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.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #90)

I’m working on a CD review of The Intimate Keely Smith from 1965 (it’s fantastic–still getting my head around it). The election is rushing in, and, with work and my Eve of Destruction-by-Election Soundtrack consuming most of my time, I would be remiss if I didn’t use an intervening breath to share this atypical-but-lovely bonus track…It doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the album, but it works beautifully on its own, and a look at those names, all in one place, can only bring a smile to even the grimmest face of anyone who either recalls or studies the history they conjure:

And, if that doesn’t, surely this will:

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Keely, flanked by Louis Prima and You Know Who. Never did she bat an eye!

 

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #5: Grace of My Heart)

Grace of My Heart
Allison Anders, director (1996)

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(Warning: As usual for my reviews there are SPOILERS! so please beware if you haven’t seen it.)

Having not seen Grace of My Heart in seventeen years, what I carried with me was one scene and Illeana Douglas’ smile, which managed to be both sly and vulnerable in a self-reinforcing manner that was unlike anyone else’s slyness or vulnerability.

I first saw the movie a couple of years after it was released, so, back then, I already knew it wasn’t going to make her a star. I also knew if that role didn’t make her a star, nothing could.

Our loss.

The common line on Douglas in Grace of My Heart is that she’s playing a version of Carole King and that’s certainly true. But, watching the movie from this distance, it’s a little clearer that she’s also playing something like the secret spirit of the sixties, the lynch-pin of an era as re-imagined by director Allison Anders, who, being a decade older than Douglas herself, could work at least partly from memory.

Fortunately, neither woman restricted herself to the memory of what actually happened, interesting as that might have been. Grace of My Heart is more like the memory of what might have been. Hence its unique ability to slip the bounds of docudrama or even film a clef and cast a warm glow that lingers even through the scene I remembered and which I’ll get to directly.

“Might have been” works so well here in part because it’s not really an escape.

Carole King really did survive and triumph in much the same way Douglas’ “Denise Waverly” does here (the name is made up on the spot in a recording studio by John Turturro’s Joel Millner, a Phil Spector-like hustler/producer, and serves to conceal the character’s “Edna-Buxton-of -Buxton-Steel” ruling class background). So that part’s both true and more or less factual.

Phil Spector, on the other hand, did not turn out to be a hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold, as the movie imagines, but a twisted sociopath.

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Taken only as a clef, then, the movie can throw you. It certainly threw me the first time around,  mostly because I was seeing it only as “The Carole King Story,” on which level, thanks to lots of genuine love for the period exhibited all around and Douglas’ mesmerizing performance (not to mention presence, that indefinable quality which even Hollywood can’t quite kill in the very few people who really have it), it worked.

It just didn’t quite work all the way.

I mean, it got saved in the end. It got saved by that scene I mentioned and which I’m still gonna get to. But I kept thinking it might have been better if it had stuck closer to the facts.

Well, things change.

In the years since, Phil Spector–the one we have, not the one we wish we had–actually killed somebody and went to jail for it.

In the years since, Brian Wilson has had a career resurgence and a lovely, mostly factual, movie made about him.

In the years since, Carol King has become a well-feted institution and Illeana Douglas has become a character actress on television.

Suddenly this thing looks more like a miracle and the choices Anders made with her vision (a vision that started out as an attempt to do a film about the Shangri-Las, which we can all still dream she, or somebody, gets to do some day before all the dreams fade) have been validated.

The movie was/is really not so much about King or Spector or Wilson (or Eric Stolz’s Howard Cazsatt, standing in for Gerry Goffin, or Bridget Fonda’s Kelly Porter, standing in for Lesley Gore or any number of other stand-ins you might have fun spotting) as about the dreams the audience once shared with the people who ended up defining those dreams, definitions no audience has really shared with any dreamers since (given that having enough bling to look good at the club and surviving the work week aren’t really dreams, just impulses).

I mean, somebody might be living this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this (where, let me just say, appropos of nothing, Douglas does more for hip-huggers and bare midriffs than anyone since Helen Reddy pulled it off singing “I Am Woman” on The Midnight Special in the dream-clinging seventies)….

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or this…

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or this…

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They might even be living this…

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or this….

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or this…

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or this….

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Or, at long last, making the complete journey from this…

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to this…

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…Yes indeed, somebody might be living some or all of that. Every bit. Taylor Swift, maybe, God love her.

But wanting and dreaming are not the same thing and, whoever’s wanting and getting some or all of those things now, they’re not really dreaming it.

Neither are we.

And, even if we are or they are, we’re not dreaming it together and nobody’s dreaming it with us.

There’s a reason there have probably been more biopics, clef and otherwise, about rock and rollers than all other musicians (and maybe all other entertainers) combined. And it’s not because boomers rule the box office. That hasn’t been true for a long time. It wasn’t true when Grace of My Heart was in theaters, which is why even some cinephiles haven’t seen it. And yet they keep coming, good, bad and indifferent.

