empty theater, with nobody to share the laughter, I found myself enjoying it immensely. And the main reason was that I finally got it. When I saw it in ’78, I didn’t know Edd “Kookie” Burns from Adam or Eve Arden from the original Eve. I had heard Sid Caesar’s name and Frankie Avalon’s, too, but I didn’t know either of them by sight. I didn’t get half the in-jokes or verbal puns. With all that I was missing, I’m not even sure I got the truly perfect Dinah Manoff’s Marty being asked her last name by Byrnes’ on-the-make dee-jay, and saying, “Maraschino…You know. Like in cherry?”
It turned out my lack of common culture knowledge–subsequently filled in by my later obsessions–had cost me a few dozen laughs. By 1998, time had made up the difference and a few dozen laughs (most of which still make me laugh again every time I watch it now, whether because anything is actually funny or because I feel a little guilty for not sharing the laughs with mom while she was still here or just because looking back on my ignorance is liable to make me shake my head a little in wonder, I don’t know) are the difference between not knowing what the big deal was and understanding it perfectly.
So while I recognize every possible objection my taste-filter should have to something that can so easily pass for “camp” (a concept I normally find contemptible), I still have to admit that, when it’s time to watch Grease, I always get a slightly giddy, light-headed feeling, not unlike the once-a-year ritual where I sink into happy oblivion and watch Abba videos for half-a-day. It’s a feeling of glad anticipation, and specifically the knowledge that my jaded soul will be skipping by the time the last two numbers play…And the wait’s always worth it…
…Oh, forgot. It’s a triple high when you add the closing theme. It was by Frankie Valli. Him I knew. Even in ’78.
And what I heard this time (just for fun…and because I feel a round of lists coming on)…
10) Time Life Ultimate Seventies: 1976 (1989)
Driving around music. I could have done better by 1976 myself (it was the year I started listening to the radio). But even an collection of middling taste beats any hour you could spend listening to anything on the radio in my market these days. Best segue: “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (closely linked to me being nearly thrown out of my one and only true rock concert experience which naturally took place in a Jai Alai fronton) into “Sara Smile” (closely linked to my dad’s car being stolen at an amusement park and the FBI giving him the heebie jeebies later that summer at self-same Jai Alai fronton, which was all way-y-y-y more interesting than it sounds). Pick to click: Spinners’ “Rubberband Man,” which I barely heard that year and is one of the most mind-blowing records ever made.
9) Gino Washington Out of This World (1962–68) (1999)
Essential to any collection. Gino was a rock and roll Martian. There were a few of them hanging round back then. He started as a Frank Guida knockoff maybe, who didn’t happen to record for Frank Guida (like Gary U.S. Bonds and Jimmy Soul) and therefore didn’t make as much noise on the charts as he should have. But “Gino Is a Coward” gave the concept a whole new way of being, and nothing, certainly not the soul sixties, could lay even a touch of slick on him. Listening this time did what it always does. Made me smile a lot.
8) The Corin Tucker Band1,000 Years (2010)
I keep circling Tucker’s principal band, Sleater-Kinney, without quite being able to land. I’m really not sure why. I doubt it’s anything rational. It could be that her strong similarity to Belinda Carlisle’s timbre and phrasing (though she puts them to quite different and original use) just causes my natural “they’re-the-Go-Go’s-and-you’re-not” response to kick in with extra-super strength.
That said, I’m also not quite sure why my response to this, which I just started listening to a few weeks ago, is so strong. It might be because it temporarily solves punk’s (for me) existential problem, which is my lack of conviction that angst-ridden, collegiate white people need their own version of the blues. But this does sound like a unique, modern version of the blues–not in form but in feeling. It’s haunting and immediate, odd but free of quirkiness-for-it’s-own-sake. Whether I’ll like it even more or a little less once I figure out the words, I have no idea. There’s no one pick to click. It’s of a piece. But “It’s Always Summer” does as well as any for an introduction.
