Sometimes, one gets by me–I missed Valerie Carter’s passing a year ago. Having just learned of it (as usual while I was looking for something else) I wanted to say a word.
Valerie Carter had the misfortune to be born with lead singer talent, leading lady looks and the soul of a woman who preferred remaining in the shadows. Absent the first two qualities, she would have been left alone…and probably lived a much happier and longer life. Since she had those qualities in abundance, she was pushed to the front early and often–it must have taken an iron will to get back to the obscurity she preferred and stay there.
There was no more startling experience in late-seventies record buying than coming across either of Carter’s first two solo albums in a stack of vinyl somewhere. The eyes looked straight through whatever camera had taken her picture and, staring off the album covers, straight through you.
One of the few things that equaled that experience was getting the records home and finding out that the voice on the black wax inside was a match for those eyes.
Just a Stone’s Throw Away, in particular, spent a lot of time on my turntable in the eighties, which is when I discovered Carter (she recorded these albums in the late seventies–I saw them in the bins several years before I bought them on Dave Marsh’s recommendation–for irony, see bellow). I used to think of her as a great lost talent–but I realized, from bits and pieces I picked up over the years, that she was one of those who maybe just wanted to stay lost. Her friend Linda Ronstadt was one who, a decade earlier, had been in the same boat. Ronstadt went through the whole process–the soul-killing compromises, the slings and arrows of jealous competition and even more jealous rock-crits (Marsh took it the furthest in Stranded, where he professed he would rather have the records he was taking with him than Ronstadt herself–now that’s bitterness–but he had plenty of company)–and made it to superstardom. I sometimes wondered if Linda ever put a word in Valerie’s ear suggesting it wasn’t really worth it.
Whatever happened, it was the world’s loss.
The lady could sing…
…a fact recognized by Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and the legion of others who kept her on speed-dial whenever they needed a backup singer for the next few decades.
And she was a pretty good muse too…
She died last year at 63, of complications that were doubtless rooted in years of the self-abuse so often endemic to those whose souls seek the shadows even if their talent begs for the spotlight.
From reading about her life, it doesn’t seem like she found much of the peace she brought to others while she was here.
“Mercury Blues” David Lindley (1981) Did not make the American Pop Chart Recommended source: El Rayo-X
Lindley was a founding member of Kaleidoscope, one of those highly regarded west coast bands from the crazy sixties who, like Love or Spirit, struck deep with the few they reached (and, to be clear, Kaleidoscope didn’t reach as many as Love or Spirit). When that band broke up, he fell into the Jackson Browne/Warren Zevon orbit, backing them and others on various albums and tours. All of that won him the chance to do his own thing. El Rayo-X was his first solo LP and it sold about as well as Kaleidoscope. It, too, struck deep with the few who found it. Soon enough, he went back to making a living the old fashioned way–touring, session-work, film scores.
All in all, there was no particular reason he should have had any sort of big deal solo career. El Rayo X is a good album, maybe better than good. But it was never designed to set the world on fire.
Except for maybe the one time it struck pure lightning, a piece of nimble hard rock that harkened back to the founding, whence the tune itself (a fine, rather polite rhythm and blues number in its initial late forties’ incarnation by K.C. Douglas which was nonetheless sturdy enough to withstand the thousand covers that stood between it and Lindley, with the most notable probably being Steve Miller’s) had come.
I’m not even sure if Lindley’s version of “Mercury Blues” was released as a single–it if wasn’t that just proves you can never overstate the stupidity of record companies which is to say, if it wasn’t, it should have been. But if ever a record earned the right to fail just so the future could condemn the unfairness of a past filled with all the mistakes that led us here….
I rented Hemingway and Gellhorn, popped it in the DVD player, negotiated my way past the menu and immediately found myself staring into the age-and-war-and-Dachau-witnessing-ravaged face and listening to the tobacco-stained-and-whiskey-soaked voice of Martha Gellhorn, one of the twentieth century’s greatest journalists and war correspondents, looking back on her glorious youth. Gellhorn herself having been dead for a while when this was made (and me actually having no idea whatsoever of how she really looked or sounded), I spent the first thirty seconds or so wondering who this terrific actress was they got to not so much “play” as embody Gellhorn in old age.
Then there was a certain flicker of the eyes or tilt of the head that hinted it might actually be the woman whose name was over the credits.
Viewing this very, very good film (or “miniseries” or “TV movie” or “event” or whatever it’s supposed to be called if it ran on HBO), I was never quite able to recover from that initial shock. I’m a fan of Kidman’s. She was the main reason I wanted to see this, and, of course, she’s been truly fantastic here and there over the years. And she’s quite good in this, too, playing–but not quite embodying–Gellhorn in the days before age, war, Dachau and Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen, first rate as usual) took their toll.
But what she achieves here as the older, backward-looking-but-always-forward-moving Gellhorn really begs the question of why she’s been so hellishly obsessed with losing her looks and having all that useless plastic surgery that’s done nothing but make her a punch line. My God, woman, if you can act like that you’ll work forever–and you’ll be remembered forever! Let the other stuff go. I beg you.
YouTube Dynamite: The Cowsills at the Playboy Mansion (1970).
For those who don’t know (or remember), the Cowsills were the family band who essentially invented the brand of Teen Pop that–from the J5 and the Osmonds (who were breaking wide open as this played originally in May, 1970, on Hugh Hefner’s short-lived music show Playboy After Dark) to whoever is set to replace Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus tomorrow–has periodically ruled the world ever since.