Hard to let go of an old dream when there are no new ones.

Which leads me, finally, to the scene I remembered.

It’s near the end and it’s completely fake and completely real.

“Denise” has taken to some sort of communal living. Evidently, it’s the sort that isn’t entirely resistant to royalty money (or maybe Buxton Steel money) because she’s got a really nice pool to mope by while she’s communing with her lost soul mate (the dream Brian Wilson having done the decent thing and offed himself, leaving the dream Carole King to contemplate the cosmos and dig turnips when the California sun is out).

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It’s that digging turnips that gets to Phil Spector in this particular dream, and instead of holing up in his mansion and watching Citizen Kane every night with his imprisoned wife, he comes to comfort the grieving and the lost, to do, in person, what the real Phil Spector’s music once did.

The scene is beautifully played by two exceptionally fine actors. But it’s also far beyond craft.

He kneels down, pointedly, almost monk-like, refusing the lotus position or any other comfort.

Then he starts jabbing her.

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The real Phil Spector might have done God knows what. Pushed her in the pool? Stabbed her with a lit cigarette? Who knows?

But the dream Phil Spector can settle for talking it out. As long as he gets to keep jabbing. What’re ya’ doin’ with yourself? Why are you throwing your talent away? The guy’s dead. Move on. Like that. The exact dialogue hardly matters. It’s the tones that are really clashing. She’s Zen. He’s New Yawk, come to the coast just for her, even if he knows there might be something in it for him, too.

And, finally, he jabs once too many, and she lets loose.

Not just with what “Denise Waverly” or Edna Buxton has been holding in the whole movie, though, or with whatever Illeana Douglas might have been holding in her whole life, but everything the distaff dreamers had held in for the entire rock and roll era until somebody named Carole King sold ten million copies of an album called Tapestry and stepped out of the shadows.

And then kept right on holding in.

Right up until the moment the dream Carole King, who has smiled through everything, death, betrayal, dreams broken and fulfilled, lets loose on the dream Phil Spector and burns a hole in the movie and the dreams…

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It’s the strongest scene I’ve seen in any movie made in the last twenty-five years (a shade stronger than Michelle Williams’ truly frightening “I can’t bear it” moment in Me Without You, because it’s just as raw and connected to something much larger than any individual performance or film or even life, something that stretches straight back to whatever Arlene Smith and Darlene Love and Mary Weiss and a hundred others had tried to let out, sometimes with the real Carole King’s help, in the years just after Anders was born and just before Douglas was, and for which those singers-in-the-shadows had long since paid every kind of price, dream-wise).

“FUCK YOU!” she screams, over and over, and for the only time in the strictly narrative history of the modern collapse, it actually means something.

There was a reason the scene stayed with me for seventeen years, you see.

The same reason it took me seventeen years to watch it again and to actually get it this time around. To have the rest finally sink in while I was just waiting for that scene where the movie doesn’t end, just the common dreams.

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In the dream, we should be just about ready for life to begin by now.

Wonder how long before that part happens.

FOUND IN THE CONNECTION (Rattling Loose End #9…The Shirelles in Taiwan)

One of the arguments I continually make on this blog (and one of the main reasons this blog exists is to make this particular argument!) is that the notion of early rock and roll–so often propounded by detractors and defenders alike–as a specifically “teen” music is and always has been ridiculous.

I don’t live in an area that hosts many festival-style films in a theater or even turns up many of them in the few remaining video stores, so I haven’t seen the film Sheila O’Malley is reviewing here. But it will probably be hard for me to find stronger evidence for my case than a film about the practical and spiritual struggles of a married gay man in Taiwan being named after–and incorporating into its action–a song co-written in 1960 by 21-year-old Gerry Goffin and 18-year-old Carole King and taken to the top of the charts by the Shirelles, lead-voiced by 19-year-old Shirley Owens.

For leaping out of the traces of time, space and all other purely illusory constructs this might not be on a par with Shakespeare just yet.

But it’s already half a century down the line so it’s gettin’ there….

The Shirelles “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (Live Television Performance)

(By the way this is the sort of record that is often described as “simple.” And I suppose it is, in that way that a lyric by a twenty-one-year old married Jewish kid from New York that happens to define a moment that everyone can relate to but sounds most authentic in the voice of a first-crush teen-age girl, accompanied by a melody written by his eighteen-year-old wife that came to life in the studio when, dissatisfied with the session musicians, she stepped in to play the kettle drums herself and only got as far the studio in the first place because the nineteen-year-old urban African-American lead singer of the group designated to record it, after having first resisted it for being “too country,” decided it might be okay if they put strings on it can be, well…simple.)