7) The Mamas & the Papas A Gathering of Flowers (1966-68) (2013–originally released, 1970)
I wrote about this a little when I first acquired it. Nothing’s changed. The Real Gone re-release is the best sounding collection of their work to date and there is no act where getting the sound right is more important. In recent years, I’ve probably listened to them more than any sixties’ group except possibly the Stones. The distance between those poles isn’t nearly as profound as I (and many others) once assumed. Yes, there’s a piece in the works. Pray for me kids.
Granted, I’d still rather listen to whole albums or box sets, where their roiling ethos is on fullest display. But, every once in a while, I just have to throw this on and smile the smiled of the contented. No pick to click. Too many to choose from. But, as of now, there’s no better place to appreciate a “minor” track like “Did You Ever Want to Cry” (even if you can only really appreciate it on a proper player, with headphones).
6) The Rolling StonesHot Rocks 1964-1971 (2002 CD release)
And when I listen to the Stones it’s rarely this standard set, which has been derided by plenty who think it too obvious, too square, too perfectly representative of what people latch on to when they aren’t real deep-dyed Stones’ fans and only want to stay on the surface.
Okay, I confess that I can’t play most of my Stones’ CDs from this period right now because, for some reason, the ancient player I have hooked up to my main receiver won’t accept the versions I own. It won’t take my Kinks’ CDs either. I need a new player!
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great collection. About half of this never-quit set is from truly great albums, but, by my lights, about half of it isn’t. And “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women” aren’t on anything but comps–this being the best. Besides, what’s better than having the hits, the hits, and nothing but the hits (or at least signature tunes), roll over you, one right after the other? Never understood the “if you don’t like the Stones, this might serve as a sampler” mindset (Christgau, but he spoke for plenty of others). No one pick to click, of course, but for fun facts, you can’t beat the “Honky Tonk Women” being Doris Troy and Reparata and the Delrons (watch those “Diamonds in the Shade” updates folks!).
5) Patty LovelessSleepless Nights (2008)
This was one of those instances where it took me a while to catch up. It’s a “covers” album from what now looks like it will be the tail end of Loveless’s career. I took it for a good solid effort when it came out. As usual, there was more there than met the ear (I first began to suspect when I heard one of the “lesser” cuts in the middle of some fifties’ era honky tonk on an oldies country station we used to have around here…it fit so perfectly it took me half the song to even place it). Back then it was just another good Patty Loveless album. Now that it looks like there aren’t going to be any more, it cuts deeper. Bone deep sometimes. Pick to click: a complete re-imagining of the Davis Sisters’ “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.”
4) Lynyrd SkynyrdStreet Survivors (1977)
Skynyrd and Patty are such natural traveling companions (I never take a long driving trip without them) I end up listening to them in tandem at home quite a bit. No better way to appreciate how much country was in Ronnie Van Zandt’s singing (or how much Southern Rock was in Patty’s). You could miss it otherwise when “What’s Your Name” and “That Smell” roll over you straight out of the gate. All of the original band’s albums are great and I’m not sure they were actually getting better just before the crash. But there was no sign they were wearing out, the way even bands as great as War or Led Zeppelin were at similar points in their careers. We’ll never know what all we missed when that plane went down, but they were still searching for something. Try “I Never Dreamed” for something beyond the obvious.
3) Frankie Valli & the Four SeasonsJersey Beat (1962-1992) (2007: Box set)
This was finally assembled after the smash success of Jersey Boys on Broadway. Before that improbable event, it had become all too easy to forget how big they were, how deep the catalog was, how logical they seemed without being the least bit repeatable. (“I protested the war in Viet Nam,” Jersey Boys script-writer Marshall Brickman told Bob Gaudio when they were brainstorming. “When you’re writing this,” Gaudio said, “Just remember my audience were the ones fighting it.” There was a reason waitresses and beat cops and other middle-age working class types paid Broadway prices to see the resulting show twenty and thirty times over. That reason is here.)
Everybody knows the big hits. After Jersey Boys, most people even started to remember just how numerous they were. Now that the world is preparing to forget again, I’m extra glad this exists. I can’t say I listen to all four CDs all the way through very often. But when I do, I’m always reminded this is the best insurance against all future memory holes. Except for a couple of late so-so sides at the end of the fourth disc, this doesn’t even come close to quitting. Among several dozen obscure and semi-obscure gems, I especially recommend “Girl Come Running,” which might be the most perfect song ever written and arranged for Valli’s multiplicity of voices.
2) Natalie MerchantThe House Carpenter’s Daughter (2003)
In which she finally reveals herself as Sandy Denny’s long lost daughter, all grown up.
I’ve only had this a little while and, to tell the truth, I have to be in a particular doomy-but-not-too-doomy mood to throw it on. When I do, it weaves a spell. In some world that offered unlimited time and space, I could imagine obsessing on it. As it stands: a mood piece for a very particular mood.
For a pick to click, try “Diver Boy” But I warn you, that’s her fast one. Dead Girl Poetry and the Bo Diddley Beat, they do not mix.
1) DionKing of the New York Streets (1958-1999: Box Set)
A wanderer on a journey. This set covers forty years of that journey so it’s bound to be a little disjointed. At three discs, It’s too broad to deliver the deep focus several different phases of his career deserve, and not broad enough to keep the transitions from jarring. Plus, no “Sonny Boy” and no “I Knew the Bride” so it can’t be definitive in my book. Plus, there’s now a whole post-millennial phase which I understand has brought him back to the blues obsession he first started exploring in the mid-sixties (and is hinted at by a few cuts at the end of the disc one here).
It’s still the best overview out there,especially if you want to find out whether the post doo-wop career is worth your time (which it certainly is). Pick to click for the coming summer is 1971’s “Sanctuary” which is not currently available on YouTube. Somebody must know something. Just for fun, then, close it with this, which could maybe be dedicated to Corin Tucker if you’re brave enough.
In 1962 I was 18 with the hits “Halfway to Paradise” and “Bless You” under my belt. I’ll never forget doing a big “Murray the K” show at the Brooklyn Fox Theater….Before the show Murray called the artists together and said that a new group, The 4 Seasons, would be closing the show with the song “Sherry.” “Make sure,” he said, “that you give them a nice welcome.” I had never heard of the group or the song. When the moment arrived, I was in the wings, alongside Smokey Robinson and Jackie Wilson. I had never seen an audience respond like that, and I don’t think I ever have since. The stomping almost took the balcony down. The Seasons destroyed the theater in one song.
(Source: Liner notes for Jersey Beat….The Music of Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons, Rhino Records, 2007)
(L–R: Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie: Fleetwood Mac, circa nineteen seventy-something…What could possibly go wrong? Clearly these folks love each other!)
In the late seventies Fleetwood Mac’s music was so ubiquitous I never bothered to buy any of it. If I wanted to hear them they were never more than a radio click and half an hour away. (“Dreams” alone filled the air so insidiously that I knew the words without ever once having paid the slightest attention or even begun to wonder what they might mean.)
Anyway, I was on a budget and I kind of figured they were going to be around.
I liked them, then, when they were everywhere…but they weren’t exactly the soundtrack of my inner life.
They’ve come pretty close to being that in the last five years or so.
Sure, I’d gotten around to buying their records long before that. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk… Some comps, one or two things from their earlier period with Bob Welch and their even earlier period with the great Peter Green (eventually even the fantastic box set with all the Green-era music).
I’d even gotten around to listening to them. Quite a lot.
Good things abounded. Great things weren’t uncommon.
I think I resisted Rumours a bit more than the rest, though, kept it squarely in the like-don’t-love category for far too long, for the usual lunk-headed reason. You know, how could anything that popular (27 million sold to date “officially”…which, given the standard accounting practices of the forever-going-broke music business, means the 40 million often mentioned as the “real” number is likely still low-balling) be that good?