They had a run of late-sixties’ hits themselves but were ultimately cheated out of their truly just reward when the television producers who had directly modeled The Partridge Family after them wanted some–but not all–of them for the cast and they refused to participate. At which point an industry already heavily aligned against them because of the actions of their abusive, alcoholic, manager-father, whose belligerence had, among other things, previously cost them a record setting ten-show contract with The Ed Sullivan Show, rapidly turned its back.
Within two years of the video linked below they had disbanded, as both a musical group and a family unit. The family unit and the musical group both reformed in later years–tentatively at first, but these days they’ve become a permanent fixture on the oldies circuit. There has been a new birth of critical respect after retro-genres like “Sunshine Pop” came into vogue and more has become known about the brothers’ considerable writing and playing abilities. Evidently, many of the personal wounds have healed as well.
But the saddest words of tongue and pen are still “it might have been,” and what I see in the video below is a Teen Pop act that never would have needed to take a back seat to any of their heirs if talent had been all that mattered.
If you don’t already know, it probably won’t be hard to guess from watching the video which two of the children the producers wanted in particular.
That would be Susan Cowsill, then a week short of her eleventh birthday, who first charms a room full of Playboy Bunnies and then makes them utterly disappear (not least when they are milling about in front of her, blocking the damn view! get out of the way people, we wanna see the ten-year-old! don’t you know talent always wins!), dancing beside her brother Barry–the other one the producers were ready to cast.
Great as Barry’s vocal is here on what was probably their best song (“II x II”–the second song in the sequence), he was even better on his instrument. The epic bass guitar on “Indian Lake” and “Hair,” two of their biggest hits, which most people probably assume were played by the sort of crack session men who have backed every single other Teen Pop act from then to now, were his (both records were produced–superbly–by his brother Bill, who had subsequently been kicked out of the band by their father in a crowning act of genius!).
Those landmarks–as indelible as any bass lines in the rock and roll era, which means as indelible as any in the history of bass lines–were well in Barry’s past when he stepped to the mike on this particular night, four months short of his sixteenth birthday.
The Cowsills “Where Is Love,” “II X II” and “Poor Baby”(Live at the Playboy Mansion)
Susan Cowsill has long since become one of the country’s best singer-songwriters and has lived a genuinely epic American life which I’m just beginning to learn about in depth and which I’ll get to more of in the coming days or weeks.
Barry Cowsill disappeared during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His body washed up in the Mississippi River four months afterwards and was finally identified a week later.
Believe it or not, some people made fun of me back then when I said it was a musical, as well as human, tragedy.
You can listen to Susan’s tribute to Barry below–singing one of his songs, with her surviving brothers on backing vocals (plus Jackson Browne and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson)–and judge for yourself:
Susan Cowsill “River of Love” (Studio Recording with Video Clip)
NOTE: I’ve got the recent acclaimed documentary about the band on its way and I’ll almost certainly have more thoughts on them (and more links–to Susan’s story for sure) after I have a chance to watch the whole thing.
But that first video above has been my YouTube crack for this week. And, hey, if you don’t cry (or smile) for anything else, you can at least cry (or smile) for an age when Hugh Hefner still had taste in women! Still can’t figure out if he ruined us or we ruined him in the long fall since. The corny jokes here provide no clue to the enduring mystery…
My holiday rituals are probably a little different than most. I spent part of the day working my way through the middle third of Weiner’s CIA history Legacy of Ashes. The “work” part didn’t come from the writing which is swift and cogent, but from the subject matter, which is acutely rendered and thus overwhelmingly depressive.
Alongside that I was also working through the last disc of a Willie Nelson box (not really all that much work) and the first of a reacquired Marvin Gaye box (no work at all), both of which have been sitting around the house for a while and therefore need to get on the shelf.
They were suitably familiar background music for reading, no more or less.
When I finally reached an impasse–that portion of any well done history of the secret police state where the citizen’s need to be informed is invariably subdued by the soul’s urge to throw things–I carefully put the book down and roamed about for a bit until I spotted my newly acquired copy of Zevon’s Stand in the Fire reissue, which I had missed seeing on my front doorstep until this morning.
Thought….well, if anything could cheer me up just now, why not “Jeannie Needs a Shooter?”…and put it in the player.
I hadn’t listened to my vinyl version in maybe ten years. Ordered the CD, frankly, because it was cheap and had extras.
The extras turned out to be okay.
They’re tacked on at the end and the highlight there by far is the then newly sobered up Zevon introducing a broken-throated version of “Hasten Down the Wind” by stating that, years earlier, it had been “the song that intervened between me and starvation, thanks to Linda Ronstadt.”
That’s the most poignant and accurate assessment I’ve ever encountered of Ronstadt’s role in the L. A. scene that made her jump through every cruel hoop imaginable before she finally turned it on its head and came out smelling like a superstar (a refusal to stay in place for which she’s evidently never been forgiven by the shady side of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee).
Believe me, Randy Newman and Jackson Browne and Don Henley, to name but a few, could have made some version of the same speech.
So it was a nice moment. But by then, it was almost an afterthought.
By then, I’d not only been reminded how great the original album was–great as in “I can’t actually believe this” great, a quarter-century plus after I heard it the first time–but I’d also been reminded that, long before Tim Weiner was on the case, Warren Zevon was really the nation’s once-and-forever biographer of the CIA.
And all the more prescient, observant and powerful for having so seldom mentioned them by name.
He didn’t have to.
When I’m done with Weiner’s fine, essential book (about which more in the book report of whatever month I finish it), I already know I won’t really be any more enlightened than I was the very first time I heard the very first line of this: