WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Rock and Roll Through the Ages….As Bottomless as I Always Suspected)

Item #1: The local “path” station, which tries to be free-form and fresh and, every once in a while, succeeds, ran the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (a hit in 1984 and a radio staple ever since) into the Clash’s “London Calling” (title track to their epochal 1980 album). It felt exhilarating and also–after the manner of good free-form listening across the board–like a bit of a competition. Go-Go’s won of course. Not so much because they could play rings around everybody (not just the Clash) or any one of their five members could take over any record they made at any second (a rock and roll ideal if ever there was one) as because “Been running so fast, I nearly lost all track of time” and “The whole world’s out of sync” and “I waited so long, so long to play this part” all feel a lot more appropo of the modern malaise than “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” or “the Ice Age is coming” or, especially “I have no fear.” Look, the Clash were great. Really great. I broke more rulers banging to “Death or Glory” than any other record in existence back when I still had my share of youthful angst. But music and politics are funny things and, sooner or later, in rock and roll, you have to be able to stomp and you have to tell a truth that won’ t wear out. Both bands did their share of that. But, great as Joe Strummer and the boys were, they couldn’t quite stomp or tell the truth like the band that had Belinda Carlisle for a lead singer. Probably because they strained just a little too much for those very effects. Passing strange that. And very rock and roll. (All apologies: There is no half-way decent audio on ANY of the versions of “Head Over Heels” on YouTube at present and I’m way too swamped to upload it myself…so, in this case, you’ll just have to take my word for it, that, when it’s cranked up loud, it’s even better than this:)

Item #2: Caught Cyndi Lauper’s Live At Last concert from 2004 (Thanks YouTube–Nice makeup!). Just FYI: It took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 16 years to induct the epic white female vocalist of the sixties (Brenda Lee). It took them 22 years (and the announcement of a debilitating disease) for them to induct the epic white female vocalist of the seventies (Linda Ronstadt). How long for the epic white female vocalist of the eighties I wonder? 30 years? 40? Who knows. (I mean, I like the Hall. And, eventually, they get most things right. But it would be nice if they got on the stick for once.) In other words, how long before race and gender really don’t matter? You know, the way it was supposed to be. Now…where was I? Oh yeah, the Cyndi Lauper concert from 2004. Jaw-dropping. But then her concerts pretty much always are.

Item #3: Johnny Ace: Aces Wild. (Fantastic Voyage, 2012). Speaking of jaw-dropping. I’ve had the Johnny Ace Memorial Album for decades and I’ve gotten to know it pretty well but not exactly inside and out. This greatly expanded 2-CD look at his career came up cheap in a sealed copy on Amazon so I took a tumble. It’s got one of those seemingly grab-bag formats that almost never work but somehow comes together here: All Johnny’s solo stuff for most of Disc One (great..and revelatory…never knew, for instance, that he did a duet with Big Mama Thornton). Then five (count ‘em, five!) tribute records released in the immediate aftermath of his Christmas, 1955, murder/suicide/accident (depends on who’s doing the telling). Not the greatest records (nor is the additional one at the end of the second disc), but solid enough, and their very existence tells a lot about the mans’ impact.

The second disc consists of Ace’s fine piano session work for three other artists: A good solid R&B cat named Earl Forest, who would probably sound really, really good in pretty much any other context, but sounds pretty pedestrian here because he’s splitting time with a couple of guys named B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And not just any old B.B. and Bobby, but young, hungry haven’t-quite-made-it versions of same and man do they smoke.

One thing, though. B.B. King and Bobby Bland were greater–I’d even say much greater–singers than Johnny Ace. But they couldn’t match him for weirdness. And they didn’t end up on the wrong end of a gun on Christmas day. So Johnny Ace, morose, affected, stranded at the bottom of a well, at times nearly toneless, has one thing on those greater artists who can’t help breathing fire and presence into the room: He can’t really be explained. That’s probably why, even after an hour’s worth of truly scorching sides from his pals bringing their very best, it was still “The Clock” and “Pledging My Love” that hung in the air when I retired for the night and got ready for a very Happy Easter!

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Go-Go’s On the Radio and Spinners On the Headphones)

Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (1984)

When the Go-Go’s broke out in the summer of eighty-one I was in college and ripe for the sort of world-weary conversations hep young people have when they are certain they–and they alone–truly know the score.

More than a few people (not all of whom had the ready-made excuse of being world-weary collegians) were insisting in those days that there were bound to be a whole lotta really BIG all-female bands coming down the pike now that there was finally one.

And I, having at least some idea of how unlikely they really were, used to echo some version of my sad refrain:

“Not if they have to be that good there won’t.”

Which usually made people smile indulgently and roll their eyes.

The Go-Go’s? Seriously?

So this week I’m running errands some sunny afternoon, listening idly to the radio and “Head Over Heels”–their last big hit before they broke up in eighty-four–comes on in the middle of an Official Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Lineup consisting of ace grooves from Bruce Springsteen (“Glory Days”), the Bee Gees (“Stayin’ Alive”), U2 (“With or Without You”) and Steely Dan (“Peg,” much better than I remembered–already loved all the rest).

Naturally it jumps up and runs away from everything else. Even the bass-line on “Stayin’ Alive” can’t quite keep up, which is something I bet I’m never gonna say about the Beatles or the Ramones.

Or the Bangles for that matter.

You know, the one really big all-female band that actually did come down the pike.

Which brings me to one of my old stand-by maxims.

If you want to be right about the future, be dire…be very dire.

Be dire, even about the things that make you smile.

The Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (Live in L.A. 1984)

Spinners “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (1973)

Spinners (for some reason, there was no “the” in their Atlantic period) were my winding down music this week. This, from their first album on the label, was the side that grabbed me in a new way, mostly because it’s sly and cool where Wilson Pickett’s epochal hit version (one of his very greatest records) was pleading and desperate. A fascinating aside, then, into the conversations Black America sometimes has with itself while White America listens in.

And I’m not sure there has ever been a better distillation of Black America’s existential dilemma–to assimilate or not to assimilate.

When Philippe Wynne sings about wanting his woman to stay “right here girl in these big, black arms of mine” it cuts about seven different ways because it’s entirely possible that it’s a con, entirely possible that it’s not and entirely possible that the singer himself has lost track.

What is that woman looking for anyway? Sung by even the greatest white singer we would pretty much know. Sung by a black man wearing as many masks as Philippe Wynne, there’s just no telling.

Not that I intend to abandon the search. It’s just that it got a lot more complicated. There are no safe places in rock and roll if you keep you’re ears open.

Spinners “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (Studio Recording)