I mean, I’ve never thought The Dark Side of the Moon, or Thriller, or the Saturday NIght Fever soundtrack, or Born In the U.S.A. or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–to mention some albums with similarly stratospheric sales numbers that I actually like–were that good or that special.
Not change-my-life special. Not forever-deep-in-the-marrow special.
So it came as quite a surprise to me when Rumours somehow joined the list of those select few that are forever-deep-in-the-marrow-life-changing. Even more of a surprise because, even now, I’d be hard pressed to say why and how this occurred.
Normally, I’m spilling over with ideas on a subject like that.
But, with Rumours I come up dry.
Of course, bonding with rich So-Cal rock stars (who had previously been, for the most part, either semi-rich British blues-rock stars or No-Cal rich kids) is not my usual thing.
And, as far as the album’s major theme goes, I’ve never had any heartbreak romances to start with, let alone gone-to-pot-cry-in-your-cocaine aftermaths.
But that doesn’t explain much. I never particularly needed any kind of personal identification badge to bond with the musicians I loved. Just as a for instance, the soundtrack of that inner life I mentioned in the late-seventies when I was living in the deep South and politely ignoring Fleetwood Mac (and most of the rest of the decade), was the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons.
I’d never touched a surfboard or been anywhere near a knee-cracking Jersey goom-bah either. Didn’t matter.
Then again, Brian Wilson didn’t actually surf and Frankie Valli was running hard to get away from the Tony Sopranos of the world. So I learned not to be too surprised by the barriers rock and rollers could break through, including those set up by their marketing departments.
Besides, when Fleetwood Mac’s then-latest incarnation reached us down South they didn’t need a marketing department.
One day, nobody ever heard of them. Next day they were scratch-their-name-on-your-school-desk cool. With everybody. Well, probably not with punks, but if there were any punks running around my part of Jackson County, Florida in 1977, they were keeping quiet about it (which I guess would mean they weren’t really punks anyway). For everybody else, “Over My Head” was the fanfare, and Rumours, arriving the following year, was the coronation. I mean, I knew at least one person who condescended to (“You like them?”) and/or despised (“Oh God, I can’t stand them!”) every single band that mattered. The two bands everybody agreed on were the Beatles (who everybody loved…except for the few people who merely liked them) and “the Mac” (who everybody liked…except for the few people who actually loved them).
I wonder what we, and the rest of the world, would have thought if we’d heard the version of Rumors that now exists, strewn across bonus discs for the 2-CD version released in 2004 and the 3-CD set released in 2013? (NOTE; There’s also a 4-CD version, which apparently has both bonus discs, a DVD, vinyl version, etc….but that’s for when I’m really rich.)
I’ve heard both bonus discs before this week…had these particular releases around for a while and was actually quite struck by the 2004 release the one time I sat and paid attention all the way through.
What I heard this week, though, when I finally sat down to listen close, was something different, something that probably has to do with just how much I’ve absorbed the original Rumours LP over the years (especially since acquiring that 2004 version, which has “Silver Springs” restored to the original release and nesting smack dab in the middle, where it was originally slated until it was nixed at the last minute, supposedly because its length would compromise the fidelity of the album back in the pre-digital age, more likely because Lindsey Buckingham, from some combination of fear, anger and spite, wanted Stevie Nicks to have as little room to fight back as possible).
So while I still have no real idea how the original Rumours (meaning the album that the public originally heard, which, in this case maybe even more than usual, was not the album originally created) came to occupy such a place of consummate familiarity, I have all kinds of ideas why the other album nested inside it is likely to grab hold just as deeply, now that I’ve finally managed to hear it.
The first reason is that, miraculously, that underlying/undermining album isn’t merely half-formed, the usual series of interesting false starts, confined to mere allegations of the greatness that’s only waiting for a last coat of studio polish to bring it kicking to life, but a thing that’s every bit as great as the final product while also being a markedly different entity altogether.
Mind you, the perfect alternate Rumours doesn’t exist in a neat package. The cuts on the 2004 release and the 2013 release are completely different with the former being mostly outtakes (that is something close to finished tracks) and the latter mostly demos (meaning very rough early takes, often with the sparest possible accompaniment and different lyrics). Each has a few songs or fragments (other than “Silver Springs”) which didn’t make the final cut.
What’s remarkable is that just about everything deepens and enhances an album known to millions, rather than distracting from it or “replacing” anything.
There are some stunning numbers on the 2013 “demo” disc. I’d point especially to a version of “The Chain” (the one song from the finished LP not included on the 2004 extra disc) that reveals it as the Stevie Nicks’ song it was always meant to be (Buckingham and Christine McVie shared mighty leads on the finished cut); a slightly slowed down, passionate take on Buckinghham’s “Go Your Own Way” with a key line altered; a stunning track from McVie called “Keep Me There” which is as fine as anything she ever did (and which was eventually combined with Nicks’ song to make the final version of “The Chain); and a heart-stopping Nicks’ vocal on a fragment of the never-finished “Doesn’t Anything Last” that answers Buckingham’s tormented fragment of the same song on the earlier disc, the brevity of which amounts to a tragedy.
One could dive deep in other words and I would certainly need these tracks at the very least to program the dream double-LP the thirty-four “extra” tracks spread across the two discs could easily comprise, even pared to essentials.
But, for the sake of clarity, I’ll stick to the 2004 disc as its own mystery.
Or maybe I should say its own clarification: the ghost that haunts the great heart of an LP that defined its troubled era as thoroughly as any album has defined any era before or since so thoroughly that it finally lights up the dark places and throws shadows on all the easy assumptions 40 million and counting are bound to have engendered.
The first eleven tracks of what I’ll now call the Ghost Disc, track Rumours closely. Ten of the twelve songs (including “Silver Springs”) are placed in their familiar running order, with “The Chain” and “I Don’t Want to Know” (the song that, according to Nicks, replaced “Silver Springs” on the finished LP) omitted and a track called “Think About It” added.
Deprived of that “polish” I mentioned, the Ghost Disc becomes a lot of new things: an unlikely marriage of Gram Parsons and Fairport Convention; a hard link between the “country-rock” of seventies L.A. and the “alt-country” movement that would emerge a few years later in bands like Lone Justice and Jason and the Scorchers; a sharp reminder that Rumours itself was born largely of the intersection between pain felt and pain masked.
And, most of all, a singer’s album, by which I mean an album where writing and producing and playing become truly secondary and the voices of the three greatest singers to ever join in one band (and with the possible exception of the early Temptations, the three greatest to ever be in one vocal group) to tell parts of the tale with a clarity that was bound to be blunted or buried when fame had to be validated and front office suits had to be mollified.
I don’t mean that the versions of “Second Hand News,” “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” et al, which exist here are “better” than the famous versions. That would be silly. Rumours, after all did validate their fame and pretty much every claim ever made for it or them.
For instance, I certainly wouldn’t want the world to be without the irresistible, anthemic flourish that opens the finished version of “Don’t Stop,” which here is reduced to a soft piano roll with a hint of Randy Newman in it before it gives way to the Fats Domino stomp it always was (and maybe thereby proves just how much both Randy Newman and Christine McVie owed to Fats).
But, now that I know it exists, I wouldn’t want to be without the subtle shift found in the song’s tone here either.
In it’s never-wear-out hit form it was the most optimistic song imaginable (and a breath of fresh air on Rumours itself, a welcome respite breaking up the vicious, epic cutting contest the just-broken-up Lindsey and Stevie were carrying on), a straightforward assurance that tomorrow will be better.
Here, with the production muted, the emphasis in the harmonies ever-so-slightly altered, the song becomes double-edged, precisely poised. The difference between joy and melancholy, reassurance and doubt, is left hanging on the knife edge until the “O-o-o-o-o-h” that lifts the hit version into the world’s best smile, shifts the tone entirely in the direction the hit refused to go.
Suddenly “don’t you look back” carries an unmistakable hint of its famous corollary….
You know…”Because something might be gaining on you.”
Then the band break up into giggles and it sounds like they’re trying to fend off a haint that just walked through the door.
No longer suitable for a presidential campaign’s theme music in other words.
Those kinds of twists and turns exist throughout the Ghost Disc.
The voices, brought forward in the mix, singly or in harmony, carry new dimensions on every single track (“Never Going Back Again,” the one track that’s now an instrumental, sounds like a delicate piece of chamber music crossed with somebody’s bluegrass record collection…in other words, it suits the mood just fine).
“Dreams” is more forceful, less wistful. “Second Hand News,” stripped of Mick Fleetwood’s thrilling, just-right, drum flourishes (here he sounds like he’s driving nails or maybe like he just learned to keep time on the kit and can’t get over the rush) becomes naked, vulnerable, as if the man singing is actually hurting rather than remembering hurt. “Songbird,” always quiet, becomes utterly still. “Silver Springs” too, becomes quieter, less epic, more personal. Ditto “Gold Dust Woman,” (which starts here with somebody screaming in the other room, rides the country guitar licks that got buried in the final mix, and then gets repeated, quieter still, more vital still, in the “demos” section of the disc). “You Make Loving Fun,” always a bit of an (admittedly deathless) sing-a-long before, here levitates between unstoppable passion and nagging doubt and moves to the very top of McVie’s vocal chart.
After that, you get a killer version of “Oh Daddy” that amounts to a duet between McVie and her ex-husband’s bass, punctuated by McVie/Nicks harmonies that would raise the hair on a corpse.
And all of that is followed by what might be the album’s piece-de-resistance, a Nicks’ number called “Think About It.”
As deservedly famous as “Silver Springs” became over the years for being what somebody called “the greatest song ever left off an album,” “Think About It” (a version of which ended up on Nicks’ first solo album, where it was about a tenth as good) might deserve the title even more. Since it didn’t appear on the original album, and apparently wasn’t even considered, there’s nothing to compare it to.
There or elsewhere.
The closest I can come is to say it’s probably what a band like Little Feat was always aiming for and, if they never quite got all the way there, it’s probably because they didn’t have Stevie Nicks.
There are five additional demos and two “jams” and they’re hardly incidental. They include the aforementioned extra take of “Gold Dust Woman,” Buckingham’s version of “Doesn’t Anything Last,” and his killer guitar work on “For Duster (The Blues).” Every cut is worthy of interest. Every cut adds something to both the legacy and the mystery. Taken together they demonstrate, all by themselves, just how off-the-charts the raw talent in this band actually was when it was producing the album that defined them.
But I’ll leave it there. It will probably be years before I fully absorb the implications of all this. I haven’t encountered anything like it before–a truly “alternate” version of a truly great album that has just as much to offer–and I’ll be surprised if I ever encounter the like again.
But I listen to this and think about what might have been and God how I wish that picture at the top was a lie…that something other than paychecks and professionalism could have somehow held them together all these decades.
First of all, I had a nice rebound in traffic during October after the expected drop in September. Thanks to all for hanging in!
I’ve been doing this for about eight months now so I’m going to spend the next few weeks periodically doing something I probably should have done earlier, which is give some sort of outline of what I value most, “artistically” speaking. (It says so much more than one’s politics, religion or culinary habits.)
Figured I’d begin at the beginning, so here, more or less chronologically (that’s world chronology, not personal….I probably knew Cyndi Lauper before I knew Clyde McPhatter)….
MY TWENTY FAVORITE ROCK AND ROLL SINGERS (and five representative performances which also happen to be building blocks for a better world)…First a nice intro: